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Christmas Eve 2012 December 24, 2012

Posted by Chris in Faith.
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For your consideration, my annual Christmas Eve rendition of “Another Night Before Christmas.” It’s a little shorter this year; I chose to make it much briefer so that I could tell a true story about another of my Christmas Eve adventures, this one involving a battery-powered candle. But you can watch the recording of the Austin Avenue United Methodist Church 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve worship service (http://ustre.am/KpP8) to find out all about that…

Another Night Before Christmas
With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore

Rev. Chris Mesa
Austin Avenue United Methodist Church

‘Twas the night before Christmas
And across our great land
The people were changing
The services planned

Their hearts had been broken
And their spirits all tossed
By the shock and the horror
Of the children we’d lost

Just ten days before Christmas
And it seems all too soon
To gather in churches
And sing happy tunes

The darkness they felt
It gave them a reason
To pause in their plans
Their celebration of the season

And it wasn’t just grief
Over young lives that were taken
That had given us pause
Our very faith shaken

There were, in fact, many
Many reasons we had
To feel grieved and stricken
Melancholy and sad

We’ve so many problems
There are so many “if’s”
Economic conditions
And looming fiscal cliffs

Our nation divided
Mistrust rules the day
And Christmas, it seems
Can’t overcome the dismay

What difference does it make?
What possible chance
Can Christmas ever have
For our cause to advance?

Can Christmas cure sickness?
The pastor now waxes:
Can Christmas fix problems?
Can Christmas fix taxes?

What then can it do?
What’s it good for, this hour?
What is Christmas good for?
Where is Christmas’ power?

The power of Christmas
Is found in the night
It’s found in the dark
It’s found in the fright

It’s found among those
Who are broken and grieving
Among those this close
To no longer believing

It’s found among families
Their budgets now riled
It’s found among parents
Who’ve buried a child

The power of Christmas
Is found in the night
It’s found in the Savior
It’s found in the light

To those who are joyous
On this night be glad
For Christmas is a great and grand
Festival had

But for those who are worried
About bills that are due
About relationships broken
Christmas is also for you

No matter how dark
The night may appear
No matter the absence
Of much Christmas cheer

Remember that Christmas
It came in the night
It came to transform
The darkness to light

The darkness persists
It lingers to stay
But the light of the Savior
It lights up a way

A way out of the darkness
A way we can cope
A path we can choose
A pathway of hope

The pomp and the grandeur
Of Christmas soon passes
But the hope of this holy night
Always surpasses

The depth of our fear
And the strain of our plight
It does so with love
It does so with light

Christmas does make a difference
It does every day
And so now we pause
And faithfully pray

For all those who hurt
That their hearts be made bright
Now Merry Christmas to all
And to all a good night

Bless you this Christmas and always.

Pastor Chris
Christmas Eve 2012


Epilogue – March 25, 2012 March 25, 2012

Posted by Chris in Faith.
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I was watching my favorite TV lawyer the other evening. Some guy was describing for the jury his recollection of the wording of a certain contract when Perry Mason stood up and said, “I object! This is not the best evidence! The prosecution should produce the original contract.” Perry’s objection was sustained. It is, after all, his show.

But the rule of best evidence was not created for the show; it’s real.

Today in church we talked about two words that have caused a good deal of commotion among both church people and non-church people recently. These two words—“under God”—are being challenged in court as inappropriate for our Pledge of Allegiance even as they are being added to certain Texas license plates as appropriate expressions of faith. These two words are, in fact, words of truth; we are people under God. But just writing them on our license plates or reciting them at our meetings is not the best evidence of God’s presence in the state or the nation.

The best evidence is love.

We should always go with the best evidence. Do you object?

Epilogue – February 26, 2012 February 26, 2012

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“Moms of Multiples” is a support group of/for mothers that have been blessed with twins, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets…well, you get the idea. There are multiple (no pun intended) groups like this across the country, but Waco’s group meets here at the Austin Avenue church, once a month, on Monday evenings.

