Friday, December 31, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Is That New?

Today's meditation from Richard Rohr begins, "We do not think ourselves into new ways of living.  We live ourselves into new ways of thinking."  Newness is a recurring theme for Christians.  We speak of the portion of Scripture beginning with the gospels as a "New" Testament.  And in today's epistle reading Paul writes, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

At Christmas, we celebrate the new thing God does in the Incarnation, God's love taking on flesh in Jesus.  But while we marvel at what God does, while we love to remember and retell the stories connected to Christmas, sometimes we seem content simply to believe in and worship God's newness without actually joining it.

I think this can be especially problematic for folks like myself who grew up in the Church.  Always surrounded by the elements of the faith, it is sometimes difficult for me to think of that same faith making me over into something new.  Faith can seem to be mostly about tradition and status quo, not about the radical newness that Paul says comes to us in Christ.

And my personal difficulty with being made new in Christ has ramifications for the Church's ability to share the faith with others.  The newness Paul has found in Jesus is the most exciting thing he has to share with others.  But if I do not experience any newness in Christ, what do I have that I can share?

It might be a useful exercise for all Christians to occasionally ask themselves, "What is different about my life because of Jesus?"  And I do not think anything having to do with one's status after death is an appropriate answer to this question.  Not that this status is of no concern or importance, but it does not speak to the new quality of life that both Paul and Jesus speak of constantly. 

As the recent celebrations of Christmas are slipping out of view, what new thing emerges for you out of its message of hope and newness?  As we celebrate the fresh slate of a New Year, how does the remarkably new thing God does in Christ continue to work its newness in our lives so that we can share its joy and hope with the world?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - The Bible Tells Me So

I saw an opinion piece in the newspaper the other day discussing the "truth" of the biblical Christmas story.  The author, who argued for the historical truth of the Luke nativity story, seemed unaware of the conflict between Matthew and Luke regarding Jesus' origins.  (Both writers say Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but Luke has the family come to Bethlehem because of a Roman registration while Matthew assumes they are residents of Bethlehem who end up in Nazareth only because of the threat from Herod.)  But of more concern to me, the opinion piece seemed not to appreciate some basic problems inherent in "believing" the Bible.

Such problems are on display in today's reading from John.  Jesus' opponents use Scripture to buttress their argument that he cannot be the Messiah.  "Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee."  Like many modern day arguments that end with, "See, it's right there in the Bible," the religious authorities of Jesus' day find proof positive right there in the Bible.

I've always loved the ordination vows my denomination uses for pastors, elders, and deacons.  The first speaks of Jesus as Lord of all and Head of the Church, and the one through whom we know the triune God.  The second speaks of the Old and New Testament as "the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ..."  These vows call me to follow Jesus as I see him revealed in Scripture.  And that is a bit different than simply believing the Bible or using it as a proof text.

My Reformed/Calvinist tradition has also seen idolatry as one of the more fundamental human problems.  We are forever substituting things other than God for God.  And sometimes Christians do this with the Bible.  We can use Scripture to confine God within the limits that we find comfortable.  We can use Scripture to create God in our image.

This is a temptation for all of us, regardless of denomination or religious leanings.  And there is no easy solution.  But fighting this tendency requires a much greater knowledge of the Bible than most of us have.  It requires us to listen to the larger witness of Scripture so that we get the best possible picture of Jesus as he is witnessed to there.  And it requires a real humility about our own certainties, so that are open to the surprising and amazing ways in which God comes to us.  Otherwise, we could find ourselves rejecting the living Christ just like the religious leaders in our gospel today.  "Oh, that can't be God.  See, it says so right here in the Bible."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - New Beginnings

The world is slowly returning to “normal” following Christmas.  There may yet be a few after-Christmas shopping excursions, but it feels less and less like Christmas to many.  Never mind that for the Church, the season of Christmas runs to January 6.  Christmas is over.

At least it is for those who look for Christmas to inject a bit of momentary magic into their lives and then fade away.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a little Christmas magic as much as the next person, but this seasonal lift is only vaguely connected to Christian faith.  The sparse treatment of Christmas in the Bible reminds us that it is but the beginning of a story, the start of a new chapter in the story of God’s love for humanity.

But of course God’s love in nothing new.  It is on display in today’s reading from Isaiah.  The people of Israel look at their desperate situation and conclude that God has forsaken them.  But God responds, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

From its opening, the Bible continually tells us that God will not give up on humanity, that despite human foolishness and waywardness, God reaches out to us, God moves towards us.  The newness that Christmas reveals is the demonstration of just how far God will go in this work of reconciliation and healing.  Not only will God become fully immersed in the pain and suffering of humanity in Jesus, but God invites us into the work of healing and reconciling. 

Christmas begins a story that calls us to trust the promise of Isaiah, that God cannot forget us.  And when we can fully trust ourselves to that love, we can become more and more like Jesus, able to live out God’s love for the world, even when it is costly for us.  And this new beginning of Christmas is never “over.”  It is still making all things new.  It is still calling us to become new creations in Christ.  And it is still working to move the world toward the coming rule of God.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Not What We Got Ready For

Sunday Sermon audio - Not What We Got Ready For

After all our preparations for Christmas, the gospel reading from Matthew 2:13-23 drags us away from Christmas joy to Jesus in danger and babies killed by Herod.  Not what we might want to hear so close to Christmas day, but perhaps a voice calling us to embrace the season of Christmas and join in the new Exodus story that begins here.

