Christmas 2021 – The Return of Ricky Bobby

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  All people?  I’ve been stuck on this very familiar line for the last two weeks.  Is this Christmas good news for people living in hotels because their homes are too damaged?  Is this Christmas good news for people mourning the loss of loved ones to natural disaster, violence, or disease?  Is this Christmas good news to the tired, over-worked, and heavily burdened?  Can the good news that the angels brought into the Judean countryside really be for all people?  I suppose these questions could be asked every year, but when widespread pain hits so close to home, they seem to sit down in our living rooms, look us in the eye, and ask, do you really believe in this good news?

It’s been an uphill battle, to be sure, but tonight, I am finally back to the place where I can say, with full conviction that, yes, I do believe that the birth of a baby in a backwater town, to an unwed mother, two thousand years ago is good news for all people.  I believe it, in part, because I have come to know this child, Jesus, in my life in many different ways.  Earlier this week, at the funeral service for the longest-tenured member of this congregation, Jesus came to me as the Good Shepherd depicted in the window above me.  He arrived as a comforter who promises to carry me through those moments when I just can’t handle one more thing.  I’m grateful to Good Shepherd Jesus because he got me through the hardest parts of this week.

As the week went on, however, I found another Jesus creeping into my consciousness.  This Jesus knew that I had a sermon to write for tonight and just kept nagging at me to tell his story.  This Jesus is the baby Jesus, but not the tender and mild one you see in nativity scenes the world over.  Instead, this Jesus was first introduced to me in the 2006 theological wonder known as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Ricky Bobby, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Farrell, is a successful NASCAR driver.  One night, as he, his wife, kids, father-in-law, and best friend sit down to a dinner made up of all his sponsors, Ricky began to pray,

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell… Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also want to thank you for my wife’s father, Chip, we hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg… Dear tiny, infant Jesus…”

When challenged with the fact that Jesus did, in fact, grow up, Ricky responds, “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teen-age Jesus, or bearded Jesus, whoever you want…” He folds his hands and bows his head again and says, “Dear tiny Jesus, in your Golden Fleece diapers with your tiny, little, fat balled up first…”
Again, Ricky is challenged, “He was a man, he had a beard!”  Ricky finally finishes his prayer, “Dear eight-pound six-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We just thank you for all the races I’ve won… thank you for all your power and your grace dear baby God, Amen.”

It is very strange to hear it out loud, but I think that this is often the way we pray. “Dear tiny infant Jesus” is a pleasant way to picture our God. And, you know, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that image of Jesus. It is part of what makes Christmas so special. God came to earth to put creation back together not by appearing magically out of thin air, but through the natural means by which a human being comes it this world. God entered the world just as helpless as the rest of us. God arrived as “dear tiny infant Jesus” – fully God and fully human.

God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  In that same dinner prayer scene, Ricky’s friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. tells Ricky, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says like I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too…” and “I like to think of Jesus with giant, eagle’s wings and singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an angel band…”  Ricky’s oldest son, Walker tells his dad that he likes to think of Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.  Like I said, God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  The good news for all people is that in the incarnation, God became human so that humanity might become like God.

Incarnation is a fancy church word, and for that I’m sorry. It is created by combining two Latin words. The first, y’all know well, “in” which means, well, in. The second is “carnis” which means flesh. In – Flesh. Theologically, it is the understanding that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation means that God was one of us. It means that as Jesus experienced desires, temptations, frustrations, joys; all the messiness of life as a human being, it became a part of God.  As Jesus experienced them, so too did God.  Jesus being “in flesh” means that the gap between God and humanity was bridged; our relationship was restored. God, having now felt what it is like to be a human, to have a will that is prone to messing up, knows more fully what it means when we come to God with all of our joys and all of our sorrows. God was “in flesh” on earth! This is the good news of Christmas; God intervening radically in creation to restore our relationship; not just as a helpless baby, but throughout the life of experiences of teenage Jesus and grown-up, bearded Jesus.

Not only does God experience what it is like to be human, but we have a chance to see how God would have us live. The other side of the Incarnation coin is that God is made comprehensible by being “in flesh.” In the full life of Jesus, we see a life lived fully in accordance with God’s will. From Jesus’ first cry as an infant to his final gasp for breath on the cross, we get in the life of Jesus a life lived in perfect harmony with God. And, to be honest, we see that it isn’t all that demanding. It begins with a life lived modeling tiny-infant-Jesus; looking up with wide-eyed awe at the splendor of God’s creation; recognizing our full dependence on God for all things. As we grow in faith, we become more like teenage Jesus, getting to know God through Worship and the word. And then, as we mature, the model becomes grown-up-bearded Jesus. His life was one of service to the poor, outcast, sick, widowed, and orphaned. It was a life lived sharing the good news of God’s divine justice for the oppressed, the sad, and the lonely. It is a full life; from birth to death; a life lived from Sunday to Saturday – week after week after week.

