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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Repeat the Sounding Joy - Christmas Eve 2015 (Luke 2:1-7)

Written and delivered by
Revs. Ashley & A.J. Thomas
Morehead United Methodist Church, Greensboro NC
Stokesdale United Methodist Church, Stokesdale, NC

Come in, weary friend, come in from the heat!

Come in and sit down, take the very best seat!

Welcome, dear friend, to the Angel Hotel!

The finest in Bethlehem, I’m glad now to tell!

Yes, we have room, we have room for you.

One with a hot tub?  Or camelside view?

I’m sorry, forgive me if I seem sorta crazy.

This time of year, you see, makes my mind hazy.

Something happened right here, this very same night.

Would you like to hear more? I thought you just might.

Sit back and relax, right next to the fire.

And we’ll tell you a tale that’s sure to inspire.

Rome ordered a census, they wanted a count

Of the whole population, every valley and mount.

People could only be counted in their hometown,

Which meant they came here, from miles all around.

They came here in droves, they came on their camels,

They came on their donkeys, and all sorts of mammals.

And all of them needed a place they could stay.

Who were we to turn business away?

We filled all the rooms with guests from afar.

We rented the closets; some slept in the bar.

We stacked them three high all the way down the hall,

And still they kept coming; we found room for them all.

I was headed upstairs to get me some rest,

When I heard a knock on the door – a very late guest.

Standing outside, the poor couple looked tired.

They held one of my coupons I knew had expired.

“Sir, if you please, we need room for the night.

We’re cold and we’re tired and we missed our flight.

So we rented this donkey and rode all the way here,

From Nazareth – no small task this time of year.”

He was a bit older, a working class guy,

gray in his beard, compassion in his eye.

His wife was younger, barely more than a child,

Her manner was gentle, tender, and mild.

I was just preparing to turn them away;

We had no more room, there was nowhere to stay!

I have a heart, really I do!

There just wasn’t room to squeeze in a few.

But that’s when we realized, standing there in the cold,

The woman was pregnant, very much so, I’m told.

We couldn’t say no, not with her condition,

But still the dilemma – where would we put them?

And then an idea flashed bright in my mind;

There was yet one more place they could go to unwind:

Our stable out back where our animals sleep,

We could put them up there, and rent it out cheap!

They looked the place over and said they’d be fine.

I brought out some food on which they could dine,

Then I bid them good night and went off to bed,

Falling asleep just as soon as I laid down my head.

I was wakened at three by my beautiful wife,

Who knows I need sleep lest there be strife.

I knew right away there was something the matter,

As I listened to her excitedly chatter.

Come quickly!  Come quickly! O, you must see!

A sight to behold – come downstairs with me!

I pulled the breath in and pushed the words out,

He still didn’t know what I was talking about!

She paused, caught her breath, sat down in a chair,

Regained her composure, and smoothed out her hair.

And began to tell me how events did unfold.

I thought, “I can’t take this; I’m getting too old.”

Remember the couple out back in the stable?

Two are now three; believe that, if you’re able.

The woman gave birth just an hour ago

To a beautiful boy, I’m telling you so.

He’s healthy and happy, they’re all filled with joy

To welcome tonight this wonderful boy.

You must come and see and congratulate them

Imagine it – here – in our Bethlehem!”

The stars shone so brightly on our little town,

Made us look like a beacon for miles all around.

I needed no lantern to light up my way.

The stars were so bright, it could have been day.

“It’s something,” I thought, but I didn’t know what

And sensed the excitement, building down in my gut.

So still, so solemn, the world lay in wait,

Yet knowing this day would forever be great.

We stopped just outside that cold, smelly cave –

The stable, the barn – good shelter it gave.

Around the stone manger, the family stood still.

Adoring the child, what a warm, precious thrill.

I stepped just inside and they looked up at me,

They lit up with smiles just as wide as could be.

“Come over and see” they said with such joy.

