A Christmas Message

“The Light of the World”

Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

Monmouth College Christmas Convocation 2011

On December 3, 1933, the year Hitler rose to power in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon using the image of a mine that had caved in, trapping those working inside, in order to describe the season of Advent.  He said Advent was like that dark cave in which the miners were trapped.  There is silence all around them and the miners have little hope of being saved.  But then suddenly they hear the sound of tapping, and then the breaking of rock off in the distance.  And even more unexpectedly a voice cries out to them in all that darkness that says, “Don’t give up!  Help is on the way!”  As the air grows thin around them they wonder if their Savior really will come.  They wonder if they will ever know anything else but the darkness that presses down on them like a thick, wet blanket.  And all they can do is listen intently to the tap, tap, tapping of their Savior trying to break through to them.  Such is the season of Advent.

But on Christmas, the light breaks through.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

On Christmas, we celebrate the light that has broken through our darkness; the light that penetrates the dark caves of our souls; the light that brings us hope and peace because with this light comes the reassurance that our Savior has arrived; our Savior who is the Light of the World.

“Do not be afraid,” the angels announce, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  It is important to note that The Light has not just come for a few.  The Light has not just come for those of generations past.  The Light has come for all the people. The Light of the World knows no boundaries, it knows no exclusivity, it knows no prejudice.  The Light of the World is for all the people.  And to “all the people” the Light promises big things.  The light promises to break through our darkness, it promises to transform our lives and our world, it promises to bring us peace.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.”

Too often, we Christians devalue the scripture’s understanding of “peace” by spiritualizing it or by saying that it only has to do with a feeling of inner comfort or inner calm. We reduce the biblical understanding of peace to something like a stress ball or a worry doll that we keep on our desks; when the stress of final exams overwhelms us we can aggressively mush and mash our ball of peace to make ourselves feel a little better and get on with our work.  But this understanding of peace doesn’t delve deep enough, it doesn’t come close to what the Light of the World truly promises.  This understanding of peace doesn’t come close because it doesn’t touch the darkest darkness of all the people and of our lives together here on God’s good earth.

Peace, true biblical peace, is the end of violence and of all that leads us to it.  Peace is harmony and goodwill and shalom.  Peace is love and respect.  Peace is a commitment to the well-being of the other.  Peace is the moment when, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.”  This, this peace, is what the Light of the World promises us.  The Light promises us big things.

Some say too big.  Reinhold Niebuhr, a public theologian, rose to national prominence during World War II as he debated the merits of the Christian understanding of peace in the midst of a violent and horrific world war.  Niebuhr concluded that the law of love and the biblical understanding of peace was “finally and ultimately normative” but that it was an “impossible possibility” in a sinful world.[1]  Many agreed with Niebuhr.  His words resonated with people whose faith led them to hope for the possibility of peace, but who believed, realistically speaking, that peace was simply impossible.  Today, as our troops still fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, as Israel and Palestine continue in conflict, as warring tribes in Africa still wreak havoc on the land and on the people, as evidence of our violence and our evil against each other still make the daily news, we too might agree that peace is the impossible possibility.

Yet….maybe we can still find some reason to hope.  A few years ago I heard an author interviewed on a book he wrote about the story of the World War I Christmas Truce.  No one has ever been certain as to how the Christmas Truce of World War I began on December 24th of 1914.  The day had begun just as every other miserable day.  The British, French, Belgian, and German troops were only 60 yards from each other in their trenches.  They could see each other and hear each other.

The conditions these soldiers were living in were miserable.  Cold rain had flooded the trenches mixed with the bodies of their fallen comrades.  Rats, lice, filth and mud had made the floor of the trench so swampy that it forced the soldiers to move constantly and sleep standing up, leaning against dripping walls.  It was this stomach–churning atmosphere that both sides shared that Christmas.  It was this atmosphere of war and suffering that made the soldiers seek a time of respite, a time of peace on Christmas Eve.

The Germans had been sent Christmas trees from their supporters at home.  They bravely lined their trench with these trees and lit the candles clamped to their branches.  The British witnessing this Christmas declaration responded by sending gifts of pudding, chocolates, and cigarettes to the Germans.  Christmas carols began to float through the air that had suddenly become cold and clear and the soldiers learned that they knew the same songs.  We’re not sure who crawled out of their trench first, but eventually both sides met in the middle, in the space between them called “No Man’s Land.” Here they encountered so many bodies that they decided they could not be friends until their fallen comrades had been buried.  So the cease-fire continued as the bodies were buried and the dead were mourned.  Then the enemies returned to “No Man’s Land” and decided to play soccer.

