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.


photo-1This 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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One thing you have to remember is that the early church was an oral culture. They were good storytellers and, being good storytellers, they would never begin a Gospel with a list of begats unless there was a good point they wanted their listeners to catch.

The first thing Matthew’s audience would’ve noticed is the fact that this isn’t a traditional Jewish genealogy. You can compare Matthew’s list to the lists in the Old Testament. Jewish genealogies were men’s only clubs. But Matthew’s has women in it.

And not just women. Gentiles. Matthew’s constructs a genealogy of Jews and Gentiles, and the only way Matthew can include Gentiles is through women because all the men in Jesus’ family were Jews. So Matthew works in Ruth and Rahab and Tamar and Bathsheba.

Those women aren’t just Gentiles. Matthew also constructs a genealogy of saints and sinners. Tamar slept with her father-in-law, on ‘accident.’ Ruth seduced Boaz. Bathsheba very likely seduced David. Rahab was a hooker.

So what Matthew’s doing isn’t trying to biologically tie Jesus to Jewish history because that would be impossible. What Matthew’s doing is giving you the overture to his Gospel; he’s hinting at the themes to come.

And one of those themes is the compassion Jesus shows women like Tamar and Rahab, who, incidentally, are the kind of women that most would’ve assumed Jesus’ own mother was.

He’s foreshadowing themes: Jesus’ compassion on sinners and women, Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles and outsiders. This becomes more obvious when you flip to the end of Matthew’s Gospel and see that it closes with Jesus giving his Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all nations…‘ Meaning: Jews and Gentiles.

So the genealogy isn’t about Jesus’ biological make-up; it’s about the make-up of his Kingdom. It’s Matthew’s of telegraphing that Christ will be a different of King.

A couple of other points:

The word genealogy is genesis. In the beginning. Matthew begins his Gospel in the same way the Hebrew Bible begins. This is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is the beginning of a new creation.

Another thing, Matthew says ‘from the deportation to Babylon to the birth of the Messiah…’ In other words, Matthew’s suggesting Israel’s exile to Babylon never ended, that even though Israel returned from Babylon, their exile never truly ended until Jesus was born. That’s what makes ‘Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ an Advent song.

Lastly, Matthew’s not trying to give a proper, traditional family tree for Jesus, but if he wanted to he could do that through Joseph. As an adoptive father myself, I have a stake in this point. In the same way my boys have Virginia birth certificates though they were born in Guatemala, according to Jewish law, Jesus becomes Joseph’s legal son the moment Joseph claims him as such, which is what makes Joseph’s leap of faith and participation in the Christmas story so vital.

60_BobGoff_1139x541_1When I first read this list by Bob Goff in Relevant Magazine, my reaction was: ‘Damn, I don’t follow hardly any of these principles.’

Sometimes Advent can change everything, including your perspective. Reading over this list again while anticipating Emmanuel’s, God with Us, arrival on December 24, I notice that Goff’s guide to an extraordinary life is largely premised on being ‘with’ people as a priority.

And maybe there’s a theological reason this is the key to a good life. After all, if Jesus is true God and true Man then what it means to be authentically human- our true selves as we were created to be- is to be like Jesus. To be most fully alive is to be the sort of person who makes being with others more important than anything else.

That is, is it not, the priority God makes at Christmas. To be God with us. Indeed, as Barth says, God decides not to be God without us.

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When Bob Goff answers the phone, it’s a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t be. His phone number is one of the world’s most easily accessible—available at any bookstore in the country. He printed it in the back of Love Does, his best-selling collection of stories about a few ways he’s managed to turn each day into a “hilarious, whimsical, meaningful change to make faith simple and real.” As you dial the number, you might expect a hotline, or a secretary, or at least a voicemail. But you’ll get no such thing. Call the phone number, and you’ll be greeted with, “This is Bob Goff!”

If it’s possible for someone to become famous for no other reason than that he loves genuinely and lives fully, then Goff has done it. He’s a lawyer in Washington. He’s the Ugandan honorary consul to the U.S. He’s a professor at Pepperdine Law School and Point Loma Nazarene University. He’s the founder of Restore International, which serves underprivileged children in Uganda and India. His endless supply of stories charm, his overseas work inspires and his demeanor encourages—but the most truly fascinating thing about Bob Goff is Bob Goff.

Somehow, using the same 24 hours in a day the rest of us have, Goff has crafted an extraordinary life of adventure, joy and love. It’s an appealing prospect for anyone, and we wondered: What are his secrets? And: Will he share them?