Last month Moms of Multiples asked if they could use the church facilities to have a re-sale; they would be selling children’s clothing, strollers (the kind that hold more than one kid, I think), and other assorted baby/child supplies. I said it would be OK, provided they made the appropriate donation of the proceeds to our Lenten mission initiative (we call it “Beyond Our Doors,” an offering we collect to support local organizations like the Family Abuse Center, Caritas of Waco, and the Christian Women’s Job Corps). They agreed, and the sale was held yesterday.

One of the ways these moms advertised their sale was by using lawn signs, those little signs you can stick in the ground next to the street. Evidently, they forgot to take some of them down after the sale. I know this not because I saw the signs, but because someone else did. In between the 9:00 a.m. Chapel Service and 9:45 a.m. Sunday School, I was walking down a first floor hallway in the church when someone came in the rampside door (this is the door that leads to the portico and main parking lot). This person asked about the sale. I said, “What sale?” The lady then said, “I saw a sign outside that you were selling baby clothes.”

I spoke to her for a moment or two. She could have really used those clothes.

There are lots of signs outside of our building: signs that tell of our denominational affiliation, signs that tell what I’m preaching about this month, signs that tell you where to park, signs that tell you what door to come in, etc. But the one sign that got her attention was the one that got her thinking we might be able to help her with some inexpensive, used clothes for her children.

I’m preaching about love all through the Lenten season. Together, we’ll be examining the apostle Paul’s teaching from 1 Corinthians 13 on the essential qualities of love. But I’m wondering if, this morning around 9:40 a.m., love might have been best expressed with a few used articles of children’s clothing.

Some will say, “That’s not the church’s job.” They may be right. But that sign got someone in the door this morning when all the others did not. What if we, as the church, worked even harder to find more and more creative ways to make God’s love tangible—or even wearable? Do you suppose people would notice? And would some of those who came in for the clothes actually stay for church, trusting that we were people who didn’t just talk about love?

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is a long-term strategy for producing change. And, maybe, love is a couple of articles of clean, used children’s clothing.

Epilogue – February 13, 2012 February 13, 2012

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Yesterday I preached about lifestyles, and the need for our lifestyles to be dominated by these twin principles: love God with all you have and love your neighbor like you love yourself. For most of us, that’s a call to a radically different lifestyle. In the sermon, I told people a little bit about Clarence Jordan. Jordan graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1938 with an advanced degree in Greek. But rather than going on to teach Greek in an academic setting, Jordan chose to return to his native Georgia where he founded an interracial community farm called Koinonia. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Koinonia community was met with strong opposition, sometimes violent in nature, and sometimes even from Jordan’s own church.

Through it all, the community endured. And in the midst of the civil rights movement, when many were demonstrating, protesting, and marching, Jordan chose not to participate. He believed that the best way to effect change in society was by living; living in community with others, living a radically different lifestyle. Some people still scoff at the notion that such an approach can really produce any appreciable change.

In 1965, a couple by the names of Linda and Millard Fuller visited the Koinonia Farm. They had planned only to stay a short time—maybe a few hours at most—but ended up spending five years at Koinonia. Millard Fuller went on to found an organization called Habitat for Humanity. Guided by their mission to help create “simple, decent, affordable housing,” Habitat has built more than 400,000 houses and sheltered more than 2 million people worldwide.

It started with a willingness to live a radically different lifestyle.

Epilogue – January 15, 2012 January 15, 2012

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I was a little hard on the Kardashians this morning. I’m unrepentant about my treatment of them, and the fact remains that the instrument has yet to be invented that can measure my indifference to their antics. But I should amplify something I said earlier.

I said that too often the reason we’re so obsessed with people like the Kardashians, with celebrity families in general, and with entertainment itself is that we find our own day-to-day experiences to be rather dull and devoid of meaning. That’s not really the Kardashians’ fault. In fact, they might be doing us a great favor by exposing our boredom.