The incarnation is all about God’s love for us overflowing. It is about God coming “in flesh” to show us how to live in response to that great love. As we gather this night to celebrate the Incarnation in the Nativity of tiny-infant Jesus we take that first step. As we leave tonight to await Santa’s arrival, we enter the world refreshed and renewed; ready to live another year in the model of the life of God “in flesh”. We prepare ourselves for another try at living in full harmony with the will of God. But we go, not filled with our own abilities, but instead empowered by the Holy Spirit, glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen; excited for what a life lived with Jesus has in store.

Thanks be to God for sending Jesus to us in exactly the way we need him: newborn infant Jesus; teen-aged Jesus, Good Shepherd Jesus, Ninja Jesus, or Lynyrd Skynyrd Jesus. Thanks be to God for being willing to restore all of creation by living as one of us. And thanks be to God for the perfect model of Kingdom living. May God fill us to overflowing for another year of trying to live that life. Amen.

Wilbur Chocolate Christmas

       When I was a kid, I rode the bus to school.  Every morning, my sister and I would head down the hill to the corner of Blossom Hill Drive and Delp Road to wait for Bus 32 to arrive.  The bus stop was a little spit of grass, between the fence line and the intersection, marked by a red fire hydrant.  Growing up in Amish Country, like I did, most days, with the prevailing winds out of the west, the air was thick with the smell of cow manure wafting from the bucolic farms that still surrounded our rapidly sprawling community.  It wasn’t a pleasant smell, as you might guess, but we were used to it, so most days, it wasn’t terrible.  There were a few mornings, however, when the winds would shift and begin to blow from the north.  Those days were the best days, as the smell of cow manure was replaced by the aroma drifting off the Wilbur Chocolate Factory.  It didn’t matter how long we had to wait for the bus on Wilbur Chocolate days, we were glad to stand around and enjoy the scent of chocolate hanging in the air.

       I’ve reminisced a lot about the differences between Wilbur Chocolate days and normal bus stop days as I’ve thought about how different Christmas looks and feels in 2020 than in other years, especially as it relates to the Nativity scene and the birth of our Lord.  Most years, the manger we imagine is a Wilbur Chocolate, Norman Rockwell scene.  We tend to romanticize the story of Jesus’ birth with images of quiet cattle resting and sheep gently nibbling on grass.  The air smells of the sweetness of hay.  Mary and Joseph, despite the long journey and arduous, first century, birthing process, are well groomed, in neatly pressed attire, ready to receive the shepherds as guests and, if that one Christmas song is to be believed, even willing to put up with a little drummer boy offering the only gift he could muster.  Then there is the baby Jesus, no crying he makes, wrapped in swaddling clothes, tender and mild, and lying in the manger, aglow with the radiance of God’s glory.

In 2020, however, I wonder if we’re able to see a more accurate portrayal of the Nativity.  A scene more like the one evoked by a tweet I saw earlier this week.  “‘Infant so tender and mild’ suggests the existence of a spicy baby.”[1]  What if, instead of the sweet smell of hay, our noses were more in tune with Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Toddy County, Kentucky and the scent of animal… by-products?  Mary, her hair matted from sweat and her eyes puffy from tears, is doing her best to hold it together, as she takes it all in, wondering what exactly she signed up for when Gabriel appeared before her nine months ago.  Meanwhile, Joseph, unsure of exactly how to help, keeps watch from the entrance of the small cave cut into the hill.  The baby, well, he might be quiet now, but we all know that won’t last long.  Tender and mild, KFC Jesus will be Popeye’s spicy soon enough.  The animals are restless, as the shepherds with their own particular aroma and colorful language, tell a story that is too fantastic to be believed.  All of this comes before the three wise men bring gifts suitable for embalming and Simeon promises Mary that her son’s life story would ultimately be a sword that pierces her heart.  It isn’t exactly the olive woodcut scene we’re used to, but there is a gift in the messiness.