“Come over and meet our new baby boy.”

I walked through the filth and over the hay

And right to the manger, where the new child lay.

“What name is he given?” I wondered aloud.

“His name is Jesus,” said his mother, so proud.

Then she proceeded to say unto me,

“This child is special, he’ll set the world free!

From darkness and heartache and war and from strife;

To beating these things, he’ll devote his whole life.

“From fighting and feuding and hardness of heart,

He’ll reconcile all things, give all a new start.

The divide between persons will cease to exist,

No more divisions from east or from west.

“His name is Jesus,” she said with a grin,

“For he shall save all from the depth of their sin.

He’s God’s Anointed, yes, He is the One.

His name is Jesus, and he is God’s son.”

I hoped she was kidding, so I looked in her eyes

And saw she believed it, it was no great surprise.

I turned to her husband to see what he thought.

He confirmed the whole story with one silent nod.

We paused for a moment and let it sink in.

The child will save us all from our sin?

I wrestled a moment with what I’d just heard,

Pondering carefully every last word.

They claimed the outrageous!  They thought it was true!

The child they had birthed would save me and you!

I thought they were crazy, that’s how it all seemed.

My stable?  In Bethlehem?  Birthplace for a king?

The place was so lowly, so near to the earth.

Hardly the place for the Messiah’s birth.

I knew what the prophets had forseen back of old

How events of Messiah were supposed to unfold.

They predicted a king! A strong mighty leader!

Not a child born to peasants in my cattle feeder.

Why would these people claim something so grand

When they held so little in their peasant hand?

How could this child be the long-promised king?

Who would ever believe such a thing?

You probably should know that we’d never had use

For faith or religion, they just seem an excuse

For dear feeble minds to be filled to the brim

With fanciful tales they believe on a whim.

This couple was nice and they seemed quite devout.

They believed God was working this whole thing about.

But we were skeptics, we didn’t believe

That God had some purpose he intended to weave.

At least, we were trying to cling to our doubt

But all our excuses were plain wearing out.

The family looked joyful and filled with such hope,

Our doubt was hanging by a very thin rope.

The child was held in his mother’s embrace,

Who lovingly gave him a kiss on the face.

Her husband stood by filled with love and with care

I was honored and humbled to be standing there.

Now, listen quite close to what I must say.

Because it sounds quite absurd in every way.

You’re free to think I’m a crazy old guy,

That’s fine if you do, I won’t wonder why.

But friend, I must tell you just what I perceived.

In my stable out back, on this very same eve.

What we experienced is a tale to be told,

Again and again, from those long days of old.

When we held the child, what we felt was quite odd:

Somehow we just knew, the child was God.

How did we know? I really don’t know!

Just something within us made us know so.

I can’t quite explain it. I’ve tried! Take my word!

What we experienced just seems so absurd.

What happened could only be described as an art;

Something softened within us, deep down in our hearts.

It’s a feeling I knew wasn’t there just for me.  Or me.

It’s for the whole world, it’s even for thee.

The child is God-with-us, yes, Emmanuel,

The presence of God is here with us to dwell.

God has entered our world, let all hearts prepare room!

The light of his presence dispels all our gloom.

His birth is a thin place between heaven and earth.

God’s presence has crowned all creation with worth.

God reached through the thin place to you and to me.

Providing new life for all people to see.

The child is God-with-us, yes, Emmanuel.

So remember this story, remember it well.

Write it and tell it, share the good news!

Christ Jesus is born for Gentiles and Jews.

His birth didn’t happen just once in my stable,

He is born yet again in hearts that are able

To prepare room for God to make home in our heart,

With forgiveness and love, granting all a fresh start.

He didn’t come once and then vanish away.

He can soften our hearts here and now, on this day.

He is changing all hearts toward God’s kingdom way

He brought heaven to earth, his kingdom shall stay.

Well, there you have it. The tale you have heard,

Of what happened this night – Believe every word.