On a day when we had a single, less formal worship service, this sermon was "off the cuff," and so there is no accompanying text to post.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Children's Pageant - Jesse, the Little Shepherd

Check my YouTube site to see a little higher video quality.

Spiritual Hiccups - Hope Is Born

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing... Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the  tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in  the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall  become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.

On Christmas Eve, the Daily Lectionary doesn't say much about Christmas.  The gospel does report the birth of John the Baptist, but nothing about a baby Jesus.  But the words of Isaiah speak the hope of this night.  The barren desert shall break forth in vegetation.  The blind shall see and the lame leap and run.  Death will turn to life, brokenness will be healed, and none will miss out on the fullness of life.

Tonight, as we remember a Savior's birth, we say that promise has arrived, and we celebrate.  Oh, we know that there is still much brokenness.  We know there are many who are denied anything close to full life.  But if, as Jesus himself insists, the Kingdom of God has drawn near with the Messiah's birth, then history is already being bent toward the end of brokenness and woundedness and death. 

As Christians, we do not for a moment deny the darkness of the world, the darkness into which comes the light.  We know that this light shines in the darkness, in the pain and brokenness of our world.  But we also know that the darkness cannot overcome the light.  We know that death cannot overcome the hope born tonight.  In Jesus, we see God at work in our world, moving history toward God's end. 

And so, even though we see the darkness, we see even more clearly the hope.  And so, no darkness can diminish the joy and celebration we experience, as we sing praises for the light, for Hope born this night.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Salvation Comes

In one more day, church pews will swell as people gather to celebrate the birth of a Savior.  It is easy to understand why the promise and hope of Jesus' birth draws lots of folks.  The notion of God with us, God for us, is incredibly compelling.  And the nativity story from Luke's gospel is so well known - even if you never have been to a church, you've at least heard in from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" - that many people don't feel like it's Christmas without hearing those words once more.

But as wonderful as those Christmas Eve services are, they are not without some difficulties for people of deep faith.  As an interesting piece in the New York Times, "A Tough Season for Believers," pointed out, Christmas Eve can be a troublesome reminder of how the Christmas story has become just another piece of seasonal entertainment for many Americans, along with going to the Nutcracker and watching "Miracle on 34th Street."

But some of the trivialization of Christmas may be our own doing.  We celebrate the birth of a Savior, but we often have defined salvation so narrowly that it's no wonder it doesn't carry much freight with the culture.  For many of us, salvation means little more than getting our tickets validated for heaven.  But this spiritualizing of salvation doesn't fit well with the biblical witness or with Jesus' own words.  Jesus speaks of a kingdom where God's will is done on earth, a rule that he insists has "drawn near."  Matthew's story of Jesus' birth takes pains to connect Jesus' story to that of Moses, to portray Jesus as a new Moses who rescues us. 

And today's psalm gives a good picture of what God's rescue and salvation looks like.
   I love you, O LORD, my strength.
   The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
         my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
         my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
   I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
         so I shall be saved from my enemies.
   The cords of death encompassed me;
         the torrents of perdition assailed me;  

   the cords of Sheol entangled me;
         the snares of death confronted me.
   In my distress I called upon the LORD;
         to my God I cried for help.
   From his temple he heard my voice,
         and my cry to him reached his ears.
   Then the earth reeled and rocked;
         the foundations also of the mountains trembled
         and quaked, because he was angry.

The Christmas story is about a God who takes decisive action to save, to bring the world back to its senses, to restore and set right.  It is not simply a moment of warmth to cheer us at this time of year.  It is the promise that God is active in human history, that God will bend human history to God's desire.

We modern people have become used to relegating God to a narrow, spiritual sphere that does not hold sway over large portions of our lives.  But Christmas insists that God comes surprisingly into the day to day.  It insists that God's salvation will stop at nothing short of a redeemed and restored world for all.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - "Singing Ahead of Time"

In yesterday's gospel, Mary appears as a model disciple who willingly answers God's call.  But today Mary is a prophet, singing ahead of time (to borrow the title of a Barbara Brown Taylor sermon).  Mary is barely even pregnant, but she sings that God "has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts... has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly... has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."  Not that God will do these things but God has done these things.

As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in her sermon, prophets are forever getting their verb tenses wrong.  Biblical prophets generally do not predict the future in the mode of psychics or crystal ball gazers.  Rather they have a clearer sense of what God is up to, a better feel for the ways the world operates at odds with God's plans, and so a better sense of where that all leads.  And since Mary has already experienced God acting through the baby growing in her womb, she speaks of where this will end up as though it has already happened.

As much as many of us love Christmas, I'm not so sure we like where Mary sees things headed.  We're fine with the lowly and the hungry being helped out, but not so sure about the powerful and the rich being brought down.  We're not as sure about this reign of God that Mary experiences as already present in some way.

I know that I do not like to think that the abundance I enjoy is in any way a factor in others being kept down, in others being poor, powerless, and hungry.  I don't like to contemplate the possibility that I need to be brought down a few notches for the things to be set right.  And so I'd prefer to celebrate the joy of Christmas without seeing where it leads.  I'd rather not sing ahead of time with Mary.  I'd rather sing "Glory to God in the highest" along with the angels, visit the manger with the shepherds, say I'm glad that God is at work in the world, and leave it at that.  Jesus is simply a lot less trouble if all he ever does is get born and the rise from the dead at Easter.

