Monday, June 6, 2016

Hello Aldersgate!

We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you. We’ve done this since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all God’s people.  Colossians 1:3-4

Hello Aldersgate! 

My name is Sherill Clontz and I will be appointed as your next Senior Pastor, beginning June 23rd.  I look forward to meeting you and hearing your stories as well as worshiping and serving God together!  And it warms my heart to be a part of a congregation whose purpose is to love God, love others, and to serve and share Jesus!

And if you are as curious about me as I am about you, you probably would like to know a few things about me!  First, with the exception of three of my teenage years, I have been a life long Methodist.  I was born in Washington, D.C., baptized at Grace Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, confirmed at Brooklyn Avenue United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, married at Gadsden First UMC, and spent nearly 21 formative adult years at Epworth UMC, here in Huntsville.  I’ve been married to Craig for over 33 years and we have three grown children.  Craig is an electrical engineer and has worked for Dynetics, Inc. for slightly longer than we have been married.  Our oldest son, Steven, is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of South Alabama and his wife, Jessica, is an elementary school teacher.  Our middle child, Phillip, teaches math at New Hope High and his wife, Christina, teaches at Latham’s Child Development Center.  And our youngest child, Laura Webb, teaches 5th grade math and science at Moody Middle School and her husband, Trent, is a quality assurance engineer with Honda.  

Craig grew up Baptist but was not baptized until we joined Epworth.  And all three of our children were both baptized and confirmed there.  We were blessed by a congregation that took their baptismal and membership vows seriously and they truly surrounded us with a community of faith that loved us and helped us grow as disciples.  And it was at Epworth, that I was finally able to say yes to a call on my life that went back to my confirmation at age 10 and in 1999 I was licensed as a pastor and in 2006 I was ordained an elder in the North Alabama Conference.

Prior to being licensed, I had worked as a management analyst with the Army Material Command Management Engineering Activity and as a logistic analyst and an Experiment Operations Engineer for McDonnell Douglas Space Systems.  I also spent a number of years as a stay-at-home mom.  I have a BS in Industrial Management from Auburn, an MBA in logistics from Alabama A&M, and a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt University.  I’m currently about half way through the work toward a Doctorate of Ministry in Gospel and the Culture from Columbia Theological Seminary. 

Since entering the ministry, I have served McDonnell Chapel, Huntsville Korean, Epworth, Trinity and New Life congregations.  I served on the Bishop’s Cabinet for the past six years:  a year and a half as the Associate Superintendent of the Northeast District and for the past four and a half years as the Superintendent of the Cheaha District. 

So that’s my basic biographical information, but that is probably not the most important thing you want to know about me!  I suspect you want to know what kind of leader and preacher I am.  You probably want to know how committed I am to God and to the church. You probably want to know what kind of pastor and teacher I am.  And I plan to spend this summer giving you time to get to know me better and for me to get to know you.

But first, let me share a few things that I have written and preached that may give you a glimpse into the answers to those important questions.  I used to blog regularly (and hope to begin again soon).  Due to my workload as a superintendent, I have not kept up with my blog during the last five years.  However, a couple of older blog posts that can give you a glimpse into my heart for ministry can be found at:
You can also find some of my sermons at:

I also realize that many of you, especially those who attend the Bread for the Journey service, are concerned about who will follow Chris, who has been greatly loved and effective, and who will preach the Bread service.  I understand, I have been concerned as well.  Like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, I have often wanted to be two places at once, I haven’t found a way to do so (and Craig even bought me a Timeturner this past Christmas!)  Therefore, I intend to split my time 50/50 between the 10:30 Traditional Service and the Bread Service.   And because I feel that it is extremely important that we find the right person to work on the preaching team, I will take the summer to pray and look for the right associate for Aldersgate!  But don't worry, I have some awesome friends, who also happen to be awesome preachers, who will help me out this summer so that no service will be neglected and we can make the best decision for the long haul! 

