Monthly Archives: December 2012

Hannah the Innkeeper

Hannah, The Innkeeper
Dramatic Sermon
Christmas Day 2011

Introduction: Have you ever wondered how Luke gathered material for his gospel? What if Luke did research to prepare his story of the birth of Jesus? Do you think Luke interviewed people with first-hand experience? Perhaps, Luke conducted an interview with the innkeeper who took in Mary and Joseph so many years before.

Luke: I am thinking of gathering as many stories as possible about Jesus and writing them down. I have been fortunate to talk with Jesus’ mother, Mary, and she suggested that I talk with you to learn about Jesus’ birth. Can you tell me about yourself?

Hannah: I have a small house in Bethlehem. There is a stable at back. My husband and I ran the Inn until his death.

Luke: I understand that Jesus was born following the decree from Caesar Augustus that everyone should be registered. So, Joseph went back to his ancestral hometown, Bethlehem. What do you remember about those days?

Hannah: It was a very busy time with lots of people coming and going. Many people needed a place to stay. I was swamped, and what I thought would be a fun adventure became a lot of work.

Luke: What do you remember about Mary and Joseph? What did you think about them?

Hannah: I saw Mary and Joseph, and I was sorry to tell them that I had no room. They had travelled eighty miles, which is a long way. I felt great sympathy for them, but I had no room. I knew they really needed a place to be.

Luke: What did you do? Ask other people to leave?

Hannah: I thought of the stable as the only place I had. I knew this wasn’t ideal, but it was the best I could offer. They agreed. Joseph helped Mary get to the cave. They thanked me, though I was embarrassed to receive thanks for what I offered. Because I was so busy, I left them for the afternoon. I had guests to attend to and food to prepare. When I returned to bring them some food, the baby had been born. They put him in the manger. I thought, “How clever!”

Luke: As I was talking with Mary for information on the story I am gathering, she said, “Be sure to ask Hannah about the shepherds.” Will you tell me about shepherds?

Hannah: I heard a commotion from the stable, and I saw shepherds. They started telling me a story that was hard to believe. And, to be honest, I was very skeptical.

Luke: I know that shepherds have a rough reputation. What did they tell you?

Hannah: The talked about angels visiting them, announcing that the Messiah had been born, singing to them, and offering great praise.

Luke: Did you believe the shepherds?

Hannah: As I said, it was hard to believe. But after the shepherds told me about their visit from the angels, Mary and Joseph told me about their own experience with angels. So, the stories were confirmed. I believed that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God. And, I still believe that.

Luke: Thank you for these wonderful details. I do think I will write them down.

Hannah: “Yes, you have to write this story. So the whole world will know!”

A Prayer after Sandy Hook

As news began emerging of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, December 14, our hearts were filled with grief, anger, questions, and pain. All the while, our church was preparing to celebrate a special Sunday – the third Sunday of Advent when we would focus on joy and light the candle of joy in the Advent wreath.
On that Sunday, our children led our worship by presenting a Christmas Pageant. Watching them in biblical-era costumes, we remembered once more that Jesus, the longed-for Messiah, was born in the most unexpected of circumstances. Even as we talked of joy, we also remembered the pain and loss brought by Friday’s tragedy, and we added a Candle of Remembrance beside our Advent wreath.
I share now a prayer inspired by Timothy Merrill, a Presbyterian minister. Even as we move through Advent toward Christmas, we continue to pray for adults and children of Newtown, Connecticut.

A Prayer for Comfort

Gentle, Compassionate, Loving God, hear the cries of your joyless, sorrowful people. Our prayers go out to the families of Newtown and Sandy Hook Elementary School who have experienced incomprehensible loss.

We come to you with heavy hearts and in deep sorrow. There is little joy on this Advent Sunday of joy. This was a slaughter of innocents, twenty kindergarten children killed. The parents now are burdened with unfathomable grief. Their pain and numbness must be beyond words and thoughts.

Our hearts are heavy, and we cry out asking why. As we celebrate a child born in Bethlehem, the lives of children scarcely out of the cradle are snuffed out and gone forever except in our hearts.

