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Christmas Spirit

Christmas is not a day.

According to the church universal, Christmas is a twelve-day season beginning on Christmas morning.

And yet, the Spirit of Christmas should be within our homes, minds, hearts, and souls 365 days a year.

Advent was the hopeful anticipation and expectation of God arriving into our sinful, broken, and dark hearts, souls, homes, communities, nations, and the entire creation with the divine light of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

Christmas is the celebration of said divine light of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love busting into our sinful, broken, and dark hearts, souls, homes, communities, nations, and the entire creation. And yet, this Christmas we were reminded said sinfulness, brokenness, and darkness remains as we heard word of an intentional explosion in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee.

Again, Christmas is not a day. Christmas is technically a season.

The Christmas Spirit should be cherished daily by each person, each critter, and the entire creation for divine Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and God in human flesh and bone is not only born in a specific time and place, but in every time and place.

The Christmas Spirit ignites our ability, willingness, and desire to share said divine light of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love in and despite the sinfulness, brokenness, and darkness within ourselves in mind and soul, our homes, our communities, our nations, and the entire creation.

The Christmas Spirit reminds us that God has, continues, and will forever enter into our hearts, souls, homes, communities, nations, and the entire creation in, among, though, and despite the ordinary.

Joseph and Mary were Israelites and practitioners of Judaism, per cultural and religious custom these parents brought the newly born Christ child to the temple. This was ordinary.

Simeon was a devoted and righteous man, who desired to lay eyes upon the Messiah, or Christ.
Simeon was in the temple. This was ordinary.

Anna was a widowed woman, who often spent time in prayer in the temple. This was ordinary.

And yet, the Christmas Spirit reminds us that God has, continues, and will forever enter into our hearts, souls, homes, communities, nations, and the entire creation in extra-ordinary means.

Mary was a young, unwed, virgin girl in first century Palestine. This is extra-ordinary.

Joseph was a well-respected man, who the angels persuaded to not dismiss Mary and to raise this divine child as his own. This is extra-ordinary.

Simeon is enabled to recognize Jesus as the divine light of Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and the Messiah.
Simeon proclaims that this child is the long-awaited salvation of Israel AND the gentiles.
Gentiles were the uncircumcised, pork-eating pagans. This is extra-ordinary.

Anna is a female. Anna is an elderly, vulnerable widow. And yet, Anna is a PROPHET.
Anna is stirred from her prayers. Anna recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. Anna begins to prophecy.
This is extra-ordinary.  

The Christmas Spirit is indeed the extra-ordinary bursting forth through the ordinary, but take a moment to note how the narrative ends:

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord,
they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.

Wait! WHAT?

The Archangel Gabriel announced Mary will birth, nurture, and love the Christ child, named Jesus.

Joseph is visited by an angel who assures him to trust Mary about her sexuality and to marry her.

Mary visits Elizabeth, whose unborn John (the Baptist) leaps with joy at the unborn Jesus.

Mary sings the Magnificat, which praises God and embraces the ‘Grand Leveling’ or ‘Grand Reversal’.

Mary gives birth to God Incarnate, God in human flesh and born, in a lowly manger.

The Shepherds are visited by angels who encourage their travel to said lowly manger.

Simeon recognizes Jesus as the long-awaited Christ or Messiah.

Anna, the prophet, prophesized about the life and public ministry of Jesus as the Christ.

Despite ALL of this, the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to their home in Nazareth. The Holy Family returned to their ‘life as normal’, well the new ‘normal’ with an infant.

Similarly, we often pack away the Christmas Spirit was the Christmas decorations.

We fail to recognize the divine light of Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and Christ.

We fail to reflect, to shine said Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and Christ into our sinful, broken, and dark hearts, souls, homes, communities, nations, and the entire creation.

As the Christmas Spirit is packed away until next year, our lives return to ‘normal’.

Similar to children, we choose to not be on our best behavior until Christmas is approaching again.

We return to old routines and habits hindering our ability to be Christ to others.

We return to old routines and habits hindering our ability to even recognize Christ in others.

And so, may this year be different…

May we leave the Christmas Spirit out.

May we hold the Christmas Spirit in our hearts and souls.

May we put the Christmas Spirit on display in Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

May we shine the Christmas Spirit upon ALL people, at all times, and in all places.
Amen.

Scripture was Luke 2: 22-40.
Originally preached 27 December 2020 for Trinity Lutheran (Union City, Indiana).

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2021 in Sermons

 

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Light Dispels Darkness

If it had not been previously established, 2020 has been painfully blunt about the brokenness of humanity, our communities and nations, and the entire creation. This brokenness is a darkness, intensifying our sense of hopelessness, anxieties and depression, disappointments, and fears, while bringing forth the worse of our humanness.

