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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Clothes for Christmas

1Samuel 2:18-20, 26

   What did you get for Christmas?

   I got a drone. Now I can bomb Syria!


   I got a FitBit!

   It's like Santa Claus.

   It knows when I've been sleeping.

   It knows when I'm awake.

   It knows how far I've walked today

   And my calorie intake.


   And, this is so cool.

   A Google Cardboard 3-D VR headset.

   You put your phone in it.

   And then, you can travel the world without ever leaving your La-Z-Boy.

   (Kinda defeats the purpose of the FitBit.)



   And… of course...

   I got some clothes.

   (Christmas shoes! Just like my favorite song!)

   But clothes.

   Guys, you know what I'm talkin 'bout.




   These are the days after Christmas, moving from Christmas toward the time we call, "Epiphany."

   This is the time when we sit back for a few minutes, and as did Mary, ponder the events of Christmas in our hearts.

   In our minds' eye, we can watch the three wise men, traveling from the east to lay their gifts before the baby Jesus - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


   And, if we let our imagination take us even further back, beyond the three kings, back a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, we can remember a Christmas story that happened in the days before there ever was a Christmas.

   A story about a little boy, who each year received a present of new clothes.

   In the days after Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, in the days after they had crossed over the river Jordan into the promised land, but before there was yet a king to rule them, in those dark ages lived a woman whose name was Hannah.

   Each year Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, would make a pilgrimage to the mountaintop temple at Shiloh.

   And each year at the top of the mountain, Hannah prayed that God would give her a son.

    In those days, nothing was worth more to a family than a son through which to carry on the family name.

   And no gift was worth more to a woman than knowing she had given birth to that son.

   And so, each year, Hannah prayed that a son would be born to her.

   One year, the priest, Eli, saw Hannah as she prayed.

   She was praying, "O lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to me a male child, I will give him back to you as a priest for this mountaintop, from the day he is born until the day he dies."

   Eli told her, "Go in peace; the God of Israel will grant the prayer you have made to him."

   So Hannah and her husband returned home, and in time she gave birth to a baby boy.

   She named the boy Samuel, which means, "I have asked him of the Lord."

   And, as she had promised, Hannah took the baby Samuel to the temple at Shiloh, and gave him to the priest Eli, there to be raised by him as a minister of God.

   And then, going back down the mountain, she went home, having given away her only child.

   From that time on, Hannah saw her son only once a year, when she and her husband would make their journey to Shiloh.

   I wonder if, cresting the hill, she could see her little boy from a distance, trotting along behind the priest Eli, the young sacrifice himself helping other people make their sacrifices.

   And each year when she came to visit, Hannah brought to Samuel one, single present.

   No games, no phone, no toys - clothes.

   But not just any clothes.

   Hannah brought Samuel a tiny, blue ephod – a miniature version of the royal blue tunic worn by the high priest – radiant in its color, its beautiful hue inspiring all those who saw it to think of God.

   Even in the one gift she gave her son, Hannah continued to give her child back to God.

   Do you think little boy Samuel knew what the gift of the ephod meant?

   Do you think he caught the deeper symbolism of wearing something sewn by his mother's hand?

   Did he understand what it meant to cover himself, to drape across his body, the material form of his mother's prayers?


   But in the morning, when he pulled the ephod on, when the radiant blue fell about him, and he rubbed the cloth between his fingers, he might remember stories of her sacrifice made for him, the giving up of her only son.

   And far away, as she sat in her home, after doing her morning chores, when she had a moment to sit down and catch her breath, Hannah would think of her son.

   What was he doing?

   How much had he grown?

   And even though she could not physically be with him, she would - in her mind's eye - see him, putting on the new ephod - and she would be with him.

   The giving of the only son.

   The bringing of gifts as a new year begins.

   Who says there are no Christmas stories in the Old Testament?

   Oh certainly, the story of Hannah isn't THE Christmas story.

   But isn't it A Christmas story?

   When old year draws to a close and the new year begins, we exchange gifts with one another.

   We do it to remember - how God gave us the gift of His only Son.

   The giving of gifts, no matter how big or how small, expresses our love for one another.

   It shows how we all are related through the kindness we share.

   But there is also something to be said for the gifts which we receive.

   While surely the presents we receive don't change who we are –

   Samuel's ephod didn't make him a priest,

   nor did the gold, frankincense, and myrrh make the baby Jesus a king –

   while the presents don't change who we are, they do remind us that we can be re-equipped for our journey.

   These gifts cause us to remember that even the most tattered and worn out lives can indeed begin anew:

   As fresh and clean as a shiny new ephod.


   God who in the beginning created and gave to us the gift of life

   is the same God who in the present day continually re-creates that life.

   Whether we march boldly into the new year, or walk at our normal pace, or try to sneak by unnoticed –

   however we get there,

   we begin the new year clothed in the gifts - in THE gift - of Christmas.

   And so, I ask again: What did you get for Christmas?

   When we pause for a few moments to look back, pondering in our hearts what really happened last week, rubbing between our fingers the fabric of the days - we remember.

   We remember that when we celebrate Christ's birth, we also celebrate the re-birth of God's gift of love to us.

   And if we will only remember this, we will begin the new year wearing our own shiny new ephods.

   For, most of all, Christmas day reminds us that Jesus Christ is present with us this day and each day of the year, nearer to us than even the clothes on our backs.


   Cheryl starts retirement next week.

   After 35 years of being Church Educator, I – and a whole lot of us – feel as though she has clothed us with blessings, memories, and gifts from her heart.

