Archive for the ‘advent’ Category

All We Want for Christmas

January 9, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Christmas Eve 2006

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…..

The silence of this night provides a dramatic counterpoint to the cranked-up volume of the rest of our lives, the surround-sound that accompanies our lives 24/7. The noise of commerce, the roar of transportation, the jangle of electronic gadgetry, even the fierce wild beating of our anxious hearts fade into the background, and we rest in the gentle grace of Christmas carol, music of harp and bell and stately organ, familiar texts of promise and hope spoken with hushed reverence. Tonight all human words recede, to make room for the Word, God’s Word, made flesh among us.

It is the Word, my friends, that makes this silent, holy night so special, so magical, so different from the constant thrum of ordinary days. But how quickly we let it die on our lips, extinguished as quickly as our candles, tucking it safely away until another whole year of ordinary days pass away. Our expectations for Christmas are so high: we pray for peace, we want a Word that will bring us light and life, but somehow come up short. Conventional wisdom reminds us that the “real meaning of Christmas” lies not in the decorations, the wonderfully wrapped packages, the parties and the presents, but in the intangibles: giving and love and family and home. We know this, yet too often commodify these spiritual values as things to be created and consumed rather than to be received with thankful hearts for their Divine Creator. Not just at Christmas but all year long we put our money on the window-dressing and miss the real deal. It’s not insignificant that the Association of American Linguists’ choice for “word of the year” is “truthiness”—the belief that truth is defined by what we feel is true, what we want to be true. Truthiness—for all its clever bravado on the humor circuit– is an ultimately unsatisfying substitute for Truth, a disappointing runner-up in the quest for authenticity, a foundation upon which to build a purposive and joyful life.

On this silent night, when we are especially attentive to hearing the Word, let us listen for it. We have to listen hard, because it is spoken softly, in the tender, tiny cries of a baby born to rule the universe. What’s up with that?

Best-selling author and Presbyterian pastor Fred Buechner tells about a Christmas pageant, a typical Sunday School re-enactment of the Nativity. The manger was down in front of the chancel steps where it always is, a baby doll wrapped in a blanket as the little Lord Jesus. Mary was there in a blue shawl seated next to Joseph. The wisemen bore gifts, the shepherds wore bathrobes, and the littlest children looked adorable in sheep’s clothing. The narrators narrated and the congregation sang carols and everything went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host, more children robed in white. At the right moment they were supposed to gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about nine years old who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!” [Frederick Buechner, “Bidding Farewell” article in the Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 28]

Friends, how well we hide Jesus, from one another, from the world, from ourselves. So many competing voices that drown out the Word. So much truthiness masquerading as truth. So much fool’s gold that fills our pockets, leaving little room for the pure stuff. Let Jesus show! Let the mystery and miracle of God’s gift of love be revealed tomorrow and next week, in the way we work as well as our worship, in the cold complexities of daily decision-making the same as in the warmth and clarity of candlelight. Let Jesus show! –in the recognition that we are beloved children of God—every one of us, and by the way we treat those beloved children. This baby is God’s Word that humanity is hallowed by the presence of the Divine. God-is-with-us. Not in some far-off heaven; not on Sundays in church; not for those odd moments when we want a little religion. But here. In the middle of our lives, the buying and selling, and trying and crying, and laughing and loving and failing and fearing and hoping against hope. In a world at war. In a city crippled by poverty. Let Jesus show.

Among the stories in Michael Lindvall’s wonderful book, The Good News from Northhaven is one about a time when Jesus showed himself clearly at the Presbyterian Church. One Thanksgiving weekend, they had a baptism, the grandson of a prominent elder. In this church whenever a baptism occurred, the minister would ask the congregation “Who stands with this child?” Then the grandparents and siblings and perhaps an assortment of relatives, would join the parents presenting their infant for baptism. After this particular baptism, one woman held back after the rest of the congregation had gone, to speak with the pastor. He noticed her “Salvation Army” style clothing and that she seemed very hesitant to speak. He asked pleasantly if she needed help. Fumbling for words, she blurted out, “Tina has had a baby and well, the baby ought to be baptized, shouldn’t it?”

