Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Eve Great Thanksgiving

This communion liturgy was written for Christmas Eve at the Deer Creek Charge.

My mother and I celebrated together at Mt. Tabor, and we served my grandfather (her father) communion for what was probably the first time he had ever received it. It was a beautiful night. 


God calls us to this table. God calls us to be fed. But too often we are already full, not with an abundance of grace and love, but rather full of clamor and commercialism, full of fear, full of pain we cannot shake. So we confess together:

Nourishing One who fills us with good things, empty us from all that holds us back from saying, “Here I am,” as Mary did. Take from us those places that are too full of ugliness and pain to let Christ enter in. Forgive us for our fear of scarcity that prevents us from coming to the manger with the humble shepherds, offering the only gift we have: ourselves.


Open your ears to hear the good news: God loves us so much that God comes to us in the form of a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Glory to God in the Highest Heaven and on Earth peace to us all!

PASSING OF THE PEACE: Now let us share signs of that peace which we find in Christ with our neighbors!


The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord Our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing,

always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty God,

creator of heaven and Earth.

In the beginning, you spoke, breathing life into all of creation. You fed us in the garden, but we turned from you, eating the one thing you told us not too. Even after sending us out and into the world you did not let us starve. After you freed us from our slavery in Egypt, we cursed you for freeing us, but you did not abandon us. Instead, you fed us, covering the surface of the wilderness with manna like dew.

In famine, you provided for your prophet Elijah through people like us, people living on the edge of hunger with nothing left to eat. But you filled our jar of meal and jug of oil so that they would not fail until you sent rain upon the earth.

So too, when there was a famine in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, people like us sojourned to Moab and lost family. But you came to us through the strength of Ruth who gleaned that we might have bread and life. You gave us enough, filling not only our bellies with food but also our spirits with love and goodness.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

Still we turned away, forgetting how you have nourished us through the ages. You sent us messengers in the form of angels and prophets, and finally you came to us to live among us, not as a king who sits before an elaborate banquet, but in the form of a child, born in a manger, a trough for feeding animals. Already, here, on that long ago Christmas, you were calling us together to be fed.

When he was in the womb, Jesus' mother sang of the hope he would bring: scattering the proud, lifting the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things. When he grew up, he fed five thousand of us with five loaves and two fish in a deserted place, blessing and breaking the bread before sharing it with us. And all ate and were filled. He was already fulfilling the words his mother sang.

Yet there were those of us who sneered at him for not following the rules about eating. We chastised him for eating with those we named sinners. We turned our backs on Jesus, on the nourishment he offered. And we gave him up to die, even after sitting at table with him.

On his last night with us, Jesus sat at a table and fed us, as he promised to on that Christmas night long ago, lying in a manger. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it with us, saying “This is my body, which is given for you.”

When supper was over he took the cup, blessed it, and shared it with us, saying, “Take, and drink. As often as you do this, remember me.”

And so, in remembrance of these, your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ's offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Stay with us Spirit, open our eyes as you did at the meal Jesus shared with his friends after the resurrection on that road to Emmaus. Make us one bread, one body: nourishment to the world until we all feast together at Christ's heavenly table. May you work through us, God, that all might be fed. Be made known to us here, now, in the breaking of this bread, Living, Life-Giving God.

And now, with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray for our daily bread, praying the prayer Jesus taught us: THE LORD'S PRAYER


The bread of life.

The cup that saves us, and sets us free.


The table is set and all are invited. In the United Methodist Church, we practice an open table. This means you don't have to be a member, you don't have to be baptized, you don't have to take classes, you don't even have to be in a good mood. You are invited to come and know that no matter who you are and where you are on your journey, you are a beloved child of God and God's grace is sufficient.

We will be taking communion by intinction, meaning I will give you a piece of bread and you can dip it in the cup. Now, let us come to the table to see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us in the choirs of angels.


