Posts

Hero

Everyone imagines themselves as the hero of their own story. Especially every child — and I was a child. They all imagine themselves as heroes. That’s not a new thing; it’s like that here in your twenty-first century American lives, but it was like that where I lived, in Nazareth two thousand years ago, as well. Your boys and girls have the heroes that they imagine: Wonder Woman, Iron Man, PJ Masks, Moana, GI Joe, Harry Potter. They’re inundated with them: hundreds of heroes, on television screens and in movie theaters, in newspaper comics and novels. Watch the children sometime, and see how they play: averting global disasters at the playground, setting up elaborate Lego battlefields, going on daring adventures through their back yards, covering themselves with temporary tattoos. They all want to be heroes.

So did I, but our heroes were a little bit different.

You have to understand that those Roman soldiers could do anything. There was no due process, no body cameras, no professional code of ethics — not that those things always make a difference for you, but even those flawed safeguards were not there for us. Rome had conquered my town and those soldiers could do anything they wanted.

So we would go to our religious services, passed off to the authorities as innocuous. They respected things that were ancient, and our faith was as ancient as they come: ancient stories, ancient scrolls, ancient traditions. They thought our religion kept us busy, kept us industrious, kept us docile. But every little child, boy or girl, wants to be a hero, and that’s what I was. So I learned the stories of our heroes. Moses, who led the people out of slavery in Egypt, who stood in the presence of God on Sinai. David, who as a boy stood fearless with his slingshot and felled the giant Goliath. Jeremiah, who heard the voice of God in his boyhood and fearlessly reprimanded the wicked and faithless. And there were other heroes, too: Ruth and Naomi, left widowed and making their way in the world. Jael, deceiving and impaling Siserah, Esther, risking everything to advocate for her people to the king.

Those were the stories that shaped me and formed me as a child. Read more

“I Believe the Women”

With great understanding,
Wisdom is calling out
as she stands at the crossroads
and on every hill.
She stands by the city gate
where everyone enters the city,
and she shouts:
“I am calling out
to each one of you!
Good sense and sound judgment
can be yours.
Listen, because what I say
is worthwhile and right.
I always speak the truth
and refuse to tell a lie.
Every word I speak is honest,
not one is misleading
or deceptive.
-Proverbs 8:1-8 (CEB)

detail from Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, 1609

The allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct continue to mount in every sector of society. In response to the allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I believe the women.” These four words hold extraordinary power, and the fact that they are so extraordinary points to how necessary they are.

The word of a woman is often questioned – including by women themselves. In the wake of #metoo, one thing we’ve seen is just how much women have internalized our victim blaming culture. Many have been reluctant to name sexual misconduct for what it is, or have felt partially responsible for it because they had been flirting, too, or they had enjoyed a drink with a friend. There is an inner voice asking, “Was this somehow my fault?”

In a culture that prizes women who are nice, sweet, and submissive, calling out harassment is strongly discouraged. For many women, speaking out would be detrimental to their careers or advancement. There is a pressure in many industries for women to be able to keep up with the men, to prove that they aren’t too emotional, too difficult, or any number of negative stereotypes that would prevent them from fitting in to the dominant culture. Louis CK’s sexual misconduct opened up dialogue among female comedians, who find that “not being able to take a joke” when it comes to sexual misconduct is a real career killer. Where men continue overwhelmingly to dominate certain industries, where “locker room talk” is actually the talk in whatever rooms of power – board room, green room, Senate chamber – women are under pressure to prove that we can take it, that we can hang with the best of them, while allowing the dominant rape culture to define the “best.”

Certainly, there have been, at times, false accusations made. But the vast majority of allegations of abuse and harassment are not false. Women have very little to gain in accusing men – particularly the rich and powerful – of misconduct. When women do speak out, our word is doubted, our character maligned, or worse. Women who have spoken out against powerful men have received death threats and lawsuits. It’s no wonder so many keep silent. Read more

Jesus on the Big Screen

Movie Reels

Movie Reels

While I was serving as a camp chaplain this summer, a young woman asked me if I could recommend a Jesus movie. Her question surprised me at first: I wasn’t aware of a demand for Jesus films from teenagers. But we were at the end of a very deep conversation about her faith, and she was at a tender and critical moment in her journey. I wanted to make sure I recommended the right one.