This darkness embraces the hopelessness of a global pandemic increasingly impacting communities from small to large, from rural to suburban to urban centers. The hopelessness intensifies with each updated report of increasing positivity rates, confirmed positive cases, hospitalizations over-whelming the medical system, and ultimately deaths.

This darkness fuels unhealthy strife and enrages devasting conflict, instead of meaningful conversations and the ‘Good Trouble’ of John Lewis, the civil rights movement, and those seeking equality and equity.

This darkness embraces a false sense of peace that too often seeks to maintain the status quo and its systematic injustices; protecting the privileged while causing harm to the under-privileged; and affording those with authority, power, and wealth opportunities at the expense of those without said authority, power, and wealth.

This darkness thrives in hatred, particularly the dehumanizing and demonizing of persons in order to justify a lack of compassion. Our polarizing extremes serve to increase tension until persons are divided and sorted based upon race, ethnicity, and nationality; biological sex, gender identity, and sexuality; socio-economics; political affiliations; religious adherence or lack thereof; and beyond.

This darkness dispels the divine light and diminishes our ability to recognize Emmanuel, or God with Us.

Joy is rooted in our ability to recognize God active in, among, through, and despite said brokenness and darkness, but it is challenging while existing during a deadly pandemic, civil and social unrest, and a financial crisis.

BUT, God is with us. God is acting in, among, through, and even despite us in all times and places.

Our Christmas story confirms God breaking into our brokenness unexpectedly.  

One. God choose a young, engaged but not married, Israelite girl named Mary in first-century Palestine to birth the incarnated God, the divine in human flesh and bone, into our broken, dark world.

Two. God assured Joseph, her older and well-respected fiancée, to trust Mary about her own sexuality, to dismiss the reasonable doubts of their community, and to proceed with their pending marriage.

Three. God encouraged Joseph to father, nurture, teach, and love this Christ Child as his own. He did.

Four. God proclaimed the birth of the Savior, Messiah, Christ Child to lowly, rough shepherds.

Five. God did not awaken those traveling for the census, the inn keepers and Bethlehem residents, or even the elites who all slept peacefully, unaware that night.

In addition to God being unexpected, another theme emerges in the Christmas story.
It emerges in the experience of the lowly shepherds to the elite wisemen who have not yet arrived.

It is within our Advent and Isaiah scriptures. It is reflected in various religious and cultural traditions, as well as in nature, at this time of year. The theme is LIGHT.

Light has come into our broken humanity, communities, and entire creation to dispel

  • Hopelessness;
  • Unhealthy Strife and Devastating Conflict;
  • Hatred;
  • Dehumanizing and Demonizing Persons;
  • Being unaware of Emmanuel, God with us; and
  • Beyond.  

It is the light of hope. True hope dispelling hopelessness by trusting in God to provide the needed insight and wisdom to those whose education and knowledge, training and experience can guide individuals and communities through a global pandemic while developing effective, safe treatments and vaccines.

It is the light of peace. Honest peace dispelling unhealthy strife and devastating conflict through meaningful dialogue and action resulting in sustainable equality and equity. As Martin Luther wrote:

Peace when possible. Truth at all costs.

Martin Luther King Jr spoke about the arc of history might be long but it bends in the direction of justice.
Honest peace embraces the truth and arcs towards justice through ‘Good Trouble’.

It is the light of love. Unconditional, agape love dispelling polarization and hatred that divides, sorts, dehumanizes, and demonizes persons who may look, speak, think, belief, act, or love different than ourself. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives a ‘New Commandment’ which is to love one another as Jesus first loved his most intimate disciples, knowing we would be different and that was the point. This love honors all life as sacred by seeking justice and equity, acting with compassion and mercy, while tending to and serving all persons but especially the under-privileged and vulnerable.

It is the light of joy. Real joy dispelling hopelessness, anxiety, depression, disappointment, and fear enough to enable our awareness of Emmanuel, God with us, who is always and forever active in, among, through, and even despite us unexpectedly in hope, peace, and love.

The Christ Child is born! The Light has come! The Light is returning!

May the light of the Christ Child be born
in our hearts, souls, homes, communities, and the entire creation
this night, every night, and beyond.
Amen.

Scriptures were Isaiah 9: 2-7; Titus 2: 11-14; and Luke 2: 1-20.
Originally preached on 24 December 2020 for Trinity Lutheran Church (Union City, IN).

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2021 in Sermons

 

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Blessed Light

Advent, a season of hopeful expectation and anticipation, is drawing to an end.

