Archives For Preachments

I dipped my toes back into the preaching breach last night by leading a chapel service at the local retirement community. Since its Transfiguration Sunday this weekend, I chose Mark’s version of the scene which closes the Epiphany season.

“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

     If you’ve ever sat through more than a handful of sermons, or endured even a couple of mine, then chances are you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.

I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus bassakwards. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in 1 of 2 ways.

I’m allowed to pivot from Peter’s foolish gesture to the (supposedly sophisticated) observation that discipleship isn’t about adoring glory or mountaintop experiences; no, it’s about going back down the mountain, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.

Or-

Rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter.

I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage.

I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his Church on him.

That’s how you preach this text:

Go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’

Or, look at Peter- he’s just like you.

Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think these are the only two options allowed.

——————

     Except-

As cliched as those interpretations are, they’re not without their problems.

For one-

I just spent the last year fighting stage-serious cancer, during which time I wasn’t able to go much of anywhere or do much of anything much less venture out into the world’s hurt, roll up my sleeves, and serve the poor. I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of thing anymore.

So discipleship can’t merely be a matter of going back down the mountain because such a definition excludes a great many disciples, including me.

For another-

If this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter profess “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him?

Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences, the Son of Man came to serve?’

If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, satan?’

If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?

In fact, here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him. This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.

I wonder-

What if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right.

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     Ludwig Feuerbach, an awesomely bearded 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this story into something ordinary.

Just think-

What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching? Which is but a way making ourselves the focus of this story.

Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down.

More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that he’s not the one we should be looking at in this scene.

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     I wonder-

Does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good. Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.

Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become God.

This is where the good news is to be found.

Not in Peter being as dumb or scared as you and me.

Not in a message like ‘serve the poor’ that you would still agree to even if you knew not Christ.

No, the good news is found in the same glory that transfigured the face of Moses and dwelt in the Temple and rested upon the ark and overshadowed Mary pervading even Jesus’ humanity and also, one day, ours.

God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns.

The light that radiates Jesus’ flesh is the same light that said ‘Let there be…’ It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labor pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it.

Peter’s right.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory. It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.

It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures*. That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.

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     Not only is Peter right, all the other sermons on this passage go in the wrong direction. It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves.

If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be  down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build 3 tabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.

Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

 

 

*David Bentley Hart: The Uncreated Light

 

 

The Visitation

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2015 — Leave a comment

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” 

Luke 1.39

     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

     She gasped and only then realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d reappear as suddenly as he’d intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her. He must’ve seen how terrified she was. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he’d said to her.

In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angel’s glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ‘visitation.’ There wasn’t anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.

Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone you’d pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, that’s just what he’d told her.

She’d been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.

The thought made her shake again.

She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.

‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her.

Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.

Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.

She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.

Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.

She knew the story- it was the sort of story you can’t forget even if you’d like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his father’s will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.

She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.

But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the boy’s mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.

The wondering made her shake again. ‘Don’t be afraid’ she whispered to herself.

 

As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.

A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angel’s words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angel’s news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.

Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size there’s no room to hide.

And she didn’t want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didn’t want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before they’d believe the truth.

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With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long she’d fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.

‘Favored one,’ that’s what he’d called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

     ‘Favored one.’ 

She hadn’t known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

    ‘Favored one.’ 

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.

Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that  even for Hannah a blessing from God wasn’t so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.

Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannah’s boy was to be consecrated.

Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.

Everything Hannah had wanted when she’d wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- she’d been called ‘favored one’ too.

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Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that God’s favor was also a kind of humiliation, that God’s call was also a call to suffer.

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where she’d grown up, she realized it wasn’t that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

 

Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. She’d stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.

She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.

It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family you’d expect to be chosen.

She wondered what that said God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.

She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.

It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.

She’d asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow you’ is how he’d answered.

‘Overshadow’ was the word he’d used. She was sure of it.

She still didn’t know how that worked exactly. She hadn’t felt anything. But she knew that word, ‘overshadow.’ 

It’s what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.

And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.

Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

She’d look up at the sky and rub her nauseous stomach. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it:
, as though her womb was now an ark; how the hands and feet she’d soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

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As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.

Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.

Elizabeth’s child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.

A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.

To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.

Mary knew: hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth.

With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.

The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars.

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabeth’s driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517

Stuck with Jesus

Jason Micheli —  December 7, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This weekend I had the privilege of returning to my first appointment in Virginia, St. John’s UMC, for their 125th Anniversary.  My text was Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 1.15-23. You can listen to the sermon below or you can download it in the iTunes store, here. Better yet, download the free Tamed Cynic App.

I bring you all greetings from Aldersgate United Methodist Church. They also send along their sympathies that you, too, had to endure me as your pastor.

The lay leader at Aldersgate, Steve Larkin, even me wanted to register his irritation with you, St. John’s, complaining:

“had you not been so tolerant towards Jason as a rookie pastor then perhaps I’d have been spared having to deal with the tight-sphinctered griping, angry emails and calls from the bishop that seem to Jason him wherever he goes.” 

     Nonetheless, he wanted to be sure I wished you a happy 125th anniversary.

125 years! That’s a long time. 125 years is about how old I feel when I think about the Hudson and Shewey and Boatwright and Austin kids being old enough to serve in congress.

125 years! I was only here for 2 of those 125 years but, still, I’ve got a lot of memories from those years.

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     I remember the day we moved into the parsonage here. Some folks from St. John’s stopped by to say hello and help us move boxes.

I remember John Kyle Shewey shook my hand and glanced around at my beer-making equipment on the front porch and, deadpan, asked ‘Does all that belong to you?’ And when I said yes, Jake just nodded and, with an opaque expression, replied ‘Hmmm.’ It took me a year before I realized he’d just been messing with me.

I remember my first day in the office here at St. John’s, the day I learned that I should never ask Barbara Catlett for directions, not unless I was prepared to decipher vague hand gestures that looked like aerobic moves performed to the beat of ‘yonder as the crow flies.’

I remember Virginia Waggoner smiling and feeding me a freshman’s 15 worth of pizza at the Italian Restaurant downtown, and I remember Bill Crawford covering for me while I was out of town, praying at Virginia’s bedside as she died.

I was with you for only 2 of your 125 years, but I’ve got a lot of memories nevertheless.

I remember Betty Ward introducing herself with that fake teacher’s scowl of hers and commenting to the air ‘We’ve never had a minister with an earring before…this should be interesting.’ And I remember June Page standing behind her, smiling at me because, she assumed, a pastor with an earring just had to be a Democrat. I remember Warren Slough tapping his cane and telling me how it is and Grace Biles vetting me on points of theology and Kitty Irvine and Dottie Hostetter feeding me when Ali was away at law school.

I remember Billy Snider and Joe Boatwright dressed up for a Christmas pageant, looking less like biblical characters and more like extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember how Don Drake, a retired forester, could retell any bible story for the children and, in doing so, would make sure you knew said story took place at, near, around or underneath a tree.

     I remember all the Sundays here I’d sit in the back with the acolytes and glance over at Mr Dickinson and then glance down at my watch at 11:00, at 5 after, at 10 after, wondering where in the hell was Ralph, the organist.

I remember how I’d then hitch up my robe and run around the outside of the sanctuary to find him asleep in the choir room.

I remember the night I walked over to Lewis Graybill’s house to tell him the bishop would be moving me to another church. Lewis answered the door in his black bikini briefs.

And nothing else.

I told him I had something to share with him and we sat down on his love seat in front of an Orioles game. I started to tell him, but when our knees touched…I said ‘Dude, I can’t take you seriously. You’ve got to put some clothes on first.’

I remember David Burnett taking me for a ride in his pickup along the Blue Ridge and stopping at an overlook to ask me about heaven. And I’ll always remember everything you’ve done for us, your prayers and emails and cards, during this past year as we’ve gone through my cancer treatment.

I was here for only 2 of your 125 years, but you gave me more memories than I deserved.

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     Maybe because it’s Advent- the season when we await God’s enfleshment in Jesus Christ- some of the memories that came to mind this week were from Christmas Eve here at St. John’s.

My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s- I had my fingers crossed the whole time, I couldn’t really believe anyone would let me screw with their holiday. And, I held my breath through the whole service, waiting for Ralph Grant to fall asleep and collapse on the organ keys.

Perhaps as a consequence, what came out of my mouth was as straight-forward a sermon as I knew how to preach.

Nothing too flashy or novel.

Nothing very creative or controversial or counter-intuitive.

I just said- and I still have the thumb drive to prove it:

This baby we await at Advent, this infant we get a peek at in the manger…

This child who makes us spend time with our in-laws and tolerate Rod Stewart’s craptastic cover album Merry Christmas Baby…

This long-promised newborn who makes us gain weight and run up our credit cards and pretend not to be creeped out by a bearded fat man who spies on our kids…

This baby, Jesus, is God.

He is, as the scriptures and songs say: Immanuel.

Which means: ‘God with us.’

If you were here that Christmas Eve, 13 years ago, then I’m sure you remember my sermon word for word, but if you weren’t here, then that’s the basic gist of it.

No surprises, or at least I thought so.

Like any Christmas Eve service, we had some visitors that night, visitors who had never heard that message before, never heard of what the Church calls the incarnation.

I remember-

One visitor that night was a young woman who came up to me at the end of the  service.

She was about my age, I guess. I’d never seen her before. She had a couple of kids running around at her legs.

She had this hectic sort of presence about her- like she hadn’t been sure about coming to church that night and she was even less sure about approaching the likes of me.

She forgot to tell me her name. I forgot to ask. She just came right up to me, in the narthex, pushed her hair behind her ears, held out her hand and told me that her husband was in Iraq and that her mom was dying.

That’s how she identified herself.

I started to empathize with her, but she went on to tell me how none of them had ever really gone to church or been religious before. Lots of people apologize like that at Christmas, I’ve since learned. Before I could really say anything in reply she asked me: ‘Is God…’ she caught herself, ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ 

And I felt like saying: ‘Lady, where were you for the last hour? Didn’t you listen to a word of my sermon? Did you not hear me tell everyone how I graduated from Princeton?’ But instead I said: ‘Yes, God…Jesus…they’re one and the same.’

And she… smiled.

She smiled. She didn’t say anything more about it. She didn’t say anything else. I can’t read minds but my guess is she was thinking of her Mom, her Mom who was dying and who’d never gone to church and might not ever go to church until she was dead.

My guess was she liked the idea that the God who would meet her Mom was as loving, merciful and forgiving as Jesus is supposed to be.

Or maybe her smile masked a confusion about how she was supposed to square her deployed husband’s mission with how the baby Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace we call God.

I didn’t ask.

Merry Christmas,’ I remember saying.

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     She wasn’t the only who came up to me that night.

Another was an older man. He was dressed neatly in tweed and wore a black wool stocking cap on his head.

To tell the truth, he seemed kind of grouchy- like a curmudgeon, and he said he was from out of town so, chances are, he belonged to somebody here. In which case, you still owe me.

He told me he was in finance. He said he wasn’t really a church person but that reading philosophy was his passion. He came up to me on the sidewalk outside, after the service.

Standing in front of the church sign, he said: ‘Reverend, that was an interesting message, but one thing wasn’t clear to me. Were you saying Jesus leads to God, or that he is God?’ I couldn’t tell whether he was curious or if he was condescending.

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

‘Really?’ he said, and his face suddenly looked irritated, worried.

He didn’t say anything more and I can’t read minds, but my guess is he was thinking that this baby Jesus was going to grow up. That one day this baby was going to say and do things, this baby was going to make unrealistic demands and exert unqualified expectations that made him uncomfortable.

That if incarnation is the ante then he didn’t want to get stuck with Jesus.

I thought about messing around with him, but Ali was waiting on me. So I just said: ‘Merry Christmas.’

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He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…

     …St. Paul writes a good 3 decades before St. Luke sets down to write the Christmas story.

The trees and decorations this time of year, the carols and the candles, the shiny gifts and friendlier-than-usual greetings- the Christmas cheer, it all collides and contrasts with Paul’s point here in Colossians.

We’re stuck with Jesus.

    I’m no longer the pastor here so I don’t need to worry about making a bad impression on any bright-eyed visitors. I can get away with ruining your holiday spirit and leave Sonja to clean up the mess. I can go ahead and break the gloomy news that the baby in the manger- he grows up to be Jesus, one who we would rather kill than be with or be like.

That’s what Paul’s Christ Hymn in Colossians is driving at- that the whole meaning of Christmas, the shock and irritating specificity of incarnation, the problematic particularity of Mary’s child, it isn’t just ‘God is with us.’

That sounds nice and comforting and maybe even flattering. It’s that God is with us…as Jesus.

The message of Christmas isn’t that God came among us as a baby, that doesn’t sound too demanding.

     No, the message of Christmas is that God came among us as the-baby-who-grows- up-to-be-Jesus.

     Those are the uncomfortable claims we anticipate this Advent season. That in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen all of Godall of God- there is to see.

     The message of Christmas is not, that in Jesus we get a glimpse of the divine. No.

The message of Christmas is not, that in Christ we discover but one path (among many) leading to God.

God, I wish.

No, Paul’s claim around incarnation is that in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen (and heard) all of God there is to find.

Now, even though I’m a professional Christian, what’s true for you goes for me too: my life would be whole lot easier if God would remain at a comfortable distance, abstract and aloof. I could get to my wants more quickly if I could just say: Well, God’s mysterious, Jesus- he only gives us a glimpse of God. Maybe I’ll go get a second opinion.