The pastor suggested that Tina and her husband should make an appointment to see him to discuss the possibility of baptism, preferably after Christmas. The woman looked up at the man of God and said, “Tina has no husband. She’s a good girl, but she got involved with this older boy. And then she got pregnant. She’s only 18.” The minister mumbled awkwardly that he would bring the request before the Session. When the pastor presented the request to baptize Tina’s baby before the Session there was some questioning. Was she a member? No. How could they be sure that Tina would be faithful to the promises she was making in the baptism? How could they be sure about anybody’s promise? So, after some decent and orderly debate, the baptism was approved for the fourth Sunday of Advent. When the day came, the church was filled as it always is at Christmas. The time came for the baptism, and the elder stood and read off his script, “Tina Corey presents her son, James, for baptism.” Tina got up from where she was seated and came down to the front, holding two-month-old James in her arms. The scene was just as awkward as the pastor and the elders knew it would be. Tina seemed so young, so alone. As she stood there, they could not help but think of another young woman long ago. Another unwed mother, in similarly difficult circumstances.

The pastor came to the appointed part of the service when he asked, “And who stands with this child?” He looked out at the mother of Tina and nodded toward her. Tentatively she walked to the front toward her daughter and grandson. The minister’s eyes went back to his service book to proceed when he became aware of movement within the congregation. A couple of elders were standing up. Slowly the sixth-grade Sunday school teacher got to her feet. Next a new young couple in the church stood up. And then, before the pastor’s astonished eyes, the whole church was standing, moving forward, clustering around the baby and the Madonna, as if they were all family. [Michael Lindvall, The Good News from Northhaven, referenced by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Vol.34, no. 4, pp. 54-55]

On this silent night, listen for the one Word that births love, animates hope and connects us with our family. Friends, all we want for Christmas may be found in the gift lying in the manger. Unto us a child is born. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Let it show, tonight and tomorrow, in all we say and do, in all we dream and dare.


The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor


Great Expectations

January 9, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
17 December 2006
Text: Luke 3:7-18

Call it a Freudian slip, or a laughable irony, or even subconscious messaging. My colleagues delighted in pointing out to me last week’s bulletin notice: Next Sunday there will be a congregational meeting to vote on the pastor’s annual compensation. And right below that: Worship: Louise Westfall preaching, “Great Expectations.” Well. Never let it be said that the sermons from this pulpit aren’t relevant! This is a sermon about expectation, and how that dynamic can shape our lives, our values, and our choices. It will suggest that most of our expectations are actually set too low; little more, for example, than what we hope to get paid for the work we do.

The season of Advent invites us to raise our sights, to break free from captivity to the way things are, so that we may envision the way things might become. The great expectation of the gospel is God’s coming to earth; the transformation of this sweet and terrible old world into a place of peace, in which all people enjoy abundance and blessing.

Frankly it’s hard to imagine, let alone expect. We know how it is. Perhaps that’s why the Advent gospel lessons are so in your face. God has to get our attention. There is good news here, but it begins with bad news. Things have got to change. Much of the time we don’t even realize our true condition, so spiritually out of touch and out of tune we are. There will be champagne and chocolate, but first, for our health, comes the spinach and oat bran.

With all the clarity that we can muster, let us scan the far horizon. Across the wilderness of war, beyond the valley of the shadow of death, in the face of mountainous odds and in the middle of rough places, let us look hard, let us listen with full attention for the strident voice of one speaking a word from the Lord. [LUKE 3:7-18]

I’m underwhelmed by what Time magazine has christened “the new atheism.” Spokesmen such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris decry religion and its outlandish hopes and inexplicable beliefs, in favor of sheer rationality. What you can see. What you can measure. What you can create and control. While I deeply appreciate the importance of intellectual thought and the wellspring of knowledge flowing from scientific research, the mind has its limits. To make reason the bottom line, the sole foundation of reality in my view leaves one in a diminished state. It is to settle for less than who we are, to miss the essential part of our humanity which includes a transcendent soul, a spark of the Divine. Pascal, the philosopher- mathematician was right, “the heart has reasons, that reason knows nothing of.”

