Archives For Incarnation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or-

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

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

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

That’s how you preach this text:

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

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

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

——————

     Except-

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

For one-

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

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

For another-

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder-

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

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

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

Just think-

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

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

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

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     I wonder-

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

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

This is where the good news is to be found.

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

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

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

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

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

Peter’s right.

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

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

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

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

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

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

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

Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

 

 

*David Bentley Hart: The Uncreated Light

 

 

Tattoo You

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

‘My name’s Hawk’ he said, offering me his meaty orange and scarlet painted hand, flames I think, whose red tongues lapped seamlessly into the illustration running up his arm.

My hand disappeared into his and I thought to myself: Of course your name’s Hawk

Shorter than me, he looked like a squat version of one half of the Road Warriors, the Mad Max inspired WWF tag team I idolized as a kid. Maybe Hawk was a fanboy too because that clothes-lining, from the top rope, road warrior was also named Hawk. Road_Warrior_Hawk

’Is that Hawk? Or Mr. Hawk?’ I asked…like a tool. He did me the courtesy of faking a chuckle before opening the waist high ‘Staff Only’ gate and ushering back into his studio.

Once I realized a few months ago that my stage-serious cancer wasn’t going to kill me, at least not for now, I passed the infusion and transfusion time sketching a sort of bucket list, a concept nearly ruined for me in 2007 by that dentures dud of a movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, a ‘film’ which proved not everything is made awesome simply by the presence of Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to sail around the world on a pastor’s salary and I’ve already read all the Dostoyevsky I ever want to read so I settled upon less ambitious but no less important items for my Cancer Didn’t Kill Me Yet Bucket List, such as

#3: Spend More Time with Friends

#7: Take My Job Less Seriously and

#2: Try to be Less of an A-hole to My Wife. 

#6 on the list was something I’d always had in the back of my mind but had never gotten around to doing, getting a tattoo. Not only did the scare of the past year compel me, any tattoo I did get, I discerned, should in some fashion testify to the struggle we’d experienced and to any epiphanies with which we’d emerged on the other end of our nightmare.

Jacob, in Genesis, laid an altar to remember (and maybe warn away others) the place where God had struggled with him. Lacking any ebeneezers, I went to a tattoo parlor instead. So it was that I sat a few afternoons ago in Hawk’s brightly animated studio, my arm draped over a vinyl cushion, sucking on lollipops to stave off the sugar crash he’d warned me the needle would provoke. It’s a surprisingly intimate moment, having someone inscribe what might be a terrible mistake into your flesh. Like sex, it’s sweaty and you can’t take it back and, like sex, I felt it would’ve been even more awkward in the absence of pillow talk. Or, in this case, banter.

No doubt I’m judging, but I assumed the Republican Primary or America’s refugee policy to lie outside his conversational wheelhouse, so I asked Hawk:

‘What’s the strangest tattoo you ever did for someone?’

‘Please don’t tell me it was a dolphin leaping through a clovered trinity or a Chinese script character that actually translates to ‘Kick Me’ I joked. But his countenance fell. He looked bothered. Disturbed even. He turned the ink gun off and laid it down. Staring at the floor, he looked as though all that was missing was a fire around which he could tell this horror story. He was quiet for several moments before shaking his head and said: ‘Dude, this one time…this guy had me ink this giant butterfly on his entire back.’

This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. ‘Well, that’s not quite Flannery O’Connor’ I laughed, ‘but that doesn’t sound too strange.’

‘No, dude, that’s not it. You see, the body of the butterfly…’ he looked back at the fake wood floor, ‘the body of the butterfly was a…giant _________.’

Since I’ve only recently petitioned the United Methodist powers-that-be to be reinstated off of medical leave, let’s just say the word Hawk shared with me rhymes with ‘Loner.’

‘Seriously?’ I asked him.

‘Yeah dude, and where the feet on the butterfly are supposed to go he wanted me to put a pair of _________. ‘

‘Of course. It would look ridiculous without them’ I deadpanned. He started to grab his ink gun but put it down again when I asked him: ‘Did you ask him? What was the story behind that tattoo?’

‘Naw dude. I figured it was best I didn’t know.’

‘Probably a good call.’ He started again on my arm. I watched him, looking down at the upside down A he had started to outline.

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‘This is the Alpha and Omega, right?’ he asked over the whirr of the gun and the Dead Weather playing over the Bose.

He must’ve read my ‘How’d you know that?’ expression because he added, ‘We get a lot of Christians in here.’

