Monday, December 31, 2012

The Gift of Christmas

The Gift of Christmas
Sunday, January 6, 2012
Epiphany Sunday
Matthew 2:1-12
Prop: Wrap the baby Jesus figure from a manger scene as a small gift, complete with box, paper and ribbon

Good morning, everyone!  Happy New Year!  And Happy Epiphany!  On the church calendar, today is Epiphany, or 3 Kings’ Day.   January 6 is the day we remember and celebrate the kings, or wise men, coming to visit Jesus.

 You may remember the story—There were wise men who studied the stars living way East of Bethlehem.  They studied the stars, and one night they noticed a new one in the sky.  They knew this meant a king had been born.  So they decided to follow the star and meet the new-born king.  Long story short, the star led them to Jesus.  The wise men bowed down and worshipped Jesus, and gave him precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  These were the first Christmas presents!  We still give and receive Christmas presents today, don’t we!

Speaking of Christmas presents, I was taking down my tree yesterday and found this gift tucked way underneath, in the back.  I guess it got overlooked on Christmas morning when we were unwrapping everything else.  I think we should open it now, don’t you?  It’s rather small, but they say, “Good things come in small packages.”

I suppose we should read the tag.  It says:

“To: The World
  From: One Who Loves You.”

Jesus in a Manger
OK, we’ll take off the ribbon, and remove the paper, and open the box and, what is it?  Earrings?  A watch?  No, look!  It’s the baby Jesus!  My goodness, in all the excitement of Christmas, I almost forgot to open the most important gift of all—God’s gift to each and every one of us—the gift of a Savior, Jesus!  So gold, frankincense and myrrh were NOT the first Christmas presents after all—Jesus was!

Let’s Pray.

Kind of giving God, we thank-you for the greatest gift the world has ever known—the gift of your love and forgiveness given to us through your Son, Jesus Christ.  May we always keep him at the center of our lives, at Christmas and all year long.  Amen.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lost and Found

Lost and Found
Sunday, December 30, 2012
Scripture: Luke 2:41-52
Prop: Print-out of the "Lost Dog" Flyer

Good morning, girls and boys! 

Have any of you ever lost a pet?  Maybe your dog got out of the yard and you couldn't find him.  You probably walked through the neighborhood with your mom or dad, calling the dog's name.  Maybe you rode around in the car, searching and calling for your beloved pet.  If you still couldn't find him, you might have put up posters in your neighborhood like this one, hoping someone would find him and call you to come and get him.  And while your pet is on his great adventure, you were probably worried and afraid that he was hurt or lost or afraid himself, right?

Each year, when Jesus was growing up, his family traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Festival.  They went with a big group of friends and relatives.  The journey took longer than a day, so the group camped overnight along the way.  It sounds like fun, doesn't it!

When Jesus was 12 years old, he made the trip to Jerusalem with his parents like he had every year as long as he could remember.  They enjoyed the festival, and then everyone started the long trek home--everyone, that is, except Jesus.  But Mary and Joseph didn't know Jesus was missing.  They thought he was somewhere in their large group of travelers.  It wasn't until after walking all day and setting up camp that they realized their boy wasn't there.

They checked the campsites of Jesus' friends and cousins, but he was nowhere to be found.  So Mary and Joseph started the long walk back to Jerusalem.  They looked and looked--in the marketplace, at the well--all of the places they thought Jesus might be.  They searched for 3 long days!  Where could he possibly be??  Finally, they tried the one place in the city they had not looked yet--the Temple.  There, in the Temple, they found Jesus, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.  Everyone listening was amazed at Jesus' understanding of God and the Scriptures.

Mary and Joseph were so happy to find their lost son, but they were also angry.  Mary said, "Child, why have you treated us like this?  Your father and I have been frantic looking for you!" 

But Jesus felt perfectly at home in the Temple.  He did not even know he was lost!  Jesus said, "Why were you searching for me?  Didn't you know that I must be in my father's house?"

His parents didn't understand what he meant.  Then Jesus went with them back to Nazareth and grew and grew--just like you're doing right now!

