Christmas Eve Advent Homily – Dec 24, 2015

This evening in very brief terms, I wanted to review with you how I personally view these four candles of the Advent season, and how I remind myself of what they mean and stand for every day of the year. In most Christian traditions each of these four candles represents some aspect of God or some symbol of the Divine; the exact interpretation changes a bit from tradition to tradition, but there is also considerable overlap. For our purposes this evening, I will identify four very popular interpretations of the symbolism of the four candles; they are Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. There is not necessarily a prescribed order for these and there are any number of variations on this theme, but for tonight, we will focus on the symbolism of these four as Hope, Love, Peace and Joy.

Before I begin to focus individually on each candle and the symbolism of that candle, I wanted to take just a minute to explain that this is how I see the world, and how I interpret the symbolism of what each candle might represent. My interpretation doesn’t necessarily have to be your interpretation, but what my hope is that through this process you might also discover a new way of recognizing God in your life on a daily basis through ordinary life.

For me, there is a strong connection to God that I discover and see every day in the natural world. I feel very connected to nature, and through that connection I feel like I also discover more about God as I understand God. One of the things which I very much enjoy is outdoor photography-if you have been around here for any length of time, you already know this. I often express this connection to God and my love of outdoor photography by describing what I do with a word that isn’t really a word, but rather a word that I invented.

Because we will be thinking about the words Hope, Love, Joy and Peace this evening, I thought it might be appropriate to introduce to you the idea of etymology. For lack of a real definition, let’s just say that etymology is the study of word origins and word meanings. You might recognize the “ology” part of that word that means the study of. This is also present in words like biology, is which the study of living things, which the prefix bio actually means. There are a lot words that end in this suffix of “ology”-and the study of God is no exception. The study of God is theology, the first part of the word “theo” means God, and the second part means to study.

We can also look at the word photography in this way as well. The first part of the word is “photo” which has a literal meaning of light. Often particles of light are referred to as photons and so forth, so you can begin to see that connection. The last part of the word photography is the “graphy” suffix, which has a literal meaning “to write”. So we can look at the word photography and interpret that to literally mean to write with light; which if you think about the process is exactly what happens. When you take a picture, you write upon a light sensitive surface the light which surrounds and is reflected from the area where the camera is pointed.

This seems like a lot of background information that is totally unrelated to an Advent wreath, but please be patient with me…we will get there, I promise.

If you can recall the very beginning of the service this evening, we began in what I described as symbolic darkness. As the candles were being lit, we were reminded through several readings the many ways that the person of Jesus or the presence of God is described in scripture as light. We heard that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. We also heard about the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. This metaphor is present throughout both the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. It is literally everywhere; God is light in so many ways.

So this brings me back to the new word that I use to describe how I interpret my experience when I am in the natural word taking pictures. If the prefix “theo” has a literal meaning of God, and if you remember the suffix “graphy” from the word photography means to write, then when I am in the natural world taking pictures, I view that as a process where I am literally writing with the light of God. To write with the light of God could be expressed as “theography”. So it will be through theography that I wish to interpret the four symbolic representations of the Advent wreath.

As I light this first Advent candle, we will declare that this candle is symbolic of hope. One expression of this hope can be found in this theography experience of a sunrise I witnessed just a few weeks ago. I use the idea of a sunrise and link it to hope, because I believe that hope is more than just wishful thinking. Sometimes we use the word in that way, saying that I hope I get that new job or I hope the Seahawks win the Superbowl, but hope in the Divine surpasses wishful thinking. With Divine hope, we have a confidence that God is with us, regardless of what our current situation may be. The darkness prior to a sunrise can be interpreted in many ways and at many level of the human experience. But no matter how dark it is, we know with confidence the sun will rise again. And that is the Divine hope, the Divine confidence that I believe this first Advent candle symbolizes. Better yet, we can experience that hope each and every day when we pause and ponder a sunrise and allow it to remind us of the Divine hope available to us.

The second candle is often identified to be symbolic of love. For me, the interpretation of God’s love for us is present in the natural world when we observe mothers with their young. This summer my wife and I were touring Yellowstone National Park. When I first saw these young elk, I couldn’t see the mother anywhere. I was on one side of the river and they were on the other side. Sort of without thinking, I grabbed my camera and telephoto lens and scrambled down to the river’s edge to photograph these young elk. After a few minutes it dawned on me that if the mother was on my side of the river and if the mother interpreted my presence there as a threat to her young, I might be in serious danger. Thankfully, about the time that thought entered my head, the mother came into view and joined her two young ones for a drink in the river.