‘I imagine so’ I said. ‘I guess crosses have more staying power than the Tasmanian Devil or Calvin and Hobbes.’ He did me another favor by laughing.

‘These here, then, this means the Beginning and the End, right?’ he pointed to the other letters in the corner of the cross. I nodded, unwrapping another lollipop.

‘Then this,’ and with the needle he outlined the crow in which the cross and letters were all contained, ‘must be Peter denying Jesus? The cock crowing three times?’ ‘Why does it look like it’s falling?’ he asked, sounding genuinely curious now.

‘Because while Peter’s denying Jesus, Jesus is falling down, carrying his cross.’ I explained.

‘Carrying it…for Peter’s sake, huh?’ Hawk closed the gospel loop.

‘Yeah. In a way,’ I said, ‘you can think of it as the ultimate tramp stamp.’

‘The three?’ he asked, ‘the Trinity?’

‘No, but that works too. Stations of the Cross, the third one.’

‘Why’d you decide to get a tattoo?’ he asked.

‘I’ve always wanted one,’ I said, grimacing at how cliche that sounded ‘and then cancer nearly killed me this year.’

‘How’d you settle on this image?’ he asked, wiping the blood that was dripping down from my cross.

I sucked the lollipop spit back into my mouth. It was my turn to look at the floor.

‘There’s nothing like cancer and your own looming death to point out just how imperfect and unfaithful- scared and sinful- you are’ I confessed.

‘When you’re afraid you’ve already done most of the living you’re going to do and all the important decisions you’ll make in your life have already been made, you take account. And no matter how many times you count, you fear you don’t measure up.’

He’d stopped the ink gun again and was considering me, like I would at someone in my office who’d revealed more than they knew.

‘Anyway,’ I mumbled through the lollipop I’d returned to my mouth, ‘this past year I’ve sought refuge in the fact that, in Jesus, God takes all those experiences and emotions of ours into himself’ I said, unintentionally saving the most important point for last.

‘God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering.

God doesn’t shun us because of our shortcomings.

God makes them his own.’

And, as though an affirmation, he stretched out the two solitary syllables: ‘Dude.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think maybe I wanted the tattoo because I’ve had to remind myself of it a lot this year.’

He nodded like he understood or sympathized. ‘So…’ Hawk struggled to summarize, ’this basically means s#$% happens but, in Jesus, God shares in it with us.’

I nodded. ‘I thought an image like this would make a better tattoo than, say, a quote like yours.’

He chuckled. ‘You go to church?’ he asked me. ‘You don’t look the type.’

‘Just about every Sunday’ I said.

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When God calls Abram out of obscurity in order to unfurl his plan of redemption, to gather a People who will undo what Adam did, God’s first admonishes Abram to ‘not be afraid.’ 

For God’s People, not fearing comes before following.

Or, not being afraid is the first step in being faithful.

When God begins to unravel the New Creation, what we call this time of year ‘incarnation,’ God commands Joseph, by way of a dream, not to be afraid. In Luke’s telling of the same story, God, by way of the angel Gabriel, tells Mary and later the shepherds not to fear. Matthew doesn’t mention it but I’m willing to wager that Gariel also orders the magi, once they learn of Herod’s rage, not to be afraid. You don’t have to be a student of 1st century politics or a fan of Game Rape of Thrones to realize Mary and Joseph and all the others had ample reason to fear.

And it’s little noticed but the first word of God’s New Creation, after Jesus has defeated Sin and Death, is ‘Do not be afraid.’ Not incidentally, the next word is ‘Peace.’

As in, ‘shalom.’

As in, right-making, whole-making restoration.

As in, the opposite of fear.

Just take it from Master YodaUnknown

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Unless you’ve been trapped under something heavy in 2015 or spent the whole year waiting in line for The Force Awakens, I require no citation or corroboration to suggest we, as a country, are already through 3/4 of the way through Master Yoda’s koan. Donald Trump has done more than guest judge Wrestle Mania III. He is us. Or, we’ve become him. Of late, we’re a fearful, angry and even hateful bunch.

As if to indict us, those of us who consider ourselves not just Americans or Westerners but Christians, the repeated refrain of scripture’s primary narrative arc admonishes us:

Do not be afraid.

The headlines of the day, as they always have, supply the fill-in for the blank. Do not be afraid of___________.

Fear no less than inhospitality, miserliness, or vengeance is a contrary posture to Christian discipleship.