The answer, as with most things in Goff’s life, was an emphatic yes.

1. Don’t Let Anyone Go to Voicemail

“We get really busy,” Goff says. “But the less time Jesus had on earth, the more available He became to people.”

So when Goff put his phone number in the back of Love Does, he made the promise to himself to answer every call—regardless of whether or not he knew who it was. There are practical limits to this, of course. “I don’t feel guilty if I’m on the other line, or on a plane,” he says. But from where Goff sits, Jesus wouldn’t have ignored many phone calls. So neither does he. “If I get a call, I answer it,” he says. “And it’s been terrific!

“There’s a God we can talk to anytime, anywhere, about anything, and I’m so glad He doesn’t screen my calls—because I don’t have anything that’s particularly interesting to say. And I’m understanding that better because I’m available to people.”

2. Don’t Make Appointments

Goff says, “When someone calls me and says, ‘Can we meet two Tuesdays from now at 3 p.m.?’ I say, ‘How about now?’ If you call me two Tuesdays from now at 3, I’ll probably say the same thing.”

That’s right. As implausible as it sounds, Bob Goff, lawyer and Ugandan consulate, doesn’t set appointents.

The benefit of this thinking becomes evident even now—he is, as we speak, driving home from an impromptu meeting with a young man who needed to talk.

“Guess what!” he says, laughing. “I didn’t have any appointments that I needed to cancel … I’ve got all the time in the world because I don’t have any appointments.”

Goff insists when your life is appointment-free, your time is at the service of others instead of your personal demands. Plus, you become a different person when you structure your life around others’ needs.

“Can you imagine a lawyer who doesn’t make appointments?” Goff asks, recognizing the absurdity of it. “But it’s been great.”

3. Be Incredibly Inefficient at Love

“Don’t do an efficient brand of love,” Goff says.

Then he does what he does best—launches into a story without missing a beat.

“The woman who lives across the street from us has cancer. She called me up and told me the bad news, and I told her, ‘I’m not going to call you ever again.’ She’s like, ‘What?’

“I went to Radio Shack and got us two walkie-talkies, and it was terrific. For the last year, we’ve been talking on walkie-talkies every night. It’s like we’re both 14-year-olds and we’re both in tree forts.

“She took a turn for the worse about four days ago, so this morning, I woke up about 5, and I went to the hospital. I sent the nurse in with a walkie-talkie, and I sat in the next room and called her up. I heard her just start crying—because there’s something inefficient and beautiful about it. We were sitting in a hospital, separated by a room, talking on walkie-talkies.”

Here he breaks off and seems choked up for a moment.

Then he continues. “Be inefficient with your love. The more in-efficient, the better. It would have been a lot more efficient for God to not send Jesus to die for us. That was very inefficient love. But so sweet and so tender.”

4. Don’t Have a Bible Study

When it comes to Bible studies, Goff says simply, “I’m done. I’ve got all the information I need.”

But this doesn’t leave the Bible out of his daily routine. To the contrary, he’s upped the ante.

“I’ve met with the same guys every Friday who I’ve been meeting with for a decade,” he says. “And we have a Bible Doing.”

The idea, Goff says, is basically that memorization is only effective if it motivates you to action. It’s great when believers meet together to internalize the Bible, but why not externalize it as well?

Goff is likewise unconventional in his approach to a morning quiet time. “I can’t do them,” he says. “I think I got sent to the principal too much when I was a kid.”

“Instead, I take Scripture, I let it wash over me, and I say, ‘What do I really think about this?’” Then he shares his reflections by sending out a morning tweet.

This morning habit helps his day start on the right foot in front of God and everyone else. “It helps me dwell in Christ,” he says. “But it also helps me not be a pill midday. I can’t send a beautiful tweet in the morning and then be a pill.”

5. Quit Stuff

“Every Thursday, I quit something,” Goff says. It’s one of his more infamous habits, one that he follows faithfully—and, often, dramatically. He’s been known to break apartment leases, throw out furniture and quit jobs. “You can quit cussing if you want,” he says, “but go a little higher up on the tree. It can be something really good.”

His most recent Thursday resignation was from the board of a prominent charity. “I called the guy that runs it up and said, ‘I’m out!’ And he said, ‘How come?’ And then he paused and said, ‘No! Thursday!’”

