A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sermon By Rev. Cheryl Foulk (December 9) - "Outside the Box: Opening the Gift of Acceptance"

Wrapped presents are intriguing. As a child I got into trouble when I crawled under the Christmas tree to examine a package which was for me. Unfortunately, I upset the tree and it fell over. Water and pine needles and broken ornaments were everywhere. I was caught underneath the mess.
Don't worry, there is no danger in opening this box before Christmas! We have someone who is going to open the box for us.
(Box on table is opened by a child and the unwrapped figure of Joseph is put on the altar)
At home, when I am setting up the nativity scene with the various figures, I sometimes wonder “where do you put Joseph? “ Is he back in the stable in shadows observing all that is happening?  Beside Mary? Out front guarding the doorway and greeting those who come?  What is Joseph's place in the Christmas story?
A child was drawing a picture of the Christmas story. In one corner  he had a small brown house.
“That is where Jesus was born.” he said.   He had drawn a  large star in the sky: “This is the star that guided the wisemen.” he explained.
There was a figure of a man carrying two bundles. He was asked “Is that one of the wisemen bringing gifts?”   Child replied: “No, that's  just Joseph taking  out the trash.”
The boy's drawing highlights that Mary and Joseph were real people dealing with realities of everyday life.  They were dealing with conflict, hurt, a broken relationship.
Joseph had to deal with the reality of being a father. He was engaged to Mary when it became evident that she was expecting a child and the child was not his. He is now in a situation where his world is upside down, and his previous  plans  are gone.
He has to pick an action : charge her with adultery and publicly humiliate her ; (as a righteous man, how could he marry her? ); quietly break off the engagement and sever all ties with her; or continue with the relationship and marry her. 
Prompted by God in a dream, he chooses to accept her rather than reject. He stands by Mary and faces the consequences.
In his actions, Joseph demonstrates the gift of acceptance. Precious gift to be able to accept and nourish the situation we find ourselves in.  Many times what we  planned for, dreamed about, does not happen and then what.
Joseph  will care for her and for the baby to come. 30 some years later Jesus will be teaching about acceptance and mercy.  (We heard his words read today from the Luke passage) Joseph is already living out Jesus' words of offering grace and not judgment towards others.
Joseph made a life changing  discovery. He saw the big picture: God was at work in the world and Joseph was going to be a part of it! He was not sure what all it would mean to raise a child born to save the world.  Joseph said “Yes” to his life.  He said “yes” to the opportunity to grow in his faith and love.  He said “yes” and waited for further instructions.  He was  living out the expression: Contentment is not having everything you want, but wanting what you have.
A little girl went to see Santa at the Mall. She sat in his lap and he asked the question;
“Well what do you want for Christmas?”  With shock she looked at him and said “You didn't get my email?”
Sometimes I feel like praying: “Lord, you didn't get my email?!
How do you react when your reality does not   match what you wanted?
We can be disappointed by much in life: our jobs, family members, our health, our relationships, our circumstances. They  don't match up with our dreams. Like Joseph we  have choices as to how we face each day ,which direction we take.
We can blame others,  have bitterness in our hearts, hold on to what might have been,, should have been or could have been. We can run away,
or  we can take take the courageous step of trusting God with our lives.
A man was writing on his blog concerning his many physical problems: “I can become angry and bitter. I can ask why me? Lash out at all those  around me because it is so unfair that my life is limited.  But I choose to accept that I have these physical  conditions. I am going to do everything I can to live a full life while dealing with my illness. I am choosing to live each day aware that God is with me.”
God is with us in all times and places, working through good and bad. God takes our frustrations, disappointments, losses,and gives us the strength that we need and shows us his possibilities.
Prior to WW II, Rienhold Niehbur, a teacher at Union Seminary, used a prayer in his sermons and in his talks to young people in this country. These words have been   prayed by many persons through the years, especially by those in 12 step programs.  The prayer has become known simply as the serenity prayer.
 To me it captures the essence  of the gift of acceptance.  This is the complete version of the prayer  and I would like for us to pause for a few moments and pray it together as we consider our own situations.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.
One of our older saints lives in an assisted living facility. She also has her own prayer of acceptance which she prays daily. She asks God  to lead her everyday in his will, to show her his way, to guide her to the people that he would want her to reach out to.

And she asks, please help me to not mess it up ! She has had many changes in her life (loss of family members and of her home) but  has a quiet acceptance of what is.  She is most open to  being available to God's Spirit leading her  to accept others and share God's love with them.

This gift of acceptance is revealed in our attitude towards our own circumstances, but it becomes an even greater  gift as  we accept the people around us in our neighborhoods and communities.  Who is God calling us to accept ?

Not far from Washington D. C. , Floris UMC invites day laborers in from cold for a Christmas party, a fiesta. For over 17 years, this church has reached out to immigrants in their neighborhood.  They have accepted great change in their county, and  been  open to God's possibilities.  Let's  see what is happening in Virginia:

It was not a long conversation. Two friends met on the street. One looked very tired; it had been a difficult year with his daughter and  loss of a job. The other friend asked “How are you doing?”  He paused before replying: “ How am I doing? You know, I belong to God.   My life has been so much more than these recent troubles. However this all turns out, I  still belong to God. That's the bottom line. There really isn't anything else. “

The gift of acceptance  comes down to this: our deep trust in God's amazing love for each of us wherever we are on our journeys, whatever we are facing.  This trust helps us find hope and purpose in the midst of life's upside down, backwards, inside out surprises!  May we, like Joseph, receive the gift of acceptance  this Christmas. 

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