Hope from Heartbreak
The Hopes and Fears of All the Years
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Luke 2:8-14
This year, in the Advent and Christmas season, in addition to the traditional biblical texts, we’ll also be looking at the fictional story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Now, you might think it an odd choice. But, prior to the publication of Dickens’ classic work, the celebration of Christmas was a very somber event; not at all the joyous, festive occasion we have come to know and love today. If you think our modern quandary regarding the commercialization of Christmas versus Jesus as the reason for the season is a new controversy, you would be mistaken. Much of what we struggle with today was a challenge in Dickens’ context as well. Can Christmas joy be experienced by the humble, poor and weak or is it the sole property of those who try to purchase Christmas just as they would any other novelty item? How do we focus attention on the true gifts of Christmas (hope, love, joy and peace); gifts given by the Christ Child and not available on Amazon? How do we condemn the message of marketing: that joy can be found in a brand new Lexus in the driveway? What does a “December to Remember” really mean?
These are important questions to wrestle with and I’ll tell you why: because Christmas is anything but joyful for many people. A few years back I was visiting with a church member who was terminally ill. When people are terminally ill, they will share with you the things they’d ordinarily keep to themselves. The woman’s daughter, Sarah, who lived several states away, had recently gone through a painful divorce. Each time the two of them spoke by phone, she heard the sorrow and loneliness in her daughter’s voice and so she encouraged her daughter, frankly pleaded with Sarah: “Please, go to church on Christmas Eve. Don’t stay home. It will be good to be with people. You’ll feel better if you go to church.” A couple years later, I attended a Christmas Eve service. An elderly couple in the congregation was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary that day. That is, without a doubt, a wonderful thing. But I listened with horror when the pastor during the service announced their anniversary and commended their commitment to honor their marriage covenant for 50 years. He encouraged all of us to applaud; but all I could think about was Sarah. I had no doubt that, in that sanctuary, were others like Sarah: men and women whose marriages had ended despite their most valiant efforts; men and women who’d mustered up their courage to come to worship alone that night because they trusted it would make them feel better.
So you see; how we talk about this season does matter. How we define love and joy and hope and peace matters. And we limit – in fact we prevent people from celebrating this season if we are unwilling to acknowledge the pain and suffering in our world and our personal past heartbreaks. Advent is a season of preparation and it matters how we prepare to celebrate the remembrance of our Savior’s birth. There’s nothing wrong – in fact there’s everything right – about acknowledging our deepest hopes and our fears because the light of the world has entered into our darkness to address those hopes and fears.
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Our past is not something to be ignored, suppressed or condemned because our past exercises great power over our present. That is what the Spirit of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge. In the case of Scrooge, his childhood had been filled with rejection and loneliness. Yet when the Spirit leads him quickly through his past decades, he is also able to see moments of great joy. He must face his past – the joys and the heartbreaks – if he is to live fully in the present. He must acknowledge the nature of his past relationships if he is to embrace new, healthy relationships. Because the hopes and longings we carry with us have taken shape in response to our past; they are the fruit of our past experiences.
So, what is it that you long for most this season? I’m not asking what’s on your Christmas list or that silly proverbial question about what you would do if you had a million dollars. I’m asking about your hopes, your desires, your deepest longings.
This morning’s two scripture readings are both birth announcements. In the case of Isaiah, it is the proclamation of a king who will restore the fortunes of Israel; a king descended from the great King David. That new king, though only a child, represents salvation for God’s people. Even as a child, he is deemed a wonderful counselor, a mighty God, an everlasting Father, a prince of peace. As Christians, we have come to interpret that Isaiah scripture as prophecy about Jesus. But the Israelite kings were also called sons of God and viewed as a father to their nation. In Isaiah’s time, the people of Israel are threatened by strong nations all around them, seeking to exploit them and overpower them. Sadly, their eventual destruction will be the result of betting on the wrong horse; of making alliances with nations that are not to be trusted. Only God is worthy of our trust. Only God has the capacity to reclaim us and to redeem us from our past sorrows and suffering. Perhaps at Christmas – more than any other time of the year – people try to hide their pain by purchasing expensive gifts, by lots of dinner parties, fancy dressing and decorating. But none of those things can soothe our deep seated sorrows or our distant regrets. Only a child can do that. Only a child can bring light into the darkness of our lives. Only a child can dispel the regrets and fears of all the years. Only a child can fulfill our deepest hopes and longings.