I've said this before but think it bears repeating.  I think the Church lost its bearings when way back in the days of Constantine, it made an alliance with the powerful and the rich that required relocating the reign of God Mary sees to some heavenly bliss after we die.  But Mary doesn't say, "In heaven things will be different."  She does not speak of us going to a better place.  She speaks of God transforming this place by radically reordering things.  She says it is happening even now, but apparently God's Spirit must already be at work in us if we are to see it.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Mary's Costly "Yes"

If the Catholic Church has venerated Mary, we Protestants have largely ignored her, which is most unfortunate.  Not that I want to add "Ave Maria" to our choir's repertoire, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge her shining example of discipleship as depicted in Luke's gospel reading today. 

Most Christians know the story.  The angel Gabriel comes to the young Mary, telling her that she will conceive and give birth to a son named Jesus.  The problem with this plan is obvious to Mary, who explains to Gabriel that she is a virgin. But of course this is no problem with God involved.  As witnessed by the old and barren Elizabeth who is now pregnant, "nothing will be impossible with God."

Now I assume that Mary enters into this a bit like all parents.  No prospective parent fully realizes what will be required of her once the baby comes, once the terrible twos arrive, once the child becomes a teenager, and so on.  But I have to think that Mary knows this will not be easy.  Saying "Yes" to God will leave her pregnant before she's married, and, as she will learn shortly after Jesus is born, "a sword will pierce (her) own soul too."  But still Mary says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Since nothing is impossible for God, things proceed as Gabriel has said.  But what if Mary had said, "No" instead?  The story doesn't really consider that option, but still it seems that God's impossibility requires Mary's "Yes," just as it will continue to require a "Yes" from those Jesus calls to follow him.  I've never fully understood why God works this way, but God's plans, God's future, God's hope for a new day, all seem to require a "Yes" from people.  And that "Yes" almost always gets those people mixed up in all sorts of difficulties.

Over the centuries, Christians have sentimentalized the Christmas story, turned it into something all sweet and lovely.  But Mary's "Yes" turns her life upside down, and it will include watching her own son die horribly on a cross.  She can't possibly know all that when she speaks with Gabriel, but she seems to know her Scripture, and so she knows that whenever you say, "God, I'm your servant; do with me as you see fit," life is about to get messy.

And in the end, maybe this is why it is more palatable for Catholics to venerate Mary and for Protestants to regard her as little more than a teenage baby incubator.  Neither requires us to take seriously what it means to say "Yes" to God.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Saying "Yes" to Divine Dreams

The sound system stopped working on this Sunday, and so there was no working microphone.  The sound quality suffers somewhat.

Spiritual Hiccups - What Seemed To Be Dead

It happens over and over and over in the Bible.  God's newness springs from the most surprising places, from places that had been given up for dead.  The story goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, when God forms a covenant people from an old, childless couple.  The story echoes in the birth of Samuel to Hannah, in the return of exiles from Babylon, and in the beginning of Luke's story of Jesus.

Luke, the source for our Christmas nativities, begins his story with Elizabeth and Zechariah who "had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years."  It is another unlikely place to begin a story of hope and newness, with an elderly couple who have no children.  But once again, this is precisely where God starts.

In ancient times, barrenness was thought to be a curse from God.  Some texts speak of "God closing her womb."  And so in stories such as this one, God's newness not only comes from what appears dead, but from what is presumed to be cursed.

As we draw near to Christmas, congregations such as mine are planning their biggest extravaganzas of the year.  We will go all out to celebrate the birth of a Savior.  In one sense the is quite appropriate, but in another sense it mirrors our culture's notion that anything important and worth notice is big and vibrant and filled with activity.

Amidst all the Christmas frenzy, both inside and outside the Church, I wonder where, in a place that seems lifeless and hopeless, God is at work creating something new.  I wonder where we should turn our gaze so that we might see where God's newness is being born from what seemed to be dead.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Sermon audio - Saying "Yes" to Divine Dreams

Joseph was a "righteous man," a law-abiding, do-what-is-right, upstanding citizen, play-by-the-rules sort of guy. Yet for God's plans to move forward, he must break the rules and say "Yes" to a dream.

Saying Yes to Divine Dreams - Dec. 19, Advent 4.mp3

Text of Sunday Sermon - Saying "Yes" to Divine Dreams

Matthew 1:18-25
Saying “Yes” to Divine Dreams
James Sledge                                            December 19, 2010 – Advent 4