So what excites me about Aldersgate?  Where do I start?  Not only do you have a great staff, you have a tremendous staff, but you also have strong lay leadership! And I am looking forward to working with them!  I’m extremely excited to be a part of a congregation that is truly being the hands and feet of Christ by going to those in need and feeding them. I can’t wait to help serve at Picnic in the Park!  I’m excited to see the renovations to the building, which will allow for us to provide radical hospitality to those who visit Aldersgate. And I’m excited to be a part of a congregation that gives sacrificially to make that happen!  And it’s always a blessing to follow a wonderful leader like Bill Etheridge!

This week, I will be at Annual Conference, which is being held here in Huntsville. Everyone is invited to join us, so I encourage you to come by the North Hall of the VBC and see the Conference in action.  Also, feel free to come by and meet me. I serve as the Parliamentarian so you’ll be able to find me on the stage with the Bishop and I’ll be glad to meet you during the breaks!

My prayers are with you during this transition!

God Bless,

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Practicing Itineracy

An open letter to the pastors of the Cheaha District:

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.  Philippians 1:3-6

On Thursday of our first round of appointments, I shared a devotional with the Cabinet based on Genesis 12 in which I reflected on how the itineracy was amazingly countercultural.  I suspect many of you have read and can quote the articles that say otherwise.  There are many who believe that in our highly mobile culture that staying in one place and committing ourselves to a particular community is more necessary and countercultural than pastors moving from one place to another.  And I do agree that we need more people to commit to communities.  We need more congregations—clergy and lay alike—to fall in love with their communities to the point that their hearts break enough to commit themselves to working to transform those communities.   But what I think makes itineracy very countercultural is the willingness to go or stay at someone else’s command!

In Genesis 12, we read about Abram setting out from his home and traveling by stages to the land God promised.  And as you may remember, it was a long, strange trip that took him not only to Palestine but even to Egypt.  Yet through it all, even when the trip seemed to take him further away from the promise, he kept going where God sent him because, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, he believed in a promise-keeping God.  Itineracy requires faith like Abram’s, the faith to go God only knows where, for God only knows how long, to do God only knows what! 

In other words, itineracy is a spiritual discipline!  What’s more, it is a discipline that all Christians, not just Methodist preachers, are called to practice.  Itineracy is moving by stages with God to the edge of what we know and understand . . . then taking the next step.  Taking the next step even when we don’t know exactly where we are going or why. Taking the next step even when we have doubts.  But taking the next step because we believe God has called us to do so!

Of course, I really didn’t expect the Bishop and Cabinet to ask me to practice what I preached so quickly, but they did!

Many of you have probably already read through the list of appointments. If so, you know that I will be moving this June to serve as the senior pastor of Aldersgate UMC in Huntsville and Clinton Hubbard will be your next District Superintendent.    My heart has always been with the local church and I look forward to being a pastor and preacher to a local congregation again.   I also look forward to living in the same house with my husband.  (I hear marriages work best that way!)  But this is a very bittersweet moment for me because I have grown to love the pastors and churches of the Cheaha District!

It has been an honor to be your superintendent!  I have been so blessed to work with pastors who love their congregations, their communities and their God like the pastors of the Cheaha District!  In our rapidly changing culture and with the economic and cultural challenges surrounding you, the pastors of the Cheaha District are putting all of their heart, their minds, their souls and their strengths into finding ways of transforming churches and communities.  And while I realize you still have a long way to go, you have begun to make headway.  Over the last few years, Cheaha has been one of the few Districts to grow—much of that thanks to the phenomenal Spirit-driven growth of The Gathering Place.  But last year, throughout the District in both small and large congregations, we saw an increase in professions of faith and baptisms!!  And God’s not through working in and through you yet!

