Monthly Archives: January 2011

Up on the Mountain: The Way of Righteousness

a sermon on Matthew 5:17-48, the third in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on on January 30, 2011

Snowstorms tend to bring out the legalist in me. Life is frustrating enough these days without the people who refuse to shovel their sidewalks or who block the road with their insanely large SUVs! But there is little that annoys me more than people who clear the snow from around their cars or in their driveways and throw it into the street. It makes the street slick, moves the snow only so far that someone else has to move it again, and just doesn’t reflect any degree of kindness for neighbors, pedestrians, or drivers. Not only that, though, it is against the law, and violations carry fines of up to $350, and I for one figure that not enough people have been assessed the fine for shoveling snow out into the street! I shudder to admit that I’ve taken to acting on my own to protest my frustration with these self-centered actions since the city seems to be quite lax in its enforcement, so I drive a little closer to the edge so I can spray a little of the snow back on the person throwing it into the street or honk my horn and shake my head as I drive past.

All this reminds me of how I can be a very legalistic person – I definitely want to follow the rules very carefully and avoid doing something wrong, and I expect others to demonstrate a similar respect for them. I could catalog many, many ways of how I embody this in my life, but I’ll leave that for a conversation with a therapist sometime!

This kind of legalistic attitude seems to be very much present in our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning. This portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deals with how to follow the law – but it is immediately clear that Jesus has quite a different perspective on this for his time and ours. Jesus starts out making his purpose clear: “I have come not to abolish [the law or the prophets] but to fulfill [them].” From the beginning, he reminds the people that he isn’t encouraging them to stop following the law – in fact, he suggests that following the law and teaching others to do the same will bring honor in the kingdom of heaven.

But then he surprises everyone by setting the bar even higher: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees” – those known for their exacting attention to the details and minutia of the law – “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But I think righteousness for Jesus here isn’t quite what it seems – it’s certainly not in the details and minutia of the law that were the focus of the scribes and the Pharisees. In six “case studies” of the law that indicate the form and content of this extremely high standard, Jesus makes it clear that the way of righteousness is not so much in exacting attention to the details of things but more in embracing the fullness of the spirit of the law.

Each of the cases Jesus offers helps to describe that spirit in light of a well-known law and so open up the way of righteousness.

  • “Do not murder” demands more than just not ending a human life – it demands that brokenness be avoided and reconciliation stand at the center of all relationships.
  • “Do not commit adultery” suggests that even more than specific sexual acts are prohibited – even the beginning desires of these things go too far.
  • While divorce may be permitted, Jesus finds that it should not be the ideal.
  • While some may say that oaths are permitted and even encouraged to discern truthfulness, Jesus suggests that a simple, honest “yes” or “no” from the very beginning should be enough to make righteousness clear.
  • The law may say “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus suggests that responding in vengeance is futile, instead recommending that one give even more than one is asked and offer abundant grace in the midst of hatred and enmity.
  • And the law may suggest that love can be limited to those we know or like, those we can immediately identify as family, friends, or neighbors, but Jesus insists instead that the real commitment should be to love even our enemies – a far more difficult challenge!

So he concludes with the greatest challenge of all for the way of righteousness: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

All these things seem like a very high order, and they are. This standard of righteousness is far more difficult to meet even than the city law against tossing your snow in the street, if you ask me – but strict adherence is not what matters. In fact, in bringing these cases Jesus makes it clear that the law must be interpreted beyond its basic meaning, not just to figure out whether and how it applies to a particular situation but also to determine how the broader principles of God’s intentions can be realized in the particular moment. Just because something is not explicitly prohibited by the law does not mean that it is allowed in the way of righteousness.

And so Jesus establishes some broader principles for living in the way of righteousness. Evil and good aren’t always immediately distinguished, and evil is certainly not to be eliminated at the expense of doing good. Brokenness of any sort and any origin is not God’s intention, and the specifics of the law require that we do whatever we can to bring about reconciliation, even when the law suggests otherwise. And even the difficulty of perfection is clear – so clear that there is no choice but to leave room for grace to permeate the situation and make room for God alone to make things perfect. Even as he proclaims that he has come to fulfill the law and not abolish it, Jesus makes it clear that the way of righteousness is built not on the letter of the law but rather on the quality of relationship that the law produces.