Here’s what I love about Christmas.  Whether the experience is cow manure or Wilbur chocolate, the truth is that God is there.  The hardship of 2020 might have removed some of the misty romance from our Christmas celebrations, but the good news about the birth of Jesus is that God enters the darkness to bring light; God enters the messiness to bring restoration; God enters a fearful and violent world to bring hope and peace.  Christmas doesn’t have to be a Hallmark movie set, ripped from the pages of Pinterest, smelling like a Yankee candle to be perfect.  Instead, maybe the perfect Christmas is the messiness of opening presents over Facetime, while eating cookies that were shared via a no-contact-porch-drop, in a house that smells like dog because you haven’t vacuumed the couch in longer than you’d like to admit.  It’s perfect not because it has all the right trappings, but because God has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

Luke’s Gospel is clear that the first Christmas was far from perfect.  Whether it was the Emperor moving people around like puppets on a string or that the only room available for Mary to give birth to Jesus was a musty feed barn, the circumstances into which the Son of God was born aren’t what anyone would have imagined.  Yet still, the angels appear to the shepherds living in the fields, and proclaim good news of great joy for all the world.  “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”  No matter the messiness of it all, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One has been born for us, and the once dark world is now bright with the light of Christ.

We will probably remember 2020 as a year filled with cow manure, but today, the winds have shifted and the sweet aroma of hope is upon us.  In the birth of Jesus, a light has shined on all who live in deep darkness.  Through Christ, we are able to see past the hardships of today as we work to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more compassionate world.  Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more peaceful society.  The winds of change are upon us this morning.  God is here.  May your Christmas be a Wilbur Chocolate day in a year of Amish Farms, for unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.


[1] https://twitter.com/vivarockbella/status/1336378854282153984

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.

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.

A Romans 13 Advent

The one exception to my rant against the ant-Christmas Advent mafia comes by way of the Revised Common Lectionary.  Until my one man campaign to change the liturgical calendar, moving Advent to November and expanding Christmas from the Sunday after Thanksgiving through Epiphany, is successful (spoiler alert – it never will be thanks to the lies we tell ourselves about the way things have always been) we will be stuck with some pretty tough lessons on the Sundays leading up to Christmas.  Year A is no exception.

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One of the cliches of the secular Christmas season is the Christmas party at which somebody/everybody drinks too much.  A quick Google image search of “Christmas party” leads to lots and lots of pictures of champagne toasts and people having way more fun than is humanly possible.  Pre-2019, this was coupled with tales of random hook-ups at office parties and icky stories of harassment by drunk executives.  Yet, on Sunday morning in Advent 1, Year A, we will hear Paul encouraging the fledgling Church to be ready for Christ’s second coming by living “honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

Over the course of this past year, my own relationship with alcohol has changed quite a bit.  After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, my new medication had printed twice on the label something like “do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.”  After more than a decade and a half of being “a couple of beers after work” guy, I’ve become more of a “occasional good glass of bourbon” guy.  In the initial stages, I went something like 3 months without a drop of alcohol and realized just how consumed with booze our culture is.  TV, movies, advertising, social commentary, dining out, whatever it is, the norm in our culture seems to include alcohol, and too much of it.

Maybe it makes sense, then, that we are met on Advent 1 by Romans 13:11-14.  Perhaps in the lead up to the greatest joy earth has ever known, we might set aside the things that dull us to the pains of the world; that which tries to fill our never ending search for joy and happiness.  I’m not saying everyone needs to take a dry Advent, but certainly we ought to avoid the traditional office party cliches that Paul names directly: drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness.  A Romans 13 Advent invites us to look forward with clear minds and open hearts to the good news of great joy that will come to us again on Christmas.

New Year’s Resolution

It is that time again.  The people involved change.  They take on new monikers like Weird Anglican Twitter (WAT).  The arguments are more or less obvious.  Yet, it happens like clockwork.  Every year, about two weeks after that one FM station switches over to all Christmas all the time and those big box hardware stores are filled with inflatable things  of all kinds wearing Santa hats the snotty Episcopal crowd gets all fussy about the liturgical calendar.  “Christmas starts December 25th,” they cry out into the void of their slowly dying congregations.  For the one time all year when the American mindset is, even with impure motives, focused on peace, joy,  and love – the things that Jesus found pretty important – Episcopalians on social media are trying to wrap a wet blanket on the whole season.

It is that time of year again wherein I rebel against this craziness.  Let me be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness and invite you, dear reader, to cast off these works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.  If you need to put your tree up in November, its ok, I promise you it doesn’t cause early snows (that’s unchecked greed and climate change).  If you need to belt out “All I Want for Christmas is You,” in your best-worst Mariah Cary impersonation, go for it.  You need the Muppets and John Denver Christmas album, I affirm your choice.  Rather than getting all fussy about timing, I’m happy to embrace the best parts of the Christmas season.  It seems this year, maybe more than ever, “We all need a little Christmas now.”