Let's Pray.  Dear God, Help us to know that we are at home in your house.  And help us to know and understand you and your Word.  Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Cliches

Santa Keeps the Christ in Christmas
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Scripture: Micah 5:1-5
Prop: Clue in the church musician to accompany the congregation on "Happy Birthday to You" at the end of the story

Christmas is getting close, isn't it!  You can see that four of the candles in the Advent wreath are lit--the only one remaining is the center Christ candle, which we will light tomorrow night at our Christmas Eve service.  We've had four weeks to prepare; Christmas is in two days.  Are you ready?  Are you excited?

There are many, many reasons to be excited that Christmas is almost here, aren't there? 
  • There will be special, delicious foods to eat.  I look forward all year to cranberry bread and green bean casserole and candy canes and cookies shaped like stars and bells and angels--food that I only eat at Christmas dinner.
  • Some people receive cards, letters, phone calls or even visits from loved ones they don't hear from very often.  Christmas is one time of the year people make an effort to reach out and let others know they are thinking about them.
  • Maybe you have a new dress or shirt to wear to Christmas Eve service tomorrow night.  Getting all dressed up to come to church or go to Christmas dinner is one way to show how special Christmas is.
  • Many people already have their Christmas tree up and decorated, but some families wait until Christmas Eve to do it.  Looking at all the colorful decorations at home, at church and on Main Street is another fun way to show our excitement for Christmas.  Maybe you even helped to decorate or made a decoration for your tree or home.
  • There is the giving and receiving of gifts, which is a super fun part of Christmas.  We often give not only to our friends and family, but to people we don't know at Christmas time, too, like with our Angel Tree project here at church.  It is fun and good to give to help others at Christmas and all year, too.
  • And then, of course, there's Jesus.  Christmas is Jesus' birthday, and for this we are most happy. 
Sometimes in the hustle and bustle and excitement that is Christmas Day, it is easy to almost forget the guest of honor, the Birthday Boy, who is Jesus!  Sometimes I see bumper stickers on cars, or posts on Facebook that say, "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," and "Keep the Christ in Christmas."  These are catchy reminders that all of the things we've talked about--the special foods, the fancy clothes, the decorations and cards and gifts--all of the things we do at this time of the year are ways to praise God and to wish Jesus a Happy Birthday. 

I'd like to end our story time this morning by singing "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus" together.  Are you ready?  Happy Birthday to you...


On Sunday, December 16, 2012, the Rev. Dr. Frank S. Deming preached the following sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  I hope you find it as helpful and inspiring as I did.

Sermon After the Sandy Hook Shooting

December 16, 2012

The Simon & Garfunkel album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” was released in 1966.  I was 14 at the time and purchased the album.  The title tune is still well known and will echo in our sanctuary next Sunday within the Christmas cantata.  “Homeward Bound” and “The Dangling Conversation” are often included on the greatest hits compilations.  But I thought on Friday about a song from that album which I had not thought of for a long time.  It was the last song on the album and was a rendition of “Silent Night.”

Paul & Art started with a simple rendering of this Christmas lullaby singing in beautiful harmony “all is calm, all is bright” and “sleep in heavenly peace.”  But by the second verse there was a fade-in of a broadcaster’s voice doing a news report.  It was actual news of the day which spoke of the turmoil of the times with references to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.  But it also included mention of the trial of Richard Speck, a mass murderer of eight student nurses in Chicago.

The juxtaposition of such references as the violent psychopathic murder of eight nursing students with the images of the deep calm and peace of Christmas made for a haunting irony.

That contrast between unspeakable horror and the Christmas proclamation of peace and goodwill came back to me as I heard the news of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Twenty children and eight adult lives lost to madness.

From where will come tidings of comfort and joy to Newtown, Connecticut, this year?

There are people in Newtown who are taking down their Christmas decorations in sympathy and solidarity with those who will have no joy this Christmas.  People feel guilty celebrating the holiday in the face of their neighbors’ sufferings.

Christmas is suppose to be a time of joy in which we celebrate the birth of the Savior.  But if we really look at what is said in the Christmas story we will see the Christmas story itself is not Pollyanna-ish.  The Bible always takes seriously the human condition and the reality of sin, suffering and death. 

Consider the dark chapter within the nativity narratives which takes up the “slaughter of the innocents.”

The magi have come in search of the “King of the Jews.”  They inquire at the court of Herod.  Herod is taken aback by the wise men’s question.  He tells the foreign ambassadors to search diligently and when this new born king is found, bring him word and he will also go and pay homage.  It’s a feint.  But the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and Joseph also receives a dream directive to escape to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.  When Herod learns he has been outfoxed, he orders henchmen to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys two years old and younger.

