Monday, December 28, 2015
The girl just showed up in the church one day. The Pastor had gone into the sanctuary to place her sermon in the pulpit, and there the girl was, just lying on her back in one of the pews, moving her hands slowly through the air…apparently listening to some music.
“Can I help you?” the pastor asked the girl. She had red hair and looked to be about 13.
“No, I’m fine,” the girl replied, continuing to listen to her music.
The pastor just stared at her for a second, but the girl did not budge or give any sign that the conversation was going to go any further. It certainly was not against the law for someone to hang out in the sanctuary of a church. The doors were open while the parish secretary was in the office. And, once or twice the pastor had seen an old woman in the sanctuary praying, but this was completely new.
“Just so you know, we will be locking up in about 45 minutes.”
“I know, the hours are on your door. Thank you.”
And, that was that. The girl remained until it was time to lock the doors. She smiled politely and went on her way as the pastor and the secretary also went out the door.
“Well, that was a strange day,” the pastor thought.
But, the strange day became a strange week when the teen was found in the sanctuary following school during the subsequent days. The redhead was still lying in the pews, but she chose a different pew each day…trying to get a different perspective of the place the pastor supposed. Friday came and the pastor decided to have a talk with the girl.
“You are more than welcome to come here; I just want to say that right away. But, quite frankly, no one comes here during the week. Why did you start coming?”
The teen looked at the pastor and then at the ceiling again. “I don’t have anything else to do. My parents are working, and don’t pay any attention to me anyway, and my friends are all in sports.”
There were all kinds of places the teen could have gone after school that were much more exciting, the mall, the library, the pet store downtown…any number of places with other people to interact with.
“So, what made you think to come here?” the pastor inquired.
“God,” the teen replied simply. “I think that God needs to get to know me a little, so I came to His house.”
How could you argue with that logic? The redhead sparked the story of the young Jesus in the pastor’s mind. When Jesus was 12, his devout family journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On the way home from the festivities, Jesus’ parents searched among the large extended family, but Jesus was nowhere to be found. Where they did find Jesus eventually (after three days) was in the temple talking with the teachers.
“Jesus where have you been? We have been worried sick!” Mary and Joseph exclaimed.
But, Jesus simply replied, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
There were some obvious differences between Jesus and the girl, beyond gender, of course. Jesus’ parents cared enough to desperately search for him. Apparently, the redheaded girl’s parents did not. Jesus was engaged deeply in conversation with the teachers in the temple, answering their questions to astonishment. This girl simply laid on the pews with apparently little knowledge of God.
But, one thing was the same: they both wanted to be close to God the Father. They both wanted to be in their heavenly Father’s home. Jesus felt at home in the temple, and with her feet hanging over the edge of the pew, apparently so did the teen.
With that realization, the pastor felt something strange: she felt jealous of the girl. The redheaded girl's desire to know God was so pure. Her certainty that God would just show up at some point was so…just so…well, full of faith.
How many years had it been since she took the time to sit patiently, expecting the Lord to come to her? Pastors get caught up in the daily grind as much as any other person. The Pastor suddenly wished that she had that sort of pure desire…that sort of pure faith that God would show up for her. Maybe, God could show up for the girl.
“Jesus is here you know. Well, through the Holy Spirit Jesus is lots of places, but Jesus is here too,” the pastor began to teach.
“I know. That's why I'm waiting.”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can hear Jesus’ voice if we just crack open the bible. I’m willing to read it with you if you want. Can we do that together?”
“Sure, why not. It beats staring at the ceiling. You know, you have a boring ceiling pastor.”
So, they cracked open the bible together. The pastor had the perfect story to begin with. It was the story of a boy lost from his parents, who found his heavenly Father. The pastor hoped that the teen would find hers also. And, she did.
Or rather, her heavenly Father came looking for her, and she was found.
Friday, December 25, 2015
She held the words close, just the same as she snuggled the baby close. We hear her actions described as “ponder.” Mary “pondered” these things in her heart; as if she were pondering whether to take a Mylanta for her heartburn or not.
But, it was so much more than pondering. It was much deeper than simply thinking about what she had heard. She held the words of the shepherds so close it seemed as if she desired to be one with those words. And maybe she did. After-all, the words that promise something wonderful “for you” are the sort of words that can change your life.