With the prophet of old we cry out, “Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people. Is there no balm in Gilead? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”

We do not understand. We cannot light only a candle of joy. We also light a candle of remembrance, a candle of grief and sorrow. And we remember that You weep with us.

In the weeping and mourning, may we – and especially those most affected by this tragedy – feel your eternal presence and know your comforting Spirit.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

The Joy of Do-Overs

Matthew 25:14-30

Tandem Sermon preached with Rev. Dr. Lisa Wimberly Allen

 Preacher One:  Do you remember playing games as a child? 

Preacher Two:  Yes, I loved playing games with friends.

One:  Do you remember playing games with do-overs?

Two:  Sure, do-overs are second chances.  When you mess up, or things don’t work out as you had hoped, you can call “Do-over” and have another try.

One:  Did you ever play a game when do-overs were not allowed?

Two:  I think so.

One:  I remember one day when I was the newest child in the neighborhood, and I was about to play my first ball game there.  I was the first person to take a turn that day, and just before I began, other children yelled, “No do-overs!”  I still remember the chill down my spine, the lump in my throat, and the pit in my stomach.  “What if I mess up?,” I thought.  “What if I fail?”  I was almost frozen in fear.

Two:  Imagine, instead, if the other children had yelled, “Try hard, and if you need one, you can have a do-over!”

One:  That would have been great.

Two:  Do-overs have an amazing ability to free us from fear, to help us overcome a sometimes paralyzing dread of failure, and to lead us to action. 

One:  Do-overs are like the net under a trapeze that encourages the trapeze artist to try something new, to venture beyond what she is comfortable with, to attempt an extra flip or special task.  Even if she fails in her initial attempts, the trapeze artist knows the net is below, and it will catch her.  And, she can try again.

Two:  When there are no do-overs, however, fear of failure can lead to inaction and can cause people to stay with what they know, to remain with the comfortable, to refrain from venturing into new tasks or possibilities.

One:  With that view, most people refuse to take risks, preferring a safe route that holds onto security and safety. 

Two:  Jesus offers a fascinating parable about taking risks in service to God’s reign.  In the parable of the talents, a master entrusts vast sums of money with his servants.  We often hear the word “talent” and think of our abilities, but a talent was money – and lots of it.  A talent was worth about 6,000 denarii, a day’s wage for an ordinary person, and it equaled about twenty years worth of wages.  With the first servant, the master entrusts five talents or 100 years of wages.  With the second servant, forty years of wages.  And, with the third servant, twenty years of wages. 

One:  When Jesus taught with parables, he often used hyperbole to emphasize a point.  In this case, there seems to be an exaggerated amount of money left with servants.  What point could Jesus be making?

Two:  Jesus’ audience was composed largely of rural peasants, and they knew how challenging life could be.  It took hard work, day in and day out, to make ends meet.  The thought that they might be handed twenty years worth of wages was unheard of.  It was extravagant.  The listeners would have stopped to think, “What!  How can this be?”

One:  So, Jesus surprised his listeners with a story of a master giving enormous sums of money to his servants.  Is there anything else surprising in this parable?

Two:  Yes, the hearers would have been surprised by the third servant’s fear-filled response to his master.  “I knew you were harsh, and I was afraid.”  How could someone think a master harsh when that master just entrusted such a huge sum of money with him? 

One:  Also, it seems the hearers would have been surprised that the third servant did not try to do something with the money.  After all, it was twenty years of wages.  If someone is down to a few pennies, she might not be willing to take risks, but if that person has $1 million, surely there is room for some risk-taking.

Two:  Exactly!

One:  I have heard this parable used in churches for the annual stewardship campaign.  Is it teaching Jesus’ followers to give their money for God’s work?

Two:  No, money is used to illustrate a larger point.  The meaning is much deeper than money.  Jesus is not simply teaching us to use our money to make more money, and he is not telling us to give our money to God for God’s work.  Rather, Jesus is teaching his disciples – then and now – to use the resources we have been given, to take risks with what we have and help it become more, to see possessions not as treasures to be hoarded but as opportunities to be invested into something much greater.