For two whole days they played soccer in that place of death between their trenches.  For two whole days they fraternized with the enemy, at the risk of being court-marshaled.  And in this place and time, the soldiers realized that on each side of the rifle, they were the same.  As the power of peace grew among them, they exchanged addresses and letters and expressed deep admiration for one another.  So when angry officers finally ordered the men to start shooting again, many could not do so.  The enemy now had a face, and a family, and a story.  They could no longer demonize the enemy, so they aimed their guns harmlessly high overhead, shooting into the air.  Eventually the troops on the front lines had to be replaced.  They had to be replaced by men who hadn’t witnessed the miracle of that cold Christmas Eve in 1914.[2]

This is one of the most amazing Christmas stories I have ever heard.  It’s exactly the kind of story I want to hear at Christmas because it gives me hope and I want to feel hope, especially at Christmas.  But as I considered this story and as I considered what I wanted to preach today I wondered if I was just being nostalgic in this hope?  Was I ignoring reality?  Was I reducing the promise of peace to a once-a-year sentiment just to make me feel good at Christmas?  Because it was true that after the miraculous Christmas truce of December 24th, 1914, World War I raged on for four more years and three more Christmas’.

So, is there reason to hope?  Is peace possible for you, and for me, and for all the people?

Well, I think I was finally convinced that my hope was more than mere sentiment or nostalgia by my husband, Dan, in a paper he recently wrote about peace.  In Dan’s paper he listed a number of successful nonviolent movements in the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st through which peace was not only possible, but made a reality.

Dan’s list included:

  • Mkhuseli Jack’s nonviolent movement in South Africa that finalized the end of Apartheid.
  • Peaceful protests and strikes led by Chilean workers that were successful in ousting the ruthless tyrant, Agusto Pinochet.
  • The work of Otpor!, a nonviolent youth movement in Serbia that was credited in the successful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic.
  • The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, which brought an end to civil war.
  • The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a nonviolent movement that challenged government corruption and electoral fraud.
  • And, of course, the recent Arab Spring, within which nonviolent groups like the April 6 Youth Movement had a leading role in the dramatic and transformative events that took place in Tahrir Square, Cairo.[3]

Certainly, Dan’s list is not exhaustive.  And of course, when we speak of successful nonviolent movements for peace we also must recall the classic examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  But might it be, in light of this evidence, that peace is possible, genuine peace, if we believe it to be so and if we live and work toward that end?

Bonhoeffer’s image of the miners trapped in the cave is a good one.  The darkness of our world often feels like that cave, like a hopeless dark trap from which we believe there is no escape.  But listen…listen….can you hear it?  Can you hear the tap, tap, tapping of the Light trying to break through?  It’s getting louder now; loud enough now for us to know a little hope; loud enough now for us to hear the voice of our salvation; loud enough now for us to believe.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Now to the God who promises this Peace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.





[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” as reprinted in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, ed. Larry Rasmussen, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 241 as quoted by Daniel J. Ott in “Toward a Realistic, Public, Christian Pacifism,” unpublished.

[2] Stanley Weintraub, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce,” (The Free Press, New York, NY, 2001).

[3] Daniel J. Ott, “Toward a Realistic, Public, Christian Pacifism,” unpublished.

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Why is faith so difficult?

I am writing a sermon on Matthew 14: 22-33, the passage wherein Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water with him…in the midst of a storm.  Peter has always seemed to me to be the naïve, overeager, overachiever type.  He’s like the kid who sits in the front of the classroom and raises his hand, hops up and down in his seat, and shouts, “Me! Me! Pick me!” to every question the teacher asks.  Peter is far from perfect, but he wants so badly to be perfect, he wants so badly to please Jesus and to prove his faith. So when Jesus approaches the disciples’ boat, walking on the water, overeager Peter thinks he should walk on the water too.  So he asks Jesus to command him to come to him.

