Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Day - The Hero we need and deserve

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, born to us this day. Amen. 

The lights go down, the theater goes silent, and the black screen is suddenly ablaze with light. Across that screen, movie after movie about heroes and villains, epic battles, countless explosions, good guys saving the day when things looked at their darkest. And when it’s all over, and the good guys have won the day, the lights come up so we can safely be on our way without tripping. 

Light is such a wonderful thing. Our psyches crave light to keep our energy up, our bodies need light in order to stay healthy, and we need light to function in basic daily tasks, especially to do anything after dark, or even on a cloudy morning like this one. 

So for centuries we’ve sought to control light – first from fires, then making candles from animal fat, then later by oil burning lamps. Now, thanks to the wonders of electricity, light is at our command. WE can shine light on the darkness, by the flip of a switch, or even by an app on your phone.  

But there is still just something about light… a wonder that we can’t shake. We buy more lamps that we know what to do with. We decorate our homes and our Christmas trees in lights. We use light to celebrate birthdays on cakes and light up the night sky on the fourth of July. We turn off the lights on Christmas Eve, and sing Silent Night, as candles are slowly lit from one solitary flame, and the sanctuary grows brighter and brighter, like the coming dawn. 
But now it is daylight, the dawn has come, and we can see more clearly the humble surroundings of Jesus – the details of the damp feed trough he was in, the dark circles under Mary’s eyes after a long night without much sleep, the dirt that the shepherds tracked in, and the bloody towels in a heap in the corner. 

We see that the dawning of Christmas morning might reveal more than we want to see. With more light shining into the world, more things are revealed, and perhaps too some parts of Christmas we may not want to see that the darkness of last night hid. In the dark we could pretend that this year felt way too warm to be Christmas.  It’s easier to hide disappointment in the dark. The darkness more easily hides the a giant wrapping paper mess in the living room, and that half of the ornaments have fallen off the tree, and the cat just threw up two feet of half-chewed ribbon. 

The light can reveal that our holidays are more like “National Lampoons Christmas” than “Miracle on 34th Street.” 

In one of my favorite holiday movies “Little Women,” this difference between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is also a stark one. This movie introduces us to the four March sisters, as they wait up late for their mother to get home from handing out Christmas baskets to needy families on Christmas Eve. Their father away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. After their mother arrives home, they read a letter just arrived from their father, and then sing a Christmas hymn together by candlelight and bid their mother good night, one by one. A true heartstring-tugging scene.  

But the next morning we see that these four girls and their mother, though living in a fine house, have fallen onto hard times. In the next days, as they weather out the bitterly cold New England winter – remember those? – The oldest sister, Meg, remarks that it just doesn’t seem like Christmas this year without presents.

Amy, the youngest, expresses that she is desperate for pencils to draw sketches with, and Jo wishes she didn’t have to work as the companion for her grumpy but well-off aunt March. They turn to their selfless sister Beth and ask her for her Christmas wish. 

“I’d like the war to end so Father can come home” Beth says.

And her sister Jo responds: “… we all want that.”

Yes, Jo. We all want that. We all want an end to violence and war and the darkness it brings.
Characters like these “little women” are no more than dancing light on the TV screen. But the movies we chose to watch shed light on the world as we would have it. Where Christmases are always merry and bright, even in hardship or catastrophe. Where the joy of the holiday always wins our over our family’s tendency to bicker, over our loneliness or grief, and over things that are beyond our control. 
Epic gods? Epic robots? Not quite sure... Just one example of the epic movies coming out

I think that that it’s no accident that the movie theaters now seems flooded with stories of heroes fighting epic battles against the forces of evil. We, like these fictional “little women,” are caught up and pushed around by forces we have no say in, and sometimes our loved ones are at its mercy. And we are the ones forced to pick up the pieces. 

We want to be saved from darkness in the world that still exists. We want a hero that will fight for us. We want a victorious warrior of the light that kicks butt and takes names. 