One:  What is the message for the church?

Two:  So often, churches miss opportunities to engage in mission where they are located because their attention is focused on their balance sheet, income statement, or membership numbers.  Churches list their assets and liabilities, and they seek to ensure that their assets, such as building and vehicle values, remain stable.  This means that you cannot take risks with ministry opportunities that might damage what you have.  Buildings can be viewed more like shrines to be protected than places into which all people are to be invited.  Money must go to maintenance of what you have – membership, heating and air conditioning, tried and true programs and established patterns – rather than being risked for ministry within or beyond the walls of your buildings.

One:  It seems that many churches live in fear, like the third servant.  Perhaps they are afraid to risk using what they have because they do not think there will be enough to go around.  If they try a new venture in ministry, and it does not pan out, they think there are no do-overs.  Too often they live in fear, just as I did so long ago as the new child in the neighborhood.  They cannot risk losing – money, members, status in the eyes of our church-going neighbors – especially when times are tough, budgets are tight, and members are hard to come by.

Two:  And, they have come to measure success by achieving tangible things they can see, touch, and measure – members, numbers of worship services, budget totals.  This leads them to hunker down and try to hold on to what they have just as the third servant buried the talent he was given.

One:  This story seems to have a harsh ending:  the third servant is stripped of his talent and banished.  Are we missing something?

Two:  Yes!  Did you see the master’s response to the first two servants?  The master invited them to “share in the joy of your master” after seeing the results of their risk taking.  Joy!  This is a parable about joy that comes from taking risks for the sake of the gospel and its ministry.

One:  And, it is a parable about abundance.  One hundred years, forty years, or twenty years worth of wages provide enough money to allow for do-overs!  The master has resources in abundance.

Two:  What would you invite the church to hear in this story?

One:  Rather than holding tightly to what we have – out of fear that we do not have enough money, people, time, or abilities – look to God, who gives to us in abundance and whose resources are without end.  Recognize what God has given you, and then look to the world right at your door and see its needs.  In what places do people need to know of God’s love, in what tangible ways do people need to experience the life-changing power of God’s Spirit?  Open your eyes, and open your hearts.  Then, risk using your resources – spend your money, use your building, leave your pews and venture into the world – to risk engaging in vital ministry.  And, if it does not work out exactly as you had envisioned or hoped, use a do-over!  Try again, again, and again!

Two:  And, then may you experience the “joy of your master!”  Amen!

When There Is No Peace

During the season of Advent, when our worship and devotional readings focus on the coming of the Prince of Peace, we are reminded that many people find peace to be elusive, distant, or altogether missing. Many people’s lives have been rocked by unexpected and unforeseen changes that leave them feeling little peace during this Advent season. Others have faced less dramatic changes but are nonetheless weary, worried, or hurting just now.

Ian Price and Carolyn Kitto, co-authors of Creative Worship, have written a poem for those whose experience of Advent is more difficult than joyful.

Where are you, God?
Are you hiding?
Has it become too difficult to show your face around here?
There was a time when I would not have minded
your absence; when I was young
a different spirit beat within,
and I was strong and needed less.
Not so now – I really need you.
I need someone to help carry these tired bones
one more time around the block.
I need someone to fashion words
for all who ask me how I am,
expecting faith and piety to flow.
Yes, there’s a weariness upon me now,
and I would like a day’s rest –
rest from the emptiness; and rest from this hollow ache;
rest from uncertainty; and rest from my own questioning.
Oh, it’s okay, I know you’re there.
And all in all I know you care.
It’s just that it turned out differently, you know.

So I will wait for you to come,
and I will sing the song of faith,
till love is born and life is whole again,
and journey’s end is won.

If, during the celebration of Jesus’ coming, you are feeling little hope and less peace, please know that you are not alone. One aspect of being the body of Christ is supporting one another through times of difficulty. So, when you cannot lift up your heart and singing comes only with difficulty, please know that others can sing for you and with you.