The idea is not to be a liability to charitable organizations (although that might be part of the fallout). It’s to give yourself room to grow and to give God room to work. The patterns of life can weigh down and hold back. Quitting things forces you forward to explore new opportunities, to try things you wouldn’t have time for otherwise and to fill your life with things that are fresh, different
and dangerous.

6. Do What You’re Made to Do

In today’s functional culture, the common question is, “What am I able to do?” People take tests to determine skill sets and aptitude and then march off to pursue a career based on the results.

But Goff says the better question is, “What am I made to do?” He goes on to say, “It’s as simple as asking, ‘What are the things you think are beautiful? And you want in your life?’ … And then there’s other stuff you stink at, and they cause you a bunch of stress. I just try and do more of the first and less of the second.”

7. Get More Unschooled, Ordinary Friends

For most people, friendship is accidental. You see someone often enough, find a few common interests, hang out and strike up an easy friendship. New friends probably come from the people you work with or go to church with. The childhood idea of “making friends,” a proactive pursuit, has been replaced with the idea of “letting friends happen.”

Goff suggests making friendship intentional and, moreover, risky. Because sometimes you can learn more from friends who stand just left of center than those with whom you share everything in common.

One of Goff’s dearest friendships began with a simple thank you, for example.

“They call me Mr. G at the airport, because I’m there just about every day,” Goff says. And before every flight, the same TSA security guard—Adrian—checked Goff’s ID. After a few months of this, Goff decided to extend his appreciation.

“You start every day for me,” he recalls telling Adrian. “When I think of you, I think of God. You’re so tender and kind to everybody!”

And just like that, the diminutive security guard put his arms around Goff and held him, in front of a line of waiting passengers. “It started this terrific friendship,” Goff says. “We spent the next six Christmases together with his family at our house.”

Adrian tragically passed away last summer, but not before coming to Jesus. “And now, when I think of heaven,” Goff says, “I don’t think of St. Peter. I think of a guy like Adrian, who’s checking IDs. And all of that came because I decided to get more unschooled, ordinary friends.”

8. Jump the Tracks

Goff spends most Wednesday mornings at Disneyland, prepping to teach his courses at Pepperdine University. From his vantage point on Tom Sawyer Island, he watches hundreds of park visitors board the monorail, content to be whisked wherever the train takes them.

And their park experience, says Goff, suffers because of it. The real adventure, both in Disneyland and in life, is when you venture outside the fixed loop.

But Goff is quick to point out there’s a difference between fighting the system and choosing to explore new paths outside the system. He says everyone should be jumping more tracks: “Not with a militancy. Not with a black arm band around your arm, just saying what you’re against. But with a resolve.”

And what can you expect to find off the beaten path? Adventure, and good company. “I’ll know more about my character, and I’ll know more about Jesus,” he says. “I’ll meet a lot of cool people.”

9. Crowd-Surf Each Other

At a speaking event, Goff met a man who had just received word that his 8-year-old son had been diagnosed with leukemia. Someone suggested everyone lay hands on him and pray for healing.

“That means the four dudes next to him put hands on him, and the guy in row 50 is really just putting hands on the guy in row 49,” he says.

Not satisfied with this set-up, Goff called out, just as the group was bowing their heads, “Let’s crowd surf this guy.”

So the man was passed up and down the rows of the auditorium. “That’s the picture that’s etched in my mind,” he says. “This man in agony and delight.”

Goff, who is big on physical touch, doesn’t shake hands. “If we say we’re the body of Christ, let’s act like it,” he says. “Let’s stop treating this faith thing like it’s a business trip. I want us to treat it like it’s a family. Family picks up the phone. Family surfs each other. Family hugs each other.”

Goff’s personal policy is to hug whoever he meets. It doesn’t suit everyone’s comfort zone, but he says it’s part of his identity as a believer. And the benefit of breaking through these bubbles of security is being opened up to a deeper understanding of community.

“I’m the big winner,” Goff insists, on crowd-surfing others. “I understand more about my faith and the idea of being a body.”

10. Take the Next Step

Many people are passionate but often have no idea how to get where they want to end up. Goff says you don’t really have to. You just have to start.

“If I could do this Jedi move over a lot of people, I’d just tell them to take the next step,” he says. “And then the next step. You don’t know all the steps, but most people know the next step.”
And even if not, Goff says that’s no excuse. “I’m not that freaked out about knowing what the next step is. Because I know that if I trip, I’ll fall forward. I’ll be moving toward the next thing.”

