Questions I’d ask my Liberal Christian Friends . . . if I thought I could ask them without starting a fight.

I am afraid that people will continue  to say problematic things about gays and lesbians for some time to come.  I’m not suggesting we accept that.  I would like to ask some questions about how we, or maybe how you, respond.  I have a particular angle on this.  I have been guilty of saying and thinking some of the very same problematic things.  I came to view my attitudes as sinful in High School but, it took a much longer time for me to really repent.  It’s wrong to superimpose one’s own spiritual or moral journey onto others and universalize a single person’s experience.  But my own path of confrontation, conviction, confession and repentance at least gives me hope that change is possible.  And that’s the basis of the questions I ask.

1.  Do you regard homophobia as a sin or as an evil?  I’m not sure that homophobia  is the best term to use but, it’s the one we seem to be using.  I do believe that aggression toward LGBTQ persons is such an obsession for some people that it rises to the level of evil.  I believe that what Fred Phelps and his followers do is evil.  But I think most of what we see and hear that we view as homophobia is not in fact evil.  It is sin.  Evil is a system that takes a sin or set of sins and institutionally and systematically indulges in those sins.  Evil creates mechanisms to maintain and replicate their sins.  Picketing a funeral with disgusting judgments about people is evil.  Sin is different.  We are all sinners.  I should know; I’m a chief example.  Sin is a failure to live up to the glory of God.  In this case, the sin is a failure to embrace ones whom God embraces.  It is the moral mistake of allowing one’s own prejudice to control one’s thoughts and actions rather than allowing God’s grace to guide one’s thoughts and actions. 

2.  Do you want the sin you call homophobia to be punished or transformed?  Satire is a really effective form of punishment.  Suspending people from their jobs for the views they express is a form of punishment.  Stripping people of their ordination is a form of punishment.  We live in a punitive society.  One of the ways Christians are most influenced by the world is in believing that we can benefit from and cooperate with a system of punishment.  The passage of scripture recently quoted in one person’s aggression toward gay and lesbian persons is really about this very question.  However awkwardly worded and culturally contextualized it was, Paul’s point was that as Christians we respond to sin differently than the world does.  Rather than seeing sin as an infraction of laws that ought to be punished (i.e., his discussion of lawsuits among believers 1 Corinthians 6:1-8) he believed that the faithful should work for the transformation of sinners recognizing that they also are sinners who are in the midst of transformation (1 Corinthians 6:11). 

There are certainly punitive passages in scripture but, I think the overall message of scripture is not about punishment.   The supreme law of God is love.  Love desires that those we love be set free from their sins.  An enemy is one whose sin is directed at us.  To love our enemies is to desire that they be released from that sin.  God prepares a table of welcome for us in the presence of our enemies so that we might invite our enemies to come to the table with us and there experience God’s grace and there be released from their bondage to sin. It is a misreading of scripture to assert that God desires the punishment of sinners.  The whole narrative arc of scripture is that God is about the business of reclaiming, redeeming and transforming sinners.  Thanks be to God. 

3.  Are you using the example of Christ to bludgeon or as a model for your own actions?  People who express moral aggression toward gay and lesbian persons often do so reciting some passage of scripture.  The rebuttal is often that such persons are not following the example of Christ. It’s true; they aren’t.  But if we can agree that homophobia is a sin and if we can agree that God desires the transformation of sinners rather than their punishment then we must ask how Christ responds to such sinners.  One example we have of Jesus encountering this kind of sin comes in the eighth chapter of John (John 7:57-8:11).  A group of men were in bondage to their own punitive moral judgment and came close to destroying another human life in the process.  When Jesus encountered the group of sinners he stooped down and humbly allowed his refusal to judge to provide an example for them.  One by one beginning with the elders they dropped their stones and went away.  How do we follow the example of Christ and give people the chance to walk away from their sin? Some people speak of that as an act of mercy for a woman caught in the act of adultery.  I think it was an act of mercy for a group of men caught in the sin of judgmentalism. 

This is, I believe, the very heart of the Gospel.  Jesus came and preached a message about the nature of God’s reign.  The world unleashed an aggressive rejection of Christ’s message and crucified him.  God raised Christ from the dead quietly and humbly as a way of offering the world–to offer us–a chance to rethink our aggression.  God continues to give sinners the chance to rethink aggression and choose a better path.  That is the example Christ sets for all of us.   

