Its Still Christmas!?!

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My reaction when I realize that Christmas is only half over.

If you’ve hung around the blog for a while, you’re no doubt aware of my one man attempt to change the liturgical calendar to move Advent to November and Christmastide to run from the Sunday after Thanksgiving (US) to Epiphany.  At this point, however, I’m thinking maybe we just ensure one Sunday after Christmas Day and move on.  We took our tree down yesterday.  The gifts are all put away.  The new clothes are running through the washing machine as I type.  Life is beginning to get back to normal, except the nave smells like a Christmas tree farm and the wreathes are beginning to look like a fire hazard.  It isn’t that I’m generally a grumpy person (even though I am pretty much Squidward if he were human and ordained), but that the modern Episcopal Church never seems more out of touch with society than it does around Christmas.  I’ve written all of this before, so I’ll save you the retread, and just say this, IT IS STILL CHRISTMAS!?!

This is one of those years that we get two Sundays after Christmas Day.  The Episcopal version of the Revised (not-so)Common Lectionary allows three different options for Gospel lessons: the flight to Egypt, Home Alone tween Jesus, and the Magi.  Calendarquest Steve would have us go ahead and claim Epiphany this week, but all three lessons provide good preaching fodder.  Since I’ve spent 244 words on this intro, let’s take a quick look at all three.

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 – The Flight to Egypt.  Matthew tells the story of three dreams that God gives to Joseph.  This story features the second and third.  The second dream occurs after Jesus is born and the Magi have visited, warning Joseph to take the boy and escape Herod’s murderous jealousy.  Skipping over the Slaughter of the Innocents, which is a problematic choice, but another blogpost, we jump to the third dream, an “All Clear” message from God that the Holy Family can return to Israel.  The preacher might focus on Matthew’s use of the Old Testament to make a case for Jesus as the Messiah or turn their attention to the ways in which God communicates with the faithful today.

Luke 2:41-52 – Home Alone Tween Jesus.  The only story we have about Jesus between his circumcision and his baptism, this is a favorite among preachers and congregants alike.  It gives us some insight into what God the Son in human flesh looks and acts like as he grows into adulthood and his ministry.  Jesus gives his parents some sass, and, it seems, finds this fully human, fully divine thing a bit hard to navigate.  Preaching this text might invite some work on the two natures living together in Christ.

Matthew 2:1-12 – The Magi.  My personal preference for this week, but I’m not preaching, the story of the coming of the wise men from the East gives us a lot to work with.  It deals with how a Messiah, even as a baby/toddler, is seen as a threat to the political powers-that-be.  It invites to us to ponder how God uses the Word Incarnate to invite all the people of the world into relationship.  It makes for challenging exegesis when the Magi don’t worship the Christchild – despite what some translations may say – but do pay homage and show reverence.  Perhaps in a time where anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise, this sermon would prove timely.

I wish you the best as your write a sermon on a short week, dear preacher, and I look forward to journeying with you in 2020.

Testify to the Light

Long before I took any sort of flying lessons, I spent many hours in the right seat of my father-in-law’s single engine airplane.  Around the hangar, I learned that one of the pithy sayings in the flying community is that “every take-off is optional, but every landing is mandatory.”  The primary goal of a pilot is to bring the aircraft to a safe landing at its destination.  This requires all sorts of training as well as reliance upon many safety mechanisms both inside and out of the cockpit.  Travelling down Scottsville Road near Rafferty’s on a gloomy evening or foggy morning, you might notice a light occasionally streaking across the sky from south to north.  This light, which shines brightly out into the night sky is the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport Beacon.  One of the first things a student pilot is trained to look for in lowlight conditions is this beacon.  No matter where you might be above the earth, you should be able to see at least one white and green light calling you home.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, which can help a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules locate an airport and begin the approach process.  These beacons can be particularly helpful in an emergency, when finding an airport quickly can mean the difference between life and death, but on a less dramatic level, the reality is that if you can’t see the beacon at an airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

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One of my jobs as co-pilot for my father-in-law was to find the beacon.  While he was busy getting the plane ready to land, communicating with air traffic control, and going through his check-lists, my eyes were fixed in the general vicinity of the airport, looking for that familiar light to flash across the windshield.  “Got it,” was my usual response when the airport beacon was in sight.  These two words were enough for Doug to know that the mandatory landing ahead of us would be as standard as a visual landing can be.  As the co-pilot, I am the one responsible to testify to the light.