Joseph was a “righteous man.”  It says so right there in our gospel reading this morning.  Of course I’m not sure that very many of us have a real clear image of what a righteous man looks like.  After all, when was the last time you heard anyone called a righteous man or a righteous woman?  Not a term that get bandied around in everyday conversation.
So then, who in our world looks like Joseph?  Who would our gospel writer, if he were alive today, say is righteous? 
I thought about that question for a while when I was working on this sermon, trying to come up with something comparable for our day.  Occasionally when a person has died and I’m talking with people about a funeral, someone will say, “He was a good Christian fellow” or “a good Christian woman.”  That might be a candidate, except that I have learned over the years that this label gets applied to anyone who ever belonged to a church and isn’t a registered sex offender.
There are other possibilities, though: “a pillar of the community.”  We hear of people who have “great integrity and morals.”  There are those who always “do the right thing.”  There are “good citizens” and there are good sports who always “play by the rules.” 
I suppose that Joseph is all this and more.  After all, near the end of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus speaks of those who unwittingly fed him when he was hungry or visited him in prison when they did it to “the least of these,” he calls them “righteous.”
And so Joseph is the sort of fellow who always goes above and beyond, who returns the bag of money that falls from the armored truck, who pays the sales tax on the television he bought online, who always opens his wallet for the needy person who approaches him on the sidewalk, and gives at least 10% of his income to the local church.
Yet this Joseph is all set to undermine God’s plans when we first meet him.  He’s not doing it out of meanness or spite, but nonetheless, he is about to make the mother of Jesus a single mom in a world that offered no protections for such mothers or their children, in a world where only prostitutes were expected to find themselves alone with a child.
Joseph is a good and decent guy, a pillar of the community who always does the right thing, and so he doesn’t want to hurt Mary.  But there are rules, and the law is clear.  He will try to spare her and “dismiss her quietly.”  But of course people will still find out.  People will still talk.  But what else can Joseph do?  Rules are rules.
If you are a regular reader of the letters to the editor, you may have noticed the string of letters in the Columbus Dispatch sparked by Upper Arlington Lutheran pulling out of their denomination over objections to ordaining gays and lesbians.  In the usual way such letters go, someone spoke against what UALC did, prompting someone to defend them, which prompted someone to respond to that letter, and so on. 
None of the writers seemed to be official spokespersons for the church, so keep that in mind, but I was quite struck by a line in one the letters defending the decision to leave the denomination.  The writer argued that they had no choice.  They had to follow the rules.  In fact, said the letter writer, God is bound by those rules, too.  “God cannot trump his truth with his love. He will not.” 
I’m always a little surprised at the way some Christians think God’s love is confined within whatever boundaries they imagine for it.  Often these boundaries are lifted from the Bible, but the trouble is; there are often other passages in the Bible that show God crossing that very same boundary.  Jesus had no trouble routinely crossing religious boundaries that the church authorities of his day said were absolute.  Whether it was Sabbath keeping or not touching people who were “unclean,” both straight from the Bible, Jesus would ignore such rules if doing so allowed him to help someone, heal someone, or show God’s love.
And in our gospel verses this morning, Joseph finds himself in a position where embracing God’s plan means ignoring the rules and crossing religious boundaries.  Now I suppose we could get technical and say taking Mary as his wife only seems to be against the rules.  She isn’t pregnant because she cheated on Joseph; at least that’s what Joseph dreams. 
How many of you would make the sort of decision Joseph did on the basis of a dream?  “Joseph, don’t worry about Mary already being pregnant.  God did it.  Go ahead and take her as your wife, and claim the child and raise him as your own.” 
If I had such a dream, I can just imagine my thought process the next day.  “Well in my dream, the angel said this was all part of God’s plan, so maybe I wouldn’t actually be breaking the Law.  But if God really wanted me to adopt this baby, couldn’t God have told me first, let us get married, and then get Mary pregnant?” 
I don’t know about you, but I think it highly likely I could talk myself out of doing what the dream said.  And if I was as straight an arrow as Joseph?  A dream – God’s Law… God’s Law – a dream (weighing the two in my hands as though scales).
Today is the last Sunday in Advent.  Finally we get to hear about a pregnant Mary and the baby Jesus.  We finally get to see God’s plan take shape.  But many of us have been doing Christmas for so long that there isn’t much surprise left in it.  For us, Christmas isn’t about rule breaking and crossing religious boundaries.  It isn’t about being surprised at the lengths God will go to save and restore, the risks God will take to draw us into the divine embrace.
But from beginning to end, the story of Jesus defies convention, breaks rules, upsets the status quo, and crosses cherished religious boundaries.  It is quite remarkable.  And perhaps even more remarkable, the whole plan depends on others joining God in this surprising, boundary-crossing enterprise.  Mary must say “Yes.”  Joseph must disregard the rules and “Yes” to a dream.  Fishermen must drop their nets and say, “Yes” to Jesus’ call.  And we must say a “Yes” of our own.
 As we celebrate another Christmas, as we bask in the warmth of God’s love become flesh in Jesus, we also hear once more the promise of God’s coming new day, a day that brings good news to the poor, justice, and peace.  We encounter this strange Messiah who regularly crosses boundaries, upsets religious sensibilities, breaks the rules, and upends the status quo, all to point to God’s new day, God’s coming rule. 
And in the wisdom of God, this coming Kingdom requires us to do our part.  It requires more than right beliefs, more than following the rules, more than being moral.  It requires our “Yes.”  It demands a “Yes” that trusts divine dreams and visions, and trusts that God’s love is the most powerful thing in all creation.  It demands a “Yes” that would risk anything, even life itself, to be a part of the new thing God is doing.
Joseph was a righteous, law-abiding man, and rules are rules. And yet, When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Shoots and Sprouts

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

I grew up "in the country," and we occasionally would thin out some of the heavily wooded areas near our house.  Once cut down, some types of trees were done.  The stump and roots begin the slow process of rotting away.  But others types will put out shoots from the trunk.  I have no idea if such shoots would ever grow into a full fledged tree, but that is the promise Isaiah makes regarding the nation of Israel, a nation that has become a shell of its former self.

We just finished packing Community Christmas Packages at my congregation.  It is truly a community effort.  Neighbors and people from other congregations, service groups, stores and local schools all contribute.  This year we packed almost 400 boxes full of food, a grocery store gift certificate, and presents for each child in any family receiving a box, about a 1000 presents in all.

For us this is a huge logistical operation.  Collecting all the food and gifts, wrapping presents, filling all the boxes, and organizing routes to deliver all the boxes tomorrow takes a lot of planning and work.  But none of us involved expect it to end hunger or poverty in the Columbus area, or even to make a big dent.  So why do it?