At the risk of sounding like an Academy award winner, I do have a number of people to thank for their support of the work of the Cheaha District.  First, I want to thank the creative and passionate members of the District Operational Team, who even as I write this letter are working to launch eight new teams throughout the district!  I have been blessed with two exceptional superintendency chairs—first Sam Huffstuttler and then Don Neal, both of whom could be granted the title, “The Wise.”  Teresa Harris will be taking on that role beginning in June and I know that she will be a similar blessing to Clinton! Which reminds me how blessed I have been by our District Lay Leaders!  Leigh Murphy and Teresa Harris both did outstanding jobs of working to improve the connection between the district and the laity of the local congregations and now, Mike Galloway, is off to a great start in continuing their work!  I also want to thank the members of the District Conference Team, under the very able leadership of Belinda Wilson.  They are currently working on wonderful plans for the preconference meeting and the District picnic!  I am also thankful for the work of our District Pastoral Assistant, Abi Carlisle-Wilke. She does such an admirable job of leading the McClellan Cluster as well as hosting our Oxford area pastor’s coffee.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Tom Smith for all the hard work and love he put into his many years as the District Pastoral Assistant. Thanks to Rick Patsios for hosting the Birmingham area pastors coffee.  Thanks to the wonderful men and woman who serve on the District Committee on Ministry, the District Trustees, and the District Board of Church Location and Building.  And, of course, I want to thank our wonderful and amazing Administrative Assistant, Sonia Gallimore, who makes me look good by loving and serving the pastors and churches of the Cheaha District with excellence!

Finally, I want to share how excited I am about your new District Superintendent.  I’ve had the privilege of working with Clinton on the Bishop’s Operational Team over the last year and I have come to know what a capable and caring leader he is!  You will be blessed by his leadership! I want to invite all of you to join us at the Preconference Meeting to be held at Pell City First on Sunday, April 24th at 4 pm to allow me to say thank you and goodbye in person and for you to meet Clinton.  We will fellowship together, sing together, pray together, hear God’s word together and celebrate communion together!  In addition, the Superintendency Committee will be setting up some times for Clinton to be present throughout the District so people can meet and greet him.

Also, I was originally scheduled to take a renewal leave this summer.  Since this will not be possible with a new appointment, the Bishop has granted me the opportunity to take the leave this spring. So I will be on leave April 27th-May 30th and June 12th-25th.  During those times, I have asked Bob Alford and Clinton Hubbard to be on call for me.  If you need a DS during that period, please call Sonia and she’ll get in touch with one of them to assist you.

With the exception of those times when you didn’t read your emails, or were late turning in paperwork or didn’t turn in your benchmarks on time, it has been a blessing to work with you!  Okay –so I’m sort of joking!   Please for Clinton and Sonia’s sake, take care of the business of the church!

Seriously, I have been tremendously blessed by you and by your churches!  My prayers remain with you and I ask your prayers for me!

God Bless!

Friday, October 9, 2015

So I pray . . .

I can't remember her name . . .

She was my neighbor. Her husband had a doctorate in civil engineering, but they were living next to us in student housing. They had two small brown-skinned children. And she was kind.

I remember the day she bought a couch from an Eastern Indian family that she had to leave outside the door of the apartment as she fumigated it. I remember how it boggled my mind when she shared how scared her boys were of the African-Americans in their school because their skin was darker and they were different. I remember the pen she gave me for graduation, a gift from her home country.

But what I remember most is the day she talked about leaving Afghanistan. Her husband received his doctorate from the University of Colorado and they had offered him a job. But they chose to return home to Afghanistan because they wanted to help their country. After all compared to most, they were rich. She told me they even had two sets of china. But when the Russians invaded they had to leave. So they bundled up their boys and consolidated their worldly positions into two boxes and ran. First to Europe and then, thanks to his education and usefulness, to the US. The remainder of her family were scattered across the globe. They went wherever they could safely travel and stayed wherever they could get visas.

One family scattered throughout the world.

It was at that point that this white middle-class American girl asked the stupidest question: "Will you ever return home?"

She looked at me solemnly and said simply, "No, they'd kill us."

A lot has happened since that conversation standing outside student housing at Auburn in 1982. Taliban. 9/11. Our invasion of Afghanistan.

So much has happened. And while I can't remember her name, I think of her and wonder where she is and how she is doing and what she thinks of all that has transpired. I think of her sons, who would be adults with families of their own now.

And this morning as I read Warsan Shire's powerful poem, Home, I remember the pain and the loss. And I know that I can't begin to understand the plight of refugees. And I pray that I will never have to understand. But I also ask that I never forget her pain in my desire to think this is not my problem.

