Christmas Eve C 2021
“Miracle on South Dorset Road”
We look for many familiar things at Christmastime, signs of what we believe in. One of my favorite Christmas movies is “The Miracle on 34th St.” In this classic, Father Christmas himself, Kris Kringle is walking around among regular people, as the embodiment of Santa Claus. We are let in on the secret that there really is a Santa Claus during the opening scene, when Mr Kringle, in his civvie (rather than a Santa suit) is spied by a little boy. He tells his grandfather that he sees the real Santa Claus. The grandfather is embarrassed by the little boy’s silly mistake, but Kris just winks at the little guy and whispers that he “is Santa.” That’s how it is, we look for signs around us of what we believe in. Sometimes we see those signs.
In the spiritual life, that’s how it is too—we look for signs around us of what we believe in. So, it is only natural for us to look around in our world for evidence of God, an invisible, spiritual being. And only when we see Jesus, the baby born in Bethlehem, do we see God in his fullness in a way that we can see, hear, and touch. Have you ever thought, without Jesus, I cannot see, hear, or touch God in the world? With Jesus, everything can be a sign of God’s presence.
Looking for evidence of Jesus and God at Christmas is why there is so much of a desire for manger scenes in public places, or on church grounds, or city streets, or neighborhood yard displays. We want Jesus to have equal time, or more time and influence on the Christmas holiday than Santa Claus.
We are most certainly spiritual people, and we are also people of celebration, so we have fun traditions of feasting, and gift exchange, and indulging our children. But being spiritual, we know too that the precious gift of life and love are from God, and the way we embrace them makes a difference; the spiritual matters of life, love and the truth about who we are were made real in the coming of Jesus into our world. Without Jesus, we could not see, hear, or touch God in the world. We could not see, hear, or touch love in its fullness.
As a certain theologian has said, God most certainly made himself visible in a very ordinary way, so as not to frighten us; an everyday couple, traveling and weary, gave birth to a baby and laid him in a manger bed because they were poor. They were a very long way from home, so no visitors were expected. No one was there to help Mary in her travail, but Joseph– who had no one to accompany him in his waiting. The room was filled with sweat, blood, makeshift blankets and diapers. Then Mary and Joseph felt the raw, immediate joy that springs into life when a child is born. At that joyful moment, there was no need to look for God. It was an ordinary birth for a mighty God. God himself was palpable—he could be touched and held and wrapped in his parents’ arms.
And the manger bed became something more beautiful (than ordinary) because of who was coming into the world. It was God himself. We look for signs of what we believe in, and people saw angels burst onto the sky—that had never happened before, nor has it ever happened since then. They sang glory to God in the highest heaven. They brought good tidings of peace to the earth. And the sight of this was apparently terrifying, but not meant to be frightening.
Whether or not you and I have seen angels elsewhere in our lives, the birth of Jesus was most certainly announced to the world by angels from God. Simple shepherds who were watching their flocks in the field that night were the eye-witnesses. They were the unexpected and very unusual visitors who hurried to see the baby lying in the manger. They were the firs people who could see, hear and touch God himself.
I doubt they grasped the fullness of how this child would become the Savior of the whole world. They couldn’t have known that he would be a messiah to save people from sin and death. They needed to take it on faith. So do we. On faith, we believe that God himself is wrapped in flesh and blood. We know how Jesus’ life and death turned into resurrection, not only for him, but we believe for us as well! So, if we, as spiritual people, have faith, we can know the meaning of our Savior as well as the shepherds knew it, or better. What a gift!
How will you celebrate God’s great gift of coming to us? Perhaps you can bring Jesus home this holiday? Our first thoughts of home at Christmas probably go to a specific place, or a specific set of people. Bringing Jesus home, however, isn’t about being in a certain set of circumstances. I think it is more about making him the center of your life.
Wherever Jesus lay was home even though Mary and Joseph were far from their home in Nazareth when Jesus was born. They were on the move and then on the run from danger—anything but secure and at home. However, their child became the center of their lives, as any parent knows; for a time, the world revolves around the rhythms of life with a newborn. When Jesus is nestled in the manger, as strange a bed as can be—they are at home. Cradled in his parents’ arms, they are at home. Wherever he lay is home.