20121124-123103.jpgThis week for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I’ll be doing a sort of Midrash in the Moment. Randomly selecting your questions and answering them in the time allowed. It’ll be a little off the cuff and a little different than a normal worship service. Hopefully it’ll be fun and edifying too and if not…Dennis gets back soon.

Anyway, every Christmas season and I mean EVERY CHRISTMAS SEASON people ask me about the Virgin Birth and/or tell me they bite their tongue during that part of the Creed.

So I expect to get Virgin Birth questions this Sunday.

Here’s a great, hilarious and insightful spin on how some of our beliefs and scriptures can sound loony to a skeptic. It’s from Mr Deity which all of you should know….This is worth 3.5 mins of your time.

For the denser among us….the guy in the goatee, Mr Deity, is Yahweh. ‘Jesse’ is Jesus and Larry the neurotic OCD character is the Holy Spirit.

Chalk this one down as Worst Sermon Ever. 

I’ve already mentioned here before how my Advent and Christmas sermons are generally panned. The Advent ones for being too obscure. The Christmas ones for resisting sentimentality. P1290750-1

Here’s one I wrote 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.

It’s my favorite of the sermons I’ve written….but still everyone else votes ‘Worst Sermon Ever.’

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‘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.

Every year at Advent, when the Mary scriptures come around, I compose what are generally received as terrible sermons. I don’t intend to but I’m also not surprised by the reaction. You see, Mary’s experience is so unique she is unlike any other character in scripture.  It’s also the case that the Protestant Church generally does her a disservice by ignoring her outright. To address the former and remedy the latter, I always try to write sermons that privilege Mary’s voice. I avoid making her an illustration of a larger point. I avoid making her experience analogous to our own. I avoid distilling her narrative down into ‘points.’

Instead I just try to let her story speak for itself, which proves difficult because that requires a lack of explanation listeners can find puzzling or just downright confusing. Of course, with Mary, there’s also the tricky issue of yours truly, an obviously manly man, assuming the voice of a woman but that’s an issue for another day.

For all their failure as sermons, Mary has given me some of the best writing I’ve done (at least I think so.)

Case in point- and definitely in the Final Four for Worst Sermon Ever- is this sermon,  ‘The Visitation,’ from a few years ago. The text was the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. In it, I tried to narratively imagine Mary’s journey to Elizabeth’s house and the thoughts running through her head, having just been visited by the angel Gabriel. In doing so, I also attempted to weave into the text the many Old Testament narratives Mary’s story hearkens back to- something only bible nerds were able to notice because, again, I refused to stop and explain what I was doing.

So, terrible sermon but decent piece of writing for Advent.

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Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

She gasped and only then realized sheʼd been holding her breath, waiting to see if heʼd reappear as suddenly as heʼd intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her.

He mustʼve seen how terrified she was. ʻDonʼt be afraid,ʼ heʼd 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 laundry20121124-123103.jpg on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angelʼs glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ʻvisitation.ʼ There wasnʼt 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 youʼd pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, thatʼs just what heʼd told her.

Sheʼd 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.

ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ heʼd 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 angelʼs words, ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ 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 canʼt forget even if youʼd 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 fatherʼs 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, Abrahamʼs wife, the boyʼs 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. ʻDonʼt be afraidʼ 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 angelʼs words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angelʼs 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 thereʼs no room to hide.

And she didnʼt want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didnʼt 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 theyʼd believe the truth.

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long sheʼd 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.

ʻFavored one,ʼ thatʼs what heʼd called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

ʻFavored one.ʼ

She hadnʼt known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

ʻFavored one.ʼ

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadnʼt let the gray in her hair or the crowʼs 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 ʻfavored oneʼ 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 wasnʼt 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. Hannahʼs 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 sheʼd wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- sheʼd been called ʻfavored oneʼ too.

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

ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd 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?

ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where sheʼd grown up, she realized it wasnʼt that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

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

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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 youʼd 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.

Sheʼd asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadnʼt gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow youʼ is how heʼd answered. ʻOvershadowʼ was the word heʼd used. She was sure of it.

 

She still didnʼt know how that worked exactly. She hadnʼt felt anything. But she knew that word, ʻovershadow.ʼ

Itʼs 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. Sheʼd look up at the sky and rub her nauseous belly. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it: how she could carry within her the sign and the seal of the covenant, as though her womb was an ark; how the hands and feet sheʼd soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

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

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

Elizabethʼs 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 wasnʼt the same thing as a virgin birth.
With Mary, it was as if the angelʼs message- Godʼs 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.
A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabethʼs 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.”