My Best Wedding Message Thus Far


At most weddings, I as the minister, usually feel like little more than decoration.  Don’t laugh, robed-up I make pretty good eye-candy.  I use a fairly stable wedding liturgy.  I make the same jokes at almost every rehearsal.  I usually say basically the same thing during the homily.  I have written a unique and intentional homily for a wedding maybe three or four times.  And if you’re reading this and I performed your wedding ceremony, rest assured you were one of the three or four.  This morning I was pleased to preside at the wedding of a young couple I’m fond of.  I got inspired.  This is as honest as I’ve ever tried to be in a wedding homily.  God’s blessings on them.
I’m sure the two of you have heard that 9 am really is pretty early to be getting married. A few people have asked me “what was the bride thinking getting married that early.”  I’ve been thinking, “what better way to start the day?”  Marriage is a choice you make on a daily basis.  It’s not a ceremony, it’s not a piece of paper, it’s not a set of rings, it’s not even shared last names or shared living space.  Marriage is a choice. Each morning when you wake up it’s a choice. 
The choice to be married is a choice to be intimate.  I don’t just mean physical intimacy—though that’s an important part of marriage.  I mean emotional intimacy.  There are feelings you will have that you are now meant to share with each other first.  There are some things you are meant to share only with each other.  Faithfulness in marriage depends on how well the two of you protect the intimacy you share and who well you are vulnerable with one another in those moments of intimacy.    The daily choice is the choice is the choice to maintain that connection, that exclusive connection.  In old wedding liturgies we used to use the phrase “forsaking all others.”  Which translated into everyday speech means, “James, from this day forward other than God there’s no one more important in your life than Andrea” and “Andrea, other than God there’s no one in your life more important than James.”  And the quality of your marriage will depend on how well you remember that on a daily basis.
This kind of intimacy doesn’t mean you spend every waking moment together for the rest of your lives.  Some young couples think that they are going to be glued to each other’s side 24/7 365.  For some people, that works . . . very few.  Healthy interdependence relies on mutual independence.  Each of you will need alone time.  You will need time with friends.  You will continue to nurture family ties.  You will continue to have hobbies, interests, jobs and tasks that you must do alone or with other people.  You will find as your marriage unfolds that these times away from each other can make the marriage stronger as you bring wisdom and energy from those experiences back to your time together. 
Trust is a key to those away times.  Not just that trusting the other person won’t do something stupid in your absence.  That’s not really trust just wishful thinking.  Trust is when you are able to look at each other and say—I will treasure the experiences you have without me as much as I treasure the experience you have with me.  I want you to succeed in my absence as much as I want you to succeed in my presence.  I hope you find as much joy in life in the time we are away from each other as you find when we are together.  Some days will be together days and some days will apart days.  The daily choice to be married is to see both together time and away time as equally beautiful, important parts of the marriage.
James and Andrea I’m sure someone has taken it upon themselves to tell you that you’re too young to get married.  Please don’t take that personally.  We say that to everyone.  A few years ago I performed the wedding ceremony of a woman in her seventies and a man in his eighties—two of the wisest and best people I’ve ever known–even they were too young to get married.  There is quite simply no way for two people who aren’t married to each other to adequately prepare to be married.  Each marriage is unique so you really can’t get ready to be married by learning from other marriages.  Each of you is one of a kind and so nothing else could prepare you to be married to this one of a kind person other than being married to this one of a kind person.  Which is the nice way of saying, “you’re going to make mistakes.”  Show each other grace. Show yourselves grace.  You’re going to make mistakes.
I know, it’s hard to imagine.  This person standing next you, dressed up so nice, so beautiful, so handsome, how could they ever do or saying anything at all that wouldn’t be perfect?  It’s true.  You probably have found that one person who is as close to perfect as has ever walked the face of this planet.  But close to perfect ain’t perfect.  You’re going to make mistakes.  Which means you’re going to have to forgive each other and forgive yourselves.  Forgiveness is not excuse.  There are things we have to excuse in marriage—body odor, forgetting to put things back where they belong, giving away the ending to a movie you’ve not seen yet.  These are things you’ll need to excuse not forgive—that you let go without accountability.  But there will be things you must forgive.  And when you forgive you are not saying that an injurious behavior is acceptable.  Rather you are saying that the injurious behavior will not be punished.  There is no way for a husband or wife to hurt his or her spouse and help themselves at the same time.  When a husband or wife forgives an offense they do so with this underlying meaning—that they want the hurtful behavior never to be repeated again not only for their own sake but for the wholeness of their spouse.  Forgiveness is about healing the relationship not excusing.  And that’s something that takes time to understand which is why we say, “you’re too young to get married.”  Give yourself time to grow into this marriage. 
But these are the daily choices you will make.  The choice to be intimate, the choice to trust, the choice to forgive.  And sure, you could wait until late in the day to make that choice but why?  Why not make that choice the first thing in the day.  You chose to make getting married the first thing you did today.  That’s a good start.  I pray that’s the first decision you make every morning from now on. 

Is Homophobia Really the Word You Want to Use?