As I racked my brains for just the right Jesus movie, I realized that she was seeking more than just a cinematic experience. Her generation, more than any other, is one that gathers its information from online media, especially videos. While books, plays, and other forms of art and entertainment provided connection and conveyed meaning for past generations, she and her peers turn to video sources like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix for those needs. This teenager was asking for more than just information: she was asking for a way she could connect and relate to Jesus.

Read more

From Death to Life

Pregnant WomanEditor’s Note:  This may be difficult to read if you have pain around not being able to have a child or to breastfeed.

Holy Week is a powerful time.  It is a time to tell a powerful story.  It is a time to tell stories of death turning to life. My body has often felt like a place of death.  It seems like every few years it finds another new way to let me down, put me in the hospital, delay my life, or torture me.

 In eighth grade, when I was thirteen years old, I developed before many of my classmates.  I experienced significant sexual harassment.  Boys would shove me up against lockers, or would “accidentally” bump into me to touch my chest. Classmates of all genders would snap my bra strap.  Girls would whisper and snicker in the bathroom about how I must have been padding or stuffing my bra. I hated my breasts, because they were a source of torture and emotional death for me. And so I hated my body.

Eighth grade was also a year when I spent significant time on crutches because of severe tendonitis in my ankles.  I had to give up almost everything I was good at or enjoyed.  Because of the harassment and the physical pain involved in walking, I became clinically depressed. And so I hated my body.  

 The ways that my body let me down and caused pain continued for years.  In my first year of seminary, at age twenty-four, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  Five years later, after a five-month leave of absence from my pastoral internship and a hospitalization, I was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a rare stomach condition that causes slowing of the digestive system. Then it took my husband and me three years, including six months of fertility treatments, to get pregnant.  Again and again, my body let me down. And so I hated my body.

 During my pregnancy, I lived with hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy complication that brings severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration, for which I was hospitalized twice. My body was torturing me. And so I hated my body.

 Hating my body wasn’t helpful.  It felt like death – sometimes like something close to physical death, and other times like emotional or spiritual death. There were years when I never expected to know anything other than hatred for my body. I believe that God can take anything that feels like death and transform it.

 And then I gave birth to my son.  And then I nursed him past the age of two.  And then I found that the death-dealing hatred I had known had turned into respect, and sometimes even love for my broken body.

 I never expected to find joy in my body.  I never expected to understand that death can turn into life because I was able to nurse my child.  And yet I do. My body could grow an entire human being!  My body could feed and nourish that human being for the first two years of his life!  I am beginning not to hate my body, but to respect and even appreciate it.  The movement from hating my body to finding ways to love my whole being is my story of death into life.  My body still causes significant pain and exhaustion. But, those things rarely lead to true hate now, because I also have things I like about my body.  This body, I tell myself, grew a human and fed him – created him, nourished him.

 God can and does bring new life.  God can bring new life to our bodies, even if they are painful, broken, exhausted, hated.  The story that we tell in church this week is a story of death and life.  It is a story of joy coming in the midst of the pain. It is a story where Jesus hurts, and dies, but rises again.

 I wonder if Jesus felt like his body let him down on the cross, or when he was being tortured.  I wonder if he hated his body because of the pain that was being inflicted on it.  Is it possible that Jesus understands my physical torture because of the torture he endured in his last days?  His torture even led to physical death.

 And he was able to overcome that death.  On Easter, we celebrate that Jesus created new life in the midst of the painful death of his body, and so I find hope for the life of my body, too. Because of Jesus’ Resurrection, because Jesus brought new life through the physical dying and rising of his body, I am able to know life in my body, too: Life that gets me through the painful days;  Life that gives me the freedom not to hate my body – because it can do amazing things;  Life that even allows me to love my body for what it can do and not only to hate it for what it can’t do.