The darkest night is approaching, but this means so is the returning light.

We have lit the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and now Love.

The brokenness and darkness of our hearts, our homes, our communities, nations, and the entire creation thrives in the fear and hatred seeking to dispel the light of Love. This fear fuels a hatred that dehumanizes and demonizes individuals and communities justifying a lack of compassion for the “other”. This dehumanizing and demonizing enable polarizing extremes that divide and sort persons based upon race, ethnicity, and nationality; biological sex, gender identity, and sexuality; socio-economics; political affiliations; religious adherence or lack thereof; and beyond.

Unfortunately, this brokenness and darkness in heart, home, community, nation, and creation begun with the ‘Fall’ of humanity. It continues in our time and place, for the Kingdom of God has come here, it is near, and it is not yet fulfilled.

However, the light of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love has come, it is here, and it is returning again.

This morning, we encounter Mary being visited by the archangel Gabriel.

Gabriel is THE massager. If a divine message must be delivered come hell or high-water, Gabriel is your angel.

Gabriel is informing Mary that she will birth, nurture, and love God in human flesh and bone.

Gabriel is informing Mary that she will birth divine Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love into being.

Gabriel is informing Mary that she will essentially destroy the curse of the ‘Fall’ of humanity. 

Mary is understandably perplexed. 

Mary is engaged, but not yet married, to Joseph.

Mary is still a virgin. 

Mary is understandably terrified, in addition to Gabriel standing before her.

Mary was approximately only twelve to fourteen years old.

Mary was an Israelite, who were oppressed persons in a Roman occupied land.

Mary will become pregnant while unwed in first-century Palestine.

Mary will have Joseph and the community question her claim of a divine pregnancy.

And Mary will experience the anxieties of motherhood, additionally the motherhood of God Incarnate.

Mary is able to respond ‘I am the servant of my Lord; let it be with me according to your word’.

Mary will travel to visit her significantly older cousin, Elizabeth, perhaps when her condition becomes increasingly noticeable similar to unwed pregnant girls of past generations. Elizabeth is miraculously pregnant with the prophet who will prepare the way for the Lord, also known as John the Baptist.

John (the Baptist) leapt in Elizabeth’s womb at the presence of the unborn Christ child. This caused Elizabeth to call Mary ‘blessed’ for being selected to birth God Incarnate.

THIS is when Mary sings The Magnificat, which was our ‘Psalm’.

Mary sings the praise of God.

Mary sings in thanksgiving for her active participation in God’s Will and Kingdom to Come.

Mary sings about mercy, grace, and justice.

Mary sings about the Grand Leveling or Grand Reversal.

Mary essentially sings of the Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love that destroys the curse of the fallen humanity

Although Mary perhaps continued to be perplexed and terrified, she was empowered to accept this tremendous responsibility. Thus, she birthed the divine Light of Love that dispels the human created boundaries that divide and sort persons based upon their race, ethnicity, and nationality; biological sex, gender identity, and sexuality; socio-economics; political affiliations; religious adherence or lack thereof; and beyond. She birthed the divine Light of Love that dispels the dehumanizing and demonizing of the “other”. She birthed the divine Light of Love that dispels all darkness and heals all our brokenness in heart, soul, home, community, nation, and creation.

Blessed is Elizabeth for recognizing Mary as pregnant with the Christ Child.

Blessed is Mary for birthing, nurturing, and loving the Christ child.

Blessed is Mary for birthing the Divine Light of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love into our world.

Blessed is God for allowing us to encounter this story of our fore-mothers in faith.

May the Divine Light of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love continue to shine upon us,
our homes, our communities, our nation, and the entire creation
until all darkness is dispelled, all brokenness is healed,
and the Kingdom of God is finally fulfilled.
Amen.

Scripture was Luke 1: 26-38, 46b-55.
Originally preached 20 December 2020 for Trinity Lutheran Church (Union City, IN).

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2020 in Sermons

 

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Advent JOY

Joy! It can cause us to break out in song and dance, even if no one wishes to hear and see it!
Perhaps, the song goes:

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy
down in my heart, down in my heart, down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy,
down in my heart, down in my heart to stay.

Joy is often understood to be a wonderful sense of happiness and pleasure.

It can be easy to have the joy, to hold it in our hearts, and to keep it deep in our hearts when…

  • we are well in mind, body, and soul;
  • we are satisfied in our personal and professional lives; and
  • we have the necessary resources beyond survival enabled to thrive.

It can be easy to be joyful at the sound of amazing news for yourselves and/or our loved ones.

In another words, it is easy to have joy when the pieces of our lives are in their place and all is right.

