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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Into the Neighborhood - John 1:1-5,14 Candlelight Christmas Eve

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The issue of who is moving into the neighborhood stirs up a lot of interest, doesn’t it? A crew from Andrew Roby begins construction on a new home or renovation on an existing home, or a SOLD sign goes across the realtor’s sign in the yard across the street from you. What happens? One of the first questions you hear (or ask) is, “I wonder . . .” I wonder who is moving in? I wonder what they’re like? Do they have children? Pets? Teenagers? I wonder if they’re going to change the front of the house. I wonder if they’re going to be good neighbors. I wonder how much they paid for that house.

I moved in June. I looked at condos all over Charlotte – South Park, NoDa, South End, Dilworth, Monroe Road, Eastover. I wasn’t only looking at the condo, I was also assessing the neighborhood. Is it a good neighborhood? Will I like it? Does it have a pool? Who lives here? Upon arriving at each property, I surveyed the cars in the parking lot. Seeing a bunch of white Buicks and burgundy Cadillacs, I was far too young to buy in some communities.

Since I have moved, I have to confess that I have been almost obsessed with real estate transactions in my community. This may surprise some of you, but I have a teensy little competitive streak in me, and I want to know that no one who has closed on their condo with the same floorplan as mine got it for less than I did. So far, so good.

John’s Gospel speaks of God moving into our neighborhood. Perhaps you have never thought of it in these terms, but listen again to these words: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In the most profound way, we can say God has moved into our neighborhood, and this is an amazing, unique thing. It is an event so powerful that it has the potential to bring new life, hope, and joy to all who embrace it. May we pray.

When you love someone, you try to find ways to make that love known. You may find out about their favorite things and give those things to them. You may spend quality time with them doing things you both enjoy. You may enjoy the closeness of each other’s presence and a warm embrace. You may find joy in doing things for them, or in giving them compliments. These things all describe our love languages, ways that we show and receive love.

The entire Old Testament is a story about a relationship. It is the story about a relationship between a people and their God, and the ways they try to show love to each other.

One realizes several things in reading the story about this relationship. One, it would seem that God and the people of earth do not always speak the same love language. Two, it would seem that a great gulf exists between their worlds. Three, it would seem that nothing ever stops God from trying to cross that gulf and reveal God’s self to humanity in ways our feeble minds can understand.

My grandparents own a farm in Western Pennsylvania, exactly halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie. Growing up, we would always explore all over the farm, and I can remember finding some of the biggest anthills you’ve ever seen. There must have been thousands of little creatures swarming all over that hill, busy with their tasks doing whatever it is that ants do. Some years later, I got to thinking about what those ants must think of me. If they were aware of my presence lurking over their complex little world, they didn’t show it. If I wanted to interact with these ants, I would have to figure out a way to get down to their level. If I had the power to somehow become an ant and yet take with me all the experiences and knowledge I possess as a human, something like what Rick Moranis did in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, I could cross the separation between our worlds from my side. In other words, perhaps the ant would be able to understand the human in ways they never could before.

But then, the great void that exists between the world of the human and the world of the ant is nothing to compare to the separation that exists between a human being and a wonderful, gracious, mysterious reality who gives us life. As difficult as it must, on its own, for an ant to figure out what we humans are like, how much greater it must be for us humans to figure out what God is like. If we are ever to figure out what God is like, then God would have to cross that divide from God’s side. God would have to move into our neighborhood.

And God did, on that first Christmas.

God, for us humans and our salvation, in order that we might have a relationship with God, chose to put God’s self into an image we could understand. God took on visibility, God took on humanness, God translated God’s very self into something – someone – who is accessible to our human ways of knowing. This means that we are now given a glimpse into the mystery of God, not because of our own powers, but because of the gift that God chooses to reveal God’s self to us in a child who is born in Bethlehem.