That’s what the Colossians wanted. Colossae was a diverse, cosmopolitan city, and like many degreed, smartphone-wielding Nones and Dones today, they believed that the true god was too majestic to be identified with a particular person.

The true god couldn’t be found in specific stories. God was too big to be boxed into 1 tradition, in to 1 flesh.

In their sophistication, the Colossians, preferred to find god in nature, out among the stars. They even composed a hymn, dedicated to the unknowable god who lay behind the cosmos and creation.

Then, decades before Matthew tells us about the wise men or Luke Caesar’s census, Paul gets his hands on the Colossians’ hymn, and he rewrites it. He turns it into the Christ Hymn at the beginning of his letter.

Paul wants Colossae to know that things might be easier for us if it were otherwise but, at Christmas, in Jesus, God gets particular. Jesus, we say, is a revelation of the real ways of God. It’s Jesus, not the Defense Department, who shows us what the real world really is.

Think about what that means. Because of Christmas, when we have a decision or dilemma in our lives, we can no longer ask: ‘I wonder what God wants me to do?’ No, now, because of Christmas, we have to ask: ‘What would Jesus do?’ because Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

We’re stuck with Jesus. Merry Christmas.

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    When someone wrongs us or hurts us, we’ve got to work out how to forgive them not just once but, maybe, over and again because Jesus said so and in Jesus all things hold together.

     When someone asks for our help and we don’t want to, we don’t have the time or we doubt the sincerity of the request, not only do we have to help we’ve  got to go farther than they’ve even asked because that’s what Jesus said to do, and through him all things in heaven and on earth were created.

     When social media soundbites tempt us into boxing people into black and white terms we’ve got to put ourselves in other shoes because Jesus told us to worry about the log in our own eyes and he is the firstborn of creation. 

     When the arbiters of secularism try to relegate our faith to the private, the personal, then we’ve got to shake our heads because the one who told us about the samaritan and about rich Lazarus in hell and about the sheep and the goats and about thirsting and hungering for justice- he’s the same one to whom all of heaven and earth belong. 

I couldn’t say that if I was still your pastor.

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Don’t get too close to the manger

Don’t be fooled by his smile or his sweet eyes.

Its better to distract yourselves with sentimentality and Santa songs and the fake ‘War on Christmas’ because this is one difficult, demanding baby.

If I was still your pastor, I couldn’t ruin your Christmas season by asking: Are you nursing a grudge against someone you love? Have you gossiped about a neighbor maybe? Are there people who are just too unsavory for you to spend time with them?

Strangers, aliens, refugees you just wouldn’t welcome?

     If so, you may want to think twice before you say Merry Christmas, because this baby’s going to have a few things to say when he grows up and I’m sorry but you’re going to have to listen. You shouldn’t sing him to now and if you’d just rather shut him up later. After all, in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. 

    In other words, we Christians say:

It’s not that Jesus is someone who speaks words about God or words inspired by God.

It’s that Jesus is the Word God speaks to us.

It’s not that Jesus is someone who teaches about God.

It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us.

It’s not that Jesus is one who shows us a way to God.

It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God.

COMPLETELY.

FULLY.

IN THE FLESH.

You can search under every star in the sky but the totality of God’s Truth and Beauty and Splendor is to be found in this particular Jew from Nazareth, in his life from cradle to cross.

You see, there’s an unavoidable, uncompromising finality to Jesus that Paul wants to hit you over the head with in his hymn.  For Paul, when it comes to Christ, you can choose not to follow. You can refuse to bend your life to his life. You can baptize your kids but never expect them to suffer for it. But you can’t say that in Jesus we find anything less than the fullness of God.

I mean…

Dr. Phil’s relationship advice might seem more practical to us. Joel Osteen might seem more inspiring to us. The Donald or Hillary might make more sense to us. But to wait for this baby at Advent, to sing to him at Bethlehem is to find yourself, after the trees dry up and die and the decorations are put away, stuck with Jesus.

     ——————————

  My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s I tried to keep things simple and straightforward. I was a new pastor. I had no idea what I was doing and I was distracted by the prospect of Ralph passing out on the organ. I tried to be clear, but some people still had questions.

A man came up to me as I was untying my robe. The Christmas Eve crowd is always kind of a motley crew; you never know who’s going to show up. This man was old, maybe Larry Blackwell’s age. I’d seen him go through the communion line, and, judging from his uncertainty about how to receive the sacrament, I’d guess he’d not been to church much before.

He came up to me down here by the altar rail and he shook my hand. And, with sincerity, he said: ‘I enjoyed your talk. Now were you saying Jesus and God are the same person?’

And I felt like saying: ‘How much clearer can I be? I must have said it a dozen times. Do you people need me to get Carl Allen to draw you pictures?’

But instead I said: ‘Yes.’  And I saw the recognition pass across the man’s face.

He said: ‘Then that means that everything Jesus said and did…’ His voice trailed off. He didn’t say anything more, and I couldn’t read his mind. But my guess is I could’ve finished his sentence for him…

That we’re stuck with Jesus.

That if Jesus and God are one and the same, then that means that everything Jesus said and did- that’s the fullness of God.

     And to try to live his life- even though it’s difficult and demanding, even though we can’t do it perfectly- to try living his life that’s what it means to be fully alive.

That for you or I to be fully human is for us to be as human as Jesus, to be like him.

     ——————————

     I’m not appointed here anymore so I can just give it to you straight up:

What we wait for at Advent and welcome at Christmas, it’s an impossible, unending task.

I mean-

Jesus himself tells us we’ll always have the poor with us.

And that we’re commanded to love our enemies implies that we’ll always have them.

And there’s never any shortage of people who, like Pilate, ask ‘What is Truth?’ assuming they already know the answer.

To worship the baby-who-grows-up-to-be-Jesus, it’s a summons that will always make us ill-fitting in the world and should always make us odd in America.

But it’s not all bad news to be stuck with Jesus.

The good news about being stuck with Jesus?

It gives you all plenty to do for the next 125 years.

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

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Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

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Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

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When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

Five Plus Two

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2015 — 5 Comments

This weekend’s lectionary gospel text is John 6, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. In light of the text, I thought I’d dust off this (very) old sermon:

At the beginning of the summer, I spent time in Cambodia with a friend, Mark Gunggoll, our mission chair, visiting our church’s mission projects and partners.

Our translator for the week was a young man named Puthi though, whether by mistake or by Freudian slip, Mark kept calling him ‘Booty’ instead.

Puthi translated for me; wherever we went: to churches and mission sites and meetings. He translated for me when I prayed, read scripture, celebrated communion or preached. He did a good job, and whenever I would introduce Mark to people as a professional clown or a pole dancer, Puthi would translate perfectly and with a straight face. As I said, he was a good translator.

Puthi’s a teacher at a Methodist-run mechanics school. He teaches the trade to boys who might otherwise never find work. Puthi’s only a recent graduate of the program and not much older than his students.

One afternoon towards the end of our time there, Puthi was driving Mark and me through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. And his phone rang. He took the call and then spoke in hushed Khmer while he maneuvered around the thousands of pedestrians and motorcycles in the city streets. I couldn’t understand the language being spoken but I could tell all the same that it sounded urgent.

The call lasted a few minutes after which Puthi closed his phone and, without comment, focused on the road. Mark asked him: ‘Is everything okay?’

‘Yeah…’ he said and then crinkled his eyebrows. He was trying to find the right words, the proper translation. And when he found the right words he told us that his wife, who cooked rice and fish in the market, had called to tell him that she’d lost her job.

He didn’t need to tell us- we already knew- that they couldn’t make it on his pay alone.

Puthi didn’t say anything through three or four intersections.

‘What will you do now?’ I finally asked him.

‘I don’t know’ he said, and he looked up into the rearview mirror at me. And he smiled. It struck me that Puthi didn’t look worried or concerned at all, that ‘what am I going to do?’ hadn’t even occurred to him, that if anyone there in the car was afraid it was Mark and me.

To be honest, seeing his face there in the rearview mirror, I thought he looked naive.

‘He’s just a boy’ I thought.

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It’s the only miracle in all four Gospels- the feeding of the multitude. The numbers vary a bit: the feeding of the multitude, the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew and Mark include a second account of four thousand fed. Add in the women and children who would not have been counted according to first century prejudice and, well, it was a lot of people.

All four Gospels describe this scene up on the mountain with Jesus, the disciples and a crowd Jesus just can’t shake.

In all four Gospels the menu is the same: bread and fish. Five and two.

And they all have this action that sounds like communion: Jesus took the loaves, blessed them and gave it to them.

Each Gospel portrays the crowds as all full and satisfied and every gospel includes the leftovers: 12 baskets. 5 loaves + 2 fish + 5,000 plus hungry people. 12 baskets leftover.

But only John- tells of Jesus asking that leading question. “Where shall we ever buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew there was no where to run to the store. Jesus must have seen the boy clutching at his parents’ legs with his sack full of bread and fish.

Only John tells of that boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

In a crowd of 5,000 plus, he’s easy to miss, the boy with the sack lunch. In fact, most scholars writing about John 6 don’t even mention him. And, trust me, scholars have something to say about every other detail in the story.

The five loaves? That’s shorthand for Israel because of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law that begin the bible.

And the two fish- any guesses? The two fish- say scholars- stand for the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine.

How about the twelve baskets? That’s easy. They symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in other words, this miracle is really a demonstration of how only Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man, embodies the scriptures and only he can satisfy Israel’s calling.

The scholarly attention to detail doesn’t stop at what the numbers mean.

For example, scholars can’t help but notice how the story begins with a reference to the sea and a mountaintop and Passover. This is John’s way of saying- they say- that Jesus is greater than Moses and all the prophets and just as Moses led his people to freedom through the sea so too will Jesus deliver his people.

Commentators even take note of the type of bread with which Jesus feeds the multitude: barley. Barley, according to commentators, ripened earlier than wheat, making it cheap and readily available. In other words, it was bread for the poor. It was bread of the poor. That this is the bread Jesus feeds the crowds says everything about what sort of Messiah he’s determined to be- who he identities with and who he’s come to fill with Good News.

When biblical commentators turn to John 6, they leave no interpretive stone unturned. No detail is extraneous. Everything means something.

Except the boy. No one bothers to mention the boy. Not one of the biblical scholars bother to notice the boy standing there near Andrew, the boy with his five and his two.

loaves

 

Puthi’s small-framed and he looked every bit like a boy behind the wheel of the pickup.

After navigating the chaotic city streets, Puthi pulled into a bank parking lot. The bank, which looked new and clean and upscale, appeared misplaced amidst the crumbling buildings, make-shift alley shelters and barefoot children that surrounded it.

Mark went inside to use the ATM. I told Puthi that Mark needed the cash to pay off his Cambodian informants, and Puthi nodded his head, straight-faced, and said ‘Ah.’

I got out of the truck to cool off and stretch my legs. I leaned against the front, passenger window and talked with Puthi.

He pointed to the decrepit building to the right of the bank and he told me that what went on inside there was exactly what I would’ve guessed.

‘Life is hard here’ he said. And I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about himself or just the city in general.

‘Will you and your wife be able to get by without her job?’ I asked him.

And he laughed and said ‘No.’ And then he looked down at his lap and he smiled a childlike smile- like something had just occurred to him.

I cocked my head and looked at him, clearly puzzled.

‘I don’t have much,’ he said, ‘I’m just grateful God can use what I do have.’

He’d translated for me all week: prayers, scripture, sermons. But that was as close to a Word from the Lord as I had heard that whole time.

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John in his Gospel tends to include details.

At the wedding at Cana, the water jugs that were about to become casks of wine? John says there were 6 of them, and they each held 20-30 gallons.

John likes details.

When Jesus was about to summon Lazarus from the tomb. His sister Martha told Jesus: ‘He’s been dead for days. He’s going to stink.’

And when the Risen Christ was cooking breakfast for the disciples who were fishing early one morning. John records that they were about 100 yards off shore. And the catch of fish that morning that strained the nets? 153, John writes.

John likes details.

So when the little boy provides the food that Jesus uses to feed the multitudes, we ought to at least notice him. We ought to see him standing there with his five and his two.

The fact is-

You can puzzle all you want about the symbolism behind the 12 and the 5 and the 2. But that boy- that’s us in the story. He’s you and me.

Because:

It doesn’t matter if your bank account is almost empty or if you feel spiritually bankrupt.

It doesn’t matter if you’re out of work or just out of energy.

It doesn’t matter if you have too many other worries in front of you or if all your good years are behind you.

It doesn’t matter how many questions you have or how much faith you don’t have.

It doesn’t matter if all you can see in your life is what’s missing from it.

It doesn’t matter if all you have is 5 and 2.

It doesn’t matter.

Because Jesus can take what we have to offer and multiply it.

That boy is us. He’s you and me.

Because- as half-baked as it sounds- Jesus takes what we have to offer, our smallest acts of mercy and compassion, and he multiplies it to further the Kingdom of God.

Because even our most awkward attempts at devotion can be magnified by the grace of God.

Because all of us- we’re ordained at our baptism to the priesthood of all believers. Every last one of us has both the joy and the responsibility, the privilege and the burden of sharing in the ministry of Jesus.

And whatever you have to offer is enough.

Even if it’s little more than 5 and 2.

 

I had to retell this story for the children at Vacation Bible School back in June. I used brownies instead of barley loaves.

And after I finished the story one of the kids said to me: ‘It’s hard to believe Jesus could feed all those people with just five brownies and 2 fish.’