And so the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes to those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Shepherds had a rough life. Their work was hard; they were disdained and viewed suspiciously by the wider culture. I doubt there was much joy in their line of work. Yet the angel chooses the likes of them to be recipients of this birth announcement. The angel says, “To you is born this day…”; not to the wealthy folks, the politically powerful, the religious professionals, even the everyday Jewish Joe. Nope; it’s these shepherds who receive this remarkable birth announcement: this baby is born for them; this baby will be their Savior.
You see, good news doesn’t belong to the ones who’ve got it all together and got it made; this kind of good news doesn’t give a hoot about a Lexus in the driveway. This is good news for those who need it most: the poor, the struggling, the lonely, the despairing and the grieving ones. This birth announcement is good news for those who need it most. A baby, a vulnerable infant, swaddled in clothes and nestled in hay, will be the one to change the world and to bring hope and joy and peace out of the very worst of circumstances. He brings light to the darkest places in our world and in our lives.
In Dickens’ classic, the Spirit of Christmas Past shines the light on Scrooge’s life. It is hard for Scrooge to watch; tough for him to process. Perhaps it would be easier if he didn’t look. He tries to snuff out the Spirit’s light; but it’s impossible. Even when he pushes its extinguisher cap down as far as it will go, light still shines forth because, as John’s gospel reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[i]
Friends, the word Advent means “coming.” It is a season that prepares us to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth. It is a season that reminds us that Jesus will come again. It is a season that reminds us that the Spirit of Jesus is still with us. He came to us not as a mighty general commanding troops. He came to us as a poor and vulnerable baby born to peasants and his coming is good news for those who need it most. This is the season to prepare your heart to celebrate his coming by considering your past; by acknowledging your heartbreaks; by accepting that you, too, are often vulnerable. This is the season to name and face your fears. This is the season to reach deep into your soul to identify your deepest hopes and longings. This is the season when the winter solstice will graphically remind us of an entirely different and enduring light source. This is the season to affirm your faith that whether in the dark streets of Bethlehem or Lafayette, shineth the everlasting light and that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in a child named Jesus.
Friends; in the midst of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, we know the truth that God’s blessings are not a commodity for the fortunate, favored few for God’s blessings came wrapped up in the vulnerable flesh of a baby. And in that child, God has blessed us… everyone.
[i] John 1:5
Bitter or Better
Rev. Linda Dolby
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
About 15 years ago I attended a Thanksgiving service in which the Episcopal bishop preached. He said the usual things – we should have an attitude of gratitude – we should be thankful in all things – we should live with grateful hearts. And then he something that I remember to this day.
“If you are going to be a grateful person, then stop complaining.” Now who among us does not have a complaint? Something has been done to us, someone has snubbed us, we’ve been put upon and put down one too many times.
“If you are going to be a grateful person, then stop complaining.” I think I remember him saying that when bad things happen – and they will – we have a choice. We can get bitter or we can get better.
Once there was a man who was a constant complainer. Nothing was ever right and he could be quite bellicose about all that was wrong in his world. You might even so he was guilty of vocally abusing all those around him.
One day he went to the creek with his mule. He complained so much that the mule got annoyed and kicked him to death. At the funeral, when the men walked by the wife, she shook her head yes and every time the women walked by she shook her head no.
The pastor, who was present and watching all this, asked “Why are you shaking your head yes for men and no for women?” Her response, “The men would say how sorry they felt for me and I was saying, ‘Yes, I’ll be alright.’ When the women walked by, they were asking me if the mule was for sale…’” We can bitter or better.
That phrase come from a book by Dr. Jim Moore, pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. He says that if we are not thankful then we can become bitter. If we are not thankful, then it becomes too easy to ask, “why me?”. He tells of a young woman who once came to him in a most tragic moment in her life. She had just received word that her 26 year old husband had been killed in a farming accident, leaving her alone with 3 pre-school age children. One moment he was alive and vibrant, the next moment he was gone. “I don’t know how I am going to get along with him,” she sobbed. “But I do know one thing. I can either get bitter or I can get better.”
We all know people who have more than their share of life’s tragedies. Some have become bitter. The world has soured them. Others have become better. There are people that when you hear their story, you can’t believe how they have survived. How can he or she have such a positive, loving outlook when they’ve been what they’ve been through?
Perhaps it is because they have taken to heart these words of scripture:
“4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
They make it through because of their faith. We choose our faith and we choose our response to life’s trials as well. It’s been said that most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. The better, not bitter, people are the ones who have chosen, no matter what – no matter the loss, no matter what misfortune, no matter whatever has happened – they have chose to still trust the innate goodness of life, the innate good of the universe, the innate good of their God.
