Sunday, December 18, 2016

When Half Spent Was the Night

Lo How a Rose, E’er Blooming
December 18, 2016
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

The confirmation students have been learning a little bit about the reality of the Christmas story. For example, they know or at least have been taught that December 25 as the date of Jesus birth is a conjecture not a historical fact.

We don’t know when in the calendar year Jesus was born. It could have been August. Then our Christmas songs would have to sound more like the ones that are sung in Australia or Africa. Like this one from Australia:

Christmas where the Gum Tree Grows
Christmas where the gum trees grow
There is no frost and there is no snow
Christmas in Australia's hot
Cold and frosty is what it's not
When the bloom of the jacaranda tree is here
Christmas time is near. 

The December date was chosen by the western church as a way to incorporate Christmas celebrations into long standing pagan celebrations of bringing light back from the darkness of a winter season.  There is no proof that this is when the birth happened.

So when we sing the hymns of the season that imply that Jesus’ birth happened in the midst of winter we know that we are singing metaphorically.
And yet, even though Christmas is celebrated world wide, there is something about Jesus being born in the midst of a cold night that seems right somehow.

Because something else the youth are learning about the way the birth story of Jesus is told is that it is about being born into poverty. Even though we believe and proclaim that Jesus was the new born King. Jesus, in contrast to all the other kings in the world, was born in a dirty shed. Imagine your sheds. Even your nicest sheds. Would you want any baby born in that place? Let alone the son of God. Let alone the newborn King?
I am reminded of another song. This one by Elvis:

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin'
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto

Not the place where a king is usually born.

But for the savior of the world who is coming to save all the little babies born in all sorts of places, 

  • sterile hospitals in suburbs of America, 
  • villages in Africa, 
  • war torn hospitals in Aleppo, 
  • ghettos in Chicago;

a dirty shed is the perfect place. For if God could come out of a dirty shed, if salvation can come out of the dung heaps and smelly corners of a borrowed shed, then this is a God who is with us.

In the beautiful hymn: O how a rose e’er blooming we sing:

It came, a flower bright, amid the cold of winter,
when half spent was the night.

When half spent was the night could mean literally when the night was half over. But it could, and I think it does mean, when we were in the midst of our own dirty sheds in the middle of the night sort of life. When we are in the midst of suffering. Whether minor or major suffering, Jesus came in the midst of it. Not to end it or to cure it or to get rid of it but to live into it with us.

Jesus coming to earth as a king born in a barn was not about power but presence.

And that is the sort of ruler we really need. One who will be with us:
know us in our struggles, work with us in figuring out the solutions, help us find the resources that we need to grow and change and become exactly who we are created to be.

I read this story about Steve Jobs which I had never heard. Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple Computing.
Job’s parents wanted him to be raised in the Christian faith so they started attending a Lutheran church with some regularity. At age thirteen, Jobs went to see the pastor, and in his hand was the latest cover of Life magazine, from July 12 1969. On the cover were two starving children, victims of the ongoing war in Biafra, against Nigeria.

He asked the pastor, “If I hold up my fingers, does God know how many fingers I’m about to hold up?” And the pastor said, “Yes, God knows everything.” Then Jobs shoed the pastor the cover. “Then does God know about this, and what’s going to happen to these children?”
The pastor stammered around with some answers: yes, he finally said, God knows. We don’t understand that kind of thing The jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with any kind of religion that believes in a God like that. And he never stepped food in a church again.

Now we may be tempted to be like Steve Jobs, to say, if God won’t intervene then I don’t want anything to do with a God like that.
But what I wish the pastor would have said was: God didn’t create this crisis. We did. Our compliancy and complicacy created a place where children can starve to death in the midst of war.
Yet, even in the midst of war, starvation, school shootings, Aleppo, Nigeria, the United States, any chaos and crisis, 
God is there. God is there.
God is with us.
And because God is with us we are able to stand up against the chaos and crisis of our world today.
Because we will never walk into a crisis in which God is absent.
We will never experience chaos in which God is absent.
We will never be separated from the love of God.

This is the power of the story of Jesus.

So the question isn’t: where is God in this crisis and chaos. God is there.
The question should be where is the church? 
Where are we?

Not why does God allow this to happen? What does the church allow this to happen?

Now, here’s the thing. This baby that we are eagerly waited for came to us, grew up and became our savior. He also became our prophet and cheerleader.
And he said to the church that was forming around him, “the gates of hell itself will not, can not prevail against you.” Matthew 16:18
Jesus said to Peter: “upon this rock I am building my church and the forces of all evil cannot prevail against it.”

So why are we afraid of crisis and chaos? And why do we wring our hands and ask questions like: where is God?

When the question should be: what can we do?

What we should be saying is:
We are here! God is on our side! We are here! We will battle against hell and all its forces!

And where is hell?
Anywhere God’s love is not being fully experienced. 
Anywhere God’s love is not being fully experienced.
Let me say that one more time:
Anywhere God’s love is not being fully experienced.