The birth of Jesus, the incarnation, this act of God buying real estate in our neighborhood did not come as many would predict. People in Jesus’ day were not surprised that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up in this way – a child of peasant parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power and with a human face. A speaking God would fit comfortably within their tradition, but the idea of God in decisive human form would not. The proclamation that God became flesh and blood, with the feelings and features of any other human was to them beyond strange. So we find ourselves face to face with the God whose face even Moses was not allowed to see.

The story is told of a 50-year-old woman who had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. She had a near-death experience in which she came face-to-face with God. She asked, “Is this it?” God consulted the calendar and said, “No, you’ve got another 36 years.” She recovered, but before she even left the hospital, she walked down to plastic surgery and said “I want the works.” She figured if she had another 36 years, she was going to look as good as possible. She had a tummy tuck, facelift, liposuction, bust enhancement, and even had her hair color changed. She walked out of the hospital and was flattened by a speeding ambulance. Back in heaven, she said to God, “I thought you said I had another 36 years!” God said, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you.”

That first Christmas, God moved in all right, and the people of Jesus’ day were watching and waiting, but they failed to recognize God. How many of us would have missed it because God did not look the way we expected?

The very event was wrapped in scandal and intrigue. Imagine the conditions under which the child who was also God was born. Born to an unwed teenage mother engaged to a blue collar laborer. Born in the cold barn out back, with an ox and ass as nursemaids. Born during great civil unrest, in the most backwater territory in the entire empire, in the town that no Methodist pastor ever wanted to be appointed to. And as soon as he was born, his family became political refugees, forced to flee the country for their very lives, and the mysterious visitors from the East – whether we call them wise men, astrologers, or magicians – wouldn’t even find him for another two years. Perhaps God needs to hire a publicist, for this is no way for God – the creator of all that ever was and ever will be – to make an entrance on the stage in our short little play, but this is precisely how God enters, and it means something to each of us.

It means that God cares not only for the wealthy but the poor and the downtrodden, the cold, and the hungry. God cares for those who find themselves outcasts in polite society. God is friend to the friendless, refuge to those who find themselves strangers in a strange land. God welcomes people whose lifestyles and beliefs and practices seem just a little strange to us. God is glad to see even those we think are late to the party. Thanks be to God, for perhaps this God might even care for the likes of people like you, and people like me.

God moved into our neighborhood. God became what we are in order that we might know God. If we can know and see Jesus, we can know and see God.

Jesus gives us tangible, visible ways of experiencing a God who is intangible and invisible. God became what we are so we could have a better glimpse, even through our own dim eyesight, into what God is. And thus, the question that has haunted humanity from the very beginning, namely, “What is God like?” is answered. The Christmas story reminds us, “God is like Jesus, because miracle of miracles, wonder of wonders, the man who walks the pages of the New Testament, that man is God, God come to us, God in a form we can understand, God accessible to our limited ways of knowing and experiencing and believing.” Therefore, to believe that at Christmas this really did happen is a way of coming to see that we have been given a vision of God that we could never have earned, could never have come to on our own. It is a gift. It is the very essence of grace.

John’s Gospel is different from the others. John offers no details of how and where. There is no manger scene, no adoring shepherds, no wise men from the East, just the incredible announcement that God has become like us in Christ so that that we can become like God. In this transaction we come to an understanding of the nature of God that exceeds any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God we need to see. It is very important for us to keep our eyes on Jesus when we want to know what God is like.

In Christ there is opened to us a whole new enlightened understanding of God. Imagine the incredibly joyful surprise it must have been for those first disciples to hear Jesus say, “Those who have seen me have seen God.” No longer is God a disembodied voice from some distant place, but God has entered into our humanity with the fullness of divinity. All that we know and experience and feel, God knows and experiences and feels with us. See now, the dwelling of God is with men and women. God has made God’s dwelling with us, God lives among us as one of us, and this is the great mystery of Christmas.

The Incarnation gives us the wonderful insight that not only is Jesus like God, but God is like Jesus, and always been. We need not try to get into heaven, for in Jesus, heaven has come to us.