Let us pray:

In the Psalms we read, “Taste and See that the Lord is Good.” God, as we go forth from this table to celebrate a baby, a king born in a feeding trough, help us to remember this meal, remember what it is to taste and see your goodness and mercy. Now may we go and feed others. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Voice from the Wilderness

This sermon was my second during the Advent season at the Deer Creek Charge.

Scripture: Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”


I must confess to all of you this morning that I spent most of my sermon preparation this week dancing around to the soundtrack of the musical Godspell. It is one of my favorite musicals (I prefer hippie musicals). The song “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” is sung by John the Baptist, calling people to repent. If you have seen the musical live, you may associate the rushing forward in the song--- which, if the production you see includes a huge cast, sounds like a herd of elephants--- with the forward motions of the crowd, proclaiming as loudly and joyously as you have to do to sing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” So to me, John the Baptist's words in our scripture this morning take on a musical and physical quality to them, bringing them up off the pages to lead me in a dance toward repentance. Not to worry--- I will not demonstrate this dance. I think our dancers this morning did much better demonstrating this than I could.

So let's tap our feet a little as we pray together:

Patient Teacher, we give you thanks for the voices out of the wilderness

toe-tapping voices, at times, but voices that call us to repentance.

As we come together this morning, help us to better hear the voices of the prophets. May these voices guide us in this Advent season. Amen.

So our timeline is a bit off this morning. We expect to read stories of angels appearing to Mary and Joseph. At the very least, we expect that the prophecies we read to be the ones about the prince of peace, the little child leading them. We don't expect a hairy, camel-hair wearing, locust-eating guy on the edge of the wilderness. (Sidebar: Luke doesn't talk about John the Baptist's diet or clothing like Matthew and Mark do, but still, that is our image when we think of him, no matter what Gospel we're reading.) And besides, aren't John and Jesus supposed to be about the same age? So how come we are talking about John's ministry before we get to the baby in the manger? Just last week we were reading Zechariah's prophecy about John a prophecy showing a joyful expectancy much like what we hear in that Godspell song, and now John is all grown up preaching in the wilderness.

But this is the thing about Advent. We aren't just preparing for the birth of a baby. We are preparing for all that Jesus' life and ministry meant. We are preparing the way of the Lord.

But Ann Howard, a pastor and director of an organization called the Beatitudes Society, makes an important point. She writes, “I can’t hear the Baptist’s call to prepare until I get out there to the wilderness, out beyond the edge, beyond the usual, the conventional, the expected. So where’s my wilderness in this moment in time? Where am I being called beyond my comfort zone? What might I leave behind? When do I choose safety over risk? What new questions could I be asking? What old answers do I settle for? What fears hold me back? What encounters await?”1

This is what draws me to the song from Godspell, I think. Why I can't get it out of my head. Music has a way of pushing us beyond the edge--- particularly dance. It forces us to relax and open up and risk. The uninhibited nature of all those people rushing to be baptized in Godspell, dropping everything to start a new life, that is what we are moving towards. But first, we have to stop. Listen. Get out there to the wilderness.

Most of us are not currently living in ways that we can stop and listen. I am one of those people, going going going all the time until I think Aaron considers hiding my computer and my car keys from me. And part of that, for me, comes from being in school for so long. In school, there is always something you could be doing: a paper to write, another essay to read--- and you aren't finished when it is five o'clock. Of course, ministry is the same way, housework and yardwork are the same way, taking care of kids is the same way: many of us are very good at finding excuses to be busy all the time.

In seminary, though, I read one of those books that smacks you upside the head. It was called The Circumference of Home by Kurt Hoelting, a seminary graduate who ended up becoming a commercial fisherman in Alaska. It is a beautiful book about his decision to live within a one-hundred mile radius of his home. He did not drive within that year, only took public transportation, biked, kayaked, and went on hiking trips. In the book he talks about what he calls the three-day rule. He says that he noticed it takes three days on a retreat to “dispel the clutter in our minds and settle the scattered energy in our bodies.” He says that “it simply takes this long for the soul to catch up with the body.”2 How can we hear John the Baptist's words to prepare if our souls have so much work to do to catch up to our bodies?