The reason I thought I might be in danger is because generally a mother in the wild will do almost anything to protect their young. The love that is demonstrated by these acts is really an expression of unconditional love; the same kind of love that I believe is expressed for us by God. Unconditional love is not dependent on behavior, a specific belief system, a set of rules or a specific interpretation of those rules. It is simply unconditional. Many people struggle with that concept, they want there to be some kind of a requirement for us to earn God’s love. I don’t think so. When I think about the unconditional love of a wild mother for her young, it reminds me of the unconditional love of God.

The third candle is often symbolic of Peace. For me, peace can be defined as the absence of anxiety-in other words, when we experience peace, the kind of peace that Jesus spoke of when he proclaimed that he gives us the peace which surpasses our ability to even understand it, that kind of peace means we are not anxious about our current situation or how that might change in the future. Peace is the absence of anxiety.

One expression of this in a theography experience happened to me while I was photographing tide pools on the Oregon coast. In those tide pools you will often find starfish. It’s hard to imagine a starfish having anxiety; and I don’t think they do. And yet they have every reason to be anxious. There are many starfish which when the tides don’t cooperate just right, find themselves in very dire circumstances. In spite of that, the starfish seems to be at peace, whenever you see one and wherever they happen to be. A starfish goes with flow in a sense and there are lessons for us to learn from the starfish about how we can experience the peace which surpasses all understanding.

The fourth candle is symbolic of joy. I saved joy for last because I understand joy to be the natural result of the other three. In other words, if you feel the unconditional love of God, and you experience the Divine hope of God and you are not anxious about your future and can experience the peace of God, the natural result of all those things will be joy.

A couple of years ago we attended the Tulip Festival in Woodburn, Oregon. The theography experience of tulips represents joy for me. Part of that experience is the understanding that tulips have been waiting during the long cold and dark winter to express themselves in the spring. When they do come up and bloom, they represent the hope of spring, the love which causes them to grow and prosper, the peace of blooming where they are planted. So joy can be found as the natural result of experiencing the first three symbols and at least for me, is perfectly expressed in tulips.

There is also a center candle on an Advent Wreath that simply represents the person of Jesus and that light which came into the world. As we light this Christ Candle, may we once again be reminded that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it. Amen.

 

Sermon: December 20, 2015 – Finding Balance

Text: Proverbs 15: 1, 13, 14, 28 & 30

A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,
but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.
14 The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge,
but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer,
but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.
30 The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
and good news refreshes the body.

 

The entire 15th chapter of Proverbs is full of interesting little sayings, or one-liners, as I like to call them sometimes and I just picked out a few of them for us to think about. This chapter of Proverbs seems to be dealing with how we feel about the world, what kind of condition our spirits are in and what our thought process is at the moment. There are some important messages here for us to consider, but I want to approach our thinking about this subject in a very unique way. I doubt you have ever experienced a sermon like the one you are about to receive. So, let’s get started.

The first thing that is unique about this particular sermon is that we are going to open with a science experiment. I have the experiment all set up and if you have a little trouble seeing, Robbin in the back is going to put a live picture on the monitors, so everybody will have a chance to see this work.

As you can see, I have constructed a make shift balance-it is very simple. There is just a dowel that I have notched in the center and have allowed the dowel to pivot on a small nail that is in this vertical support. At each end of the dowel is a paper bag and I can adjust where the bags are on the dowel and try to get the bags to balance perfectly. Once that is accomplished, we can begin our experiment.

I wanted you to witness this particular science experiment for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it is really cool and you will enjoy seeing it work. The second reason is more to the point. That reason is that I want you to understand that things we cannot see have physical manifestations. Just because something is invisible to us, doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact our lives in some way. Specifically, what I am talking about is the balance between what we might call the physical world and the spiritual world. This science experiment will help us understand that what happens in our spiritual world impacts our physical world and vice versa, our physical world can impact our spiritual world as well. Many people seem to think the two are not necessarily related, but they are. Unless we have a good balance between the two of them, we will be out of balance and generally unhappy. More about that later.

So we can see we have a balance set up here and what I would like for you to think about is that one of these bags, say the green one, represents our spiritual world. The other bag, the blue one, represents our physical world. At the moment we seem to have achieved balance between the two. Now obviously, if I were to put a rock into the blue bag, a physical item, it would be heavier than the green bag and the balance would tip. I don’t think I need to demonstrate that.

But what would happen if I were to put something spiritual into the green bag? Would the balance shift and the green bag become heavier? I say yes, because I believe our spiritual world and our physical world are connected and one impacts the other.