I just smiled and nodded, and I said:

‘Kid, it’s harder to believe Jesus can take what I have and make a miracle out of it.’

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That’s Puthi in the middle. And that’s me on the left, sweating like a child molester as ‘Cambodia’ is actually Khmer for ‘Hot as Hell.’

 

Healing

Jason Micheli —  June 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgAfter a 4 month hiatus from the pulpit, I joined Dennis Perry this Sunday for a dialogue sermon on John 5’s story of the healing at Bethsaida.

You can download it in iTunes here.

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

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In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.

For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen– to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again– when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

SONY DSCAnd you and me too…

This Sunday we continued our sermon series on Richard Stearns’ book Unfinished. My intern, Jimmy Owsley, preached the sermon on Acts 9.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

So our reading today is from Acts, the 5th book of the New Testament. Acts is the follow-up to the Gospel of Luke–it’s the Gospel-writer’s retelling of the story of the beginnings of the Christian church. Our reading, from Acts Chapter 9, is a piece of the author’s introduction to the Apostle Paul (known at the time of this story as Saul). The other part of the introduction happens in Chapters 7 and 8, where we see him oversee the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

At this time according to the author, Saul is said to be actively “trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women,” and imprisoning them for their beliefs.

Saul, a Pharisee, is threatened by this new religious movement within Judaism.

And he is trying to coerce Jesus’ followers in submission through violence.

Basically, Saul is a first-century terrorist.

As some of you know, this Saul, who later comes to be known as Paul, becomes the hero of the Book of Acts, taking the good news of Christ’s new kingdom to far reaches of the Roman Empire. He also becomes the writer of much of our New Testament, giving us theological lenses for understanding the life and work of Jesus. While I would disagree, some historians say Paul has had an even greater effect on the Christian church than Jesus himself.

As for these passages about Saul’s conversion, scholars more knowledgeable than me say that in them Luke is setting up a portrayal of Saul/Paul as the ideal Christian convert. And this isn’t just because Saul is a high-ranking Jewish religio-crat, whose textbook conversion could woo Jewish inquirers into a deeper Christian faith. Although that may be part of it.

Deeper than that though is the fact that Saul’s conversion exemplifies a particular theology of conversion which would come to be one of the central facets to the Christian faith. The story goes like this:

First of all, Saul is a sinner. “The chief of sinners,” as he would later describe himself. He’s done everything wrong. He’s on the wrong page, playing for the wrong team. He is an enthusiastic participant in a system of violence which stands directly and explicitly opposed to the way of Jesus Christ.

And so it is that while Saul is on his way to terrorize Jewish followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus, Jesus himself appears in a flash of light and speaks to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This personal face-to-face encounter with Jesus blinds Saul completely and shatters his will to continue what e was doing.

Then Saul acts in obedience to Jesus. He continues on his way to Damascus, where, instead of inflicting terror, he fasts and prays in visual darkness for 3 days. That is, until the scared and reluctant disciple Ananias shows up.

Now, Ananias has also seen Jesus recently, as we learned in the reading this morning. And he acts obediently, too, despite his qualms about Saul’s shady reputation. Jesus has told him:

“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”

Thus Saul the terrorist, the least likely to be a disciple of Christ, is a chosen instrument of God’s will.

The inflictor of suffering upon those who follow the way of Jesus will now live a life enduring suffering in Jesus’ name.

When Ananias arrives, he touches Saul and prays over him. Saul is changed in that interaction and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Ananias introduces Saul to the rest of the disciples at Damascus, among whom Saul lives and learns how to be a disciple. Community is central to Saul’s transformation.

From there, he departs eagerly to do the work the Kingdom of God. He begins utilizing his God-given skills of preaching and teaching for his new Kingdom, proclaiming the grace he received throughout the Empire.

So what does this have to do with us? If Luke is telling us that Saul/Paul is the model convert, what does that mean for you and me?

Well,

  1. Saul is a sinner through and through. Just as each of us is a sinner in need of repentance. Before his encounter with Jesus, he is working completely against the kingdom of God. In some way we all have done and continue to do this. Repentance is an ongoing process.
  2. Although Saul has misused his capabilities, Jesus recognizes in him both the wrongs that he has done and the gifts that God has given him. Jesus comes to Saul personally, just as he does with each of us here this morning.
  3. Jesus calls Saul his “chosen instrument,” a phrase that applies as much to Saul as it does to each of us is. It is in his the midst of his evil intentions that Christ comes to him, sheds light on his wrongdoings, and offers peace.
  4. Next, the personal encounter with Jesus demolishes Saul’s previous worldview and sense of purpose. It realigns his life, as it should ours.
  5. Saul acts in obedience to the One he has encountered, and becomes a disciple of Jesus through the community of faith in Damascus. In order to live as disciples, we must be discipled by someone. We are all called to be in active community with other disciples.
  6. Finally, his transformation doesn’t stop there. And this is the point of the book study Unfinished that we are going through as a church. Through his conversion and discipleship, Saul jumps into a new mission. Rich Stearns describes conversion as change of allegiance–Saul leaves his old allegiances behind and becomes a member of a new Kingdom. He has joined “a new army.”

If we follow this model of discipleship, you and I are called also to be part of a new Kingdom and a new army, whether we thought we were a part of an old one or not.

Our faith in Jesus doesn’t end with his forgiveness or our community, as necessary as those are.

The fulness of Saul’s faith comes when he begins to act on it–to live it out. Saul was given gifts of leadership, eloquence, and a brilliant mind. Maybe those gifts lie in you too–or maybe you are gifted at teaching, or have the mind of an engineer, or a keen sense for justice. Maybe you are gifted at what you do for a career, and maybe your gifts point elsewhere.

But as you and I discover the skills and capabilities we have been given, and as we continue to encounter Jesus in our daily life, we will learn more and more about how we can put those gifts to work for his kingdom.

Now, I have two caveats here:

  1. One is that you don’t have to take off and leave everything you know to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Saul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him. And after that encounter he didn’t decide not to go to Damascus. Rather he did something different when he got there.
  2. The second is that we are called to act on our gifts not as an obligation or something we have to do. Although there will be suffering along the way, using our God-given gifts for the purposes of his kingdom is something that we get to do which gives us meaning and fulfilment.

Like Saul, each of us is a chosen instrument. You have a gift and a calling and a role to play in this story.

You have potential, I have potential, and terrorists like Saul have potential. And there might not be any terrorists here. At least I hope not, unless some of you were the ones who hacked Jason’s blog a week and a half ago. But no matter who we are or what we have done, we are all chosen instruments in the grand vision of God’s kingdom.

And I know that’ll make some of you feel all warm and fuzzy–like kids in my kindergarten class when Mrs. Yani told us we were each special in our own way. To which the cynics of us respond– “if everyone is special, is anyone REALLY special?”

The point is not that we as disciples of Christ are chosen by God above or before anyone else. In fact, some of us are the least likely disciples. The point is that we are each chosen by God for a unique, particular purpose in God’s grand mission of redeeming the world.

Saul encountered Jesus in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. This Sunday morning we encounter him in bread and wine and in one another. Let us each hear what he has to say and discern how he would use us for his mission in the world.

Which is the idea I want to leave you with today. It’s a particular understanding of salvation, which is that:

We are all saved for a purpose.

And as Rich Stearns says, that purpose lies Unfinished.

 

#Blessed

Jason Micheli —  January 26, 2015 — 2 Comments

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-2 I continued our Unfinished sermon series this by taking a look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-14, specifically ‘Blessed are the poor.’ If there’s a danger in romanticizing the poor, I think there’s an equally grave danger in always seeing them as objects of our blessing.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

Here it is:

Often when you serve the poor hands-on or go to someplace like Guatemala to work on a mission project, you hear people say things like ‘It really makes you appreciate all your blessings.’

It’s always struck me as an odd turn of phrase, even though I’m guilty of using it myself, and I thought it was an idea worth puzzling over.

     Now, whenever Jesus wanted to look at something upside-down and possibly leave his listeners confused and PO’d, he’d tell a parable.

So…

 

Once upon a time-

In a small mountain village atop the Guatemalan Highlands, in the thin air where coffee grows and cornstalks grow short and the cirrus and cumulus mingle with pines, a church mission team from Anywhere, USA threw their 3 figure North Face luggage onto the roof and climbed into their well-appointed rental van, their white skin chapped and burnt from the nearby sun.

Sitting down in the first comfortable seat they’d had in a week, the baker’s dozen of them wiped their faces of the grime that still lingered after days of cold, quick showers.

They stretched their legs feeling, if not clean, refreshed, wearing the clothes they’d saved for this final day at the bottom of their duffle bags, their dirty work clothes left behind to be discovered like orphans by whichever needy woman cleaned up after them.

As the diesel van pulled away from the village, a cloud of dust and scampering, waving children in its wake, the mood in the van turned reflective. The van shifted into second while the pastor of the group pulled from his bag not his bible or his Barth but his iPhone.

Seeing the half-eaten apple come alive in the (Otterbox-protected) glass screen, secretly the pastor was proud of himself for going so long without it. Jesus in the desert still had 3 weeks on him, the Pastor mused, but surely this must be what the Savior himself felt when he stumbled from the wilderness and took his first bite of bread.

Gary, a hospital administrator, leaned his head back again the cushion and daydreamed about the hot, sandal-less, mouth-wide-open shower he was going to take when he got home, one that would go on for as long as he was willing to pay the city for it.

In the row in front of him, Jessica, a high school senior, spoke of looking forward to sleeping in her bed- a real bed- made warm from the vents in the floor and not a mountain of blankets piled on top of it.

And food, she said, McDonalds. She couldn’t eat any more rice and beans, she confessed, unless of course it was from Chipotle.

Gene, a retired engineer sitting in the passenger seat, asked no one in particular, what they were going to do to take this ‘high’ they’d felt all week into the ‘real’ world.

Meanwhile, the pastor presented to listen as he thought about how he would celebrate this week past on the only altar that really, truly matters: social media.

As if hearing the pastor’s thoughts, Mike, a government contractor, activated his international phone and set about updating his Facebook profile picture, to a shot of him kneeling beside a little village girl who smiled despite having nothing in her life.

Nancy, a middle-aged mom, who’d sort of become the mom of the group for the week, tried to frame their experience, point out the big picture, like a mom would do:

When you see people like this who have absolutely nothing, it makes you realize how blessed you really are.

And everyone in the air-conditioned van nodded at what seemed the Gospel truth of it.

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When they could no longer see the visitors waving goodbye in the window from the back of the van, normal returned as quickly as it had gone for a while. The little children went to go play. The school-aged kids went to school and everyone 14 and older went to work.

A 4 year old boy named Diego stood, along with his 3 friends, near the carpet of tin siding his parents had laid on the grass, on which lay harvested ears of corn drying in the sun.

Diego and his friends stared down, next to the corn, at all the bright, colorful toys their visitors had left behind, toys with strange-sounding names like ‘Frisbee’ and even strange scents that none of their olfactory memories could identify as ‘packaging.’

New packaging.

Diego stared at all the stuff- he’d heard their visitors use that word more than once, stuff- and then he grabbed the hard, plastic ball, about the size of a softball (though he didn’t know what a softball was), a ball his brother had had before him, and he and his friends started to play soccer like they had a million times before in their few years.

Kicking the ball square on his inside left, Diego thought briefly about how blessed he was. Maybe he couldn’t put into words what was running through his 4 year old brain, but all the same he was considering his blessings.

Sure his ball wasn’t a real soccer ball and, yes, it was dimpled and about to break, but Diego couldn’t imagine how poor it would be- sad, really- to have so many toys that you don’t know with which one to play. What would be the fun in that?

Or even worse, Diego thought, how poor would it be to have so many toys you forgot the most obvious thing about toys? That it’s not about with what toy you play; it’s about with whom you play it.

As he watched his pal celebrate a goal, kicked straight through the stacked bags of cement, he felt a twinge of melancholy for those who lacked the blessings he and his friends enjoyed.

 

After their visitors disappeared down the dirt road, Maria, a 5th grade girl, hurried up the gravel slope to the village church that more often doubled as the village school.

As she walked, Maria remembered how one of their visitors, a teenager, had asked her simple Spanish if she liked school. And when she’d given the true and obvious answer (si), the visitor had reacted with genuine surprise and had asked again as though not trusting her own Spanish (si?!)

It seemed she couldn’t imagine Maria enjoying school, but Maria couldn’t imagine how anyone could not love school, especially when they got to go even after they should be working or starting a family.

As a 5th grader, Maria herself only had a few years left of school so she was determined to savor them. She loved learning; it felt to her like creation was more than willing to yield its secrets to those willing to tug and tease them out- like the way the numbers and fractions on their cracked chalk board revealed themselves on her father’s plumb lines and masonry work.

Maria stamped the dust off her feet as she entered the church, feeling sorry for those who lacked. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be without: joy, excitement and curiosity, wonder at God’s world around you.

She sat down in the 5th grade section of pews next to her friend Brenda, who was talking to the girl next to her. Like everyone else that morning, Maria could hear, they were discussing their recent visitors.

Remember when they showed us the pictures on their cameras, Brenda recalled, the  pictures of their houses?

So huge, her friend replied, so many rooms!

And thinking about that, Brenda recalled a bible story she’d heard in this same room, where Jesus says to let your light shine and not hide it under a basket.

     Brenda thought that when you lived in a house so large, it must easy for your light to get lost in all those rooms.

And suddenly she felt sorry for those visitors. Your light is everything, Brenda knew, and without out it you have nothing. Her parents would be proud, she thought, sitting there and feeling grateful for how blessed she was.

