Archives For Advent Conspiracy

South-Park-santa-jesus-boysSomeone asked me that question recently.

I recently told my own son this ‘true’ story of St Nick and he’s concluded this St Nick is ‘way more totally awesome’ than the fake Santa at the mall.

It’s even led to interrogatories on whether St Nick could beat up Bruce Wayne (yes…Jesus love trumps dark, tortured vengeance…my words not his).

Now….my answer.

You could tell your kids the vanilla, cliched story about a bearded fat man with an alcoholic’s complexion who lives in solitary confinement with a bunch of unpaid little people and who, once a year, sneaks into your house when your vulnerable and sleeping and if you’re good-but only if you’re good- he’ll leave you a present.

And if you’re naughty he’ll leave you a lump of garbage (because that’s a Christian understanding of grace…not).

You could tell your kids that story, which actually isn’t even a story. There’s no plot- no beginning, middle or end.

Or, you could tell your kids about St Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Turkey.

St Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in 325, from which we get the Nicene Creed.

Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, convened the council of bishops to debate the teaching of a priest named Arius.

Arius taught that God hadn’t fully or perfectly revealed himself in Jesus, which meant Arius also didn’t believe in the Trinity.

Anyways, at the Council of Nicea, while Arius argued his position St Nicholas- BECAUSE HE LOVED JESUS SO MUCH- started shaking with anger as Arius spoke.

St Nick turned red in the face, and eventually St Nick couldn’t take it anymore and he got up, walked straight up to Arius and punched him in the teeth.

True story.

The original Bad Santa.

Apparently, the other bishops thought Nick had overreacted (aside: its pretty bad when 4th century Christians think you’ve overreacted to a theological dispute) so they put him in chains and threw him in jail. But that night Jesus appeared to St Nicholas, freed him from his chains and gave him a bible. The next morning the guards discovered Nicholas freed from his chains and quietly reading scripture and they were amazed.

So Nicholas was set free to become a legend.

And Arius was labeled a heretic and exiled, and his death was cheered by the Christian world.

So you could tell your kids about a fat man who still drives a carriage like he’s a color blind Amish and apparently treats his reindeer like a North Pole Jim Crow.

Or you could tell your kids about St Nicholas, someone who loves Jesus so much he’s the only person on record to ever be congratulated by Jesus for pimp slapping someone. 

But I’ll let you be the judge.

Since today is Saint Nicholas Day, here’s one from the vault:

Look, I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus (here pictured in his original likeness as a 4th century bishop in Turkey). nicholas

I’ve got no beef with the red-faced, portly merry version of Santa either. I’m not one of these robotronic, literalist Christians who think everything not explicitly spelled out in the bible is pagan. You know, the ones who protested the first Harry Potter movie for promoting witchcraft? Talk about picking a losing cultural argument.

So, no, no problem here with Saint Nick.

Per se.

Red-nosed reindeer, elves working for poverty wages, your kids writing letters to a fictional person, the mathematical impossibility of visiting every child’s house in every nook and cranny of the earth in 24 hours when it took me something like 4 1/2 days to get to Cambodia on a vehicle fueled by, you know, fuel instead of hooves, which presumably have a hard time getting traction, conditioning our children into consumer capitalism with an amalgam of myths…I don’t have a problem with any of it. I don’t think it’s idolatry, undermines the faith or sets our children up to question everything else once they learn the Christmas con.

Nope, I think wonder, imagination, and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood. So bring it on. 

Except.

The past few days my son has been talking about how if he’s ‘on the naughty list then Santa won’t bring [me] any gifts. He watches us all the time to see if we’re naughty or we’re good.’ 

Bam.

Suddenly, that sweet bearded old man with a whiskeyed complexion looks not a little like the Dark Lord, Sauron, with his all-knowing eye of fire and ire.  

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And it’s that, not all the other stuff, that pisses me off about Santa.

Because what could be more contrary to the Christmas Gospel than the idea of God constantly watching our every move to see if we’re good or not? To see if we’re worth rewarding with a gift or if he should instead stick us with a ‘you shouldadunbetter lump of coal.’ 

Not to get too preachy but the Gospel is: ‘God died for us while we were yet sinners.’

The Christmas Gospel, therefore, is: ‘While we were yet sinners, God took flesh and gave us the gift of himself.’ 

And, dammit, I want my son to know that God loves him regardless if he’s naughty or nice. 

And so do I.

