Monday, December 20, 2010

Just When He Had Resolved

Sermon from December 19, 2010
(Advent 4 – Year A)
Matthew 1: 18-25
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Joseph could not fall asleep that night.
He had spent the last few hours of the night staring at the ceiling, fighting back tears, then getting up out of bed to think.
Joseph was not used to these feeling of uncertainty.
Joseph was used to everything being black and white, according to the letter of the Law.

You see, Joseph was a righteous man.
Joseph was a good Jew, a man who had been raised to be a good boy, following all the religious rules.

In those days, details about the birds and the bees were not discussed readily.
Yet Joseph knew enough to know what happens between a man and a woman when, months after the engagement ritual, the wife is taken into the home of the husband.
And Joseph, being good man of the law, had never even gotten up the nerve to put the moves on Mary, because the Jewish law clearly stated that marital relations were not to occur before she had been properly brought into his home.
Yet now his beautiful Mary was pregnant, obviously by another man.
Every time he thought of each of the young men in Nazareth, and speculated about which one of them had gotten Mary pregnant, tears began to roll down his cheeks.
Yet Joseph was a religious man, a man of the Law, who knew that the Jewish penalty for adultery was death by stoning.

So Joseph concocted a plan.
Joseph made plans to dismiss her quietly, plans to send her away for a quickie Caribbean divorce.
And just when he had resolved to do this, Joseph fell fast asleep.

The next morning, before Joseph rolled out of bed, he woke up with this strange sense of calm and peace.
Was this sense of peace coming from the dream that he had the night before?
He couldn’t tell.
However, he did remember a voice.
A voice had spoken to him in his dream, instructing him by saying:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary [into your house] 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.”

For just when he had resolved to judge Mary based upon the Law,
Then Grace appeared, telling Joseph to lay aside the rules of religion and to not be afraid to be the father of the Son of God.

Sixty years after the birth of Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote a very short letter to his friend, Titus.
The book of Titus now appears in the New Testament, yet we very rarely read from this small letter.
Yet in writing about the Christmas event, Paul writes this to Titus:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”[1]

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law, on the rules of religion,
Then Grace appears, bringing love and salvation to all.

Last Friday afternoon, I had resolved to preach a sermon about Joseph.
In the mind of Jeff Fisher, I had concocted an outline of a sermon, a sermon about Joseph and his best-laid plans.
But just when I had resolved to do this, I went to Gold’s Gym for a workout and some prayer time.

At the gym, a man about my same age, whom I have met there before, saw me walk into the area where the free weights are.
This man signaled to me and then walked right over in my direction.
A little out breath, he shook my hand and inquired:
“Hey, man.
You are the guy who comes in here who is a pastor, right?”
Obviously, even in gym shorts and tennis shoes, I was not fully incognito.

This man proceeded to say:
“I need your advice, man.
You see, my wife and I – we are getting a divorce.
Now I will fully admit that both of us were in the wrong.
I fully admit that I have been seeing someone else.
But what really has me bothered right now is this church we had been going to.
The senior pastor has kicked both of us out of the church.
He sends me text messages all the time telling me that I am going to hell.
The guys in the men’s group at my church tell me that I have been impure and can’t come back to their bible study breakfast.
My wife – my ex-wife that is – is being hounded by the senior pastor, as well.
I have confessed that what I have done is wrong.
But pastor, tell me this:
Am I going to hell for what I have done?”

I assured this man that if he has confessed his sins, and is truly sorry for what he and his wife have done, then God forgives.
I assured him that he needed to get away from his current church and to come to a church like St. Alban’s, where grace and love are preached.

At that moment, this guy’s cell phone rings.
He looks at the screen and says to me:
“It’s my ex-wife calling.
She lives in Dallas now.”

He then answers his phone and speaks to his ex-wife, saying:
“Hey, guess what?
I just ran into this guy at the gym who is a senior pastor of a different church in town.”
He then turns to me and asks.
“You are a Senior Pastor, right?”
Since I am rarely given an opportunity to pull rank on this guy {pointing to Jimmy}, I assured him that I am, in fact, a senior pastor.
The guy then goes back to his phone conversation with his ex-wife, and tells her:
“This guy here at the gym is the senior pastor of an Episcopal church, you know they are kinda like Catholics, except this dude is married.
Anyway, what this guy here says is that we need to just get away from the hateful stuff at our old church.
And that we need to find different churches.
This guy says that you and I need to find places where there is love and grace.
Because this pastor here at the gym tells me
That we have been forgiven.”

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law,
Grace appears.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

I have discovered in my own life, that the older I get, the more attracted to grace I have become.
When I was a much younger man, I took great comfort in basing everything on the law, a set of religious rules and dogmas that made it very black and white on who was in and who was out.
Yet as I have grown older, and I hope a bit more spiritually mature, the more attracted I am to hearing and speaking words of grace and forgiveness and love.

Because just when we have resolved to point out the faults and shortcomings of the family members who will gather around our holiday tables,
Then grace appears, in the form of keeping our mouth shut.