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The church bell rang the start of school and the roosters crowed for those who might’ve missed it and, once they’d quieted, almost like the tick-tock of a minute hand, you could hear the sounds of hoes striking soil all around the mountain fields.

Manuel braced himself in the sheer, sloped field and went to digging in the bean field. The familiar rhythm took possession of him. This is what he did, what he’d been taught to do by the fathers who’d done it before him, and Manuel did it with the stern and subtle grace of someone who knows his purpose and life’s meaning, and, for that, he felt blessed.

This was, after all, the land his fathers both heavenly and earthly had bequeathed him.

It fed the children he was charged to protect, the wife he was vowed to care for and the neighbors he was called to love as much as himself.

Life was exceedingly simple when you took such a long view, Manuel thought and, in thinking, thought of their visitors. Manuel couldn’t imagine what life must be like from where they came. To travel so far, so many miles, to find a sense of meaning or purpose in life?

Perhaps, Manuel wondered, they’re what Jesus refers to in Luke’s sermon on the plain as ‘poor in spirit.’

As the leader of their village church (a priest hadn’t been through in years), Manuel was given to such ponderings, his thoughts in time to his work like a metronome, thoughts like the nagging one he had now about the toilets their visitors had so generously provided.

While he and everyone else in their community were sincerely grateful for the gift, Manuel nonetheless pondered what was worse: to be without sanitation or to be without the everyday knowing that so many in the world were without it?

It struck Manuel as a question with no easy answer, the sort of question he’d drop in a sermon and leave to others to sort out.

Manuel stood up to straighten his back and wipe his brow and look over his work. Their visitors had worked hard and without complaint while they were here. Still, it was clear that they were not used to such work.

He tried to imagine what it would be like, to be without such knowledge, to not know the labor that goes into the food in your belly and the home over your head, to not know the feeling of slumped shoulders and aching backs and muscles burning like paid-out ropes.

If you didn’t know such a sensation, Manuel the churchman pondered, it seems that it would be easy to become callous about those who did labor and maybe even indifferent about those who exploited them.

Thankfully, he thought, returning to work, Manuel didn’t need to worry about such an impoverished spirit afflicting him. No, it was as tangible as the soil in front of him: he was blessed.

 

At sundown that day, as the volunteer team from Anywhere, USA ate McDonald’s and waited for their plane to board, Miguel, a stonemason, returned to his cement block home for dinner.

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His wife, Isabella, was standing by the brick stove where she’d been all day. Now that their visitors were gone they’d be eating simpler fare. Well, not simple, Isabella thought, humble maybe but not simple. Their food was never simple. After all, they’d sweated into their food out there in the fields, at tilling and planting and harvesting and all the in-between times and sweated into it in here over the fire.

She handed Miguel a stack of fresh tortillas and he received them, as he always did, as though they were the host. Manna.

And maybe they were, she thought, knowing herself, just as well as Moses ever did, the fragile line between scarcity and survival.

A little less rain one day, a mudslide another- that was the thin difference between being filled with good things and being empty.

But knowing that ever so slight balance, she thought, was itself a good thing wasn’t it? And not knowing it, that would be a kind of poverty wouldn’t it?

What must it be like, Isabella wondered, her mind drifting reflexively to their visitors, to say grace at the table and not know just how much the food in front of you is exactly what the language of prayer declares it to be: a not so small miracle, a blessing.

A fact that always made her feel blessed.

She and the kids sat down at the table next to Miguel to eat. The volunteers had sat there this week and after dinner each night they’d sit here and sing and break bread and read scripture.

Not knowing English, Miguel couldn’t make out their conversations but he’d listen anyway, feeling curious and even a little sad.

     How would you even hear scripture when you’re them, he wondered, sympathetically, when you’re not the sort of people God wrote it for?

Take Mary’s song, he contemplated, where Mary sings about how Jesus has come to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, humble the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty.

It’s easy for me to hear that as good news, Miguel regarded, but how does it sound when you’re the proud and the powerful?

It must make a simple story like the Gospel seem confusing and complicating, he decided, suddenly feeling blessed that such a burden was not his to bear.

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That evening before she boarded the plane, Nancy typed an email to her husband on her tablet: I want our kids to come here someday. Maybe then they’ll learn to…

But she lost the wifi signal before she could send it.

As she and the rest of her team got on the first leg of their flight, Manuel and Miguel and some others from the village warmed themselves by a stove’s fire, sipping hot chocolate and reflecting on the week gone by.

It’s inspiring how they always seemed to be smiling and happy despite everything they lack, Manuel’s wife observed.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Having visitors like that come here, Isabella said, it really makes you appreciate your blessings.

Miguel said si and wiped the cocoa from his lip and then speculated: I think they blessed us as much as we blessed them.

His thought provoked nods all around but Manuel, in his churchman’s tone, said: Don’t be ridiculous.

They couldn’t bless us even if they wanted. Jesus says it plainly in the bible.

We’re the ones with God’s blessing not them.

They don’t have it to give. We do.

Silence followed as they all tried to square the clear facts of scripture with what their experience told them.

I guess what I mean is…Miguel explained and then stopped, still sorting it out…that when you spend time with people like them, who lack so much…it reminds you…that God’s blessing isn’t what he gives. It’s that he’s with us.

Some more nods circled around the fire’s glow.

I hope they still come to visit when our kids are older, Isabella said. If they do, maybe it will teach our kids to appreciate all their blessings.

 

Christmas Ends in the Dark

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

     When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

But what I realized that Advent morning is thatʼs not my place in the story.

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire.

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

 

So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.

 

She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

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Here’s an Epiphany sermon from the vault…

Matthew 2.1-12

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they’ve read from it in the last week, it’s hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

I read.

I felt like I was in between worlds. For roughly twenty-two minutes, the time it took to go from the first notes of the ‘Overture’ to the end of track six ‘But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,’ I was caught between worlds. To induce me into the mood of the season, I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on my IPOD. This was a couple of weeks ago and I was in Starbucks at Mount Vernon Shopping Center, trying to write a sermon different from this one.

In my ears, the hopes and prayers of the prophet Isaiah were being sung by the London Philharmonic. And in front of me, on the page of my opened Bible, was the news from St. Matthew’s Gospel that in the birth of Jesus Christ those prayers had been answered, those hopes fulfilled.

Despite surrounding my senses with the joy of the season, I felt caught between worlds.

For sitting next to me among the crowded round tables was a man and a young a man- a father and son, I presumed. And what I heard between them could not have been a further cry from “…good news of great joy.”

The coffee shop was loud and crowded, filled with the noise of shooting steam and tables of people debriefing their holiday shopping. Already it was dark outside, the lights from the store fronts bleeding out any notice of the stars.

I was getting my notes and books in order when they sat down. The father, who hadn’t ordered anything at all, was already animated. I tried hard not to make eye contact. I didn’t want my eyes to betray my accidental but now intentional eavesdropping.

Looking down at the tiled floor, I noticed he was wearing expensive-looking loafers, the kind with tassles on them, and also exotically patterned socks. He smelled of cologne and had a distinct if undefined accent. They were sitting, father and son, at a small round table, the kind that’s just large enough for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Apparently the table was not small enough, though, as the father scooted in his chair to sit even closer- at a right angle- to the boy who bore his younger likeness.

You don’t need to have read any pastoral counseling books to identify the father’s posture, his gesticulating, his facial shrugs as aggressive. Dismissive.

Nor do you need to have read any of those books to correctly identify the widening splotches of red on the son’s neck and cheeks and face as shame.

Maybe because I’ve been in similar situations myself, but I could easily read the scene before me. The cues were all there and they were unmistakable. It wasn’t a father scolding a son over poor grades or a missed curfew. It wasn’t a routine argument or a heated but inconsequential debate.

     A marriage was breaking up and, judging from the father’s fury, the relationship was well-beyond his or anyone’s ability to repair.

‘Irreconcilable Differences’ would have been a euphemism, I quickly guessed. And, as it goes in such battles, the casualties were young and innocent.

That was what was happening next to me at the adjacent coffee table. The loyalty and perceptions of the man’s son had become an object to fight over- like a house or a car or a couch. The awkwardness of their body language and the reticence of the son made it clear to me: that they had agreed to meet there, at the coffee shop, only after much negotiation. That they were, according to their agreement, on neutral ground.

And I felt caught between worlds. As soon as I recognized what was playing out in front of me I tried to refocus, to ignore them, to read St. Matthew’s news of a new world dawning, to listen only to Isaiah’s words sung in my ears: “Comfort ye my people, says your God.” 

But the father was as angry as something caged and he said things- about the boy’s mother. Things that cannot be said in this place, things that Handel’s Messiah could not drown out or overwhelm. And with each indictment of the boy’s mother, the father would point contemptuously at his son, and each time he finished he would hold out his hands like a lawyer who’s just finished his closing argument.

The shame on the boy’s face made him look younger but he was in high school, I think. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt, baggy cargo pants and Vans on his feet. He looked like a kid you might see skateboarding in the church parking lot. Sitting there, he was curled up in as much of a fetal position as the table would allow. More self-aware than his father, he was quiet, obviously embarrassed by the audience his father’s anger had provoked there in the coffee shop.

The boy spoke, subdued and down at the table top.

“But mom said…” was all I could hear him say several times, each time his voice trailing off and fading. And each time his father would shrug his eyes and wave him off, as if his own perspective were the only star worth following.

     Now that I am a father myself, I know, unreservedly, that there are some things that ‘circumstances’ can never excuse, that no ‘situation’ justifies a child being made the prey of another’s contempt.

 And now that I’m a father I know that I don’t need to know another side to the story to know that the man sitting at the table next to me was proud, angry, without grace, and unwilling to admit error or offer mercy.

That, no matter the cost, he was determined to be his own guiding light.

The whole thing only lasted twenty minutes or so, just long enough to get from Handel’s ‘Overture’ to track number six on my IPOD. And then it was over.

I’m sure there were some there, amidst the shooting steam and holiday chatter, who didn’t notice any of it just as I’m sure there were some who didn’t notice how the father waved his son off with a “I’m finished with you” gesture, and left him sitting there crying beneath his black hood.

Like his son was a lost object, like a house or a car or a couch.

Left behind in the seat of the father’s chair, I noticed later, was a folded and wrinkled copy of the Washington Post Book World. The irony of the bold heading caught my eye so I picked it up and beneath the central graphic I read the introductory lines that the proud and contemptuous man had been sitting on:

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. 

Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

     Epiphany, the journey of the magi to discover the One revealed by heaven’s star, would seem to have little to do with the scene I’ve just drawn for you.

What I’ve just told you would seem to have little to do with three exotic kings from Persia, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, bringing their caravan of camels to Israel in search of a foretold king of the Jews.

Matthew, though, doesn’t tell us their names or where they’re from. He doesn’t even tell us how many of them there or even that they were kings. And St. Luke doesn’t tell us about them at all.

Matthew only tells us that wise men from far away searched out a promise of God and, when they found him, they paid him honor and worshipped him.

And when they left, these men who were used to guiding their lives according to the skies and the stars, couldn’t go home the same way, for the light of Christ had reoriented their whole lives.

Still, though, the story I just told you would seem to bear no connection to Matthew’s story of the magi bringing their gifts to the infant Messiah.

Unless, of course, Matthew’s story is true.

If Matthew’s story of Epiphany is true and the King the wise men discover in Bethlehem really is:

  • The mercy of God in the flesh
  • The almightiness of God revealed in the vulnerability and humility of a baby
  • The love that moves the stars in the sky is to be found in the Body of One who will be broken for the sake of the ungodly

     If heaven really is held in Mary’s manger and…

In the love and life of this baby, God chooses to forever see and judge each one of us, then Matthew’s story- Epiphany- it couldn’t have more to do with how we treat one another.

If all that is true…then, you and I, we honor this King not by bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh to him, but by bringing love and mercy and forgiveness and humility to our lives that he was born in order to redeem.

Every year at Epiphany it is the Church’s liturgical custom to talk about:

  • How the journey of the exotic magi represents the inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God
  • How the searching of the wise men demonstrates that the light of Israel is meant to be light for the whole world
  • How the worship of these foreigners is a harbinger of that future Day when every knee shall bend and every head bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all Creation.

And that’s all true and with good reason, but the way I’ve seen it since that late afternoon in Starbucks…when it comes to honoring and adoring the Christ child, you’ve got to somewhere: so why not with husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors injecting into their lives the loving mercy of the One made flesh.

So today perhaps the Washington Post is right. Maybe today the Bible won’t startle you or make you gasp, but I do pray that it will at least begin to transform you.

Amen.

 

20121204_knots-in-jesus-family-tree_banner_imgAbout 300 came out for our Bluegrass Christmas Eve at the Firehouse this year. Here’s the sermon I preached, taking Jesus’ genealogy that begins Matthew’s Nativity story as my text.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes here.

Merry Christmas!

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

For example, about 10 years ago, the Sunday before Christmas, we staged a Christmas pageant at a little church I once served.

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

(This sermon’s off to a promising start, isn’t it?)

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

Truth be told, it had neither the numbers nor the talent to mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better- and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman- I said yes.

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The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings  as though he were wondering how he’d gotten there.

For some reason, the magi were responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik, and the third wise man wore a maroon Virginia Tech bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

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When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself why I hadn’t gone to law school.

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes.

Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. I knew right then what he was getting at or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman- a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-

up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business.

Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Mike read the cast members’ names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

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There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story- I mean, the Christmas stories aren’t all the same.

For example, St. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels but all Mark says about Christmas is that the coming of Jesus is the beginning of one Kingdom and the end of another.

St John, on the other hand, begins his Christmas story with cryptic philosophy: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story. His is the story you probably know, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus, about a tax and a census.

Luke’s the one who tells us about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story, not with angels or emperors, with an ad from www.ancestory.com:

“An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah…Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…”

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but my wife said that would be sermon suicide. Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of boring, snore-fest begats. Begats that go back all the way to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

Every word of good news that comes spoken to us in Emmanuel- all of it can be found in his family tree just as easily as you can find it in his stable.

The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- there are no branches with the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. Jesus’ family tree is filled with the sorts of people you’d expect to see on TMZ not in a nativity.

If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-

There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat. Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he ‘got to know’ the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah. Judah made the same mistake with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

I’m telling you: these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth climbing in to bed with him. Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a ‘working girl’ who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

David was a power-hungry peeping-tom, who spied on Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop one evening. David arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be murdered. David and Bathsheba went to become the parents of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Of course, the family tree ultimately winds its way to Joseph.

Joseph, who, Matthew makes no bones to hide, wasn’t the father of Jesus at all. He was just the fiance of the boy’s mother- Mary, the teenage girl with a child on the way and no ring on her finger.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw or inns with no vacancy.

     Instead Matthew tells us the Christmas story by first telling us about the messy and the embarrassing and the sordid and the complicated and the disappointing and the unfaithful parts of Jesus’ family.

     And then, having said all that, Matthew tells us this baby is Emmanuel, God- with-us, God-for-us, as one of us, in the flesh.

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Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me and then gestured with the rolled up program of names.

As if to say…when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t we at least try to find some people who are a bit more pious, people whose families are a bit less complicated, people whose lives are less messy?

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary.

She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his make- shift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod- Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

Her oxygen tank sat next to her in a wheeled cart. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone but from my seat there in the back I was sure she was staring right at her family.

With her blood-thinner-bruised hands she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air:

“All this took place…(breath)…to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet…(breath)…they shall name him Emmanuel…(breath)…which means…(breath)…God with us.”

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me through gritted teeth.

     And sitting in the back, I looked at Mary behind the pulpit and I looked at all the other fragile, compromised people from our church family who were dressed in their costumes and waiting to deliver their part of the Gospel.

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

‘There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story’ I said with a smile.

20121204_knots-in-jesus-family-tree_banner_img

I never stepped foot inside a church until a Christmas Eve service when I was teenager.

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was down and up and down and then it was over. I have an uncle who was in prison every other Christmas.

     And, honestly, every year I just about wreck my own family’s Christmas because I can’t get over- can’t forgive- that baggage.

What I mean to say is-

I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

I know how easy it is to worry you don’t belong, to think that at Christmas you have to dress up and come to a church service and pretend for an hour that  you’re someone else, pretend your family is different than it really is behind closed doors.

I know how easy it is to believe that at Christmas- especially in this place- you have to hide the fact that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have enough faith, that you have too many secrets, that you have too much doubt, that if God knew who you really were, what you had done and what you have left undone, then he wouldn’t be born for you.

I know how easy it is to think that the Christmas story is not your story.

But then, there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story.

     I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

     But then again, so is mine and, probably, so is yours.

And God- I want you to know it so badly: that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.

And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

or mangers filled with straw. The gift given tonight is that God comes to you and to me just as we are. Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be. Not as our parents or our spouses or our children or our neighbors or our bosses think we should be.

No.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story and what Matthew has to tell you is that:

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.

 

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517Thinking of Christmas Eve, I’ve had Jesus’ family tree on my mind. Here’s a sermon based on the Book of Ruth. In case you don’t know, Ruth’s story finds its way into Jesus’ family tree in Matthew’s Gospel.

I tried to imagine the Holy Family telling her story to the little Jesus as a bedtime story.

——————————————————————————————————-

‘Your father and I read this story at our wedding,’ the young mother told her little boy. And when the boy asked why, his father told him that it was tradition. ‘It’s a love story,’ he said.

The lights from the menorah on the window sill made the boy’s dark room glow. The light of the candles danced off the colored Hanukah decorations. The smells of holiday food lingered in the house. Mary and Joseph were curled up with their little boy.

He’d taken the old, black family bible from its shelf in his room, and it now rested on his lap just as he sat on his mother’s lap. The bible was the kind with the thick, special paper in the front, the kind with gilt lines to fill in important dates: marriages, births, baptisms and, beneath those, lots of lines to sketch the family tree.

Mary had filled in the family tree before she was even properly married, before she started to show. At the time she’d been confused by a great many things, but she absolutely knew that one day it would be important for her boy to know: where he came from, who is ancestors were, and what kind of person they made him.

And so, every night before his parents’ kiss and lullaby, they would read him a story from the bible, a story about one of those names his mother had written on the front, cream-colored page of Joseph’s family bible.

He would point with his little boy finger at one of the names on the family tree. ‘Tell me a story about that one’ he would say. He was just a boy. He liked the adventure stories the best- the stories with action and danger, stories where God spoke like thunder or moved like fire and wind, stories like those of Abraham and Jacob and, of course, David- the boy who would be king.

But on this night the boy pointed to a different name, one he hadn’t pointed to before. ‘Tell me a story about that one.’

And his mother smiled and looked over at her husband. ‘We read this story at our wedding,’ she said. ‘It’s a love story.’

The boy looked skeptically at his mother as she began…

A long, long time ago, in the days when judges ruled… famine struck the whole land that God had promised his people. The stomachs of God’s people were grumbling and empty. Even in Bethlehem where you were born people went hungry.

There was a man on your father’s side of the family named Elimelech. Elimelech had a family and, like everyone else in the land, his family was starving.

‘What did he do?’ the little boy asked, ‘did God provide bread from heaven like in the story of Moses?’

And his mother said, no, not like that. Elimelech had to look out for his family so one night he and his wife and their two sons packed only what they could carry. In the cover of darkness, they snuck across the border and crossed through the muddy river into a new country, Moab.

Elimelech’s wife was a woman named Naomi. ‘Naomi means ‘sweetness,’ said the boy’s father, ‘but Naomi was anything but sweet.’

The little boy asked why that was and his father told him that no sooner did Elimelech’s family arrive in Moab than Elimelech died and Naomi was left alone with her two sons. A widow’s life is hard his mother explained. Don’t ever forget that.

At first things went well for Naomi. Her sons married two girls from Moab, Orpah and Ruth. They weren’t Jewish girls so their marriages would’ve been forbidden back in Bethlehem, but they were happy.  Naomi’s boys were married happily for ten years. They had food and money and work. After ten years both of Naomi’s boys died. Just like that, no one knows why.

And poor Naomi, she always worried in the back of her mind that they died because God was punishing her for something, perhaps for letting her boys marry unbelievers.

‘But God doesn’t do things like that, does he?’ the boy asked.

No, his mother said, God doesn’t do that and she kissed the top of his head.

But Naomi felt she was being punished. She was left with two daughters-in-law, in a country where she didn’t belong, in a man’s world with no man, no husband, no sons.

‘What does she do?’ the boy asked. Naomi decided to return home, to go back to Bethlehem. ‘All by her self?’ he asked. An uncertain future seemed better to her than what she could expect if she stayed in Moab. So she packed up her things- again just what she needed- along with a photo of her husband and boys, and after her sons were buried, numb with grief, she just started walking… towards home.

‘Is that the story?’ the boy wanted to know.

No, his mother said and looked at the lights in the window. You see, her sons’ wives followed behind her. At first Naomi simply thought they wanted to say goodbye, to wave to her as she disappeared over the horizon. When they got to the outskirts of town, though, Naomi realized they weren’t just seeing her off. Orpah and Ruth, she realized, intended to stay with her, to go with Naomi all the long way back to Israel, back to Bethlehem.

‘Well, did they?’ the boy wanted to know. Not exactly, his mother replied. First Naomi turned around and yelled at them. She yelled at Ruth and Orpah. She told them to turn around, to turn back, to go home to their own families.

They didn’t belong with her. In her country they’d just be foreigners. They wouldn’t be welcome. I’m very grateful for you, Naomi told Ruth and Orpah; I pray that God would give you happiness and husbands. But go.

Ruth and Orpah, they just stood there- stubborn. Naomi yelled at them again, but she was really yelling at God. When Naomi was done cursing, she fell down weeping, crying in the middle of the road with traffic going by.

That was when Orpah decided to do as her mother-in-law asked. She gave her dead husband’s mother a long embrace and picked up her bags and walked back into town.

But Ruth, your great….grandmother, she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t leave Naomi to fend for herself. She just planted her feet in the dirt and put her hands on her hips and told Naomi that wherever Naomi went Ruth would be going too, wherever Naomi lived Ruth would be living there too, and the place Naomi died would be where Ruth would die.

Ruth, your great…grandma, she was willing to leave behind her home, family, country, even her religion just to care for someone else.

And God never told Ruth to risk all this. She never had a special word of calling like Abraham, never a vision like Moses, no dream like Jacob.

‘God really speaks to people in their dreams?’ the boy asked.

Yes, he does, said the boy’s father.

Ruth and Naomi walked the long walk to Bethlehem in silence. Naomi didn’t speak a word until she introduced herself to the people they met in Bethlehem, but she didn’t say that her name was Naomi. Call me ‘Mara’ she told people.

‘Why would she change her name?’ the little boy asked. Mara means bitterness; Naomi was convinced that her life was already over.

Remember, a widow’s life is hard. God’s Kingdom should belong to them.

Don’t ever forget that. ‘I won’t,’ the boy promised.

Ruth and Naomi found a place to live in Bethlehem. Nothing fancy, not even nice, but Ruth tried to make the best of it. Naomi though just sat in the dark corner of the apartment and stared blankly through her tears and through the window. Ruth had promised to take care of Naomi and she wasn’t about to quit.

They still had no food so, after they settled, Ruth went out to the fields to scavenge what the harvesters left behind. She didn’t know it at the time, but the fields belonged to a rich man named Boaz. Boaz was family to Naomi.

Every day Ruth left to scavenge for food and every day she came home to Naomi’s bitter quiet. But one day, everything started to change.

One day, the same as any other, Ruth was working the fields, looking for leftovers.

On that day, Boaz came out to look over his property and check on his workers. He said hello and thanked them. Then he saw someone he didn’t recognize bent over at the edge of the field, a woman. He pointed to Ruth out in the distance and he asked his foreman: ‘Who is she?’

And his foreman told him all about Ruth and how much Ruth loved her bitter mother-in-law and how Ruth had risked everything to care for her.

Boaz listened to the foreman’s story, and later that day he walked out to the edge of the field. He said hello to Ruth. Then he did a strange thing.

‘What?’ the boy asked. He urged Ruth to scavenge only in his fields. He promised her that his men would never bother her and that they would even leave extra grain behind for her. Ruth stood in the sun and listened to Boaz tell her all of this.

Now, for the first time since her husband had died, it was Ruth’s turn to cry. She fell down at Boaz’s feet and wept and she told him that she was just a foreigner, that she deserved rejection not kindness.

Boaz just smiled gently and he said softly: ‘May God reward the love you’ve shown Naomi.’

When Ruth returned home that day, she told Naomi everything that happened with Boaz.

For the first time, Naomi pulled her wistful eyes away from the window and she said, almost like she’d been holding her breath for a great long while: ‘Bless you!’

When she said it, Ruth didn’t know whether Naomi was talking to her or to God.

‘Is that it?’ the boy wondered aloud, thinking it not nearly as exciting a story as David and Goliath.

No, his mother said. Nothing else happened to Ruth or Naomi for a while. Then one morning Naomi burst into Ruth’s bedroom and she told her that that day Boaz would be winnowing barley with his workers. Its long work, Naomi explained.

The whole town will be there to help. It’s like a festival. There’ll be food and music and dancing and wine, lots of wine, she said with knowing eyes.

Ruth still looked puzzled so Naomi grabbed her by the shoulders and told Ruth to take off the black clothes she’d been wearing since her husband died. Go take a long shower, Naomi told her. And when you’re done anoint your whole body with perfume and then put on a nice dress. You need to look beautiful in every way.

And when Ruth asked why, Naomi told her what she was to do.

That night, after the day’s work and the evening’s party, Boaz wouldn’t be going home. Instead he’d be sleeping in his barn. You’re to go to him, Naomi told Ruth. Go to him and lie down next to him.

‘What did Ruth say?” asked the boy. ‘Probably something like: let it be with me according to your word,’ his mother answered.

Whatever Ruth said, she did everything Naomi told her. When she snuck into the barn that night, the band was still playing outside and Boaz was already fast asleep in the hay.

Before Ruth lay down in the straw next to Boaz, she tried to take off his shoes for him. She woke him up. I imagine he was surprised, said the boy’s mother.

When Boaz startled awake, he asked Ruth what she was doing there. And Ruth blushed and panicked. Naomi had told her what to do, but not what to say.

‘What did she say?’ the boy asked.

Ruth told him that if he really wanted to care for her, if he really prayed that God would reward her kindness to Naomi, if he really wanted to help her care for Naomi, then he would marry her.

‘She asked him to marry her?’ the boy asked surprised.

Yes, and Boaz said yes. And he let Ruth sleep there next to him that night.

In the morning, before the sun came up or anyone else awoke, Boaz told Ruth to meet him that afternoon at the gateway that led into town. That’s where he would marry her.