If we’re feeling the need to inundate ourselves with entertainment just so we can experience some sense of fulfillment in our lives, then our lives really have become boring. So checking the Kardashian’s Twitter feed every few minutes is ultimately about us, not them. We’re simply battling boredom, and the Kardashians are quite willing to distract us from our relative dullness. But distraction isn’t really the answer.

God has not created us to be boring. God has not created us to be superficial. God has created us to live lives of meaning and significance. That doesn’t mean that every waking moment of every day is a thrill ride. But it does mean that every day can matter.

You see, the real solution for boredom is not to distract ourselves with superficialities but instead to fill our days with difference-making activity. To do that over the long-term requires us to be connected with a formidable source of energy, creativity, patience, and love. I offer, for your consideration as a source for all those things and more, our awesome God.

Next week we’ll continue the conversation about entertainment with a discussion about various entertainment awards shows. Got a favorite award – Oscar, Emmy, etc.? Let me know. There are soooo many to choose from… (hint)

Epilogue – January 8, 2012 January 8, 2012

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I had to go upstairs to the third floor before I left the church this afternoon. As I was walking through one of the hallways, I passed by the rooms reserved for AA. Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most powerful spiritual groups in our church. I thought about how the concepts of AA related to the cultural dependence on entertainment we talked about this morning.

We should take care in too quickly comparing the very real disease of alcoholism with our culture’s obsession with constant entertainment. That said, entertainment has some very alcohol-like effects.

Overindulging on entertainment can produce a temporary “buzz,” a sensation many people find pleasant. Too much entertainment ultimately dulls the senses, serving as a depressant that numbs one’s true feelings and emotions. But perhaps the starkest similarity is found in Step Two.

Step Two of The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is this:  [We] “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” It’s that belief in a restorative power greater than ourselves that is the beginning of recovery from both alcoholism and terminal boredom.

Recovering alcoholics understand that it is not their mission in life to get drunk; it is, in fact, a terrible distraction from their true mission as human beings. Similarly, recovering entertainment addicts must also learn that it is not their mission in life to be entertained. Too often entertainment becomes a terrible distraction from the mission to which God calls each of us.

People who believe their mission in life is to be entertained tend to see everyone and everything else as entertainers, including the church. In an effort to become less boring, some churches have taken up the mantle of entertainment, even at the expense of spiritual and theological depth. I fear such churches are doing little more than cultivating congregations that are simply biding their time until they find a pastor who can pull a larger rabbit out of his/her hat.

To quote that storied philosopher, Bullwinkle J. Moose: “Nothing up my sleeve…presto! I gotta get a new hat.” Join us next week at the Austin Avenue Church, for something we hope you’ll really like.

Epilogue – December 13, 2011 December 13, 2011

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We’ve been singing—and then talking about—a different song every Sunday during Advent. This week, it was the song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Many people knew the song. Some even knew that the lyrics to the familiar Christmas song were actually written by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But no one I spoke to after church could remember ever having sung the fourth verse.

Verse four lends great understanding to the carol. From Longfellow’s poem Christmas Bells, the fourth stanza reads this way:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Having sung this verse on Sunday, we discovered that the poem/song is, in part, a tale of the tragic fortunes of war. The cannons that “thundered in the South” were Civil War cannons. Longfellow’s son Charles had left home, without his father’s permission or blessing, to join the Union Army. This was not long after Longfellow’s wife Fanny had died in a fire in their home.

During the battle of New Hope Church in Virginia, Charles was seriously wounded. Longfellow received word of his son’s injury on December 1, 1863, and traveled to Washington, D.C. where he met his son and took him home to recover. That Christmas of 1863, Longfellow made no entry in his journal, echoing his grief over the loss of Fanny from the previous Christmas when he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

Then on Christmas Day of the following year, Longfellow wrote the epic poem that gave us the familiar words we sing at Christmastime. In the meaningful lyrics, we hear Longfellow’s heartbreak, his disillusionment, and ultimately the restoration of his hope, hope that came via the sounds of Christmas bells ringing. It’s a wonderful Christmas message. But it’s so much more poignant when you sing verse four.

