Monday, December 24, 2012

Blue Christmas, White Christmas, It'll be all right Christmas!

Although I'm going to publish the text of this sermon, I encourage you to watch and listen to the video instead.  For this particular sermon, it's better to experience the singing, etc. as well.  The video was made with my cell phone, so it's not professional quality, but it gets the message across just fine.  Here's the youtube link:

And here's the text:

I have shared with this congregation before that the holiday season is sometimes difficult for me, though I find that time does heal, and I don’t have the same level of blueness this time of year that I once did.  But I do certainly understand the “Blue Christmas” concept.  Since others through the years of my ministry have also shared with me their difficulties during this season, I felt it would be important to lift this up --- not hide it behind the tinsel.  Other ministers have done similar things and some refer to this as a “Blue Christmas” service.  I’ve expanded this service to “Blue Christmas, White Christmas, It’ll be all right Christmas.”  The White Christmas part will come after the sermon.  But the “it’ll be all right” part will be in here too. 

As I was looking to see what others had done, I discovered a 2001 sermon by Presbyterian minister Diane Hendricks in which she juxtaposed various “concerns” with a popular holiday song --- and I thought that was a clever way to do it.  So I need to credit her with using this song in contrast to our difficulties in this season – but I’ve used the difficulties that you shared with me in my little internet survey and others I found in the news for this sermon.    

So here goes my version of “It’s a most wonderful time of the year – mmmm not.”

(Singing)  It's the most wonderful time of the year! With the kids jingle belling, and everyone telling you, “be of good cheer,” It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Only maybe it's not.
Not for everyone
Some of you have shared with me times when it’s not so merry this time of year like…..
It’s not wonderful when…
There is just too much stuff, too much thinking stressing about material things.
Not when pop culture gives us unrealistic expectations of family bliss that reality never lives up to.
Not when we can’t escape the manufactured, irrelevant, overblown controversy over holiday terminology.
Not if you are expected to accept nativity myths that have been altered by those wanting to create a uniform belief system.
Not when you really want to give back to friends and family – but don’t have the means to do so.

It's the most wonderful time of the year? No, for many of us it's not.

And sometimes trying to smile and say Merry Christmas is more than difficult. It's pretty near impossible, especially if we are grieving.

C.S. Lewis once wrote: "No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning..."

(Singing)  It’s the hap-happiest season of all, with those holiday greetings and great happy meetings, when friends come to call; it's the hap-happiest season of all.

Only it's not.   
Not when there is an empty chair at the table.
Not since she died.
Not when you or family members are so sick.
Not after they told you lost your job.
Not when your marriage is hard.
Not when you’ve been betrayed by someone you loved.
Not when holiday memories are so difficult.

(Singing) There'll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow. There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago. It's the most wonderful time of the year

Nah, not this year.
Not when the news is too, too sad.
Not when the fiscal cliff is looming ahead.
Not when natural disasters seem all too uncommon and we wonder where the next one will hit.
Not when war has became normal.
Not when we continue to cry for children massacred – even here in our own country -- and for a nation that has not done more to prevent these occurrences.
No, not this year.

In truth, it has never been the most wonderful time of the year. Certainly not in the days surrounding that first Christmas so long ago.

Rebecca Ziegler is traveling and could not be with our congregation today, but shared with me a poem entitled “Christmas Story” that was related --- and I asked her and was granted permission to share it with you today.

Christmas Story

Expunge for a minute the angels, the glorias.
What is this about?
It’s about a homeless woman
about to give birth, with no shelter
(paternity is in doubt).

It’s about using a feed box as a crib
for that essential modicum of warmth.

A week later, when Herod’s troops
march into Bethlehem,
it’s about a genocide.

Now, add back in the angels, the glorias, the Joy.

Rebecca doesn’t attempt to answer that question.  But like us, she lifts up the paradox

(Singing)  It’s a most wonderful time of the year! There'll be much mistltoeing and hearts will be glowing when love ones are near. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Maybe  -- for some!  And perhaps it can be a time of peace for us too if we are open to it.  Perhaps we can become one with Mary at this time of year and know that our pain may lead to something divine. 

Now you may think it heretical of me to liken us to the blessed Virgin --- but I consider my heresy to be a most blessed heresy that allows me to take what many deem as holy and try to learn something by immersing myself into that role. 

Yes, I believe that through our pain and suffering, through that grievous time of labor, we can give birth to the divine, to the holy, to that which matters.  We will become stronger and more understanding, more knowledgeable, better equipped to make a difference in ourselves and the world – no matter what our circumstances may be.  

It can be the most wonderful time of the year, not because we have to be cheery and happy and merry. But because we don't.