Do you feel like your soul is out of sync with your body? I know I am one of those people who is constantly making lists in my head, constantly thinking about what else I need to do, what can I check off the list next. So three days for our souls to catch up with our bodies? I don't have that kind of time! Our souls really need to learn to move a little faster. So are we just stuck hoping that voices from the wilderness like John the Baptist's will just be loud enough to break us out of the busyness for a moment. Can we find a way to skip the stopping and listening part?

Besides that, we are moving too fast to even know what to listen to, where it is we ought to be listening. We don't know where the edge is. I really love how Ann Howard links the wilderness to the place outside our comfort zone. It really brings the place to life for me. We aren't just talking about a desert out in the Middle East somewhere. The thing about the bible is that though it is describing particular events in particular times, those particularities seep into our own lives. So when we talk about John the Baptist speaking from the wilderness in the first century, we are also talking about prophets today speaking to us from different kinds of wilderness. Where are those wild places we tend to ignore or avoid, those places outside our comfort zones?

So many big questions this week and we haven't even gotten to repentance! First, stopping and listening, then seeking someplace outside our comfort zones in which to listen--- these are the first steps in preparing the way of the Lord.

My first challenge to you this Advent, then, is to try being still. There are other ways we can slow our bodies down, I think, besides dropping everything and going on a retreat longer than three days right before Christmas. During Lent, the season before Easter, we talk a lot about spiritual disciplines--- and we ought to be talking about them in Advent too. Instead of starting with three days, try three minutes, then thirty, then maybe even three hours. Pray, read the bible or a devotion like the Upper Room, journal, just be still. Listen for the prophet's voice. We cannot prepare unless we can first listen and slow down.

But we can't just listen. John the Baptist's ministry shows us that risk is involved, that going beyond our comfort zones are involved. Don't just sit and listen, but go and listen. John the Baptists can't always comes to us anymore, as walled in as we are by our busy schedules. But we can go, opening ourselves to hear those messengers, knowing they come from the wild places outside our comfort zones. Come with us to serve at the Day Shelter in Edgewood on Christmas Eve. Come to me for the address and phone numbers of our homebound folks so you can call or visit them this Christmas. There are many ways you can step outside your comfort zone, change things up a bit, to place yourself in that place of wildness and possibility from which God's prophets like John the Baptist seem so often to speak.

As many of you know, I served as a chaplain last year in a hospital in New Jersey, both on a regular medical/surgery floor as well as on the behavioral health unit (psych ward). My experience there, more than anything else had in the past or has since, taught me these first steps of Advent preparation. See, the hospital was a wilderness place for me. You face your worst fears of illness and death and loneliness every day in a hospital. And besides that, we didn't start our work by shadowing the regular chaplains or anything like that. We were just thrown into the midst of it without a clue how to begin.

Well, maybe we had a little clue. Pray. That is always the best place to begin. Every morning I entered the hospital, I did not do anything until after I had gotten what we call a census, the list of names and room numbers, and prayed over each and every name, asking both that I could be the presence of God for each person I encountered and that I could see the presence of God in each person I encountered. Then, before I left for the day I would pray again over the names, including any prayer requests I had from patients or nurses I had talked to.

This time in prayer opened me to go into the wilderness that to me was the hospital. Every day on my way to the hospital, I had these horrible knots in my stomach, and I was so fearful. But after I prayed, I felt this strength guiding me.

So the practice of prayer guided me to the wilderness, and it opened me up to hear God's voice in those I met. In the voice of the man younger than I was suffering from alcoholism telling me he would keep me in prayer: this was a prophet showing me that God was always with me. In the voice of the woman suffering from psychotic episodes trying to learn to pray: this was a prophet teaching me of God's healing power, renewing power. In the voice of a man with a strange head injury who called me pastora, Spanish for woman pastor: this was a prophet reminding me of God's call on my life. And in the voice of the young woman as she tenderly held the hand of her husband in a coma: this was a prophet saying nothing can separate us from the love of God.