Perhaps then the best Christmas gift we can offer this season is not simply to believe that in the manger the light of God is born but to believe, as John does, ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’ 

In other words: Do not fear.

Saying all this better than me and nearly as good as John’s Gospel is Marilynne Robinson in this essay from her new book. In it, she argues 1) “…contemporary America is full of fear”; 2) “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind” because “Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.”

Robinson, author of Gilead, is one of my favorite novelists and as an unembarrassed, articulate Christian she is rare today among writers. You should read her, but you must read this.

The Visitation

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2015 — Leave a comment

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

Luke 1.39

     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

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

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

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

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

Yet, that’s just what he’d told her.

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

The thought made her shake again.

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

‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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

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

     ‘Favored one.’ 

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

    ‘Favored one.’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things would never be simple again.

 

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

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

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

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

She wondered what that said God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

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

Made flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary knew: hers was different.

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

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

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

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

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

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

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

Stuck with Jesus

Jason Micheli —  December 7, 2015 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing too flashy or novel.

Nothing very creative or controversial or counter-intuitive.

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

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

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

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

This baby, Jesus, is God.

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

Which means: ‘God with us.’

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

No surprises, or at least I thought so.

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

I remember-

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

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

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

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

That’s how she identified herself.

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

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

And she… smiled.

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

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

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

I didn’t ask.

Merry Christmas,’ I remember saying.

——————————

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

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

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

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

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

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re stuck with Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, I wish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re stuck with Jesus. Merry Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Don’t get too close to the manger

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

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

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

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

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

    In other words, we Christians say:

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

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

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

It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us.

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

It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God.

COMPLETELY.

FULLY.

IN THE FLESH.

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

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

I mean…

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

     ——————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

That we’re stuck with Jesus.

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

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

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

     ——————————

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

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

I mean-

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

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

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

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

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

The good news about being stuck with Jesus?

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

Untitled101111For the past year, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Cancer’s gotten me off my blogging game, but it’s Advent and the schedule of questions I outlined a year ago has incarnation in the queue.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Would there have been an Incarnation without the Fall? 

Just asking the question is important to reflect upon what Christians mean we say Christ is the eternal God incarnate.

My answer?

Of course.

If Jesus only comes to forgive sin, if he’s born in order to die, then the incarnation is determined by our transgression. Christmas is thus contingent upon us; the infinite determined by the finite.

The cross is what we choose when we meet God in the flesh.

The cross is not what God chooses as the reason for meeting us in the flesh.

The former means God endures our very worst evil for love’s sake while the latter means God trucks in the very worst evil for his holiness’ sake.

Not only is the finite determining the infinite a logical impossibility, it treats the incarnation as the outworking of God’s frustration with us rather than as the manifestation of God’s eternal decision not to be any other god but Emmanuel, God-with-us.

To suggest there would have been no journey to Bethlehem had there been exit from Eden is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s. That then means at some point in time God changed his mind about us, towards us.

But God doesn’t change.

The ancient Christians had a catchphrase: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, in the Trinity. That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

There is not when the Son was not, and there can not be when he will not be.

Thus, the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning, before, even, the Fall: God’s decision to be God-with-us.

As it happened, humanity did sin and Christ does reconcile us, but incarnation names a still deeper mystery. The mystery that the nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation, that before God brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus isn’t born simply to die for our sin. If Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction. Jesus isn’t born for us; we were born for him.

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life. Had there been no need for a cross, there still would’ve been a crèche because the eternal reason for his coming is that God wants to be friends with us just as Father, Son and Spirit are friends with one another.

‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; all things have been created through him and for him…‘     – Colossians 1

Why Did Jesus Come?

Jason Micheli —  June 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the tag for the previous posts here and on the sidebar to the right.

III. The Son

10. Why did Jesus come?  

There’s no need to ask me.

Ask his cousin, John: Jesus comes in order to bear away our proclivity to point the finger and scapegoat one another, the sin that is at the very foundation of the world; so that, we can be at-one with God and each other.

Ask his mother, Mary: Jesus comes to bring the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, in which the lowly are lifted up, the powerful brought down from their boardrooms, the proud scattered in the presumptions of their heart, the rich sent empty away and the poor have gospel brought to them.

Ask his father, Joseph: Jesus comes to be a light to the nations, the 2nd Abraham through whose family, called church, the whole world might be blessed.

Ask Matthew: Jesus comes so that his birth, from nothing, would inaugerate a New Creation of which his resurrection- Sin and Death having done their worst- is vindication.