Unfortunately, it becomes challenging to have, to hold, and to keep said joy in complicated situations that compose our being, our family and friends, our communities, and beyond. Yet, we are encouraged to continue rejoicing in the most complicated situations and darkest moments.

This complicated joy is embodied in the opening chapters of Luke with three canticles (hymns) that rejoice in the Messiah who will bring good news to the oppressed, proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, tend to the broken-hearted, comfort those who mourn, and announce the forgiveness expected in the ‘Year of the Lord’s Favor’.

And yet, the rejoicing is complicated by social and cultural expectations, the anxieties about the impact of the grand leveling or reversal, and concern about the extremes that those with authority, power, wealth, and privilege will go to prevent said leveling or reversal.

The first canticle is The Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55). Mary was a young, engaged but unwed, pregnant Israelite girl in first-century Palestine. In the later months of pregnancy, perhaps when Mary’s condition was becoming increasingly noticeable, she traveled to visit her much older cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist, who leapt in her womb acknowledging the unborn Christ child. Upon Elizabeth praising Mary for her faith (or trust), she responds in song.

Although we consider The Magnificat to be a joyful song, Mary was arguably not in a joyful space. Unfortunately, Mary would have been in a complicated situation lacking her own control of it, socially shamed and isolated, and burdened not only with the anxiety of motherhood but the motherhood of the Messiah, who was God in human flesh and bone.

The second canticle is Benedictus, or Blessed (Luke 1:68-79). Zechariah was a priest, the husband of Elizabeth, and the father of John the Baptist. He was inspired at the circumcision of John (the Baptist) to give thanks with a grateful heart and song. He was grateful for John being selected as the prophet to prepare the way for the Messiah, but also anxiously reminds God of the promises made. Further, I envision that Zechariah was concerned for the well-being of his son, John, because prophets often have a complicated relationship with political, social, and religious authorities resulting in social isolation, persecution, and death.

The third canticle is ‘Nunc Ditmittis’, or Now You Dismiss (Luke 2: 29-32). Simeon was a devoted man, who had been divinely promised the experience of laying his eyes upon the Messiah, the salvation, of Israel prior to death. Simeon was guided by the Spirit to be present when, per tradition, Jesus was dedicated in the temple at only eight days old. Simeon rejoices about the divine promise kept and the Messiah come, but I envision his heart dropped slightly for the ‘dismissal’ is not simply from the temple but his physical life.

Thus, joy might be less about the pleasure and happiness at the pieces of our lives in their place.

  • Joy is God always and forever active in, among, through, and despite the brokenness and darkness of ourselves, our communities, the nations, and the entire creation.
  • Joy is the ability to recognize Emmanuel, God with us, despite brokenness and darkness.
  • Joy is the dispelling of hopelessness, anxiety, disappointment, and fear ENOUGH to enable our awareness of Emmanuel, God with us.

May we practice said joy and strive to have, hold, and keep it down in our hearts now and forever. Amen.  

Emmanuel, God with us, ease our hopelessness, anxieties, disappointments, and fears enough that we can experience and rejoice in the awareness of your divine presence in, among, through, and despite our brokenness and darkness.

Enable us to have, to hold, and to keep your joy down in our hearts in hope, peace, and love. In the name of your Son, Jesus the Christ. Amen

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2020 in Devotions/Reflections

 

Peace Making

Isaiah foretells of a voice in the wilderness calling for us to prepare the way of the LORD, to prepare a highway that is straight with mountains and valleys leveled, rough places smoothed, and pot holes filled.

John the Baptist is said voice in the wilderness.

John the Baptist is the bridge between the prophets of old, sharing fashion with Elijah echoing their voices, and the new, as Jesus’ cousin who foretells of his ministry and identity as the Christ

But, John the Baptist is not the biblical person I would associated with peace.

John was brutally honest, extremely vocal, and lacked tact.
John made waves among the common persons.
John rocked the boat with the political leadership and social elite.
John stirred the pot among the religious leadership and elite. 

Again, we do not often associate said persons and actions with peace.

However, humanity has been taught, continues to teach, and far too often embraces a lie. It is the lie that all strife, all unrest, all conflict is unhealthy and destructive; thus, it must be avoided. This lie is the foundation for a dishonest and false peace.

This dishonest and false peace is embodied in the notion of Pax Romania, or Peace of Rome. This Peace of Rome was ensured through oppression and fear. This Peace of Rome was ensured through violent, military force at the mere murmur of unrest.

Dishonest peace avoids differences, disagreements, strife, and conflict at the expense of meaningful but uncomfortable conversations, necessary but challenging changes, and honest peace.   

Dishonest peace maintains the status quo and its systematic injustices.