These were Advent moments for me, moments of God breaking in on me to show me new life. They were moments in which I was opened up to hear that song, Prepare ye...

Next week we'll talk more about John the Baptist, about that dance of repentance, but this week, I want you to go into the wilderness. Listen to those voices on the edge, to discover what, in this new year, you are being called out for.

In the scene in the movie Godspell in which John the Baptist sings “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” people hear his words echoing as they go about their daily lives, driving cabs, waiting tables. Their feet tap to his message of repentance. And I don't think their feet get tapping because it is an easy message. Instead, it is a message that gets under their skin, a message they can't get out of their heads. May this message of preparation get stuck in you my friends. May the voice crying out from the wilderness move you to action in this our Christian new year. And, as the scripture says all flesh will eventually see, may you see the salvation of God. 

1Ann Howard, “Advent 2: Into the wilderness,” A Word in Time, The Beatitudes Society, 3 December 2012, http://www.beatitudessociety.org/blog/14-advent_2_into_the_wilderness.

2Kurt Hoelting, The Circumference of Home: One Man's Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: De Capo Press, 2010) 205-206.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Give Us Light, Guide Our Feet

This was my first sermon in the season of Advent for the Deer Creek Charge. We welcomed everyone into worship with party hats and sparkling cider, mimicing our New Year's Eve traditions to emphasize how Advent is the beginning of our Christian new year!

Scripture: Luke 1:68-79 (NRSV)

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Sermon: Give us light, guide our feet

Will you pray with me:

Tender God, merciful God, you are always ever redeeming us, raising us up.

Raise us up today in this place. Speak to us through these words, through our thoughts, or just in spite of us. Give us light, God. Guide our feet. Amen.

Have you ever been caving? Now, I have never been hard core splunking or anything, but I love visiting caves and caverns. The damp coolness of the stone enveloping you is oddly comforting in hot summer months, at least at first, though it would not be so now. As a child, I was a science fiction and fantasy nut (some would say I still am), and so being in caves would open up my imagination even bigger than it already was. The stalactites and stalagmites would glitter, sometimes faintly, and the texture of the rock walls was fascinating to me. Of course, we could only see that glitter and texture because we brought our own light into the caves. See, I was told once that there are two places on earth where you can experience total darkness--- not darkness like what we have up here in the country at night, even when clouds block the moonlight. There is still something there your eyes can get used to. No, total darkness can make you go blind because your eyes are searching crazily for the light. One of these two dark places is the depths of the ocean, but the other is a cave. So caves have always been places in my imagination of intense beauty at the same time they are fearful places.

Veteran caver Chris Nicola says, “When you first go into a cave, you feel like you are in the smallest area you have ever been in your life. Your heart pounds, and you sweat. You have this horrible feeling of confinement. It is very important that you get acclimated or you will get tunnel vision, which prevents you from focusing on the important things such as hydration, staying warm, and not getting lost.”1 Can you imagine living in this darkness, living in this fear for almost a year, constantly struggling for survival and then one day emerging, jaundiced, weak, muddy, into the sunlight? This is what 38 people from five different families did in the spring on 1944 in Ukraine. They pushed and pulled their way up a hole, a twenty-five foot hole like a chimney, to breathe in the fresh, sweet air after having lived below ground for so long that one of the youngest, a little girl of about five named Pepkale, implored her mother to turn off the candle when they emerged from the cave. She was so used to the sensory deprivation of the cave that she could not see. And, it appears she had forgotten that there was a sun.2

These 38 people had been living in and out of caves in what is now the Ukrainian countryside since first escaping their town in 1942. They were Jews living during World War II, and Esther Stermer, the matriarch, said that she would not go to be killed in the slaughterhouses that were called concentration camps. So they hid. First they hid in a cave until they were found by Nazis. They were able to escape, barely, and hid out in the wilderness for six weeks until they found another cave, a better one with a supply of fresh water, better ventilation, and more room. It turned out to be one of the longest caves in the world. A few of the men would go out at night every few weeks to get food and other supplies until they heard of the end of the war.