And before Ruth left that early morning, Boaz gave her a gift of barley. He helped load the bag of barley onto her back. Your great-grandma Ruth, she always told people that that morning, helping her with the barley, was the first time they ever touched.

Mary could see that her boy was drifting asleep. So they married, she concluded. And they had a boy named Obed. And he became King David’s grandfather, and, without them, you might not be here with us…

Joseph crept up and blew out the lights on the menorah, and Mary tucked her little boy into bed. And with half open eyes, the little boy said that God wasn’t even in that story. God didn’t say anything or do anything or appear to anyone.

And Mary kissed the word made flesh on the forehead and she said that sometimes God’s love is revealed to us in our love for one another.

Sometimes God is in the person right in front of you.

That’s what the story’s about, she said.

And of all the people in the world, only Mary knew just how true that was.

Bad Santa

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517   This Sunday I closed out our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by taking a look at St. Nicholas, who received a mystical encounter with the Risen Christ after his ‘You talking’ to me?’ moment at the Council of Nicaea. I used the screen behind me to convey the parenthetical comments you see in the text- my little homage to the finale of Cobert.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can download it here.

Speaking of Mary’s Song, we listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan.

(Fan = snob, elitist, smarty-pants)

     And I’m not picky or narrow-focused, I’m a fan of genres of music. Blues, Bluegrass, Bakersfield Country, Indie, Jazz, Clash-era punk- you name it, I’m a fan of it all.

(All = not Pop, Contemporary Christian or Baby-Making Smooth Jazz)

     I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job.

(Job = unpaid hobby for which no one else answered the want ads)

     I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

(Good Home = my apartment)

      Every last album.

(‘Every’ = except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates)

     I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You’

(Cliche, I know).

     Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the praise song ‘Forever Reign’ was playing.

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and more songs in iCloud than South Dakota has legal residents. I love music, and we’ve raised our boys to love music too.

And, as parents, we didn’t waste our time with lamo kids’ music like Raffi or Baby Einstein or Jack Johnson.

No, the first song Gabriel danced to at 16 months old was Nirvanna’s single ‘Lithium,’ which is ironic since lithium is exactly what I felt I needed after I changed his diaper.

My boys- they love music too.

Gabriel could create a playlist on the iPod before he was potty-trained. Alexander, before he knew his consonants from his vowels, knew all the words to every Ben Folds Five song.

(Even Ben Fold’s cover of Dr. Dre’s ‘B#$%$@! Ain’t S$%^’ = #badparent)

     Gabriel even cried crocodile tears when he discovered that his beloved White Stripes had broken up the year he was born.

They love music.

It may be true that boogers are just one of the many things my boys eat with their hands, but from the age when other kids are stuck singing ‘Farmer in the Dell’ they’ve known to look down their noses at anyone who listens to Billboard topping pop. I call it my curriculum of cool.

(Well, I will now)

     I mean- I can’t teach my boys to change the oil, hang a door or rewire a light switch, but I can team them that no homo sapien worth his thumbs should ever waste their time listening to Taylor Swift and that subscribing to Sirius Radio is the musical equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public.

(Least amount of effort possible)

 

My boys- they love music.

We love Christmas carols too.

We’ve got 211 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting the 5th of July. There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond’s ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Buble.

No, my boys love music so they know any savior worthy of worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe and Wynton Marsalis.

Our favorite Christmas song- favorite because it drives Ali (my wife, their mommy) crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-crazy- is Bob Dylan’s angelic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ written in 1934 for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show, is our favorite Christmas song and because it tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret, Bob Dylan’s is our favorite version of it.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas and forcing his kids to listen to something like DC Talk’s Christian Christmas rap ‘Yo, Ho, Ho?’

Shouldn’t a pastor and his kids be arm-in-arm, on the front lines with Bill O’Reilly, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

 

I mean- sure, Santa apparently turns a blind eye to shaming and bullying among his Jim Crow reindeer. Sure the only difference between his North Pole workforce and a coal mine in Matewan, WV is one of height.

(Where else would his coal come from?)

     I mean- sure, Santa rides in a carriage in the 21st century like a colorblind Amish man.

Sure he’s ‘happily married’ (in an Ike and Tina kinda way) to a wife whom he apparently doesn’t allow to leave the house; meanwhile, he trots the globe wearing what, on anyone else, would be considered a porn star costume.

But hey- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?

So, no, I don’t have a problem with Santa Claus.

If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground.

(The true miracle of Christmas?)

     And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. I don’t think it sets up our children to question everything else once they learn the Claus con.

Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith- biblical faith.

So I’ve never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until the other day.

The other day we had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel says- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? ‘If,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

     (Bam. Damn.)

     And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse looked not a little like Satan himself.

Every year we complain about how the carols and the decorations and the advertisements begin around Arbor Day.  We complain about materialism and greed and stuff- how more and more it’s gotten to be about getting more and more.  We complain about ‘Happy Holidays’ and the ‘War on Christmas’ and how Jesus is the reason for what’s become a secular season. We complain about all of it, but the one thing we don’t complain about is the one thing we should rail against.

Because what could be more antithetical to the Christmas Gospel than this whole idea of kids sitting on Santa’s lap or elves sitting on shelves or God sitting in heaven watching us, judging us, deciding what we deserve- before he decides what he’ll give?

‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’ 

Not to get too preachy but the Gospel is that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’ The Christmas Gospel, therefore, is ‘while we were still naughty, God took flesh and gave us the gift of himself.’

The Gospel is that ‘He became sin who no sin; so that, we might become the righteousness of God.’ That’s 2 Corinthians 5 and the Christmas Gospel corollary to it is ‘God became human; so that, we, who are no good through and through, through him might receive the gift of salvation.’

The Gospel is that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

John 3.16- and you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ has no positive connotations in John at all; therefore, the Christmas Gospel is that God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ.

And then kept giving all the way to a cross.

That’s the Christmas Gospel, and I want my son to know it- to know that God loves him regardless if he’s bad or good or shouts or cries.

I want you to know it too, to know that God loves you whether or not you’re naughty or not so nice. I want you to know that Christmas has nothing to do with how good you are.

And, since you’re all in church today, I want you to know too that you getting this gift from God- it doesn’t mean that you’re good, doesn’t make you good.

For goodness sakes, that’s what we mean by the word ‘grace.’

God doesn’t give us what we deserve and God gives us more than we deserve. That’s the Gospel and it wasn’t until the other day that I realized how that Pavlovian song about a bourbon-bellied fat man wreaks all kinds of naughty on our understanding of Christmas.

And I’m sure ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is just one example of how our message has gotten all messed up.

So now my Christmas Playlist numbers 206 songs not 211- gone are the covers of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Mavis Staples and Run DMC.

I won’t sing it anymore. Or play it even.

And before you accuse me of being one of those reactive ‘War on Christmas’ clergyman, you know who else wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

Santa Claus.

Nichols-Punch-Meme

That is, the real St. Nicholas. The real St. Nick would never sing that song.

The real St. Nicholas, in case you didn’t know, was a 4th century Christian Bishop. A would-be martyr, St. Nick was exiled and tortured under hostile Roman Emperors, one of whom gouged out Nicholas’ eye, trying to compel him to recant his allegiance to Christ.

But you know how I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

The real St. Nick was a delegate at the Council of Nicaea in 325 where he helped write the words of the creed we recited this morning. It was at the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas encountered a rival church leader named Arius, who was later denounced as a heretic.

On the council floor, Arius argued passionately that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is not the fullness of God, that Jesus is not God made flesh.

I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ because it only took him a few minutes of listening to Arius pontificate before jolly old Nicholas started to turn red with anger and only a few moments more before he stood up and strode down to the council floor and then, with all those vicars of Christ looking on, he punched Arius in the teeth, as though they were both in a Martin Scorsese film version of their lives.

1467293_563592787054489_335397325_n  It’s a true story. St. Nick round-housed him right to the nose, until Arius had tears in his eyes and blood in his mouth.

And for it, St. Nicholas quickly found himself on the Emperor’s naughty list. He was thrown in prison. He was stripped of his vestments. His beard was shorn, burnt off.

But while he was chained, naked, in a prison cell, Nicholas received a mystical vision. The Risen Jesus appeared to him, smiling upon him, and restored his beard and gave him a bible.

In other words, the real St. Nick lost his cool, cold-cocked a heretic and, after he gets thrown in the clink, he gets a thumbs up from the Risen Christ.

Don’t you see- Santa is the original Bad Santa. But even when St. Nicholas was naughty, Jesus came to him and gave.

Gave him grace and mercy.

And so I know- not even St. Nick would sing that song about St. Nick.

Because Nicholas staked his life on the Gospel claim that the Jesus who said ‘I do not condemn you’ and the Jesus who said ‘I came to seek and save sinners not the righteous’ and the Jesus who said the Kingdom is exactly like a Father’s embrace of a child who’s lost their way in all kind of ways…

That Jesus is nothing less than 100% God.

God in the flesh.

image

I know St. Nick would not sing that song about St. Nick because Nicholas gave his eye and his beard and his status and was ready to give his life for the Christmas Gospel that when God comes to town in Jesus Christ, the gift he gives he gives to the naughty and to the sinners and to the traitors and to the liars and to the narcissists and to the addicts and to the bigots and to the cowards…just like you and just like me.

(Thank God)

     ‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’ 

     I love music. All kinds.

But ever since the other day I’ve pared down my Holiday Playlist to 206 Christmas Cuts.

Santa Claus may still be coming to town but he’s not doing it on my stereo anymore.

And maybe I’m overreacting, who knows.

Of course, Gabriel suggested that if the song’s message was so contrary to the Christmas Gospel then rather than forbid the song and expunge it from iCloud, I should write my own song- a song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ that even the real St. Nick would sing.

‘That’s a good idea’ I thought.

But even though I love music, I quickly discovered that writing a catchy jingle-jangle song about a one-eyed celibate with a singed beard and anger management problems, who pimp-slaps a fellow cleric over incarnational theology and gets a slap on the back from the Risen Christ as a reward…that’s a harder song to write than you might think.

Not to mention, it’s hard to find rhymes for the word ‘Christological.’

As much as I might like to write my own song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ one that proudly proclaims what the real Nick knew so well- that we are, all of us, all naughty and all loved; that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more- as much as I might like to write that song, I can’t.

I’m a music fan not a music writer.

Instead of verse, I’ll have to stick to prose.

I’ll have to figure out a way to communicate that message not in a catchy, 2 minute jingle but in the everyday, humdrum words and actions of my life.

saint-nicholas

 

 

 

Missing By Nine Miles

Jason Micheli —  December 15, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517This Sunday I continued our Mystical Christmas series by looking at Matthew 2.1-12, the Magi’s journey, through the lens of a journey of my own, both ordinary and not so ordinary.

I got the idea from the ancient Church Father, John Chrysostom, who writes of the passage:

“The star of Bethlehem was not an ordinary star, for no other star has this capacity to guide, not merely to move but to beckon and invite…The star remained after bringing them to the place, in order that the child might also be seen. For there is nothing conspicuous about Christ. The inn was ordinary. The mother was ordinary. The star needed to manifest and illumine the ordinary until they had reached their destination.”

– John Chrysostom 

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any right-thinking person does.

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

A Kenny G musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them.

Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out.

His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.

Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year I won’t keep my mouth shut.

On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much.

Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry- seriously a Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.

He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled so strongly of man-perfume that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it.

He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.

And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus.

While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2014 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes.

     Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.

 

I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars.

The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about every angle and altitude of our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate.

Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow.

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother.

Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way.

Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

And I thought to myself: Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.

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Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes.

It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations.

And I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that.

     Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking a bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me.

You don’t even have to read it necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space.

Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo.

Stops them every time.

That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.

Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc.

He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map.

Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop.

I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing.

He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website.

Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2014 Christmas.

I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Mockingjay pin, like the one worn by Catniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, for only $80.00.

I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Mockingjay pin when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.

I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked Save.

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh.

And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?

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I looked over at him. You talking to me? I said as the fingers of my right hand deflty felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.

 

You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray.

Yeah, I guess so.

That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been.

I let his voice of trail off.

A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the bible.

It’s the story of the magi, I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights.

The what?

The wise men, I said.

He said: Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?

Not exactly, I said. They go to Jerusalem first not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.

Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive, he laughed.

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I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo or pretend I was asleep.

But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?

Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation.

They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.

He smiled a wise smile at me and said: In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts and then getting back to their normal lives.

And I smiled and said: Something like that.

 

 

Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag.

The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment.

And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip.

The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.

Can I read it? he asked.

Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up, I said, but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.

No, not that book, he said.

And he held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said.

He took a while with it. He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe.

When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back.

Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure.

Then he held the bible out to me and he put his index finger down at the page.

What’s this? he asked me.

He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.

     That’s from Micah, I said, from the Old Testament.

Can you show me? he asked.

And I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him.

It’s short, I warned, only a few pages long.

I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words.

I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading. I wondered if it might be:

He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path. 

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. 

or

He will gather the lame and assemble the immigrants and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then he handed it back to me.

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A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know.

The Mockingjay pin? I asked.

No, he said, the wise men.  For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked.

     For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God.

     I guess I never thought about it like that, I said, even though, now that he’d said it, I could think of an ancient Church Father who’d written something very similar.

I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places.

The Good News is so were the magi, I said.

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We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows.

I’d closed my eyes.

I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it, he said.

That’s Luke’s Gospel, I said. Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.

I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said.

How so?

None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.

You ought to be a minister, I said.

