Messages – Pastor Pokora

Message from December 24, Christmas Eve

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

No custom has gained wider acceptance than decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas time. Even families of non-Christian religions and cultures, in places like Japan and China, adorn a Christmas tree with ornaments and tinsel.

Tradition records Martin Luther began the custom of decorating evergreen trees to celebrate the festival of Christmas. The story goes this way. One Christmas eve about 1530 Luther was walking through the snow covered woods near Wittenberg. He was struck by the beauty of a small group of evergreens lining his path. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moon light. Returning home, he told his wife Katherine he intended to set up a fir tree in their house to share his experience with the children. He decorated the tree with candles to simulate a starlit heaven above Bethlehem on that first Christmas night.

Soon the custom spread. German towns, around that time, set up Christmas markets. At these markets, bakers shaped gingerbread and wax ornaments for people to buy and take home and place on their Christmas trees. The tradition spread to America with Hessian solders serving in the British army during the Revolutionary War.

Several years ago at Thanksgiving my son, his wife and our granddaughter came to visit for the holiday. We decided to drive down and see the Festival of Trees at the River Center. Now days it is comparatively rare to have real evergreen to decorate. I recollect almost all the tree at the festival were artificial, but lavishly decorated and interesting to see. My granddaughter enjoyed the sight very much. I’m not sure what Luther would think, however, of the modern Christmas tree. It no longer reminds anyone of the sky over Bethlehem.

These thoughts on Christmas trees come to mind after reading about the experience of an Episcopal priest in Los Angles. One Christmas morning this priest drove through the deserted streets of Los Angles to his inner city parish for Christmas day services. His drive to the church took him under a freeway overpass. As he approached the freeway, an odd sight caught his attention. It was a three foot high pink aluminum Christmas tree set-up on a patch of grass between the bridge and freeway on ramp. There, amid the trash, dirt and grime of an inner city highway, was a glittering piece of joy. He was moved by the site and knew who set it up.

Under the steel girders of the bridge, several homeless people sleep where they are sheltered from the wind and rain. Many days these homeless walk two blocks to the church to get a bag lunch. They have nothing, but the clothes on their back. Yet one of them rescued that pink aluminum Christmas tree from a dumpster to use for a bit of their own Christmas celebration. This story reminds me of a line from our Gospel for this evening, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” The tree stood out against the cold morning.

A discarded pink aluminum Christmas tree takes right back to the story of the birth of Jesus. Think of it this way. Many of us have nativity sets in our home depicting the birth of Jesus. We have one sitting on the mantel in our living room. The scene is both picturesque and reassuring with the shepherds and wise men and angels all gathered around Jesus and Mary and Joseph. But what truth does it tell us?

Imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago in the village of Bethlehem, in a barn on a cold winter night. Mary and Joseph had no place to go. Mary was ready to deliver the baby. Doctors and hospitals were unknown. They were as homeless as those people under the bridge on Los Angles. No one tidied up the barn at the inn. The place was undoubtably messy; certainly not where you or I would want to see a baby born.

But in this most unlikely of places Jesus came into our world. God chose to begin his act of redemption not in a palace, but a stable. He did not select a King or a Queen to reveal his purpose, but a young couple wandering the streets of Bethlehem, looking for a place to stay and something to eat. Darkness surrounded them, but the light of God still shown in that place.

The other day my wife and I went to do Christmas shopping. As you know the malls are fully and colorfully decorated for the season. Music plays relentless, telling us, “It’s a most wonderful time of the year.” People buy gifts not only for others, but themselves. We embark on one huge and often self-indulgent spending spree. We eat at fine restaurants and invite friends over for sumptuous meals. It’s all very beautiful. And we do this in the name of the Christ child.

I am, however, haunted by that pink aluminum Christmas tree beside the road and near an overpass in Los Angles and the homeless people who live nearby. I wonder if Christmas could happen in two different, but parallel fashions. It is certainly possible we become so immersed in decorating Christmas trees, eating wonderful meals and opening beautiful presents, we forget these activities reflect little of what God expects of us.

The true spirit of Christmas might be best symbolized by a faded pink aluminum tree. Remember what Mary said when she visited in her cousin Elizabeth. In the words of the Magnificat. God scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he brought down the powerful; filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Those words ought to challenge how we think about the meaning of Christmas.

Let me share a story told by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. A prince wanted to find a maiden suitable to be his queen. One day while running an errand in the local village for his father, he passed through a poor section. As he glanced out the windows of the carriage, his eyes fell upon a beautiful peasant maiden. During the ensuing days he often passed by the young lady and soon fell in love with her.

He had a problem. How would he seek her hand? He could not order her to marry him. The prince arrived at a solution. He would give up his kingly robe and moved, into the village, entering not with a crown, but in the garb of a peasant. He lived among the people, shared their interests and concerns, and spoke their language. In time, the maiden grew to love him, because of who he was and because he loved her first.