In this pitcher I have created a formula which has released some carbon dioxide into the air in the pitcher. You cannot see it, but it is there. The thing about carbon dioxide is that before it mixes with the rest of the atmosphere, it is heavier than the air around it. Because it is heavier, it will stay for a time in the lower part of this pitcher.

I would like for you to think about this carbon dioxide as a thought or a prayer or as depression or a negative comment or as a positive affirmation of some sort-you can think about it as any of those things, because they are invisible to us. We cannot see a thought or a prayer, we can only hear a comment, but we still cannot see it. It is my belief, that these thoughts and prayers and comments; those things which we cannot see, have an impact on our physical world.

I think this experiment helps us to visually understand what I mean by this. With the carbon dioxide in this pitcher, which I have told you is heavier than the atmosphere around it, what do you suppose would happen if I were to pour the co2 out of the pitcher and into our spiritual green bag?

Let’s take a look and see, shall we? You see, even though we cannot see it, even though it looks like there isn’t anything happening, even though there is no evidence anything is coming out of the pitcher, the green bag fills up and is now heavier than the blue bag, and the balance tips. Pretty cool, right? But think about what you just witnessed. Even though there is a scientific explanation, you just witnessed something invisible, something you don’t have the ability to see, moving an object in the physical world. I believe the relationship between our physical well-being and our spiritual well-being is a lot like this balance, if we simply focus on just one, we get out of balance and the other side suffers.

Right about now some of you might be thinking that I have really missed the mark. This is the fourth Sunday in Advent, Christmas is just around the corner, the sanctuary is all decorated and the organ is covered with nativity pieces; you wanted a sermon about Christmas and all I have provided was a science experiment! Well, think again. What do you think the word became flesh actually means? The word Emmanuel means God with us, is that a God we can see or not? Does God with us impact our physical world?

You see, Christmas is the one season where we actually celebrate the notion that the spiritual world can alter the physical world. We seem to forget about that the rest of the year. But there is more. I want us to understand this on a personal level, not some grand scheme full of angels and bright stars and world changing events. I want us to understand this concept on a personal level.

I have noticed something interesting about Christmas. It seems to me that the Christmas season impacts people one of two ways; either they love it or they actually hate it. It is hard to remain neutral about Christmas. Have you noticed that?

Here’s my theory as to why that is; there is so much spiritual energy around the season, so much stuff floating around and so many things that can impact our physical world that we simply cannot avoid the physical impact of all that energy. For some of us, we receive the positive energy, we enjoy the season, we enjoy the lights and the carols, we enjoy the gift giving and the decorating, we enjoy the spirit of cooperation that everyone seems to share. We receive the positive aspects of all that we cannot see and it impacts our physical world. We feel better, we are happier and we experience what people call getting into the Christmas spirit.

But there is a flip side. For many the Christmas season simply adds stress. They feel obligated to do things they can’t afford; they feel like there isn’t time enough to get everything done. The cards need to be sent and the shopping mall is crowded and the Christmas dinner hasn’t been planned and on and on. When we receive all that negative energy, that energy has a physical impact as well. It is just like the Christmas season pours out everything into our bags, and even though we cannot see it, we get out of balance and it drags us down.

Now here is the real point about the science experiment; we can control what goes into our spiritual bag. When a negative thought or a bad experience at the mall or a little bit of stress or depression begins to dump into your bag, here is what I want you to do. I want you to visualize this balance, and I want you to visualize your spiritual bag; in your mind I want you to simply take the bag and empty it of everything that is weighing you down. Turn it upside down and dump the negative energy out of it. When you do, your physical world will change and you can return to balance and you will feel better.

When we consider the Christmas story, we can imagine the impact on the physical world that has happened since the word became flesh and dwelt among us. But the rest of the year is coming and it will always be true that your spiritual world and your physical world are tied together and balance is something to strive for all year long. You can intentionally fill your spiritual bag when you need to and you can empty it when you need to as well. Practice this and as you do balance will be achieved and maintained, not just this Christmas season, but all year long.

Go in peace, go with God and go in balance. Amen.

Sermon: December 13, 2015 – The Birth of Hope

 

Text: Hebrews 6: 18b-19a

“We who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…..”

A little over a week ago I was up early and went out to get the newspaper and I noticed the early beginnings of what I thought might be a fabulous sunrise. I thought about what might be a good vantage point in which to capture this daily wonder, and I knew the church was up on a hill and thought that might hold some potential. So I went inside, put on some real clothes, grabbed my camera gear and quickly headed for the church. That is the thing about a sunrise; they come and go so quickly that unless you are ready for them, the moment will escape you. So I was in a bit of a hurry.