As commentator Stan Saunders puts it,

“While Jesus fulfills and affirms God’s law, he also understands that where laws implicitly or explicitly confirm the existing, broken order, they may be abandoned in favor of reconciliation, restoration of relationship, and wholeness.” (Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, p. 41)

Following the law for Jesus is clearly not about fulfilling a checklist – instead, it opens the way of righteousness through relationship and reconciliation.

In many ways, looking at this text on a day when we spend so much time dealing with the particulars of business as a congregation seems a bit strange. The congregational meeting that follows worship today is one of the most scripted and prescribed moments in our life together, as we have very particular rules about what we can and must and cannot do, and we spend most of our time and energy making sure that all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. Like those moments when my stress rises because of snowy streets, we often turn to the rules to figure out how best to proceed as I did in looking up the penalty for throwing snow into the street! But what would it be if we saw this important gathering as an opportunity and invitation to walk in the way of righteousness together? What would it be for us to deepen our attention to reconciliation and focus us on displaying the way of righteousness in relationship that Jesus describes as we go about this important work today? What would it take for us to set aside our attention to all the details of standards that we will never get perfect and right and focus on how we can best walk together in the way of righteousness in the days before us?

And so I think Jesus calls us in times like these to walk in this way of righteousness – not focusing so intently on the particulars of the law that we lose sight of its spirit, not getting so worked up when others ignore the particulars and intent of the law that we take it into our own hands as I tend to do in these snowy days, but instead embodying the reconciliation, relationship, and wholeness that it offers us as we seek to be like those who live in the kingdom of heaven. It is clear that we will never meet this very high standard, but God nonetheless calls us to walk in the way of righteousness as best we can, trusting that every step we take in this way will be a part of the coming of God’s kingdom into the world.

So may Jesus’ vision of this new way of righteousness from up on the mountain inspire us to join in his new way, setting aside all our brokenness and trusting God’s power to heal and make new as we join in this work of relationship and reconciliation until we see all things restored and made whole in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



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Up on the Mountain: Salt and Light

a sermon on Matthew 5:13-16, the second in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on January 23, 2011

As we spend these weeks up on the mountain looking again at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, I’m reminded that I’m often a bit envious of Jesus’ preaching style. He always seemed to be able to tell the right story at the right time to make his point so well. He found effective ways to connect everyday experiences and even objects to the life of faith. And he was always able to speak to the crowds with grace, even offering peaceful and gentle words to those who disagreed with him. On average, I’d say I’m successful at just one of these things each week, sometimes missing them altogether but maybe hitting the trifecta of all three in a single sermon once or twice in the over 250 sermons I’ve preached over the years!

Today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount is one of these moments when I think Jesus got all three of these things right at once, and I hope and pray that I can relay a few of my own insights even half as effectively as he did! After opening this address from up on the mountain with a description of the radical nature and direction of God’s blessing, Jesus turned quickly to a some imperative statements, moving beyond descriptions of the direction of God’s blessing and the coming of God’s kingdom to invite his listeners to take concrete steps to be a part of these things taking hold in the world.

His first two instructions that we consider today were seemingly simple: be salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said. Salt tends to get a bad rap in our world these days – even though salt can dramatically enhance flavor, the high-salt diet common these days has brought a significant increase in the occurrence of high blood pressure, and we’re disconnected enough from the growing and preparation of our food that we don’t always recognize how salt can be an important fertilizer and a simple and safe preservative. He even warned them against losing their saltiness and losing the ability to enrich growth, preserve against decay, and enhance flavor, for when salt loses its saltiness, it is worthless, for it is no longer salt and best just tossed out to add to the dirt on the path.