It is one thing to say, “Jesus came to the world to save it.” We hold general theological proclamations such as that as dearly as we hold the words “I’m loving it” as you bite into a paper thin McDonald’s sandwich patty. But, some words do catch us and do have the power to shape us.
Therefore, it is quite another thing to say, “God decided to come to the world for you." “Jesus brought forgiveness for you.” “The body of Christ given for you.” These are words that we can cherish…and we do.
So, the promise of the angel that the shepherds excitedly recited to Mary, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you” she treasured these words and held them close. God had not only come to her, through her even, but also for her. God has not only come to the world, but has also come for you.
These words are a gift that you put into little box next to your heart. But, it is not the kind of box that you lock up to keep safe. In fact, you want to peek inside and enjoy the promise that the box contains.
It is like when the child of a soldier finds out his parent is coming home from oversees for Christmas. As that child, you would hold tight onto that sort of promise for all its worth. And, when you felt lonely, you would peek inside from time to time, refreshing your soul with the hope of seeing your parent once again. But, God’s promise is so much more than that.
It is like the girl on the sidelines of the dance floor who has no date, but heard from a friend that the guy she has a crush on is going to sweep her onto the dance floor. You would hold close that sort of promise, peeking in from time to time until he actually came and held out his hand. But, God’s promise is so much more than that.
The words that Mary holds close are the ones that promise that the very power that spoke us into existence is coming home, in the flesh, "for you"…to be with you.
Bill was your typical hard worker on the maintenance crew. He had a huge bushy beard, a couple teeth were missing, and he was able to fix anything with some putty and duct tape. He was a great guy. He would have a beer or two or three to support an ailing friend at their benefit which was always held at the bar. He was a guy’s guy.
One year I invited Bill to church on Christmas Eve. “Come on, it is a beautiful service in a great church with great people.”
Stroking his beard he replied, “Thank you very much, but I’m sure a guy like me doesn’t belong there.”
We were silent for a while, except for the sound of our paint scrapers: metal on wood. Then I decided to share something someone had once told me, “You know Bill…the shepherds were just cheap labor like us. No one cared about them. They weren’t welcome in the fine establishments of their time. But, God sent an angel just for them…just to tell them about the Savior of the world. Christmas Eve services are for people like us Bill.”
“For us you say?”
“For us. Even for you Bill.”
“Well, that was probably one of the best invitations I’ve ever heard,” Bill said with an honest smile.
Jesus does not wake up in the morning and put on some flesh just so he can come down and punish us or seek vengeance for the missteps we’ve all certainly taken throughout our lives. If he had intended that, he would have come as a mighty warrior or a heartless governor. Instead, he came as a baby. Someone we can hold close…someone who is for us…someone who is for you.
Those words seem awfully familiar: “for you.”
When we gather at the table we hear that the bread and the wine (and the forgiveness and the heavenly love that the wine and bread hold) are “for you.” "The body of Christ given for you.” "The blood of Christ shed for you.”
In a world full of darkness where we fear the future and often feel alone, we hold close these words, “for you” in a small box close to our hearts.
It is not locked because we need to open it up and take a look whenever the darkness appears to be too much. We open it and hear the words, “I have come for you” echoing out.
It is a promise to give us hope and give us confidence to take a step forward into the future, even if the future seems dark.
It is also the promise that binds us to one another because we all hold the same words close to our hearts.
Jesus is the joy of all people. He is God with us. He is love come close to each of us. He is the one who gives us hope. Heavenly joy and hope come to the world through Jesus. That means, Jesus also comes “for you,” and I tend to think that is a pretty good Christmas gift.
Monday, December 14, 2015
“You den of writhing snakes, who told you to come to church? Who told you to confess your sins? Who told you to come here and seek forgiveness?”
The disheveled man, wearing skins that only cover the…um…necessities, interrupts the pastor’s sermon and slowly moves up the aisle of the church, yelling as he goes.
“If you are forgiven,” he continues shouting, “then I better see some proof of it in what you do. If you are a precious tree planted by God, then I better see that you are handing out some sweet juicy fruit to those around you.