John the Gospel writer is very careful to remind his readers that John the Baptist was not the light, but one who had been sent as a witness, to testify to the light that was coming into the world.  Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John the Baptist would die a martyr’s death because he lived a martyr’s life, as a witness to the light of Christ and testifying to anyone who would listen about the light that darkness could never overcome.  To stretch the flying metaphor a bit, John the Baptist was given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ long before the rest of the world could see it.  He was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light; calling everyone back to their home field.  John’s role was to invite everyone within earshot to open their eyes and see the light shining in the darkness.

This morning, as we gather on the First Sunday after Christmas Day and hear the familiar, yet lofty words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, we are also welcoming two new members into the Body of Christ.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit that Maya and Alex will receive today, they will join with us as inheritors of the primary vocation of John the Baptist and every disciple in every generation as witnesses of the light.  In just a couple of minutes, we will all make a pledge to support these two young people in their life in Christ by living our lives as examples of what it means to testify to the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.  It isn’t hard to notice that the world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but filled with the light of Christ, Christians of all ages are called to shine in the darkness,  With God’s help, we are called to show Alex and Maya what it looks like to share the Good News of Jesus, and to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.

A little more than two years ago, when we baptized Jocelyn, Maya and Alex’s big sister, I asked you to consider how you might live into the commitment you made.  “As you renew these promises, are you doing all in your power to grow in the knowledge and love of God?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  Are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?”[1]  Today, I wonder how those same practices of discipleship are helping you shine the light of Christ in a world filled with darkness?  How is God inviting you to testify to the light?  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry Christ’s light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  No matter how dark it might seem, the beacon of Christ’s hope is always shining, always visible, and always calling us home.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/giving-our-lives-to-god-a-sermon/

Defying Traditions

This might come as a surprise to you, as we gather at a very traditional Christmas Eve service,  in a very traditional church, wearing very traditional vestments, singing very traditional carols, but I’m really not that big on traditions.  I am keenly aware that most of “the way things have always been” started in the 1950s, and I don’t really think they need to be held on to just for tradition’s sake.  For example, I’m not really a fan of singing Silent Night by candlelight, but I also like my job, so I’m not going to change it for change sake, either.  Anyway, that’s another sermon for another Christmas Eve.  I am also keenly aware that of all the days of the year, Christmas is the one that carries with it the most tradition – family, civic, cultural, and religious.  Many of you are probably here this evening, up way past your usual bedtime because it is just what you do on Christmas Eve.  I’ve been attending a “Midnight Mass” at an Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember because it was the tradition in my own family.

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I may not see the need to hold on to traditions for tradition’s sake, but I understand quite well their importance.  Traditions are important because they give us something to hold on to when the world around us seems to be shifting right before our very eyes.  The cold, dark winter days; the changing of the calendar year; children growing up; it seems that tradition is especially important around Christmas because this time of year reminds us that time marches on.  In the face of that unrelenting reality, we hold on to the past, to things that bring us comfort.  For my family growing up, the tradition we repeated every year was the annual Friday after Thanksgiving cutting of the Christmas tree.  We’d get up early and drive an hour north of town to a huge Christmas tree farm, in search of the perfect tree.  When we found a good one, my sister or I would stand by it, while rest went in search of one better.  When THE TREE was finally settled upon, my dad would take out his trusty hacksaw and fell it like a lumberjack of old.  We’d tie it to the top of the minivan and head home, excited to cover it with lights and decorations.

There was one problem with our big annual tradition, however.  My mother, my sister, and I are all very allergic to pine trees.  Wheezing, hacking, sneezing, with a headache to boot, our time spent decorating the tree was mostly a misery, yet year after year, we held on to that tradition.  One year, my mother read an article that said you could cut down the allergic effects of a real Christmas tree by running it through the car wash on your way home.  Having once again found the perfect tree, we tied it to the top of our Dodge Caravan and headed home.  On the way, dad ran through a car wash to rinse off the pine dander, and by the end of the day, we had a beautifully decorated tree with somewhat less itching or sneezing.  However, as the weeks went by, we noticed that despite regular watering, needles seemed to be falling of the tree faster this year than most. And then, on Christmas Eve morning, as if the tree knew what day it was, every last needle dropped to the floor. There we were: my mother crying while the rest of us were red-eyed and sneezing because the allergy reducing effect didn’t last, staring at a dead Fraser fir, decked in lights and ornaments and popcorn and cranberries, but lacking all of its needles. As this story has been told over the years, the amount of money the replacement tree cost has risen with inflation, but whatever the price, it was way too much to pay for a Christmas tree. Whether the blame falls on the scalding hot water, forgetting to deselect the hot wax option, or the turbo dryer at the end of the car wash, we will never know, but one thing was certain on that December the 24th, the tradition to which we had clung for so many years was finally over.  By the next Christmas, we had a lovely fake tree all ready to decorate Thanksgiving weekend.

The Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve is a story of tradition.  Each person named plays their traditional role.  Caesar Augustus plays the traditional role of the capricious political figure who used his power to move people around like pawns on a chess board.  Joseph, of the House of David, plays the traditional role of nervous father-to-be.  His job was to help Mary, a very traditional young, first-time mother along the arduous, hundred-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  The baby is born in the traditional manner, albeit in the non-traditional location of an animal pen.  The shepherds play their traditional role, doing the twenty-four hour a day, hard work of tending sheep outside of town.  Shepherds were considered unclean, and weren’t able to move about like other people.  In the midst of this traditional scene enter some very non-traditional characters.  An angel of the Lord appeared before them, joined quickly by a whole choir of angels who sang out with great joy the Good News of the birth of a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.

All of a sudden, all that is traditional goes out the window, and the whole world changes.  The shepherds run to the city to see this thing that the angels described.  Breaking tradition by entering the city at all, especially at night, once the gates had been shut, the shepherds, unclean as they are, find their way to the cave where Mary, also unclean from having given birth, Joseph, and the baby are resting, as best they can, on this most holy and different kind of night.  In the birth of Jesus, all of Creation, broken as it was and continues to be, was turned right-side up, if only for a fleeting moment, the twinkling of an eye, the flashing of a star.

Now that I’m grown and have my own children, we’ve created our own traditions.  In our family, we don’t have a real Christmas tree, but we do watch some of our favorite Christmas movies.  Home Alone 1 and 2, the Santa Clause 1, 2, and 3, and of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I defy you not to get goose bumps when Linus steps out onto that stage and recites Luke’s Christmas Gospel.  It was pointed out to me for the first time this year that while Linus says those same traditional words from the King James Version that Deacon Kellie just read, as he comes to the place where the angel appears before the shepherd and says, “Fear not,” Linus lets go of his blankie.  A traditional symbol of that to which we cling, Linus is able to let go even as the shepherds are able to resist social norms in order to rush into the city of Bethlehem to see the newborn King.

Linus has me wondering this year what I need to let go of.  What kind of things am I holding on to that are keeping me from embracing the love of God that was fully made known in the birth of Jesus Christ?  For some, tradition holds them back.  Sometimes, it is that the tradition has become the object of worship.  For others, the tradition has lost its power and simply feels like a rote expectation placed upon them.  I think for most of us, the thing that we cling to that keeps us from fully embracing the gift of the Messiah is fear.  That’s why Linus carried that blanket, isn’t it?  To keep the fear at bay?  Fear made Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in the first place.  Fear kept the shepherds out in the fields at night.  Fear tells us that we are not enough or that there isn’t enough to go around.  Fear grips us and holds us back, even as we cling to it because at times, it seems to be the only thing we know for sure.

But all traditions were broken and fear lost its power when, in a field outside Bethlehem, an angel appeared and said, “Fear not.”  Let go of your fear.  Join with the shepherds, set aside traditions and fear this Christmas Eve, and rush toward the Messiah, so that you too might leave this place glorifying God in your heart with praise on your lips, for unto you, and me, and the whole world is born this night, in the City of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  Amen.