He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?

I laughed and said…pretty much.

 

 

As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him:  Are you going back to DC after the holiday?

No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517This Advent we kick off a sermon series entitled ‘Mystical Christmas,’ looking at Advent through the perspective of some of the Church’s ancient mystics.

This past Sunday I borrowed from St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) who viewed the Incarnation as the absolute and primary purpose of God in creation.

In other words, according to Maximus, the Incarnation is neither occasioned nor determined by the Fall.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it here. Though, I’ve got to admit that the holiday combined with my birthday produced a rather flat delivery. Mea culpa.

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the building to take an informal poll of you all.

Armed with paper and pencil, they’ve snuck up on you here in the sanctuary as service begins. They’ve accosted hangers-on still lingering in the fellowship hall after the 8:30 coffee hour, and they’ve barged into Sunday School classrooms, emboldened by the permission to be as irritating as necessary in order to get answers to the questions we’ve given them.

In years’ past more than a few Sunday School teachers have told me they don’t particularly like anyone interrupting their class time.

A couple of people, including He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, have balled me out for putting them on the spot and making them looking foolish in front of sixth graders.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

About 15% of people always respond that Jesus comes to teach us how to love one another and help the needy. I suppose those are the liberals among us (I’ll get an email about that).

Without fail, a reliable 85% of people answer, in so many words, that Jesus comes to forgive us for our sins. That Jesus is born to die.

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all. More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out, that Jesus comes in order to die for us.

And the problem with that answer is that it’s wrong.

Or rather, it’s incomplete.

We lament the commercialization of Christmas. We talk about how Jesus is the reason for the season, and we root for Kirk Cameron to put the Christ back in Christmas.

But it’s not clear to me that we’re at all clear on what the reason for Jesus is.

A few Advents ago, as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was chewing me out in the church hallway after having been grilled by confirmands and their poll, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named grumbled at me:

‘Well, if I don’t know the answer to your questions is that my fault or my pastor’s fault?’ 

I told him that was a fair point and that if he wanted he could go right ahead and assign blame to his pastor…Rev. Dennis Perry.

Seriously, in the 13 years I’ve spent at bedsides and gravesides, the more  confessions I hear and struggles I listen to, the more people share their faith and their fears with me, the more kids and youth ask me questions, the more I’m convinced that the question ‘Why does Jesus come?’ is the most important question we can ask.

So today I want to do something different.

I want to give it to you straight up.

No personal stories. No clever rhetoric. No funny anecdotes. No desperate or ironic antics to win your attention. Not even a Joel Osteen crank.

Nothing to distract you away from what I want you to know.

Today I want to make a theological argument, and I’m going to take the gamble that you all can handle it.

My wife, Ali, assured me you were up for it. I told her I doubted it; she told me that you might find that insulting. If that’s the case, then I leave it to you to prove her right.

And if you’re not up for it, or if that’s not your cup of tea, then it’s your fault for coming to church the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Higgins, Mary, Scan

The problem in answering that Jesus comes to forgive our sins, the problem in suggesting that he’s born to die, is that it makes Christmas determined by us. It makes the incarnation contingent on us: on our sin, on the Fall, on Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

     The infinite (i.e., God) is determined by that which is finite.

You and me.

Instead of something that flows from God’s abundance, the incarnation is something provoked by our weakness. Instead of a gift God gives out of joy for us, the incarnation is the outworking of God’s frustration and disappointment in us.

Christmas then isn’t something God freely does of his love and grace; it’s something God’s compelled to do because of our plight. It’s something God has to do to rescue us from Sin.

     But by definition God doesn’t have to do anything.

And, secondly, to say that God sends Jesus; so that, we can be forgiven of our sins is to make Jesus a solution to a problem.

It’s like saying I married Ali; so that, I wouldn’t be lonely. I shouldn’t need to say that Ali is surpassingly more than just a hedge against loneliness. She’s not simply a solution to my problem.

But when we say God sends Jesus so that we can be forgiven of our sins, that’s exactly what we do. We reduce Jesus to a strategy. We circumscribe him according to his utility. We render Jesus down until he’s little more than a device God uses to bail us out of our situation.

Jesus isn’t a device.

No matter what Joel Osteen promises you, Jesus isn’t merely a solution to our problems.

Even our problem of Sin and Death. (I couldn’t help myself)

     Jesus isn’t a strategy made flesh; he’s the eternal fullness of God made flesh.

The image of the invisible God, as Paul’s Christ hymn puts it in Colossians 1.

Third, by saying that Jesus comes to forgive us our sins, we picture creation as a sinking ship and we imagine Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us. Or worse, we imagine ‘sin’ as something predestined or concocted by God merely to display his holiness and mercy upon the Cross.

But to picture Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us is to presume that Jesus would not have come if we hadn’t sinned.

That if there’d been no exit from Eden there’d have been no journey to Bethlehem.

     To suggest that Jesus might not have come is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s.

Indeed it’s to say that Jesus isn’t really the image of the invisible God because if the incarnation is not an eternal decision of God’s, if the incarnation is not something God was always going to do irrespective of a Fall, then that means at some point in time God changed his mind about us, towards us.

And if God changed his mind at some point in the past, then what’s to stop God from changing his mind again in the future. What’s to stop God from looking at you and your life and deciding that the Cross is no longer sufficient to cover your sins?

It’s true that Jesus saves us. It’s true that his death and resurrection reconcile God’s creation. It’s true that through him our sins are forgiven once and for all, but that alone is not why he comes.

That’s not why he comes because he would’ve come anyway, because he was always going to come.

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The ancient Christians had a catchphrase they used to think through this.

In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra. That was their way of saying: Who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is eternally in himself.

If what Jesus teaches us is really the Word of God, if the Cross is in fact a perfect sacrifice for your sins, if your salvation is indeed assured, if the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel- God with us- and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must’ve always been so. Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, of the Trinity.

 

That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

That’s what we profess in the creed when we recite that Christ is the one ‘by whom all things were made.’

That’s what the first Christians sang in the hymn Paul quotes in his letter to the Colossians that Christ is:

‘…is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; all things have been created through him and for him…‘   

He was before was was.

He’s back behind yesterday.

There is not when he was not, and there can not be when he will not be.

What’s that mean?

     It means the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.

It means that what we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery:

The mystery that the Nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation. The mystery that the incarnation is God’s primal, primordial, eternal decision not to be God in any other way but God-with-us. The mystery that there is literally no limit to God’s love. There can be no time at which you can exhaust God’s love for you because Jesus Christ is before time.

And so Jesus doesn’t just come to forgive us our sins. He isn’t born just to die. Because when we say that Christ is pre-existent, we say that he would’ve come anyway, that he always going to come, that even if there hadn’t needed to be a Cross there still would’ve been a cradle.

Because before he brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins. Because if Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction.

     Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him.

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas; it’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.

Higgins, Mary, Scan

Jesus is the reason for the season, but the reason for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship. Fellowship.

With us.

In the Trinity we discover that God is a community- an eternal friendship- of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In Jesus Christ, we discover that God became what we are so that we might be taken up into what God is. A friendship. A community of Father, Son and Spirit.

So the next time someone asks you ‘Why does Jesus come at Christmas?’ you’ve got no excuse.

You can’t blame Dennis. Now you know the answer.

Jesus comes because God wants to be friends with you. Or rather, Jesus comes because God wants you to join the friendship we call Trinity.

And that answer’s not as simplistic as it sounds.

‘Being forgiven’ doesn’t ask much from you, but friendship- the kind of faithful friendship Jesus displayed with the Father- that kind of friendship could potentially ask everything of you.

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”

The Christian blogosphere has been all atwitter lately over the National Cathedral’s welcome of an Islamic prayer service into their sacred space. Living here in DC as I do, I can say that Muslims praying in the cathedral will be neither the first non-Christian activity on the cathedral’s schedule nor will it be as a-religious as much of the silliness which transpires there (seriously, I was once forced to take a ‘Laughter Yoga’ class there).

True to form, my mentor and partner-in-crime, Dennis Perry, was well-ahead of the curve in showing Christian hospitality to our Muslim neighbors when their mosque was under renovation. Fidelity to Jesus, Dennis points out, involves much more than tribal allegiance to him. It requires us to embody his life and ministry, and when it comes how we should offer hospitality to our despised, feared neighbors Jesus even gives us a handy-dandy, black-and-white parable to abide: the Good Samaritan.

Our church welcomed our Muslim neighbors 4 years ago. It was not without controversy. Many church members got angry. Others left. Only one ever actually came to me to tell me they were upset.

In the end, in a denomination whose highest value is most often making members happy, we’re a stronger congregation for welcoming the stranger.

Here’s the sermon I wrote 4 years ago, the Sunday after the Friday we first welcomed our local mosque into our sacred multipurpose room. I preached that Sunday while Dennis sat in the middle of a firing line of questions between services.

As luck would have it, it’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary text.

Also, just for shits and giggle, here’s a bit the Daily Show did about our hospitality.

The Form of God’s Shalom – Matthew 25

A few years ago, before she graduated, I went with my wife, Ali, to a law school party. I hate parties. I avoid them. I go only begrudgingly and when I’m in them I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a minister- a marine biologist, say, or an architect. Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks like saying you’re a minister, and nothing provokes unwanted conversations like saying you’re a minister.

So, there I was at this party full of wannabe lawyers, gnawing like a beaver on celery sticks, desperately trying to keep conversation to superficial things when this Urban-Outfitted guy asked me what I did for a living. And because my wife was nearby I told him the truth.

Sure enough, the first thing he did was discretely move his wine glass behind his back. Then he copped an elitist air and said:

‘Well, I’m not religious, of course, but I do try to live a good life and help people when I can. Isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about?’

And I thought: ‘Wow, that’s really deep. Is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? I should write that down. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.’

Today’s scripture text from Matthew 25 seems like the perfect example of such do-good moralism.

One of the most obvious features of this judgment scene is what’s missing from it. When it comes to the sheep and the goats, there’s no mention of a confession of faith. There’s no mention of justification. Nothing is said here about forgiveness of sins or grace.

There’s nothing here about what we say or believe about Jesus. Many conclude from this text then that our beliefs, our doctrine, our faith are all incidental when compared to our deeds, that this parable shows us that what really matters is what we do, that one day we will be judged not on the strength or sincerity of our faith but on the presence of our good deeds to others.

The only problem with such an interpretation is that its an interpretation that doesn’t require Jesus; in fact, you can forget Jesus is the one telling the parable.

The suggestion that ‘doing good to others is really what it’s all about’ is hardly a novel concept. It’s not specifically Christian or even particularly religious.

There has to be more going on here.

Jesus and the disciples have just left the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus preached a series of woes against the faithless city. It was while they were there that the disciples couldn’t help but marvel over the impressive architecture of Herod’s temple mount.

And hearing their amazement, Jesus responds by predicting the complete destruction of every building they see, stone for stone.

Then Jesus leads them up to the Mt of Olives. When they get there, the disciples ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?

Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.

And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5). Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’ That this is the setting for today’s scripture is key to understanding Jesus’ parable.

Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read this parable rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture.

Every year I spend the first three weeks of our confirmation program drilling into the confirmands’ heads that harmony was God’s intention from the very beginning. Harmony with creation, with one another, with Father, Son and Spirit.

Sometimes we spend so much time praising God for dying for our sins we forget that Sin was not in the first draft of God’s story. We forget that harmony was God’s original design, and we forget that harmony is God’s promise for a

New Creation.

The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.

Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).

Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.

This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about. Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.

It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.

This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. By telling this parable here the Shepherd is passing his vocation on to his sheep. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’

You see-

The point of this parable is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se. The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.

The point of this parable is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged. The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to his way of life which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.

Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?

This is a description of Jesus’ life.

The sheep are saved not because of their good deeds. The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to live the life that redeems the world. The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about? The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.

Earlier this week a member of the congregation came to me, quite upset, and told me they couldn’t understand why we would allow for an Islamic congregation to hold their Friday Jummah prayer services here in our building.

‘How can we ask our youth to give their lives to Christ when we’re condoning the practice of another religion in our fellowship hall?’

It was an honest question. I don’t doubt the sincerity of it, and it was just one of many such questions I’ve received in the last few weeks.

Implicit in the question is the suggestion that by welcoming the Islamic congregation we are watering down our beliefs in Jesus when in fact I think it’s the opposite.

I believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate. I believe he’s the savior of the world. And because I believe that, I believe his way of life is the form of God’s shalom. And there is no better description of Jesus’ life than as the One who welcomes the stranger, love his enemies, cares for the outcast, heals the sick, and brings good news to the captives.

Do I believe the worlds’ religions are all just different paths to the same destination? No.

Do I believe Islam rightly understands the God of Abraham? No.

Do I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father? Yes.

But when we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.

We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.

That we would welcome Muslim strangers into our sacred space with no strings attached is not a reduction of what we believe about Jesus (or a betrayal); it is, I think, the fullest possible expression of what we believe about Jesus.

This isn’t just a relevant question for our congregation. As globalism and secularism spread, the question for the Church in the future is: how do we as Christians engage the stranger?

We do so as Christ, who regarded the stranger as neither darkness nor danger.

Today’s scripture is Jesus‘ final teaching moment before the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel- where Jesus sends out the apostles to make disciples of all nations. What that means, I think, is that the necessary condition for evangelism, the necessary condition for sharing our faith, is the presence of a People who embody the life of the One whom we wish to share with others.

Fundamentally, you can’t share a message about the One who welcomed strangers and loved enemies and forgave sin and conquered the power of Death in a hostile, suspicious or fearful way.