So I pray . . .

Friday, January 25, 2013

Nobody . . . but nobody . . . can make it on their own . . .

I received a facebook message from someone last week, who said in light of recent news stories that I consider sharing my own experience with depression. I've shared it in a number of places and in a number of ways, but I felt this sermon was the most appropriate expression at this time. I preached it at Trinity and it was part of a sermon series on Spiritual Friends.

[Note: This sermon was preached during Lent after Katrina and while the roof was being replaced at Trinity.}

Spiritual Friends – The Need

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that [Jesus] was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, "Stand up and take your mat and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" he said to the paralytic, "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
Mark 2:1-12

Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . .

Perhaps people have always thought they could make it on their own. But somehow I think the idea seems like a pretty modern concept. In years gone by, people had to rely on one another. If you wanted a barn built, you didn’t have a contractor to call. Instead you called your neighbors and you built it together. When there was a death in the family, you didn’t have a professional funeral home down the street. Your friends and family came to you and they not only brought food and solace, but they helped prepare the body, welcome the guests and even dig the grave. If you were cold, you invited your friends over and made a quilt.

Until very recently, the majority of humans knew instinctively that nobody but nobody can make it out here alone. In fact, sociologists tell us that the fact that we needed each other to survive is why societies were created in the first place. Without self-help books, counselors, sociologists or public service ads, people knew that they had to rely on each other to ensure that they had the very basics of life: food, shelter, security, and even spiritual strength.

Only in the last few hundred years as we became more and more specialized and trades became more and more professionalized did we begin to get this odd notion that we could make it on our own. As we began to be able to earn money to hire professionals to build our houses, raise our crops, teach our children, and even pray our prayers, we began to feel that we were self-made men and women. And what makes that so very strange is that in many ways we are more dependent on others than we have ever been in the history of humankind. We think we are independent but let the grocery stores close, the electricity go out, the hospital lock its doors, or a fire engulf our home and we find out just how much we have to rely on others.

We saw this need in action after Katrina and we have seen it this week as people reach out to the people in Enterprise who have lost their homes and their loved ones.

Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . .

Our need to rely on each other is no less true for our spiritual life than it is for any other aspect of our lives. In order to be fully who God created us to be, we need community. We need spiritual friends. We need folks to journey with us, to study with us, to pray with and for us. We need each other.

I mentioned on Ash Wednesday that many of us think that the Bible says that “God helps those who help themselves,” but you won’t find that anywhere in the Bible. The quote is actually from Aesop’s fables and is more appropriately stated, “The gods help those who help themselves.” And as wise as Aesop may have been, he wasn’t a Jew or a Christian and those words are, in fact, unbiblical and wrong.

The Bible is clear! From the beginning, God created us to help one another.
Remember Genesis and the creation of Adam? From nothing God created a paradise. And God looked over everything—the glistening rivers, the blooming flowers, the peaceful dogs and mooing cows—and God said it was good. But then he saw Adam standing alone in the midst of all that beauty and God said, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So God created another human, Eve, and then and only then did God say that it was very good.

If you think about it, it makes sense that God could not conceive of a world without community. After all, God himself has always existed in community. The idea of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three yet one—is a very difficult concept to teach and yet at its core is a very simple idea that God has never been alone. From the beginning—before our beginning, God existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a cooperative creative relationship. I suspect before Jesus hung on the cross, God had no idea what it meant to be alone. When we say we are created in God’s image, we are reminded that we are created to exist in community with one another.

So God created us to be in community with one another. In fact, we are most truly human when we are in relationship with one another. I believe that is why God created marriage and families and societies and the church! We were created as social beings who need the support and care of others.

Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . . Not even Jesus!

