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.

The False Idol of Peace

It is startling to read it.  I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to hear.  The Rabbi who had made a career out of bringing people in, no matter what it was that had put them out, now stands before the disciples and says, “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  They didn’t even have 150 years of the Christmas Industrial Complex messing up their heads with saccharine images of radically counter-cultural events capped, without any sense of irony, with the phrase “Peace on Earth” boldly emblazoned above or below.

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This idea of peace has, in many ways, become an idol for modern, western Christians.  That following Jesus would mean power, privilege, and comfort is so beyond the pale of what it meant to be a disciple in the first three centuries after Christ’s resurrection that I’m not sure Jesus would have any idea what he was looking at if he met the average white, middle-class, American Christian on their way to church on a Sunday morning.

Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth.  Even before he said it, we should have known.  By breaking bread with notorious sinners and tax collectors, he challenged the status quo.  By healing on the sabbath, he challenged the status quo.  By talking with women, by challenging the religious authorities, by speaking in parables, bringing the dead back to life, and by preaching the Kingdom of God, he challenged the status quo.  Everything Jesus did and said pushed against the notion that God is supposed to work for us, making our lives peaceful, and challenged future disciples to be prepared for difficulties that would come when they tried to follow his example.

Living out the Law of the Kingdom that Christ came to inaugurate means loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It means loving your neighbor as yourself.  It means laying down idols like peace, security, comfort, power, and privilege.  It means putting the needs of the other ahead of your own.  It means sharing with those who are in need.  It means calling to account systems of oppression and degradation.  I means voting based on something other than “it’s the economy, stupid.”  It means shopping based on something other than the cheapest price tag.  It means, as our exemplars in the faith like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Jeremy Taylor, Florence Nightingale, and Clare of Assisi can attest, being downright uncomfortable because the living out of our faith puts us at direct odds with the leaders of our time.

As one whose livelihood depends upon the gifts of others, I’m preaching to myself here.  Peace is an idol for me because it means keeping my family fed, clothed, and housed.  I’ve not always said what the Gospel would have me say or lived the way that Christ would have me live, but day-by-day, my faith grows a little stronger, my trust grows a little deeper, and the ledge feels just a little bit safer.  May each of us find that place where the idol of peace can be set aside and the revolutionary Gospel of Jesus Christ can be fully proclaimed.

Called to be better

At my ordination to the priesthood, I had to make several promises.  I declared before God, my bishop, and God’s people, that I felt called to a ministry that, among other things, requires me to “love and serve the people among whom I work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  I vowed to “undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom I am called to serve, laboring together with them and with my fellow ministers to build up the family of God” I try, to the best of my abilities and with God’s help, to help make the “reconciling love of Christ be known and received” in the world (1).  I take this work very seriously as I pastor a community that is very diverse theologically and politically.  It is my duty as a minister of the Gospel to offer the kind of care, compassion, and love to the members of my congregation who are stringent supporters of the President and his loudest critics.  It is my sincere hope that anyone you might ask here at Christ Church, Bowling Green or back at St. Paul’s in Foley, AL would tell you that I treated them with respect and compassion.

Of course, I have my own opinions on things, but I work hard to keep them to myself.  My political inclinations are based on both my own life experiences and my reading of the Scriptures, especially the words of Jesus who summed up the law in two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  I don’t dare tell others how to vote, knowing that their life experiences and religious convictions will never be the same as mine.  I do, however, think that I am obliged as a minister of the Gospel to speak up anytime that the inherent dignity of any human being or group of people is being denied them.  I’ve done it before, at the death of Osama Bin Laden, after the Pulse nightclub shooting, and about certain draconian immigration reform policies.  I feel compelled to do it again as there seems to be a distinct uptick in the racist rhetoric of xenophobia, islamaphobia, and white supremacy spreading throughout our nation, beginning in Washington, DC.

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As a disciple of Jesus Christ, who believes that all are made in the image of God, and is called to be a faithful pastor to all I serve, it would be a violation of my ordination vows to be silent in the wake of language that denigrates whole communities of people from Somalia to Baltimore as being less than.  In line with the clergy at the Washington National Cathedral, I affirm that the language being used by our President and several of his supporters has no place in a country that likes to consider itself Christian.  God loves us just as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us there.  Instead, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to a higher calling, lifting up those in need, caring for the marginalized, and allowing the love which we have experienced in Christ Jesus flow out into the world.

In his letter to the Colossians that is appointed for this Sunday, Paul implores the community to follow the example of Christ by giving up their old ways of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.”  As the inheritors of that Christian tradition, all who claim to follow Jesus should endeavor to do the same.  So you, dear reader, whether a preacher, a dedicated lay person, or someone just dabbing into the waters of the Christian faith, I invite you to join in modeling for and expecting from our elected leaders a basic respect for all of our siblings in the human family.  We do not need to agree on everything to still love one another as Christ loves us.  Rather, in the renewal of our hearts and minds through the cleansing waters of baptism, all of us whether Republican or Democrat, recent refugee or Daughters of the American Revolution, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Roman Catholics are called to lives our lives following the example of Jesus Christ, who is all and in all, in the world that desperately needs the restoration and redemption that comes from God’s saving love.


(1) BCP, 531-2, emphasis mine.

Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.

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At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

A Key Missing Detail

The story of the Transfiguration occurs four times in the New Testament.  Each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – have their own version, though it is likely that Matthew and Luke based their stories off of Mark’s original.  It also shows up in the Second Letter of Peter, one of only a handful of references to the ministry of Jesus in the letters.  On Sunday, we’ll hear Luke’s account, and there is plenty to be gleaned from what occurs in which version of the story, but what has really struck me today is that there seems to be a key detail missing in three out of the four versions of the Transfiguration.