 Even though this life doesn’t come as perfection, Jesus still offers it to me imperfectly now, and perfectly in the future.  If Jesus can take my breasts, my instruments of such pain and torture, and use them to nourish and grow new life in the world – what other kinds of new life do I have to look forward to?   Jesus can bring new life into anything, even my breasts.  Even my painful and broken body.

 I did not think that this would happen to me.  I did not think it possible that I would know such transformation in this lifetime.  I thought that I might stay inside my pain forever.  And so I hated my body.  And now I don’t because I know that Jesus can transform anything.

 Jessica Harren is the solo Pastor at Capron Lutheran Church.  When she is not making life complicated by thinking about theology and her body, you can find her managing her health and playing with her two year old, cats, or husband.  She is also on the Editorial Board of the Young Clergy Women Project.

Photo Credit: “Pregnant Woman” by Franck Nieto, https://flic.kr/p/iWmAQX, April 12, 2014, Used by Creative Commons Licence. Copyright by Franck Nieto.  

Bent Over Backward

origin_3456659016

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I threw my back out. When I say “out,” I mean O.U.T. Sitting still was a struggle and an unintentional turn of my torso had my body writhing in pain. I blame it on too many church committee meetings and the endless onslaught of emails that keep me hunched over my computer for more hours than I care to count. An avid athlete and only 25 years old, the first time this treacherous pain struck, my initial response was denial—this can’t be happening, I am too young, I exercise, and most importantly, it’s almost Christmas—doesn’t God know how bad the timing is?

Perhaps it was because of my physical ailments that when I was asked to develop a bible study on women in the Gospel of Luke that the story of Jesus healing a woman who was bent over for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17) stood out to me like a sore thumb or rather, a bad back.

This story has enough meat that it will preach, but it’s also familiar enough that our eyes can glaze over when we rush it rather than read it. That’s what had happened to me in the past; but this time, with my back out and a bible study to facilitate, I was forced to slow down and reread this story of healing, wholeness, and holiness with new eyes and newfound empathy.

The women’s bible study group I facilitate has been meeting for over 10 years, long before I arrived at the church. Facilitating the bible study is one of my favorite parts of my job because it is a place where the vertical and horizontal aspects of our faith so clearly intersect. Through reading, reflection, and lively discussion, the words on the page become the Living Word as the group’s collective energy, questions, and reflections, combined with the presence of God’s Spirit, shed new light on how we are to love God and live in the world.

With questions about healing, wholeness, and holiness at the forefront of the discussion and feeling the literal ache of being bent over (we read the story while standing bent over to get a feel of what life must have been like for the woman in the text), our discussion began.

If you haven’t read this story in a while, do. It’s one that bears rereading. First of all, a miraculous healing occurs. Second of all, far from this healing being a miracle that only Jesus, God incarnate, could perform, when it’s broken down, it becomes clear that this miracle is more possible and probable than any of us could have ever imagined.

The story begins with Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. In the synagogue is a woman who is disabled by a spirit, which has left her unable to stand up straight for 18 years. Whereas others may have passed her by, Jesus notices and engages her.

Jesus was a pro at seeing people as they were—people with gifts and goodness as well as with struggles, problems, sickness, and deep pain. If this story teaches us one thing about miraculous healing, it is that healing happens through relationships and community, through acknowledging and engaging with one another.

The next thing that happens is that Jesus speaks to the woman. In our bible study, women talked about caring for young children and aging parents and the power of talking to rather than about their loved ones. What does it mean to speak to people who are in pain or experiencing illness, to pray with rather than for them?

I don’t know why this woman was bent over and I don’t know why I threw my back out (although moving boxes of Christmas decorations may have had something to do with it). What I do know is that there is a deep connection between the physical, spiritual, and emotional and that Jesus makes this connection. He doesn’t try to diagnose the women’s psychophysical issues; he simply speaks to her and says that she is free from whatever it is that’s holding her back and keeping her down.

Finally, Jesus touches her. This woman experiences the touch of another human being, perhaps for the first time in 18 years. Can you imagine what it must have felt like for her to be touched? It’s no wonder she stood up and shouted for joy!