“Homophobia” is not the best word to describe people’s aggression toward gay and lesbian persons. Phobias are fears.  To describe something as homophobia is to identify the motivations people have for what they say, believe, and do.  There are some who would say that indeed all prejudice is rooted in fear.  I’ve not seen definitive evidence to support that claim.  I just see it get asserted frequently.  I personally think motivations are hard to unravel and really shouldn’t be done by strangers. 

The problem with calling it a phobia is that it moves the discussion into the psychological realm.  That’s a fine place for the conversation to take place if indeed we’re going to talk about human psychology.  But the people who generally label things as “homophobia” do so from a moral position.  They don’t respond to the people whom they regard as homophobic the way they respond to people who are claustrophobic, agoraphobic, or glossophobic.  At least I hope they don’t make ridicule those suffering from legitimate phobias the way they ridicule those who they would label homophobic. 

What we have been calling homophobia is a product of moral systems.  It emerges from a moral judgment about a particular group of people’s orientation, behavior and lifestyle.  People who object to the aggression toward gay and lesbian persons also do so from a moral system.  It is a moral system that says a person ought not be subjected to another person’s aggression. 

The Art of the War on Christmas–Entry 2


The Art of Warlists seven factors that determine the outcome of warfare.  Factor number four measures, “On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?”  If Christians are losing the war on Christmas, it’s possible that we are losing because of a lack of discipline. 
We can make a list of the things that “must” get done during the Christmas season.  Ask a set of friends to complete this sentence, “It’s not Christmas until . . . .”  These are the Disciplines of Christmas. Some example: 
1.     Buying presents for friends and loved ones.
2.     Sending Christmas cards to friends and loved ones.
3.     Decorating
4.     Watch Holiday Classic
5.     Make traditional Christmas Treats
6.     Get picture taken with Santa
7.     Negotiate who, what, when, where, and how all necessary family members will be seen.  Do not ask why, it will only depress you.
8.     Wear ugly Christmas sweater
9.     Get kissed under mistletoe
10.  Obsess over weight gain
Perhaps these items are not on your Christmas To-Do list.  But most of us do have an implicit Christmas to do list.  And there are some things that are so universal that we enforce them with one another. Twelve years ago, John Grisham published a novel that was subsequently made into a movie that played on the rigorous discipline the army of Christmas warriors impose when people decide Skipping the secular Christmas is a good idea.  If we imposed such discipline on the side of the sacred Christmas disciplines, it would be viewed as judgmental and pietistic. 
I can ask a very personal question, “Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”  It is not viewed as an offensive question.  But if I ask, “are you keeping up with your reading and devotional time using the advent devotional book?”  How would that be taken?  I suspect several people would tell me it’s none of my business, even people for whom I serve as their pastor.  We are willing to accept accountability when it comes to the secular Christmas discipline of gift-giving but unwilling to accept accountability for our spirituality. 
Most people will give preference to the secular Christmas discipline when the sacred Christmas discipline confronts it. Try the discipline of singing only Advent songs during Advent and waiting until Christmas to sing Christmas carols.  See how long that lasts.  Postpone family gift unwrapping until after the entire Christmas story is read Luke 1:1-2:20.  Awkward silence will begin with the dedication to Theophilus.  Visible fidgeting will be uncontrollable by the time Mary goes to visit Elizabeth.  Someone will interrupt Zechariah’s prophecy.  You will feel palpable disappointment when you blow past 2:7 when people think the story has concluded and keep reading for another 13 verses!  The secular discipline has been so rigorously enforced that the sacred discipline will wilt when the two collide.
Religion is present in the season.  Religious symbols, charitable giving, volunteerism, and faith expression are ubiquitous.  Yet the faith discipline of Christmas is not rigorously enforced. Not the way we enforce the secular conventions of shopping, indulging and frivolity.  We enforce the secular discipline, even impose it on each other, while we leave the sacred discipline largely up personal discretion. 
The New Testament speaks frequently about the need for us to enforce discipline.  James 5:16 told the early church to practice mutual confession of sin.  James says a little later that “whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinners’ soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19).  Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging each one another, and all the more as you see the Day [of Christmas?] approaching.”  If you feel like we’re losing the war on Christmas it may be because we do not rigorously enforcing discipline.  We do not hold one another accountable.  So, how are you doing on your Advent devotional reading? 