   She has educated us, not simply with lessons on Sunday mornings and at Youth Group.

   She has educated by example, which is truly the best way any Christian educator can teach.

   The fabric of her ministry flows through the halls of this church, and into our lives.

   So, my friend, on behalf of a very grateful church:

   Thank you.

   May retirement be a new texture of material for your hand.


   Let's pray:


   Thank you, kind God, for all the people who make us who we are, whose instruction and hope have shaped us, even when we were too young or too confused to know.

   Thank you for Cheryl, whose ministries cover this church and countless children who have grown into men and women.

   Bless her new ministries in retirement.

   Bless Charles with gifts of comfort and care.

   Send us all forth to share the gifts of Christmas each day.

   In Jesus' name. Amen.


Friday, December 25, 2015

All Inn

   2015-12-24 "All Inn"

When God wanted to show where Jesus was, he put a bright star in the east.

When we want to show where Jesus is we put up a church.

With a sign.

With puns.

Always with the puns.

Pithy puns.

"The best vitamin for a Christian is B1."

"Brush up on your Bible: It prevents truth decay."

"Like Jesus on Faithbook."

And we wonder why people don't come to church.

Which is not to say I don't enjoy puns.

Sometimes Scott and I will break out in battles to out-pun-ish the other.

We think we're hilarious.

We tell Carla, "If you keep rolling your eyes they'll get stuck that way."

She gets up to her eyeballs in puns.

So I was surprised last week when I saw a punned-out church sign that was (a) new (to me) and (b) thought-provoking.

It said,

"Are you one of the inn crowd [i-n-n, get it?], or are you one of the stable few?"

Good one.

Hats off to the labs at SayingsForChurchSigns.com.


Except it seems to imply that people who go to church are always stable and well-adjusted.

And that's true.

"Those Lake Hills Presbyterians are so stable and well-adjusted.

"Especially that preacher."

How often I hear that.

Actually, I've never heard it.

But I choose to believe it.

If only we could fit more well-adjusted people in here.

But there's not enough room!

Or well-adjusted people in South Knoxville.

And we'd no longer be a few.

We'd be overcrowded by an unstable in-crowd of our own making.

We'd have to set up a remote in the picnic pavilion out back.

Hey, wait a minute.

That sounds vaguely biblical.

Manger danger.

When the inn's unstable, the stable gets labeled a refuge for the able.

But that's a fable.

A self-deception from the false perception we're a chosen section granted God's election to see the perfection of the...


Christmas isn't about congratulating ourselves for being part of the stable few.

We're in church.

We're nowhere near a stable.

And thank goodness; they're stinky and we've got on nice clothes.

The world is so weird.

The world is crazy.

Good thing it's out there and we're in here.

In here.

Innn here.

Uh oh.

Christmas is the divine and ultimate sign that God makes a home on earth.

God makes a home even on this crazy, violent, unstable earth.

Even when the self-appointed inn-crowd has neither the time or nor the space for Baby Jesus.

With Jesus, we're all in.

All inn.

And Jesus?

He never stays stable.

He's right inn here with us.


On family vacations we'd stay at the Holiday Inn.

Green sign, fancy light bulbs.

They'd start at the top and make their way around to make the arrow and then flash in unison.



Here is your place of rest.

Here is your inn of holiday.

Air conditioning.

Color TV.




2015 and the inn of humanity is no holiday.

Our time and space is packed to the rafters.

And at the same time, vacancy.



"We live in the time of no room....

The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration."

"[We are] haunted by the demons of emptiness.

And out of this unutterable void come the armies, the missiles, the weapons, the bombs, the… camps, the race riots, the racist murders, and all other crimes of mass society."

The writer asks:

"Is this pessimism?

[Or] Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody really feels?"

Thomas Merton.

From Raids on the Unspeakable.


2015: Sorry, Joseph. Mary.

No room for your baby in THIS inn.


he's a child of our own birthing, a savior of our own wishes, agreeing with our viewpoints, defending every un-meditated crime.

A Yes Man for Everyman.

Not a Savior to follow.

But a savior to keep in our back pocket.

A savior we holster.

A savior of the inn-side, whatever side we're in.

But the Year 1 Jesus?

The Bible's Jesus?

The Christ of loving your enemies and selling everything you own and giving it to the poor?

From his first night, there's never been room for that Jesus at the Unstable Inn.

Merton wrote:

"Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited.

…With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.

He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst."


It always kind of bothered me that we serve Communion on Christmas Eve.

I mean, he's not even born yet, and here we are, jumping ahead to crucifixion and death.

I want to say, "Slow down, people!

"Can we not be holly-jolly for ONE night?"

I guess I want a break.

I want a holiday from the news of the Inn-ternet and the CN-Inn.

(I never really thought about those puns before).

You say, "Watch Fox." You are sly.

I guess part of me just wants to make Jesus… Santa-fied.

Good news for people who've been good.

But that Jesus would be un-stable.


He would never make it to Easter.

He would not be good tidings of great joy to all people.

He would not be good news to the poor, healing of the brokenhearted, deliverance to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty to those who are bruised.

He'd only be good news to those who fit in.

And so he makes his birthplace outside us.

But near us.

Just far enough away to be holy.

But close enough to hear our cries through the windows.


A poem by Madeline L'Engle

First Coming

He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.

In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame he came,

and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,

   to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh

the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love:

Rejoice! Rejoice!

However unstable your inn may be, rejoice.

The Lord is come.


Madeleine L'Engle, from The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L'Engle