They are the ones who not only believe but also live by Jesus’ promise – “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly. They are the ones who believe the words of Paul – “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
This Thursday is Thanksgiving, and as we anticipate feasting with our families, we have a choice to make. For some of us, there maybe someone placing their feet under our shared table with whom we have a problem. Some have voted for Trump, others for Clinton. Others have hurt us so much in our childhood it is hard to be around them. Some say tomato, some say tomahto, some say potato, some say potahto. Yes, there are differences. You know how families are. We love one another and yet the ones we love most can get under our skin the best.
How will we face that day? We have a choice. We can be bitter – remembering everything that bothers us – or we can get better and look for the best in everyone.
In the early days of the settlement of the West, travelers encountered considerable difficulty. One party of pioneers on the Oregon trail had suffered greatly from the scarcity of water and grass. Some wagons had broken, causing delays in the stifling heat. Along with these adverse conditions came a general feeling of fretfulness. Optimism and cheer were gone. The next night a meeting was called for the purpose of airing all complaints. When they had finished, one rose and said, “Before we do anything else, I think we should first thank God that we have come this far with no loss of life, with no serious trouble with the Indians and that we have enough strength to finish the journey.” There was silence. No one had any more grievances to voice.
Friends, I know it is hard sometimes. Do we trust in our God who wishes and wills for each and every one of us life, life in its abundance? Do we believe in, can we put our faith in Jesus’s promise that we will have more and better life than we’ve ever dreamed of? With thankfulness in our hearts, we do get better, not bitter.
Once there was a pastor named Martin Rinkert. He had a tough parish 350 years ago in a little town of Eilenburg Germany. In his second year of ministry in that place, the 30 years was began. His town was caught in the middle. Then a massive plague swept across Europe. People died at the rate of 50 a day, and Pastor Rinkert was called upon to bury many of them, including his own wife. And still, he sat down and wrote these words: “Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices; who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.”
We are blessed. Grace has been bestowed time and again. Our lives are flooded with divine love and care. We have a home and a hope in heaven. Because of our faith, we are a better people. May it be so. Amen.
One Nation Under God
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Our nation is divided. I was very young – and consequently sheltered – at the time of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. And so, in my memorable lifetime, our nation has never been so divided. It is not a good thing; not a healthy thing. And the violence that has erupted from that division is something the Church is compelled to address. But how can we unite a divided nation?
Some of you, no doubt, are aware that the phrase “under God” as in “one nation under God,” was a late addition to our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge of allegiance was written in 1892. The addition of the phrase “under God” was added 62 years later, in 1954… meaning that some of you in this room this morning may recall a time when those words were not spoken. And some may feel they are inappropriate to a political statement. But I’m glad they’re there because I feel they lay the foundation for the only approach that we – as Christians – can take in uniting our nation.
Being “under” something or someone implies a hierarchy; it implies that the one above exercises authority over the one who is beneath or under. Let’s face it, as human creatures, we appreciate order. In any organization, we expect someone to be “in charge.” Organizations today are big on the “org chart” that provides a graphic illustration of who exercises authority over whom. Yet, as Americans living in “one nation under God,” and even more importantly – as people of faith, we are called to submit to the authority of God which is expressed through the life and death of Christ. God’s authority, according to New Testament scripture, is exercised in a very unique way. God accomplishes God’s business plan, so to speak, in a very unconventional way. The apostle Paul describes God’s business model with a particular term: reconciliation. God’s business is to bring us into right relationship with God and God achieves that goal in an unexpected, radical fashion. God sent his Son to achieve that goal of reconciliation by taking on lowly, human form and voluntarily subjecting himself to the authorities of this world. Jesus, with all the authority of the Godhead, willingly becomes subject to the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of human flesh on this earth. Jesus, with all the authority of the Godhead, allows himself to be subjected to the most hideous form of capital punishment. The apostle Paul elaborates on God’s peculiar approach in his letter to the Christians in Philippi when he shares the text of an early Christian hymn that describes the reconciling business of Jesus in this way:
though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God as something to be clutched,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.[i]
God brought us into right relationship by humbling himself; not by humiliating or overpowering us. The logic of this world says that weaker people or institutions must accept the authority of stronger people or institutions. But that’s not the way of God. God bowed low to the earth assuming our vulnerable fleshly form. And that, Paul reminds us, is the way we are called to be in relationship with one another: from a position of vulnerability and humility.