Friends, hear the good news this Christmas Eve: In the birth of Jesus, heaven has come to us. In the birth of Jesus, we have come face to face with the holy. In the birth of Jesus, God has become like us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. In the birth of Jesus, God has moved into our neighborhood, and our world has been changed forever.

Joy to the world! The Lord has come. O come, let us adore him!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who's Your Daddy? - Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In 1968, The Zombies recorded “Time of the Season.” The most memorable lines from that song is, “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” According to the online source of all things reliable and true,, use of the phrase, “Who’s your Daddy,” enjoyed popularity among radio shock jocks in the late 1980s, but gained widespread use during the early 1990s. According to Wikipedia, it is “a slang expression that enjoys the form of a rhetorical question. Use of the phrase implies a boastful claim of dominance over the intended listener. One variant commonly aimed at residents of Indiana is ‘Hoosier Daddy.’”

When you all get a chance to meet my dad, there is no denying the family resemblance. It is very clear, just in looking at the two of us, that I am my father’s son. In fact, you could look at photos of us taken at the same ages, and they look like the same person.

Whenever I would leave the house, my parents reminded me, “Remember who are.” Rightly or wrongly, people will make judgments about us based on who our family is, or where we come from. By knowing the answer to the question, “Who’s your Daddy?”, people will know who we are. Knowing our origins can tell others a lot about ourselves, and it’s also interesting to know where we, ourselves, have come from.

Who’s your Daddy? It’s a question that brings us around to Joseph. This morning, we look at the events of the Christmas story through his eyes. May we pray.

Wedding plans
The wedding planning was already well underway. Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. The wedding wouldn’t be fancy, but it still promised to be a wonderful celebration.

However, over the last couple of months, Joseph had noticed a change coming over Mary. She had always been somewhat shy, but now she seemed standoffish. Joseph couldn’t put his finger on it, but it seemed like Mary was carrying some burden. He was well aware of the difference in their ages – Mary was a young girl, 14 or 15, at best, and he was pretty old in comparison. Joseph wondered if Mary might be embarrassed to be seen with him, or ashamed of him, or utterly repulsed by him, this old carpenter her father had arranged for her to marry. Joseph didn’t really understand women anyway, which, I suppose, makes him a lot like many of the men in this room, myself included. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Women.”

One evening as he was cleaning up the shop, Mary came by. “Joseph, we need to talk.” I assume “We need to talk” meant the same thing in the ancient world as it does today. It’s what employers say to someone who is about to be terminated. It’s what someone says when they’re about to end a relationship. “We need to talk” is always a precursor of serious news.

“Joseph, we need to talk. I don’t really know how to tell you this.” “Go ahead, Mary. You know you can tell me anything.” “Well . . . this is so hard . . . . I’m pregnant.” There was a long silence, a truly pregnant pause. And then it hit him. “But Mary – we haven’t even . . . you know. Mary, who is the father of that baby?”

Nothing gets by Joseph here. If the woman to whom you’re engaged is pregnant and you haven’t had relations with her, then someone else did. The punishment for such an indiscretion would have been death by stoning. As an unwed, pregnant teenager, Mary would have been on one of the lowest rungs in her society.

Any publicist will tell you this is not the way to bring a savior into the world. Think about it. An unplanned pregnancy of an unwed mother engaged to a blue collar Galilean without the means or connections to arrange a birthing suite! "Lord," the publicity person would protest, "This simply won't fly – no one will believe it. Messiah born in a barn? To a woman pregnant before her marriage? This will never do!"