Righteousness Redefined

Righteousness, properly defined by Thayer, is about adherence to the rules of God as well as rules of human origin.  The concept of “powers ordained by God” has deep roots, well beyond even Judeo-Christian history.  Within our own Scriptural narrative, we have evidence of all kinds of leaders who were believed to be “ordained by God.”  Chief Priests, Judges, Kings, throughout history, those who believe in God have trusted the Spirit to put leaders in charge who would seek the will of God and what is best for the people.  (I’ll let the reader decide if we still believe this.) The result of such belief is this understanding that the laws made by human beings should be followed because they are inherently just.  Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, have taught us that this isn’t always the case.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we get a very early example of one who can be considered righteous even though they do not fully adhere to the laws of the land.  Joseph, having heard that Mary was pregnant even though they had not yet known each other, is described by Matthew as “righteous,” but this title brings with it goods in conflict.  As a righteous man, Joseph was well within his rights to divorce her very publicly, ruining her life and the life of her child for ever.  He could even have her executed for bringing such disgrace upon him and his family.  Either of these options would have been considered righteous, yet, for Joseph, they weren’t right.  Rather, he planned to release her from her betrothal quietly.  She’d still be considered damaged goods and would likely never find a husband to take care of her and her child, but at least, maybe, she could return to her own family.

Joseph the righteous one, who was willing to choose what he thought was the best possible outcome for Mary, was in tune, it would seem, with the will of God.  The dream that he has invites him to ignore the laws of the land and to risk everything to take Mary as his wife.  His righteousness wasn’t defined by dual allegiance to the laws of God and the laws of humans, but solely on the will of God.  His calling was higher than the expectations of human government.  His was to welcome the reign of God on earth.  As such, Joseph redefines righteousness.  While we might not have to make the same exact decision Joseph did, our calling is also to welcome the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  This means, sometimes, maybe even most times, we are called to seek the will of God – to love our neighbors, care for the poor, feed the hungry, and proclaim release to the captives – over the expectations of social convention or even the law of the land might have us do.

How the story gets told

Ten years ago last April, I was in the labor and delivery room with my wife as she gave birth to our firstborn.  I was watching the monitor that recorded the contractions as they came and went.  I cut the umbilical cord.  I was generally supportive.  But in the way the story should be told about that day, I am little more than a bit player.  As the due date came near, I remember some of the older men in my congregation talking about their memories of their own children being born.  Fifty years earlier, it wasn’t just that men weren’t expected to be in the delivery room; they flat out weren’t allowed there.  One guy told me about the golf game he played while his first son was born.

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I find it interesting then, that when Matthew begins a story with “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” the bulk of the story is focused on Joseph, the guy who had “had no marital relations” with Mary, whose family lineage required the very inconvenient journey to Bethlehem in the first place, and who almost certainly passed the birthing duties on to a midwife.  Matthew is keen in making sure that his readers know how Jesus fulfills all kinds of prophecies about the Messiah, but the one he selects from Isaiah 7 about a virgin who will bear a son seems to be much better handled in Luke’s account of the Nativity of our Lord.  This is especially interesting given that it is Matthew who includes the names of four female ancestors of Jesus in his genealogy, and Luke names none.

How stories get told is maybe more important than the story itself.  The gist of the narrative may not change – a Messiah is born under questionable circumstances – but the details matter.  Sure, it is helpful to understand the cultural pressures under which Mary and Joseph lived, but why only tell that part of the story and relegate the birth narrative, much expanded by Luke, who likely shared a common source, to a passing thought in a sentence more focused on whether or not Mary and Jospeh had sex while she was pregnant?  Matthew clearly has a design in mind as he three times highlights dreams that Joseph has as well as the vision of the Wise Men.  God’s hand is at work in the story, be it in fulfilling prophecy or orchestrated the movement of the key players, but still I wonder, what about Mary?

I don’t have any answers for you today, dear reader, just things to ponder as you approach some very familiar stories told in very intentional ways.  How will you tell the Good News of the Messiah’s birth?  Will it be in the lofty language of John?  Will it include the powerful image of Linus dropping his blanket when Luke’s angels say “be not afraid”?  Will it feature Joseph’s dreams and God’s handiwork?  Will all three make an appearance?  How the story gets told is important.  So, pay attention to the details.

Speedy Delivery

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It isn’t just the holy Scriptures that are living and active, but truly every written text can be multivalent, carrying many different levels of meaning and open to various interpretations.  This came to mind this morning as I read the Collect appointed for Advent 3 and my mind was immediately taken to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s mailman, Mr. McFeely who’s catch phrase was “Speedy Delivery.”  In the prayer, sadly, the only “stir up” prayer we have left in our current Prayer Book, we that God’s abundant grace and mercy might “speedily help and deliver us.”