We can have heavy spirits and shattered dreams, broken hearts and deep wounds.  And still recognize that LOVE is here.  We are here.  We survive and we can connect in that love that strengthens us and emboldens us to keep going, keep striving, keep living, keep loving. 

For Christians, this time of year represents one in which Love came down.  God came to earth.  We can honor that tradition as well – regardless of our beliefs – and welcome that divine love into our lives.  It’s here.  It’s in the hearts of those who sit next to you and across the room.  It’s in the smiles and laughter of the children who are learning and playing nearby.  It’s in the very air we breathe.

I wanted to close this sermon time with some ritual of healing for us --- and I could not think of a better one than deep breathing as you listen to Sarah Dan Jones’s beautiful song written for first responders after 911. I invite you to close your eyes and to feel free to just breathe.  Breathe in peace and breathe out love and healing to those here in this room and to the world -- or if you like - you can join me in singing “Breathe in, Breathe out.”

Breathe In, Breathe Out
Breathe In, Breathe Out

When I breathe in, I breathe in peace
When I breathe out, I breathe out love

When I breathe in, I breathe in peace
When I breathe out, I breathe out love

(Descant) When I breathe in I breathe in peace,
            When I breathe out I breathe out love,

            When I breathe in I breathe in peace
            When I breathe out I breathe out love

Breathe In, Breathe Out
Breathe In, Breathe Out

When I breathe in, I breathe in peace
When I breathe out, I breathe out love


Monday, December 10, 2012

No Room in the Inn; No Room in the End

Time for All Ages
The sermon on 12-9-12 was preceded earlier in the service with a “Time for All Ages” that is important for understanding the sermon.   During this time I did an experiment with the children.  We had two large jars and some rocks, pebbles, and bags of colored sand.  In the first jar we filled it first with the large rocks, then were able to get additional pebbles in the jar in the open spaces, then completed filling it up with sand.  For the second jar, I told them we would start instead with the sand.  After filling it up with sand, I said we would now put in the pebbles then the rocks.  One little girl immediately responded that we couldn’t do that because the sand had filled it all up.  We concluded the time by agreeing that if we wanted to include rocks and pebbles, as well as sand, we needed to put the rocks in first, then the pebbles, then the sand.   I told them their I would share more about the jars with their grown-ups who brought them to church, and they could ask them to tell them more about it on the way home – to see if the grown-ups were paying attention! 

Reading:  Luke 2:  4-7:  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)  To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.


This past Friday night we had a wonderful gathering at our home which some of you attended.  It was co-sponsored by the Hispanic community organization Voces Unidas.  The celebration was called Las Posadas – which means “the inns” in Spanish.  In Mexico, they celebrate this for nine days --- and go to homes in their neighborhoods each night singing the Las Posadas song – which requests entry for Mary and Joseph.  They are turned down at each house till the last one.  Then they are welcomed in and enjoy a feast together.  For our celebration on our property, we went to different doors – Mama’s room, the storage shed, and the “Holy of Holies” outhouse by the Labyrinth, singing the request in Spanish – then hearing the response from those inside the doors that there is “No Room.”  Finally we ended up at our back screened porch door and were welcomed in, sang “Joy to the World” – and enjoyed our feast together before the children had fun breaking the piƱata. 

Although this ritual is a reminder of the story of Mary and Joseph looking for lodging, it doesn’t exactly end the same way as that familiar story, does it?   The gospel of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were not welcomed into an inn with a feast waiting for them – but had to lay baby Jesus in a manger; basically a animal feeding trough; because there was “No Room” for them in the inn.  Now western civilization has “whitewashed” this manger scene (and I’m using that term deliberately) to one with folks with nice clean clothes standing and smiling at baby Jesus.  And of course they are surrounded by shepherds, three wise men, and angels – all at the same time.  We’ve modified the story a little with our traditions, haven’t we?  This reminds me of a little tale I heard many years ago.  The Sunday School teacher had given the children a coloring sheet with just that scene for them to color one Sunday morning.  One little boy, though, had added a character to the scene.  Right by the manger he drew a rather stout fellow – sort of a Friar Tuck looking guy.  The teacher asked, “Tommy, who is that?” 

And Tommy replied, “Oh, that’s Round John Virgin.”  (Sing – Round John Virgin, Mother and Child”)

But this was not that scene.  One would assume that the intention of this story was to indicate a very lowly, humble, probably smelly -- difficult beginning for Jesus. 

Now, it’s understandable that the innkeeper turned them away; the inn was full.  But what if he had known that this baby would be one whose teachings would last for millennia; that this baby’s birth would end up being important enough to future generations that they would divide their calendars --- AD and BC by that event.  If he knew, would he have reserved a room; or perhaps even vacated his own room for them?