Even if you don’t know the story you can see where it is headed.  Jesus invites Peter to step out of the boat. Peter gets out, takes a few shaky steps on the water, then panics because the wind, and the storm, and the waves are still raging around him.  Peter sinks.  Jesus has to save him.  Then they both get in the boat and the storm, miraculously, ceases to rage.  This is the point where I imagine Peter, wet and water-logged, traumatized by his near drowning, and humiliated for being told he had so “little faith,” is thinking to himself, “Okay, Jesus.  Couldn’t you have made this a little easier?  Couldn’t you have made the storm cease before I stepped out of the boat?”

Have you ever found yourself asking this question?  Why is faith so difficult?  Why does Jesus call his followers out of the safety and security of the boat into the middle of a storm?  Why does faith require so much courage, and effort, and strength of will?  Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?

But faith isn’t easy.  By its very nature, faith isn’t easy.  Faith is not something that we can rationalize, or explain, or even obtain with any measure of success.  If we were to attempt to explain it we might talk about reaching for the unreachable, finite hands grasping for that which is infinite.  Faith is the bridge that is built between stark dichotomies; it is hope in the face of despair; it is love in the face of hatred; it is peace in the face of violence; it is beauty in the face of ugliness; it is justice in the face of injustice; it is courage in the face of fear.  Faith is a dynamic, spirited force that moves us from the place where we are to the place where we ought to be.

Which is why it is so difficult.  Faith is supposed to move us.  Faith is supposed to change us.  Faith is supposed to better us and open us, deepen us and mature us. And that journey isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s the most difficult, most intimidating, most risk-filled journey we will ever take because it means consistently stepping out of the safety of the boat into the wind and the waves and the storm.

Theologian Paul Tillich describes faith as “dynamic.”  If faith becomes static, if it fails to move us, open us, deepen us, better us, then it is no longer faith.  Instead it is an idol; it is simply another idol that we put up on the mantle to worship but with which we don’t actually do anything.

Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?  Thanks be to God the answer is “No.”





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Come Up To Me

Junior Sarah Miller played the organ beautifully during chapel service today.  It was thrilling to hear our music fill the whole chapel.  What follows is my meditation on Exodus 24: 12-18.

“Come Up To Me”

Exodus 24:12-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 28th, 2011—MC Chapel Service

Have you noticed how people are always climbing mountains in search of God?

In today’s text Moses is in need of instruction, he is in need of the law on stone tablets, and, I imagine, he is in need of reassurance that God is still with him as he leads his people on an excruciatingly long exodus through the desert.

Elijah, in a moment of great despair and desperation, climbs a mountain in 1 Kings and experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.[1]

Jesus takes his disciples and climbs a mountain in this Sunday’s Transfiguration text where the glory of the Lord shines around them and God’s voice is heard from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”[2]

According to Judaic tradition, the Temple or synagogue was always built at the highest point in the city so when the people went to worship they had to go up, they had to climb the mountain, singing their songs of ascent as they went.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is a tradition that continues today and draws together many religious traditions.  It’s a theme that is evident in literature (remember Tolstoy’s story from last week where the emperor climbed the mountain in search of the enlightened old hermit.)  It’s a theme evident around the world…I was struck on a trip to Austria how every mountaintop was adorned with a large cross.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is something people have done for centuries and still do today.  And all of this is rooted in an ancient Near Eastern belief that the mountain is the pillar of the earth, holding the earth and heavens in place.[3] So in order to experience God you climbed the mountain.

After graduating from seminary, a friend of mine and I took three weeks to go backpacking through Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.  Austria is one of my favorite places in the world and I was bound and determined to climb some of those beautiful mountains while we were there.  I believe we were in Innsbruck, Austria when we tackled our first mountain.  The trail was well cut and we set out with confidence.  But, after a couple of hours of hiking, my feet hurt, my back was aching, and we weren’t even close to reaching the summit.  We made it, eventually, and it was beautiful at the top of that mountain.  I still treasure the pictures I took from there.  But that night for dinner all I could eat was Ibuprofen as I lay in bed moaning because my body was so sore and hurt so bad.

Climbing mountains is hard work!  And it’s important for us to recognize this as we consider this theme of climbing mountains in search of God.