The first thing Jesus did when he started his ministry was to call disciples. Now I suppose that some would say that Jesus didn’t need his disciples, but if you spend any time at all reading the gospels it is hard not to notice all the people that Jesus depended upon in order to fulfill his mission. He trained the disciples to continue his teaching and his actions after he was gone. Then there were the women who provided for him out of their resources-who apparently cooked and cleaned for him as well as bankrolled his three year ministry. Then there were some folks who apparently were simply friends—Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. One of the most touching stories in the bible to me is Jesus’ visit to his friends in Bethany before his final entry into Jerusalem. A few moments with friends to give him the strength to do what needed to done. Even Jesus needed spiritual friends!
And nowhere in the entire bible does the power of spiritual friendship show so strongly as in our gospel lesson today.

Actually, this is one of those Bible stories that our bishop says are “thick.” These twelve verses have much to teach us about sin, about forgiveness, about the mission of Jesus, and about healing. We could preach a different sermon every week for a long time before we exhausted all the meaning in this passage. But today, I want us to concentrate on a less mentioned aspect of this story—the importance and power of spiritual friends.

We really don’t know much about the paralyzed man except the obvious. We don’t know what paralyzed him. We don’t know what his life was like before this encounter with Jesus and we don’t know what his life was like after this encounter. But I suspect that despite his physical condition and despite his need for forgiveness, he must have been a very special man. I believe this because he had a group of really special friends!

Look at what they did for him! Hearing the word that Jesus, who was known to perform some really great miracles, was in town, his friends went and to great lengths to take him to Jesus. Some carried him. Others simply came with him.

And when they got to the house, they couldn’t get anywhere near Jesus. In fact, they couldn’t even see Jesus for the crowds surrounding the house. At this point, many folks might have given up and said, “Sorry, friend, it looks like this is not the day for a miracle,” these people did not give up. Instead they did a very odd thing; they climbed to the top of the roof, made a hole and lowered him down into the room where Jesus was teaching.

Can you imagine how odd it must have looked? Archeologists tell us that the homes in those days had flat roofs made of mud. On really hot nights, people would climb a ladder on the side on their home and sleep under the stars. So what the friends must have done was somehow climb up the ladder and then haul their friend up to the top of the roof on his pallet—all while the crowds must have looked on laughing. Then once they got him on top of the roof, they began to dig into the roof to create a hole large enough for him to fit through. And then they lowered him into the presence of Jesus.

Can you imagine what Jesus and his friends must have thought as they heard the thumping of feet above them and then began to feel bits of mud falling down upon them? We’ve been somewhat roof obsessed around here for the past two years. Can you just imagine how Peter must have felt as he watched his roof get demolished?!

All in all, it must have been quite a sight. If the crowds didn’t know anything about the paralyzed man, they must have wondered about what kind of man would inspire his friends to go to such lengths. They were persistent. They were courageous. And they must have really really believed that Jesus could help their friend.

And as the man was lowered into Jesus presence, Mark tells us that Jesus saw their faith and Jesus said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” and later “Take up your mat and go home.”

Jesus saw their faith.

We don’t really know much about the faith of the paralyzed man. Some scholars think that when Jesus referred to their faith, he meant the paralyzed man. Other scholars dispute that claim. In either case, one thing is for sure, the faith of the paralyzed man’s friends was instrumental in his spiritual and physical healing.

You see—nobody can make it out here on their own!

We need each other. We not only need a large community of faith to support us but we need close spiritual friends who pray for us, challenge us, and walk with us in our journey of faith. We need friends that we trust enough that we can honestly admit the sins we struggle with, the questions that we have about God, the moments that we feel closest to God and the moments we feel farthest away. We need spiritual friends who can listen to the stories of our lives and point to us the places that God was at work even when we couldn’t see it.

And sometimes we simply need spiritual friends to have faith for us when our faith is weakest, to pray for us when we can’t find the words, to believe for us when we doubt. We need spiritual friends who will carry us in to the presence of Christ even when we are unable to find our way to Christ ourselves!

It took me over thirty years to learn this lesson. For the vast majority of my life, I thought I was suppose to be on a spiritual journey all my own. Sure, I knew I was supposed to go to church and worship. But I guess I thought of church as the place where we all came together on our individual journeys—sort of like the shelters on the Appalachian Trail where hikers meet other hikers when the weather is bad or they are in need of shower and then leave the shelter to continue on their individual and unique journeys.