That’s the “No Room” Bible story.  What’s the story for us?

The late UU minister Roger Cowan asked his parishioners: 

Why is so much of life like Bethlehem's Inn? Why does so much of love and goodness in our world, of hope and possibility, get shut out?  The most obvious reason is that the inn was already full. Those who arrived first were served first. The innkeeper wasn't mean-spirited. Others got there first, the place was full and that was that.  But just by such plausible, defensible circumstance, (he says) personal enlightenment and spiritual growth get shut from our lives. Our mind space is given to other guests... And what gets our attention gets us.

And that brings us back to our little experiment we did with the children during the Time for All Ages.  If our attention is on the sand, and we fill up our jar with sand first, then there is no room for the pebbles, much less the rocks.  If the rocks represent the things that are of primary importance in our lives, that which we consider divine or sacred or ultra-significant – whatever word you want to use, then we need to put them in first!

In the Christmas story, Jesus represents the divine; but was shut out of that inn and born in a stable. 

I again quote from Roger Cowan who said:  

Most everything we treasure has been born in some sorry place, often rejected and shut out, with only a few persons wise enough to perceive the meaning. We need...receptive hearts to see the holy when it knocks on our door...

Then Rev. Cowan provides this warning:

Time does more than pass. It narrows down our chances. The knock comes and is gone.
Whoa!  That’s hard.  It reminds me of a folk rock song by Harry Chapin.  You know it.  It starts out like this:
My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin' 'fore I knew it, and as he grew
He'd say "I'm gonna be like you dad
You know I'm gonna be like you"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home dad?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then.

Of course the song goes on to follow the child into adulthood with the father still promising to have a good time later.  The tables are then turned with the son turning out just like his father after all – and not having time for his dad as his father gets older.  Just as there was no room for baby Jesus in the Inn, there was no room for this father in the END. 

Folks, that father’s relationship with his son should have been a ROCK.  It should have been placed in the jar first.  And I can go back in my own life and there are rocks I have failed to put in the jar of certain times before it was filled with sand. 

Which reminds me of the parable Jesus told of two builders.  The wise one built his house upon a rock; and the foolish built his on the sand – which soon shifted destroying the house.  We should make sure we build our houses – spending enough time, efforts, and resources on the rocks in our lives.  
Now I ALSO realize that one can be focused on some aspects of some things we deem important in a sick and unhealthy way.  Just spending TIME and resources on a relationship or with other areas of our life that we deem important is not enough if that time and those resources are not well spent.  I have had to learn this lesson myself over and over again in my own relationship with my family members.

Yes, I have been what folks refer to as an enabler.  And I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m the only one here today who may have had this problem at some time in their lives.  An enabler is defined by Webster as “one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.”  So please know that I’m not talking about just spending time and resources on the things that matter --- but time and resources that are well spent and meaningful.

Too often, though – that’s not the problem.  The problem instead is that we ignore the things that really matter – caught up in the business of the world and our lives – or distracted by other less important and meaningful activities --- and like the dad in the song, we become too busy.  Busy, busy, busy.  If we could strive to simplify our lives, – have less STUFF and THINGS to worry about and make payments on, then we could be present and receptive when those divine opportunities knock on our doors. 
Oh – but we are now in the midst of the holiday season – bombarded with messages that encourage us to buy more – not less; spend more time in frivolous activities, not less, drink more, not less; eat more – not less.  It’s a time of MORE not AMORE!  But a lot of it is simply sand – that will fill up our time, our minds, and our lives, leaving NO ROOM for the ROCKS; no room for the sacred, the divine, those matters and relationships that are of ultimate importance.
Maybe I’m just a little too cynical this time of year and need to reframe my own thinking a little.  Don Hawks, a United Methodist minister who enjoys the rush of Christmas, encourages his folks to do just that.  He says:  “’Fighting the crowds’ can be read as ‘mingling with the holiday throngs.’ Those ‘harried chores’ and ‘endless items to cross off lists,’ can just as easily be read as ‘joyful preparations’ and ‘lots of fun stuff to do.’”

Okay, I’ll try Don.  And indeed, I do enjoy hosting groups at our home during this season and trying to share some peace and joy.  But I recognize that I don’t want to get into the hassle and rush and spend money on gifts not needed.  That’s sand and pebbles to me.  For this holiday season --- and indeed – for my life, I want to make sure I have room for the rocks.

What about you?  What are the rocks that you want to be sure and have room for in your mind and heart – in your life?  

I’m going to hold up a few rocks for us to consider.  Here’s one.  What does this represent for you?  And here’s another… what is it?  Here’s a beautiful third rock, what is it?  What does it represent in your life?  (Okay Readers – take some time to really think about these before moving on.)