Well, I found the vantage point I was looking for and proceeded to shoot the sunrise. I decided to post the photo on Facebook and I used one of them on the cover of last week’s bulletin. When I posted the photo on Facebook, however, I didn’t want to just put up the photo, I wanted to put something with it that helped communicate what I was feeling at the moment I took the photograph. What I was feeling was hope. I couldn’t really explain it, but for some reason, the sunrise gave me hope.

I wrote a little something on Facebook that morning about my hope – some of you I know have read that and commented on it. This morning I want to expand on my thoughts about hope, because at times our lives feel hopeless, and when we feel that way, we need to be reminded that hope is ours. We need to be reminded that hope is something we can participate in and the season of Christmas is the season of hope.

There was a basketball coach who found himself coaching his high school basketball team in the state finals. It was half-time of the state championship, a game of a lifetime, but the coach’s team had been outplayed in the first half. They were behind by almost 20 points and the coach struggled with what to say to his players during the brief half-time intermission. He gathered his team together and began to speak;

“Each and every one of you had hoped to win this game. That hope is now diminished, and may in fact be completely gone. If you reduce everything to winning and losing, more often than not, you will be disappointed in life. It may not seem like it right now, but this basketball game is a very small part of your life; but it is a part of your life you will carry with you forever. I want you to change your thinking about this game. It doesn’t matter who wins or who loses – that is just the score. What matters is whether or not you have made a contribution. In this second half, I’m going to do something unusual; I’m going to play everybody – not just the best players, but everybody, because at the end of the night I want everybody to know that he made a contribution. Don’t pay any attention to the score, we probably will not win the game, but that doesn’t matter. I want you to be able to hold on to the idea for the rest of your lives that you made a contribution in the state finals. A contribution may be a good pass, it may mean making a free throw, it may mean setting a good screen, it may mean getting a rebound, and it may mean scoring a few points. Just go out this second half and have fun and think about making a contribution, and don’t think about winning or losing.”

As you might guess, the team listened and responded. Pretty soon they were playing together as a team in the second half. Each player focused on making a contribution; slowly the deficit began to be made up as the players passed the ball more, set screens for each other and shared the basketball. True to his word, the coach played every player that night; the entire bench made a contribution. And the team returned to their home town as state champions.

The coach managed to shift the hope of his players from something intangible to something tangible. He moved the hope from something that seemed impossible, like winning the game, to something possible, like making a good pass. As he gave his team new hope, they could see the single step ahead of them and took that one, and then took another and another and another, until finally they worked themselves back into the game and eventually won the state title.

The coach’s words are important for us to hear today as well. Things can feel impossible and we can feel like there isn’t any hope left in the world. We turn on the news to yet another mass shooting or another terrorist attack somewhere in the world. The airwaves are full of hate and fear, we feel hopeless and helpless in a chaotic world. On top of that, now it has to be Christmas; as if we didn’t have enough stress already; now it has to be Christmas. In the midst of our despair about Isis and war and hatred and misguided reactions and misplaced blame, we are still supposed to celebrate Christmas. There are parties and concerts and cards to send and cookies to bake, presents to buy and wrap and ship not to mention decorating the tree or the house and on and on it goes; it can be overwhelming; and before we know it, we are behind. Way behind; we will never catch up and we will never win.

Let me ask you to think about this Holiday season in terms of just making a contribution. It might be just one Christmas card that will brighten someone’s day, it may be just one present for that someone under the tree, it might just be a phone call. If you can make a contribution this Holiday season, then the season will have been a success. Can you do just one thing? Of course you can. And that one thing may make a difference for someone else, it may brighten their day and lift their spirit. When I took the picture that gave me hope, it was just one thing. I didn’t wait until I felt like I had time, or everything else was done, I just took the picture. You will never get everything done, so why stress and fret about it? Hope to make a contribution and look and watch for those opportunities, and as you do, much will be accomplished.

You don’t have to win the Holiday game. And it is a game, I hope you realize. You don’t have to score more points than your neighbor; you don’t have to be the champion of your block. All you need to do this Holiday season is make a contribution. Find a way to give someone else a lift; find a way to give someone else some hope. If you can do that, and I think each and every one of us can; then this Christmas season will be a winner for us.

What is left undone is undone. What we didn’t get to is inconsequential as long as we took the opportunity to make a contribution and offer hope to someone we may not even know. That is our hope this Christmas season, to make a contribution. It is a hope we can see, it is a hope we can accomplish, and it is the hope that has been set before us and it is the hope of the Christ Child. Don’t worry about winning the game this season, just make a contribution and change someone’s life.

If we can do that, it will in fact be the birth of hope. Go in peace and go with God, and go in hope. Amen.