But throughout all this, salt is basically unseen – it is mixed in to enrich the dirt when no one can see it, added in the back rooms to preserve when we aren’t looking, and ground so small that we easily miss it when we add it to our food. And most of the time it takes a while for salt to do its good work – plants aren’t magically and immediately changed by salt but only when it has worked its way into the soil over time, and other foods aren’t preserved right away but only after the salt has made its way through. It often takes a while for salt to be noticed – but when it is missing, you certainly know it!

So Jesus insisted that his listeners are the salt of the earth, deeply enriching the growth of things around us at the roots, safely preserving the things that stand at our core against decay, and enhancing the flavor of life every step of the way, even when its effects can’t be seen right away. While we weren’t in that first crowd up on the mountain, we too are called to be the salt of the earth, working our way through the soil slowly but surely to enrich life at its roots, protecting and preserving against decay and disease from the outside in, and bringing new flavor to our boring and drab world.

I invite you to think and pray for a couple minutes on how you can be the salt of the earth – and even more how we can be the salt of the earth together, then talk with a neighbor or two about your reflections (or post in the comments here).

(time for reflection and discussion, then sing chorus of “Bring Forth the Kingdom” before time for sharing)

As much as Jesus wanted his listeners to be the salt of the earth in all these ways, enriching things from the roots in unseen ways, he also told them, “You are the light of the world.” Unlike the somewhat invisible salt, light exists to be seen. Like salt, though, light has multiple purposes – it reveals everything that is hidden, spreads easily to every dark corner, lights the way in darkness, and draws attention back to its source. Just as salt can bring high blood pressure and damage things if overused, so light can shine too brightly – we need only compare the night sky here in Whitestone with what you might see in some less urban part of the world to see how too much light from the wrong source can actually keep us from seeing the beauty of the night sky! Nonetheless, light is extremely important in the right quantity and balance, for it points us to something more and shows us something new even as it invites others to see things in a new way too.

And so Jesus instructs his listeners not to hide their light and “let [it] shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to [God].” The light of the world doesn’t exist for its own glory but instead points to something more, shining in new and different ways to illumine the world.

Just as we thought and talked a bit about being the salt of the earth, I invite you to think for a minute or two about being the light of the world, both individually and especially as this community, then turn to your neighbor and talk about your ideas (or post them in the comments below). We’ll then come together again by singing before we share a bit of how we can shine light together.

(time for reflection and discussion, then sing chorus of “Bring Forth the Kingdom” before time for sharing)

As we put all these things together and seek to be both the salt of the earth and the light of the world as Jesus was able to preach so well, I couldn’t miss the incredible difference between these two things that he puts before us: we don’t really see what salt is doing, but light can’t be missed. Even amidst their differences, they are both important. Salting the soil alone will not get a plant to grow in darkness, and light alone will not convince a seed to sprout.

Too often we miss Jesus’ double imperative here, choosing to be only salt or only light by focusing only on the hidden, slow work of salting the earth or only the illuminating, bright work of shining light for the world rather than the more difficult task of doing both. We end up frustrated that our efforts to salt the earth and make God’s new way real in our community aren’t showing immediate fruit or disappointed that our light isn’t shining brightly enough to be seen in the way we would like. But the good news in this is that Jesus calls us to be both salt and light, both seen and unseen in our efforts to bring forth God’s kingdom, working and praying and hoping for a new and different way to take hold in clear and obvious ways even as we trust that God is working even when we can’t see it to make all things new.