The caves, for them, became a sort of salvation, a way for them to hide from all those seeking to kill them. But they were just surviving, not living, and so when they were able to come back to the surface, back into the sunlight, they were overjoyed. Shlomo Stermer commented, “Can you imagine, to pull out from that hole--- there was a woman over seventy in there and some kids. It took us a few hours, finally we all are out and we looked at each other--- we were like a piece of mud everybody. But it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining.”3

Modern cavers require special clothing to ward off hypothermia, advanced technology for lighting and travel, and intensive instruction in ropes and navigation to survive underground for just a few days. How did 38 untrained, ill-equipped people survive for so long in such a hostile environment during history’s darkest era?”4 The record before this story was discovered of a person living inside a cave was 205 days. The women and children in these families lived underground for 344 days--- almost a year.

Light was given to them who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. But the light in this case was not just the sunlight on their faces after almost a year in the darkness of the cave, but rather was the light of their love for one another. One time, in the first cave, the Nazis discovered the family, and Esther, the matriarch, talked to them, distracting them while much of the family got away. At another point, members of the family were captured and those who were free risked their lives to go into town and barter for the lives of their family members. And every day, each person had a job to do within the caves, so that all could survive the harsh conditions. Shulim Stermer pronounced: “By ourselves, one by one, we would have been killed, but because we stuck together, we had a chance.”5

This incredible story of survival is one that speaks to our season of Advent. It speaks to how, though we continue to wait and prepare in Advent, it can be like that moment when we emerge from the heavy darkness of the year to hope and make a new way for ourselves--- together. It is a time when we can help lift each other up. Though our celebrations of January 1st are slightly different from our celebrations of Advent, like our secular new year, Advent gives us the space to start over when we need it--- and it gives us the space to start over not after the gluttony and commercialism of the holiday season, but during. It helps us to make space to focus on hope and preparation for Jesus' coming that looks more like celebration than too often the mania of our Christmas preparations become.

Our scripture reading this morning comes from Zechariah's proclamation at the birth of his son John the Baptist. Luke's gospel's preparation for the birth of Christ really centers around the prophet John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth were relatives of Mary's, and Elizabeth conceived in her old age and gave birth to the child who would be John the Baptist. Zechariah's words are beautiful, and speak of preparing the way of the Lord. But it is the end of his proclamation that captures me: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

This is what Advent is about, allowing the dawn from on high to break upon us, to give us light. It isn't about frenzied preparation. It is about joy and peace. Advent is a season of light out of darkness. It is the season where the dawn can break upon us, where we pray for and act to bring light to touch those who sit in the darkness of the cave, even if we are feeling that darkness too. This morning we have celebrated this new year, celebrated the possibilities of new life that it brings together. Because Advent is also this: to grow together as a community, to take care of one another, to reach out and bring a little light into someone else's darkness.

Give us light, God. Guide our feet. Amen.

1Chris Niccola interview with Carey Ostergard, “The Darkest Days,” National Geographic's Adventure Magazine, June/July 2004, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0406/q_n_a.html.

2Pepkale Blitzer in “Family escaped Holocaust by living in caves,” NBC Today Show, 2004, http://video.today.msnbc.msn.com/today/5324069.

3Shlomo Stermer in Scott Simon, “Caves of Salvation: Ukrainian Jews Survived Holocaust in Underground Grottos,” National Public Radio, 4 June 2004, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1924568.

4Peter Lane Taylor, “Off the Face of the Earth,” National Geographic's Adventure MagazineJune/July 2004, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0406/excerpt4.html.

5Shulim Stermer in “Family escaped Holocaust by living in caves,” NBC Today Show, 2004, http://video.today.msnbc.msn.com/today/5324069.