Ask John, his Beloved Disciple: Jesus comes to give flesh to the invisible image of God, showing us the authentically human, abundant life God desires for each of us. But, he comes to take us beyond mere creature hood too, bearing us in his flesh, through his Spirit into the life called Trinity; so that, God can love us not as creatures but as God loves God.

Ask his disciples: Jesus comes to be our Passover, liberating us through his broken body and poured out blood from the Powers which bind us, into a life of freedom for love and service.

Ask the Pharisees: Jesus comes claiming to be the Son of Man, forgiving sinners (refusing to condemn them) while judging the nations and those who serve them as their true lord.

Ask Pontius Pilate: Jesus comes to witness, even unto a cross, to the ‘truth’ that God alone rules the Earth.

Or-

Ask him yourself: He comes to invite us to turn away from the ways we reject our creature hood (which we call ‘sin’) and to turn towards a life of grace and gratitude (which he calls ‘the Kingdom of God’).

He does not come– notice, in order to suffer a monster’s torture meant for another, to assuage our guilt or to placate an anrgy deity. Nor does he come to bless our political causes in this life, secure our passage to the next one or reinforce maxims we can surmise apart from him, i.e. that ‘All you need is love.’

“Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of God is near.” -Matthew 3.2

Untitled101111

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

9. What do we mean by saying Jesus was ‘truly human?’

We do not mean that Jesus was as fully human as you or me.

Jesus, as the God-Man, has no human existence apart from his divine existence and our humanity is not like that at all.

While it’s often proclaimed in sermons on Christmas and about the Cross that Jesus being ‘truly human’ means he’s as human as you or me, to suppose that Jesus is every bit as human as you or me might be correct in terms of the biological bits- if you’re a man- but, beyond biology, such a suggestion bends backwards the entire trajectory of Christian salvation.

 

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be tortured and crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus be human, truly and authentically human.

The grammar of Christian salvation is not that Jesus, the truly human one, is just like us, who are sinners through and through; the grammar of salvation is that, through Jesus, the truly human one, and by the power of Spirit and Sacraments, we might become as human as him.

We are not his aspiration.

He is ours.

To be fully, truly human- this is the command Jesus perceived to have been placed upon him by the Father. The fact that to be fully human meets with rejection, betrayal, torture and crucifixion is not something God the Father planned but is a consequence of the world as we’ve constructed it.

To be fully human is to love and to love, in the world as we’ve made it, is to suffer.

So then, to say that Jesus is ‘fully human’ is to confess that Jesus is the first human after a long list of begats in which God’s original intent for humanity came to fruition.

To live a fully human life, as Jesus does, is to embody the greatest commandment: to love self, neighbors and God without qualificaiton or fear.

From the very beginning this was the intent for humans made in the image of 3-Personned God, who just is Love and Friendship.

To profess that Jesus is fully human then is not to argue that he was really like us.

To profess that Jesus is fully human is to express the hope that we can become as human as him.

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

8. Is It Necessary to Believe Jesus is God?

Yes, of course.

You didn’t expect ‘not really’ did you?

Yes, it’s necessary to believe Jesus is God because following Jesus is first and foremost about trusting Jesus. Christianity is not simply or solely about trusting the belief that Jesus’ death purchases your (after) life; Christianity entails trusting Jesus.

Following Jesus requires trusting what Jesus said and what Jesus did, taking the Word’s word for it. And Jesus consistently referred to himself as the Son of Man- 83 times in fact, a fact upon which all 4 evangelists agree.

The only title Jesus ever applied to himself, the Son of Man was first foreshadowed by the prophet Daniel, who received a vision of a Human One sitting upon the throne of God and to whom is given dominion over all the Earth. As any Jew knows, the only one who can sit upon the divine throne is the Divine, the only one who can have dominion over creation is the Creator; therefore, the Son of Man is and was a divine appellation that Jesus chooses, from a multiplicity of possibilities, for himself.

So to suggest that Jesus is not divine is to dismiss what Jesus says of himself nearly 100 times.

Rather than trusting Jesus’ word, it’s to call him a liar.  Even worse, to dismiss Jesus’ divinity but to worship him still is to commit the most grievous of sins: worshipping another but God.

Following Jesus involves trusting what Jesus said not just about himself but what Jesus said about the broken world, the Kingdom of God and our place in them.