A side note here. I think society – then and now, has been particularly hard on this particular indiscretion. Yes, I understand the seriousness of pregnancy. I’m well aware of how this complicates and changes lives. I’m aware that teenage pregnancy isn’t really a good thing. But too many times, when confronted with these prickly and delicate situations, I think the church has responded poorly. Too often, we have shunned the persons involved, and been heavy on judgment and light on compassion. In the text, it says Joseph was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and historically, that is exactly what the church has tended to do to persons who find themselves unmarried and pregnant. At times in their lives when people need the love and support of a Christian community the most, we have tended to expel them from our midst. I’d ask us to look at how Jesus treated people. Tax collectors and prostitutes – two of the worst category of sinner in Jesus’ day – were people that he hung out with and loved and toward whom he showed compassion. I guess if I have to err one way or the other, I’d rather err on the side of compassion than judgment.

Deep within our hearts there sometimes lingers a sense that we might not be acceptable to a holy, almighty, righteous God. But a God who comes to a stable and chooses humble folk like Mary and Joseph to be parents of the Messiah – well such a God just might care for the likes of me!

If Messiah had been born in a castle, to a royal family in the midst of all the splendor this world can offer – he could not be my Messiah – for I am none of those things. No, God wrapped his great gift of love in the simplest way and presented it through the most humble parents and thus made it possible for any of us, from the greatest to the least to reach out and receive God's gift!

Mary knew how precarious her situation was, and she knew that Joseph was within his rights to divorce her, to file charges against her, and even have her stoned to death. Nevertheless, she continued to outline the story. “It wasn’t another man, Joseph. The Holy Spirit got me pregnant.” “Sure Mary. Of course that’s what happened.”

The text says Joseph resolved to dismiss her quietly and divorce her. He didn’t believe her! But being a compassionate man as well as a righteous man, he didn’t want Mary to be disgraced; he chose not to file charges against her. Perhaps he hoped to shame the real father into marrying her and taking responsibility for the baby. Who knows? Maybe he assumed Mary loved the father, and that the father would love the baby. At the very least, perhaps the real father would face the consequences of his actions, and the child in Mary’s womb would have a shot at a stable, so-called normal home.

But then, Joseph dreamed something wonderful. It was astounding. God would enter the world. God would be born to his wife, as crazy as that was to understand. Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do! But Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.

Joseph puts aside any notion of dismissing or divorcing Mary. He takes her as his wife, and knowing full well that the child she carries is not his, willingly takes responsibility to be the baby’s father.

I sometimes wonder why we get so hung up on the biology of all this. Fatherhood takes many forms. Biology is not what determines whether someone is a father-figure in our life. Fathers come in many forms. In fact, many of us can probably point to multiple figures in our lives who have been like fathers to us. Being a father is more about relationships and level of investment in one’s life than it is in biology. Was Joseph Jesus’ father? Well, yes, he was certainly one of them.

A man of faith
In these events, Joseph is portrayed as a down-to-earth real man with real struggles and real questions and real fears and real doubts, but who wrestles with what it will mean to be faithful to the promises of God. Joseph shows us that the co-existence of faith and doubt is not only possible, but indeed, probable.

Faith, Joseph shows us, is not simply believing the right things about the right issues. Faith is not arguing our own point and putting down the perspective of others. Faith is not about proving ourselves right and other people wrong. Faith is not the eradication of questions and doubts. Faith is not having an understanding of everything we’re going through. In other words, faith is not a purely intellectual exercise.

Joseph shows us that faith draws us into a personal experience of the mystery of God. Faith does not try to dismiss the mysterious, or provide a logical explanation for it. Rather, faith lives into the mysterious. Faith brings us face to face with the mystery of God, and we find that mystery to be pregnant with the possibility of God’s future. It takes an imaginative leap to live into that future, and that’s what Joseph provides for us.

What Joseph can teach us
Through Joseph, who believed that with God all things are possible, we find ourselves swept up in a story that is loaded down with courage, dreams, and nerve. May it be so that we would have that kind of faith! Joseph dares to take responsibility for what the Holy Spirit has already started. And when it comes down to it, that’s a pretty good definition of faith. He shows us a faith that keeps hope alive, and finds himself at the extreme center of divine mystery. He came face to face with the Holy and was utterly humbled by the mystery of it all. “Joseph faced the skepticism of his neighbors in calm faith in the God who was beyond his human comprehension. Joseph had the faith to see in this impossible situation the improbable work of God. He had just enough faith to believe that this improbably conceived infant might in fact be Emmanuel, God with us” (Jim Harnish).

