Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sermon: "They Grow So Fast"

Scripture Intro - Luke 2:41-52

A few days ago, on Christmas Eve, we heard stories about Jesus’ birth.
Next Sunday we will celebrate the Epiphany and the arrival of the Wise Men from the east. Yet on this first Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gives us a story about Jesus as a twelve-year-old adolescent.
Boy, are those wise men in for a surprise.

Luke is the only gospel writer to include a story about Jesus’ childhood.
He uses it as way of transitioning between his long narrative about Jesus’ birth and the story which marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an adult – Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Luke included this story of Jesus at the age of 12 possibly because he knew his readers would be curious to know what happened in Jesus life in between these two monumental events. Perhaps Luke wished to show us that Jesus, like all of us, experienced a transitional stage in his life; that he didn’t just wake up one day as a fully formed agent of God.  That he too, needed time to grow into the person that God had called him to be.

Here is the story from the Gospel of Luke. Listen now for the Word of God:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.
And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.
When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. 

Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 27, 2015 – First Sunday of Christmas
Luke 2:41-52

“They Grow So Fast”

In many Christian traditions, including the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, the first Sunday after Christmas is known as the Feast of the Holy Family. 
This is the day where Mary, Joseph, and their brand new baby, Jesus, are lifted up and celebrated as the model human family – coming together to live a loving and faithful life before God.

We have Mary, who despite being young and poor and unmarried showed incredible courage and said “Yes” to giving birth to the son of God.
We have Joseph, who did the righteous and honorable thing by marrying Mary instead of shunning her, and protecting and caring for her all the way to Bethlehem.
And we have Jesus, the Holy Child, the son of God, who was born perfect and sinless and destined to save the world.

That’s a model family that we all can aspire to emulate, isn’t it?
Easy peasy.

The reality is, despite our best efforts and our desire to have the perfect family, we all can’t help but fall way short of the mark.
And the one time of year that those shortcomings can become most evident is when families come together to celebrate Christmas.

On Christmas Eve we may put on our Sunday best and head off to church with visions of our family gathering around the Christmas ham the next day, opening presents and sharing laughter and joy.
But outside of Hallmark cards and holiday movies, there aren’t many family Christmases that end up that way.
Inevitably, something or someone fails to live up to the ideal that we carry in our heads.
A gift fails to arrive in time, the Christmas ham comes out too salty or too dry, and the kids (and adults) are over tired, over excited, over fed, and prone to meltdowns.

I remember my own mother trying so hard to make Christmas live up to everyone's expectations.
This is even more difficult to do when you have ten children.
But every year, she’d cart us all off to midnight Mass, and listen to us gripe about itchy dresses and choking neck ties.
She put up with 4-year-olds who got up way too early on Christmas morning, and 14-year-olds who refused to get up before noon.
She endured the inevitable fights over who got bigger or better presents and the tears that flowed when the one thing someone had asked for or HAD to have was not under the tree. 
And every year, we’d sit down at the table to a Christmas dinner that my mom had spent days planning for and preparing…..and half way through the meal she’d scream, jump up, run to the kitchen and return with a plate of smoking dinner rolls that had been burned as black as hockey pucks.
Every year.  

The Holy Family is held up as the ideal family – for good reason.
Not for their holiness, but for their humanness.
Because despite our tendency to depict Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus wearing halos above their heads – in icons, stained glass windows, and in the image we have of them in our minds – in many ways they were human just like us.

The gospel reading we heard today is evidence of that. 

According to Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph were on their way home after the Passover celebration and they had traveled a full day away from Jerusalem before they realized 12-year-old Jesus was no longer with them.

For a Passover pilgrimage, this was not unusual.
They were likely traveling in a large group of family and friends, with the woman walking separately from the men.
Mary probably assumed that Joseph had Jesus, and Joseph probably assumed that he was with Mary.
It was only when they came together at some point - perhaps at a town along the way - that they realized that no one had seen Jesus since they left Jerusalem.

We can imagine what that walk back to Jerusalem must have been like for these frantic parents.
It was a full day’s journey, and as much as we like to revere the holy family as being saint like and beyond reproach, there was undoubtedly some anger and blame being tossed around on that walk,
as each passing hour mother and father alike grew even more worried and fearful of what could happen to a 12-year-old boy left to fend for himself in a big city like Jerusalem.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus with “great anxiety,” for three days, before they finally found him.
And they found him in the safest place that he could be.
Sitting in the Temple amongst the rabbis and teachers, listening to them speak and asking them questions, as any 12-year-old boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah might do. 

When Mary caught sight of her son she didn’t glide up to him with her halo aglow and bless him for taking his first steps towards fulfilling his destiny as the Messiah.
Instead she did what any mother would do after searching for her lost son for three days.
She yelled at him.
Especially after she found him safe and sound and seemingly oblivious to all the trouble and worry that he had caused.

“How could you worry us like this?” she said.
“Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety…how could you treat us with such disrespect?”

Jesus responded with wisdom beyond his years….or with sarcasm, depending on how you read it.
He said, “Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I would be in my father’s house?”
In other words, why didn’t his parents just assume that he would be in the Temple – in God’s house?
Had they forgotten who their son was?
Had they forgotten about the angels who announced his birth singing Glory to God in the Highest?