Our world worries a lot about goals and objectives.  In long range planning you are supposed to set goals that are difficult enough to challenge you, but not so difficult so as to discourage you.  And so no church congregation, no matter how big or with how many resources, would ever set out to end hunger.  But that is not our job.  Our job is to show signs of God's coming reign, to show hints of a day when no one is hungry and no one does without, and to call others to join in the move toward that day.

We are called to be shoots and sprouts, signs of a life that God promises will one day be a great tree.  And so we are not discouraged when our efforts alone don't produce the fulfillment of that day.

It is easy to look at the world and only see the dead stumps.  But we are called to point out the shoots and sprouts, to be the shoots and sprouts, trusting that in God's time, the earth will bloom in peace and abundance and life for all.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Get Rid of Christmas?

We're only one week away from Christmas Eve, and so you'd think the Daily Lectionary would get with the program and have readings that are a bit more seasonal.  Who cares about the Assyrians.  Let's hear about something that promises a Messiah.

The Lectionary seems uninterested in our Christmas fervor, but then again the Bible seems similarly uninterested.  The "Christmas Story" barely makes it onto the pages of Scripture.  But we have loaded up Christmas with all sorts of freight and expectations.  For retailers, Christmas determines whether or not it will be a profitable year.  For students, Christmas provides an extended break from school.  For many in the Northern hemisphere, Christmas is supposed to inject a bit of joy and brightness into an otherwise dreary time of year.  For others, Christmas brings the hope of family get-togethers and Norman Rockwell moments.

I don't suppose there is anything inherently wrong with any of these expectations, but for the most part, none of them are related to Jesus and his message.  And because Christmas has taken on so many layers of meaning for so many different people, it is easy to invoke Christmas in all sorts of cultural fights.  People get upset over "Happy Holidays" in place of "Merry Christmas" as though the birth of Jesus is primarily about seasonal decorations and shopping malls.  Currently one Republican legislator is objecting to a possible session of Congress from December 26-30 as an "insult" to Christmas.

Sometimes I think the Pilgrims and Puritans got it right when they decided to ban Christmas.  Well into the 1800s, there was a law in Massachusetts that forbid celebrating Christmas.  Taking a day off for Christmas, except on a Sunday, was illegal.  The Pilgrims decided that Jesus' birth should not be connected to holiday revelry and people ceasing from their productive labors to join in that revelry.

Too often, Christmas becomes the worst sort of religious veneer in America.  We can feel self righteous about insisting people "keep Christ in Christmas" without actually feeling the need to do much that Jesus commands.

On his show last night, Stephen Colbert handled this topic with much more flair than I can.  I think that this blog post might have been greatly improved if I simply said, "Nothing to say, but watch this."  So hear it is.  And if you are unfamiliar with Colbert, he is a real person, but his persona is a comedic character who is a parody of conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly. He's a bit over the top and sometimes crass.  But even if you're not a fan, this is well worth the watch.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Social Justice for Christmas

During the Advent and Christmas seasons, we often hear the voices of the prophets.  "For unto us a child is born...  Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel... The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."  Many Christians relish the promises of a Messiah found in the prophets, and yet many Christians seem unaware that these same prophets cry out for social justice.

Only a few verses from "the people who walked in darkness" we hear, "Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!"  The prophets often rail against the rich and the powerful, against those who insure that the laws and the policies of the land favor them, who worry more about their own profits than about the poor.

And Jesus aligns himself with these prophets, proclaiming "good news to the poor" and warning those with wealth that their many possessions are a curse rather than a blessing, that it is harder for a camel to pass through an needle's eye than for a wealthy person to enter into the kingdom. 

On some level, Christians seem to know that the coming of a Messiah calls us to care for the poor.  The outpouring of charity around Christmas, by people in and out of the Church, is quite impressive.  Yet I fear that it is only a token of the life the prophets and Jesus call us to live. 

We had an interesting discussion the other day in a Bible study about the distinction between service and servanthood.  The first are things we occasionally do while the second is a pose, a way of life.  When Jesus washes his disciples' feet on the night of his arrest, it is an act of service, but more importantly, it is the pose of a slave or servant.  Jesus does something not done by dinner hosts but done only by slaves and servants.  And he says that this is an example for us to follow.  We are to take the pose of servants and slaves.

Amidst all the hoopla of Christmas, it is easy to forget that Jesus comes to call us to a new way of life.  This is the true gift of Christmas, even though we often see the call to discipleship like a child who got socks for Christmas.  It seems to us an unwelcome burden.  But Jesus insists, "Those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it."  Jesus offers the gift of true and abundant life to those who would walk in his ways, the ways of servanthood, self-giving, and social justice that both he and the prophets proclaim.

The true gift Jesus offers us at Christmas, and every other day of the year, is the hardest gift for many of us to receive.  We struggle to believe that this gift could bring us happiness and fulfillment because we have believed the false gospel we hear every day, that happiness comes from having more - more and more things, more and more power, more and more prestige.  We struggle to trust Jesus when he tells us that less is really more, that crosses and self-denial are to be embraced.  But still Jesus comes to us, and still he offers us new life.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Distinguishing Light from Darkness

The Daily Lectionary would have great difficulty if it tried to pick readings for Advent that all pointed toward Christmas.  Especially when it comes to the gospels, there just isn't that much material.  Neither Mark nor John bother to tell of Jesus' birth.  Mark's opening verses, today's gospel, begin abruptly with, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my  messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of  one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make  his paths straight,'" John the baptizer appeared in the  wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of  sins.