And that fat man with the little helpers and hoes is screwing that message up. santa-claus

Here’s another thing: The real Saint Nick took it on the chin and was exiled by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for the Gospel. The real Saint Nick was at the Council of Nicea where he landed one- literally- on the chin of Arius (later to be named a heretic) for Arius’ assertion that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is anything less than the fullness of the Godhead revealed perfectly.

So I’d be willing to bet a great big plate of cookies that, somewhere up in Heaven, all this naughty or nice nonsense pisses the real St Nick off too. 


photo-1Last Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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I answered this question yesterday: Do you even like Christmas? Every year you seem determined to ruin Christmas by preaching on the dark, depressing stories. 

Here’s the sermon (WORST SERMON EVER #3) that prompted the question:

Matthew 1

The Genesis of Jesus

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, discharging 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.

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, prompting 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: “Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

This was the Fourth Sunday of Advent several years ago at a church I once pastored. A brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a Christmas pageant.

And because I was young an didn’t know any better and, honestly, because I was terrified of this woman I said yes.

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: ‘We’ve got no room.”

The 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.

John 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.

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 uptown gigilo than biblical character.

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When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the back bench in the narthex where the ushers normally sat.

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 woman 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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St John 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, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus and a census, about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story with a genealogy:

“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 Dennis wouldn’t let me.

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 begats, going all the way back 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- it’s not the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. 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 slept with the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah.

Judah slept, again by mistake, with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar. She’d cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

I mean- 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 getting in to bed with him.

Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a prostitute who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David, who fell in love with a girl he happened to see bathing naked one evening. David arranged for her husband to be murdered. He then slept with her and became the father of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel.

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.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw.

Matthew instead 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.

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?

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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 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 medication-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 the Gospel of Matthew.

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.‘

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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 up and down and then it was over.

I have an uncle who was in prison every other Christmas.

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 here and pretend 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 if God knew who you really were then he wouldn’t be born for you.

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 ours.
And that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.
And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

and shepherds and mangers filled with straw.
The gift given tonight is that God comes to us just as we are.
Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be.

Tonight Emmanuel
God with us
Comes to us
Just as you are.
Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.

 


photo-1Last Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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Question: Do you even like Christmas? Every year you seem determined to ruin Christmas by preaching on the dark, depressing stories. 

Yes, for the record, I like Christmas. Love it.

I hate preaching Christmas though. Hate it.

People complain about the commercialization of Christmas and ‘Happy Holidays’ secularism, but actually I think the greatest threat to a Christian understanding of Christmas isn’t commercialization or secularism. It’s sentimentality.

And people love sentimentality. Believe me. I got a shoe box worth of hate mail the last time I preached Christmas Eve. Actual snail mail.

The problem with sentimentality is that it isn’t true. The Gospels don’t tell a sentimental Christmas story. Jesus is born in to poverty and oppression. His mother would’ve been viewed as an adulteress. He’s born with monsters like Herod and Caesar at this manger. When Jesus is born all the other new born sons are slaughtered- it was not a silent night. And no sooner is he born than his family become political refugees in Egypt.

So when we make Christmas sentimental, we forget the actual story. And when we forget the actual story, we risk forgetting why Jesus came in the first place and why we’re waiting for him to come again.

And on another note, I’d just add that, I grew up up in a broken home that was chaotic and anything but happy. So, I’m aware that when we make Christmas sentimental we’re not only describing something that’s not true about the Christmas story, we’re also describing something that’s not true for a whole lot of people in their own lives.

So for me, making sure Christmas isn’t all cuteness and cheer is a way of making sure those people know the story is for them too. For them especially maybe.

 

552680_4344155444981_1433493502_nThere’s a great crescendo at the end of a famous ancient sermon in which Leo the Great riffs on the words ‘pro nobis.’

For us.

When it comes to Christmas (and Christianity in general for that matter), we tend to think the operative word of the season is ‘for.’

Christmas is a time we feel drawn to doing things ‘for’ others.

We search out the right presents ‘for’ our loved ones.

We stress out about cooking up the perfect feast ‘for’ our family.

More so than any other time of year, we think this is the season when we should do something charitable ‘for’ those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

‘For’ is our Christmas word. But that’s a problem.

Because ‘for’ for all its good intentions, can’t repair that broken relationships, ease alienation or keep the poor from remaining strangers.

Our fixation with ‘for’ at Christmastime is problematic because ‘for’ isn’t the way God celebrates Christmas.

Remember, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”

And then in John’s gospel, we get a same-but-different summary of what Christmas means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.”

‘With.’