Then in the middle of my thirtieth decade of life, I learned that nobody—not even me—could make it out here on their own. And being hard-headed, I had to learn the lesson the hard way.

The doctors call it depression. And we suspect I had been slowly falling deeper and deeper into it all my life. And when I hit rock bottom, I truly felt paralyzed. I couldn’t pray—well I prayed but I was sure that my prayers hit the ceiling and fell back down. I couldn’t believe. I considered leaving church because I wasn’t sure I believed anymore in a God who acted on our behalf. I didn’t feel like I was a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend. I felt useless. And as awful as it sounds, my wish was that I would go to sleep one night and not wake up.

But I was blessed with some wonderful friends. They prayed for me. They supported me. They let me cry on their shoulders. They listened as I told them my doubts about God. And when I could not see God in my life, they kept assuring me that God was there even if I couldn’t see or feel him.

They lifted me as I lay paralyzed by doubt and fear and they lowered me into the presence of Christ and I was healed. To this day, I am sure that my healing was the result, not of my faith, but of God seeing the faith of my friends!

It was a hard lesson but an important one. And while I learned that I couldn’t make it out here alone, that was okay because I also learned that I didn’t have to make it on my own.

Since then spiritual friendships are an important part of my faith journey. Just this past Friday, I drove to Decatur to meet a spiritual friend who had driven down from Nashville. We studied together, prayed for each other, and supported each other through seminary, our first churches, her brother’s suicide, and so much more. And we continue to pray and support each other. She is the one person I can count on to ask me regularly “How is your soul?” And because she claims I tend to overwork and then neglect my spiritual disciplines, she says she keeps a board to knock me about the head when I get so busy doing that I don’t stop to spend time with God. And she is only one of many spiritual friends that God has blessed me with.

The truth is that God helps those who help each other. He created us to help each other, to challenge each other, to pray for each other. And so while it may sound like bad news to hear the hard truth that none of us can make it on our own, the good news is that we don’t have to make it on our own. We aren’t even supposed to be able to make it on our own. We were created with the need for spiritual friendships and our lives are most abundant when we live in close relationship with spiritual friends who pray, encourage, challenge and support us.

We are now in the season of Lent, when we prepare our hearts to experience the joy of Easter. And we often think of this as a solitary time. But Lent was originally a time of preparation for baptism when believers came together to prepare to make a commitment to Christ. In other words, Lent was originally a time in which spiritual friendships were made and nurtured. So I want to invite you to make a Lenten commitment to be here for the next three week as Charles shares some specific ways you can find and nurture spiritual friendships so that you will grow closer to Christ.

You see . . .Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone . . .but thanks be to God we don’t have to!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bringing Tidings of Comfort and Joy

(This is an old sermon from my Vanderbilt and Epworth days, but it seemed appropriate to share it again.)

40Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. Isaiah 40:1-11

Christmas time is here. Christmas decorations have been hanging throughout the mall every since Halloween. The trees are up in our homes. And everywhere we go—the mall, the car, the elevator, the grocery story—Christmas music envelopes us. And everyone it seems, even those of us in the South who know little of snow, dream along with Bing Crosby of a white Christmas just like the ones we used to know.

On National Public Radio, a few weeks ago, they had a special report on the enduring popularity of the song White Christmas. The song first became a hit during World War II because it reminded soldiers of the comfort of home. Even soldiers who had never experienced a white Christmas could relate to the longing expressed in the song to be back home in the arms of family and friends celebrating a merry, bright, white Christmas.

And while many, many artists—including Elvis—have recorded White Christmas, we really associate the song with only one voice—Bing Crosby—who sang it with such a melancholy longing. He sang it like a man who might be near despair but has yet to give up hope so that soldiers living in the midst of the hell of war cold relate to the longing for something that seemed somehow out of their reach while holding tight to the hope that they might yet experience comfort and joy again.