It is estimated Bethlehem in the first century would have been a town of one thousand persons.  And thus statistically there would have been twenty infant males who were murdered.  Twenty young victims.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”  (Matthew 2)

The Lord knows the human condition.  The Lord knows life can be cheap.

But the Lord knows this because of Christmas.  The Incarnation celebrates God coming to us in Christ to meet us where we are and to give us a new light by which to live.  He knows our condition because He has taken it on upon Himself.  He knows life can be cheap among us because He was sold for thirty pieces of silver.  But to Him . . . our lives are precious and so He has bought them with a price – the price of His own life.

* * *

I was originally going to focus on the story of Mary this morning.  I had to redirect on Friday.

Mary is a complex figure and I wasn’t going to do just a Hallmark Christmas card kind of presentation.  I was going to take up the trepidation she must have felt at the announcement she had been chosen to bear the Savior of the world.  This pregnancy could mean being alienated from her finance and ostracized by her community.  In fact she could be at risk of death by stoning if people assumed her to be an adulteress.  Yet Mary allowed herself to be vulnerable to the Word of God, opened herself up to it and trusted it.  She said to the announcing angel, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s fear and initial uncertainty contrasts with the Mary of the greeting card.  There we see Mary lovingly looking down upon her son and of course we resonate with the beauty of this bond between mother and child.  But as was prophesized, Mary’s heart would be pierced with a sword.  She may not have known it at the time, but the swaddling cloths that she wrapped her newborn son within foreshadowed the binding cloth of the shroud.  The gift of myrrh she received for her son was an embalming spice.  The signs were there from the start.

Mary was destined to grieve as a mother.  Mary’s grief has been given expression in such works as Michelangelo’s Pieta.  Perhaps this image would make a fitting Christmas card this year as it resonates with the pathos of the grieving parents of Newtown.

Although this news is dark concerning the murder of children and their teachers, this is precisely why we do need to celebrate the light of Christ which comes into the world.

In the face of the tragedy, I have caught glimpses of remarkable demonstrations of religious faith and spiritual values.  I think we should highlight some of these examples to draw inspiration for our own dealing with the tragedy.

Where to begin?

I saw in a photo a note written in childish block print on a memorial shrine which read: “God bless all the teachers (and) kids that were involved today.  I pray for the kids like me that did not deserve that. God bless you.”

Mr. Robbie Parker was the first parent of a dead child to speak publicly to the press. He and his wife’s six-year old daughter Emilie was one of the victims.  The Parkers have two younger children yet.

Parker spoke of his loss and all the beauty and promise of his daughter.  He then offered condolences to all the other families who have lost a loved one.  And Parker continued with condolences to the family of Adam Lanza, the shooter.  He said to the family, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you and I want you to know that our love and support go out to you as well.”

There are shades of Nickel Mines here and the Amish response to the tragedy in that community (2006 – 5 girls killed).  There people also reached out to the family of the shooter.  Mr. Parker is a Christian man and despite the tragedy that has befallen him and his wife he is living into the Christian ethos which is compassion even for those who have hurt you.  In this the cycles of violence and hatred will be broken as the Savior taught.

* * *

I was touched also by an interview with Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at Sandy Hook.

Teacher Kaitlin Roig quickly ushered 15 schoolchildren into a bathroom when she heard shots at the elementary school in Newtown.

She later told ABC News that she urged her students to be quiet so that they would not alert the gunman, telling them that “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out.”

“I said to them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it’s going to be OK’ because I thought that was the last thing they were ever going to hear,” she added.

Only in the grip of love can you make that promise – that everything is going to be OK – and we only know that because of the strength of God’s love.  “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

There are other stories which could be told of teachers and staff who gave their lives trying to protect the students.

But I think the community of Newtown, and by extension the nation, needs to be commended for the way people have rallied to give support.

Signs went up around town: “Hug a teacher today,” “Please pray for Newtown” and “Love will get us through.”  There have been vigils and prayer services and of course yet to come will be the funeral services.

As the president said in his address to the nation Friday, “Our hearts have been broken.”