I am a pretty big believer in the idea that experiencing God doesn’t just happen.  It takes some work on our part.  Sure, we might have the rare experience of God that just happens spontaneously, but most of the time we need to be pretty intentional in preparing our hearts, in opening our minds, in being attentive to the movement of the Spirit, in order to truly experience God.  Climbing the mountain is a good and helpful metaphor, then, because it reminds us of what is necessary, what we need to do in order to experience God.  Traditionally, as the people of God climbed the mountain, or as they ascended to the Temple, they were singing spiritual songs, they were praying prayers, they were opening themselves up to receive what God wanted them to receive, they were working hard to experience God, they were working hard at worship.

When I met with our Student Chaplains for our first meeting together we talked about the hard work of worship.  I said to them that for worship to be done well it would take a lot of hard work.  It would take preparation, and prayer, and thoughtfulness, and creativity.  It would take us being open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we have to intentionally open ourselves to receive that guidance.  Worship is hard work.  And it’s not just the worship leaders who have to work hard at worship.  For worship to truly be well done, for us to truly experience God in this time and place, we all need to be prepared for some hard spiritual work.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard helpfully compared worship once to a play in a theater.  With this image in mind, Kierkegaard mourned the fact that too often worshippers come to the sanctuary imagining the minister or the worship leaders as the star actors on the stage, with the musicians or the choir as the supporting actors, and then the people in the seats as the audience.  So this is how people typically view their roles when they come to worship.  But, Kierkegaard said, this is all wrong.  Comparing worship again to a play in theater, Kierkegaard said it is the people in the seats that are on center stage, with the minister and the leaders acting as the directors, and then the audience, of course, is God.  As we worship then, we offer ourselves to God as our audience; we sing to God, we pray to God, we attend to God and to our relationship with God.  We….every single one of us….work hard as we worship God.  And if we do, if we all work hard, then worship will be well done, God will be pleased, and we (more than likely) will experience God in this place.

I have noticed that there aren’t many mountains here in Illinois.  It’s hard enough to find a good hill for sledding around here, let alone a mountain.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience God.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t go up to the Temple, singing our songs, praying our prayers, and preparing our hearts to be moved by the Spirit of God in this place.  And of course, God is eager to meet us here and to move us here, as God bids us to “Come!  Come up to me!”

Now to this God who bids us to come and worship, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19: 11-12

[2] Matthew 17: 1-9

[3] Judy Fentress-Williams, in “Exegetical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pg. 439.

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Do Not Worry

We’ve begun holding chapel services again every Monday from 12:10-12:40pm in Dahl Chapel.  In a hard-working academic community such as ours, I believe it is important to provide a moment of holy “pause,” an opportunity to catch our spiritual breath, and time each week to reflect on this journey of life and faith.  Today’s service featured some beautiful Taize music led by Dr. Dan Ott on piano, Carleigh Shannon, ’11, on flute, and Emily McClay, ’14, on cello.  All are welcome to attend these ecumenical worship services. What follows is my meditation on Matthew 6: 24-34 from today’s chapel service.

“Do Not Worry”

Matthew 6: 24-34

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 21st, 2011 – MC Chapel Service

I am the type of person who can be easily distracted.  I may be physically present somewhere (bodily present) but sometimes my mind and my attention are elsewhere.  And this, of course, has its consequences.

For instance, I may be at home with my children but in my mind I am still here at work worrying and thinking about our next chapel service, or about a prayer I am trying to write, or about a conversation that I had…only to wake up and realize that my 3-year-old son has just given himself a “haircut” with the kitchen scissors.

Or, I may be sitting somewhere playing with my Iphone, obsessively checking my email, only to wake up and realize that I was missing the most beautiful sunset.

Or, I might be at a party or a reception thinking that I really needed to talk to the person across the room, only to wake up and realize that the person I was with was actually saying something really interesting and that I was missing an opportunity to connect with her.

So I sort of constantly have these moments where I “wake-up” and realize what I am missing when I allow myself to get distracted, or when I allow worry to carry me away from the present moment.

One such “wake-up” moment in particular stands out in my mind because my daughter really got my attention.  I was at home, but I wasn’t really at home, because my mind was still here at work….when all of a sudden Ella (our 1 ½ year-old daughter) crawls into my lap, takes my face in her chubby little hands, puts her nose to my nose, and with big, wide, attentive eyes, starts saying, “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”  Well, needless to say, she definitely got my attention.