Sermon for Sunday, December 15

Remembering: Prayer Shawls
Numbers 15:37-41
December 15, 2013

When I was in youth ministry in I had what I thought was a great idea for a Christmas program. We solicited most powerful Christmas memories from the members of the congregation and the youth performed them as a series of monologues. Let me repeat, I thought it was a great idea. It did not go well. First of all, it was a whole lot of talking. It’s in the midst of this program that I learned one of the first painful lessons about ministry and Christmas—it doesn’t much matter what you say at Christmas time because people only remember what you sing. Easter, Easter is a preaching Holiday. Pentecost. Even All Saints Day. But Christmas is all about the music. On top of that, People’s memories were either really pedestrian or painful. A couple of the memories were down right boring and the ones that weren’t boring were depressing. One man remembered a Christmas he spent while serving in the Marines in Korea. He looked out across the snow, felt completely alone and imagined the loneliness that Christ endured for him. Another person remembered the year their home burned down just before Christmas. An another remembered the year the family didn’t have money to buy Christmas presents. She went through the house collecting favorite Christmas gifts from years past and placed them under the tree. I was gratified to see stories that say sometimes the true meaning of Christmas shines brightest in the darkest points of our lives. But, I was probably the only one so moved. Even my biggest supporters admitted that it got a bit heave. Looking back, I had put the kids in a difficult position. It is difficult to take a memory you personally did not live through and make it your own.

That is the precisely the task that Moses gave to the Israelite people. He tried something simpler than a Christmas program. He instructed them to make prayer shawls. These instructions were future generations. In terms of the narrative structure of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—this comes as the people were still in the wilderness between the captivity they suffered in Egypt and the promised land they would eventually obtain. The instruction to make prayer shawls with tassels was for future generations given to people who did not personally remember the experience of deliverance from Egyptian slavery. A few scenes earlier, Moses had sent 12 spies into the land to determine what the nature of their task was. Of the twelve, only Joshua and Caleb came back with the faith to say–we can do this because the Lord is on our side (Numbers 13). God was angered by their lack of faith, he forgave their sins but vowed not to allow any of the faithless generation to enter the land promised to them (Numbers 14). It’s in the light of their faithlessness and forgetfulness of what God had done that a series of commands are given about offerings for sin, the punishment of wrong-doers, and the importance of tassels are given. The tassels are meant to cause people to remember. Remember God’s command–The tassels are reminders to stay on the path God had given them and a call to be faithful. Remember God’s call to be courageous–The tassels are responses to people’s failure of courage. At one time, they believed they couldn’t do what God had told them they could do even though they had been delivered from captivity in Egypt. Remember God’s actions on behalf of the people.–“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord Your God.” It is difficult to take a memory you personally did not live through and make it your own.

Part of Christian Discipleship, a big part, is learning to assimilate the memories of the whole people of God into one’s own system of memories. Next to that is sifting wheat from chaff–learning from the best memories and taking the worst memories as warnings. Close to twenty years have passed since I was a youth minister trying to get young people to assimilate a memory from just one other person. In those twenty years, one of the biggest challenges has been trying to think biblically without being fundamentalists with congregations of reasonably intelligent folk. Here’s an example. We have been talking about cloth for the cradle. Our make-shift crate-of-a-cradle here looks a lot like a manger. It evokes the thousands of nativity scenes that get put out this time of year. Every couple of years or so
someone will ask—so who got to the manger first the Shepherds or the Wise men. If I give the simplest answer, I point out that Matthew says that the wise men entered the house suggesting that Mary and Joseph might have remained in Bethlehem for some time after the birth of Jesus and that Jesus himself might have been a year old or more by the time the Magi visited him. That’s the simple answer.

Here’s the more complicated answer. Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels. Matthew makes more references to Old Testament than the other three Gospels. Matthew shows greater understanding of the Jewish context of Palestine. It was likely that Matthew worked within a scribal community of Christian Jews. Yet he does two things that are striking and uncharacteristic. In narrating the genealogy, he mentions four women. All of them Gentiles. Four gentiles in the lineage of the King of the Jews. It sets up, of course, the conclusion of the gospel in which Jesus says, “Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples.” When Matthew, the most Jewish of the four gospels describes the first people to respond to the birth of Christ, he tells us about pork-eating, foreign astrologers from another land. He does not mention the people who were most like his audience. He talks about the people most unlike his audience. The shepherds aren’t in the Gospel of Matthew. They come in the Gospel of Luke. Luke is the only gentile author in the New Testament. He dedicated his gospel to Theophilus. We don’t know much about Theophilus but we can surmise two things—one he was wealthy, two he was not Jewish. So, of course who are the first people to respond to birth of Christ? Peasant shepherds off on some hillside. Again, something about the gospel caused Luke to emphasize the reception of Christ by people who were not like his audience. Their memory, in short, is one that from the very beginning made room people who were radically different. To assimilate the memories of Matthew and Luke into our own memory system isn’t about keeping it straight about who got to the manger first. It’s about living through this truth, “Christ came and preached peace to you who were far away and you who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit (Epheisans 2:17-18). It’s a memory that guides. It commands us to be evangelistic and make the Gospel known to people who have not heard. It calls us to have courage and say with Caleb the spy, “We certainly can do it.” It is a memory that reaffirms to us time and again that the Lord is our God.