I propose that wherever we are in the world, this Christmas, near or far from our geographic home, if the child Jesus is nestled in the manger bed of our hearts, he is at home with us, and we are at home with him.
Just as there was a miracle on 34th Street, we could say there is a miracle on South Dorset Road. Right here, this evening, love is made known in Jesus, so that we can see and hear and touch God. In the movie, Kris Kringle becomes known for who he really is—Santa Claus in the flesh. So Jesus—in the flesh—is at home in us; he looks like each person that we see here among us.
Because God gives Christ to live in you and me, we can see, hear and touch God in the world. In other words, we can recognize Jesus in every man, woman and child who is here looking for him. God’s presence in the manger bed of Trinity is palpable—he is breathing when we listen to each other, when we put our trust in each other, when we are brave together looking at the future. These are the challenges that are before us, that really compel us to pay attention to the coming of Christ.
Jesus Christ is breathing in us when we listen to each other. It can be tempting to want to get our own viewpoints out their first and foremost. However, when we stop to see Christ in the other person, and give them a chance to speak, then we can truly listen.
God’s presence in the manger bed at Trinity is real when we trust each other. A community is built on trust—believing that you and I want what is best for one another. Since everything comes from fear or from love, why not extend a trusting love to one another.
And finally, the world is changing so rapidly, that with every day, the future is dawning upon us. I don’t know about you, but I feel that God is near, and in the flesh of my brother or sister, when we can be brave to look at our future together. No one knows what the future will look like, but if we are open to see it together, we will not be confined by our fears. Listening, trusting and being brave—these are some ways that we can strengthen our community.
There is a miracle on South Dorset Road. It is far greater than Kris Kringle in the flesh. Our great God has given us Jesus, so that we can see, hear and touch love itself. Let’s bring that love home by making Jesus the center of our lives, keeping his ways in our hearts. May Christ be at home with each and every one of you, and with us all together in this house of God.
Rev Ann Marie Winters
December 24, 2021
Advent 4 C 2021
“Where is Christmas?”
We say Christmas is just around the corner now, don’t we? I think if you are like me, you could be looking for Christmas in many things. You can see Christmas in the beautiful lights and trees and decorations; I know that I also look for Christmas in the gatherings and parties; the special foods and drinks. You can sense Christmas in the buying of gifts and the cleaning of the house. But, as nice as all these celebratory things are, and they give us a glimpse of Christmas, the true meaning of Christmas is found in the lowly places.
Here is a true story of a homeless Santa presenting small gifts to strangers. In San Diego, a husband and wife decided to eat out at a burrito stand one evening. As they sat enjoying their meal, she noticed a ragged looking man with a grey beard, carrying a sack with what appeared to be all of his possessions. He was coming nearer to their table from just beyond the stand. She told her husband, let’s just give him a few bucks when he comes over so that we can be rid of him, and continue with our supper. As he approached them, the man slowly opened his sack and searched for a few moments in it. He found a beautiful red apple, which he proudly presented to the lady. He then located a snickers bar which he gave to the husband.
They explained that they couldn’t accept his food (the little that he had). But he replied that it really was okay, because he didn’t have any teeth and couldn’t eat them anyway. So they kept his gifts and tried to press a few dollars into his palm. He said they really didn‘t have to give him anything, but he did finally accept a cup of coffee, and went on his way directly afterwards. Where is Christmas? It is in the homeless Santa, giving gifts from his precious few possessions. It is in the humility and generosity of the moment. Christmas is in the receiving of someone unknown and unremarkable, and honoring his self-giving.
So, when you hear the question of the week—which is often “Are you ready for Christmas?” Think of the lowly. Getting ready for Christmas is looking to where we find the lowly ones– Mary and Elizabeth, and Jesus the Christ, himself. In these humble, generous people, we see what is unknown taking on great meaning for us. In these unremarkable figures—we find the center of our spiritual lives.
The lowly Mary was an unknown, unwed, pregnant teenager. Mary is told she is impregnated by the Holy Spirit to bear a child who will be Son of the Most High God. Mary could have baulked at the prospect, but instead, she calls on her trust in the promises of God. She will carry and bear a child, at the risk of being abandoned and ridiculed and ostracized from her community. Her faith in God was deep and wide.