This afternoon in the car, one of the radio stations was playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” They played verse one. They played verse two. Then they skipped right to verse seven, the last stanza of the poem, which is:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!

The final stanza is a great message of hope. But it means altogether more when hope is scarce. God did not take human form and enter the world because things were going great; God did so “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.”

Oh, wait. That’s next week’s song. Stay tuned.

Epilogue – November 27, 2011 November 27, 2011

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It was a full day at the Austin Avenue church this morning. It was the 1st Sunday of Advent. We celebrated the Hanging of the Greens. The kids decorated the Chrismon Tree and then learned a new song about the animals at the manger. We were blessed to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. All that was in the first 15 minutes.

Somehow, I even managed to squeeze in some preaching. I introduced the theme for this Advent season; music, or more specifically, the things we can learn from music. Today’s preaching song was In the Bleak Mid-Winter. We talked about how Christ enters into a bleak world and “un-bleaks” it. I introduced our Christmas Mission Project, shoes for the children of Swaziland. I gave everyone a little snow globe, a gift to help us remember how some people are experiencing a winter of discontent. And I invited everyone to imagine then difference we could make in a child’s winter by virtue of the Advent of Christ in our hearts. It really was a wonderful day.

The one thing I just ran out of time to talk about was the challenge. I’ll say more about it next week, but our Advent challenge is simply this: match the spending you do on yourselves this Christmas with a gift for a mission project beyond yourself. You’ve all heard me talk about how Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birthday, not ours, and how utterly inappropriate it is for us to receive all the gifts at someone else’s birthday party. The challenge simply takes it one step further.

I love getting Christmas presents. I love giving Christmas presents. But the truth is I don’t really need too much more stuff. Stuff is getting to be more of a burden than a blessing. So Brenda and I have decided, once again this year, to (1) buy even less stuff for ourselves and to (2) make a matching gift (equal to the total amount we spent on gifts for ourselves) to the Austin Avenue shoe initiative. It’s a cause that would make Jesus smile, I think.

We still give gifts. We enjoy it way too much to stop. But the experience of giving thoughtful, less expensive gifts that enable us to be generous in mission giving is a gift in itself. It’s one we’ll give to ourselves this Christmas. And it’s one that feels really good. Don’t you deserve a feel-good gift this Christmas?

Epilogue – November 22 November 22, 2011

Posted by Chris in Faith, Uncategorized.

We gave away bibles this past Sunday. They were these really cool (I think) Christmas-themed Common English Bibles. I wanted to give them away on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, because I knew that the day after Thanksgiving would be Black Friday and that the formidable machinery of Christmas marketing would be at full throttle even before the turkey got cold. In the midst of culture’s Christmas campaign that says “epic fail” if you don’t buy the right stuff, eat the right stuff, wear the right stuff, decorate with the right stuff, etc., the little Christmas bibles emphasize hope over hype, service over selfish, and Christ over consumerism. For those of you who were too tuckered out after last Saturday’s big Baylor win to attend church this past Sunday, I have your bible waiting. You see, the point was not for us to receive them; it was for us to pass them along to someone at risk of getting caught up in Christmas consumerism. That danger is real.

Last night, I went to visit a friend who had surgery earlier in the day. On my way back home, I decided to stop at the market and pick up a couple of things. Driving past a local shopping center, I noticed someone sitting in front of a consumer electronics store. She was bundled up in a blanket and sitting in a folding chair. Rarely do I see homeless persons there, and I stopped to speak to her. She wasn’t homeless. She had a home and a family. She was, in fact, camped out in front of this particular store in order to be the first in line to get one of their Black Friday bargains. She said she had been there since early that morning. This was Monday.

