COMMUNITY CHURCH OF THE MONTEREY PENINSULA
P. O. BOX 222811
CARMEL CA 93922
Rev. Paul Wrightman, Pastor
Independent and United Church of Christ
December 13, 2020
As the virus makes greater inroads into our Christian family here at Community Church and those connected to it, we are thankful that so far no one has become dangerously ill.
And let us do all that we can as a church to safeguard our greater community. Our Board of Governors has decided to suspend all meetings at church until we can gather again safely. Board and other meetings will be held via Zoom until we have turned the corner on the pandemic.
Sadly, we will not be able to celebrate Christmas Eve in person this year. All the more reason to look forward to next year! Hopefully we will be able to celebrate Easter in person on April 4th. If not, we can still celebrate the fact that by then many will have been vaccinated and that Covid-19 is beating a hasty retreat.
There will be a Zoom Christmas Eve service at our usual time of 7:00. If you would like a link for this or would like to check out our Zoom Bible study, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay Safe, Take Care, and Always remember that Jesus IS Emmanuel – God WITH us, Pastor Paul
WORSHIP SERVICE FOR DECEMBER 13, 2020
INTRODUCTORY READING William Sykes, Contemporary
If we want to see ‘Love’ fully worked out in a life we can go to the person of Jesus Christ. At the height of his ministry he came out with his greatest command: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ I imagine Jesus was speaking out of his own experience. Here was someone who was prepared to love God with all his inner being: heart, soul, mind and strength. This was to be balanced with an outer love to neighbor (which included everyone in the immediate vicinity) and was further balanced by a true and genuine love of himself. In John’s Gospel he confirmed the source of his love: ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.’ The two commandments were simplified into one: ‘I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ Jesus lived out this ‘new commandment’ to the very end.
LIGHTING OF THE ADVENT CANDLES
As we gather around the Advent wreath today,
we rejoice that Christmas is a time of prayer
and of open hearts when we sing songs of joy.
Christmas is a time of worship –
the moment when the busiest of us pause in wonder.
Christmas happens when God comes to us
in love through Jesus Christ
and fills us with love for all humankind.
We light this candle to proclaim the coming
of the light of God into the world.
With the coming of this light there is love.
Such great love helps us to love God and one another.
(Light the third candle in the wreath.)
O god, we thank you
that Jesus showed your love for every person –
babies and children, old people and young,
sick people and those who were strong,
rich people and those who were poor.
Come to us in this Advent season,
And give us love in our hearts for all people. Amen.
SUGGESTED MUSIC “What Child Is This?” by Reese Oliveira (age 11)
accompanied by Masa Fukuda Suzy Oliveria You Tube
OPENING PRAYER Ancient Celtic Prayer from Scotland
I am serene because I know thou lovest me.
Because thou lovest me, naught can move me from my peace.
Because thou lovest me, I am one to whom all good has come. Amen.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
SCRIPTURE READING 1 Corinthians 13
(J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English, 1972)
If I speak with the eloquence of men and of angels, but have no love, I become no more than blaring brass or crashing cymbal. If I have the gift of foretelling the future and hold in my mind not only all human knowledge but the very secrets of God, and if I also have that absolute faith which can move mountains, but have no love, I amount to nothing at all. If I dispose of all that I possess, yes, even if I become a martyr, but have no love, I achieve precisely nothing.
This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience – it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.
Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it shares the joy of those who live by the truth.
Loves knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love never fails.
For if there are prophecies they will be fulfilled and done with, if there are “tongues” the need for them will disappear, if there is knowledge it will be swallowed up in truth. For our knowledge is always incomplete and our prophecy is always incomplete, and when the complete comes, that is the end of the incomplete.
When I was a little child I talked and felt and thought like a little child. Now that I am an adult I have finished with childish things.
At present we are looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God has known me!
In this life we have three lasting qualities – faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of them is love.
Copyright 2020: Rev. Paul Wrightman
SERMON: JESUS, THE EMBODIMENT OF GOD’S LOVE
(The underlining indicates what I would emphasize if delivered orally.)
Have you ever wondered why the concept of incarnation is such a big deal for Christianity? Or have you long been confused about what incarnation means? This sermon is designed to help!
Today’s Scripture reading was chosen because in it St. Paul gives us the highest and deepest and broadest description of Christian love that we find in all of Scripture.
Scholars are in agreement that Paul didn’t just casually come up with this profound passage, but that it is based on years of meditating and reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ love-in-action.
Although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which we know collectively as the Gospels, had not yet been edited into their final forms, there were various collections of Jesus sayings, parables, healings, and prophetic actions already circulating as Paul was writing his letters. These compilations were both written and oral.
Since Paul did not meet Jesus personally until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, I picture Paul avidly collecting all the material on Jesus that he could find, reflecting on this material for several years (see Galatians 1:18), then eventually incorporating much of this content into his own letters.
But unlike Jesus, who expresses himself very concretely, Paul likes to mull things over until he can come up with grand summaries of Jesus’ words and actions.