Dishonest peace protects the privileged and harms the under-privileged and vulnerable.

Dishonest peace affords opportunities to those with authority, power, wealth, and privilege at the expense of those without said authority, power, wealth, and privilege.

Dishonest peace creates ‘Peace-Keepers’, who discourage the ‘Good Trouble’ of John Lewis, the civil rights moment, and those who have and continue to prepare the way for the LORD seeking to level the mountains and valleys, smoothing the rough places through establishing sustainable equality and equity.

In the words of Martin Luther: “Peace when possible. Truth at all costs.”

Honest peace rejoices in the truth and prepares the way of the LORD.

Honest peace dispels unhealthy, devastating strife, unrest, and conflict through those honest meaningful but uncomfortable conversations.

Honest peace establishes the necessary but challenging changes that level the mountains and valleys, which continue to distinguish persons based on positions of authority and power, amount of accumulated wealth, social status, and privilege.  

Honest peace encourages the ‘Good Trouble’ that continues to demand and establish sustainable equality and equity that smooths the rough places.

Martin Luther King Jr., spoke that the arc of history is long but always bends towards justice.

Honest peace is a force that bends the arc of human history towards said justice.

Honest peace is a force that prepares the way of the LORD through mountains and valleys leveled, rough places smoothed, and pot-holes filled.

John the Baptist was not a peace-keeper. John the Baptist was a peace-maker.

John the Baptist was creating honest peace, rather than maintaining a dishonest peace.

John the Baptist demonstrated that peace-making may include brutal honesty and being vocal,
but hopefully with more tact.

May we, similar to John the Baptist, be peace-makers who are willing to make waves, rock the boat, and stir the pot for the sake of ‘Good Trouble’ establishing an honest peace upon all the earth for the sake of preparing the way for the LORD. Amen.

Scriptures were Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1: 1-8.
Originally preached on 13 Dec 2020 for Trinity Lutheran (Union City, IN).

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2020 in Sermons

 

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Advent Traditions: Nativity

Again, Advent is a time for spiritual preparation inviting us to pause and reflect, to dust off our souls, clean the cobwebs from our spiritual lives, and to de-clutter our schedules and lives to welcome the divine house guest into our hearts, souls, homes, and entire creation in Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

This evening, I will be sharing about the Nativity of Jesus and how it can be utilized during Advent and Christmas.

The Nativity of Jesus
The Nativity of Jesus is often shortened to ‘the Nativity’, although it is simply birth.

I will continue with the short-hand for convivence.

The Nativity is the depiction of Jesus’ birth, although often envisioned as 3-dimensional figures.
It may include a dramatic performance (or Living Nativity), painting on canvas, or otherwise. 

The Nativity varies in production, but always includes the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.

It will often include an angel, shepherds, and perhaps a donkey and sheep.

It may include the Magi (or Wise Men), camels, and additional barn animals such as cattle.

History of the Nativity
The original Nativity is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi in the year 1223.

Saint Francis was inspired after a visit to the Holy Land, including Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
 
He developed a dramatic production, or a Living Nativity, in central Italy with the blessing of the Pope.

These Living Nativities became widely popular throughout Europe.  

Saint Francis desired to shift the cultural focus and cultivate the worship of the Christ Child at Christmas instead of secular materialism.

Hmm, I guess Christmas materialism has been a significant concern for FAR longer than I imagined.

Nativity Traditions
There are a number of Advent traditions with the Nativity, which varies depending on denomination, culture and nation, as well as family practice.

  • One tradition is a Nativity Blessing, which seeks to re-orient us to the Christmas story and speaks a word of blessing for all who set their eyes upon it. In my professional ministry, I have begun to invite the entire congregation (especially young youth) to Bless the Nativity with me during the Christmas Eve worship service.

The majority of traditions, however, engage a significant debate about whether the Holy Family, but especially the baby Jesus, is added to the manger scene prior to Christmas or not. These traditions often emphasis the ‘journey’, but as you may have noticed not all Nativities allow for said traditions.

  • One such tradition is to place Mary and Joseph, plus the other persons and animals, within the home but not the manger. Then, you can relocate these each day until their arrival to the manger on Christmas Eve. On that night, the Holy Family (including the baby Jesus) is placed in the manager as well as their donkey, the angel, shepherds and sheep, and additional barn animals.
  • Another such tradition is to have the empty manger, but with each day add a piece of straw to prepare the manager and your heart for the Christ Child to be born. On Christmas Eve, again, the Holy Family, their donkey, the angel, shepherds, sheep, and additional barn animals may be added to the scene.