And so may our saltiness be at its best and our light be focused and bright as we seek to be a part of the new kingdom community that Jesus envisioned and lived from up here on the mountain. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Up on the Mountain: Seeing Something New

a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12 preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on January 16, 2011

Pulpit/Up on the MountYou may have noticed something a little different and strange about the pulpit this morning – there’s a little extra decoration around the base of it. You see, we’re up on the mountain today and over the next seven weeks, working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, and I figured a little visual reminder of this might help us all to keep this in mind! Chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel recount these famous words spoken by Jesus to his disciples and the crowds who followed him up the mountain, and in these three chapters we find a great deal of what stands at the center of the Christian message. Here on the mountain Jesus offered his disciples what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. Here Jesus laid out the simple and beautiful beatitudes, nine statements of blessing for those we might least expect. Here Jesus called out the hypocrites for giving alms and offering prayers so that they might be seen doing it. Here Jesus conveyed his own version of what we have termed the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Here Jesus suggested that judgment must be as much about the one making the judgment as it is about the one being judged. And here Jesus responded to different viewpoints on how to follow the law and prophets of the Hebrew scriptures by suggesting that the spirit and the letter of the law matter. Over the next seven weeks, we’ll look at these and other wonderful sayings of Jesus from this sermon that give us a vision of something new from up on the mountain, all concluding on Transfiguration Sunday, when we celebrate how Jesus himself was transformed on another mountain as a sign of the transformation that is possible for us too. And so we revisit these familiar words, hoping that the mountain will strengthen us and hold us fast in our faith, but nonetheless remembering that Jesus offered the Sermon on the Mount not to comfort the people and enshrine their way of life but rather to challenge them by offering a vision of something new.

Jesus opened his sermon up on the mountain with a provocative series of statements of blessing that we heard a few minutes ago, but I want to read them again, this time from that often-helpful paraphrase The Message.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.
Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.
That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.
He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

You’re blessed when you care.
At the moment of being ‘carefull,’ you find yourselves cared for.

You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right.
Then you can see God in the outside world.

You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.
That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me.
What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.
You can be glad when that happens – give a cheer, even! – for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds.

And know that you are in good company.
My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

While there is something important in each of these statements of blessing, I think that they are best understood when we read them as a whole, because the reality is that none of them are really about God showing particular blessing to those in a particular predicament. Instead, in the Beatitudes Jesus offers a broad stroke against the way the world appears to be and assumes to operate, insisting that God’s blessing is not for the rich and famous and powerful but belongs instead to those in greatest need and proclaiming that God is overturning the supposed wisdom of the world and putting forth a new and different way.

As such, Jesus makes it clear from the beginning of this time on the mountain that things look different here in this place where God’s new way – God’s kingdom – has started to take hold. The poor are the ones who will inherit all good things here. Those who mourn here will not be left alone in their grief. Those who trust God to free and redeem will be set loose from the bonds of injustice here. Those who hunger and thirst here will be filled and their thirst quenched. Those who show mercy and forgiveness will find it shared with them here. Those who live with integrity in body, mind, and spirit will find God at work here. Those who seek reconciliation and wholeness will find it in their life with God here. Those who are threatened because of their behavior that follows in this way will be at home in this place. And those who suffer because of Jesus’ own life and message can rejoice because that suffering is not the final word, just as it was not the final word for Jesus himself. In the end, though, blessing comes less from these individual things being realized and more from justice and peace becoming the norm, love and mercy prevailing always, and a vision of something new taking hold in the world.

Making this vision of wholeness and newness real isn’t as easy as it would seem. At one level, these are incredibly simple practices and moves for living that can seemingly be lived out so easily. It would seem easy to give up everything and be poor, to mourn, to trust God, to remain hungry and thirsty, to show mercy and forgiveness, to live with integrity, to seek reconciliation and wholeness, and all these other things. But if we take these words seriously, we see how difficult all these things really are. We see how hard it is for us to let go of our way of life, to trust that there is something more than what we can directly control, to show others the respect we demand for ourselves, to seek reconciliation rather than furthering brokenness, or to open ourselves to suffering for the sake of others.

The reality is that we will never reach this way of life on our own. No individual can fully embody this way of life. Even the most faithful among us struggle with sin and fall short of the fullness of life that God intends for us and our world. Even the true prophets among us will find it difficult to bring these blessings down from the mountain, and as one commentator puts it, “Even people in churches will regard the Beatitudes as impossible, impractical, and foolish.” (Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew)

The Beatitudes, then, call us to a way of life that we can’t make happen on our own – but that doesn’t make us exempt from trying to live them out, nor does it make it okay to just leave them for a day beyond our grasp. We can’t just pretend like they are some view of some promised land we will never reach or will only find once we are no longer in this world – the way of life Jesus proposed as he began this conversation up on the mountain must always be before us as our goal and hope.