At last Friday’s “Meaning of Life” discussion in the Weeks House, Corbin Beastrom, a freshman, caught our attention by quoting a story by Leo Tolstoy.  In this story an emperor goes in search of the answer to what he felt were life’s most important questions:  What is the best time to do each thing?  Who are the most important people to work with?  What is the most important thing to do at all times?  The emperor’s search ultimately takes him to an old hermit who lives high on a mountain and who was known to be an enlightened man.  The hermit didn’t answer the emperor’s questions immediately, though, instead he asked for his help in digging a garden outside of his hut because the earth was hard and he was an old hermit.  Then, while the emperor was helping the old hermit with his garden, a man suddenly runs up to them with a life-threatening wound.  So the emperor attends to the man and his wound and saves his life.  After all of this, it is very late and the emperor decides to go home thinking that the hermit does not have the answers to his questions.  But then the hermit surprises him by saying, “But your questions have already been answered.  The most important time is now, he said.  The most important person is the person you are with.  And the most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy…for that is the pursuit of life.”[1]

I think Jesus would agree with this.  In today’s text Jesus says to us, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own…But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  In today’s text Jesus reminds us that we are alive today!  Tomorrow doesn’t even exist yet….but today….today is a gift….today is full of potential…today is full of beauty, and grace, and God.  So don’t take today for granted.  Don’t let worry carry you away from today.

I can hear Jesus now, “Don’t let worry carry you away from loving your children and being attentive to your children today.  Don’t let worry distract you from that beautiful sunset, or that bright red cardinal singing in the tree, or the feel of the earth under your feet, or the way the clouds dance across the sky.  Don’t let worry carry you away from the person sitting next to you, from the potential to touch a life with your attention, from the potential to make a new friend.  Don’t let worry seclude you so much in your own little world that you fail to recognize the plight of others…that you fail to recognize those who are poor…or those who are pushed aside…or those who are feeling unwelcome and unnoticed.”

Yes, I can hear Jesus now, and I can feel him, taking my face, your face, our faces in his hands, putting his nose to our nose, and saying, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”  You are alive today!  Today is a gift!  Do not worry!  Instead, strive for the Kingdom of God.

So…let us take a moment…this moment…to follow Jesus’ advice….to be present in this space….to notice the beauty that is here waiting for us….to notice the person sitting beside us…to hear the music that is calling to us….to notice the God who is here for us….in this moment….in this hour of worship…in this day….that we have been given as a gift to treasure and as an opportunity to realize…..

Now to the God who calls us to be fully present in this moment be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] As told by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1975), pgs. 69-75.

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Sit Lux– “Let there be light.”

People thought we were crazy when we told them we were moving from sunny, warm, North Carolina, to Monmouth, Illinois in the dead of winter.  “What’s taking you there?” people asked, naturally curious.  If the question was asked in passing, and if I didn’t know the person well, my answer was short and simple: “We have new positions at the college there.”  But for those whom we knew well, the answer was different:  “We are moving to Monmouth, Illinois because we believe it will be good.”

Now belief is not certainty.  Belief comes hand-in-hand with doubt, questions, and fears. And we certainly experienced doubt, questions, and fears as we said goodbye to people whom we loved, as we left behind all that was familiar and comfortable, and as we loaded up our two cars, our two kids, and our dog and began the long, snowy three day drive that would get us here.  But what kept us going, what kept pushing us forward through all the doubts, questions, and fears, was the belief that this move would be good.

During my first week here I took a moment to go and sit by myself in Dahl Chapel.  I chose a seat in the middle of the chapel so I could look up and take in all of the architectural beauty of that space.  Dahl Chapel is beautiful and inspiring.  As I sat there alone I found myself contemplating our move, contemplating all the new things I was learning here, contemplating all the new people I was meeting, contemplating who I wanted to be and how I wanted to serve you as your new college chaplain.  While I was contemplating all of this I looked up and noticed for the first time something that should have been obvious to me from the very moment I stepped in the chapel; a large white arch over the chancel with bold maroon letters that read, “Sit Lux.”  Let there be light.

In chapter one of the book of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth and then God said, “Let there be light.”  And God saw that the light was good.

We came here because we believe it will be good.  We came following the light that emanates from this campus, from this campus community, from the people who work here and the students who study here.  We came following the light that emanates from the opportunities that lie here…opportunities to serve and opportunities to learn and grow among you.  We came here following the light.  We came here following the good light that is already warming us…even in the dead of an Illinois winter.

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