However, you may have noted that I did not include the Magi (Wise Men) and their camels. The Magi were not present at the Nativity. They arrived potentially two years later. We celebrate their arrival at Epiphany, which concludes the Twelve Days of Christmas on January 6. Thus, you can continue to relocate the Magi and their camels until their arrival at Epiphany.

Conclusion
I invite you, as able, to incorporate the Nativity of Jesus into your Advent and Christmas.

Allow the Nativity to incite your pondering of the journey to the Christ Child, whether as Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, or the Magi (Wise Men).

Allow your preparation of the Nativity to be a preparation of your own heart and home for the Christ Child to be born, yet again, in hope, peace, joy, and love.

Advent Traditions is a Faith Formation resource created by Pastor Melinda Gapen.
Originally developed and published digitally for 11 Dec. 2020 for Trinity Lutheran (Union City, IN).

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2020 in Resources

 

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Advent Peace (2020)

Peace. Peace upon all the earth. It sounds idealistic. It seems impossible.

We are often taught to ‘keep the peace’, for example:

  • Don’t cause waves;
  • Don’t rock the boat; and
  • Don’t stir the pot.

Our broken humanity, communities and nations, and entire creation embraces the lie of false and dishonest peace. Dishonest peace proclaims that all unrest, strife, and conflict is unhealthy and devastating; thus, it must be avoided at all costs.

Perhaps, it can be connected to the notion of Pax Romina, or the Peace of Rome, which was maintained by violent suppression at the mere murmur of unrest.

But, this dishonest peace is a significant disservice to all of humanity.

This dishonest peace discourages uncomfortable, challenging but necessary, meaningful conversations.

This dishonest peace discourages the ‘Good Trouble’ caused by John Lewis, the civil rights moment, and the persons who sought and continue to seek reforms establishing equality and equity.

This dishonest peace too often maintains the status quo and its systematic injustices.

This dishonest peace too often protects the privileged while causing harm to the under-privileged.

This dishonest peace too often affords those with authority, power, and wealth opportunities at the expense of those without said authority, power, and wealth.

This is not Advent peace. This is not the peace of Christ.

This is not the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Instead, Isaiah summons us to prepare the way for the Lord, which requires honest peace.

This Isaiah text is a ‘Grand Leveling’, where those in positions of authority, power, wealth, and privilege are humbled while the under-privileged and vulnerable are lifted up.

Honest peace dispels unhealthy, devastating false peace, strife, and conflict through meaningful, respectful dialogue and action resulting in sustainable equality and equity.

In the words of Martin Luther: ‘Peace when possible. Truth at all cost’.

Martin Luther King Jr spoke about the arc of history might be long but it bends in the direction of justice.

Although ‘keeping the [dishonest] peace’ may be more comfortable and secure,
may we seek the honest peace that embraces truth and arcs towards justice through ‘Good Trouble’.
Amen.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2020 in Devotions/Reflections

 

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Saint Nicholas

As I shared, I have shifted our order of Advent emphasis this morning.

This Sunday is often Peace… but, JOY seemed appropriate for Saint Nicholas Day.

There is a common, disappointing misperception that the Saints (capital S) are Catholic (capital C). Saints, whether capitalized or not, are catholic (lower case) meaning ‘universal’.

However, Protestant engagement of the Saints is different than Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Protestant traditions do not pray to the Saints nor consider them able to intercede on our behalf. Instead, Protestants recognize the Saints as simply extra-ordinary examples of Christian discipleship.

This extra-ordinary discipleship, according to our John scripture, is one who testifies to the Christ Light in hope, peace, joy, and love. In accordance with our Isaiah scripture, this testimony is proclaiming good news to the oppressed, liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, as well as binding up the brokenhearted.

Whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or even non-Christian, without argument Saint Nicholas is among the most well-known and beloved saints throughout the entire world. Saint Nicholas, in the Dutch language, has been adapted to Santa Claus.

The Dutch, English, and other European immigrates brought their Saint Nicholas traditions to the United States, where Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas have merged into our modern depiction of Santa Claus and the related traditions. Unfortunately, the adapted depictions and traditions have become disconnected from the widely unknown legendary tales of Saint Nicholas. Thus, may we pause and reflect briefly on the legends and traditions.

Saint Nicholas, although extra-ordinary was not perfect. Saint Nicholas was a Bishop and early Church Father, who reportedly had a temper resulting in a physical altercation with Arius, who would be deemed a heretic. Remember: All Saints have a past and all sinners have a future.

Saint Nicholas is a protector and Patron Saint of children.
According to legend, he was traveling during a famine and discovered three children who had been kidnapped and murdered for food. He was able to bring these children back to life. Can you imagine the JOY of these children, their loved ones, and the whole community?