But living the Beatitudes becomes possible, practical, and even wise when we live them together and trust that God will work through us to make all things new. When we seek to discern how to respond to the poor in spirit as a congregation, we are blessed. When we join those who mourn death and darkness and injustice in our world and start working to shine new light into these places, we are blessed. When we trust the wisdom of God above and beyond our own intelligence to guide our life together, we are blessed. When we seek to satisfy the real, deep hungers and thirsts around us, both physical and spiritual, we are blessed. When we show mercy and grace to one another and all the world, we are blessed. When we live integrated, faithful lives that are true to the creation whom God made us to be, we are blessed. When we make wholeness, healing, and peace possible in the relationships around us and demonstrate that in our life together, we are blessed. And when others hurt and persecute us or walk away from our fellowship because we live in these ways of wholeness and faithfulness rather than just checking off obedience to a series of rules and regulations, we are blessed.

Living the Beatitudes together isn’t easy, but it is what God intends – how God intends for us to demonstrate that the world does not have the final word, how God invites us to stand up and live in a new and different way, how God allows us to join in the new thing that Jesus proclaimed from atop the mountain. And so from this mount may we see a vision of the life God intends for us and seek to live in this way together every day even as we open our eyes to what God intends for us and our world and we wait and work for Jesus’ vision to become real through God’s work all around us.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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a first draft

I’m taking the unusual step of posting my first draft of the sermon tomorrow in light of the events of today. I’m particularly appreciative of any comments you might have over the next ten hours or so as I continue to refine this. Thanks for participating in this sermon crowdsourcing!

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of speaking with a group of women and men at the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica here in Queens about the process and practice of preaching. They are in the midst of a training program to explore and develop their gifts for ministry in that congregation, and as they begin their conversation about preaching, I talked with them about how I approach each week’s sermon. They asked me lots of great questions, but one of our conversations sticks out in light of everything else that happened yesterday. We talked a bit about what I’ve done when I’ve needed to change a sermon, and I noted that I have on occasion chosen to make major changes to my sermon on Saturday night or even Sunday morning.

Today is one of those days. About the same time I got home from that gathering in Jamaica, a gunman shot into a crowd who had gathered outside a supermarket to meet with their representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as you probably know, some nineteen people were shot, and six of those have died, including a federal judge who had stopped by to say hello. I spent a good bit of yesterday afternoon in shock, following the story on TV and online, paying probably too much attention to all the details, and tracking the various details about this deeply disturbing and troubling event. So today I can’t just talk about the baptism of Jesus in the same way I had planned to do before the events of yesterday.

One statement in all the events of yesterday stuck out to me in light of our scripture readings for today. The new speaker of the house, John Boehner, offered a simple and short statement in response, saying in part: “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” His words are an important reminder that this sort of tragic violence is simply not acceptable.

But even more so, I think his words point us to the prophet Isaiah, one who proclaimed that servanthood is something that comes from God and that the true servant comes to bring justice and righteousness without violence or even a raised voice, showing us that God’s way is unlike our human ways and demands justice in the midst of incredible hope and peace. This servant is steadfast and faithful in seeking and establishing justice, and the earth longs for this to become real.

In light of the events of yesterday, I think our longings for justice to become real are deeper than ever – not just for those who committed this senseless crime to be brought to trial but for something new and different to take hold around us, for violence to ease and warfare to end, for a different way of thinking and being and most especially speaking to take root, putting aside the vitriol and hate on all sides, setting aside the language of violence that pervades so much of our culture when we make “targets” of politicians in the next election, “fight a battle” against illness, or even suggest that we should be “soldiers of the cross” in carrying God’s message to the world, but instead opening ourselves to God’s real and difficult work of bearing forth righteousness and justice into our world. And so the servant joins in this work, stepping up to the difficult task of making God’s way real in the world and standing alongside all those who serve in countless – even at times seemingly conflicting – ways to embody this faithful and persistent justice in the world.