I asked what her family thought of her taking almost a whole week away from them, missing the Thanksgiving holiday, so that she could save a few bucks on Friday morning. She paused, and then said, “Once they see the TV I’m gonna get, they’ll understand.” I went back to my car and got her one of the Christmas bibles. I gave it to her, explaining that the CEB is a new, fresh translation of the bible, that it’s really easy to read, and that there’s even a foreword in this particular bible that talks about the meaning of Christmas. She said, “Oh believe me, I’ve got plenty of Christmas spirit. Can’t you tell?”

There are people in our communities who equate Christmas Spirit with spending a week camped out in front of an electronics store to get a deal on a TV. I have more Christmas bibles to give away. I think you know what to do.

Epilogue! November 13, 2011

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Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked watching those “Quinn Martin” productions. You know, those old cop/detective TV shows like The Fugitive, The F.B.I., Cannon, Barnaby Jones, and the like. And one of the coolest things about them, to me, was the “Epilogue.” The epilogue was the final scene, a conclusion which often included an off-screen narrator who offered us insight into what we had just seen. I like epilogues.

Perhaps the reason I like epilogues is because I need one every Sunday. Try as I might—and you know hard I try—I just can’t say everything I want to say to you on Sunday mornings. Either I run out of time, or I completely forget to say something I had intended to say, or I don’t think of that perfect illustration for my sermon until an hour after church is over. I need an epilogue.

So, I’ll start posting my epilogues here. Look for them on Sunday afternoons and/or evenings. And don’t forget to let me know what you think. This has been a CM production.

Epilogue—November 13, 2011

Today I preached on Romans 3 and our Christian responsibility to do more than the bare minimum, in light of the tragic situation at Penn State. We talked about Joe Paterno. Lots of people all around the nation are talking about him. And some are wondering why we are talking more about Paterno than Jerry Sandusky. After all, Sandusky is the real criminal here; he was the predator who abused these kids. Why all the focus on Joe?

Because he’s Joe. It doesn’t really shock us when evil people do evil things. As terrible as that is, it’s what we expect from them. We’re therefore neither surprised, nor are we particularly disappointed when bad people behave badly. But when good people make terribly tragic choices, it’s different. We expected more from them.

And that’s why we’re so shocked and surprised and disappointed with Joe. Because for half a century, Joe Paterno has epitomized character, ethics, and all that is good in college athletics. I can close my eyes and imagine Paterno giving a news conference in which he announces that the moment he learned of this heinous crime, he immediately called upon the highest levels of law enforcement and university administration to act and act decisively, so that no child might ever suffer such a fate at Penn State again. That’s what you expect a Joe Paterno to do.

But he didn’t.

Maybe he thought he had done enough. Maybe he didn’t understand. I’m not sure. But I am sure that most of us expected him to do more.

Most of us, but not all of us

Not everybody feels that way. In a recent interview, Hall of Fame running back and Penn State alum Franco Harris called the university’s decision to dismiss Paterno “disturbing.” I don’t know Franco Harris. He may be a thoughtful, intelligent man. But his public statement criticizing Penn State’s Board of Trustees for firing Joe Paterno borders on ludicrous. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

“I feel that the board made a bad decision in letting Joe Paterno go,” Harris told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I’m very disappointed in their decision. I thought they showed no courage, not to back someone who really needed it at the time.”

Harris thought the trustees “showed no courage” in failing “to back someone who really needed it at the time.” Really? Wasn’t that the very reason they fired Paterno and University President Graham Spanier? And what about the 10 year old kid who was being brutally raped in the shower of the Penn State football locker room? Did he not need someone to back him? Did he not deserve someone to be courageous for him? Harris’ mindlessly ironic comments only serve to remind us of the greatest failing of the man he’s trying to defend: showing no courage, while failing to back someone who really needed it at the time.

Way to go, Franco. Immaculate reception, maybe. Idiotic perception, definitely.