And so, embedded in this Christmas story is this question about how we who are near declare peace to those who are far away. For our part, our experience is not that we have been delivered from a culture. Rather we live within a culture that is a mixture of faithful and disobedient. The very patterns of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany belong to the memory of the church that has always tried to navigate a meaningful observance of Christ’s nativity past the jagged edges of materialistic, gluttonous cultural forces.

Most people have heard that many of our traditional Christmas traditions–the tree, the gift giving, caroling from door to door, candles, excessive eating and drinking come from Roman traditions of Saturnalia, the Mithras Sol Invictus celebration, and Northern European traditions of Yuletide. The story is more complicated. Christian missionaries moved into areas where these traditions had a powerful hold on the culture. If forced to choose between the gluttony and mood bolstering practices of winter solstice festivals and the disciplined fasting of Christian spirituality, most people will choose the festival every time. So, the missionaries had a dilemma. Either require austere asceticism or find ways to give Christian meanings to embedded cultural practices. The success of Christians had in infusing the native winter solstice festivals with Christian meanings is the reason that Christmas is the biggest holiday on the planet. The success did not come without compromise. Just as the values of Christian faith influenced these native winter solstice practices, the values embedded in the cultural practices did not disappear. The influence was mutual and reciprocal. Christians today struggle to differentiate between the joyful celebration of incarnation and the self-absorbed gluttony of our culture.

We can learn from St. Boniface and Augustine of Cantebury and Martin Luther as each of them sought to give secular practice sacred meaning. We can learn from the Puritans and others who tried to

eliminate Christmas celebrations altogether because they viewed it as hopeless corrupt. When our memory expands to these things–When we learn to remember experience that do not belong to us personally, we see that Christians in every generation have struggled with the very same tension. Observing Advent. Seeking to add spiritual practices to secular excess is a way of tying a blue thread and making a tassel at the end of our prayer shawls. To remember that God is the one who has delivered us and the Lord is our God. How do we tell our own stories in ways that invite Magi and Shepherds or whoever we perceive to be unlike us to the manger where they to can experience the Christ. The tassels on the end of the prayer shawl aren’t really made of a single piece of fabric. The come from the gathering together many different threads and uniting them as one.

Your Christmas Celebration is Pagan

Most people have heard that many of our traditional Christmas traditions–the tree, the gift giving, caroling from door to door, candles, excessive eating and drinking come from Roman traditions of Saturnalia, the Mithras Sol Invictus celebration, and Northern European traditions of Yuletide.  The story is more complicated.  Christian missionaries moved into areas where these traditions had a powerful hold on the culture.  If forced to choose between the gluttony and mood-bolstering practices of winter solstice festivals and the disciplined fasting of Christian spirituality, most people will choose the festival every time.   That’s true today.  The seasonal shopping, the endless parties with their jovial games, the Christmas songs, bells and candles are all devised to help people withstand the sadness of cold, shorter days, longer nights, and boredom. 

So, the missionaries had a dilemma.  Either require austere asceticism or find ways to give Christian meanings to embedded cultural practices.  The success of Christians had in infusing the native winter solstice festivals with Christian meanings is the reason that Christmas is the biggest holiday on the planet. The success did not come without compromise.  Just as the values of Christian faith influenced these native winter solstice practices, the values embedded in the cultural practices did not disappear.  The influence was mutual and reciprocal. Christians today struggle to differentiate between the joyful celebration of incarnation and the self-absorbed gluttony of our culture. When we learn to remember experience that do not belong to us personally, we see that Christians in every generation have struggled with the very same tension. 

The Art of War on Christmas–Entry 1

I have been dismissing the “War on Christmas” rhetoric for years.  And this year, it struck me that there might actually be a war on Christmas and I might actually need to get ready for it.  You see, I was reading the Gospel of Luke where Jesus himself used the analogy of going to battle as a metaphor considering the cost of being one of his Disciples (Luke 14:31-33).  I thought to myself, “If I am going to consider the cost of following Christ as a King might consider his options going into battle, I am woefully unprepared.  I know nothing about fighting battles.”

So, I downloaded a copy of The Art of War as it seems like I’ve heard that it is supposed to be a must-read for people who want to understand how battles are lost and won.   Yes, I’ve heard all the objections to using “spiritual warfare” language.  But, I’ve been working with metaphors a long time and have a pretty good grasp on why we don’t treat images as complete, total, or literal descriptions of things.  That said, while I’ve not completed my reading of The Art of War, I am struck by its power when read through the lens of Christmas and Christian discipleship.

For example, The Art says, “In your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison in this wise:”  He goes on to list seven considerations.  The first  is “Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral Law?”