When I read about this woman’s response, I imagine her standing up straight, raising her hands with spirit fingers, and beginning the first-century equivalent of “the wave,” or at least a dance party. How could she have done any less?!

Yes, and I imagine this woman’s community being able to see, perhaps for the first time in a long time, this woman as she was, a daughter of Abraham, rather than someone to be ignored or discarded. The crowd rejoices at what’s happened for by one person being healed, greater healing and wholeness is brought to them all. It must have been quite the par-tayyy!

At the end of our bible study, the women and I stood and engaged in a body prayer. My back was still aching, but my spirit felt renewed. The rich discussion reminded me that healing, wholeness, and holiness are deeply intertwined and healing—even miraculous healing—is possible when we take time to see, to speak to, and to touch one another. When healing happens, we have no choice but to shout with joy and give thanks, as we realize that each time one of us is healed, greater wholeness and holiness is brought to us all.

Hopeful Signs: An Advent Sermon on John 1:6-28

We expect some of the same things around Christmas: the same message, the same songs, the familiar traditions of it all.  We still have to work to prepare the way of the Lord.  For my family, this Christmas is different.  Advent is different.  Pregnancy has made it so, and I have come to understand that Advent is very much like pregnancy.  Let me explain.

First, Advent is pregnant with hope.  I am a visual representation.  A baby is full of potential and possibilities. There is so much hope for the future, as we dream about what this child will be like and realizing that she may be nothing like what we are thinking she will be. What are you hoping for this Christmas?  If you’re hoping for presents under the tree, it might not be the same as last year?  Hoping for perfection, probably be disappointed?  Hoping for something different?  A Christmas miracle of healing?  Meaning?

Even as we are full of hope this Advent, we have to manage our expectations to know what is realistic so that we are not disappointed.  It did not take too long after we learned about this baby for me to learn that pregnancy is not all fun and games.  It is a painful, annoying, stressful, fun, exciting, awesome, amazing experience.  Some pregnancies are happier than others…too many involve sickness, complications, relationship issues, etc.  People have been overwhelmingly joyful at our news.  Strangers come up and talk to me.  It monopolizes many everyday conversations.  It is a common experience that binds us together.  Pregnancy is a long time, for others not long enough.  It provides a range of emotions:  fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, illness, and tiredness.  Advent offers a range of emotions too.  There’s the joy, excitement, and nervousness about how it will all come together, and tiredness from doing it all.  I think Advent can be summed up by that line in the Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” from O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The waiting gives us time to experience all the hopes and fears of both pregnancy and Advent.

Secondly, Advent, like pregnancy, is not all about you.  This pregnancy seems to be all about me right now.  I have never been asked how I’m feeling so often.  Never have so many strangers been interested in me, and in touching my belly, and sharing their good and bad pregnancy and delivery stories.  But it is not all about me; it is much more about this baby.  Even before we learned our good news, I had started taking folic acid to prevent birth defects and scaled back on caffeine.   Once we found out, I really worked on my diet and eating healthier and started taking prenatal vitamins.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was no longer in charge of my body.  This little baby has a lot to say about when I sleep or not, when I eat, and how much energy I have.  My life, my daily routine, has changed dramatically because it’s no longer all about me. With Advent, it is also easy to think it is all about us.  We have so much to do.  We have so many gifts left to buy and wrap.  We have to write our Christmas cards.  We focus on OUR waiting/preparations rather than on Christ’s coming.  We focus on our hopes rather than on the hope of Christ.

John the Baptist knew that it was not all about him.  He was clear on his identity, who he was and who he wasn’t.  In the Gospel reading, we hear that  John the Baptist did not give the answers that the leaders were hoping for.  They wanted him to be all these things, (Elijah, the Messiah) but all he would admit to being was a voice in the wilderness.  He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light himself.  In other Gospels we can read more about John’s own miraculous birth, what he wore and ate, and more about his ministry.  But here, the main point is John’s identity.   “I AM NOT” the Messiah….what he isn’t.  In Advent, we have to take care to not get a Messiah complex: so busy trying to be all things to all people.  Scurrying in Advent instead of waiting is dangerous.