We frequently refer to Jesus as our Savior and our Lord and he is. But every book in our New Testament makes clear that Jesus is also our model of how to behave in this world; of how to be in right relationship with others in this world. So Jesus, in John’s gospel, tells his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[ii]
My friends, whatever book of the bible you read, you will discover that being a follower of Jesus obliges us to be humble and to serve others, even – in fact, even more so – when we are in a position the world would label as powerful or authoritative.
Paul, in this morning’s passage of Corinthians, communicates that all that Jesus endured and subjected himself to was done for our benefit; so that we might be reconciled to God. Paul puts it like this: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[iii]
Friends, we are a divided nation; our world is broken because we fail to understand that power and authority are not about compelling others to get with our program and to do what we want done and say what we want said. Jesus, with all the authority of the Godhead, brought us into God’s family by dying for us, by sacrificing for us, by laying down his life for us. That is not how the world works, but it is absolutely the way the kingdom of God works. Our nation is divided; our world is broken because we regard one another according to the world’s standards, a secular pecking order that evaluates on the basis of gender and race and education and economics. But Paul writes, “From now on… we regard no one from a human point of view.” We are to regard no one according to those societal labels. If we name Jesus as Savior, we can no longer divide ourselves by male versus female, black versus white, rich versus poor, GED versus Ph.D., Republican versus Democrat because Christ came to earth and lived and died for us that we might become new creations. In Christ, the old ways of looking, perceiving, understanding, and, more importantly, evaluating, must be let go and replaced with a new way of seeing and understanding. Bible scholar J. Paul Sampley writes:
The most basic fact for Christians is this: People have value
because Christ has died for them… whoever they are,
whether they have responded to Christ or not… everyone has value.
The problem rests with us. We often want to establish hurdles
that others must jump… They must think the way we do,
act the way we do, vote the way we do, land on our issues
the way we want them to… [But] each person’s value
has already been established by Christ’s death for them.[iv]
Friends, often in politics, people focus on what is in their best personal interest. Candidates curry our votes by saying they will fight for us. And yet, if we name ourselves as followers of Jesus, we are commanded to never put our own interests ahead of others. We are called to exercise any rights and freedoms we may have by following the example of Jesus who – with all the authority of the Godhead – took on human form and served us and died for us. My friends, scripture is crystal clear: followers of Jesus are to live like Jesus: living not for themselves, but for others. When our concerns are focused on pursuing our individual interests, we are not behaving as Christians… plain and simple.
Jesus didn’t defend the rights of the strong and powerful. In fact, Jesus showed preferential treatment for those whom society placed last. Jesus didn’t pick a favorite group of folks to die for. He died for all of us. And so, we are – all of us – called to engage in the ministry of reconciliation not by pushing forward our own agendas but by humbling ourselves before one another; by seeing people not according to the labels the world uses, but seeing people as new creations, so valuable to Christ that he died for them just as he did for us. Those who did not vote the way you did, are not your opponent, they are someone for whom Jesus died.
I prayed and struggled a long time over how this morning’s sermon should close. I want to share with you a story of a young woman named Heather. On Wednesday morning she shared:
I was sexually assaulted when I was 20. A man thought that he could do whatever he wanted to do to me. To my body. I cried last night, I cried earlier this morning, and I’m crying now. When you’re sexually assaulted you don’t want to broadcast it. You bury it. Deep down in your soul. That feeling never goes away. You never forget it. America allowed someone that brags about sexual assault into our most coveted office… they essentially told us that it doesn’t matter to them. That they will look the other way and ignore what they see. I can’t fathom living under a president who thinks those things are acceptable.
Now friends, I am confident that no one in this sanctuary this morning who voted for Trump did so to endorse or even condone sexual assault. Let me repeat that: I am confident that no one in this sanctuary this morning who voted for Trump did so to endorse or even condone sexual assault. Many of us voted with concerns for our economy, our national security and our seemingly never-ending conflict in the Middle East. Likely all of us voted from a place of frustration with government officials who seem to be achieving nothing short of bickering with one another. But in the midst of our nation’s divide, we must remember that some are now in a fearful and vulnerable place. We may feel their anxieties are unfounded; but, for them, they are real. And if we are to ever be “one nation under God,” we must all find a way to seek reconciliation by following the example of Christ; by seeing those around us not as allies or opponents, but as new creations; as those for whom Jesus laid down his life. God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us and we must – all of us – answer that call to ministry.
[i] Philippians 2:6-8.
[ii] John 15:12-13
[iii] 2 Corinthians 5:21
[iv] The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 11; Abingdon Press; 2000; p. 98.
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