It’s a tiny little word but it gets to the heart of Christmas.

This morning a service team from Aldersgate left for Guatemala.

This week we will be building two projects: a community center and a school kitchen in the village of Chuicutama.

Chuicutama is where our team this summer stayed while building the kitchen in Chikisis. It’s at 11K feet off the Pan-American Highway in the Mayan Highlands. It’s remote, poor and beautiful.

While the tangible bricks and mortar projects we do ‘for’ Chuicutama this week are important. They’re not the most vital part of our week.

We’re here at Christmastime to experience firsthand the difference between ‘for’ and ‘with.’ I believe by being with each other for 8 long days and being with the poor, living right there in their homes with them, we will get close the mystery of Christmas.

And one of the things we’ll discover is how “with” is harder than “for.” Probably for God too.

“For” doesn’t require a conversation, a real relationship, or any change in your own life to incorporate the other.

What makes many gestures of Christmas charity seem hollow is not that they’re not well-intentioned, but that what isolated and impoverished people usually need is not gifts or money but the faithful presence of a people who will be “with” them.

In Guatemala mission, the word we use for that ‘withness’ is accompaniment.

But “with” can be scary because the “with” seems to ask more of us than we can give. We’d all prefer to keep charity on the level of “for,” say the Salvation Army ringer, where it can’t hurt us.

And that’s why it’s gospel, good news, that God didn’t settle on “for.”

At Christmas God said unambiguously, “I am ‘with’.” My name is Emmanuel, God “with” us.

That’s the good news of Christmas.
And how do we celebrate this good news? By doing exactly what we’re doing this week.

By being “with” people in poverty and distress even when there’s only so much we can do “for” them. By being “with” one another as an end in itself. By being “with” God in prayer and worship rather than rushing in our anxiety to do yet more things “for” God or others.

 

20121124-123103.jpgThe Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as ‘Guadete Sunday‘ from the Latin for ‘joy.’

It’s the Sunday we focus on Mary and we light the pink (sexist, huh) advent candle.

The Third Sunday of Advent is also when churches traditionally read Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which is really equal parts Hannah’s song from the Old Testament and a Jubilee song.

Christians don’t often pause to muse over Mary’s words, in which she gives praise that her boy will be the one to shame the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty. Not what we normally associate with Christmas.

There’s a contradiction sitting square in the middle of the Nativity Story we seldom acknowledge:

What Mary thinks her child has come to do (turn the status quo on its head) and what Christians tend to think Jesus comes to do (die for our sin so we can go to heave when we die) couldn’t be more divergent. 

Sometimes it’s useful to have an outsider remind you of who you are and what you should be about. That’s the case with Jackson Browne’s unlikely Christmas Carol, ‘The Rebel Jesus.’

Looking ahead to hearing Mary’s Magnificat, there’s probably no better musical appetizer than Browne’s insight that her son came to question the status quo, challenge the authorities and customs of the day, and generally turn things upside down.

Here are the lyrics:

“The Rebel Jesus,” by Jackson Browne

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by ‘the Prince of Peace’
And they call him by ‘the Savior’
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgment
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

photo-1When I pulled this question from the bingo tumbler on Sunday for our sermon, Midrash in the Moment, I just answered:  Yes.

And moved on.

But here’s a bit more. Just a few thoughts.

First, it’s interesting that what the first Christians- the ones who actually knew Jesus or knew those who did- struggled with wasn’t Jesus’ divinity but his humanity. To them, it was obvious that Jesus was fully God. It took them centuries though to argue and iron out how they thought he was human.

Second, the term ‘Son of Man’ that comes Daniel 7 was understood by many Jews leading up to the time of Jesus’ birth to be God-man, an incarnate like being who would redeem all of creation. ‘Son of Man’ was the term Jesus most often used to describe and refer to himself. So to say Jesus isn’t God is in some way to accuse Jesus of lying.

Third, and this is what I tell my liberal social activist Christian friends all the time (the ones who just want to focus on Jesus’ teachings) it’s believing that Jesus is God-in-the-flesh that makes sure we treat his teachings seriously.

If Jesus is just some teacher, we can ignore him in favor of some other perspective that makes more sense to us or fits our own perspective better.

But if Jesus is God then when Jesus says to go the extra mile for your enemy, that’s God telling you to do it.

 

photo-1As promised, this week I’m going to try to answer the questions that didn’t get pulled in this weekend’s bingo sermon questions, Midrash in the Moment.