Such is chapter 13 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Paul has been meditating on the meaning of love using Jesus as his primary role-model, and this is his own grand poem, or passionate hymn, on the subject.
There is nothing like it in all of ancient literature. This is because no one but Jesus had dared to redefine the very meaning of love.
For the Greeks and Romans love was seen primarily in terms of family, friends, and erotic need and fulfillment. The Hebrews understood love primarily in terms of care and protection.
Jesus did not deny any of these aspects of love, but the heart of love, for him, lay elsewhere.
The heart of love, for Jesus, lay in God’s desire to share the fullness of God’s very being with others. And given the reality that evil is real and that this world and the people in it are broken, God’s love often has to find expression through acts of sacrifice.
Please note a major, major difference here: Christianity, at least in its original form as taught and lived by Jesus, roundly rejected the notion of sacrifice as something people did to connect with God, and shockingly reversed the terms of the equation: sacrifice is something that God does to connect with people!
God’s ultimate sacrifice is understood to take place on the cross, with Jesus voluntarily and nonviolently embracing death itself so that broken humanity could finally know once-and-for-all that there is nothing, absolutely nothing we can do that would make God stop loving us.
But there is another, often overlooked, dimension of God’s choosing the way of sacrifice to connect with people. As Lent, Good Friday, and Easter commemorate God’s ultimate act of love on the cross, Advent and Christmas celebrate another aspect of God’s sacrificial love – namely, the fact that God’s love is a love which was willing to leave the comfort and glory of heaven, and become absolutely concrete in the life of a particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth.
This is what Christians refer to as the incarnation, the belief that God actually became a person in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
As beings with as yet a very limited repertoire of tools to try and describe the indescribable, we’re forced to use primitive concepts such as God’s “coming down,” and choosing to become one of us.
Our descriptions of the mysteries of Easter and Christmas may be primitive, but the realities giving rise to them are not.
Many mythical stories from every part of the globe speak of God’s breaking into our human dimension, which connect with the Christian notion of incarnation, and of God’s transcending death, which connect to the Christian notion of resurrection.
Myths which show some similarities to Christianity are often cited to make the point that the stories of Jesus are themselves nothing but mythical narratives.
But J. R. R. Tolkien (Yes, the J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote The Lord of the Rings!) and C. S. Lewis, among others, have applied a very effective, judo-like move to this criticism of Christianity as simply one more myth among a multitude of others.
Tolkien and Lewis have no problem using the term “myth” to describe Christianity, but with one all-important proviso: the myth, the story, of the Christ – unlike all the other stories concerning the gods – has actually become true in history.
There are many stories of gods entering our world. But there is only one story of God entering our world that has overwhelming historical evidence to support it, and that is the story of Jesus.
Both Tolkien and Lewis considered the Christian claim that God became a person in the person of Jesus to be grounded in history. This enabled them to put a positive spin on many of the other god-stories circling the globe: they are expressions of humankind’s deepest yearnings for a God who is truly with us in life and in death and in life beyond death.
As expressions of humanity’s profoundest longings these competing stories are largely true. What they lack is a grounding in historical reality which is the unique hallmark of Christianity.
It is very much as if all these competing myths, or stories, were basically on the right track, as it were. God saw and God heard our deepest yearnings and answered by coming in person as a person.
As you can imagine, good sermon illustrations on the meaning of the mystery of incarnation are few and far between.
But we have to try to put the mystery into words, always acknowledging, along with T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, that
crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
will not stay still.
In spite of this, in the same poem Eliot is able to affirm:
these are only hints and guesses,
hints followed by guesses; and the rest
is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is
So any attempt to capture the meaning of the incarnation in words is slightly ridiculous. One of the least ridiculous attempts at doing this comes from Philip Yancey’s book The Jesus I Never Knew. I’ve used this illustration before and will undoubtedly use it again, simply because it communicates. Yancey writes:
“I learned about incarnation when I kept a salt-water aquarium.
Management of a marine aquarium, I discovered, is no easy task. I had to run a portable chemical laboratory to monitor the nitrate levels and the ammonia content. I pumped in vitamins and antibiotics and sulfa drugs and enough enzymes to make a rock grow. I filtered the water through glass fibers and charcoal, and exposed it to ultraviolet light.
You would think, in view of all the energy expended on their behalf, that my fish would at least be grateful.
Every time my shadow loomed above the tank they dove for cover into the nearest shell. They showed me one emotion only: fear.
Although I opened the lid and dropped in food on a regular schedule three times a day, they responded to each visit as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. I could not convince them of my true concern.
To my fish I was a deity. I was too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible. My acts of mercy they saw as cruelty; my attempts at healing they viewed as destruction.
To change their perceptions I began to see would require a form of incarnation. I would have to become a fish and speak to them in a language they could understand.”
Seen in the context of incarnation, the presence of God in the person of Jesus becomes a personal clarification on God’s part of who God really is, and what God really cares about.
Let’s face it – creation; holy books, including the Bible; and prophets, including all the ones mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, while all at times profound pointers to God, are also all, at times, profoundly ambiguous, and sometimes downright contradictory.