You can take it or leave it, that’s still up to you.

This time each year, there’s still something to do.

Open your heart to receive Jesus in.

If you’ve done it before, then do it again.

Let love fill your being, and joy flood your soul,

Prepare room for the Savior to make your life whole.

May God’s love shine its light down deep within you.

May it touch your whole life and make you brand new.

May you say it long after we’ve gone out of sight,

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a God-night.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Does Your Soul Magnify The Lord? (Luke 1:39-46, The Fourth Sunday of Advent)

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Many first-time parents are surprised to discover that once they have their baby, people stop talking to them.  When you start carrying a precious little person around with you, people will talk to the baby, and ignore you.  This should be liberating for new parents – people will not notice that you’ve worn the same shirt for four days, they won’t notice what your hair looks like, they won’t notice that your socks don’t match, if you’re even wearing socks!

It’s all about the baby.  Strangers will come up to you on the street and begin babbling and making googly faces to the bundle of blankets in your arms like they are old friends.  I’ve always thought that if you wanted to mess with people, you could wrap up something else in blankets – I dunno, a loaf of bread or a ham or something – and carry it around and see how long it takes people to realize they’re talking to your lunch and not a baby.

You carry around a baby, and all the attention goes to the baby.  Thankfully, people will still invite you places, because they know that the baby travels with you, and if you don’t show up, then neither does the baby.  It’s nice to come along for the ride, but the increased attention is more about the baby than it is about you.

It’s not about us.  Good lesson to learn, today.  It’s not about me.  Say that with me: “It’s not about me.”  That’s a lesson that’s well worth-learning.  It’s not about me.  And, perhaps no one knew that more clearly than Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mary has gone to visit Elizabeth at her home in the Judean hill country.  We don’t really know much about the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth – they are sometimes called “cousins,” but many of us probably use the term “cousin” to describe a relative whose relationship to us is sufficiently vague for us to not know how, exactly, we are related.  Do you have cousins like that?  I know I do.  Mary will give birth to Jesus, Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist, which makes Jesus and John “cousins” in the same exact way. They’re related, but we’re not sure how.

Mary and Elizabeth are both pregnant when they meet up in today’s Scripture reading.  When Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s voice, the child in her womb – John the Baptist – leaped for joy.  I am told that babies leap and jump and kick and do all sorts of things in the womb.  I’ll take your word for it – I am not now nor have I ever been pregnant, and alas, I do not remember my own time in the womb!  I’m told that spicy food made me active, and I’d stretch out and hit the inside of the ribs and the bladder at the same time.

Babies do all that sort of stuff fairly frequently, so, it’s interesting that Elizabeth says the baby within her “leaped for joy.”  This wasn’t just one of his regular movements that she knew, she specifically says that he “leaped for joy.”

If you were here last week, you remember that we talked about joy.  How, to be a Christian is necessarily to be a person of joy, that there is no such thing as a joyless Christian.  We said that joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.

It only makes sense that baby John would jump with joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting, because Mary carried Jesus, and Jesus and Joy always go together.

It would be easy for this sort of thing to go to Mary’s head, but Mary knows it’s not about her; it’s about Jesus.  Even so, when God was looking for someone to be the mother of his Son, God chose Mary.  Made her highly-favored among women.  Blessed her.

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.  “It’s not about Mary, it’s about Jesus,” we would say, as if Catholics didn’t seem to know that.  By the way, Catholics also know that it’s about Jesus.  I don’t know a single Catholic who doesn’t know that it’s about Jesus!  And yet, we sometimes got far too hung up on Mary.

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.  To talk trash about someone’s mama was to talk trash about them.  Talking about someone’s mama was declaring war. 