Well, apparently they had.

Here Mary and Joseph behave not like the parents of God incarnate, but instead like any parent with a lost child might behave.
They fear for his safety, they have no idea where he could have gone, and they don’t trust that he has the power or the ability to look after himself.

But even if Mary and Joseph did remember the fanfare that surrounded their son’s birth, perhaps to them he was all too human in every other way.

Maybe Jesus grew up as any child did, with skinned knees and a fear of monsters under the bed.
Maybe he slammed doors and threw temper tantrums over meaningless things as children are prone to do.

My sister-in-law has seven children under the age of 12.
Earlier this week she wrote on Facebook: "Child number 5 is throwing a tantrum this morning. Because it’s Tuesday and she doesn’t like Tuesdays."

Another friend posted a picture of her toddler crying and lying spread eagle on the floor. She commented, “He ate an entire package of mini muffins and then got upset because someone had eaten all the mini muffins.”

The truth is we don’t know what Jesus was like as a child.
And we don’t know what Mary and Joseph were like as parents apart from this one story when Jesus was 12 and a few others that took place just after he was born.

But it’s likely that this Holy Family – this human family - was far from perfect.
Especially when placed in the context of their larger family.  
Like many of us Jesus had uncles and aunts, and cousins and siblings.
I’m sure none of them was perfect either…especially when they gathered together at the holidays.

Likely some had a tendency to drink too much or complain too much.
Some were too judgmental or held others to unreasonably high expectations.
Some were always poking their nose where it didn’t belong or creating drama out of thin air.
Some likely hadn’t spoken to each other in years because of some past argument, insult, or slight.

Sound like any family you might know?

Forget the “Hallmark Card” scene that others strive to recreate,
for some, the Christmas season is approached with feelings of dread,
because of all the emotions that get stirred up when families come together.

And for those who are estranged from their family, or never knew their family, or have outlived their family, celebrating a holiday that is culturally awash in images of family – right down to the Holy Family at the manger – is difficult indeed.

But maybe that’s the point.
Mary and Joseph were far from home – and far from their family - on that cold winter’s night in Bethlehem.
All they had was each other….and God.

And on that long journey back to Jerusalem, as they argued and fretted over the safety of their missing son, again, all they had was each other….and God.
But in both instances they had much more than that.

In Bethlehem they had shepherds and wise men and a generous stable owner.
And in Jerusalem they had rabbis and teachers and Temple members who kept their son safe and engaged until they arrived.

Regardless of connection by blood or by name, family can be whoever stands by us, comforts us, or comes to our aid when we’re in need.
Our work family, our church family, the friends we’ve had since school, and the people in the community we live in – can sometimes be nearer and dearer to us than our own flesh and blood.

The Holy Family is a model for the human family.
Not the perfect family, but the real family – with all its flaws, scars, and tribulations.

The Holy Family is also something to be revered in its uniqueness, and held up as something we were never meant to be.
There is only one Mary and one Joseph – one mother and father who nurtured and cared for the incarnate God.

And there is only one Jesus – one prophet, teacher, messiah, who dedicated his life, and gave his life, to the belief that this world is God’s world, and that God’s love, flowing through us, is the solution to every affliction we face.

The Holy Family is a human family,
and in many ways their story is our story,
but their story is also worthy of setting up on a pedestal on this First Sunday after Christmas.

After all, it’s not every day that God is born into the world as one of us.

And just knowing that God knows what it’s like to enjoy and endure being a part of a family, should ease our concern that our family is not the perfect family.

Even Jesus got annoyed with his parents, and they got annoyed with him.
But the love they felt for one another was steadfast and unconditional.

As is God’s love for us.

Thanks be to God.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: "Lights, Please"

Reverend Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2015 – Christmas Eve

“Lights Please”

“Fear not. I bring tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord,
 and this shall be a sign unto you.”

For many of us of a certain generation, when we hear these words from the Gospel of Luke we can’t help but hear them spoken in a familiar voice,
one we’ve heard deliver these prophetic words year after year  -
the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

For many of us, Linus and the Christmas story are forever entwined in our minds and in our hearts.  
Because Linus is the one who told the story.

While Snoopy is caught up in getting the light display on his doghouse just right, and Lucy is trying to convince Schroder to play Jingle Bells on his piano,
and Charlie Brown is stressing out over the fact that no one seems to know what Christmas is really all about,
it’s Linus who calls for the spotlight and tells the simple story of the Good News from the Gospel of Luke.

“Fear not. I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto you is born a savior.”

This is the story we strain to hear in the world outside the walls of our faith communities.
In our wider culture, the Christmas story we encounter is about red nosed reindeer, magical snowmen, and TV commercials that try to convince us that Santa wants us all to wake up on Christmas morning and find a brand new car in our driveway with a giant red bow on it.

I think we all know THAT is not the real Christmas.
It may be the Christmas we remember from our childhood – when we’d lie awake at night anticipating Santa’s arrival while visions of candy canes, tinsel, and toys danced in our heads.