The manner in which we share our faith has to match the content of our message. Otherwise we’re practicing an ideology and not the ministry of Jesus.

Look-

There are irreconcilable differences with how Christians, Muslims, and Jews worship the God of Abraham. Secular culture tries to tell us that those differences don’t really matter. Extremists try to tell us that those differences are worth killing over.

I believe what the Church has to offer the world right now is a gift we’ve already been given by Jesus. What we have to offer the world is a ministry that welcomes the stranger. What we have to offer the world is a community where there is no danger in the Other’s difference because welcome of the stranger is an attribute of God’s own life.

Let me make it plain:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.

We do this because this is the form of God’s shalom. This is the labor Christ has given us. I recognize such labor at times can be painful, uncomfortable and difficult. But ask any mother- labor pains always come before new life.

In Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault reflects on Bentham’s image of the panopticon as the ideal prison. Prisoners constantly under the gaze of a lone guard in a central tower, Foucault argued, is an image of pure- and ultimately degrading-power and, for that reason, worse than torture.
For Sunday’s sermon I tried to apply Foucault’s argument to the 3rd servant’s confession ‘I know you’re a harsh Master’ in Matthew 25. I did so by way of Bette Midler.
You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or in iTunes here. I broke the mic Sunday so you’re going to have to turn it up!
 
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     I didn’t always know Him. Thought I did.

And before that, for a long time, I didn’t know him at all.

God, that is.

 

I mean, I wasn’t always a disciple, a ‘servant of the Lord.’  I didn’t even attend a regular worship service- ever- until about the same time I was attending Driver’s Ed. My excitement for the latter was in inverse proportion to the former.

I didn’t make God the Master of my life until around the same time I was teaching life-saving at the neighborhood pool.

In other words, I didn’t grow up in a religious home. We didn’t intone His name at suppertime. We didn’t invoke His fickle nature when we stubbed our toes or languished in the Brew-Thru line or came up nada on the Pick 6.

For a long time, I didn’t know Him.

Before I was a teenager, I graced the doorway of the Master’s house only once, for my Aunt Lisa’s nuptials to a guy whose name I was convinced must be a joke: ‘Chet.’

I was a part of the Master’s ‘Dearly Beloved’ that day, but more so than the grim, gothic sanctuary or the ancient smells and bells or the priest’s alien incantations, what I best recall from that ceremony was the unfortunate Val Kilmer/‘Iceman’ haircut my mother imprudently allowed me to bring to the wedding.

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I didn’t always know Him; I didn’t grow up in a religious family.

We never thought to begrudge the talent or treasure He had given us because He wasn’t really a part of our lives. Nor was Jesus (as in: Jesus H. Christ!!!) even a word in our vocabulary.

We were neither a spiritual nor religious family.

I never flannel-graphed the Good Shepherd in Sunday School. I never fell asleep during gassy, finger-wagging sermons. No one ever taught me to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for that unread book tells me so.’

In fact, I only knew who Jesus was because my Italian Grandmother, who had a pasta-maker’s forearms and a steel-worker’s mustache- it’s true, I look just like her- she had what must’ve been a 5×6 foot Harvey Keitel-kind-of-crucifix with blood and nails and a ‘You did this to me, bastard’ look on his face.

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The crucifix loomed over the head of the pine guest room bed where I slept whenever my mom worked the night shift at the hospital.

I remember-

When I first saw that crucifix, I asked my grandma ‘who did that to him?’ And she replied without ambiguity: ‘I did.’

(‘What in the _________. You did? That’s crazy!’) I thought to myself.

And looking for solace, I asked her: ‘Well, he’s dead now, right?’ But she calmly replied: ‘No. No, he’s alive.’

And again I thought to myself: ‘Wait, you did that to him and he’s still alive? That does NOT sound good.’

So, needless to say, on those sleepover nights at her house I’d cover the crucifix as best I could with a pillowcase. Elementary-me thought something that looked like a ghost on the wall was less terrifying than this guy named Jesus that my paisano  grandma had apparently failed to whack.

But that freaky, torture-device, 5×6 foot roadkill Jesus above the headboard of my bed was as close to meeting the Master as I ever got. We weren’t a religious family. We didn’t pray or worship. If we had a Bible it stayed in mint condition.

I was never exposed- introduced- to Him, the idea of Him; that is, not until 1990.

I was in Jr High, still playing with GI Joe after school but newly in the throes of ‘the puberty’ as it was called in gym class.

1990- it was the year Nelson Mandela was released from Robbin Island, the year Saddam was roused from Kuwait.

1990- it was the year the Simpsons first aired on TV, the year Driving Miss Daisy fooled everyone and somehow won Best Picture and the year Milli Vanilli did NOT sing ‘Girl, You Know It’s True.’

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But what is true, no doubt, 1990 that was the year someone first told me about Him.

God, the Lord, the Father…the Master. 1990 was the year someone got through to me, the year someone got me thinking long and hard and always about Him.

1990- the year John McEnroe’s god-complex got him banned from the Australian Open was the same year I became God-obsessed. All because of the revelation I received from one ginger prophetess:

From a distance I just cannot comprehend

what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,

and it echoes through the land.

And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,

it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.

This is the song of every man.

And God is watching us, God is watching us,

God is watching us from a distance.

Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.

God is watching us from a distance.

1990- that year, like a chanteuse evangelist, Bette Midler’s hit song ‘From a Distance’ lodged in my brain where it haunted me in a way that her overacting in Beaches never could.

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Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ from the album Some People’s Lives went all the way to #1 on the adult contemporary chart. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 100.

In 1991 it won a Grammy for Best Song of the year, which meant the song was everywhere, always as near as its subject was allegedly far. Omnipresent.

Everywhere, anywhere, I went in 1990 Bette Midler and Him were there, like the prodigal parable in reverse. What was found couldn’t be shaken.

Not just on my mom’s cassette tape in her maroon Honda Accord, but wandering around the mall as an awkward adolescent, sipping an orange julius and spying on the girls shopping in Claires and- for a brief moment- thinking life looked not too bad…I heard Bette Midler pipe on the PA: ‘…God is watching us…God is watching us…’

At the Friday night skate party at the roller rink, as I took my first ever stab at talking to an actual human-style girl, I heard Bette’s voice cut through the humid darkness: ‘…God is watching us…’

Pushing the cart behind my mom at the grocery store, I even heard a muzak version of it, no words. But it didn’t need any words because by that point in 1990 I’d heard ‘From a Distance’ so many times I’d started making up my own words to it:

‘God is watching you.

God is watching you.

God is watching you, Jason- from a distance.’

Despite its commercial success- or maybe because of it- ‘From a Distance’ met with much critical derision.

VH1 ranked it #37 on its 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of All Time list. A critic at Rolling Stone reviewed that, even from an eternal distance, Bette Midler’s drum machine FX would sound too loud, while still another critic speculated that if God does exist then surely God hates cliches and forced rhyme schemes.

So as popular as it was on the charts, a lot of critics and aficionados hated Bette Midler’s epic, monster ballad cover of ‘From a Distance.’

Middle school- me hated it too.

Not because of the drum machine FX. Not because I was still in my Phil Collins stage and liking Bette Midler would’ve felt like a betrayal. No, the song terrified me.

Or rather, the assertion in the song terrified me: that every moment, all the time, no matter what I say or do (or 100x worse: think!), no matter where I go- that every move I make, God- like that lover in Sting’s superior song, will be watching you. Me.

Which means that with God my heart is always an open book, all desires are known, no secret is hid.

No. Secret. Is. Hid.

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I don’t know what becoming a teenager was like for you, but this was NOT good news to me.

I mean-

The same year Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ was topping the charts and dominating the play lists of low impact aerobic studios everywhere, I was conscripted into selling chocolate bars as a fundraiser for my school.

I was gunning to hawk enough chocolate to earn the Rickey Henderson rookie card, but it turns out I’m not much of a salesman. The prize I did earn initially struck me as a little lackluster, a Sports Illustrated subscription. I like sports and all, but I didn’t think it was anything to get excited about.

That is, not until that fateful February day when I discovered, like Charlie’s golden ticket, that that Sports Illustrated subscription had hidden inside the fine print the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

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One winter day there they were.

Elle McPherson, Rachel Hunter, Kathy Ireland (I had to look up their names because I don’t remember them) waiting in my mailbox, with my name on them, hours before my mom would come home.

In that revelatory moment, turning each diaphanous page, what middle school-me should’ve heard ringing in his pubescent head was Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus or maybe the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited.’

But no.

Thanks to Bette Midler, all I could think, hear, was that little voice inside my head. In her voice actually: ‘God is watching you…God is watching you, Jason.’

1990 bled into 1991and, after enduring 3 semesters of shame and abuse, I finally stood up to a bully named Frog, getting off at his bus stop and pummeling him like a 7th grade Joe Pesci, I didn’t hear the cheers erupt from the steamed-up bus windows. I didn’t hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ start to play as the soundtrack of my life kicked-on.

No, I heard her.

Sing about Him. The Master. Watching me.

And it was the same when I knowingly ripped off my friend Jim in a baseball card trade that would make Fannie and Freddie proud, giving him my Chris Sabo (!?) for his Roger Clemens rookie card.

And when a woman in the neighborhood paid me and a friend to pull down a rival politician’s campaign signs in the cover of darkness- even in the darkness I was convinced that we were being watched. Thanks to Bette Midler.

And when I refused to accept the apology of a girl in my class, Kathy, for intentionally embarrassing me in class Bette’s chorus came on in my head and in anger I grumbled to her: ‘You should be apologizing to God, Kathy. He’s watching you.’

Which…made her cry.

That song was still everywhere in 1991 when I watched my grandmother disappear behind an Alzheimer’s fog and then what I took issue with was His Distance. His watchful but ineffectual Distance.

In 1990 Bette Midler became the first person to implant the idea of Him in my head- the Source and Sustainer of all that Is, the Master of all our lives- and for that you might think I’d consider her the wind beneath my wings.

But no.

Because behind the saccharine, synthesized pop idioms and pre-K poetics, her song haunted me.

From a distance…God is watching us. Me. Big Brother is watching me. Like Dr. TJ Eckleberg, the Master’s eyes are always on me. Watching.

Checking to see if I’m nice or naughty.

Like a guard in a prison tower.

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‘From a Distance’ was originally penned in 1985 by Julie Gold, a songwriter who was working as a secretary for HBO at the time.

When Nanci Griffith covered the song and made it a moderate hit in 1987, Julie Gold told a reporter that her song was about how the way things are is not the way things appear, that God is watching us.

‘But,’ she added, ‘listeners can find whatever meaning they want in the song.’

Well, I can tell you and Ms Julie Gold exactly what meaning I took away from it.

You’ve got no place to hide, no place to hide the parts of you you should hide.

He is always watching us.

Which means He must always be evaluating us. Judging us.

Marking our mistakes in His ledger like an absentee landlord.

Checking to see what we’ve done with what we’ve got every moment.

Like He’s in the tower in the center of a prison, and- if He’s always watching us- that’s where we belong, right?

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When Nanci Griffith first received a demo of Julie Gold’s song in the mail in 1986, the singer told the songwriter she thought the idea of God always watching us was beautiful.

My takeaway in 1990?

That if He’s always watching us, then He must be a hard, harsh Master.

It didn’t take long after I first heard Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ on B103.7 (the Best Mix of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow) for that song to change me.

Here’s the thing, here’s everything-

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Who you think you are.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master, you’ll be hard on and harsh to others.

If you believe God is angry watching us, you’ll get angrier towards others.

If you think He’s always watching, always judging us, you’ll be quick to judge.

If you think He’s constantly gazing upon the sins we can’t hide, you’ll surely start to point out the logs in others’ eyes.

If you believe He’s stingy with grace and mercy after looking at a lot like us, then you be ungenerous with the same.

If you think God is like a guard in the tower at the center of a prison, then you will internalize that gaze, seeing yourself every bit as worthless as you imagine you’re seen.

You’ll want to hide from Him. You will hide your true self from others.

You’ll want to bury every good thing about you down deep because you won’t trust that it’s good.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- always watching, always judging- you’ll soon resent Him, begrudging how He harvests where He does not bother to grow, gathers where He hasn’t bothered to lift a finger and sow and how He’s never given you your fair share in life.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- never near but always spying- then eventually (take it from Middle-school me: it doesn’t take long) you’ll hate God.

And (take it from Middle School-me) hating yourself will soon follow.

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Conversely, or consequently:

You can’t ever really become who you truly are, until you see who the Master really, truly is.

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I didn’t always know Him.

In 1990 Bette Midler introduced me to Him, got me thinking about Him. And, for a while, I thought that meant I knew Him.

But I didn’t.

And truly that’s the scary thing: you can think you know Him, serve Him even, and never actually know Him.

That way is Darkness. Teeth-grinding darkness.

For me, by the time I finally got to know Him, really know Him, was years later. By then, Bette Midler was doing guest slots on Seinfeld and re-packaging covers of ‘From a Distance’ for Christmas albums.

I didn’t come to really know Him until much later.

I won’t go into all that now. Not every parable should on a happy note.

Suffice it to say:

The story involves a church. Bread and wine. And brilliant teenager with a sexy physique.

And a guy named Dennis in a robe repeating S. Paul’s #1 hit: ‘While we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

Which of course is like an old school rap for saying that worse than any of our sins- worse than any of your sins- is thinking God a hard, harsh Master who doesn’t forgive them.

 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”