Sermon

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Luke 1:26-38

Rev. Dr. Heather Shortlidge

11:00 am bulletin        Listen Here
4:00 pm bulletin
5:30 pm bulletin
9:00 pm bulletin          Listen Here

December 24, 11:00 am sermon with Rev. Shortlidge:

On the first Sunday of December,
members of Severna Park United Methodist Church,
came forward for Communion—
and along with the bread and the wine,
each person received a $100 bill.

“Listen to where the Holy Spirit is leading you,”
the pastor said to the stunned congregation.
“You may be in the right place at the right time to help someone.”

One hundred church members walked out the doors that day,
turning the unexpected cash into a 100 good deeds.
Cash for waitresses, bus drivers, and leaf collectors.
Pet food for the SPCA here in Annapolis.
Snow pants and gloves so a child with a brain tumor could play outside.
Bags of socks, hand warmers and McDonald’s gift cards for the homeless.

The stack of one hundred dollar bills
was dropped off by an anonymous donor,
who wanted people to experience the joy of giving.
She came up with the idea this summer,
when she was distraught over the death of Heather Heyer,
a young woman who was protesting against
white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

She was at a Starbucks
feeling particularly bummed out about the world,
when on a whim, she bought a gift card,
and told the cashier to use it until it ran out
to buy coffee for the people that came after her.
This simple act helped lift her depression about the world.
And this holiday season, she wanted others
to feel that same joy that comes with generosity.

She did have a few preliminary conversations
with the pastor ahead of time,
who signed off on the whole idea.
And so three weeks ago,
she dropped off the $10,000 in cash.

One of the best stories about how the congregation
spent their hundred bucks
was a guy, who along with a friend,
ordered 10 pizzas and a case of Orange Crush
and had it delivered to the steps of a Baltimore church
where homeless men and women hang out.
They then spent the afternoon having a pizza party with them.[1]

***

In today’s story from Luke,
Elizabeth throws her own version of a pizza party
when Mary shows up at the door,
unmarried, pregnant, and clinging to a story that’s one for the record books.
Instead of pretending she isn’t home
or sending the young girl packing back to her parents in Galilee,
Elizabeth is tickled pink by Mary’s news
showering the young girl with words of blessing.

The decision to visit Elizabeth is a pretty risky one.
Both women are pregnant,
but Elizabeth is married. And Mary is not.
Elizabeth also happens to be righteous and religious,
giving her plenty of ammunition to judge this unwed mother-to-be.
But instead of speaking harshly,
Elizabeth accepts, welcomes, and even celebrates
the young woman who shows up on her doorstep.

Even though she doesn’t show it,
I imagine Elizabeth had to have been a little caught off guard
when Mary appears out of nowhere.
It’s not as if Mary could text
to tell her relatives that she was on her way.

And I also imagine Elizabeth might have been a bit unnerved
when her own child starts doing somersaults in her womb
and this very odd story of God’s child
unfolds right there in her own living room.

But Elizabeth doesn’t let her own emotions
get in the way of this holy moment.
No matter what she might have been feeling,
the older woman flings open her arms
embracing Mary, affirming the story she brings,
and making space for all it’s complications.

I’m struck by Elizabeth’s openness.
If only we could be like her,
welcoming the unexpected ways God acts in this world—
putting aside our judgment long enough
to make space for the Mary’s who come running our way.

There are plenty of people in our world
who go on the run, like Mary did.
Scared and unsure of where to turn.

Astrid, a young woman from El Salvador,
bravely told her story of being on the run.
Some of you heard it
at the IAF Action in September
when over 400 people turned out
at Asbury United Methodist Church on a Thursday night
to build power and change in our county.

In front of all those people,
Astrid shared her harrowing journey
of coming to the United States, alone,
when she was just 15.

When Astrid was 6,
her mother spoke out, condemning the gangs and rampant violence.
And then a bomb was thrown into their home,
severely injuring her grandmother.
Her family moved after that,
but when Astrid turned 12,
the MS-13 leader in town wanted her to be his girlfriend.
And she did not want to be his girlfriend.
Saying no to the gangs, however, was essentially a death sentence.
So Astrid’s mother hired a coyote
to get her adolescent daughter across the border into Mexico.