John the Baptist came to testify to the light: Christmas is not about the tree and presents, but those are just a way to point to the gift of Jesus.  Or, maybe they become distractions so we don’t have to see the homeless, the hurting, the hungry.  We have to remember our identity as Christians, the reason for the season, to restore justice, and release the oppressed this Advent. This season is all about Jesus, and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.  We should be giving Jesus gifts by giving meaning to all his children by sharing the Good News of Christ.

Finally, Advent, like pregnancy, should not be rushed because it happens too quickly anyway.  We can’t skip ahead to Christmas, or we are missing out.  Similarly, those expecting have to enjoy the adventure and not wish it away.  As much as I want to meet this little girl, I also want enjoy the adventure of being pregnant.  It is a miracle, and an awesome experience to think that there is a baby in my tummy.  What a gift from God!  I receive a daily email from a site that gives me an update on the baby’s size, explaining what is going on with my body, and other hints and tips.  I love that email, each day and it reminds me of opening a little window in an Advent calendar.  It’s just another peek into what is coming, a hint at the whole picture.  Every day you get a little closer.

My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we experience it as a joyful journey. May we all keep our eyes open to hopeful signs this Advent season.   In the name of the one whose coming is worth waiting for, Amen.

Tiffany Jo McDonald is an Ordained Elder in the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is currently appointed to family leave, raising the preschool daughter who inspired this sermon and a 5 month old. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, ’04, and resides with her husband and daughters in Excelsior, Minnesota.

Photo by Esparta Palma, http://www.flickr.com/photos/esparta/4482887906/ March 27, 2010. Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.

Emmanuel: God is (Still) With Us

Earlier this week, I ran into Jesus on Facebook.

I was scrolling aimlessly through my news feed, and saw that my friend Rev. Tisha Brown, who pastors a UCC church up in Madison, had posted a video with this note: “This is incredible – not only feeding but loving the poor. I wish I was this compassionate and willing to give everything to serve my sisters and brothers like this man does.”

Well, that sounded pretty cool to me, so I decided to click on the video and watch it.

The video opens with an image of a Hindu temple in Madurai, India. A man’s voice can be heard over images of a busy street and close ups of streetpeople lying on the edge of the road.

He says, “I finished my college here. I was working for Taj Group of Hotels Bangalore. I saw a very old man. He was eating his own human waste for hunger.”

The camera focuses on a young man who is speaking directly to me, sitting on the other side of the world. He says, “I thought what is the purpose of my life? What am I going to do? In my star hotel, I feed all my guests, but in my hometown there are people who are living, even without food. I quit my job and I started feeding all these people from 2002.”

The voice of Christ – right there on Facebook. This time of year, we typically are on the lookout for the advent of Christ in our world – but we often expect the Spirit of Christ to hit us in more predictable ways. Perhaps we feel it move among us as the candles are lit and Silent Night is sung at church. Or we see a newborn baby with her parents and realize God is still being born into the world – even today.

I don’t know about you, but I just didn’t expect to see a video of the living Christ on Facebook. Of all places!

I have to admit. It actually took me a few days to realize this was Christ speaking to me through my laptop. I was taken with the video immediately. In it, Narayanan Krishna dices, stirs, and lifts giant pots of food. He drives around town in his truck, delivering food to the destitute, mentally ill, and elderly. Every day, he delivers breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 400 people living on the streets of Madurai.

But he does more than just deliver food. He delivers love.

In the video, Mr. Krishna gets out of his truck and opens his arms wide as a young, shirtless boy walks into him. They share a long embrace. Mr. Krishna has trained himself to offer eight styles of haircuts. He gently washes and dries the faces of the homeless as he offers them a shave. He massages their temples as he shampoos and trims their hair.

Mr. Krishna says, “For them to feel, psychologically, that they are also human beings – that there are people to care for them – they have a hand to hold, hope to live. Food is one part. Love is another part. So the food will give them physical nutrition. The love and affection which you show will give them mental nutrition.”