The prophet makes this way of justice clear, but then he continues by speaking directly to the servant, offering words of encouragement and hope for the challenges ahead, and pointing to the hope of justice and peace as the primary purpose and goal of the servant’s work. The servant stands with a mandate from God to be something new, to place the covenant made with Israel into bodily, human form, to be accompanied by God’s presence in the midst of trial, to open a new way for all who face uncertainty, pain, and hurt, and to bring light to the darkness that too often covers the world. In the midst of such incredible pain and hurt, God acts in and through the servant to make all things new, to embody and spread comfort and hope and peace and wholeness into the places of harm and hurt, to stand with those are attacked in body, mind, and spirit, and to make it clear that no one who walks in this way of new life and service will stand alone.

In the end, that is the real important message of the baptism of Jesus for us, too – we do not face this way of life alone. The one whose birth we have celebrated together over the last few weeks – Jesus – was human just like us, lived and breathed and thought just like us, faced temptations just like us, walked and ran and sang and danced just like us, and died just as we will one day do. Most of all, Jesus was baptized just like us – the exact meaning of that baptism can and will be debated, but because we share in his baptism and his life and his death and his resurrection, we can be sure that we are not alone.

We are not alone when things get tough – when life is hard and death and uncertainty surround us, when the darkness of the world seems to close in, when peace and justice seem far off and uncertain, as we have seen all too much in recent days. In these moments, we are not alone because Jesus shares our baptism and makes us whole again.

But we are also not alone when we walk forth from this place as God’s baptized servants – when we struggle to live out the ways of peace and justice set forth for the servant, when we feel resistance to God’s call to step out in a new way of hope, when we need help to find persistence and hope in the midst of changing and uncertain times, and even when we see little glimpses of God’s light breaking into the darkness of our lives and our world. In these moments too, we are not alone because Jesus shares our baptism and invites us to join him in fulfilling all righteousness.

The days ahead for us as a nation will be difficult. We have a tremendous task of mourning ahead for those who died, and even at this early moment, there seems also to be some deeper reflection necessary as well. As Christian thinker Diana Butler Bass put it:

We need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans – how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

But the good news of Jesus’ baptism is that he shares in this moment with us. He invites us to this conversation, he comforts us in the midst of our pain and sorrow and confusion and hurt, he shows us where we have gone wrong, he gives us grace and mercy for all our faults, he offers us wisdom for finding a new way, and he steps in to lead us there himself. May Jesus’ baptism that we celebrate today remind us of these waters that we share, waters poured out in mercy for a broken and fearful world as we face brokenness and fear head on, so that we might go forth to walk in the light and peace and justice of God each and every day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.


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Going Home for Christmas

This is not a sermon but rather a real blog post! Who knew!!

As a single person, my best bet for spending time with other people during the holidays is with my parents, and since I’m an only child, that makes it all the more important that I be home for Christmas. As a pastor, though, I have responsibilities on Christmas Eve, so over the last several years I have grown accustomed to traveling on Christmas Day. My first Christmas as a pastor, Christmas Day was also a Sunday, and I ended up spending Christmas night 2005 in a hotel near the Cincinnati airport by myself – an experience I do not care to repeat. This year, the crazy weather up and down the East Coast threw a small wrench into my travel plans, but for once I was grateful for the travel difficulties. Along the way, I experienced two new ways of being home for Christmas.