For Steve Jobs the cover of Life in 1969 revealed hell to him and he simply needed to know that God was there.
While we watch Aleppo burn we need to hear: God is there. In the midst of that hell God is there. And we see that in the relief efforts of the white helmet rescuers who go into the rubble day after day digging with their hands, pulling babies out of the collapsed buildings.

But right here in our backyard; hell is here
Anywhere a child doesn’t have enough food to eat.
Anywhere a family doesn’t have enough money for heat
Anywhere a corporation builds its wealth on the backs of the poor
Anywhere a person can’t get a job or have access to quality health care or can’t read.

What sort of hell, what sort of half spent night do we see around us? We have already shown light into some of the dark places in our world. But let us not become complacent or compliant. Let us wield the power of God with us against all forms of hell and evil.
For while Jesus was born into a dark and evil world; he was born to bring light. 
And we are the light of the world.

[1] Story and some thoughts taken from the book: Songs for the Waiting by Magrey Devega

Monday, December 5, 2016

I WANT to Walk as a Child of the Light

 Advent 2
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

The Epistle writer reminds us: We are children of the light. All of us. We don’t belong to night or to darkness.
Good words for us in this darkest time of the year.

BUT the hymn puts this in perspective: I WANT to walk as a child of the light. I WANT to walk as a child of the light. I may be a child of the light but I don’t have this whole thing figured out.
I WANT to follow Jesus who is the Light of the World, but....there is an awful lot of darkness around me.

Do you see what the hymn writer is doing. She is not saying I DO walk in the light.
She is saying, I yearn for the light.
This hymn gives us hope and encouragement. We will find ourselves lost and in need of the light of God.
All that is needed is a desire and openness to want to walk in the light. To follow Jesus.

But that isn’t always a given. Sometimes we just can’t seem to turn away from the darkness no matter how hard we try.

I am sharing this morning from this little book that motivated me to do this series on Advent Hymns: Songs for the Waiting. The author Magrey Devega reminded me of a scene from one of the books that were formative in my Christian growth.

If you have teens or pre teens on your Christmas shopping list, I would suggest a set of the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. In these books, CS Lewis explores the themes of love, heroism, anti heroism and restoration in language that teenagers will appreciate, understand and I believe, will be changed by.

There is a powerful scene towards the end of the Last Battle, the concluding book of the series. The children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, arrive at the dwelling of the Narnian dwarves. They find the dwarves huddled together, in a circle, facing inward. Refusing to acknowledge or see the light and beauty that is appearing all around them.
The children are perplexed by the dwarves’ self-imposed darkness. “But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs.” Says Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look around! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”
But the children’s attempts to convince the dwarves of the light doesn’t work.
Even Aslan, the great Savior of Narnia, can’t convince the dwarves that the world is beautiful and light filled.
Aslan says with a sad assessment: They will not let us help them. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

This is why Advent is such a powerful time for those of us walking the Christian journey. We need to be turned toward the light. But the darkness around us can be so persuasive that we are unable to believe that there is light.
We find it almost impossible to see beauty and grace and hope. We focus only on grief, despair, hopelessness, and tragedy.

Advent calls us to acknowledge those realities but not to give them any more power than they deserve.
Advent calls us to reorient ourselves to the light. So that we can learn to follow it. So that we can WANT to follow it.

Light is such a powerful image. Particularly for those of us who are dealing with day light savings time and the winter solstice. And the dark and dreary days we have had these last weeks. I am so done with dark.
I need light.

Thankfully, I serve and am loved by a God who believes in the importance of light. Not insignificantly, God’s first creation was light. When God began to create the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form or shape. It was dark over the deep sea. God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. And God saw how good the light was.

This first primeval raw and powerful Light that began the world, is the same Light that continues to keep our earth alive and our faces turned upward for warmth and glimpses of beauty.
This light is so powerful and so amazing that it allows us to see things with a whole different perspective. Even blackness can turn to brightness in God’s creative  Light.

Take for instance the indigo bunting: this brilliantly blue bird. You would think that the indigo bunting would have blue pigment in its feathers. However, like all other blue birds, Indigo Buntings lack blue pigment in their feathers. If you could see their feathers without light, you would see that they are actually black. Their jewel-like color comes from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light.
There is no blue in blue jay feathers, bluebird wings, or even my nemesis bird: the blue grosbeak only the light creates the brilliant blue we love so much in our blue colored birds.
Light is a powerful thing.
I WANT to walk as a child of the light. When we say that, even in the midst of despair and grief, we are being the opposite of those ‘stupid dwarves’ we are saying that we believe there is light. There is beauty. There is hope.
We are saying that we are willing to turn from our circle of despair and be directed toward the light.
May your advent journey take you towards the light. Into the brightness of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Captivity of Not Enoughs

Advent 1, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5
O Come O Come Immanuel
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Advent! Can you believe it?
Between the weather and the events of this past year, it is hard to believe that we are in the last few weeks of 2016. But I really need Advent this year. I need a time to wait for the coming of the Christ. To anticipate some good news. To be reminded that Good News is on the horizon. That restoration is just over the next hill.