After watching the video one time, I shared it on my wall so others could see it, and then I temporarily forgot about it. But it just wouldn’t leave me alone. I watched it several more times over the next few days. Then I started hunting for more information about this man – who isn’t named in the original video I saw. From CNN’s website, I learned more about his life.

Turns out that since he’s from a Brahmin family, Mr. Krishna is not supposed to be doing this work. As a part of the Hindu priestly class, he should not be feeding, touching, cleaning these people. His family was initially horrified when he began this work. They were upset that he was wasting the expensive education they had provided for him.

When he quit his full-time job in 2002 he was well on his way to climbing the ladder as a chef. He had recently secured a transfer to a fancy hotel in Switzerland, but when he visited his hometown and saw the poverty there, he couldn’t move to Europe. When he finally convinced his mom to come see the work he was doing, she was transformed. She spent the day working with him and then immediately pledged to do anything in her power to help him live out his dream. Mr. Krishna, who is 29 years old, lives off of a meager allowance provided by his parents so that he can continue his work.

Brahmin or not, Mr. Krishna insists that these streetpeople deserve love. He says, “Everybody has got 5.5 liters of blood. I am just a human being. For me, everybody the same. There are thousands and thousands and lots and lots of people suffering. What is the ultimate purpose of life? It is to give. Start giving. See the joy of giving.”

I saw another video about him on CNN.com and learned that he gets up at 4:00am each day to begin cooking. He doesn’t slow down until after dinner is delivered and cleaned up. He does this every day – no holidays, rain or shine. Mr. Krishna says, “Others find it difficult to do this. I don’t find it difficult. My vision and my ideals are very clear. The happiness in their face keeps me going. I take energy from them. I want to save my people. That is the purpose of my life.”

And it was that phrase – “I want to save my people” – that made me realize why I couldn’t get Mr. Krishna out of my mind. He is the Spirit of the Living Christ.

Jesus came into the word to save his people. That’s what the Gospel of Matthew tells us this morning. And, apparently, Narayanan Krishna came to do the same thing. I’m not saying Jesus of Nazareth and Mr. Krishna are the same person, of course. But they both represent a specific reality – the Spirit of Christ – alive and well in our world.

Let’s get some terms straight before we confuse ourselves any further.

Jesus was the name of a particular baby boy whose birth we celebrate this time of year. It was a common name in his time and place. It was probably pronounced Yeshua and it’s where we get our name, Joshua. It means “YHWH saves” – which is why the angel told Joseph to “name the child Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which is a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. It means “the anointed one.” It can be used to refer to the one person who is more anointed than all others – but it can also be used to refer to anyone who is anointed. In fact, the ruler of Persia, Cyrus, is referred to as Messiah in the book of Isaiah because he had been anointed by God to escort the people of Israel back to their homeland after the Babylonian Exile. Cyrus wasn’t even Jewish and he was called Messiah – anointed one – by the prophet Isaiah.

And then we have Emmanuel – God is with us. We see that name for Jesus in Matthew’s text – “the virgin shall conceive and bear a child and they will name him Emmanuel – God is with us.” Matthew is quoting from a much older text, the one we heard from the book of Isaiah earlier this morning. Traditionally, Christians have believed that the prophet Isaiah was predicting the birth of Jesus Christ, but it is fairly apparent when you read the book of Isaiah that this was not the case. Isaiah was writing to a specific time and people and he was writing about the birth of another baby. Isaiah told King Ahaz that while this child was an infant, the two kingdoms Ahaz feared, Damascus and Syria, would be defeated by Assyria. The child, Immanuel, signified that God was with the people Israel and that all would be well.

Whew! Okay – enough with the vocabulary lesson. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is this – when I say that I ran into Jesus on Facebook in the person of Mr. Krishna, I’m not being totally accurate. Jesus was a particular person who lived a long time ago. But he was called Jesus because he embodied the Spirit of Christ – the anointed one. And he was Emmanuel – God with us.

I believe that part of what it means to be a people of the Resurrection is to recognize that while the person Jesus of Nazareth is not walking around today, the Spirit of Christ and the reality of Emmanuel are still alive and well. Christ cannot die. God is always with us.