How can we really know that God is love, and that God’s love takes the form of relentless compassion, creative nonviolence, and unlimited forgiveness?
Christians would answer that we can know all this about God by looking at and following Jesus.
Although a numerical majority of Christian thinkers see Christianity in a triumphalistic way as the only true religion, a strong minority of Christian thinkers would say that the coming of Jesus was not to found a new religion, but to assure persons from all faith traditions that whenever they act with compassion; whenever they agitate for justice; whenever they seek to embody God’s love in loving acts of their own; whenever they respond to violence with creative nonviolence instead of with more violence – that whenever they do these things, they are connected to, they are in relationship with, as Jesus himself put it, “the God and Father of us all.”
Of course the corollary of this is that whenever people of any faith tradition, very much including Christianity, do not act in these ways, they are not connected to, not in relationship with, God in God’s true nature.
The earliest church saw the incarnation as less a Christian doctrine than a universal reality: the reality that God is love, and that God became a loving person to fully demonstrate that fact.
This is the real meaning of Christmas. And it is huge.
What does it look like when the church takes the lead in incarnating God’s love to an entire city? It looks like this:
“Viewed from high on the rimrock cliffs that run along the edge of Billings, Montana, the city presents an attractive sight, a thriving metropolis nestling within the great open spaces of the American west.
Citizens of Billings say it’s a good, civilized place to live. They pride themselves on the quality of their schools and their strong family values.
So it came as a shock to many, when in November 1995, a series of hate crimes took place against minority groups in the city. Whoever was responsible for these acts must have thought that their victims would be easy targets.
Billings is predominately white; native Americans, African Americans, and Jews make up only a small percentage of the population. But there are just enough of them to frighten and bully – or so the haters must have thought.
They mounted a series of nasty attacks. Graves were overturned in a Jewish cemetery. Offensive words and a swastika were scrawled on the house of a native American woman. People worshipping at a black church were intimidated. A brick was heaved through the window of a Jewish child who displayed a menorah there.
But the white supramacists, or whoever they were, had reckoned without the citizens of Billings, who had an answer for them and it wasn’t what the hate-mongers were expecting.
Initiated by the UCC church, an alliance quickly emerged, spearheaded by churches, labor unions, the media, and hundreds of local citizens.
The results were dramatic.
Attendance at the black church rose steadily. People of many different ethnic backgrounds and faiths began to attend services there. Their message was clear: we may all be different, but we are one also. Threaten any one of us and you threaten us all.
A similar spirit propelled volunteers to come together and repaint the house of Dawn Fast Horse, the native American woman. This happened with amazing speed. Dawn had awoken one morning to see that her house had been defaced. By that evening, after two hundred people showed up to help, the house had been repainted.
When it came to the incident of the brick being thrown through the window of the Jewish child, an interfaith group quickly had a creative idea.
They recalled the example of the Danes during World War II. Danish Jews were ordered by the Nazis to put on yellow stars of David, so that they could be easily identified and rounded up for concentration camps and subsequent extermination.
The beloved king of Denmark was the first to wear a star. His act of defiance quickly caught on, and soon the entire population of Denmark was wearing the star of David.
The Nazis could no longer distinguish Jew from non-Jew. Within a two-week period the Danes had safely transported almost every Danish Jew to safety in neutral Sweden.
Recalling this powerful example, the people of Billings organized and a campaign began. Everyone pitched in, including the local newspaper, which printed a Hanukah page, including a full-color representation of a menorah. Thousands of Billings residents cut out the paper menorah and displayed it in their windows.
By late December, driving around Billings was a remarkable experience. Nearly ten thousand people were displaying those paper menorahs in their windows, and the menorahs remained in place throughout the eight days of Hanukah.
It was a brilliant answer to the hate-mongers. A town that had a few Jews was saying with one collective voice, we are all Jews now.”
(Adapted from A Book of Christmas Miracles.)
What does incarnation look like?
Incarnation looks like God loving the world so much that God chose to move in with us.
Incarnation looks like God meeting us at our places of greatest need and deepest joy.
Incarnation looks like God’s Spirit inspiring the citizens of Billings, Montana, to respond to hate with love.
God’s incarnate love is the strongest force in the universe.
Let’s do all we can to help spread it around.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
Do you resonate with Tolkien’s and Lewis’s idea that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the myths claiming that God has broken into our world? Why or why not?
C. S. Lewis maintains that the reality of God incarnating Godself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the reality upon which Christianity stands or falls. Why do you think the incarnation is so important?
Have you seen or experienced Christians incarnating God’s love in their own loving response to critical issues in ways that are parallel to the way the residents of Billings did? If you have, please describe.
CLOSING PRAYER William Temple, 1881-1944)
O God of love, we ask you to give us love;
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing,
And love in the hidden places of our souls;
Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those with whom we take our ease;
That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with you,
Who are eternal love.
SUGGESTED MUSIC O Little Town of Bethlehem
SE Samonte You Tube
Patiently and persistently – God loves.
Relentlessly and unconditionally – God loves.
Now and forever – God loves.