If Jesus is not God, for example, then we have no basis on which to suppose that what Jesus says about nonviolent, gracious, cross-bearing love in any way coincides with the grain of God’s universe- indeed we have every basis to surmise it does not.

The only reason for us to give our lives to someone whose counterintuitive way the way of the world corroborates not at all is the belief that this paradoxical, pathetic way is in fact the will of God.

‘Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”’

– Mark 2.11

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

7. What Do We Mean By Incarnation?

We mean that God the Logos, without taking off divinity, puts on humanity in Jesus.

What we do not mean by the incarnation is the nativity. We do not mean that incarnation can ever be shorthand for Christmas, as though God taking flesh and redeeming humanity could be isolated to only one discrete moment in the Son’s life.

The incarnation does not name a single moment in Jesus’ life as the footwashing, crucifixion or the resurrection do.

Quite the contrary, the incarnation names everything from the Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary to Jesus commending the same Spirit back to God upon the cross. The incarnation is not an event distinct on the timeline of Jesus’ life from the cross.

Rather Jesus’ faithfulness unto the cross is but one manifestation of what it means for the Word to be incarnate.

The incarnation is the given behind all that Jesus says and does.

Likewise, incarnation means humanity is not perfected simply as a consequence of the Word assuming flesh.  The incarnation does not heal humanity of temptation until the Word is tempted in the wilderness. The incarnation does not redeem humanity of its fear until Jesus experiences it in the garden of Gethsemene. The incarnation does not rescue humanity from its violence until the Son carries a cross instead of picking up a sword, and humanity is not freed from death until he suffers and overcomes it.

The cross, then, is not in distinction from the incarnation; it is a product of it.

“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” – 1 John 4.1-3

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This post was up on the blog for about 30 seconds before I got hacked by the Islamic Cyber Force Team and other amusingly self-titled Muslim cyber terrorists.

The hack was provoked by a sermon whose text I can’t recover- thanks to the aforementioned cyber terrorists- but you can listen to it here.

I thought I’d repost this reflection while I try to piece the blog back together (pain in the ass).

Thanks to all of you who’ve emailed encouragement, wondering where the posts are and/or projecting upon me all sorts of ‘front line of freedom’ altruism.

For you e-subscribers out there, sorry for the repost. I’m trying to figure out how I can restore the blog without pushing out old content to all of you.

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Dear Son,

It occurred to me recently that, as a preacher’s kid (PK), you hear me give guidance to others more often than I do for you.

As a result, I thought I’d write you this ‘FYI’ even though it may be a bit premature. In the event I’m ever iced by an angry church member you’ll at least have these 2 cents on record.

You’re still at the age when the word ‘selfie’ probably strikes you as a good name for a Marvel villain, and the mere mention of GIRLS makes you blush and wrinkle your nose in contemptuous embarrassment.

This may be premature, but perhaps not. After all, you’ve been learning about ‘the puberty’ at school but, even more so, it seems appropriate because- no matter your age:

Who you will be always begins right now, with who your Mom and me are helping you to become.

That’s a parent’s baptismal promise, to shape you so that your character is grounded in the character of Jesus. God, I hope your Mom does a good job of it.

What it means to have the character of Jesus, who was the perfect image of God, is to regard others as the exact image of God.

That means, son, to see people as holy, as sacraments, and sacraments- as you’ve learned in church- are examples of a whole lot more than what’s visible to the eye.

That means, son, to treat people as (God’s) people. And never as objects.

It means you never see only a person’s physical beauty, or notice only their lack of it- which I also hope you’ll learn is a terribly unbeautiful way to live.

Brass tacks time, son:

If you see a pretty girl, in real life or on Instagram, and from that point on that’s all you can see in them or that’s all you can think of them…that’s YOUR fault son NOT the girl’s fault.

I hold you responsible and I’m damn sure your Mother will too.

Sure, said girl made her choice when she dressed said way.

But you make your choices too.

You can choose to objectify others or you can choose to treat your neighbors as your self.

In truth, if you do grow up to objectify girls, son, it’s our fault too, your Mom and me, for letting you be shaped by a culture that sexualizes everything for a $ and only sounding the alarm years later when we don’t like what its done to you.

But I don’t think that will happen to you.

Some parents excuse their boys’ demeaning girls by demeaning boys, by saying ‘boys will be boys.’

I think I’ll give you more credit, son, which also means I’m giving you responsibility.

You can treat girls as they should be treated.