Saint Nicholas is a protector and Patron of virgins, as well as the Patron Saint of Gift Giving.
According to legend, a man had three daughters and no dowry funds. Unfortunately, the daughters were facing a grim future in the world’s oldest profession until a mysterious gift of gold coins, enough for a dowry, was thrown through his open window. This happened three nights in a row, thus providing a dowry for all three daughters to be married. Can you imagine the JOY of this father and these daughters?

These legendary tales of Saint Nicholas protecting children, protecting their innocence, and his gift giving reputation, it is easy to understand him as an ideal embodiment of Christmas JOY.

In Europe, Saint Nicholas is celebrated on his Feast Day, which is often December 5-6.
The traditional celebrations include:

  • Children will leave their shoes by the chimney or front door.
    In some nations, it is common to leave hay/carrots for Saint Nicholas’ horse.
  • Saint Nicholas visits the homes, especially those with children.
  • Saint Nicholas fills the shoes of behaved girls and boys with sweet treats, small toys, and money.
  • Saint Nicholas may also leave behaved girls and boys a small gift under their pillows while they sleep.
  • Saint Nicholas fills the shoes of misbehaved girls and boys with coal.

In the United States, these traditions have been adopted and adapted.
On December 24-25, we often celebration Saint Nicholas visiting our homes, filling our Christmas stockings hung by the fire, or elsewhere, with care, and leaving us gifts. We often leave Saint Nicholas cookies and milk to power him for the long night of travel, but some homes (such as mine) also leave snacks for the reindeer.  

The truth is, whether you celebrate on December 5-6 or December 24-25, Saint Nicholas continues to shine the Christ light of hope, peace, love, and especially JOY into our hearts, souls, homes, communities, and the entire creation every single year with his extra-ordinary protecting of children, protecting of innocence, and the pleasure of giving gifts.

May that Christ light of hope, peace, love, and especially JOY,
shine brighter this day, this season, this year, and beyond.
Amen.

Scriptures were Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8 and John 1: 6-8, 19-28.
Originally preached on 6 December 2020 for Trinity Lutheran Church (Union City, IN).

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2020 in Sermons

 

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Advent Trees: Jesse & Chrismon

Again, Advent is a time for spiritual preparation inviting us to pause and reflect, to dust off our souls, clean the cobwebs from our spiritual lives, and to de-clutter our schedules and lives to welcome the divine house guest into our hearts, souls, homes, and entire creation in Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

This evening, I will be sharing about Advent traditions that utilize the image or foundation of a tree.

The Jesse Tree
Our first Advent Tree tradition is the Jesse Tree, which is basically a Biblical family tree of Jesus.

I personally enjoy genealogy because our ancestors, their stories and histories, and their culture shapes our current family dynamics and individual personalities, whether embracing or rejecting family traditions and traits.

For example:
John (ex-husband) once announced that he had one question about by family, to which I replied: ‘only one?’. He claimed that the family is typical Irish, but he did not know how the entire (biological) family relocated from Indiana/Ohio to Arizona. I shared that essentially because two brothers fell in love with Arizona and decided to re-locate, their brother decided to join, their sister (mother) would eventually follow, and their mother (grandma) relocated after her husband’s death (step-grandpa who raised my mother). 

Despite internal conflicts, the Irish ‘Clan’ mentality remains, especially for the “Gapen Girls”, which is my mother, sister, and me… BUT, that is enough about my family dynamics.

The Jesse Tree is a popular image in Medieval Christian Iconography, or art, beginning in the 11th century. However, the imagery is scripturally based in Isaiah, which reads:

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and
a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
(Isaiah 11: 1)

Jesse is not an overly familiar figure in Scripture and Christianity; however, he was a shepherd and the father of David… King David. King David was a direct ancestor, a multiple generationally separated great-grandfather, of Jesus the Christ.

Similar to our own ancestry, this Scriptural ancestry continues to inform and shape the Israelites and Judaism, Christians and the Christian church universal, as well as Muslims and Islam.

The Advent practice of the Jesse Tree explores the Scriptural ancestry from creation until Jesus with assigned daily Scriptures from December 1 to December 25. After reflecting upon it, the participates create an ornament inspired by the Scripture and place it on a display.

The intention of the Jesse Tree is to encourage the participates to reflect upon Jesus and the Jesus Movement (or Christianity) as rooted in the whole of Holy Scripture through the ancestors, their stories and histories, and their culture, instead of beginning with a very young Israelite girl in first century Palestine pregnant with God in human flesh and bone.

I encourage you to discern creating a Jesse Tree this year or perhaps next.