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What I would recommend this Advent season is to, in the midst of your Christmas revelry and before the pressure of the Gregorian Calendar New Year weighs heavy, is that you take this changing of the season and the liturgical new year, to make your new year’s resolution.  Here’s mine – to take better care of my spiritual self.

Life is busy.  With kids involved in stuff, work always in my pocket, and my schedule increasingly not under my control, I’ve lost my moorings.  As you have seen, blogging was the first to go.  The 20 or 30 minutes that were so easy to find in seminary, as an associate, and even in my early days as a Rector seem more elusive as the days roll by.  The Daily Office held on longer, but it too has succumb to the pressures of my own making.  So, here’s my Advent 1 New Year’s Resolution – to get back to it.  To read the Daily Office with regularity and to write on this here blog, or if that’s not feeding my soul anymore, to find a new spiritual discipline, in order to feed my soul.  As we enjoy the increased skyglow that comes with Christmas decorations, I ask you to pray for me in trying to keep my new year’s resolution and, if you share, I’ll pray for you in yours.

In the Quiet – a Christmas Day sermon

For all the pomp and circumstance of Christmas Eve, I have to think that maybe these quiet Christmas morning services are really what it’s all about.  Like Linus, standing alone in the spotlight, reciting the Christmas story, this morning’s service eschews all the glitz and glamor that has come to be associated with Christmas simply to focus on what is important – what is real.

“For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Amidst the twinkling lights, the torn paper, and the Carpenter’s Christmas album on repeat, this morning we pause to give thanks for a rather inauspicious birth that forever changed the world.  Mary and Joseph were nobody folk from a nowhere town.  They were forced to travel, against their will and despite Mary’s being great with child, in order to be counted in a census that was meant only to add to their tax burden.  They were late to arrive, and left to spend that most important night in a feel stall.  Lo and behold, it was time for the baby to be born.  As Jan Funk so wisely suggested in her Advent Devotion from a week or so ago, last night was anything but quiet.  Birth suites, no matter how finely appointed or carefully named by marketing experts, are still places filled with struggle, pain, noise, and of course, blood, sweat, and tears.

Now, we find ourselves in the morning after.  Mom and Dad, worn out from the long day that is past, are likely doing as little as possible.  Sleep when the baby sleeps, is as good advice now as it would have been back then.  As they try to rest and take stock of what is next for this little bundle of joy that came without an instruction manual, I’m guessing there were long periods of silence, interrupted only by Jesus’ need to eat or the cattle’s desire to move about.  In the silence of this morning’s service, perhaps we can find ourselves in that feed stall, alongside the holy family, in awe of what God is up to in this tiny, fragile, child who, in eight days, will be named Jesus, Hebrew for God saves.

Last night, as the Shepherds watched over their flocks, God entered the world.  In the darkness, on the margins, in the midst of turmoil, God showed up to save the world.  Today, and every day that follows, we are invited to live into that salvation.  We are invited to sit in the quietness of the morning after and to listen for the still small voice of God.  We are welcome to sit beside Mary as she ponders all of what has transpired over the last nine months in her heart.

As we sit with Mary, it seems to me that our reading from Isaiah comes into focus.  As we look upon the newborn child who will grow up to show us the way of justice and righteousness, it would behoove us not to get too lost in the fragility of this baby boy.  Rather, we who know the fullness of the story of Jesus who will be called the Christ, should use this moment of quiet reflection as an opportunity to remember our call as his disciples to be about the work of the Prince of Peace.  In this time of refreshment and renewal, we should be steeling ourselves for another year of working toward the dream of God.  The zeal of the Lord brought our Savior into this world on Christmas night, and that same zeal calls us ever forward, striving ever toward the Kingdom of Heaven, where every human being is treated with dignity and respect, where love never fails, and where joy is freely given to all.  The zeal of the Lord bring with it good news of great joy, my friends, for unto us is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Joyful Expectation

Audio and video of this will be available on the Christ Church website.


On the afternoon of April 23, 2017, Dennis Dickey and his pregnant wife journeyed out into the desert near Green Valley, Arizona with some family and friends excited to reveal whether the baby she was carrying was a boy or a girl.  This gender reveal party, and gosh am I glad my girls were born before these became a thing, was going to be unique.  Dennis Dickey was a US Border Patrol agent who used his skills to pack a small package full of a target practice material called tannerite.  From a safe distance away, Dickey shot the small package which exploded with a puff of blue  smoke.  For a moment, there must have been excitement and joy at the thought of welcoming a new baby boy into the family, but that quickly dissipated as the target’s fireball set the surrounding brush ablaze.  In a video made available by the US Forest Service, you can hear the tone quickly change to panic as they pack up their belongings and hit the road.  That small brush fire rapidly spread into the Coronado National Forest, and became known as the Sawmill Fire, burning almost forty-seven thousand acres.   For almost a week, firefighters from some 20 agencies fought the fire, which caused more than eight million dollars in damage.[1]  This September, Dennis Dickey plead guilty to a misdemeanor, was sentenced to five years’ probation, and has to pay almost $8.2 million in restitution.  So much for the joyful moment of expectation.