Mary went to her distant cousin, Elizabeth, for the company that pregnant women can give to one another. She sought out that circle where she would be accepted and encircled by love. On her part, Elizabeth was also a woman who chose a response of faith. She was an ordinary older woman, past the age of child-bearing— And being childless, she was a lowly one in the eyes of the world. Elizabeth was told she would conceive in her old age and bear a child who would make ready the way of the Lord. Neither woman had stature or power or anything to make them worthy of the attention or honor of their world. In fact, this all took place in just a little town in the Judean hill country.
They had to decide whether they would respond to God’s call or not. We may think, well God’s plan was to use Mary and Elizabeth to bring about the births of Jesus and John. It was a done deal; the babies would be born, regardless of what Mary and Elizabeth had to say about it. Yet, both of them were moved by faith to engage with the grace of God. They grasped onto the will of God for them and for all of us to come.
In biblical times, God’s will was a matter of being open to grace; God’’ will was delivered through the action of the Holy Spirit. It is only much later in time that we see God’s will as a detailed personal plan for one’s life. Mary and Elizabeth opened themselves to God’s will through their astounding trust in God.
And look at the magnitude of their responses to God! They responded with complete faith. It was more than a passive acceptance. It was a faith that took the risk of dishonor. It was faith that made bold claims. Faith that embraced a counter-cultural vision for who is blessed by God. The world would be turned upside down. The mighty brought down from their thrones; the lowly lifted up. The hungry fed, and the rich turned away empty. The God of Israel was taking action to do this. God was lifting up the lowly right in a small town, hardly on the map, in the hills of Judea.
Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful models of faith for us. They have given me a sensitivity to finding God, and seeing Christmas among us in the lowly, in our time—right here and right now. This past week, I was blessed by God’s action in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit led a homeless mother and three little children to our church. I was able to give her a night or two out of the cold in the Budget hotel, and I thank you for your kindness that provides funds for me to do this on your behalf. I spread the word to a friend, who also helped her out. Perhaps just as important, I steered her to Partners in Hope and the Troy food pantry. I was ministering to one of the lowly beloved ones of God, and she told me about her faith; she said, just have faith and keep believing that things will get better. As Mary says, the hungry shall be filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty.
Dietreich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century theologian and martyr has written the following thoughts in a Christmas sermon: Each of us lives among those who are so-called higher-ups, and others who are so-called lowly. Each of us knows someone who is lower in the order of things than we ourselves. May this Christmas help us learn that if we want to find the way to God, we have to go – not up to the heights—but really down to the depths among the least of all, and that every life that only wants to stay up high will come to a fearful end.
We need to make clear to ourselves how, from now on, in the light of the manger, we are going to think about what is high and what is low in human life. Not that any of us are very powerful persons, even if perhaps we would like to be, and we don’t like to have that said to us. There are relatively few very powerful people, and there are many more people with small amounts of power—petty power, who put it into play whenever they can, and whose one thought is ‘keep climbing higher.’ God himself thinks differently, namely keep climbing down lower, down among the lowly… if we go this way there we will meet God himself.
Later this week, we will celebrate Christmas Eve. Will we keep climbing higher? Or lower? It is important for a Christian congregation to come to an understanding of this point, and ask “who among us will celebrate Christmas rightly?” Who will finally lay down at the manger all power and honor, all high regard, vanity, arrogance and self-will? Who will take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high? Who will see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger? Who will say with Mary, ‘the Lord has looked with favor on my lowliness? My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior?’
Rev Ann Marie Winters December 19, 2021
In our scriptures today, there are different facets of the birth of Jesus– his coming among us. There are prophesies, such as we have from Isaiah. There is POETRY– the lyric account of Jesus at creation written by John. And then there is HISTORY– the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel. Like the many facets of a diamond, each one adds its view of the luster of the jewel that is Christ’s coming.