Since I have not perfected mind reading, I don’t know what these rocks represent to you.  But I can tell you that for me --- this congregation, this faith tradition, and what we do together here is a ROCK.  And if it’s not a ROCK for you, I challenge you to open yourself to that possibility.  If you want to grow your soul and work to heal and nurture this world, you need a foundation for building.  You need a rock.  And for folks like us – Unitarian Universalism and this congregation is a mighty good one.

Now if that metaphor just doesn’t work for you – and you need something more up to date, I’ll give you one.  There are a lot of us in this community who want to make a difference – in ourselves and in this world.  But we can’t do it alone.  And we can’t do it standing still.  We need a VEHICLE.  I’m not saying we’re the only vehicle on the road that can get you there.  But we are a mighty good one.  One that doesn’t tell you what you have to believe; one that is radically inclusive, one that challenges your mind and heart, one that promotes peace, justice, compassion, and love for all.  It’s a beautiful bus – headed for the beloved community.  And there is ROOM on the bus for you!  Hop on board.  Let’s ride!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Remarks at Installation of the Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson

What an honor it is for me to be here at Magnolia Missionary Baptist Church today for the installation of my good friend and ministerial colleague, the Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson.

Rev. Johnson asked for me to have some remarks here today about servant leadership. Of course, the model that most of us look to for a servant leader is Jesus.  In Luke 22:27, we hear these words of Jesus as he teaches his disciples about servant leadership:

 “Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves?  The one who sits at the table, of course.  But not here!   For I am among you as one who serves.”

Another example of a servant leader is the man you are installing today.  Because he has been serving in this community for many years , many years before being called to the leadership of this church.  And he will also be a model of service for you.

But I want to shift this discussion a little to say WHERE do we serve and WHOM do we serve?

Now, many of you are serving us here today. It takes a WHOLE lot of work to put something like this together.  And we are SO appreciative of the great service and all of the WORK that you all have done.  But I want to share a little story with you about the work of the church.

This story was told by an old preacher who grew up in the big city about a lesson he learned early in life.  As a young adolescent, his parents wanted him to have some time out of the city experiencing life on a FARM - so they sent him one summer to live and work with his aunt and uncle. The Uncle got the boy up before dawn and told him to go out to the wood pile and chop the wood, stack it, and bring some in to fill up the wood bin by the stove. The boy was looking forward to his farm work and enthusiastically completed the job. He was quite tired though as he brought the wood to the house for the stove. So after putting it in the wood bin, he started back up the stairs to complete his sleep since it was barely morning. As he started up the steps, his Uncle pulled on his shirt sleeve and said, "Just where do you think you goin'. You ain't done no work yet."

"What do you mean - I haven't done any work?  I been workin," explained the boy.  "Why I chopped the wood and stacked the wood, and brought and filled up the wood bin by the stove - jest like you said."

"You still ain't done no work yet boy," the farmer said. "Let me 'splain somethin to you.
Any thing you do in the house or around the house or for the house - them there is CHORES. The WORK is in the fields."

Now sometimes after I’ve preached in church or played the piano or perhaps served a greeter or prepared refreshments for the social time, I want to pat myself on the back, and congratulate myself for doing the work of the church.  But you know, anything we do in the Church, or around the Church, or for the Church – "them there's just Chores."   They certainly need to be done. And they are scared and holy chores!  But it's not the real work of the Church.

In John 4:35, Jesus said:
Do you not say, four months more and then the harvest? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest!

And in Matthew 9:35-37, we find Jesus lamenting over the lack of workers in the fields:
It reads:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few."

Have things improved or do we still have a shortage of workers in the fields?

Where are the fields?

For some of us it may BE far-away places where we may help with disaster relief. But for most of us, the fields are in our homes, our work places and in our communities – especially among those of great need. Those are the places that we need to be working and serving.  And we are thrilled that this church is already doing that and will do more under the leadership of this great servant, Rev. Francys Johnson.

Now some of us have served in this service today – lots of folks.  And tonight as we climb those proverbial stairs, we may pat ourselves on the back and take pride in the work we've done. But we may just feel that tug on our sleeve and hear an inner voice that says, "Wait a minute Brandon.  Wait a minute Johnny.  Wait a minute Jane!  You haven't done any work yet."  I look forward to seeing many of you in the fields.

But today, I want to extend the right hand of fellowship to Rev. Johnson as he begins his professional ministry in Statesboro.  He’s not new to Statesboro and not new to ministry – but he’s new to professional ministry in Statesboro.  And I’m here to welcome him and look forward to lots of good serving together.