Here’s a question I did answer in one of the services. I think it’s a good one so I took a listen to what incoherent ramblings came out of my mouth and typed it up here.

Question: I’m not even sure I believe in God. Is there something in the Christmas story for me?

There’s two ways I think you could approach that question.

The first would be to point to the magi. The wise men were astronomers, 1st century scientists, men of reason and objective observation. And they were Gentiles, foreigners. They didn’t believe in God, at least not the God with a capital G. They didn’t anything about the God of Israel. They see an usual constellation in the sky. They do some research and find out about this Jewish prophecy from Isaiah about a king, and they go check it out. They don’t go there intending to worship the God of Israel and yet the grace of God makes them a part of the Gospel anyway.

So you could point to the magi and conclude that there’s a place for unbelievers at the manger.

Or you could point to who’s not at the manger. The scribes.

Remember, the star only leads the magi to the Jerusalem. When they get there, they ask Herod’s scribes- biblical scholars and religious believers- where the King was foretold to be born.

And the scribes don’t know.

They’d forgotten their story. They’d forgotten God’s promises. They have to hit the stacks in the library and look it up in order to find Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem.

So maybe another way to answer is by pointing out that being a religious person doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a place at the manger.

It’s not enough just to believe in God.

It’s about believing God, making God’s story and God’s promises a part of you such that you never forget them.

So, yes, there’s something in the Christmas story for you. And there’s also something of a warning in it for people like me.

 

 

Every year around this time, many conservatives rail against the “war on Christmas,” using a few dismantled nativities to suggest that America muffles worship.

Hardly. We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress. Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to “Buck Up, Beelzebub”

I’ve no doubt Frank Bruni’s piece from yesterday’s NY Times, the God Glut, will irritate a few. Okay, likely more than a few.

However, I hope folks are able to take off the spectacles of partisanship and read this through a Christian lens because even though the issue is brought by a writer questioning the presumed Christian perspective I think his critique is, unintentionally and ironically perhaps, a thoroughly Christian one.

To me, this has nothing to do with issues of politics and its certainly not a critique of the military. It is a sobering chastisement of the degree to which we Christians often marry our faith to our nation.

And it’s not that Christians can’t love their country. Hell, Christians all over the world love their country. Ever been to a soccer game in Latin America? I mean, geez, it puts our 4th of July parades to shame. But Christians in this country DO have a propensity to see our nation as elect among the nations in a way that is unique and can threaten a coherent reading of our scriptures.

This is especially apropos during Advent as we look towards the birth of our ‘King’ who is born amidst and as an alternative to lords like Herod and Caesar. If there are takeaways from the Christmas story, then one of them is surely that our attitudes to governments and nations are temporal, finite and ambivalent at best.

Christians forget: the reign of Augustus Caesar was GOOD for your average citizen in the Empire. He brought peace (not to mention sanitation, architecture, clean water, poetry, drama, philosophy, democracy etc- see Life of Bryan) to those whom he favored and he was hailed as a savior.

And yet, the angels sent by the God we follow used those very words for a baby wrapped in diapers with peasant parents standing by his manger.

What gets lost in all the ‘In God we trust’ debates is that we follow a God who didn’t have any coins on him when someone else asked him what should be on the currency. And when he answered their question: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (i.e., Nothing) and give to God what is God’s (i.e., Everything).’

Tough. Inconvenient. Answer.

So I encourage you to read the following, pausing to remember that the story we’ve turned in to a harmless Christmas pageant for children was, in its inception, a critique of those who cozied the faith too close to the nation.

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Bob Kerrey’s political career spanned four years as the governor of Nebraska and another 12 as a United States senator from that state, during which he made a serious bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. In all that time, to the best of his memory, he never uttered what has become a routine postscript to political remarks: “God bless America.”

That was deliberate.

“It seems a little presumptuous, when you’ve got the land mass and the talent that we do, to ask for more,” he told me recently.

But there was an additional reason he didn’t mention God, so commonly praised in the halls of government, so prevalent a fixture in public discourse.

“I think you have to be very, very careful about keeping religion and politics separate,” Kerrey said.

We Americans aren’t careful at all. In a country that supposedly draws a line between church and state, we allow the former to intrude flagrantly on the latter. Religious faith shapes policy debates. It fuels claims of American exceptionalism.

And it suffuses arenas in which its place should be carefully measured. A recent example of this prompted my conversation with Kerrey. Last week, a fourth-year cadet at West Point packed his bags and left, less than six months shy of graduation, in protest of what he portrayed as a bullying, discriminatory religiousness at the military academy, which receives public funding.