Stopping by the baptismal font, the man challenges those who are listening…and believe me…all are listening; “Don’t start to say to me, ‘Hold on sir, we are baptized, we are saved, we are God’s people.’
Enough! Hypocrites! If you presume to be a tree, drinking from these waters of life, then you better show it in what you do! God does not need to keep you around. God does so right now as a gift. But, make no mistake, God can baptize the stones of this church and make them God’s holy people if God so chooses. So, hear me clearly,” he shouts as if no one could hear his shouting in the small little box of a church, “An ax is ready to swing at your feet.”
And, with that, the man pulls out a full sized ax and raises it high. A woman gasps and grabs her child. You wonder, “The man’s wearing a loin cloth, where the heck did he pull that from?” The pastor thinks, “Man that was effective, I wish I had thought of whipping out an ax.” The pastor turns away to write a note for himself for future reference (“Bring ax, hide in pulpit”).
For a moment, as the pastor scribbles, there is a tense silence in the church. The man holds the ax high over one shoulder…ready to strike; the congregation stares awkwardly at him…refusing to move. The mother covers and protects her child. The usher contemplates reaching for his cell phone and calling the police. The Boy Scout ponders on how a well tied knot might help in this situation. The husband that was dragged along to church wonders what the score of the game is. But, the most sensible person in the place spoke up (the one who was actually listening to what the man was saying and taking it seriously because he had not yet learned to ignore whatever is said in church). He was a 13 year old boy.
He says, “Are you just going to stand there like a dork with an ax, or are you going to tell us what we need to do? What should we do?”
The congregation stares at the teen, and then stares at the disheveled, half clothed man who smiles and slowly lowers his ax. “Your fruits are ripe,” he says, continuing to smile at the boy. “Do you have more than one coat in your closet at home?”
“If you needed a coat sir, all you would have had to do was ask,” the teen replied.
“Shut up!” the man shouts. “Answer the question, do you have more than one coat?”
“Yes, of course” the teen replied.
“Good, then take your extra one of school, give it to the front desk and tell them to give it to someone who needs one this winter.”
“Really, that’s it? That warranted an ax?” the teen asked.
“The coat is still in your closet is it not? It’s serving no purpose right now is it not? It could be keeping someone who is struggling warm, could it not? You hadn’t thought to do it before now, correct?”
“Then I guess you needed an ax,” the man replied.
Seeing how the teenager had not died when talking to the man, the local grocery store owner decided to give it a go. “Tell me then, what must I do?”
“Don’t charge more than what you and your employees need to live. You shouldn’t be getting rich by selling people what they need to survive.”
“Can’t I just give away a coat like the boy?” the man asks quietly.
The disheveled man raises the ax that yells at the top of his lungs, “Do both!”
“Ok, Ok, Ok, I got it, won’t try to get rich off of the poor,” the man said stepping back.
It was true, sometimes it does take an ax before people will even consider acting reasonably toward their neighbors. Why should that be the case?
It was at that moment that the police officer at the door asked “What should I be doing?”
The exasperated usher, who had placed the call without the crazy man knowing, thought to himself, “I know exactly what you should be doing right now!”
But, the police officer had not drawn his gun. He had been listening, and he honestly wanted to know.
“Don’t bribe anyone. Don’t threaten anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Just protect and serve. Just do your job and do it honestly. Do your job as if God cared what you were doing.”
Then the disheveled man with the ax faced the entire crowd and said, “Just go about your life and do your job as if God cares, because God does. God cares about everyone you run into. God cares about everyone you deal with. God cares. Jesus died for all of them also.
If any part of you at all doesn’t care, then let God cut that part off. Or, better yet, let Christ burn that part away like a refiner burns away the impurities or a farmer burns away the chaff. Or even better yet, if you are baptized, let Christ drown the part of you that doesn’t care.
Don't forget, you are a tree planted by God. You are a tree fed by the waters of forgiveness from Christ found in this font. Your fruit is good to eat...it is full of grace. Let others eat of your good fruit.”
And with that, he laid the ax at the base of the font and walked out of the door. The pastor got done scribbling his sermon idea and asked, “What did I miss?” When you have a chance, you tell him.