Because that is what Advent does for us: it reminds us that we serve and are loved by a God who is coming to restore the earth.
So many people talk about God as a god who is coming to destroy the earth. To punish us for our wickedness. To wipe out all of life. They are waiting for something called the Rapture. In a Rapture scenario all the chosen of God are removed from the earth and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, while people possessed by evil intentions destroy the earth.
But Advent reminds us that we are not waiting for a Rapture, scripture teaches us that we are waiting for the Reconciliation. When all of the things that are captive to sin and evil will be free and ransomed.

This time of waiting for the coming of Jesus isn’t about when Jesus will come to destroy the earth but when Jesus comes to restore and reconcile the earth.

This is the coming of Jesus that I look forward to. I look forward to it most days.
I remember once being asked when I expected Jesus to return. I said with all seriousness and with total conviction of my beliefs that I expect Jesus to walk around the corner every moment of every day.

I really do. Not in great lightening bolts of glory or even with a star shining in the sky to point the way. But in the ways we are the hands and feet of Jesus, Jesus returns. Each and every day.
I want to show you a little video clip that always warms my heart and reminds me that Jesus comes back even when the culture may not recognize Jesus as Jesus.

In the clip the question is asked, “What does he get from his acts of kindness and sacrifice?”
Will he get rich? Famous? Respected? That is what our society tells us it the goal and ultimate reward for a life well lived.
But what does he get?
In the translation from the Thai language what he gets are emotions.
Emotions. I like that. He gets feelings.
When Jesus comes, Jesus doesn’t come promising us wealth and fame.
Jesus comes promising us feelings.

Of self worth, community connections, friendships, the betterment of others.

Seeing this clip reminds me of all the work we do as a church throughout the world promoting children’s education. The employment of women. The care of the earth.
Through UMC missions, through Operation Classroom, through UMW. It is through these ministries and the ministries we do right here, right now we are proclaiming and living as if Jesus has come back already.
Just by making uniforms we are proclaiming together Jesus has come right here right now.

In the hymn text we are looking at today, the writer is longing for the coming of Immanuel to break the chains of captivity, to give us wisdom, and to remind us that we are all a part of the reconciling work of God.

O Come O Come Immanuel. And ransom captive Israel.

Did you notice in the video clip that there were bystanders looking on, watching the young man and shaking their heads? Why should he do such things? How does he think what he does will make any difference?

These cynical on lookers are captive to the idea that one little act is so foolish.
That nothing so small will make a difference. They are captive to the idea that wealth and fame are the indicators of a well lived life. They are captive to cynicism.

This is the cynicism that makes us captive, too. We have been taught that small acts of kindness are just that; small acts of kindness with no redeeming value. That we aren’t important enough to make a difference. That we have too much baggage in our lives to make a difference. That we don’t love well enough, don’t forgive deep enough, don’t have enough faith, enough joy, enough courage...enough. We simply don’t have enough. And these words put chains on our lives. We become captured.
O come O come Immanuel and ransom captive Israel. O Come Jesus and free us from the captivity of our not enoughs.

Jesus, the savior for whom we wait and who we expect to come to us each day of our lives,
Jesus told us, we are the light that shines in the darkness. And we would be foolish to put that light under a barrel.
Foolish to believe that our little light will make no difference in the world.

O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things, far and nigh:
To us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.

Cause us in wisdom’s ways to go...What if that was our path for these weeks of Advent. That we would take the path of Wisdom rather than cynicism. What if we would chose to believe that Christ does come to us each and every day and we will see if through the wisdom of the little acts of goodness and kindness that we experience each day.

Was it wise for Joseph to accept the angel’s message that he should take a pregnant Mary as his wife and care for the baby she bore as his own son?
Was it wise for Mary to say to the angel, be it done to me as you will?
Was it wise for Mary and Joseph to set off to Bethlehem in the weeks before Mary was to give birth?
Was it wise, for Jesus to be born to this earth?
Was it wise for Jesus to love us, to die for us?
Was it wise for Jesus to become our Savior?

Our track record as a human race was not stellar at the time he came.
Isaiah says the signs of a wise and godly human race is that we would pound our swords and implements of war into farming tools. That our focus would be on nurturing the earth to feed the world.
But instead, we keep making weapons of mass destruction and find new ways to destroy the earth at every turn.

Yet, Jesus saw that the wise thing to do was to bring his Light into the world. Believing that any darkness that was here would not put it out. That his Light would shine into the darkest corners and reveal the grace and love of God.

And then he had the wisdom or foolishness, depending on how you look at it, to insist that anyone who followed him would also bear the same light.

So as you light your trees and your candles, add sparkles to the candies and cookies, turn on the outside lights in this season of darkness; remember that you are participating in the way of wisdom. The way of the holy family. The way of Christ.
Lighting the way out of the darkness into the advent of the coming of the Prince of Peace into the world.
One small act of Love at a time.