As a nation we do feel very intensely the loss at Newtown.  Our social media via tweeting, Face Book posts, blogging, etc. has allowed us to grieve together in a way that was not possible a generation ago.  People have been funneling their sympathy and support not just to Newtown but therapeutically debriefing their horror and sadness through modern social media networks.

A blogger (Chuck Balsamo) wrote:

Compassion … a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

That is what I feel in my heart this morning for the devastated people of Newtown, Connecticut.

I actually cried as I prayed when the news broke, I trembled in my bones and I lost my breath…

20 children and 6 adults massacred, terror and bloodshed… in an elementary school.  I can think of nothing more chilling, more evil, or heartbreaking.

I saw a photo on of a lady who held her cell phone to her ear, as she was wailing out with grief.  I wondered if one of the 20 was her little man, or her little princess.

I wondered what these families had done the night before.  I imagined kisses on the cheeks and bedtime conversation, “I love you sweetie,” and, “I love you too Mommy!”

Asked whether the town would recover, Maryann Jacob, a clerk in the school library who took cover in a storage room with 18 fourth-graders during the shooting rampage, said: “We have to.  We have a lot of children left.”

Faith helps.

When news of the shooting broke, Hugh and Alice McGowan waited for word of their daughter, a teacher, as hour by hour ticked by. And then it came.  Authorities told the couple their daughter was a hero who helped shield some of her students from the rain of bullets.  As the grim news arrived, the victim’s mother reached for her rosary.

There are always people who question why God lets a tragedy like this happen.  It is sad to say it, but as 21st century Americans we are insulated from how tenuous life has always been and still is in much of the world.

There are some mysteries we will never understand.  The question of “theodicy,” why does an all powerful and all loving God allow bad things to happen to good people has many responses.  But such will not bring comfort to the bereaved.  As one rabbi in Newtown said, his job is not to interpret “why,” but simply to be present with grieving families of his congregation and his community.

The teacher, Kaitlin Roig, who shepherded her young students into the bathroom and told them to be quiet because “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out,” but also told the children she loved them and everything was going to be OK even while thinking these may the last words they ever hear, perhaps gives perfect voice to the meaning of Christmas.

We are in a liturgical season of waiting – Advent. We are waiting for rescue.  We are waiting for light in darkness.  We are waiting Christmas.  We are waiting for Christ – our good guy who will come and put a stop to the bad guys including Satan and Death itself.  But even as we wait, we know everything is going to be OK.  Because God loves us.  And that is all we need to hear.

We pray for solace for the grief stricken in Newtown.  And we take solace in Christ and the promises of the Gospel today and always.

This manuscript was written and preached with amplifications by Rev. Frank Deming at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  This draft has been produced upon request and is not in publication form.

I saw a photo on of a lady who held her cell phone to her ear, as she was wailing out with grief.  I wondered if one of the 20 was her little man, or her little princess. ~ Chuck Balsamo


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Come to the Party!

Come to the Party!

Third Sunday in Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20

Good morning, everyone!  How many of you have a birthday?  Raise your hand if sometime this year, you are going to have a birthday.  Everybody?  Of course!  We all have birthdays, don't we!  And many of us will have a party to help celebrate our birthday. 

There are lots of things to do to get ready for a birthday party, aren't there?  You need to decide where to have the party, which games to play, what flavor cake to make.  Decorations need to be hung, food needs to be prepared and invitations need to be sent.  Who would you invite to your birthday party?  Would you invite your friends?  Your classmates?  Your neighbors and relatives?  Would you invite people you don't know?  You probably would not invite strangers to your party, right?  Just your good friends and your family.

We are all busy getting ready for a special some one's birthday coming up in a little over a week, aren't we?  Whose birthday is December 25, Christmas Day?  It's Jesus' birthday!  And do you know who is invited to Jesus' birthday party?  Everybody!  That is because Jesus knows and loves everybody.  Nobody is a stranger to Jesus.  He wants all of the world to know and love him as well, so he invites every, single person to his party, which we call Christmas.

And so people from all over the world are getting ready to celebrate Jesus' birthday.  Folks are decorating, and cooking, and buying gifts, and sharing with those in need, all so December 25 rolls around, we will be ready to come to the party and to say, "Happy Birthday, Jesus!"