In Mark, the beginning of the good news is John who baptizes people and calls them to repentance. The word repent has taken on connotations of conversion and swearing off one's previous life, but the word means more that confessing one's sin. It is about turning, about moving in a direction appropriate to the new day that comes in Jesus. Preparing is about starting to live now by the ways of God's coming rule.

Over the past six months, I have come to rely on Father Richard Rohr's daily meditations to get my day off to a good start. In his meditation this morning, Rohr speaks of our need for a wisdom that can "name the darkness as darkness and the Light as light," our need to reject a pie-in-the-sky attitude that doesn't see the darkness, but without allowing our view of the darkness to obscure the "more foundational Light." Between these two poles lies true Christian wisdom that lets us "wait and work with hope inside of the darkness—while never doubting the Light that God always is—and that we are too (Matthew 5:14). That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world—through the darkness and into an ever greater Light." (Click to read Rohr's meditation.)

I think John's call of repentance invites us to do something very similar.  It calls us to turn away from the darkness in the world, to work against that darkness in the certainty and hope of the light that overcomes the darkness.  It is about a willingness to both name the darkness and to live in ways that defy its power.  This sort of repentance prepares for God's rule by refusing to simply go along with the "ways of the world," by living instead by the ways of God's coming day, a way of life clearly shown in the life of Jesus.

The beginning of good news is to get ready for something other than how things are.  It is to see the darkness in all its ugliness, but to reject its power and live at odds with it.  This is the hopeful realism* of our new life in Christ, a realism that clearly sees the world's darkness, but lives and works with confidence that the Light still shines in the darkness, and Light will triumph over darkness.

*I borrowed this term from Doug Ottati's book of the same name.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Advent Politics

For a child has been born for us, 
  a son given to us; 
authority rests upon his shoulders; 
  and he is named 
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,  
  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

I don't know about you, but when I hear these verses from Isaiah, I think of Advent and of Christmas.  What else would I think about?  But there is near universal agreement among Old Testament scholars that Isaiah is not speaking of some far-off, future Messiah.  More than likely, these verses speak of King Hezekiah, a new king whose reign the prophet expects to bring good days for Israel, a hope Hezekiah largely fulfills.

After Hezekiah's time, people in Israel begin to hear these words as still having weight, still containing a promised ideal ruler who would come some day.  This promise was active in the time Jesus appeared, and so naturally his followers understood him to be its fulfillment.

As a Christian, I share this belief of Jesus as prophecy fulfilled, but I also think it a good idea to recall the original, very political sense of the prophecy.  The prophet spoke of God's Anointed One taking the throne and bringing righteousness and justice to the land.  This new king would end oppression from foreign empires, and would bring a time of peace and flowering in Israel.

It seems to me that if some in Jesus' day were disappointed when he did not take up arms and defeat the Romans, many in our day seem to have lost any sense of Jesus as a political Messiah.  Jesus does not conquer with traditional weapons, but he speaks of God's will being done on earth,  he says the kingdom of God has come near, and he speaks of a great reordering in the society with the poor and outcast being lifted up while the rich and powerful are pulled down.

And so if people 2000 years ago sometimes wanted to overly politicize Jesus, we often want to overly spiritualize him.  We want to "believe in" Jesus without necessarily embracing the Kingdom, the rule of God that he says he brings.  We imagine a Jesus who is no threat to our political system or our way of life, as though we were living in the Kingdom.

Perhaps one of the reasons we want Advent and Christmas to be about baby Jesus in the manger is that a baby Jesus is no threat.  A babe in a manger cannot shout, "Blessed are you who are poor... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."

Jesus did not get arrested and put to death simply because he offered up a different take on private, personal religion.  He got himself killed because people in power, both religious and political power, viewed him as a threat.  And in a season when we so often say, "Come, Lord Jesus," I can't help but wonder who Jesus would threaten if he walked our streets again. 

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Already, But Not Yet

Advent Cantata: For Us a Child Is Born

This beautiful cantata, at one time attributed to J. S. Bach, is performed by the Boulevard Presbyterian Chancel Choir, accompanied by chamber orchestra. 

Higher quality video available on my YouTube channel.

Spiritual Hiccups - Mangers and Crosses

It seems a bit jarring to read, less than two weeks before Christmas, of Jesus' betrayal and arrest.  Today's gospel lection tells of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and of Judas leading a crowd of police, priests, and elders who come out to seize Jesus under cover of darkness.

Some years ago, during a Hanging of the Greens service at the beginning of Advent, I leaned a wooden cross against the empty manger and left it there for the next couple of Sundays.  I really heard about that one. I don't think any sermon, hymn selection, or other worship move ever generated that level or intensity or complaint.  A lot of us, it seems, don't want the cross interfering with Christmas.

On a surface level, this is easy to understand.  We're celebrating a birth, a moment of beauty and hope.  Who would want to bring the pain of the cross into that moment?  But of course the two gospel writers who mention Jesus' birth, Matthew and Luke, both include hints of trouble to come in their accounts.  In Matthew, Jesus' family has to flee for their lives following the visit of the Wise Men, narrowly escaping the slaughtering of all the infants in Bethlehem.  And in Luke, Simeon tells the baby Jesus' mother, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

I wonder if most all of us, to some degree, wouldn't prefer a crossless Jesus.  Surely there is some way to avoid this. Surely this isn't absolutely necessary.  Despite the fact that fact that the Apostle Paul speaks of wanting to know only Christ crucified, despite his insistence that Christ crucified is the wisdom and power of God, the cross unnerves us.  And this manifests itself in ways as diverse as blaming the Jews for Jesus' death, sparse attendance at Good Friday services, or being startled by a cross in the Advent decorations.