Just when we had resolved to kick people out of our churches because they might be divorced or alcoholic or an unwed mother,
Then grace appears, in the form of a senior pastor at the gym who simply says:
“You are forgiven.”

And just when Joseph had resolved to base everything on the letter of the Jewish law and to send the seemingly adulterous Mary off to an undisclosed location,
Then grace appears, in the form of an infant, a baby whose name is Jesus, a name which literally means “God saves.”

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the rules,
Then the grace and forgiveness and love of God appears.

Just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law,
Then Grace is born.


[1] Titus 2:11

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I have always had a special place in my heart for Joseph. Joseph was the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus. As we focus on the birth of Jesus, so much of our attention is usually on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Yet the Gospel of Matthew turns our eyes to the faith and obedience of Joseph, the man who must have thought that he had been “two-timed” by Mary, his fiancĂ©e.

In the calendar of the Episcopal Church, Joseph’s feast day is March 19. Yet in that “post-Spring Break” time of year, we don’t give Joseph much thought. This week, however, I do want to give thanks for Joseph. Therefore, I offer to all of us the Collect/Prayer appointed for March 19, St. Joseph’s Day:

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thank you, Joseph, for your obedience; thank you for being the father of our Lord.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stir Up Sunday

The Collect/Prayer for this coming Sunday begins: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” In England, the Sunday that uses this Collect/Prayer is referred to as: “Stir Up Sunday,” from the first words of the prayer. It is on this Sunday that that the English women would begin “stirring up” their Christmas puddings. (I am always amazed by how church and culture influence each other!)

On this “Stir Up Sunday,” we might not be stirring up cookie or cake batter, but we should probably look more closely at what we are praying for. We pray that God will “stir up Holy Spirit power and with great might come among us.” We pray that God will stir up the waters and cause a mess of trouble when he comes.

John the Baptist sure did stir up the waters and cause a mess of trouble. Jesus sure did stir up a mess of trouble. And most everyone I know who really make a difference in this world make that difference because they are not afraid to stir up the status quo.

On this Stir Up Sunday, what kind of trouble are you stirring up for God?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Old Rugged Jesse Tree

Sermon from December 5, 2010
(Advent 2 – Year A)
Isaiah 11: 1-10
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah cries out to be heard:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

During December, there are several places and streets in Waco that seem to go all out with their Christmas light displays.
One of those houses that just covers their yard in Christmas paraphernalia and decorations is over by the old Hillcrest Hospital.
Another place that becomes a holiday pilgrimage when looking for great light displays is Wooded Crest Drive in Woodway.

Wooded Crest Drive is only one block away from my house.
When you are getting off of Highway 84, just before you turn right onto Poage, when you get to the bottom of the hill, turn right onto Wooded Crest, and you will see what I mean.

During December, our family always takes the detour, and goes down Wooded Crest Drive, to see what each house has put up in the way of Christmas light displays.
Last Tuesday night, we drove down Wooded Crest to see the progress they are making in their Christmas extravaganza.

As we drove down the street, one of the houses has put up a big Christmas train in their front yard, and each of the cars in the train has a giant picture in it of each of their different grandchildren’s faces.
One of the houses usually uses some sort of projection device so that the side of their house is bathed in the image of a giant Christmas tree.
And the granddaddy of all the houses on Wooded Crest has every inch of the front yard filled with inflatable Santas and reindeer and lights that blink in tempo with Christmas music that is broadcast from this house.
You can also listen to this music by tuning your car stereo into a particular FM radio station as you drive by.
As usual, Wooded Crest Drive is doing its best to be a must-see destination for holiday lights.

Yet last Tuesday night, as we were driving to the end of street, we noticed one of the most unusual Christmas light displays.
In fact, the display was so unusual that our son, John, exclaimed:
“Why did they put that up?”
You see this house was mainly dark, with absolutely no blinking lights on shrubbery, no plastic inflatable Mary and Joseph and the baby, no dancing lights to keep time with music piped into car stereos.
At this most unusual house, coming up from out of the ground, bathed in one single spotlight, is a tall, wooden, rugged cross.

The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah cries out to be heard above the din of the muzak carols:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch, shall grow out of his roots.
On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

You see, Jesse was the father of David.
And David was the greatest king in the history of Israel.
After King David, the kings of Israel seemed to go downhill.
Yet the Jewish people, including the Prophet Isaiah, yearned for a king of the Jews upon whom the spirit of the Lord would rest.
In the time the Old Testament, the Jewish people yearned for a righteous branch, a tree that would grow out of the root of Jesse, the father of David, the great King of the Jews.