The cadet, Blake Page, detailed his complaint in an article for The Huffington Post, accusing officers at the academy of “unconstitutional proselytism,” specifically of an evangelical Christian variety.

On the phone on Sunday, he explained to me that a few of them urged attendance at religious events in ways that could make a cadet worry about the social and professional consequences of not going. One such event was a prayer breakfast this year at which a retired lieutenant general, William G. Boykin, was slated to speak. Boykin is a born-again Christian, and his past remarks portraying the war on terror in holy and biblical terms were so extreme that he was rebuked in 2003 by President Bush. In fact his scheduled speech at West Point was so vigorously protested that it ultimately had to be canceled.

Page said that on other occasions, religious events were promoted by superiors with the kind of mass e-mails seldom used for secular gatherings. “It was always Christian, Christian, Christian,” said Page, who is an atheist.

Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who presides over an advocacy group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me that more than 30,000 members of the United States military have been in contact with his organization because of concerns about zealotry in their ranks.

More than 150 of them, he said, work or study at West Point. Several cadets told me in telephone interviews that nonbelievers at the academy can indeed be made to feel uncomfortable, and that benedictions at supposedly nonreligious events refer to “God, Our Father” in a way that certainly doesn’t respect all faiths.

Is the rest of society so different?

Every year around this time, many conservatives rail against the “war on Christmas,” using a few dismantled nativities to suggest that America muffles worship.

Hardly. We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress. Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to “Buck Up, Beelzebub” or “Surrender Dorothy.”

We have God in our public schools, a few of which cling to creationism, and we have major presidential candidates — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum — who use God in general and Christianity in particular as cornerstones of their campaigns. God’s initial absence from the Democratic Party platform last summer stirred more outrage among Americans than the slaughter in Syria will ever provoke.

God’s wishes are cited in efforts to deny abortions to raped women and civil marriages to same-sex couples. In our country God doesn’t merely have a place at the table. He or She is the host of the prayer-heavy dinner party.

And there’s too little acknowledgment that God isn’t just a potent engine of altruism, mercy and solace, but also, in instances, a divisive, repressive instrument; that godliness isn’t any prerequisite for patriotism; and that someone like Page deserves as much respect as any true believer.

Kerrey labels himself agnostic, but said that an active politician could get away with that only if he or she didn’t “engage in a conversation about the danger of religion” or advertise any spiritual qualms and questions.

“If you talk openly about your doubts,” he said, “you can get in trouble.”

To me that doesn’t sound like religious freedom at all.

 

photo-1As promised, this week I’m going to try to answer the questions that didn’t get pulled in this weekend’s bingo sermon questions, Midrash in the Moment.

Here’s Jeff’s question: Why did Jesus come when he did? As opposed to some other point in history?

That’s a million dollar question. That’s also impossible to answer. I even asked Scot McKnight for a hint and he couldn’t do much better than I’ve got below.

At least from a God’s-eye perspective. Scripture says God sent Jesus ‘in the fullness of time’ which suggests there was something auspicious about when Jesus came.

We can’t really know why from God’s perspective.

What we can do is answer from a human perspective, from scripture’s point of view.

At least as far as the scripture writers’ understood it, God sends Jesus when he does because the oppression and idolatry of Rome had gotten to a point that necessitated or provoked the incarnation.

God heard his people’s cries, in other words.

That’s why Matthew tells his Gospel in a way that makes explicit that Caesar is a new Pharaoh and Rome is the New Egypt.

And Matthew’s Gospel begins with a ‘genesis’ just like the Hebrew story begins. That’s Matthew tells you that Herod kills all the new born sons just like Pharaoh did. That’s why Matthew has Jesus’ life beginning in Egypt just like Moses’ did.

How does Luke begin his Gospel? ‘In the days of ____________________’

All the language in Luke’s Christmas story, that we don’t even think about, is loaded with double-meanings meant to show how Christ is God’s alternative to Caesar.

In the ancient world, Caesar’s rise to the throne was referred to as the Advent of a Golden Age.

He was worshipped as a god.

And the proclamation that was made about Caesar throughout the Empire: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to those on whom he favors.’ 

What do the angels say to the shepherds when Christ is born? Yep, same thing but this time they’re referring to a baby in diapers and not a Caesar in, well, diapers.

From the Gospels’ perspective, then, Jesus is born to deliver Israel from Rome just as Moses did from Egypt. It’s how Jesus delivers that is unexpected.