So perhaps it is fitting to realize that the song that seems to encapsulate the meaning of Christmas for Americans was written by Irving Berlin, a poor Jewish Russian immigrant. The words are all the more poignant when we think of Irving Berlin writing about Christmas as an outsider looking into one those glass balls that you shake and the snow falls on the perfect American home. And despite the fact, that we revere Irving Berlin for being the composer of White Christmas and God Bless America and despite his great popularity and wealth, Irving Berlin became known as the “Howard Hughes of the music Industry” and died at age 101 still feeling very much like an outsider.

In the movie, Citizen Kane, Orson Wells also dreamed of a White Christmas. Throughout the movie, the main character, Charles Foster Kane, played by Hughes, would continually look at a glass ball with a beautiful snow scene and remember his childhood and dream of a simpler and happier time in his life.

Irving Berlin stood outside the dream of Christmas as an outsider, an immigrant, and a religious minority. Charles Foster Kane stood outside the dream of Christmas because the more he had filled his life with money, things, and women, the less room he had for the things that truly mattered. And some people stand outside the dream because no one has ever told them that Christmas can be more than snow, shopping malls, dinner parties, and a mad rush to get things done.

In the book, Life After God, Douglas Copeland shares how his baby boomer parents had avoided anything to do with religion and had raised him with no religious beliefs. So when he found himself in the midst of the desert of life, he had nothing to give him hope or to help him cope. He said, “For me there was nothing—not even the seed of a religious experience to grow from—and I found that I had to build (and continue to) try to build some sort of faith for myself using the components taken from disposable West Coast suburban culture. Malls and nature and fast food places.”

In his essay, 1,000 Years, he tells of the time he embarked on his own search for a “white Christmas.” And how one he found himself day riding in his four-wheel drive vehicle and had to admit, “My secret is that I need God—that I’m sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give because I no longer seem capable of giving; too help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

All too many folks stand outside staring into a cold glass globe and despairing that the dream is beyond their grasp. There are homeless families living in run down hotel rooms in dangerous neighborhoods, who don’t have a tree, let alone presents to put under it. And they no longer even allow themselves to dream.

There are people who are grieving the loss of someone they love. They dread the holiday meal when they will sit at a table with that empty chair. And the dream merely reminds them of what they have lost.

There are people in the midst of divorce or estranged from those they love, who feel like the dream is beyond them because they no longer have the perfect Christian family. The dream taunts them rather than comforts them.

And then there are people who have experienced so much betrayal and disappointment in their lives that their only dreams are nightmares full of pain and so they can’t even dream of hope anymore.

And it is for the sake of these lonely, despairing people, that the word of the Lord comes to us saying, “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for. . . .Go up on a high mountain, You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, . . . say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

In this passage from the book of Isaiah, the word of the Lord comes through the prophet to the people of Israel at a time when they were beginning to lose hope. They were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and they were finding it hard to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land. They dreamed of returning, but the dream was growing dim. Yet just as their hope begin to die, the word of the Lord came to them and it was a word of comfort and of joy. Despite their sinfulness and despite their inconsistency, God forgave them and God provided a way for them to return home.

But before they could return home, the road had to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. And the purpose of this season that we call Advent is to remind us as God’s called out people that it is our job to prepare the way for the Lord.
How do we prepare the way for the Lord?

We only need to look outside the doors of this church to see that preparing a road is not an easy job. We’ve felt the booms and saw the falling rock as the construction workers blasted away leveling the hills. We’ve watched as rock has been placed in the valleys to build them up and as dirt has been spread to make a level road bed. They’ve been working for how long now? Two years and they still seem to have a long way to go.

So it is for us the church. We are called to help prepare the way for the Lord and the prophet makes it clear it won’t be an easy job. There are mountains of troubles to be brought low and there are valleys of despair that need to be filled. The rough spots of people’s lives have to be smoothed out and in order to do that we have to be willing to go where there the hurting people are to be found—in the wilderness!

In book, Hope For the World, theologians and pastors from all over the world sound the continual refrain that the church must rethink what we mean by the word mission. And they suggest that the rule for Christian churches for the 21st century must be “In the church tell the story, in the world live the story.”