That seems like the right place to start reflections on the war on Christmas.  Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).  In the war on Christmas Christians must decide which of these two sovereigns “is imbued with the Moral Law.”  Is Jesus imbued with Moral law?”  with his emphasis on concern for the poor, commitment to non-retaliation, mutual service, and prayer?  Or is the sovereign of commercialism with its emphasis on prosperity, possessions, and instant gratification imbued with Moral Law?

Many Christians would emphatically insist that we do indeed serve Christ and not money.  But what we say and what we do are in sharp contrast.  I place myself in the group of people who are divided in my own allegiance.  I want financial security and instant gratification–two goals that are not easily compatible even from an economic stand point.  I convince myself very easily that another possession or service or experience will bring me happiness and joy.  At Christmas, I convince myself that the way to be the best father and husband is to give the best gift I can afford financially.  I suspect I’m not alone. 

If we’re going to win the war on Christmas, it’s going to have to start with discernment about which Sovereign is imbued with Moral Law.  I choose Christ and even as I do, I know just how easily I listen to the commands of greed and material desire. 

Purify my heart, O Lord.  Cause me to hear only the commands that come from you.  Silence in my mind the commands that emerge out of my own greed, covetousness, and desire for material things.  Release me from my allegiance to my culture’s commercial obsession and accept my glad and willing service to your way.   Amen.

Your Christmas is Too Small

Receive:  Tent Canvas
December 8, 2013

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.   The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print.