Matthew uses the Isaiah text to say, “Hey, folks, pay attention. Because do you remember what God did when that baby Immanuel was born a few hundred years ago? Remember the story about how King Ahaz learned from Isaiah that his people were about to be saved from their foes? Well, that’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about this baby, Jesus. This baby reminds us that God is with us, just like that one did.”

And, really, don’t we all need to be reminded from time to time that God is with us?

The good news of Christmas is not just that God came in a baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothing and lying in a manger. The good news of Christmas is that God comes again and again.

God is still with us, just as God was with the people of Israel when Ahaz was King, and as God was with the Jews living and struggling to persevere in the Roman Empire. God does not quit.

When you find out your mom has cancer, God is with you. And God does not quit.

When you are staring at a bottle of pills and wondering if you really want to wake up tomorrow, God is with you. And God does not quit.

When you break someone’s heart because of a stupid, selfish choice, God is with you. And God does not quit.

And if you’re lying on the side of a street in Madurai, India – eating your own waste because you are literally starving to death, God is with you. And God does not quit.

God sends people – tiny babies and big grown men and little girls and old grandfatherly types and everyone in between – God sends people to be the presence of God to a broken world.

When Narayanan Krishna wakes up at 4:00 in the morning and begins chopping onions and carrots, when he loads up his truck, and when he hugs those kids on the street – he is doing more than just bringing himself along. He is bringing the very Sprit of Christ into the world day in and day out. He is Emmanuel – God with us. He felt a call to save his people and he is living it out in the streets of Madurai each and every day.

I think the only way to sustain this wild and crazy kind of behavior day in and day out is to truly be called to do this work. I don’t believe that every person sitting here today is called to save their people. But I would be willing to wager that a few folks might be.

This Advent season, as we await the birth of Jesus Christ, we also await the birth of the Spirit of Christ in our own time and place. It’s more than just a story, folks. It’s reality. The shocking and incredulous and simple and real gospel truth is that God is still with us.

God is breaking into our world in every crack and crevice that can be found. And all we have to do is pay attention and say yes.

Thanks be to God.

Editor’s Note:  This sermon, “Emmanuel: God is (Still) With Us” uses Matthew 1:18-25 and was prepared for t First United Church on Sunday, December 19, 2010 (fourth Sunday of Advent). This sermon was previously published on the First United Church website and Caela’s personal sermon blog (revcaela.blogspot.com). More information about Narayanan Krishna’s foundation, The Akshaya Trust, can be found at: www.akshayatrust.org .

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She has served as the Associate Minister at First United Church of Bloomington, Indiana since January 2010. Caela has a Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas and a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Studies in Indianapolis. Caela was raised in Kansas, where she met her future husband, David, in youth group. Since moving to Indiana, they’ve added a beagle and a son to their family. Caela spends too much time on facebook.

 Photo Credit: by The Fluffy Owl, http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/7856630628/ via href=”http://photopin.com”.  Used by Creative Commons License 2.0.

The Details of Advent

When I was a little girl, Advent was my absolute favorite time of year. It is true that part of the excitement had to do with the promise of gifts under the tree – but my love for the season went far beyond a desire for presents. Looking back, it is clear that Advent's top-ranking status in my personal pantheon of holidays had everything to do with a sense of wonder.

For me, decorating the Christmas tree was the best part – twinkling white lights peering out between crisp branches, delicate ornaments nestled in each bough, shimmering icicles glistening from every bristly tip… I loved our tree so much that my mother often discovered me curled underneath it, reading a book illuminated by those little white lights.

Beyond the tree, there were also those other wondrous Advent rituals: lighting candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday, singing the hymns that taught me my faith more than any Sunday school class, decorating the church during the hanging of the greens. Each moment, each activity added a new degree of anticipation as we moved towards Christmas Day. Finally, that swelling expectation reached a crescendo on Christmas Eve night as we sang Silent Night and raised our candles in the darkness of the sanctuary – Jesus would soon be born and I knew we were lighting the way.

Read more