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One of the surest signs in Scripture that one is having a true theophanic experience are the words “Do not be afraid” or “have no fear.”  We hear it again and again from the lips of angels, from the resurrected Jesus, and even the Lord God Almighty.  It is the first word of comfort to those who are, understandably, afraid of what they are seeing before their very eyes.  It seems only reasonable, then, that somewhere in a scene in which Jesus’ clothes are described as a flash of lightening, we might hear someone offer these words of comfort to the terrified Peter, James, and John.  Yet, Luke, Mark, and 2 Peter are all silent.

Matthew’s Gospel includes it, but only after the whole scene has ended.  Peter, James, and John, having all but fainted with fear, are met by Jesus, now all alone, who touches them and tells them to “be resurrected” and “have no fear.”  I can’t help but wonder, given that only eight days ago (in Luke), Jesus had told them about his death and called on them to lose their lives for his sake, why this particular phrase is missing.

Part of it, I supposed, is the reality that fear is an appropriate reaction to what they are seeing and experiencing.  In the thought of ancient Israel, to encounter God was to die, and not only were they seeing Jesus brought to glory right before their very eyes and Elijah and Moses standing alongside him, but the cloud of God’s presence was right there, looming right above them.  If they weren’t afraid, there was something wrong with them.  But to what end?  What purpose does their fear serve?  Is it, quaking in your boots fear and trembling?  Or, as is more likely, is it the holy awe that is often associate with the fear of the Lord?

Not a lot of answers today as my mind runs in 30 different directions, but I know this, there must be something to that fear.  Some reason that these words aren’t there.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Proverbs tell us, and maybe that’s the gift the disciples received on that holy mountain: the beginning of wisdom.

Ironic Jesus

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy, and reading it in context doesn’t seem to help.  After sending his Apostles out with the instructions we’ve heard over the past three weeks, Jesus returned to his own ministry of healing and preaching.  Matthew doesn’t reiterate Jesus’ message, but we know that on this missionary journey, like all the others, he has be proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near.  This is the same message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry at the Jordan (see Mt 3).  Interestingly, it is during this time that John, now in prison, sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It is in response to this question from John the Baptist that Jesus engages in the teaching we will hear on Sunday.  The seemingly random aside about children in the marketplace, the woes to unrepentant cities that the lectionary skips, and even this prayer to the Father about thing hidden from the wise, are all a result of John’s somewhat surprising questioning of Jesus’ Messiahship.  But what really strange about all of this is how Jesus wraps it all up by saying, ““Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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That’s a serious eye roll, Ironic Jesus!

Is Jesus being ironic here?  After a chapter of pretty difficult apocalyptic teaching, he’s going to end with “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”?  Has he not heard himself for the last five minutes?  He has literally just condemned Bethsaida and Capernaum, the home towns of several of his disciples, to a fate worse than Sodom for their unbelief.  What is easy about this faith if John the Baptist can’t handle it?  How light can the burden possibly be if these towns filled with faithful Jews can’t carry his teaching?

Preachers, and by that I mean, I tend to isolate this final verse from the rest of the lesson and talk about how a Rabbi’s yoke was his teaching, and how Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbor would seem downright easy compared to the teaching of the Pharisees, but in context, what Jesus is suggesting is downright heavy.  That is, until we remember that the task of the disciple is not to accomplish faith on our own, but rather to allow Jesus to carry it for us.  John was struggling.  In prison for his teaching and looking at the horizon of his own demise, he wanted to be sure that he had done the right thing.  His faith faltered, if only for a moment, and he looked for reassurance.  What he got was the word that being in prison was exactly where he was supposed to be, and that while his burden seemed heavy, God was there to help lighten the load.  His death would not be in vain.  His faith, unstable as it might have been at the time, would not fail.  The burden of following Jesus, even to death, is light because we are not invited to carry it alone.

Hope does not disappoint?

Borrowing from the Unitarian reformer (yes, such a thing exists) Theodore Parker, in several of his famous speeches, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered this reflection on the hope of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Given the time in which he lived, it would have been easy for Dr. King to give up that hope.  It wasn’t just your run of the mill racists who seemed to be working against the bend toward justice, but governments, and even entire denominations were working hard to keep this nation that was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” from ever making that foolish claim in the Declaration of Independence a reality.

Some 50 years later, Parker’s original quote seems more apt than even the Dr. King paraphrase, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”  In a nation where angry rhetoric is spilling over into actual violence, it is hard to see much hope beyond the horizon that the arc toward justice creates.  I can honestly say that in my own thoughts, at times, I wonder if there really is any hope in the sort of peace that comes when every human being is afforded the rights and responsibilities of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I fear that my children will only know a world of bitterness, anger, vitriol, and violence.

Thanks be to God, that at just the right time, I am reminded to never give up hope.  This week’s short lesson from Romans, though used to great damage by religious leaders who send battered wives back to their husbands or keep whole peoples from rising up against oppression because “we should boast in our suffering,” can and should be redeemed by the telos of our collective suffering.  For all who struggle with hope, for all who wonder if justice will ever roll down, for all who lament the violence and the fear mongering, Paul offers these words:

“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The reason we continue to hope, despite growing evidence to the contrary, is because God’s love is at work in the world.  This isn’t some ethereal claim of ooey-gooey love without substance, but the reality that God’s love has hands and feet and hearts through the Holy Spirit given to each of us in baptism.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus are, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the agents of hope in the world.  We are they who should be calling for justice.  We are they who should be working for peace.  We are they who should be offering compassion.  We, who can see only as far as the horizon, with the help of the Holy Spirit, must continue to work to bring the end of the arc into focus.

In times like these, hope can be difficult, but with God’s help, we who continue to hope and work for a just society will not be disappointed.