What the light of Christmas morning shows us is that God has a bright future in mind for this dark world, plans for a future with hope. But what we GET is not a savior who is might and fearsome warrior, but a savior who dwells with us, who pitches his tent among us, and moves into the neighborhood. 

What we GET is a savior who decides to have skin in the game. What we GET is a window into the very heart of God, with hands and feet and a face. Who was born into the world just as regular people are born, with blood and pain and drama. What we GET is not an unapproachable super hero we could never aspire to be, but instead a savior who looks just like us. 

In this way, in plain sight, God chose to reveal his glory. In this way, in plain sight, God has spoken to us by his son, In this way, in plain sight, light shines on a God who is near us and with us and for us. In this way, in plain sight, God offers the world an actual hand, reaching out to us in love– not a hand closed in anger or fear or carrying weapons of war. Instead, open and welcoming. Instead, the very reflection of God’s glory is a helpless infant. The mighty arm of God comes to us in the form of a chubby baby. The savior comes to us as God disarmed. 

The Prince of Peace has come, and right now he is being rocked to sleep by his mother. He came to dwell with us, not in palaces but in poverty. When he grew up, he did not resist violence with more violence, even when the powers that be threaten his life. He defeated the powers of sin and death, not through bombs and guns in fierce combat, but in the silence of an early morning and an empty tomb. 

And that doesn’t exactly make for a big box office hit. 

But, if the Christmas story is any indication, that’s not how God works, anyway. Not in big explosions or impressive battle scenes against a clearly marked bad guy dressed in black. Instead Christmas sheds light on the fact that God is at work in the ordinary moments, of births and booger-y babies and diaper changing. God is at work, not in heroes but in ordinary people, like shepherds and fishermen. God is at work in ordinary hearts, whether or not we are feeling particularly Christmas-y this year. Though the ordinary light of that first Christmas morning revealed an event that was anything but ordinary. 

When the rest of the world moves on from Christmas tomorrow, thinking that the bright and cheery Christmas movie is over, we know that today is only just the opening scene.  The floodgates of God’s light has been opened – the love that never ceases has come, the light that never grows dim or burns out is shining.

This light keeps shining, from that manger in Bethlehem to now. 

This light keeps shining, in every ordinary moment of love between people. 

This light keeps shining, even in the midst of evil and fear and hate and greed.

The light keeps shining, and darkness has not, cannot, and WILL NOT overcome it. AMEN. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

God's Catchy Tune


Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus   the Christ. Amen.

Finally! We made it. We FINALLY get hear something that remotely resembles the familiar Christmas story.  After four longs weeks, we get Bethlehem. Mary. Babies. And we FINALLY get to bask in the gentle pre-Christmas glow of this visit between these two pregnant women, literally swelling with emotion, like a scene straight out of a musical. Mary, right on cue, even bursts into song.

But unfortunately we’ve come in part-way through a musical we all THINK we know by heart. We saw the title of this number, read the words, “Mary,” “Child,” “Womb,” “Mother,” and “Blessed,” and we just know we’re going to get a tear-jerking scene fit for the best of the Hallmark channel, or at least something set in soft light and nice music to gently usher us into Christmas.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but SPOILER ALERT! Forget the songs you’ve been singing along to on the radio - “Silent Night,” “O Christmas Tree,” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”! Buckle up, buttercup, because we’re still in ADVENT, and the heavens are about to be shaken  (ADVENT 1), the ax is poised at the foot of the trees (ADVENT 3), and the mountains are a’coming down (ADVENT 2).

This song of Mary’s is not just a pretty song, it’s not just tender blessing that Elizabeth offers, and it’s not just cute baby bumps these women are sporting. This blessing is for a woman who should be ashamed. Those babies will grow up to change that world. And that song describes how God is going to change that world through reversals and revolution, through hormones and the Holy Spirit. In the ultimate SPOILER ALERT, this song gives a way God’s entire plot.