First, the facet of poetry: Today, in John’s gospel, we have a poetic creation that soars above even the most beautiful literature of the bible. A sermon can hardly do justice to this work of art, recorded by John. He knows that the Incarnation is about beginnings. Rather than giving us a chronicle of the Christmas story with the Holy family lodging in a stable, with angels and shepherds, John takes us back to the very beginning of time. Here is where we encounter Jesus, and Jesus is speaking the creation into being!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus was the Logos, the Word. It can also be translated that Jesus was “the speaking.” By the speaking of the Word, all things came into a rational structure, a divine order that holds everything together. Many people today see the wonder of the world, the intricacy of nature, and the way that all things are inter-related as one whole, and they are convinced that the world is not a random happening that just fell into being. Instead, when we look at the marvels of nature, we see the handiwork of God. The bible, the inspired Word of God, tells us that the Word (Jesus) was in action bringing all things into being.
The Word was part of who God is. When John says that the word was “with” God, “with” carries the sense of being “face to face.” Many times, over the years, I have said that the three persons of God – the Trinity– are in a dynamic relationship—God creating, the Word speaking, and the Holy Spirit empowering this dynamic process. It is more than we can truly comprehend, or put into human words or concepts. God is mystery, and cannot be confined to our thoughts. But we human beings can appreciate the meaning of being “face to face” in a relationship. This is the nature of the persons of God from the beginning.
Since we are created in the image of God, we can find and see God in our face-to-face encounters. Do you see God in someone’s gracious smile upon you? God is there. Do you feel God present when eyes (perhaps your eyes) light up and gaze with compassion and understanding? Face to face, we can and do communicate that love. It’s God’s love.
Back to the text of John’s gospel… have we received Jesus as the creative Word? The gospel says, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
Dear church, we are distinct from the world who did not accept Jesus at his beginning. We are “those who received him, who believed in his name.” To us, he has given “the power to become children of God.”
At your baptism, The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, brought you, as a child of God, into the community of the church. We hear these words, “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” The trinity claims us for the church.
Now, let’s focus on another facet of Jesus’ coming, HISTORY, and the historical account of Jesus’ birth. It was done by God’s agenda, in God’s way, and in God’s timing. The journey to Bethlehem was made by the holy family, because they had an agenda; they were going to register for the census. God, however, had an additional agenda on their itinerary. According to the prophets, the birth of the Messiah would take place in Bethlehem, and so it came to pass, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, according to the ancient prophecies. When it’s God’s agenda, God calls us to participate.
I’ve had the experience of God calling me out of my own agenda into his (being led by God). Have you? It may be a whispering in the ear – to stop and pay attention to someone or something for more than a brief moment. It’s not unusual for me to set out in a specific direction, knowing where I’m going, and when I’m expected to arrive, and what I’ll do; in other words, left to my own devices, I usually don’t dawdle or get sidetracked. But it is often in the stopping and noticing that God nudges me to pay attention—for instance, speaking to strangers. I do this much more often now that I’m in Troy; I’m not only surrounded in the community– by people I don’t know, I am also trying to reach out with the intention of bringing the Good News of God’s love. These divine whispers are a way I can participate in God’s agenda. Do you hear a whisper to be led by God? Maybe you are being called into God’s agenda for you.
So, to summarize, from the writings of the John, if we think poetically, we encounter Jesus the Word, as the one who brought the cosmos into being. Out of great love, the Word is creating an expression from the divine hand (so to speak). “The speaking– Jesus”, is God, creating a dream for the salvation of the world. Jesus is the one who lives today, in our midst through the Holy Spirit, and he is the one who will bring creation to completion in the future
Or if we take the historical look from Luke’s gospel, we find the mother Mary and her spouse Joseph; hearing the whispers of God, and dreaming the dreams of God, they participate in parenting Jesus in the world; in history, we also see God creating– out of great love– a holy child, an expression from God’s own hand.
Let it be known by historical fact, and may it be celebrated in poetry:
Jesus is come. Merry Christmas dear church!
Rev Ann Marie Winters
December 26, 2021
2nd Week of Advent
This advent season moves so quickly from week to week, that in the course of less than a month, we are asked to put the desires of our hearts in order. Are you getting your heart ready to receive Christ? Preparing your heart is a decision, but it’s also a process that takes a bit of time.