First, on a quick flight from JFK to Washington, DC, I found myself sharing a row at the back of the plane, directly next to the engine and across from the lavatory, with a flight attendant commuting home after her shift had ended. She had just returned from a round-trip to Senegal, one of several west African routes that she works regularly. I mentioned very briefly my travel troubles around Christmas, and she certainly understood my experiences – she herself had been working as a flight attendant on international routes since 1971 and had spent many Christmases away from home. We shared many wonderful stories about travel strangeness like this, but her stories were incredible moments of finding some sort of “home for Christmas.” She recounted two experiences of being welcomed into homes in Italy and Austria – places where Christmas celebrations are often limited to immediate family, with even significant others of family members asked not to attend – where she was welcomed as one of the family. Even as a guest who looked very different and came from an entirely different culture, she received gifts from others in the family and was at one of the gatherings even seated at the place of honor next to the host! Her stories were incredible, and I will never forget the time we shared on that brief flight, fellow travelers from very different places and backgrounds who nonetheless found a little bit of home for Christmas together.

If that weren’t enough of a home for Christmas, I then had the privilege of sharing a couple hours with a Twitter friend and colleague in ministry, Leslianne Braunstein. Although we had conversed a bit on Twitter and discovered some mutual friends and experiences, we had never met in person until Christmas Day. My new itinerary called for a four-and-a-half-hour layover in Washington, and Leslianne graciously volunteered to spend some of it with me. So we sat in a virtually-empty restaurant at Reagan Airport and shared appetizers and incredible conversation for nearly two hours. Though we too came from different places even amidst our shared experiences, in that time together we found another glimpse of home for Christmas.

I eventually made it home with far less travel drama than I had anticipated – and I walked away with two wonderful stories. But even more, over the twelve days of Christmas this year, I have carried these moments with me as reminders that the home we find for Christmas may come when we least expect it, around people with very different experiences, in the midst of frustration and anxiety and uncertainty. Though I was very glad to make it home for Christmas this year, I was even more grateful to see some other visions of home along the way and to share them with wonderful people each and every step of the way.

As this Christmas season comes to an end, I hope that you found some glimpse of this kind of home somewhere along the way too. Thanks for letting me share my story of going home for Christmas.

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The Other Side of Christmas

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas on Matthew 2:13-23
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on January 2, 2011

Happy ninth day of Christmas! With the blizzard and all the other things swirling around us over the past week, it is easy to forget that our celebration of Christmas continues today and concludes only with Epiphany on Thursday and Baptism of the Lord next Sunday. These twelve days remind us that there’s more to the coming of Jesus than a baby born in a manger, angels appearing to shepherds, or even the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem, and our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel is an incredible and even disturbing reminder of the other side of Christmas.

This truly unpleasant text shows up in the lectionary on the Sunday after Christmas every three years, just rarely enough that pastors can easily skip over it with a Christmas carol sing or pass it off to a guest preacher! Last Sunday, while relaxing at my parents’ house on the day after Christmas, we tuned in the downtown Methodist church’s weekly TV broadcast to find a young woman, their pastor to young adults, facing the challenges of preaching this text. She had drawn the short straw this year to preach on the day after Christmas, so she offered a simple proclamation of this strange text about mass murder in the midst of a season filled with joy. So today, we’re facing that text together, too, not so that I can just reuse her insights but because the light of our candles on Christmas Eve fades and the strains of our carols grow faint on the other side of Christmas as the real world creeps back into things and we have to make sense of love and hate in our world.

According to Matthew’s gospel, visitors came to Judea looking for Jesus after seeing a star in the east that indicated that the king of the Jews had been born. They started their search for the newborn king at the palace, where they learned little and only aroused the puppet king Herod’s attention. As they continued their search, Herod asked them to return and give him a full report on what they found, but after they found the child, they went directly home by another road.

