The Rev. Juan Huertas
The prophet Isaiah tells us in chapter 63, verse 7:
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown to them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
This is the time of the year when gifts are given. Loved ones, friends, even neighbors, are recipients of these gifts. One could say that they symbolize the friendship or that these are tokens of something deeper, of expressions of gratitude, joy, or maybe just expressions of politeness. In the end, what matters is that they are given year after year, that they are exchanged. During this time of the year, most of us go through this ritual. We exchange gifts whether we are Christian or not.
What makes the Christian gift different? Or why should it be different? I would say that Isaiah has some word for us on this day. The gift given to us, the greatest gift given to the whole world, has been God's only Son Jesus. We celebrate his coming, his in-breaking, his wonderful presence in the form of a human being. We celebrate God with us. In the act of gift-giving, we are recounting the deeds of the Lord; we are recounting that God has not forgotten, that we have not forgotten. On this time of the year we reflect and like the prophet, we say that God has shown to us great favor, not because we are lowly humans, but because as Isaiah tells us,
For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely." And he became their Savior in all their distress. He was no messenger or angel, but his presence that saved them. He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
We are children, God's children. And God's steadfast love is extended to us because this God in human flesh became our Savior. He was not some stand-in, but God's self. This same God is the one that we celebrate. This same God is the reason for gift-giving. This same God is the one that will carry us now and forever.
It is wonderful to give gifts. To share what we have with others is part of our calling as followers of Christ. As a Christian community, we have an even bigger responsibility to not only share the gift but the story, the why we give it, not only with others that can understand, but especially with children as we gather around our tables, as we gather to exchange gifts. As we put the ornaments away, let us recount for them the gracious deeds of God in our lives. Let us recount the great favor that God has shown to all of creation, the great favor of God's love that makes available to all of the created order a renewed relationship with God, a relationship that makes all of us God's children.
In this season of Christmas, let us not forget. Let us remember. Let us recount these great deeds. Amen.
The Rev. Stephanie Crumpton
From Hebrews the second chapter, verses 10 through 11a:
"It was fitting that God for whom and through whom all things exist in bringing many children to glory should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
Perfect Through Sufferings. Jesus on the cross at Calvary hanging on a wooden beam with thorns pressing into his temples, iron nails hammered through the flesh in his hands and feet, blood streaming across his face and dripping from his fingers and toes. This is the first image that usually comes to mind when we think of Jesus' suffering, but I'd like to suggest that the cross, that day of crucifixion, was the culmination, the end of a lifetime of suffering. I'd like to suggest that suffering, Jesus' suffering, was directly tied up into bearing the deep afflictions of those who were socially and spiritually oppressed. This kind of life as a co-sufferer is what got him up on the cross in the first place.
The writer of Hebrews makes a powerful point when she says that Jesus was made perfect through sufferings. We must become willing to do like Jesus and invest ourselves in the sufferings of others in order that they may know the hope of a better day. In a society that is so invested in theologies of individualism, our understanding of how we are perfected must be grounded in the belief that our perfection occurs in relationship with relieving the sufferings of humanity. Our understanding of perfection through suffering must compel us to invest ourselves, not just our money, but our very selves in the lives of those who are marginalized and oppressed as they walk through the valleys of depth and despair in this lifetime. What valleys of depth and despair will we allow ourselves to see that we are already in?
In the African-American community, one of those valleys is the valley of knowledge. We now know that illnesses related to HIV and AIDS is the number one killer of African-American men and women between the ages of 25 and 44. That's an entire generation of a race of people walking through a valley. If we are to follow Jesus who was perfected through suffering, we must be willing to share the sufferings of all of our brothers and sisters as they walk through life's valley. Rather than sweep the issue of HIV and AIDS under rugs of ignorance that parade as piety, we've got to open the doors of the church wide so that those who suffer from a disease which has no cure may find healing. If we believe that we are made perfect through suffering, we must engage our sisters and brothers about life-endangering sexual behavior and drug abuse, which are the primary means of transmitting HIV and AIDS. We must be willing to suffer and engage them and thus encounter ourselves long enough to be able to attend to the spiritual burdens, the psychological ills, and the socio-economic realities that force them towards dangerous sex and drug abuse as opiates that triage a deeper pain. We must break the silence in our churches and become serious about prevention. If we are truly serious about being made perfect through suffering, we must be willing to enter the valleys of life and become co-sufferers with those who are afflicted and oppressed, be it socially or spiritually. HIV and AIDS is just one valley of many. Which valley is calling you to perfection?
Jesus was not hung because he was a quiet man who kept to himself, stayed pious in the temple, obeyed the letter of the law, paid his tithes, and prayed really hard that everyone else would be alright. No, he was hung because he answered the call of those who suffered and was perfected in his work as a co-sufferer. On Calvary he completed the work he was sent to do. In the final moment, he hung his head and died on the cross making atonement for sin. The curtain of the temple was torn. He was taken down and placed in a tomb, yet on the third day, an angel sang to Mary as she wept at the tomb, "He is risen!"
After all of his suffering in life unto the point of death, Jesus has been raised. So, we, too, may share the hope that in this lifetime as we suffer with one another even unto the point of death, having been perfected through sufferings, we too shall rise. Amen.
The Rev. Matthew F. Hardin
The second chapter of Matthew's Gospel records how the Wise Men followed a star to find the Christchild that they might pay him homage and offer him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is a familiar account that is remembered year after year in church plays and Christmas sermons, yet intertwined in this Good News are accounts that border on being vulgar. In the midst of Emmanuel's birth, Matthew dares to record the hard and evil realities that accompanied God's Son into this world:
* King Herod's deceit
* the mass murder of infants
* wailing and loud lamentation
* widespread anguish and fear
* Mary and Joseph's loss of innocence
*even God's vulnerability and powerlessness
Reports of good news are not typically supposed to include such language, such painful images, such harsh realities. They interfere with our holiday season, with our Christmas celebrations, and with our good cheer and happiness. The word gospel literally means good news, and there is a part of each of us that wants to say to Matthew, "Just stick to the good news."
In rereading this chapter, I recalled a lecture I once heard by the Australian musical artist Nick Cave. It was a lecture on the subject of love songs, and it offers stunning insight into the truth of our Gospels. In his lecture, Cave portrayed love songs as pain songs. At one point, he declares, "The love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all, but rather hate songs disguised as love songs and are not to be trusted." He continues, "The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic, and the joy of love, for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil, so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgment of its capacity for suffering."
Today, Matthew reminds us that we do not have a truly happy Gospel. From its very beginning, the love song which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, embraced pain. It sighed and it ached. It co-mingled with the darker regions of this world and because it did, we are convinced of the love which it reveals. Familiar to pain, given in sacrifice, and covered in blood, only this kind of love song can be trusted and rightly labeled God's Good News. Amen.