To me, Advent 1 kind of feels like that gender reveal party that went terribly wrong.  The whole world outside these walls is decorated for Christmas.  Trees, lights, and pictures with Santa, the season of joy and giving is upon us.  Yet, here in church on Sunday morning, we’re stuck listening to Jesus, once again, predicting the end of the world and warning of signs in the heavens, distress among the nations, and people literally fainting from fear and foreboding of what is to come.  As Becca said when we heard an almost identical lesson from Mark two weeks ago, where is the good news?  Where’s the hope?  Where’s the joy?  After another week of wars and rumors of wars, images of children running away from tear gas grenades, and an innocent black man who was the proverbial good guy with a gun being killed by police, can’t we just put up a tree, sing Joy to the World, click our heels together, and wish our way to Christmas?

Unfortunately, we cannot.  We are called to wait.  When Jesus told the crowd that “this generation” would not pass away before all these things came to pass, he wasn’t so much talking about the generation of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nathaniel, and Salome.  The Greek is more generic than simply meaning a 20-year period in which people are born.  This generation is an epoch, an era, or a season.  We are stuck here because here is where God is.  In the muck and mire, in the time in-between Jesus’ first coming – his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – and his second coming in a cloud with power and great glory to, as Billy reminded us last week, restore all things to their perfect state in God.  What defines this generation is our call to wait, not as idle observers, but as participants in the preparation: co-creators of the Kingdom of God.

Important things in life take time to plan, prepare, and bring to fruition.  Rome was not built in a day, and neither is Thanksgiving dinner.  It requires us to make a menu, develop a grocery list, and to know how long things take to cook.  You can’t pull a turkey out of the freezer at 9am on Thanksgiving Day and expect to sit down to a feast at 2.  The important things in life almost always take time, and then they are over in mere minutes.  Christmas takes at least a month of planning, shopping, and wrapping, and by 8am, the bags are filled with ripped paper and everybody is ready for a nap.  So too with the Kingdom of God.  Its arrival isn’t something that happens overnight.  Its preparation has taken two-thousand years.  It could take twenty-thousand more.

In the meantime, this generation, of which we are called to be a part, is one of waiting and preparation.  We are invited by Jesus to join with God in building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  “When you see these things begin to take place,” Jesus says, “stand up, and raise your hands.”  In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.

Disciples of Jesus are not able to sit idly by, fearfully waiting for the day of judgment.  Disciples of Jesus are called to lives of loving service while we wait.  We are called to avoid the causal anesthetics of this life.  Jesus calls them dissipation and drunkenness.  We might call them iPhones, Facebook arguments, cable news, or retail therapy.  Jesus warns us not to get so caught up in the here and now, be it the evil that we see around us, or the pacifiers we use to numb our fear-filled minds, that we lose sight of the bigger plan of restoration, renewal, and redemption.  It is easy to become numb to the bigger picture when all we see on a day-to-day basis are the painful realities of sin, but to get caught in the cycle of anger and fear or to allow ourselves to get drunk on groupthink and the comfort of being right is to lose focus on the signs that point to something larger, something more hopeful.

Just as the signs that Jesus talked about: wars, fear, and distress; have been around since the beginning, there have also always been signs of hope.  Even when things seem to be at their worst, we see people caring for those in need through acts of compassion and charity, strangers willing to love their unknown neighbor as themselves.  To borrow from Jesus’ metaphor, the fig tree has been coming into leaf for quite some time.  The Kingdom of God, even in our most godforsaken moments, is near at hand.  It has broken in through the birth of our Savior on Christmas and it will come to full fruit when Jesus returns with power and might.  In the meantime, as we long for moments of joy and hope amidst what can feel like the brushfire of everyday life, we are invited by Jesus to stand up, raise up our heads, roll up our sleeves, and get about the work of God: restoring all of humanity to right relationship with God and one another.  Are we willing to do that work? Will we be able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and to restore?  Be on guard.  Be alert.  Get to work.  As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both as an infant born of Mary and as the King of kings on judgment day, we are invited to a season of joyful expectation, of hope for the future, and of God’s great gift for the world.  Amen.

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/27/us/arizona-gender-reveal-party-sawmill-wildfire-trnd/index.html