It is likely due to the fact that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in theaters now and that Mr. Rogers has been in the media spotlight of late that I heard this prayer in a new and different way, but I think that’s how God works through written texts.  As we read words, especially those that are familiar to us, with intentionality, God, through the Holy Spirit, is at work in our minds, causing synapses to fire, memories to be triggered, and new meaning to burst forth.  So it was this morning as the words I’ve read hundreds to times “speedily help and deliver us” made me think of Mr. McFeely and took me down a rabbit hole of what we mean when we ask God for deliverance.

My first stop was my trusty copy of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.  That’s right, when they’re not holding internationally famous dog shows, the folks at Westminster are publishing dictionaries for nerds.  In it, the word deliverance is noted to have come to us from the Latin deliberare which means “to liberate.”  The deliverance we ask for in this prayer and hope for in our faith in Christ is liberation – freedom from our enslavement to sin.  It makes sense, then, that we would pray for such deliverance to come quickly.  Anyone who has taken honest stock of their lives will realize that the consequences of sin are what make life hard.  Broken relationships, dysfunctional systems, out of balance power dynamics, hurt, and sadness are just some of the things we pray would end “speedily” when we ask God for deliverance.

Next, I cracked open Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, which expanded my understanding even further.  Hatchett notes that this phrase “speedily help and deliver” is a 1662 expansion of the original prayer from c. 750 AD.  By adding the word help, the revisers of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer made this an intentionally Advent-y prayer.  “… this prayer sets forth better than the others the themes of the two advents: the first in which [Christ] came in great humility, and the second in which He comes in power; the first in which He came to save (read, “deliver”), the second in which He comes to help and relieve.

So, a random synapse fire helped me learn some new things today and will deepen my prayer life going forward.  I hope it helps you too, dear reader.

What are we looking for?

I am a walking dichotomy.  On the one hand, I write a blog that I hope a lot of people will read.  I post on instagram and facebook, hoping for lots of likes.  I lead a congregation that I hope will grow.  On the other hand, I have deep misgivings about the rise of religious celebrity and the cult of personality that seems to be at the root of much of what calls itself Christianity in 21st century America.  The world in me wants to be somewhat church famous (with the justification of, it’ll lead more people to follow Jesus in what I’ve deemed to be the right way).  The Holy Spirit in me wants to be anonymous and to let God take care of the soul saving work.  The world in me looks down my nose at folks like Joel Osteen, Franklin Graham, and people still using the Royal Wedding sermon to prop up our Presiding Bishop.  The Holy Spirit in me argues that there is no competition in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a struggle I deal with on a regular basis.

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Being rich because of the poor is a lot of fun.

This dichotomy is hitting home this week as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Advent 3A.  Eight chapters after we first met John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea last Sunday, this week, we’ll get the continuation of the JBap story.  John has been arrested.  As was the custom of the time, his disciples ministered to him in jail.  As they brought him food and clothing, they also shared news from the outside.  Jesus was on the move.  His fame was beginning to increase.  He was preaching repentance, healing the sick, and his followers were growing.  Something was missing, however.  John had expected the Messiah to do or say something that Jesus wasn’t, and so he asked his disciples to go meet Jesus and to make sure he really was the one they had been waiting for.

In response, Jesus hits this dichotomy of worldly fame and godly faithfulness right on the head.  First, Jesus lays out a vision for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Despite thousands of years of expectation, both before and after the coming of Christ, the vision set forth by Jesus isn’t about power, prestige, or fame, but rather, its about humility, compassion, and good news for those on the margins.  Second, Jesus challenges all who would wish that God was more interested in political power by reminding them, and us, that what brought people out to see John, and by extension, what brought them out to see Jesus, wasn’t those in the soft robes of the palace, but the messiness of the wilderness.  It is there, amidst the locusts, dust, and the poor that the Kingdom of God will be found.  It is in humility, poverty, and suffering with, not in expensive suits, fancy houses, private jets, and book deals that the Kingdom of God will be found.

Ultimately, I think we are all walking dichotomies.  Our motivations are often mixed.  Our deepest desires are shaped by the world even as we strive to live for the Kingdom.  In Christ, however, we have our exemplar.  In John the Baptist, we have one who came to point to the way, even as he struggled with this dichotomy himself.  Across thousands of years of Judeo-Christian history we have all kinds of examples of those who feebly struggled to live for Christ and not for self, and this Tuesday in Advent, as I’ll once again be asked to leave a room while the Vestry talks my stipend for 2020, I’m grateful for the examples of those who don’t trust in fame or riches, but in the power of the lamb.