We Protestants should be careful about talking bad about Jesus’ mama, because in so doing, we are also talking bad about Jesus.  The son of Mary is also the son of God, Mary carries this child, tradition calls her Theotokos, literally “the mother of God” or “God-bearer.”  Indeed, it is a blessing to bear God and to be used to give birth to God’s love for the world.  Mary knows it’s not about her; it’s about God. In the midst of all that, Mary breaks into a song called “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

She doesn’t sing, “Hey everybody – look at me!”  She points it toward God.  My soul – my heart, my life, the very depth and essence of my being – magnifies the Lord.  Mary’s heart and soul is humble – she isn’t full of herself or her own ideas.  She isn’t self-protective or cynical.  She’s checked her ego at the door and she’s ready to be used as part of God’s purpose in the world.  Mary isn’t in this for herself.  She’s in it for God.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings.  And, that she sings it rather than speaks it is a detail we ought not overlook. This is the season for singing. One of the things most of us like best about the Christmas season is the music—provided you don’t spend too much time at the Mall!  Even those of us who don’t particularly like to sing get into the mood when it comes to Christmas carols.  We sing because it lifts our spirits during what can be a difficult time of year for some of us.  We sing because we relish the joy in the eyes of our loved ones.  Like Mary, we sing in recognition of the wondrous abundance of God’s love and grace.

Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  Magnify – what does it mean to magnify something?

Make it bigger.  Bring it closer.  Bring out a clearer picture, a more detailed picture. “My soul magnifies the Lord” – my soul makes God bigger, brings God closer, my soul helps us see a clearer picture of God, a more detailed and accurate picture of God.

Magnify can also mean “to glorify,” or “to give attention to.”  To magnify God is to give attention to God.  Every time I preach a sermon, my aim is that it magnifies God – that it glorifies God, that it gives attention to God.  The role of preaching has been described as being a sign post along the journey of faith, pointing the way to God, without drawing much attention to oneself.  My hope is that every sermon points to God more than it does to me, because it’s not about me, it’s about God.

J.S. Bach is widely-recognized as one of the greatest composers of all time.  He was also a devout Christian, a Lutheran, in fact.  When he wrote out the music he composed, at the bottom of every sheet he wrote the letters, “SDG,” short for the Latin phrase soli deo Gloria, which means “the glory to God alone.”  He never wanted any attention and praise given to him to overshadow the glory that rightly belongs to God.

The same could be said of our choir and musicians.  Their music is given, not so much for our enjoyment, but as an offering to God.  If we enjoy it, too, that’s great, but the glory in it belongs neither to the performer nor the listener – the glory is for God.

All of worship, in fact, isn’t about us – it’s about God!  It’s all about magnifying God – giving attention to God, pointing to God, making God clearer and more visible.  More than our tastes, more than our preferences, more than what we like, more than what we don’t like.  It’s about God.  Rather than evaluating worship on the basis of whether or not it meets our needs – as if we were are consumers at the Golden Corral buffet-line of spiritual goods and services – we might simply look for the ways it points us toward God.

We don’t come to worship to evaluate or consume, because it’s not about us, it’s about God.  We come to magnify the Lord, not just in an hour of worship on Sunday morning, but in worshipful lives all week long.

Like Mary, we are all called to magnify the Lord.  Our soul – our heart, the very core of our being – giving glory and attention to God to make God bigger and bring God closer.

The most concrete way we can do that is to love.  At all times, in all places, toward all people, let us love.  Our faith witnesses to the reality that God is Love, when Jesus grew he told us that the greatest command was to love God and our neighbor, and so if we are to be people who magnify the Lord, may our souls make Love bigger.

Would it be that people know we are Christians because our lives are dedicated to making Love bigger.  I can’t think of a better witness.  I can’t think of a more concrete way to magnify the Lord.

It’s not about us.  It’s not about you or me, it’s not about us or them.  It’s about God.

Parents always claim that the moment they welcomed a child into their lives, their lives were changed forever for the better.  The same is true when we welcome Jesus into our lives - our lives are changed forever for the better.  A deep and indescribable joy is born within us, that joy fills us up to overflowing, it can’t be contained but bubbles out of us and touches others with God’s love.  When that happens, people jump for joy while others break into song, and in all of it, God is glorified.