Soon we will proclaim, "Christ the Savior is born."  Perhaps the Apostle Paul would say "the crucified Christ."  And to be honest, I'm not exactly sure how to hold all that together.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Sermon audio - Already, But Not Yet

On the day of an Advent cantata in our traditional service, an early service sermon on John the Baptist's question to Jesus in Matthew 11. Even though the world often looks unchanged, Jesus says God's rule is "Already." But we must point to its "Not Yet."
Already, But Not Yet - Dec. 12, Advent 3.mp3

Because this is recorded in different worship service, one where I don't stay in a pulpit, the sound quality varies a bit as I move around.  Apologies.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - God, I Need You

When a toddler at the playground falls and skins a knee, there's often a brief moment of stunned silence followed by cries and screams.  This normally produces a swift parental response as Mom or Dad swoops in to help the child and makes things all better.  Indeed most of would be appalled if a parent failed to act this way.  It is simply how things are supposed to be.  A parent should care for a child in need or distress.  That's a parent's job.

Given how common Father language is when talking about God, it's not surprising that some parental expectations get transferred onto God.  I've even heard a few folks go so far as to say, "It's God's job to help me out, to do stuff for me."  And I once read where someone said, "God has to forgive me.  That's his job."

I have to admit to falling into such feeling myself at times.  Some of my biggest faith struggles arise when I don't think God is being attentive enough to me, when God isn't responding to me as I would like.  But every once in a while, I remember that God acts the parent is not because God has to, but because God chooses to. 

If you read the Noah stories in Genesis, the whole human enterprise seems to be a failure, one that God seriously considers erasing and then starting over with a clean slate.  But for some inexplicable reason, God decides to commit to humanity.  It's not God's job, and God doesn't have to.  But there is something about God's nature - perhaps the God is love part - that compels God to stick with us.

And so the psalmist can cry out,
   Hear my prayer, O LORD;
         let my cry come to you.
   Do not hide your face from me
         in the day of my distress.
   Incline your ear to me;
         answer me speedily in the day when I call.

Even though the psalmist knows that his days are "like an evening shadow;" that he will "wither away like grass," while God's "name endures to all generations, still he can say to God, "You will rise up and have compassion on Zion."

In this time of year with all its gifts and presents, we may do well to occasionally recall what a gift it is that God is mindful of us, that God doesn't simply leave us on our own.  That God loves us, comes to us, and becomes our Parent when God does not have to, might just be the most amazing gift of all.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Satan and Christmas

Satan shows up in two of today's readings.  Many modern Christians, certainly many in denominations like my own, don't know what to do with this character.  In fact, many of us are downright embarrassed by the idea of Satan or a devil.  Perhaps this is the product of the optimism and belief in progress that so characterized modernity.  If some cosmic being is always working against us, even if Satan is simply the personification of a cosmic evil that works against us, that shatters our hopes that if only we work hard enough, we can finally end poverty, end disease, end war, end suffering.

This may be a particularly acute problem for those of us in so-called "mainline" churches.  For much of our history we've been closely allied and aligned with the culture.  And we came to understand our faith as fully compatible with culture and nation.  But if we must reckon with evil, and especially if biblical passages speaking of Satan as "the ruler of this world" are taken at all seriously, then nation, world, and culture end up being complicated places, not simply the arena for progress.

I think that stereotypical images of Satan as some guy with horns and a pitchfork are to be laughed at.  Such images trivialize the problem of evil.  But the need for God to intervene in history, the need for a Messiah, for Christmas and a cross, all say that we humans cannot finally "save" ourselves.  And I use "save" here not as a synonym for going to heaven, but in the biblical sense, meaning to heal, make whole, rescue, restore, and set right. 

Perhaps the most basic reason that we don't like to deal with Satan or evil comes down to not wanting to admit the power that evil, that sin has over us.  We don't want to think that we could ever have betrayed Jesus.  We don't want to think we would have been among those who failed to recognize him as the Messiah.  We don't want to consider the possibility that we might have joined the crowd in shouting, "Crucify him."  Not us!

But Christmas insists that we need saving - from evil, from sin, from our own self destructive ways, from our arrogance, from our tendency to trust in things other than God, be they money, nation, ideology, church, or progress.

But of course the hope of Christmas also insists that evil, Satan, and sin, are no match for God.  Evil is real, but evil's greatest triumph, the cross, only leads to Resurrection, the herald of God's coming new day.  And so we will work against poverty, and war, and hunger, and oppression, not because we "believe" in progress, but because we trust that this is the shape of the salvation God is bringing.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Dealing with Sin

I have known a few Christians who seemed to think that as long as you believed in Jesus, nothing else you did mattered.  But in truth, rare is the person of faith who does not think her faith demands a certain ethic or morality.  Most all of us know that Jesus demands we love God and love neighbor.  And more careful readers of the Bible know that Jesus says he fulfills the Old Testament Law, not abrogates it.  But at the same time, most Christians know that Jesus talks a fair amount about forgiveness.