This is what God has done. He has come down among in humble form because he loves us. He seeks not the high and mighty, but the lowly and humble. He calls to us through a child. He can speak to us through a pink aluminum Christmas tree. His word becomes flesh and lives among us full of grace and truth. His light shines in darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. It is a light for those hope for those who have no hope. May the light shine through us. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Message from December 26, First Sunday of Christmas

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

As parents, relatives, teachers, guardians, and friends of children we are, and rightfully should be, concerned for their wellbeing. We are to protect and teach them, nurture, and nourish their lives, ensure their health and safety. We all need someone to guide and guard our growing up. Growing up is hard work.

Growing up means establishing our identity and figuring out our place in this world. It involves creating relationships, setting priorities, making decisions. We must choose values and beliefs that structure our lives. Along the way we make mistakes, get lost, backtrack, and sometimes just need to start over. Ultimately, growing up means moving out and finding a new home. This may be a geographical move, but most certainly it involves psychological and spiritual moves.

So it is no surprise that Mary would be in a panic when she discovers that Jesus is not with the group of travelers. With great anxiety she and Joseph search for him. Three days later the one who was lost has been found. Mary’s first words are, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” What I really hear is, “Where have you been young man? Your father and I did not survive angel visits, birth in a manger, and living like refugees in Egypt only to have you get lost in Jerusalem.” But Jesus isn’t the one who is lost. He knows who he is and where he belongs. Mary and Joseph are the ones who are lost.

Today’s gospel is a story about growing up, but it is not Jesus’ growing up. It is about Mary and Joseph growing up. It is about you and me growing up. Growing up is not about how old we are. It is really about moving into deeper and more authentic relationships with God, our world, each other, and ourselves.

Jesus is the one who grows us up. He is the one who will grow up Mary and Joseph. Children have a way of doing that to their parents. They challenge us to look at our world, our lives, and ourselves in new, different, and sometimes painful ways. That is exactly what Jesus’ question to Mary does. She had put herself and Joseph at the center of Jesus’ world. His question was about to undo that.

“Why were you searching for me?” he asks. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus is telling Mary she should have known where he was. It is as if he is saying, “Remember, the angel told you I would be the Son of God. Remember that night in Bethlehem. Angels praising God, shepherds glorifying God. Remember the three men from the East, their gifts, and adoration. Remember Joseph’s dreams that guided us to Egypt and back. Where else could I be but here?” Jesus has put the Father at the center of his world and asks Mary and us to do the same, to move to the Father’s home.

Authentic growth almost always involves letting go. Mary’s move to the Father’s house, her growing up, means that she will have to let go of her “boy Jesus” (Lk. 2:43) image. Jesus was born of Mary, but he is the Father’s Son. He is with her but does not belong to her. She can give him love but not her thoughts or ways. He is about the Father’s business. Ultimately, she must strive to be like him and not make him like her.

Jesus has moved from Mary and Joseph’s home to the Father’s home. This is not a rejection of his earthly parents but a re-prioritizing of relationships. It is what he would ask of Simon and Andrew, James, and John. “Follow me” would be the invitation for them to leave their homes, their nets, their fathers and move to a different place, live a different life, see with different eyes. It is today what he asks of you and me.

Growing up spiritually involves leaving our comfort zone, letting go of what is safe and familiar, and moving to a bigger place, to the Father’s place. This letting go is a necessary detachment if we are to grow in the love and likeness of Christ. It means we must leave our own little homes.

We all live in many different homes. Homes of fear, anger, and prejudice. Homes of grief and sorrow. Homes in which we have been told or convinced that we don’t matter, that we are not enough, unacceptable, or unlovable. Homes in which we have been or continue to be hurt or wounded. Homes in which we have hurt or wounded another. Homes of indifference and apathy. Homes of sin and guilt. Homes of gossip, envy, pride.

Every one of us could name the different homes in which we live, homes that keep our life small, our visions narrow, and our world empty. The problem is that sometimes we have become too comfortable in these homes. They are not our true homes. They are not the home God offers us. We may have to pass through them, but we do not have to stay there.

Jesus says that there is not only another home for us but invites, guides, and grows us up into that home. It is a place he knows well. It is the Father’s home in which we can know ourselves and each other to be his beloved children, created in his image and called to be like him. So why would we continue to pay rent on a place that can only impoverish us when we could move to the Father’s home for free? In the Father’s home our place at the banquet is set. It is a home in which we live in rooms of mercy, forgiveness, joy, love, beauty, generosity, compassion.

Leaving home does not necessarily mean leaving our physical or geographical home though sometimes it might. It does mean examining and re-prioritizing the values, beliefs, and relationships that establish our identity and give our life meaning and significance.

It means letting go of an identity that is limited to our biological family, job, community reputation, ethnic group, or political party and trusting that who we are is who we are in God. It means that we stop relating to one another by comparison, competition, and judgment and begin relating through love, self-surrender, and vulnerability. It means that we let go of fear about the future and discover that God is here in the present and that all shall be well. We stop ruminating on past guilt, regrets, and sins and accept the mercy and forgiveness of God and each other. We see our life not in opposition to others but as intimately related to and dependent upon others.

So I wonder what are the little homes in which you live? How have they bound up your life, stifled your growth, and kept you from the Father’s home? What might you have to leave behind in order to grow up and move to a better place? Those can be hard questions, painful questions. Ultimately, however, they are questions founded on love.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.