The Chrismon Tree
The second Advent Tree tradition is the Chrismon Tree… not the Christmas Tree.
However, I understand the confusion.

Chrismon Trees are quite familiar, and yet you may not have distinguished these from Christmas Trees.

  • The tree in my home is a Christmas Tree.
  • The tree in the Narthex, or lobby, of Trinity Lutheran is a Christmas Tree.
  • The tree often in the sanctuary near the altar and lectern is a Chrismon Tree.

How are we able to distinguish between Christmas and Chrismon Trees?
Well, there are a few basic, differing features.

A Christmas Tree may be ever-green, but it may also be white or another color.

A Chrismon Tree will be an ever-green, artificial or real, because it symbolizes the eternity of God. God has, is, and will always and forever be.

A Christmas Tree may have multi-colored lights shining brightly.

A Chrismon Tree will be adorned with white lights only. White/Gold is the church color for Christmas.

A Christmas Tree will often be adorned with tinsel, beads, or strung popcorn spiraling around it.

A Chrismon Tree will not be adorned with tinsel, beads, or strung popcorn.

A Christmas Tree may have colorful ornaments.

A Chrismon Tree is adorned in white and gold only, again these are the church colors for Christmas.

A Christmas Tree may have ornaments that reflect your family, memories made, passions, and hobbies.

A Chrismon Tree is decorated only with Chrismons.

Chrismons are ancient symbols or images of Jesus the Christ and his earthly ministry. Chrismons include, but are not limited to: a descending dove, shepherd’s crook, chalice, and a cross. 

The intention of the Chrismon Tree, adorned with symbols of Jesus, is to draw our attention to and direct our minds, hearts, and souls to reflect upon Jesus the Christ: the person and the ministry.

Although the Chrismon Tree is a familiar sight, it is not an ancient tradition.
The Chrismon Tree tradition begun when an ever-green tree was decorated with Chrismons at the LUTHERAN Church of the Ascension (Woot! Woot!) in Danville, Virginia in 1957.

I challenge you to track the number of Chrismon Trees you see this holiday season.
You may be surprised at the count.

Advent Traditions is a Faith Formation resource created by Pastor Melinda Gapen.
Originally published digitally for 04 Dec. 2020 for Trinity Lutheran (Union City, IN).

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2020 in Resources

 

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Advent Hope (2020)

Proverbs warns that “HOPE deferred makes a heart sick” (13:12a), but why?

Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), early Church Father, wrote about the hungering soul:

HOPE is always drawing the soul away from the beauty which it sees to what lies beyond, ever kindling the desire for the hidden by means of what is continually perceived. Someone who deeply loves beauty receives what he sees as an image of what he longs for and still longs to be filled with the very imprint of the archetype.

Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses

Hope is an emotional and spiritual hunger, which is always and forever seeking fulfillment beyond the present, beyond the perceived, and beyond the imagination.

For example:
Hallmark and Lifetime Holiday movies are teased for the consistent, predictable plot. And yet, this is a plot that inspires HOPE through depicting desired ‘perfect’ romances and happily ever-after endings. It is HOPE because it draws the individual into a desire for what lies behind and beyond the scenes.

The Hallmark and Lifetime HOPE is not different in principle than our Advent HOPE. Advent is a season of HOPEFUL anticipation and expectation.

  • It is HOPE for the promised Messiah to come to Israel.
  • It is HOPE for the Baby Jesus born into our broken world.
  • It is HOPE for Jesus to return to our still broken world.
  • It is HOPE for Jesus appearing, breaking into our world, and journeying alongside us daily.

Advent HOPE embodies seeking the divine presence of Peace, Joy, and Love composing the Kingdom of God to Come that is here now, near, and not yet fulfilled.

Advent HOPE beckons us to prepare our hearts, souls, and entire creation for said Kingdom to Come.

We should always engage said HOPE reaching beyond the present, the perceived, and our current abilities of imagination in and through our shared baptismal vocations to:

  • Proclaim Christ is Word and Deed;
  • Seek Justice;
  • Act with Compassion and Mercy; and
  • Love and Serve ALL people, especially the most vulnerable.

Whether body or soul, if hunger is not addressed it can cause fatigue, weakness, and eventually illness.

Whether deferred or not satisfied, HOPE can cause us to become exhausted, faint, and heart-sick.

Thus, it is essential that we seize the glimpses of the Kingdom Come in Peace, Joy, and Love to mend our hearts, comfort our souls, and empower us in our vocational efforts and imaginations as we await.

Since our Psalm (119: 48-50, 73-76, 80-82) emphasizes this HOPE in the word, or teachings, of God, may we dwell within said word during this Advent season and beyond. Amen.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2020 in Resources

 

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