And it may be the reality of the Christmas we celebrate as adults – where we run ourselves ragged trying to find gifts for everyone on our list, and eat too much, drink too much, and spend too much, all in our search for holiday cheer.

That’s the Christmas we celebrate out there.
But it’s not the Christmas we celebrate in here.

Which is why many of us come here on Christmas Eve.
What draws us here  – beyond the music – and the candle light – and the tradition –  what draws us here is the story.

This story of a baby being born on a cold winter’s night.
A baby who was destined to save the world.

Not in the sense that we picture superman or the X-Men saving the world.
Jesus did not have the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or send bad guys careening across the room with a wave of his hand.

Jesus came to save the world with a much greater power…
The power of compassion, and grace, and love.

These are powers that we tend to undervalue in our world….and in ourselves.

When we become enmeshed in the events of our world that invoke fear and distrust and hate in our hearts, our instinct is to respond with even more fear, distrust, and hate.
We’re not conditioned to respond to fear with compassion,
to respond to distrust with grace, to respond to hate with love.

Yet we’ve all witnessed how acts of compassion, grace, and love have the power to change hearts, change minds, and change the outcome of events that could have gone so differently.

Just in the past week, we’ve seen three examples of this extraordinary power.

On Monday, when Islamic militants ambushed a bus in Kenya with the intent of singling out the Christian passengers and killing them, a group of Muslims shielded the Christians and told the attackers they were prepared to die together.
The Muslim passengers, who were mostly women, told the militants to kill them all or leave them alone.  The attackers left them alone.
Love was more powerful than hate.  

On Tuesday, a local TV news program in Chicago aired a story about the city’s homeless population and the public’s assumption that most were violent or mentally ill.
The segment featured a brief interview with Latoya Ellis, a single mother with three children who was laid off from her job and then evicted from her apartment. 
The family of four was living in a shelter.
After the segment aired an anonymous donor stepped forward, helped the family find an apartment and prepaid their rent for an entire year.
Compassion was more powerful than fear.

A few weeks ago, police in Orem, Utah showed up at the home of Rebecca Freemont to arrest her for shoplifting.  
Expecting to find a stash of stolen goods, officer Jared Goulding was taken aback when he instead found a single mother with two children living in a nearly empty apartment.
With no furniture, no TV, no books or toys, and nothing on the walls, except for a picture of a Christmas tree on which the kids had hand colored ornaments and decorations.
Officer Goulding then learned that what Rebecca Freemont had stolen was a few cans of food for her children. She had taken nothing for herself.

In response, the Orem Police collected money and furniture donations amongst themselves in order to help the struggling mother.
When word of their charitable act got out, the police started receiving cards and money from strangers who also wanted to help.
And as of yesterday, the Orem police received enough money to buy the Freemont family a real Christmas tree, presents for the kids, and -- most importantly – bags and bags of groceries.     
Grace and mercy was more powerful than distrust and judgment.

These stories of random acts of kindness and extreme acts of courageous compassion can’t help but warm our hearts, at any time of the year.
But what we often fail to realize is that acts like these are much more common and much more powerful than we think.

While our attention and our news media tends to gravitate towards the acts that feed our fear, our distrust, and our hate, there is a quiet revolution happening all around us – one that is born out of our God given drive to embody love, to feel compassion, to exhibit grace.

When Mary looked down at the wriggling infant that she gave birth to on that cold winter’s night she may have known that he was destined to change the world, like the gospel writers claim…
or she may not have had any idea who he would turn out to be,
or the legacy he would leave behind.

An entire faith – now 2,000 years old – is built on the belief that this baby had and has the power to save us from ourselves.

He brought with him the radical message – firmly rooted in his Jewish faith - that it is in our best interest to love our neighbor, to show hospitality to the stranger, to help the weak and the suffering, and to liberate those held captive by tyranny, oppression, and fear.
Because we are all connected – one to the other.

Jesus lived a life born out of the belief that we are created by a loving and forgiving God who offers unconditional grace not to just a few, but to all.

A God who empowers each and every one of us to partake of the bounty and beauty of this created world.

A God who welcomes us all at the table –
regardless of our gender, our race, our abilities, our ideology…
...regardless of who we love, who we are, or who we’ve been.

If we’re all equally precious in the eyes of God then it stands to reason that we should treat each other – and ourselves - as if we too recognize how precious we are.

The Christmas story is our annual reminder that we have it in our nature to come together and celebrate all that is good in us and the world.  

Because despite our inclination to one up each other,
to look down upon those below us,
to wrap our arms around what we own and what we love and live in fear that someone will try to take it from us,
….we were created to be much more than this.

The Christmas story reminds us that each one of us has within us a power that is greater than all our fears put together.
The power of compassion, love, and grace.

Every year at Christmas time, when Linus steps out on that stage
and recites the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke,
we can’t help but lean in and listen –
and feel drawn to the hope and promise that this simple story of a baby born in a manger brings into our lives.

For a brief moment all the other things clamoring for our attention fall away.
For a brief moment we get a glimpse of who we are and who we were created to be.

“Fear not. For unto you this day is born a savior.
Who is Christ the Lord.”