We tend to treat Joseph as a surrogate father, a character who fades into the background and doesn’t really influence the story line. But remember this: Joseph is the man God trusted to raise Jesus. He wasn’t just “some guy” who happened to be engaged and then married to the girl who carried the Messiah in her womb.

He is the man who trusted God, and he is the man God trusted. He shows us that faith isn’t blind; it’s visionary. That is, faith sees things that can’t be seen with our own senses. Faith, rather than denying the improbable, hopes for the impossible. Faith keeps hope alive because it can see things other people cannot see. Joseph was a man of extreme faith, hope, and love, and I know it influenced Jesus. Later, when Jesus saw ordinary fishermen and called them to be fishers of people, or when he saw a tax collector and called him to be a disciple, or when he saw people who sinners of every sort and, like Joseph, was unwilling to expose them to public disgrace, or when he saw a dying thief on a cross and promised that he would be with him in paradise, I believe he was living out of a faith he had seen in Joseph, a faith that was not afraid to believe that improbable, even impossible things, might actually come true.

There is something vitally important happening in this story, but it’s easy for us to miss it. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, of the partying and planning, of the gift buying, the “Ho-ho-ho”ing, the overindulging, the decorating, the lighting, and the merry-making. It’s about Joseph, and without it, the whole project of God coming into the world through the person of Jesus might have placed in jeopardy. Do you know what it is? Can you see it, in the midst of the activity, and the commotion, and all the hustle? Do you know what Joseph did?

Joseph rested.

Joseph rested, and he went to sleep, and he had a dream. When Joseph stopped to rest, he took a break from trying to figure out the solution to the situation in which he now found himself. Joseph went to sleep, and he had a dream. And in his dream, an angel—a divine messenger—spoke to him and brought him wonderful news that the improbably conceived infant in Mary’s womb really was Emmanuel, God-with-us, God come to earth, God who makes his dwelling among us, God who moves into our neighborhood. Joseph had a dream about the salvation of the world.

When I am up front, there is a little game I like to play as I look over the congregation. It’s called, “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping.” The next time the person next to you falls asleep in worship, you might want to think twice about waking them up. God has a history of speaking to people through dreams. In fact, people used to go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep in the hopes that God would speak to them through their dreams. So, when I look across the congregation and see people sleeping, I simply assume they are participating in a great Biblical tradition.

Joseph rested and he had a dream. When he dreamed, whether he meant to or not, he gave up control of the situation and allowed God to do whatever it was that God would do. And the world was changed forever.

You need to rest because you need to dream.

Friends, in these days of the Advent season before Christmas bursts in upon us, we find our imaginations pregnant with the promise of God’s possibilities – possibilities that bring in a kingdom of hope, peace, and joy. The carol enjoins us to rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

Right now, we are all being asked the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” I hope there is one thing we all want: a dream. I hope, like Joseph, we all want a dream of extraordinary and improbable and impossible things being brought to pass. A dream of God’s desire to do incredible things through each of our lives and through us together as a church. A dream of the fullness of God’s presence making itself right at home in, and among, and through us. I hope that we all want a dream.

But then, what will you give this Christmas? The greatest gift we can give is to believe in the dreams of those around us, for it is just possible that God is speaking through their dreams as surely as God spoke in Joseph’s. This year, believe in the dreams of those around you.

Believe in the dreams of your partner. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dreams of your parents. Believe in the dreams of your friends and neighbors. Believe in the dreams of your hero. Believe in the dreams of your enemy. Have faith in them, support them, encourage them, nurture them. Give a great gift this year, and believe in the dreams of those around you.