But let’s be realistic, sometimes you won’t. You’ll have impulses, thoughts, desires…and THAT’S OKAY. It’s natural. It’s part of being human. It’s not any girl’s fault and it’s not yours either. It’s not dirty or bad or unholy.

Jesus (God) was human, don’t forget, so there’s nothing that can run through your head that didn’t run through his. And so there’s nothing you need to be ashamed of.

Now that you’re hitting puberty, son, you’ll realize to what an extent that’s gospel, good news.

While we’re on this track, let me just say that, like other parents, your Mother and I certainly hope you’ll ‘wait’ for that perfect girl (and if it’s not a girl that’s fine too, but that’s advice for another day).

Always remember, though, if you do ‘wait’ you’re no better than anyone else and no worthier of my love. Or God’s.

And if you don’t wait, you and your other whomever is no less beautiful to me. Or God. Parents who suggest anything to the contrary are on some ugly, unGospely footing.

Finally, son, let me ask a favor of you.

If, in the years ahead, you ever mess up or make a mistake, in the real world or the virtual one, please don’t let me get so self-important that I resort to faith-based innuendo to shame you.

Always remember, even I don’t always appear to:

There’s nothing you can do to make me love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make me love you less. I hope that one day you will find someone for whom you can say the same.

Love,

Dad

 

 

 

 

 

Was Jesus Sinful?

Jason Micheli —  January 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

5. Was Jesus Sinful?

Yes.

The humanity assumed by the Word was sinful; otherwise, what would be the salvific point of the incarnation if the humanity assumed by the Word was already perfect?

While perhaps the incarnate Word did not commit sin against God or others (would he have been fully human had he done so?), the humanity which the Word assumed suffered the effects of sin.

That is, the incarnate Word was tempted as sinful humanity is tempted. The incarnate Word feared death as humanity, because of sin, fears death. The incarnate Word experienced the conflicts provoked by poverty and political oppression, which are themselves brought about by humanity’s sinfulness.

In this way, then, it’s insufficient for Christians to profess that the Word took flesh.

The Word not only takes on humanity, the Word contends with (sinful) humanity in order to perfect it over the course of his incarnate life.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…” 

– 2 Corinthians 5.19

6. Did Jesus Commit Sin?

The theologians say no.

The Canaanite woman would probably say yes

Traditionally, Christian theology precludes such a thought, for theories of the atonement rely upon the conviction that Jesus did not commit sin.

He is without sin, living the authentically human (i.e., sinless) life that humanity in Adam’s wake cannot live for itself. It’s his perfection, in which we all have a share by virtue of the incarnation, that saves us. It’s his blamelessness before God that allows him to suffer sin’s penalty in our guilty stead.

So no- the theological systems assert- Jesus could not have committed sin.

Unfortunately the gospel texts often seem disinterested in buttressing doctrine and answering questions they felt no need to ask.

What scripture presents instead is a picture of Jesus that resists the neat, a priori categories established for him by theologians.

For example, Jesus humiliates a Canaanite woman by calling her a ‘dog,’ a 1st century derogatory term for Israel’s oldest and original enemy. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as a sin but it definitely marrs our assumptions about Jesus being without blemish.

By refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ignores the clear Yahweh-given commands in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Exodus and Numbers.

In pursuing his Kingdom mission and constituting a new family as an alternative to his biological one, Jesus, as Mary’s eldest son, forsakes his Torah-mandated responsibility to care for his widowed mother, which violates the 5th commandment.

The Pharisees are correct about Jesus: by presuming to forgive the sins of others, he sinfully claims the role reserved for God alone.

Their indictment against Jesus is true if spuriously motivated: by claiming to be the Son of Man, Jesus commits the ultimate sin- blasphemy. He breaks the first commandment, making of himself an idol above and before the one, true Lord.

While theological systems have no room for a Jesus who committed sin, the scripture texts portray him as doing just that until it lands him on a cross.

Of course, if he is who he claims to be- the Son of Man- then our theological systems, in their need to emphasize his unblemished, atoning humanity, obscure the gospels’ primary claim: that Jesus is Lord.

And if he’s Lord then it’s not clear how the Law-giver can be said to be a Law-breaker. A sinner.

However, if he’s Lord- if God is like Jesus, exactly- then neither is it clear how we can say God demands the suffering and death of a sinless human creature.

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” 

– 1 Peter 1.19

Christmas Ends in the Dark

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2015 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

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

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

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

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

It was not a silent night-

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

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

It wasnʼt a silent night.