And yet I wonder if we have not, at some level, settled for a rational faith. One we can manage. One that we control. One that makes the unknowable reasonable, the incomprehensible a little less mystery and a little more sensible. I wonder if we’ve down-shifted our hopes and aspirations because we simply can’t imagine how the fantastic promises of Christian faith could possibly come true. Peace on earth, goodwill to all. The lion and the lamb, lying down together. A healed and restored universe, interdependent and whole. Oh really???!

It’s enough to make you think it’s the Christians who need a reality check. Rejoice? Rejoice? Have you read the newspaper? Have you watched the news? Do you have any idea what’s going on?!

Here’s the deal, friends. Christian faith is vitally interested in the news. But it hears that news and thinks about the way things are through another lens, the reflection of God’s intent to redeem the whole creation. Not just part of it; all of it. Not just the “right” people, or the ones who go along with the party line; all the people. For God so loved the world….

Announcing this good news is John the Baptist, but it doesn’t sound like good news at first. There he is, annoying and persistent, disrupting and disturbing our efforts to be comforted, calm, and in control. He does not announce the coming of a soothing deity or a “don’t worry-be happy” Jesus. He proclaims an ax-wielding, fire-kindling God, a powerful judge who will thresh the wheat from the chaff. One of the biblical commentaries I frequently use in study has a special section relating the text to children. For this Luke text, the preacher is urged not to place emphasis on John’s call to repentance… and I agree with that point FOR CHILDREN. But we are not children. We adults are not served by a watered-down spirituality that softens the hard edges of the gospel in an attempt to make us feel better. Friends, the One who is coming will judge our lives according to the standard of God’s Kingdom. Have we done justice? Have we loved kindness? Have we shown mercy? Have we loved well, even our enemies? Have we shared the abundance entrusted to us? Have we been honest in labor and compassionate in our treatment of others?

Advent calls us first to an honest assessment of our lives, individually, and as a church. Have we lived according to God’s way? It’s the spiritual version of “Are you ready for Christmas?” –and we know in our hearts we’re not. But did you notice the text calls John’s severe message the proclamation of “good” news? They were filled with expectation that he might be Messiah, the one coming to save them. No, he quickly responds, but I’m here to help you get ready. The judgment of God is not for our damnation; but for our salvation. If we think we’ve got it made, then what we have is all we’ll ever get….a paltry serving when God has spread a feast.

For joy and peace that will last not for one day or one season only, but for always, John invites us to prepare. It’s time to make changes; time to turn or return our lives toward God, to re-orient our living in preparation for the presence and rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.

What stuns me about those preparations is how….practical they are. Share what you have with the poor. Stop exploiting others by taking more than is just. End the violence which intimidates the weak and vulnerable and hurts everyone. Repentance is not so much theological affirmation as it is concrete behavior modification. We prepare for Christ’s coming by living as if Christ were here. For so Christ is!

That’s why the Church does what it does every day. Why we devote time and energy and our financial resources on programs that help people in need. It’s why our youth will spend this afternoon shopping for toys and gifts for children who might not otherwise receive any. They’re called “Jesus Gifts” by the way, because Jesus said when you give to the “least of these my brothers and sisters, you do so to me.” It’s why we publish a prayer list of persons who are ill or who have lost a loved one; why we take meals to members in times of recovery or challenge. The soft prayer shawls lovingly knit by a group of women in our church and given to house-bound or ill or grieving persons provide comfort and joy as a foretaste of the glory that is yet to come. Christ’s presence with earth’s residents is the motivation behind opening our church building to 12-step groups, Meals on Wheels, the Open Doors after-school program, and hospitality to homeless guests through the Interfaith Hospitality Network. A vision of God’s Kingdom on earth animates the efforts to establish Heights Youth Club as a safe and positive place for young people to go after school. And it is why, my friends, your church bothers to wrestle with issues such as predatory lending or the minimum wage. It’s not because we want to promote a particular political agenda—it’s because we want to prepare together for the coming rule of God in which everyone will live in peace and enjoy the fruits of labor, with a grateful, joyous heart.

A church I read about has inscribed on its doors: A vision without a task is but a dream, a task without a vision is drudgery, but a vision with a task is the hope of the world.
God has given us a vision beyond imagination: a world that is just and peaceful. God sent Jesus to show us how to bring that vision to reality; even now he calls us to participate in the tasks of transformation.