Along the way, Astrid got lost in the desert for two weeks
and was then jailed for three months
before she was granted asylum
and sent to live with her father here in Annapolis.

Her Dad had also fled the gangs in El Salvador
and had worked here in town for over a decade
as a local artist and handyman.
In fact, he was the one who constructed
many of the decorative chicken sculptures
that are located up and down West Street.

But despite having no criminal record,
Astrid’s father was deported in June
flown by ICE in handcuffs to his home country of El Salvador.
For the past six months, he has been trying to stay alive
struggling to avoid the gang members
who are still intent on killing him.

Friends in Annapolis have been agitating on his behalf,
fighting hard to get him to safety.
He’s had to remain in hiding and move often,
many times traveling concealed in the trunk of a car.
Community members here have raised thousands of dollars,
secured expert legal services,
and have doggedly remained determined
that this man’s life matters.

And miraculously,
in the wee hours of the morning yesterday,
Astrid’s dad landed at BWI airport
and was reunited with his daughter and family.
His legal battle is still far from over,
but for now, he and his family get to spend Christmas
a little less afraid.

***

There’s no shortage of fear in the world.
If it’s not Astrid and her Dad’s story,
I’m sure you know ones of your own.
Where people are terrified
and scared out of their wits.
And yet in today’s story,
and in so many other places in Scripture,
angels appear telling us that fear is not the only story;
helping us understand that God is at work
even in the midst of terrifying events
like an unwed girl with an unplanned pregnancy.

When Gabriel shows up to tell Mary
the Holy Spirit is going to mess with her body
and cause her to carry and deliver God’s child,
she had to have been terrified.
As the angel starts filling her in on God’s plans
I imagine the poor girl practically shaking with the shock of it all.
After all, angels don’t deliver the words
“do not be afraid”
unless the fear factor is already through the roof.

It’s part of what I love about Scripture—
how honest it is about who we are.
For in its pages, there’s a ton of fear and trembling—
so many places where God acts in completely unexpected ways
upsetting the apple cart
and redirecting lives in unpredictable directions.
Ever heard of that often quoted line:
if you want to hear God laugh, tell God your plans?
Because God is surely in the midst of things,
but almost never acting in ways that we could predict.

It’s the hope we hold onto in this Advent season.
That God is with us in the mess,
agitating for something greater, something more holy.
But never according to our own lists or plans.

The famous preacher, Fred Craddock,
cautions us list makers and planners out there
to avoid making a specific list of things that the Holy Spirit will do
reminding us that God’s Spirit is not bound by our lists.
In other words, we can never be certain exactly how
the Holy Spirit will move in the world.
We like to think we know.
But we don’t.
We don’t know that God would take out
Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities,
or that God would offer more people food stamps,
or that God would ban all guns.
We only know that God wants peace on earth,
including the Middle East;
that God wants bellies to be full,
that God yearns for another outcome
other than gun violence in our communities.

We’re told that God turns the world upside down
and yet it’s not what we expect.
Few expected the Berlin wall to come down or Apartheid to end.
I’m still blown away when I think about the Obamas
living in the White House.
And who could have predicted that men, previously untouchable,
would start toppling across industries
as women told stories of despicable abuse and harassment.

It’s what Mary’s song in the middle of Elizabeth’s living room is all about.
All the ways that God has acted and will continue to act.
Bringing down the powerful from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
But the story of these two impossibly pregnant women,
is the perfect reminder
that God will not act according to our plans
or in ways that we might expect.
Instead, God acts to turn the world upside down.

As our own world keeps getting more terrifying by the day,
Elizabeth’s welcome and Mary’s singing
remind us that we are to watch for God to again reverse fortunes,
trusting, as these two women do,
that establishing justice is God’s timeless truth.

Tonight, we will get to burst into our own songs
about the glorious birth of a newborn king.
But this morning, during this one hour long,
fourth Sunday of Advent,
we’re still waiting, reflecting on what God is doing in the world.
The season of Advent, if we do it right,
is like pressing the pause button,
helping us to not rush through life
without ever noticing what God is up to;
helping us not get so bogged down by all the bad news of the world
that we miss the good news that’s unfolding
in all kinds of unexpected and holy moments.

In Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple,
two of the main characters, Shug and Celie, remind us to pay attention:
              God loves everything you love—
              and a mess of stuff you don’t, Shug said.

But more than anything else, God loves admiration.
              Are you saying God is vain? Celie asks.
              No, Shug said. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing.

I think it pisses God off
if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere
and don’t notice it.

              What does God do when pissed off? Celie asked.

              Oh, God makes something else, Shug said.
              People think pleasing God is all God cares about.
              But any fool living in the world can see
              that God is always trying to please us back.

Before we storm ahead to Christmas,
and even as we do,
let us stop long enough to notice
the unexpected and holy moments
that do indeed fill this world—

Like when a father of four
is given a taste of freedom
after a harrowing six months
and is reunited with his family.

Like when a hundred dollars
changes the life of both the giver and the receiver.
Like when a terrified and trembling Mary shows up
and there’s someone like Elizabeth
that makes space for her
while reminding her that fear is not the whole story.

 

9:00 pm sermon text with Rev. Hathaway:

I love this night - the candlelight and carols, the flickering lights and greetings of friends mixed with persons who are strangers to become friends. I even enjoy the fact that some of you are dragged here, not so sure about all of this religious stuff. Glad to see you. Within the festive gathering, I enjoy the profound depth of wonder, mystery and faith that moves so many and the chance to dwell within an ancient story that carries so much hope and promise for today. I am grateful that a night like tonight invites all of us into beauty, gratitude and reverence. Beauty and gratitude capture my imagination, stir my soul, give hope to my spirit and spring in my feet. And reverence is a pathway to a life of deep meaning, purpose and joy.

It is an incredible story, this story that God came down in order to lift us up. It is a story about a baby in a manger but that is just the tip of the drama for these stories of a birth all foreshadow the adult Jesus known as Christ and Savior. For Jesus lifted up the downtrodden, folks like the shepherds. And it is this Jesus, who embodied the will of God, who captures the dedication of the rich and powerful, like the wise men, who are also part of the story. It is the Jesus who confounded the powers of the day to open the door to God’s kingdom that we remember in the story that “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” What a story! Today, that Emperor, along with Herod and Pilate, are only known because they had minor roles in the drama called the life of Christ. Kings come and go, kingdoms rise and fall but the word of the Lord stands forever. Yes, I love this night, telling that old, old story that is so alive today; the story that invites us into the love, mercy and justice of God coming into the world in real flesh and blood.

I revel in this night because beauty is close to the heart of God and beauty restores life. When I see the beauty of young children I am lifted up; when I let the music of the night flow over me and through me I can be carried in the power of it all. There is so much that is coarse and ugly in our lives. In fact, it is no surprise that tyrants go after artists. They know that the creativity and freedom of the artist is a threat to their power. But we persevere because beauty is close to God and beauty moves us closer to the divine.

I embrace this night in order to step away from the day but not to hide from it. We step away in order that we can step back with resolve and strength, the kind of spirit strength that moves mountains. In this sacred story God visited a frightened young mother and an anxious father. Fear and anxiety are quite real – we know of it. God came to a people beaten down by an oppressive occupying government and those used as cannon fodder for the empire’s control. The abused – we know that as well. God visited hard working shepherds (yes, many of you work very hard) and God surprised the wise, so longing for the wisdom that would lead to life. God visited so that wonder, not brute force, would rule the day and beauty, not manipulation, would guide the hand. God visited so that the manipulative mighty would be put down and the struggling lowly be lifted up. Our hope is in the fact that truth is more powerful than lies and beauty is stronger than aggression.

Angels sang, shepherds worshiped, wise ones traveled to present their gifts. This is the holy story of beauty leading to gratitude and gratitude giving way to reverence. That is the Christmas journey: from beauty to gratitude to reverence.

William Sloane Coffin, one of the great ones, announced that reverence is the antidote to violence. “Finally” he wrote, “only reverence can restrain violence, violence against nature, violence against one another.” (The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality, p. 4)

That is why I love this night. For God so loved the world that he gave ….. life, prophets, Jesus, the church, that we might live in justice and in peace. So welcome this Christmas journey from beauty to gratitude to reverence --- the antidote to the violence of the world, our hope and our peace.