Let's pray together,

Dear God, we thank-you for Jesus' birthday, and for inviting us to his party!  Help us to always remember that the invitation is for all the world.  Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Shepherd's Story

Second Sunday in Advent
A Shepherd's Story
Prop: The Shepherd from a Creche

Good morning, girls and boys!  Today is the Second Sunday in Advent, which means Christmas is getting closer, isn't it!  As we prepare for Jesus' birthday, I want to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a young boy named Eli.  Even though Eli was only 9 years old, he had a job.  Eli worked with his father as a shepherd.  Eli's grandfather had been a shepherd, and his father before him.  Eli came from a long line of shepherds!

Eli liked his work as a shepherd.  He liked being outdoors--except when it was cold and rainy.  He liked his sheep, with their woolly bodies and sweet faces.  He liked the other shepherds who worked with him, especially his best friend, Micah.

Eli's favorite part of his job were the challenges--like when a sheep would wander off from the flock and need to be found.  Or when a lamb got itself stuck in a rocky crevice and needed to be lifted out with a shepherd's crook.  The most exciting work to be done was keeping coyotes, wolves and other animals away who would like to eat the sheep for their supper!  Eli didn't want his sheep to be hurt, but Eli enjoyed rising to these challenges and keeping the animals safe from harm.

Part of Eli's training as a shepherd was to practice using a slingshot every day so that it could be used effectively against a hungry wolf or bear when needed.  Eli and Micah and all of their co-workers knew the story of David--a shepherd boy who killed Goliath with his slingshot and grew up to be kind of Israel.

Eli liked being a shepherd, but the story of King David was his favorite of all the stories his father told him.  He dreamed of being asked by God to do something really important some day--like David when he saved his people by killing Goliath.

On night, after a long and boring day, in a long and boring week of no interesting challenges to meet--no lost sheep, no lambs in distress, no wolves ready to pounce--Eli, his father Micah and the other shepherds were finishing their supper around the campfire.  Eli was feeling particularly restless that night.  "Tell us a story, Abba," he asked his father.  "Please!  Tell us the story of David, the shepherd boy."

Eli's Abba started the story, "It was during the reign of the very first king of Israel--King Saul.  Israel was at war against the Philistines..."

Suddenly, an angel stood before the shepherds, and the night sky was filled with the glory of the Lord.  And the shepherds were terrified!  They had never, ever seen anything like this in their lives!!  They didn't know what to make of it.  But the angel tried to calm them down, saying, "Do not be afraid, because I bring to you the best news anyone has ever heard.  This good news is for all people everywhere--This very day, in Bethlehem, the City of David, a Savior has been born for you, who is Christ the Lord.  You will know who he is because you will find him wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

Then, a whole host of angels appeared and they all sang together,

"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among people with whom God is pleased."

And just as suddenly as the angels had appeared, they were gone.

The shepherds sat in amazement for a few seconds, then they all said at once, "We have to go to Bethlehem to see this awesome event!"  "But wait--what about the sheep?" one of the men asked.  "Two shepherds will need to stay behind to keep them safe," another answered.  "Please, don't make me stay behind!  Please don't make me stay behind," Eli prayed silently.  "Benjamin and Mark, you two stay and we'll tell you what we see."

And so Eli hurried with the other shepherds to Bethlehem.  There they found a cave, which was used to stable animals, and in the cave were Mary and Joseph.  And lying in the manger was their new-born son, Jesus.

Eli's greatest wish had come true.  He knew that the shepherds were told the Good News of Jesus' birth for a reason.  That angel could have made his announcement to anyone, but God chose the shepherds.  They were assigned a new, vitally important job.  For the rest of his life, Eli shared the story of that First Christmas every chance he got, and we include shepherds in our Christmas creches to this day.

Let's pray together.
Good and Gracious God, you give each one of us important work to do.  You ask us to share the Good News of Christmas and the birth of the One sent to save the whole world.  Help us to deliver the Good News in all we do and in all we are.  Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Happy Anniversary Children's Sermons Today!

December 1, 2012

The First Sunday in Advent marks the one year anniversary Merlin and I first posted on Children's Sermons Today.  I want to thank all who have stopped by in the past year.  I hope you have found the stories to be enlightening and helpful to your ministry.  I look forward to working by God's grace and together with you in the coming year to share the Good News of God's love and forgiveness with the children God has entrusted to our care and nurture.  Happy Advent!