Joseph had a dream, and the presence of God was born into his life. Joseph had a dream, and a kingdom of hope, peace, and joy began. Joseph had a dream, and the best was yet to come.

Joseph had a dream, and the world was changed forever.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Grace Reborn - Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord.

In the first week of my first pastoral appointment, I was asked to make a hospital visit. Being the eager, young, go-getter I was, I jumped at the opportunity. The lady in the hospital was the elderly mother of one of our church members, and while they were not members of the congregation, they worshiped with us via television every week from their living room, and considered themselves part of our church family.

I walked into a hospital room where she was enjoying a sunny afternoon surrounded by her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law, her grandson, and her grandson’s fiancĂ©e. We visited for a little while – she was feeling pretty good and would probably go home the next day – and had been there long enough that she was definitely sick of hospital food. I got ready to leave, and offered to pray with them. Everyone stood, joined hands, and bowed their heads, and just as I said, “Gracious God,” her husband let one rip. This was no little squeaker, either. This was full-blown, sustained, gasto-intestinal assault. We’re all standing there, holding hands around the hospital bed, shaking uncontrollably with repressed laughter. I finished the prayer, and he looked across the circle at me and said, “Saved that one for ya, preacher.”

Of course, that brings me back to today’s text. This morning, we’re talking about visitation. Our Scripture today is about Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist being visited by her relative Mary, the mother of Jesus. From the earliest times, the people of God have visited one another as a way of expressing their love and concern for each other, and also as a way of taking the presence of God with them. And when Mary visited Elizabeth, that’s exactly what happened. May we pray.

By the time we meet up with Mary and Elizabeth in this morning’s reading, some extraordinary things have already happened to both of them. Elizabeth, already an old woman and believed to be barren, is with child. An angel appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and given him the message that the son to be born to them will be a prophet, one who will speak for God.

Now, it seems that Mary is also pregnant. She was young, perhaps 12 or 13, and she was unmarried. An angel had visited her and given this extraordinary news: the one who would be born would be the Son of God.

Both women were carrying very special babies, but both women would also face ridicule and social isolation. Can’t you just hear the gossip now? “Hey, did you hear that Elizabeth is pregnant?” “Who, the old priest’s wife?” “Isn’t she a little OLD to have a baby?” Or, “Hey, did you hear that Mary is pregnant?” “Who, the young girl engaged to the carpenter?” “I know – shameful, really.”

Both women were greeted as highly favored, and both women were carrying special babies who would play central roles in the story of God’s salvation of the world. Perhaps the tongues were wagging, but Mary and Elizabeth don’t seem to be bothered. In fact, they carry on with the genuine excitement and vivacity that happens among pregnant women talking to one another. Despite the differences in their ages, in their life circumstances, and in the role their two babies will play in God’s salvation drama, Mary and Elizabeth chatter with a joy outside themselves.

There is something that happens in a visit. In the Bible we often read of God coming into someone's life through a visit of an angel or of a human being. The Gospel of Luke begins with an angel visiting Zechariah and another visiting Mary to bring them the news of the extraordinary conception of their children, John and Jesus, respectively. Zechariah declares in his canticle "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel because he has visited his people and set them free." More than half of the Gospel of St Luke is telling about Jesus visiting people, having meals with them, and then something happens. Visits are signs of love. One wants to visit the person one loves. Very often something happens in a visit. A new relationship is set up. A new plan is hatched, a problem is solved. We find Jesus curing the lepers as he visits a town. As he visits Capernaum he cures the centurion's servant and at Nain he brings the son of the widow back to life. He scandalizes the Pharisees by often eating at the homes of people who, to them, were sinners.

The people of God visit one another. It is how we show our love and concern and care for each other. It is one of the things we pastors do. We’re even given special parking spaces at the hospital because we visit. And every time we visit, somehow, we hope to be used of God to bring his presence and his light into the places we are called to go.