        If I said, “Your Christmas is too small,” how long would it take for you to start contemplating violence in my direction?  How long before you reach for the nearest blunt object—a hymnal, say—and calculate the altitude, trajectory and velocity with which you would need to hurl it in order to make contact with soft tissue?  “Your Christmas is too small.”  What would you offer as rebuttal?  Would you show me your lengthy Christmas card list?  Your lengthy shopping list?  Your external home decoration? Your internal home decorations? Your recipes for Christmas-themed deserts and dishes?  Your calendar of Christmas related activities?  “Your Christmas is too small.”  Why you . . . I oughta . . . I’ll show you a small Christmas . . .  I got your small Christmas right here.  You’re a preacher, aren’t preachers always telling us that Christmas has gotten out of hand with all the shopping and the eating and the commercialism and the starting way too early?  Aren’t you preachers always advocating for a small Christmas?
           What if I took it one step further and claimed that in fact I wasn’t the one saying, “Your Christmas is too small” that in fact John was saying “Your Christmas is too small?”  We have four Gospels and in none of them do we hear the word Christmas.  Nowhere in the New Testament do we hear of a congregation participating in an annual observance of the Lord’s Birth.  The early church did not celebrate the nativity until much later.  A good century or more before the Church started celebrating the birth of Christ it celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ.
        The Gospels say nothing about Christmas but they each do try to put a finger on where it begins—where this event of Jesus—God’s Son, the one anointed to bring about the salvation of the world—where it all began. The Gospels show a progression not of the celebrations around Jesus but of their understanding of Jesus’s beginning. And so Christmas also wrestles with this same question.  At its best Christmas is our attempt to put a finger on where the Christ even begins. 
        The earliest gospel written was Mark.  Mark said, “See, it began with his Baptism.  John the Baptist baptized him and the Holy Spirit descended on him and God said to Jesus, ‘You are my son in whom I am well pleased’.”  Then came Luke who said, “Mark, your Christmas is too small.  It all started when he was conceived. There were announcements by angels to Mary and Zechariah.  That John who baptized him, yeah, well, well his mother Elizabeth knew what was happening and even John the Baptist knew en utero that Jesus was the Messiah.  And when he was born Angels proclaimed his birth in the surrounding countryside and the people of Palestine acknowledged him.  Then Matthew came along to say, “Luke, your Christmas is too small.”  Mary wasn’t the only one to receive the Angel announcement, Joseph received one also.  And when Jesus was born, the whole night sky was filled with a bright light so that people in other countries acknowledged Jesus’s birth.  They came from outside Palestine to honor Jesus with lavish gifts.  And Herod was so threatened by Jesus’s coming that he did terrible, terrible things.  Mark:  it begins with the proclamation to Jesus himself; Luke:  It begins with the proclamation to Palestine; Matthew: It begins with the proclamation to the World.  Then finally there came John.  John the latest of the four Gospels.  Written after the Jewish revolt against Rome, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the expulsion of Christian Jews from synagogues and after the initial persecutions of Christians by the Roman government, John declared, “Mark, Luke, Matthew, Your Christmas is too small.” 
        It begins with the beginning.  “In the beginning . . .” was the Word.  The word is a reference to the word of God a phrase that has become synonymous with the Bible but should not be limited to the Bible.  When the Bible itself uses the phrase, “The word of God” it means it in terms of God’s will, God’s intention, God’s revealing God’s self to humanity.  The word of God is God God’s self.  “The Word was with God and the Word was God.”  All things came into being through the Word.  I believe that when John wrote this about the word—the logos—the Logic or mind of God—he was drawing on imagery we find in the book of Proverbs about Wisdom.  In the eighth chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified and she speaks to humanity—her children.  Wisdom declares, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began.  When there were no oceans, I was given birth, when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills I was given birth, before he made the earth or its fields or any of the dust of the world.  I was there when he set the heavens in place when he marked out the horizon on face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side.  I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humanity.”  This is “fullness of God” that is pleased to dwell in Christ Jesus.
        It is this fullness that comes in the Flesh.  John gathering all this fullness of God together makes this bold and controversial statement.  He said, “’And the word of God became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory the glory as of God’s own son.”   Again, I think John here is reaching back into the Old Testament and gathering together narrative from the Old Testament to make his claim.  This time, I think he’s pulling from Exodus.  When the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt and they journeyed for forty years in the Wilderness.  While they were in the wilderness, the Glory of God was embodied in the Ark of the Covenant.  Whenever they moved they would take the Tabernacle with them.  The Tabernacle was the tent dwelling that housed the Ark.  It was also called the Tent of Meeting.  As the Israelites journeyed across the wilderness, they did so as a confederation of 12 Tribes.  When they needed a place to consolidate power and organize themselves, they would have representatives come to the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting.  It was the place where Moses would address the people.  The glory of God’s presence dwelt with them.  It was also the place where Moses spoke with God.  Exodus 33:11 explains, “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.”  Maybe you already know this but, Jesus’s name was not unique.  Jesus is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Joshua.  He was named for Moses’s assistant Joshua.  See then all that John has woven together here in his pinpointing of the beginning of Jesus’s work—creation, the Wisdom, Will and Word of God, the Exodus, the giving of the law.   When we started to think of this theme, “Cloth for the Cradle.” This was the cloth that made the most sense to me—Tent cloth.  It is as if the canvas of the Tabernacle and all it represented was used as bedding for the Manger.  I think that’s what John means when he makes the claim, “Your Christmas is too small.”  
        Small Christmases are like small babies—they are cute, irresistibly adorable, they are lovable, and vulnerable.  They draw up water from the deepest wells of our emotions.  Nothing angers us as much as the mistreatment of a baby.  Nothing thrills us as much as the smile on a baby’s face.  And our small Christmas hovers over the baby bed of Jesus.   Baby Jesus captures our imagination.  To be honored with the privilege to be the Baby Jesus in a Christmas pageant is a greater christening than a thousand baptisms.  Nothing angers us as much as the idea that Baby Jesus shouldn’t be the center of attention.  Nothing thrills us as much as the glimpse of that manger.  Which is probably, at the heart of it, why the accusation “Your Christmas is too small” is so offensive.  It feels like an assault on the Baby Jesus. 
        Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar, writer and retreat leader wrote in Preparing for Christmas, “The celebration of Christmas is not a sentimental waiting for a baby to be born, but much more an asking for history to be born! We do the Gospel no favor when we make Jesus, the Eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, a baby able to ask little or no adult response from us” (“Tuesday of the First Week of Advent).   His assertions push hard against us.  What, after all, is wrong with the cuing and cuddling and the veneration of the babe in a manger.  What could be more Christian than “Silent Night” and the soft glow of candlelight?  John’s response is that the Silence of the Silent Night is broken with sound of God’s Word becoming flesh.  There is no soft glow for John.  There is real darkness and there is a light which the darkness cannot overtake—the light of Christ. 
        Jesus did not come as a baby so that we could nurture him.  Jesus came as the Word of God so that we might listen to him.  Jesus came as the Christ that we might believe in him.  Jesus came as Lord that we might follow him.   If we let the Word of God now in Flesh appearing crush our sentimentality and expose our fluffy notions hope, peace, joy and faith, we are not left vulnerable and alone.  Oh no, John explains, John admits first that this Word of God made Flesh who comes with the Glory as of God’s only son, this Christ is not easy for people to accept.  Indeed, he came to his own and his own wanted nothing to do with him.  But, to those who believed and to those who received him, to them he gave the right to be children of God.  You see, it’s not just the Baby Jesus who is meant to occupy that manger.  It is the cradle of our new birth.  Through the word of God made flesh we experience a birth not of flesh nor of a parent’s will but born of God. And it is in being reborn in God that we can be remade in Christ’s image.  That remaking will expand our Christmas.  It will demand us to recraft our hopes so that we hope for the Kingdom of God to reign in our lives.  It will cause us to redefine peace so that it matches the peace envisioned by God.  So that it cannot be the isolated and personalized peace that we enjoy in the comforting rocking chair of nursery but is the peace, justice, reconciliation and protection of all creation.   This Son of God, the Word brings Joy—not the painted on smiles of seasonal mirth—but the deep, core level joy that comes from knowing that your God has power and your life in God has purpose.  This new birth, this reorientation of our whole lives, the expansion of Christmas from baptism, to Bethlehem, from cross country journeys to cosmos, where God reigns and God’s vision of how we are to care for one another that is the very definition of faith.  And until we grow up into the fullness of all that Christ really is then our Christmases are too small. 