So don’t have yourselves a merry little Christmas! The promises of God are huge. Don’t settle for a little, when God offers so much. Let us set about doing the tasks to which we are called—our work and worship—guided by great expectations and the unshakeable conviction that God has come to us; God is here with us. God is not finished with the church. God is not finished with the world. God will bring to completion all that has begun. Joy to the world!


The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor

Good News for Those Dreading the Holiday Season

December 4, 2006

A Sermon by Missy (Martha) Shiverick
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
December 3, 2006
Text: Psalm 25: 1-10
Jeremiah 33: 14-16

It is confession time. This wonderful season of advent often finds me brooding and blue. I mean, no sooner had the upsetting ads for the elections gone off the air, than the ads enticing you to shop for Christmas appeared. You know the ones for Zale’s jewelers, where if you are really loved, you should get diamonds for Christmas while sitting around a beautiful Christmas tree with a blazing fireplace in the background. Or the ad for the sporty cars that all really attractive young people should receive as Christmas gifts, and then there are the toys for the good little girls and boys: the tumbling Elmo that is already sold out, the new generation of play stations, and what I would describe from the commercials as violent video games children will be asking Santa Claus to put under their tree on Christmas morning. It is everywhere you go! The first Christmas catalogue arrived at my house at the same time the “back to school” specials were still going on. My neighborhood CVS had the Christmas decorations and toys out this fall at the same time the Halloween decorations were still being sold. Am I the only person who is frantic? They are trying to make this magical, wonderful time of the year, last for two or three months, and the thought of it makes me crazy. This is not a real time. This is not what Christmas is supposed to be. We have let a retail industry reshape a religious season and now they are trying to make it last one fourth of the year. The pressure it puts on us in tremendous. I feel like Charlie Brown in the Charlie Brown Christmas special where he tells Lionus that there must be something the matter with him. It is the Christmas season and everyone is supposed to be happy and he isn’t. Well, Charlie Brown, you are not alone.

Another confession I must make here is that sometimes the Christmas songs also make me sad. One soft rock radio station has started playing them non stop since Thanksgiving Day. They speak of peace on earth, this magical time of love filled with gaiety and frivolity and at the same time we read in the news papers last week of a bombing the day after Thanksgiving that killed 110 in Iraq. This peace and giddy happiness seems illusive; something we can read about but can not achieve. And then when you think of all the men and women in our armed forces stationed over in Iraq and Afghanistan spending Christmas without their families in such very foreign lands and you have to wonder if songs like “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” bring tears to their eyes. Of coarse it does.

And what about the families who are under stress. What about holiday dinners with families where mom and dad do not speak to each other and you can cut the tension in the dining room with a knife? Or how about the single parent trying to make ends meet on a salary which puts the family below the poverty line who is also trying to make Christmas magic for children? ‘Yes, some children get many toys from Santa because they want them, but you get new boots because you need them.’ And think of the families who suffered the loss of a loved one this past year and are dreading how they are to get through this holiday season. In the book “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, John Irving discusses this in his description that the holidays are the time when we feel so acutely who is not at the table. Who was there last year and is now gone. Who was alive last Christmas, but now is dead.

I hope I haven’t totally popped any of the balloons of you Pollyannas, but the fact is that, if not you, then that person sitting next to you in the pew this week most likely is entering the holiday season with some emotional baggage and is wondering how they are going to put their feelings aside for the next few weeks and enjoy the mistletoe. This season of lights and gaiety also appear to be a dark, dark time!

And then comes the prophesy from Jeremiah. He too lived in a dark time. Jeremiah’s oracles are set in the very moment of the destruction of Jerusalem. Things were bleak indeed. And still, Jeremiah saw something hopeful about the future. Jeremiah was sustained by his conviction that God was in control. Jeremiah believed that the out come of human history was in the hands of God who could be trusted to make the city a place of safety. Jeremiah faced a dark time knowing that God would was still with him. The hope and comfort that is prophesized in this part of the book of Jeremiah is that God will not abandon. Jerusalem might be lost temporarily but leadership will be restored, and a time of security and well being, justice and righteousness will be placed in the world by God.