Back in May, when it was announced that I was going to be appointed as your pastor, I met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee for a sort of “Get to Know Each Other” meeting. Betty Davidson asked, “Are you a visiting pastor?” I try to be. I never visit as much as I’d like to. No pastor I know does. I could spend my entire 60-hour work week doing nothing but visiting, and I still wouldn’t be able to visit enough. I also wouldn’t be a very adept at preaching, administration, evangelism, outreach, community relations and responsibilities, overseeing staff, leading worship, spiritual renewal and self-care and the whole host of other duties that I have as this church’s pastor.

The story is told of a young pastor who went to visit a homebound member of his congregation. There was a bowl of nuts on the table, and as he visited, he would absentmindedly take a few nuts and eat them. He was rather embarrassed when he looked down and realized he had eaten the entire bowl of nuts. He apologized, but the woman he was visiting told him not to worry. She said, “Since I lost my teeth, all I can do is suck the chocolate off them, anyway.”

Visiting is important – it is something that the people of God do to take the presence of God and church to each other and into the world. I know of some churches that expect their pastor to do all the visiting. Unless the pastor visits, it doesn’t count. Even in some churches with several thousand members and multiple pastors, there is the perception that unless the senior pastor has made the visit herself or himself, it doesn’t count.

This is unfortunate. The perception is that the minister is a sort of paid professional, for whom a congregation has contracted to provide certain professional services. These services might loosely be described as “ministry.” In our context, then, a minister is a paid professional who does ministry.

Yet, we understand all Christians to be ministers. All Christians are members of the body, all Christians have a role to play. God is surely present whether a visit is performed by a member of the clergy or by a layperson. Whether lay or clergy, the church has visited, because I am the church, and you are the church, and we are the church together. Whatever you do, the church does, whatever I do, the church does. And it takes all of us.

We all have a role to play. God gifts us each according to the role God desires for us to play. It doesn’t all fall on one person. One person doesn’t have to have the whole picture, because we all work on different aspects of it. Too many churches are relying on their pastor to do everything, and too many others are waiting for permission from their pastors. If God has placed something within you to do, please just do it. Ministry is not just the pastor’s job. It’s for everyone, and it’s not a spectator sport. To help you consider how you’ll be involved in ministry, there’s an insert in your bulletin that says, “YES! I want to get involved!” at the top. Fill that out and drop it in the offering plate when it comes by – these are real concrete things you can do that will help you grow in your faith and help the church fulfill its ministry in the world. Everything on there is something you can do to take the presence of God into someone else’s life.

Friends, if we’re not about bringing the presence of God into people’s lives, I don’t know why we’re here. If that is not the driving force behind everything we do, we may as well lock our doors and go out of business. Everything we do needs to be about announcing and bringing the presence of God, and if we’re not doing that, I don’t know why we’re doing anything at all. We should be about the business of carrying God into the world.

Which brings us back to Mary and Elizabeth. When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, she took the presence of God. There is a Greek word that has been used to describe Mary for centuries. She is the Theotokos – literally, the “God-bearer.” Mary is the one who bears God. The baby she carries, the one who will be named Jesus, is none other than God-come-to-Earth, he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And Jesus is the good news. Jesus is the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news of God come to earth. It is about God reconciling all things to God’s very self, about God restoring all that has ever been marred, about righting every wrong, about turning the kingdoms of the world upside down and ushering in a new kingdom of peace. Attempts to make the Gospel any other thing will succeed only to sell it short.

The Gospel is not a story about Jesus. The Gospel is Jesus. When Mary carried Jesus, she was the first one to carry the Gospel. She carried the good news that God has come to earth, and through her, all people on earth continue to be blessed.

We Protestants have not really known what to do with Mary. Many of you probably remember times of great suspicion and animosity between Catholics and Protestants, and no doubt, a lot of it centered around Mary. We are reluctant to call her “Blessed” for fear of elevating her to too high a level of prominence. But right here in today’s text, Elizabeth greets Mary as “Blessed among women.” Indeed, Mary is blessed, and we would do well to pay her the honor she is due.