In Christian art, the tree of Jesse is commonly depicted in paintings and in stained glass windows.
In Christian art, the tree of Jesse is actually renderings of the family tree of Jesus.
In artistic renderings of the Jesse Tree, Jesse is depicted laying down at the root, with a branch, a tree, growing out of his body.
From Jesse, the tree branches go up to his son, King David, then up to David’s son, all the way up to Joseph, who was the earthly father of Jesus.
For in Christian thought, Jesus is the pinnacle of the tree that branches out of the root of Jesse.
In Christian thought, Jesus is the branch of Jesse that stands as a signal to the peoples.

Yet I wonder if the Prophet Isaiah was not referring to an even different kind of tree when he proclaimed about a branch that shall grow out of the root of Jesse?
Because over 700 years after Isaiah delivers this prophesy, on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, a different tree springs forth from the ground.
On that spring day, at the Jewish festival of the Passover, a tall, wooden, rugged tree is lifted up on a hill called the Place of the Skull.
And on that tree, a sign is nailed at the very top, a signal to all people that simply reads:
This is the King of the Jews.

And on that tree, the descendent of the great King David is crowned with thorns.
On that tree, Jesse’s great, great, great, great, grandson is crucified for all people.
On that day, the tree of Jesse becomes the glorious tree that we call the Cross of Christ.

For the Prophet Isaiah, over 700 years before, foretells:
“On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”
And the tall, wooden, rugged cross still stands today as a signal to all people:
A signal that God loves you, no matter what.

Two weeks from today, Jimmy Abbott, our assistant rector, will be ordained to the sacred order of priests.
I certainly hope that all of you will be here on Sunday evening the 19th to witness Jimmy’s ordination.
And Jimmy’s upcoming ordination has made me remember my own ordination to the priesthood, which also occurred just a few days before Christmas.

I received several different gifts for my ordination to the priesthood.
Yet one gift, from another priest named Sara, was really quite unique:
Sara gave me an ordination gift that is a very unusual Christmas ornament.
This ornament is actually a nail, a big 5 inch nail, with a hook so that this nail can hang on our Christmas tree each year.
Along with this gift of a cold, gray nail, Sara wrote a note to me, a message saying that I should always hang this nail on our tree – and remember at Christmas, that the greatest gift of all is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Our family hangs this gray nail on our Christmas tree every year, to remember that the greatest gift is the branch of Jesse, the King who was nailed to a tree.

Christmas trees have become the universal and pervasive symbol of Christmas.
Yet it is the Cross, the tree springing from the root of Jesse, that is the signal to all people - that God loves everyone, no exceptions.

So as you put up your Christmas tree this year,
Place a cold gray nail onto your tree, as a remembrance that Christ died for you.
As you gaze into the twinkling lights of your tree with a cup of eggnog in your hand,
Do not forget that other tree, the tree of Jesse upon which the King of the Jews stretched out his arms upon the hard wood of the Cross.
Hear the words of that old Prophet Isaiah, crying out in the wilderness, proclaiming:
“On that day, the tree of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

For God loves you so much, that the son of Jesse died for you,
On a tall, wooden, rugged tree.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Get Out of the Car and Join the Story

When our sons were little, we used to pick one night in December each year to go look at Christmas lights. We packed up blankets and pillows and maybe a thermos of hot chocolate. We made sure that we had plenty of Christmas CDs to play on the car stereo. Then we would take off on our holiday pilgrimage.

Our pilgrimage always began with the Drive-Through Live Nativity, hosted by Kingsland Baptist Church, near our house in Katy, Texas. Kingsland Baptist went all out for their annual drive-through nativity. There was always a traffic jam to get in, as cars and SUVs waited their turn to drive through dramatic renderings of Bethlehem and then of Jerusalem, where a suburban dad, dressed as Jesus, was crucified and resurrected. We watched the scenes of our Lord’s birth and death and resurrection with our windows rolled up, listening to our Lord’s life on simulcast radio, with the heater on, keeping the chill of the night outside of our car.

I wonder how many of us today treat the Lord Jesus Christ’s birth and death and resurrection as if it is just a drive-through experience? As if Jesus’ life was something to just look at for 10 minutes before driving on to the next thing? As if the Incarnation, the event of God living in a human body, is just for actors to play on a dramatic stage?

My goal this Advent and Christmas is to get out of the warm car and get into the Story, to roll down the window, open the door and become a part of the Story of a very unique God who chooses to open up his windows and doors and enter into my story. And I plan to enter the Story through scripture, worship and prayer.

My goal this Advent is to listen, really listen, to the words of scripture. I plan to hear the words, not just as words of a historical event, but as words that describe a God who really does act and move in my life.

My goal this Advent is to worship, to give worth to God who gives me everything. There are plenty of opportunities for worship this December; I plan to not just watch worship from afar, with my window rolled up, but to really get into the singing and the prayers and the communion that I receive.

My goal this Advent is to pray, but not as a habit or a duty. I plan to pray because it is a natural response to a God who comes so close to us that we can feel his tiny fingers clutching ours in his cradle.

This Christmas, don’t just stay in the car, wrapped in blankets, gazing out the window, just driving through. Through scripture, worship and prayer, join the Story of a God who loves us so much that he chooses to live with us.