Listen now for God’s word as it is written in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 33: 14-16.
The days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
The word of the Lord… Thanks be to God.

We have a tree in our backyard that is illuminated with lights. We put them up last week and I have been enjoying the twinkling lights beginning at 5pm for a week. It just gets dark so early that it is nice to look out my window and see the lights. I was walking my dogs late in the night this past week in the freaky warm weather. Several people in the village where I live have also put up lights and as I walked I thought what comfort the lights were in this limited sunlit time of year. They bring joy and hope. This came home to me again when I read an article by Joanne Adams, pastor of Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, in the Christian Century Magazine. She said that she was really looking forward to the first Sunday of Advent this year as she felt that when we light that first candle in the Advent Wreath, it will not be a moment too soon. She has been feeling the urgent need for the light that comes from God in a world that has been at war too long; in a world where voices of division are too loud, and in a world clouded by anxiety over our future.

And into this world Jeremiah’s message is a balm. God intends to make the world right again. “The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise I made.” Apparently with God, a promise made is a promise kept. Jeremiah looked at the bleak world and saw hope. Jeremiah was sustained by his conviction that things were in the hands of God who can be trusted to provide safety and salvation to us all. And this is our good news in our times of darkness as well. It is the good news for those of us dreading the holiday season. In the scripture passage read by the liturgist this morning, the Psalmist prayed in a time distress and we too can look to God and expect God to show us the way. God will guide us in our dark times and will lead us. We can live with the assuredness that God does not abandon God’s children.

So we can approach the holidays with security and hope. We can be assured that we will not be alone and that God is and will be in control. And as we approach Christmas I also offer three other suggestions on ways to approach the holidays this year. First, have realistic expectations for them. Not every year is magical and some of them are far from it. Nothing is sadder or more pathetic than the adult who is still looking for that pony under the tree. Realistic expectations allow us to acknowledge that some holidays are not the ones “memories are made of”. If some of you think that walking through these holidays would be easier with another person, please call a me or one of the Stephen Leaders and we will get a Stephen Minister to be there and listen during these stressful days. The second suggestion is to look to God this holiday. We can not escape the cultural celebration this time of year has become, but we can put it in perspective if we remember that it is God’s great gift of hope and love in Jesus Christ that we truly celebrate. Come to church, read the Bible verses assigned each day of advent, and allow yourself to feel God’s presence and promise. The third suggestion is to be God’s light to someone else. This year is hard on most people. Your darkness will be lifted as you show others the light of God through your caring actions. Your love and care might just be the present someone in this church or community needs this holiday season.

Presents sometimes are unexpected gestures which have great meaning.
James Howell, a Methodist pastor and author, wrote that an elderly member of his church gave him an old pocket knife from his pocket as a gift one year. The man handed it to him and said that when ever he was having a bad day, he should feel it and remember that someone loved him. At the time he thought it was an odd gift. There were a lot of things he would have wanted more than a used pocket knife and he had never carried one before. It wasn’t what he wanted, but over the years, it has become something of great value to him. He said countless times, he has received the comfort he needed knowing the knife was in his pocket and that it represented he was a loved person. The gift wasn’t what he thought he wanted when it was given, wasn’t what he craved, but it has turned out to be the perfect gift. And the same can be said for God. We do not always get what we want. We can pray each year for something and never get it. Howell writes that it doesn’t take a gift like the pocket knife for us to see that God isn’t so ineffectual as to give us merely what we crave, but that God gives us something infinitely richer. God gives us love, God gives us hope, and as Jeremiah teaches us, God keeps promises and does not abandon us in our times of need. Advent is the time where we experience that promise and begin to live with that hope again each year.

The last Hymn we will sing this morning is O Come O Come Emanuel. It is the perfect hymn to go forth into advent. It reminds us of God’s promise of hope and light to an exiled people. We too are this exiled people. We too are waiting in darkness anticipating the light of Christmas which is promised to each of us. And with God, you can be sure just as Jeremiah was that God will keep God’s promise. We will not be abandoned. There is indeed good news for those of us dreading the holiday season. Amen.

The Rev. Martha M. Shiverick, M.D.V., M.S.