If a person wants to be a doctor or a lawyer, they don’t just wake up one day and say, ”I want to be a doctor (I want to be a lawyer)” and then begin practicing medicine or law. That decision would have determined what college they went to, and would have required years of commitment—to make it through years of getting ready. In other words, a person doesn’t become a professional on the day they decide to undertake a career in medicine or law. The decision about direction requires a process.
For any career, there are requirements that have to be met in order to enjoy the benefits of that decision. A career requires an investment of time and energy before it becomes a reality. So it is with matters of the heart.
Well today our spiritual preparation in mind and heart turns to themes in the scriptures of Malachi and Luke. First, let’s consider Malachi. Did you notice the seriousness of verse 2: Malachi wrote about God’s promise of salvation, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? Last week you may remember that I was urging you into act with hope about the coming of the Lord because He brings salvation to us. You should lift up your head in confidence that God will bring your redemption.
Well, this week the prophet Malachi challenges our equilibrium again with his announcement of a blend of joy and at least a little bit of apprehension. First, there is joy (at God’s coming salvation), and then some apprehension (that we will be refined—as gold is refined in fire). When Malachi applies the metaphor of gold being refined to our minds and hearts, you may ask questions like, “What is meant by refining my life? What in my life needs refining?” I do not know where you are feeling the imperfections of sin in your life. But I think that we all have something somewhere that needs purifying.
How do you feel when you think of yourself being made pure? Do you welcome it? Are you a little afraid? I understand if you may feel a little conflicted—both open and a little nervous. Sin has to do with wounds—hurting another person and being wounded yourself. And those wounds need to heal. Of course you feel pain in your wounded places and healing is a process.
The message of Malachi isn’t for the purpose of leaving you frozen in your apprehension. No, the message of salvation is for moving us through sin into healing. No, it is a matter that your imperfections being found– your wrongs being confessed—God’s refining process releases you into joy, even jubilation.
I think sometimes we project onto God what we experience with human beings. With people, some things are out of our control; we may be able to affect some outcomes, and other times we cannot. With human beings, nothing is guaranteed. People sometimes turn out to be different than what we may have thought. But God’s promises do not disappoint. God’s promises are guaranteed.
My sisters and brothers, the joy is that God promises that we will be restored. It will happen, and it will happen under God’s control and in God’s time. The refining is not waiting for us to feel good about it, to be psyched up, to be ready for it to happen. God’s promise is coming; it is certain and sure, and it is GOOD news. As one preacher I know says, “We will be re-formed in God’s image, and it will be good– no matter how we feel about it at the present time, no matter what we are afraid of now. When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good!”
Look at the parents of John the Baptist—Zechariah and Elizabeth. God made a way for them where they thought there was no way. Elizabeth was old and they had no children. God made a way. If they were going to have security in their old age, if they were going to have a future, it would have to be NOT of their own devising. As my favorite preacher Willimon has said, children were the Near Eastern equivalent of our Social Security system. It was to these two older adults who were powerless to change their situation that God somehow made a way where there was no way.
John’s father, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. The Lord God be blessed; he has come to help and to deliver his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us from the house of David. He has brought salvation. He has shown mercy and remembered his covenant promises. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies.
And this comes at a time when we most need it. Truth be told, we are not as competent as we would like to think. Even to those of us who are fairly secure, there comes a time when we need help, deliverance, salvation, mercy, rescue and guidance—all the godly gifts that are promised in Zechariah’s song.
We come to church wondering if we can find a way in our darkness, relying on our own capabilities. But we don’t know which steps to take next, or we’re at the end of our ropes, or gasping for air. Is there hope for tomorrow?
Now here, in Advent, we are met by a God who (according to Zechariah’s song) “helps, delivers, rescues, saves and guides.” We have help from outside ourselves. God is not only loving and caring, God is FOR US. Help is on the way. There is a way; it is God’s way! God not only loves us, God takes action for us.
God has given us Jesus Christ. We celebrate this now (on this very day) and on Christmas. So, today is the day to make a decision to open your heart and mind to Christ. The healing of sin-wounds is a process, and these weeks before Christmas, you can let the process of forgiveness, of healing– unfold in you. Help outside yourself is here. There is a way of letting go with God. There is delivery and guidance. God is loving and caring and the process is good. Thanks be to God.
Rev Ann Marie Winters
December 5, 2021