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

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

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

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

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

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

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

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

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

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

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

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

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

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

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

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

 

So itʼs strange.

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

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

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

He knew bad news when he heard it.

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

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

With those on margins.

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

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

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

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor and my social media is flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags, but I’ve grown weary of the Christmas ‘tradition’ of bemoaning the commercialization of the season and criticizing others (usually referring to non-Christians) for being so materialistic about Christmas.

I mean, I’ve got my own gripes with Black Friday and Xmas music in late September but is there anything more cliche than surveying the wrapping paper debris on the curb and the pine needles on the floor and lamenting that we’ve missed the meaning of Christmas?

As cliche as such pious hand-wringing is, I’m not so sure it’s truly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

Since Trinity is its own ‘economy’ (economy is a Greek NT term for ‘community’ or ‘household’) of constant gift and exchange, then I wonder…

Perhaps the best way for believers in the Trinity to celebrate Christmas is the old fashioned materialist route of giving actual things to those we love.

Specifically, what I think is problematic about decrying the materialism of Xmas is that it implies there’s a deeper ‘spiritual’ truth to Christmas that we’re missing.

But Christians don’t believe in abstract spiritual truths. We believe in Jesus.

And here’s the thing:

The Incarnation- what we celebrate these 12 Days of Christmas- is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christmas is when Christians celebrate that God took human (material) flesh and lived a life just like ours amid all the material stuff of everyday life. He made things (carpenter) and presumably gave some of those things to people. He drank wine, ate bread and fish, and partied with sinners.

To say nothing of the magi who brought the baby Jesus their resolutions to lead lives of justice and compassion…sike….they brought him stuff.

Expensive stuff too.

The incarnation shows us that God is the most materialistic One of all of us because it’s by incarnation that God takes the material stuff of life to get up close and uncomfortably personal to all of us.

Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas so what’s wrong with us having passed Christmas the very same way?

Sure enough, at this point, many of the unimaginative and painfully literal among you will point out the gross overabundance with which many of us mark the season and how little that has to do with a Savior born into poverty.

I don’t argue with that. I’m only suggesting that the Heifer Project (gifts you’ll never see given for people you’ll never know) isn’t necessarily the only or even the best way to celebrate the incarnation.

If Jesus is Emmanuel- God with us- then giving sincere material gifts of love and friendship that highlight or accentuate our withness our connection to someone else just might be the most theologically cogent way of marking his birth.

In other words, instead of cows and chickens maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas was to give your wife those earrings you know she’s wanted for a long, long time but hadn’t bought herself or the Playstation your boys have wanted for several years running.

Maybe materialism is exactly what we need to ‘reclaim’ about our understanding of Christmas.

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

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

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

bestchristmaspageant

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

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

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

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

genealogy-of-Jesus-2-Copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

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

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

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

For instance-

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

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

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

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

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

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

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

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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 down and up and down and then it was over. I have an uncle who was in prison every other Christmas.

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

What I mean to say is-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

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

 

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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted any money quotes from DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite.

Since Christmas is a time not only for exhausted credit limits and maxed out parents but also a time for sloppy Christian thinking, in which it’s often implied, if not downright said, that God taking flesh in Jesus indicates a change in God’s identity or disposition, I thought I’d post this to mark the holy day.

Of course, were it true that God changes at all or in the incarnation specifically, we’d all be committing idolatry on Christmas.

For a god who changes is, by definition, not God.

Take it from DBH.

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“The Church Fathers were anxious to reject any suggestion that God becoming human was an act of divine self-alienation, a transformation into a reality essentially contrary to what God eternally is: for this would mean that God must negate himself as God to become human- which would be to say God did not become human.

Hence, a strict distinction must be drawn between the idea of divine change and that of divine kenosis.

When scripture says, ‘the Logos became flesh,’ the word ‘became’ signifies not any change in God but only the act of self-divesting love whereby God the Son emptied himself of his glory, while preserving his immutable and impassible nature intact.

God did not alter or abandon his nature in any way, but freely appropriated the weakness and poverty of our nature for the work of redemption…

To say God does not change in the incarnation is almost a tautology.

God is not some thing that can be transformed into another thing.

God is the Being of everything, to which all that is always already properly belongs; there is no change of nature needed for the fullness of being to assume- even through self-impoverishment- a being as the dwelling place of mystery.

Moreover, as a human being is nothing at all in itself but the image and likeness of God- the Logos- in the one man who perfectly expresses and lives out what it is to be human, is in no sense an alien act for God. The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.