Mary magnifies the Lord.  She has, in so many ways, focused and delivered God’s love.  She helps us see that we, too, are tended by God’s love, and we, too, are needed for delivering that love to the world.

And so, as you approach Christmas, I hope you do so as Mary did – pregnant with possibility, full and ready to burst with God’s love.

This Advent and Christmas, I invite you to become an expert in making God’s love bigger and delivering it to the world.  Are you willing to do that?  If so, then Hail Mary and Praise God.  Christ just might be born among us again.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Because Joy is Better Than Happiness (Philippians 4:4-7, The Third Sunday of Advent)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Does anyone here have a motto?  What’s a motto?  I dunno, what’s a motto with you?

A motto is a maxim, a short phrase meant to formally summarize the general motivation or intention of an individual, family, social group or organization.  At best, they should be memorable and recognizable – let’s see if you recognize some of these famous corporate mottos:

“Quality is Job One.” – Ford Motor Company

“Just Do It.” – Nike

“Finger Lickin’ Good.” – Kentucky Fried Chicken

“The San Francisco Treat.” – Rice-a-Roni

“The Ultimate Driving Machine.” – BMW

A good motto says something about the product or service or group or person it represents.  Again, it’s a memorable summary statement.

Many individuals have developed personal mottos.  These can serve as sort of a guiding principle for decision-making, attitudes, and behaviors.  They help set the boundaries for who a person aspires to be and what they’re about.

Whether you realize it or not, some of you have personal mottos.  What are the phrases you hear yourself saying the most often?  More than likely, that phrase functions as a sort of motto.

One of Bob Sawyer’s mottos could be, “If it’s not illegal or immoral, get with the program and get on with it.”  Mike Myers’ motto could be, “Come on people, let’s get this bus, already!”

That should be enough to make the rest of you self-conscious for the rest of the day.  What are the phrases you say most often, particularly the ones that guide your decisions, help you prioritize, shape your attitudes and behaviors?  If you’re having trouble coming up with one, ask the people closest to you what you say most often, because they might recognize it better than you, yourself do.  More than likely, you’ve got yourself a life motto right there.  The next question, of course, is whether it’s a motto you’re proud to be known for, or not.

If Bobby McFerrin had a personal motto, I think it would be “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” You probably know this song – sing a few lines with me:


Here’s a little song I wrote, You might want to sing it note for note:

Don’t worry – be happy!

In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double

Don’t worry – be happy!


This motto is starting to echo a bit of what we just read in the Scripture.  We are in the Advent season, preparing, waiting, watching for the coming of Christ into our world.  Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, it’s the day we focus on JOY, and the Lectionary has delivered us this little gem, four verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

These four verses could easily be a motto for the church. “Rejoice in the Lord, always!” it says.  Have you ever had a teacher or a parent or an employer say something along the lines of “If you remember nothing else I say, remember this” – sort of underscoring the most important thing, the nugget that shouldn’t be lost, even if the rest of it slips out of your head?  Paul does the same thing here.  “Rejoice in the Lord, always, [and lest we miss the point] again, I say, Rejoice!”

Friends, Paul’s teaching here is clear: to be a Christian is to be a person of joy.  We are called to be people of joy.

Easier said than done.  Perhaps we do not live in the best of circumstances, we’ve got real problems and real worries and real concerns, and Paul is telling us to be people of joy?  With all due respect, and I said, “With all due respect,” my life is not filled with the most joy-inducing of circumstances right now.”

Of course, neither was Paul’s life.  He wrote this letter from prison.  Believe me, a first-century Roman prison was not a pleasant place to be – not an environment that naturally lent itself to joy.  And yet, Paul writes for us to rejoice, to be people of joy always – in all circumstances and at all times and with all people – what gives, here?