So in our reading today, we hear that an angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph and directed him to flee to Egypt with Mary and his newborn son. They got away just in time. Once Herod figured out that the wise men were not going to help him put down this apparent threat to his reign, he decreed that all children in and around Bethlehem under age two were to be killed. As a side note, I think it is important to note that there is no historical record of this mass murder of about twenty children in this small village, but as one commentator puts it, “it is nevertheless consistent with what we know about Herod.” (R. Alan Culpepper, Feasting on the Word) He was known to have his enemies and even his friends ruthlessly punished for crossing him, and that commentator notes that he even commanded that upon his death “political prisoners should be killed so that there would be mourning throughout the land.” With this kind of king holding even limited power, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus remained in Egypt until they received word in another dream that Herod was dead. But Joseph was still concerned – Herod’s son Archelaus was his successor, and Joseph suspected that cruelty and oppression of Herod’s sort rarely skips a generation, so rather than returning to Bethlehem, they made a new home in Nazareth, in the region of Galilee, outside the reach of Herod and Archelaus. Finally settled in to their new home in Nazareth, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could emerge from the other side of Christmas, yet they surely would not be the same as they tried to make sense of the love and hate they had witnessed.

Matthew suggests in his story that all these things happened to fulfill the words of the prophets and show that Jesus had been through all the trials of the Hebrew people – going down to Egypt, returning to the promised land, and continuing in his own version of exile – so that he could emerge to a new way of faithfulness even amidst the old stories (Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew), an important perspective for his first readers who were most likely steeped in Judaism. But there is something equally if not more important for us in these words to help us see that there is more to Christmas than dreams (and occasional realities!) of a white Christmas, visits from Santa Claus, or even a baby born in a manger.

The other side of Christmas is clear to many in our world, but we so rarely speak of it. Some people find the joy of this season so difficult in the midst of mourning, pain, and loss, as they face the season distant from those they love due to death, illness, or displacement. Others must travel to spend these days with friends and family as is the custom and requirement, only to find even the best-laid plans disrupted by snowstorms and airlines and other complications that we know all too well after this last week. But even these pale in comparison to the millions around our world who face harsh persecution and life in exile more directly as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did, forced to move from their homes and families due to genocide, suffering, war, and religious or ethnic strife.

And so Matthew also offers us a story that reminds us that Jesus knew the other side of Christmas very, very well himself. Mourning, pain, and loss came right alongside his birth. Strange travels and new homes were part of his experience as an infant. Exile and displacement were his experience from his earliest months. In fact, I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that the prosperity and joy that stand as the ideal for us in these days were far from Jesus’ own experience. Even though he began his days with visitors from far away who brought him fine and extravagant gifts, Jesus lived much of his life like a refugee, wandering from place to place, never completely at home, always waiting in fear of what might come next, surviving only by the power of God to protect, save, deliver, and free.

With a savior like this, whose origins are on the other side of Christmas, in a world very different from our own, it seems to me that we should not get too comfortable on this side of Christmas. Jesus is already on that other side of Christmas, and his life and ministry and death and resurrection all invite us to join him in that world – our world, filled with refugees, homeless women and men, persecuted persons, and victims of every sort of violence and hatred – our world that so desperately needs the work he has already begun to bring comfort and peace and hope and salvation to all.

Our world needs more people to step in and stand with those who are in times and places and situations like Jesus’ – those we know in our lives who find new situations and difficult challenges before them in this new calendar year because of death, illness, or other uncertainty; those in our world who are displaced from their homes or are forced to walk away from their families and friends for their own safety, like refugees in Palestine or Darfur; those whose lives have been torn apart by war, like women, men, and children in Rwanda, North and South Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and even those in our own city and nation who are forced to move from place to place to find work or a safe place to live.

One week from today, the people of southern Sudan will vote on their independence after decades of violence and war have torn their lives apart. Over the coming week, as a step into that other side of Christmas, I urge you to keep the people of Sudan in your prayers, and there are a few suggestions for prayers available on handouts in the auditorium at refreshments today. While there may seem to be little we can do to make a difference in these and other similar situations, the life of none less than Jesus himself demands that we speak up about injustice, call out for life and peace in the midst of death and destruction, pray for a new way to take hold and shape in our world, and step in where we can in whatever way that we can to work for a world where violence is not the final word and God can step in to make all things new.

And so my friends, this is the other side of Christmas – a place where we join God in stepping in to a broken and fearful world as God has already done with boldness in Jesus Christ and pray and work and pray some more for all things to be made new on both sides of Christmas. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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