Growing up on the schoolyard, we all knew that one line of taunting was crossing the line, and that was talking bad about someone’s mama. While we all had a full arsenal of “Your mama’s so fat” and “Your mama’s so ugly” jokes, they were only used sparingly. Talking about someone’s mama was declaring war.

We Protestants should be careful about talking bad about Jesus’ mama. The son of Mary is also the son of God, God who dwells among us, God who pitches his tent with us, God who moves into our neighborhood. Mary is blessed among women, she is even, as the text reminds us, favored. I fear that anytime we diminish the role of Mary, we diminish the role of her son. However, honoring the mother leads us to exalting the son of God, and then we can join Mary in singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

Mary went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, and in so doing, she carried the very presence of God into her life. The text tells us that the child within Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy upon hearing Mary’s voice. These two women found their lives pregnant with God’s possibilities, and the result of that pregnancy was the rebirth of grace. And every time we, like these two, dare to imagine that with God nothing will be impossible, grace is reborn in our midst. Every time we find ourselves caught up in a kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love – the very things for which the candles in this advent wreath stand – grace is re-born. Every time we work for the furtherance of these values in places where they seem foreign, grace is re-born.

As we celebrate this Advent season, as we prepare for all the comings of Christ, let us commit ourselves to being harbingers and messengers of his kingdom. The birth of Jesus marks the beginning of a new kingdom, a kingdom for which weekly we pray. This happens when God’s people do the things God would have us do. It is not something for which we sit idly by and pray happens, for we are the hands and feet of Christ upon the earth. It is the reality for which we earnestly pray, but it is also the reality for which we diligently work.

I am asking each of you to do something tangible this Christmas. Our society teaches us that Christmas is like your birthday – more about the presents and the parties than about the inbreaking of God’s presence into the world. But friends, Christmas is not our birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday. Do something for Jesus this year.

Jesus came to heal the brokenness in our lives. This was his aim – to fix the broken relationship between humanity and God. That broken relationship always manifested itself in a broken relationship between people, as well. We see the evidence of this brokenness everywhere – war, violence, abuse, enslavement, poverty– and a whole host of social ills. Jesus came to do something about these; this Christmas, as we remember his birth, let’s do something about them as well.

This Christmas, I invite you to join me in a conspiracy. I invite you to join me in spending half of what you had planned to on Christmas presents for your friends and family. Enjoy the additional time with those who are closest to you instead of waiting in line at the mall. If you were planning to spend $1000 on Christmas gifts, try spending just $500. If you were planning to spend $100, try spending just $50.

But then, join me in donating that other half to bringing healing in the places of the worst human brokenness in the world. Through December, whatever you spend on Christmas gifts, bring an equal amount to worship. Let’s send our money to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for their ongoing work in the Darfur region of Sudan, named by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet today. There’s information in your bulletin that you can read further on this. Place your “conspiracy offering” in an envelope and mark it UMCOR. You can make this offering any Sunday in December, and our entire Christmas Eve offering will also be designated to this purpose.

We gather here in December, on this second Sunday of Advent, with stories of expectant virgins and angelic choirs, of babies who leap in their mothers’ wombs. We come to hear these familiar stories, not because we need to be reminded of their details, but because they stir the hope within us yet again, because we need to believe that with God, all things will be possible, because we need grace to be re-born in our midst.

The pregnant Mary visited the pregnant Elizabeth, and the fullness of God’s presence dwelt among them. God is coming into the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and I hope and pray that something within each of us jumps for joy at his presence. And when something within us leaps because of God’s presence, we find our lives impregnated with purpose – to proclaim the kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love through all the earth.

May we be those who take the presence of God into the world. Like Mary, may we carry the Gospel, and may we see grace born and re-born all around us.