What gives is the difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is a mood, an emotion, but it’s not something that comes from inside us, it’s driven by what’s around us.  Happiness is a product of our circumstances.  We might describe it as the difference between having a good day or a bad day – the weather is good, my team won, I have a good job, my family is healthy, there’s enough money in my bank account – I’m having a good day, I’m in a good mood, I’m happy.

And to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being happy.  But, have you ever noticed how quickly a good day can turn into a bad day?  Happiness is fleeting; it doesn’t last because our circumstances change around us all the time, often in ways that we have no control over whatsoever.

And so, we often end up chasing happiness – finding ways to improve our circumstances, and therefore, to make ourselves happier.  We try to buy happiness, whether for ourselves or those around us.  At this time of the year, does a big pile of presents make someone happier?  Not really.  It might make them giddy for a moment, but the lasting effect is to make them selfish and spoiled!

Happiness is fleeting, at best.  Paul isn’t telling us to be happy.  He’s telling us, regardless of our circumstances, to be people of joy.  Happiness is a product of our circumstances; joy is a product of our relationships.

Be people of joy.  Paul writes these words from prison, less-than-happy circumstances.  But as he thinks about the people to whom he is writing, he is filled with joy because of his relationship with them, and their relationship, together, with God.

Happiness is fleeting, while joy lasts.  Happiness is a feeling, while joy is a disposition.  Happiness is rooted in our circumstances, while joy is rooted in our relationships.  As Christians, we are not called to be happy.  We are called to be people of joy.  If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this: to be a Christian is to be a person of joy.

Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll never have problems or concerns or difficulties.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never have a bad day.  It doesn’t mean going through life with some fake plastic smile on your face.

What it does mean, however, is that the light that shines within you is always brighter than the darkness that might be around you.  In all circumstances, we are called to be people of joy.  When life tries to get us down, God’s love lifts us up.  To be people of joy means that we are so filled with God’s presence, so filled with love toward God and all other people, that love and grace shine forth from every fiber of our being!

Take a look at this picture.  Which one of these people looks like a person who is filled with joy?  Based on that, which one do you suppose is probably the Christian? Do you ever find that people outside the faith are often more joyful people than we Christians can be?  Friends, as people of faith, we need to learn to loosen up and lighten up sometimes.  For goodness’ sake, we need to learn not to take ourselves so seriously all the time!

Mark Hart says, An annoyed and joyless Christian is the devil’s greatest billboard.”

Ever met a person for whom that description fits the bill?  More to the point, ever been that person?

I have to confess my own annoyance with those who claim to be Christians, and yet, are annoyed and joyless all the time.  It bothers me because it witnesses to something quite the opposite of who God is, and how we, as God’s people, created in God’s image, are to live.  What does it say about our faith if having faith puts a permanent scowl on our face?  How do we witness to the presence of God within us if we are mean, angry, and judgmental?

When I was in Boone, there was a man in the church there named Bill Roy.  Bill is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.  He frequently said, “There are far too many Christians who go through life looking sad, angry, and defeated. ‘I’m a Christian,’ they sigh, like it’s some horrible, awful, life-sucking burden.  They say it like they stopped having any fun and enjoying life the moment they became a Christian.  They’re so worried about who is going to make it into heaven, they’re putting the rest of us through hell.”

And then, he’d break into his trademark wide smile, throw his shoulders back, and say, “But the Christian life, it’s such a joyful thing!  When God is living in you, when you’re full of his love, it’s just such a joyful thing!  Like the Scripture today says, he was joyful in everything.

A joyless Christian?  No such thing, really.  The apostle Paul called us to be people of joy, because joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.

How’s that for a good motto?  We are called to be people of joy.  If you remember nothing else today, remember this: to be a Christian is to be a person of joy.  Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. 

May we be joyful in everything.  Even in circumstances that are less than happy, even on our bad days, may the love and grace and light of God’s presence within us be brighter than the circumstances around us.