Debate and the Call to Care

            I have become interested in debate between Dave Ramsey and Rachel Held Evans and others and still others who have contributed.  It makes me think a little of the debate between advocates for gun control laws and the lobbies that oppose them.  I agree with the advocates for gun control on most of what they say about guns, violence, and society.  Everything except one thing—that we need more gun control laws.  I am convinced that we do not enforce the laws we have.  Until we do enforce the laws we have, we don’t need more.  What I would like to say to both sides of the argument is this:  You are all reasonable, intelligent people.  Why not get with these other reasonable, intelligent people and come to some workable solutions to create a safer and saner society?
            I would say the same thing to the debate between those who promote the habits of the wealthy and those who advocate for the poor.  Dave Ramsey can come off as arrogant.  I think at times he verges on sexist.  I think his theology is fraught with problems.  And I think he’s right about the stuff that lands in his area of expertise—personal finance.  I know that he has helped marriages.  I know that he has helped people get a better grip on their finances. I think he’s done more good than harm.
I also believe that Jesus has a preferential concern for the poor.  I believe that Jesus’s followers are called to have the same concern.  I think that Dave Ramsey’s rhetoric is insulting to the poor and that is a problem.  His advice has to do with helping people navigate 21st Century financial systems in North America.  I find it helpful when people do that with the level of expertise he brings to the table.  I take issue with those who want to then claim that these principles are also biblical.  The Bible doesn’t spell out the pathway to financial prosperity.  It also doesn’t identify the means of addressing poverty.  It points the faithful in the direction that says those who have should demonstrate Christ-like concern for those who lack.
My issue is whether or not caring for poor persons means applauding their good efforts or if it entails helping provide some stepping-stones out of poverty.  So, what if despite his arrogance, quasi-sexist, faulty theology, Dave Ramsey does indeed offer the most helpful advice to those wanting to move from financial instability to financial stability?  Can we excuse the insulting rhetoric and use what is helpful and say thank you? 
I debated in High School and some in college.  I was never very good.  I taught three semesters of academic debate at a local university.  My students didn’t ever have good debates.  So that clouds what I’m about to say.  I don’t think debates like the ones between gun-control advocates and gun-rights advocates help that much.  Or that the debates between proponents of the poor vs. proponents of the wealthy help anyone.  We have created a culture of divisiveness and dissension where cooperation between people who disagree with one another rarely happens.  The Argument Culture we have created makes it impossible to concede in the face of greater logic without losing face.  I do recommend Deborah Tannen’s book.  The argument culture creates a false dichotomy between two opposing positions in situations that may actually have more than two sides.  Worst of all, the Argument Culture wastes brainpower and intellectual energy on advancing or defending positions rather than actually helping people.

Advent Day 1

Reading Deuteronomy 4:25-31

Advent is tricky for American Protestants like me.  Older Christian denominations like Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran understand liturgical seasons more intuitively.  I know folk who can name the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for next Sunday simply because it’s the way they mark time.  Not me.  I pay attention because I went to work for a church that observes the liturgical calendar but like the Baptist church I grew up in, these are additions we’ve added in the last fifty years. 

For as long as I can remember, my home Church held a mid-night (11:00 pm) service on Christmas Eve.  I don’t know how old that tradition is.  I do remember being in elementary school when we added lighting the Advent Candles to our Christmas preparation.  It was new, it went by quickly, and we sang a strange song that I had not heard before and wasn’t sure I liked (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”).  Shortly thereafter came Advent devotional books.  I was asked to write a devotional when I was in High School.  I remember being embarrassed that I couldn’t come up with something more profound to say.  I went to work in a Disciples of Christ church where the ministers put on robes and stoles.  I assumed everyone knew what it all meant and I went through a crash course study to the symbols.  Soon after that, I discovered the people I serve don’t move through these seasons intuitively.

I think we like the idea of advent because we think it will help us keep Christ at the center of the season.  But we also struggle with it.  None of us, frankly, are purist enough to refrain from singing true Christmas carols until after Christmas, or abstaining from gluttony the way we might during Lent.  Frankly it’s hard to sustain our attention that long. 

In Moses’s final sermon to the people of Israel–the book of Deuteronomy–he puts his finger on the difficulty, “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent . . . .”  The prophecy moves forward from there to predict sin, destruction, repentance and restoration.  The problem begin, according to this text, with complacency.  Through this advent season may God preserve us from complacency.