To bring comfort to a lost and hurting world, we have to do a whole lot more than erect nativity scenes on court house squares or say prayers in school. Telling the story is important and we should never cease to tell the world what we believe, but the best way to tell our story is to live as if we believe the story is true. And if it is true that the God whose way we are preparing is the sovereign Lord whose mighty power is revealed in tender care for the flock and who gathers lambs into his arms and gently leads us, then as God’s people we need to tenderly care for the lost and the hurting and gently lead them back to God.

Now, we aren’t talking cold comfort here. We aren’t talking about feeling sorry for folks from a distance. We aren’t talking about writing a check and sending it to needy folks far far away. We aren’t talking about the kind of comfort that comes with strings attached. We are talking about gentle, warm, comfort that is given simply because the giver loves.

You’ve experienced that kind of comfort. Remember what it felt like to held safely in the arms of someone who loves you. Or what it felt like on that cold, gloomy day when you were handed a warm cup of your favorite homemade soup loving made especially for you.

And remember the transformation of the pitiful Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special when Linus took his blanket and wrapped it around that poor Christmas tree and suddenly the tree takes on a kind of dignity simply because someone loved it and treated it with respect. Remember the first time you truly heard the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven” and believed them.

No, we aren’t talking about the kind of cold comfort that we send from a distance. We are talking about the warm, living comfort that comes from a presence in the midst of the pain and despair. We are talking about the comfort that comes from a hand reaching out to pick you up when you have fallen, to lead you when you are lost, to hug you when you feel unlovable.

But in order for the church to provide that kind of comfort, we have to empty our mind of our own plans and dreams so that God can plant God’s plans and dreams in our hearts and minds. We have to be willing to empty our hands of the fruits of our own success so that we can reach out and touch those who need comforting. Then we have to be willing to go out in the wilderness of our lost and hurting world and be God’s heralds by declaring tidings of comfort and joy.

Simply put, comfort is the work of God’s church. And while we may call this a worship service, the real service begins the moment we walk out those doors and back into the world. Here in this place and this time, we tell the story. We tell it in music, in liturgy, and in words, but out there we truly worship and serve God by shouting God’s story through our actions on behalf of the world God so loves.

You can shout the good news by taking time to listen to those who are grieving. Let them tell you their stories. Invite them to celebrate the holidays with you and your family. Give them a Christmas hug.

You can shout the good news by visiting the sick and the lonely. Spend 30 minutes in a nursing home hearing the stories of Christmases past. Hold the hand of someone who is sick or dying. Quit worrying about having the right words to say. Just be present for someone who needs to know someone cares.

You can shout the good news by treating everyone with dignity due a beloved child of God. Be patient with that overworked and overwhelmed department store cashier that can’t seem to do anything right. Let that that harried young mom whose grocery cart is full of food and kids get in the grocery line ahead of you. Give food, clothing and toys to the poor but due it out of a sense of love rather than of obligation. Vote, write letters, and work for the institutions of public policies that bring both comfort and dignity to those on the margins of our society.

You can shout the good news by working with other communities of faith to end hunger, to educate the poor, to rehabilitate criminals, and to protect the environment.

You can shout the good news by praying for and with those who do not have a community of faith and then live as if you believe those prayers will come true.

Irving Berlin made his last public appearance in 1968 and then retreated to his home. But in the late 1970’s a group of his fans began a ritual of going to his home on Christmas and serenading him with their rendition of White Christmas. The maid invited them in and served them hot cocoa. Irving Berlin entered the kitchen in his pajamas hugged all the men and kissed all the women and told them that their singing was the loveliest Christmas present he had ever received. That night, those fans brought not cold comfort but a warm presence and that proclaims comfort much louder than any words ever could.

Let us also go now into God’s world, not to bring cold comfort but to be a warm presence, as we proclaim tidings of Comfort and Joy to a world that may not have truly heard the good news.

1 Quoted by Leonard Sweet in his sermon Don’t Keep the Faith—Share It!, Preaching Plus,
2 Brueggemann, Walter, ed., Hope For the World: Mission in a Global Context (Westminister John Knox Press, 2001), pg. 19