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 Great Rummage Sale

As my sabbatical draws to a close, I’m thankful to once again be preparing a sermon for Sunday.  Though I am out of the habit and am feeling quite rusty, there is something about being immersed in the study of Scripture that is soothing to my soul.  While I’m not particularly excited about the way in which the great Revised Common Lectionary divining rod has decided to reenter Mark’s Gospel after what felt like 100 weeks in John’s Bread of Life Discourse, it does serve as a great bridge for me from my last sermon through sabbatical time to everyday parish ministry.

My thesis, the proposal for which you can read here, takes a look at the ways in which The Episcopal Church might be well suited to meet the needs of a changing America.  This assumes that we can all agree that things are changing.  Having received some pushback from at least one professor who thinks that this time is no different than any other, I set my sights on the great Phyllis Tickle and her book, The Great Emergence.  Tickle cites the late bishop of Bethlehem (PA), Mark Dyer, in arguing that though our time is not unique, it is a rare moment of opportunity for the Church to engage in the hard work of a rummage sale.

“About every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace [1] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” [2]

In many ways, the Church today: be it Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and even non-denominational conservative evangelical; can be accused of the same thing.  Each expression of the Christian faith can be accused of worshiping its worship.  Each can be called to task for paying attention to their own desires over the dream of God.  Each can be accused of inviting God to bless their plans rather than fulfilling God’s plan for them.  Jesus’ message is as needed today as it was in the Synagogue 2,000 years ago.  We must move beyond our obsession with tradition in order to live more fully into the kingdom of God.  The work is not easy, there really is some awesome crap crammed in there, but the task of cleaning house, of seeking to follow God more closely, is certainly holy.


[1] The hard upper shell of a turtle, crustacean, or arachnid.
[2] The Great Emergence, 16.

Binding and Loosing

I had breakfast this morning with a parishioner and friend, WEV.  During the course of our conversation, he mentioned how much he’s enjoyed our journey through Romans 12 over the past two weeks.  At one point he said something to the effect of, “I get the idea of an Acts 2 or and Acts 8 church, but I really want to be part of a Romans 12 church.”  I’m sure he’ll comment here if I ask him what he thinks of being a Matthew 18 church?

The lesson for Sunday is a profoundly dangerous one, which has, as you might expect, been utilized by less than scrupulous religious leaders to oppress and victimize the faithful.  Because of that, many will suggest that we just ignore Matthew 18:15-20, which is, I suspect, precisely why the RCL has decided to include it in the three year lectionary.  This whole notion of binding and loosing, a power which was given exclusively to Peter in Matthew 16:19 is now being given to all of the disciples in 18:18.  Taken with the “If two of you agree on anything, it will be done for you,” the preacher is presented with a particular challenge this Sunday.

  • Some Christians forbid dancing, so is dancing forbidden in heaven?  And if so, how come both of my children have been dancing since before they could walk?

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  • Some Christians forbid alcohol, so is alcohol forbidden in heaven?  And if so, why did Jesus use wine for his Last Supper and command us to “do this in remembrance” of him?
  • Some Christians allow for same-sex marriage, so are same-sex relationships allowed for in heaven? And if so, why do so many others agree that they aren’t?
  • Some Christians take Mark 16:9-20 literally, so is snake handling cool in heaven?  And if so, why do so many others think the long ending of Mark is a late addition?

The list of these questions goes on and on.  In the end, they are all quite unhelpful because the Church has been shifting the list of what is bound and what is loosed since the very beginning: from circumcision and the Law of Moses to whether priests can get married to whether women can be ordained to whether Jesus can be manifest gluten free bread.  What is helpful, however, is that Matthew 18:15-20 reminds that we are part of something much larger than our own congregational context.  As Christians, we take our place in a long history of people who have struggled with how best to be disciples of Jesus.  From Peter and Paul to you and me, we do our best to follow Jesus, but each of us fails from time to time.  Each of us needs to seek forgiveness and be restored to right relationship with God and one another.  The good news is that we aren’t making it all up as we go along.  Instead, we have 2,000 years of examples of those who have done it well and those who have failed miserably to try to figure out how we, in our place and time, can follow Jesus as faithfully as possible.