Out of all this and more, we Christians have developed a complicated and messy relationship with sin.  For starters, we prefer to think of other people as the real sinners rather than us.  I see this in my Presbyterian tradition, where corporate prayers of confession are long standing part of worship.  This is the element of worship I hear the most complaints about and the most suggestions that we should either drop it or at least tone it down.  (If you'd like to see this in action yourself, try getting folks to recite the answer to Question 5 from the "Heidelberg Catechism."  In response to the question of whether anyone can keep God's Law it says, "No, for by nature I am prone to hate God and my neighbor.)

But if we are prone to downplay our own sin, we have no such problems with it comes theirs.  Of course this requires that we tend to be appalled at their sort of sins while being understanding about our more banal sorts of sin.  I am convinced that the current battles over homosexuality in the Church come about because of how safe the majority feels concerning this particular "sin."  I think people on both sides of this Church fight can agree that we're not likely to ban those who practice "unrepentant greed" from being members or pastors or anything else in the Church.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus is confronted with how to respond to someone's sin.  The religious leaders bring him a women caught committing adultery, and remind him that the Law proscribes death by stoning for the offense.  Jesus' response doesn't really uncomplicate things for us.  He doesn't speak against the Law, asking only that one without sin himself begin the rock tossing.  When no one in the crowd is willing to follow through, Jesus states clearly that he will not condemn the woman.  But he also tells her, "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."  Too bad the story doesn't continue on and have Jesus meet her a second time when she's been caught again.

It seems to me that religious people often want to use their sin as markers and boundaries.  Their sort of sin puts you on the outside.  But in this story Jesus won't draw a boundary, even though he tells the woman to change her behavior.  I realize this doesn't neatly solve any debates about what is or isn't actually a sin, but it does seem to speak of a different sort of relationship toward "sinners." 

I wonder what it would look like for the Church to be a place that took very seriously the need to live in conformity with God's ways, but where "sinners" still heard, "I do not condemn you."

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Community

In his letter to the congregation at Thessalonica, Paul writes, "Be at  peace among yourselves.  And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.  See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench  the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil."

Much has been written over the last few decades, in both secular and religious venues, about the loss of community in our day.  Robert Putman's acclaimed bestseller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community pointed to the fraying of America's social fabric, as well as to some ways to reweave it.  And I think that the Church plays a vital role in both the loss of community as well as any hope for recovering it.

On the loss side, Christianity in America has too often wedded itself to our culture's individualism so that salvation often becomes a purely personal thing about me getting right with Jesus.  As long as I believe in Jesus or have personal relationship with him, I'm good.  At times this faith becomes incredibly self centered with each person responsible for his or her own faith, despite the fact that Jesus says we are to be more focused on God's rule and on the other than on self.

My favorite professor in seminary, Doug Ottati, was fond of saying that God acted in Jesus to create "true communion with God in true community with others."  In Acts 4:32-37, Luke paints a picture of what this would look like.  And I suspect Paul has something similar in mind when he writes the Thessalonians.  No one in such a community is ever "on her own." 

In the run up to Christmas, both church and secular groups engage in a spasm of caring and giving.  Needy families will receive boxes of food and presents for their children.  But if this is an act of community, it rarely lives beyond the Christmas season.  And I wonder if one of the most powerful witnesses the Church could offer the world might not be to demonstrate what true community looked like all year long.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Advent Imagination

Spiritual Hiccups - Riches, Taxes, and Jubilee

As I write this the news media are reporting a possible deal between Democrats and Republicans that would extend the about-to-expire tax cuts for all income levels in exchange for extending unemployment benefits to the millions with none left who still cannot find jobs.  I don't usually get "political" in these posts, but I confess that I am befuddled by conservatives' insistence that tax cuts must include all income groups, even those making millions.  Considering how many of these conservatives wear their Christian faith on their sleeves, want the 10 Commandments displayed, and the Bible revered, I wonder if they read the same Bible that I do.

The Bible doesn't have a lot good to say about those with wealth.  Today's verses from Isaiah are just a small sample of the prophets railing against the rich getting richer while the poor suffer.  "Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until  there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in  the midst of the land!"  Isaiah is condemning the wealthy who buy up land from people who are in financial difficulty, gradually controlling more and more. 

And the laws that came with those 10 Commandments had provision for undoing this.  Every 50th year land was supposed to revert to those families who had sold it during times of hardship.  It is uncertain how well this Jubilee Year law was obeyed, however.  Those with wealth are generally pretty good at hanging on to it.

One of the more disturbing economic statistics of our day is the growing disparity between rich and poor.  The gap between what a working person makes and what a CEO makes has increased exponentially in the past 50 years.  And despite Jesus saying, "Blessed are you who are poor," and "Woe to you who are rich," most of us want to hang on to as much of our riches as we can.

I saw another pastor post something online the other day suggesting how we should simple allow the tax cuts to expire, even for those of us making pastors' salaries.  The nine or ten dollars a week we would lose would be money well spent to keep from burdening our children with a national debt, as well as insuring that crucial services are maintained.  But based on the responses I saw to his post, not many of his parishioners agreed with him. 

No where in the gospels does Jesus encourage accumulating possession or worrying about money, and he regularly calls people to give away what they have.  Yet we in this "Christian nation" pursue money and things like no nation on earth.  Our entire economy is based on people becoming "consumers," on them buying more and more.

I'm not suggesting any particular solutions or policies.  I'm not at all certain how one would implement an economy that was at all in keeping with Scripture without causing huge economic upheaval.  But it does seem to me that we who are Christians should, at the very least, examine the ways in which our basic economic assumptions run counter to the basic witness of Scripture.

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