But first, we have to go back to the prequel, if you will, the start of Luke 1, to Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and her priest husband Zechariah, a good couple who tried and failed their entire lives to start a family. One day, though, as Zechariah was taking his turn doing priestly things in the temple…in the exact spot and to the exact type of person where you might exact God to show up… God does. An angel appears. Zechariah is terrified. The angel says, “Fear not….Elizabeth will have a son.” Zach asks for proof. And for that he is struck mute - very unfortunate thing in his profession. But the pregnancy the angel foretells does come to pass, and Elizabeth will be the mother of John the Baptist, who will announce the coming of the Lord by baptizing people out in the wilderness.

Anyway, fast forward 6 months. A poor young girl, probably her early teens, living in a town in the middle of nowhere, Hicks-ville. It was the LAST spot and the LAST person we might expect God to make things happen… and yet, God does. An angel appears. Mary is terrified. The angel says “Fear not…. You will have a son.” Mary is confused, but believes. And she is given proof – her older relative Elizabeth is pregnant.

Which is where we find Mary today, entering the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth - these two pregnant prophets, wondering what in the world God is up to in their lives. These are smart women; they know how the world works. Mary questions the angel, perhaps from knowing that such a “sign of God’s favor” as a fatherless pregnancy will cause her to become an embarrassment to her family and to her fiancĂ© Joseph. That this would likely be a stigma that would follow her and her son for their whole lives.  That for HER - an impoverished unwed teenage mother from the wrong side of the tracks - to be chosen to bear the Son of the Most High doesn’t makes sense.

Mary knows very well the song that the world would rather sing: The powerful rule from their thrones of influence and wealth. The full get more and the hungry get less. Might makes right; and more guns means more safety. Mercy is for the weak, and blessings are for the famous and successful. THIS is the song that makes sense to our world.  This is the song that we hear sung to us ALL. THE. TIME, the moment we enter a mall or turn on the TV.

And yet, here Mary is, radially trusting God’s promise that don’t make sense. Here she is, singing away in her praise to God. Singing even though she is thrust into the epic struggle between good and evil.  But she knows how the story ends. Spoiler alert –Good wins. GOD wins.
No spoilers of the new one!

This very weekend millions of people – including myself - will see a film that continues a story that began with a poor young man from a planet in the sticks who is DESTINED to bring down an empire that spans an ENTIRE GALAXY. This young man is quite literally catapulted from the quiet existence he had always known into the middle of an epic struggle between the powers of good and evil. And he does this as a follower of the Force - which embraces the way KNOWLEDGE, PEACE, and NON-VIOLENCE. Sound familiar?

"I will not fight."
In the end, the mighty Galactic Empire is toppled, not by brute force or superior firepower, but by the weak rising up over the strong. By the triumph of teamwork and friendship over power and intimidation. By Luke Skywalker laying down his weapon in the final fight with infamous Darth Vader, and vowing not to fight anymore.  By instead singing a different kind of song altogether.

The first chords of this song were heard at the creation of the world, and variations have been heard echoing in the ears of God’s people ever since. A song that Mary gives words to, words that set the stage for the ministry of the child who is growing in her womb, “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.”

This is a song that is picked up by Zechariah when he is finally able to speak, and then by the heavenly host that announces the good news of Jesus’s birth to an unsuspecting audience of shepherds. A song that grows and takes shape over the course of Jesus’ life, in his preferential treatment to those considered weak and lowly by those strong and in power. A song that crescendos on a Friday in the presence of cross, then holds its breath in pregnant anticipation in a long, three-day silent pause.

A pause that was ended by the deafening crash of a sealed tomb bursting open.
*the entire alto section really did get totally lost once...

This song still persists, even now, in this musical number with no beginning and no end, and no spectators. That’s right, this is a musical like the annual Princeton Chapel Messiah Sing-A-Long, where the audience members ARE the participants. This is God’s song, and no one is left sitting on the bench, and if the entire Alto section gets lost,* oh well, you just keep going and find your way back into the song when you can.

Because we will get lost and lose track of the song; we will find it difficult to hear it over the other songs clamoring for our attention. Because we will find ourselves starting instead to sing along with the songs that the rest of the world would have us sing. Especially when we are feeling powerless, that life is out of our control.  Especially now at this time of year, in the busy-ness, stress, and the emotions that come with the holiday season. Especially now, with so much in the news that would give us cause for fear and worry. So at these times, we ask ourselves, “Which song am I singing along to right now?”

Am I singing along with the dominant culture to the tune of fear, hate, and scarcity?

Or am I singing along with Mary? Do we dare sing with her about how God has blessed the lowly and powerless, about how God has and will continue to bring down the mighty, and fill the hungry? About how God has done and will continue to do great things for us and through us?

We do. We do dare join in to this grand participatory musical, where all our different voices and roles have a part and a place. We dare, along with Mary, in our different ways, in sharing the good news in the ordinary moments and rejoicing with every fiber of our being in our God who has looked on us with favor. We dare, and we do so together, with Jesus to lead us. So let’s practice doing just that. Let’s practice making Mary’s words our words too, so we can take the song God is singing in our hearts to a world that is dying to hear it. Amen.  

(And for the hymn of the day we sang a version of the Magnificat) 

Thursday, December 3, 2015



(Do be done in the local mall of your choice with teams of 4-5 with one adult)


Stay Together!
Be respectful! Be creative!
Include everyone!
No running! Have fun!

TAKE A SELFIE WITH or DOING the following:

biggest item/signs you can find that says “JOY,” “PEACE,” “HOPE,” or “LOVE”

A big star and pretend to be the wise men/people following it

The most unusual animal you can think of to be in a nativity scene (panda, elephant…etc)

Ugliest holiday sweater you can find

Corniest Christmas card with you and your teammates reading it with very serious faces.

Symbols of other December Holidays (menorah, kwanza candles…) Hanukkah begins Dec. 6!

Your team meditating on the meaning of Advent in front of TEAVANNA

Stand under a lamp or bright light - “A light shines in the darkness…” (John 1:1)

Act perplexed like Mary was in front of Motherhood Maternity - “How can this be?”(Luke 1:29)

All of you pretending to be the “angels we have heard on high” while riding the down escalator

Non-Caucasian (non-white) Nativity scene/set

Look for the coming of Jesus underneath the “WATCH” sign

A sign that says “Believe” and your team making crosses with your hands/arms

A Christmas tree the color of the Advent season (hint – you were asked to wear it today!)

A Christmas tree the color of the Christmas season (hint – it’s not red or green. Extra hint – it’s the same color as the season of Easter)

A toy road and car set or a train set - “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4)

“Swaddle” one of your teammates in your hats/ scarves/gloves/coats like Jesus was (Luke 2:12)

Under a large potted plant, one of you is a shepherd caring for the rest of your team as sheep

Magnifying glass – Mary sang that begins “My soul magnifies the Lord!” (Luke 1:46)

Pretend to “make haste” (run in place) like the shepherds to see Jesus, the savior and Lord by the LORD & TAYLOR sign

Act sleepy by Starbucks ‘cuz Joseph was told about Jesus in a dream, and we are to stay awake for when Jesus shows up!

A (fake) fur coat and your best “John the Baptist” preaching poses

Next to a tent – Jesus “pitched his tent” (dwelled) among us (John 1:14)

Holding a baby doll, hold your nose & remember that baby Jesus filled his diaper too!

Treasure chest – Mary treasured all these events in her heart (Luke 2:19)

Make some peace signs in front of Justice to remember that Jesus came to bring peace and justice to the world

A crown – Jesus is our “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) (BONUS if you are FROM Prince of Peace Lutheran!)

Shoes the color of Advent because Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:79)

Bread, since Bethlehem means “house of bread”

Sparkly ring, since Mary and Joseph were engaged (but not married) (Luke 2:5)

With “wise man” Yoda

Key chains with names from the Christmas stories – Mary, Joseph, John (the Baptist), John’s parents Elizabeth & Zach (Zechariah), Harry (King Herod), Maggie (for the Magi), David (city of), Angela (for the heavenly host), Luke and Matthew (Gospels that tell the Christmas story as we know it)

a JESUS name tag or Key chain