And finally, and most crucially, the very act of kenosis is not a new act for God, because God’s eternal Being is, in some sense, kenosis: the self-outpouring of the Father in the Son in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Thus Christ’s incarnation, far from dissembling his eternal nature, exhibits not only his particular proprium as the Son and the splendor of the Father, but also the nature of the Trinity in its entirety.”

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

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

——————————————————————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy looked skeptically at his mother as she began…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, he does, said the boy’s father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What did she say?’ the boy asked.

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

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

Yes, and Boaz said yes. And he let Ruth sleep there next to him that night.

In the morning, before the sun came up or anyone else awoke, Boaz told Ruth to meet him that afternoon at the gateway that led into town. That’s where he would marry her.

And before Ruth left that early morning, Boaz gave her a gift of barley. He helped load the bag of barley onto her back. Your great-grandma Ruth, she always told people that that morning, helping her with the barley, was the first time they ever touched.

Mary could see that her boy was drifting asleep. So they married, she concluded. And they had a boy named Obed. And he became King David’s grandfather, and, without them, you might not be here with us…

Joseph crept up and blew out the lights on the menorah, and Mary tucked her little boy into bed. And with half open eyes, the little boy said that God wasn’t even in that story. God didn’t say anything or do anything or appear to anyone.

And Mary kissed the word made flesh on the forehead and she said that sometimes God’s love is revealed to us in our love for one another.

Sometimes God is in the person right in front of you.

That’s what the story’s about, she said.

And of all the people in the world, only Mary knew just how true that was.

Bad Santa

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517   This Sunday I closed out our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by taking a look at St. Nicholas, who received a mystical encounter with the Risen Christ after his ‘You talking’ to me?’ moment at the Council of Nicaea. I used the screen behind me to convey the parenthetical comments you see in the text- my little homage to the finale of Cobert.

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

Speaking of Mary’s Song, we listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan.

(Fan = snob, elitist, smarty-pants)

     And I’m not picky or narrow-focused, I’m a fan of genres of music. Blues, Bluegrass, Bakersfield Country, Indie, Jazz, Clash-era punk- you name it, I’m a fan of it all.

(All = not Pop, Contemporary Christian or Baby-Making Smooth Jazz)

     I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job.

(Job = unpaid hobby for which no one else answered the want ads)

     I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

(Good Home = my apartment)

      Every last album.

(‘Every’ = except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates)

     I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You’

(Cliche, I know).

     Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the praise song ‘Forever Reign’ was playing.

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and more songs in iCloud than South Dakota has legal residents. I love music, and we’ve raised our boys to love music too.

And, as parents, we didn’t waste our time with lamo kids’ music like Raffi or Baby Einstein or Jack Johnson.

No, the first song Gabriel danced to at 16 months old was Nirvanna’s single ‘Lithium,’ which is ironic since lithium is exactly what I felt I needed after I changed his diaper.

My boys- they love music too.

Gabriel could create a playlist on the iPod before he was potty-trained. Alexander, before he knew his consonants from his vowels, knew all the words to every Ben Folds Five song.

(Even Ben Fold’s cover of Dr. Dre’s ‘B#$%$@! Ain’t S$%^’ = #badparent)

     Gabriel even cried crocodile tears when he discovered that his beloved White Stripes had broken up the year he was born.

They love music.

It may be true that boogers are just one of the many things my boys eat with their hands, but from the age when other kids are stuck singing ‘Farmer in the Dell’ they’ve known to look down their noses at anyone who listens to Billboard topping pop. I call it my curriculum of cool.

(Well, I will now)

     I mean- I can’t teach my boys to change the oil, hang a door or rewire a light switch, but I can team them that no homo sapien worth his thumbs should ever waste their time listening to Taylor Swift and that subscribing to Sirius Radio is the musical equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public.

(Least amount of effort possible)

 

My boys- they love music.

We love Christmas carols too.

We’ve got 211 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting the 5th of July. There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond’s ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Buble.

No, my boys love music so they know any savior worthy of worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe and Wynton Marsalis.

Our favorite Christmas song- favorite because it drives Ali (my wife, their mommy) crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-crazy- is Bob Dylan’s angelic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ written in 1934 for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show, is our favorite Christmas song and because it tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret, Bob Dylan’s is our favorite version of it.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas and forcing his kids to listen to something like DC Talk’s Christian Christmas rap ‘Yo, Ho, Ho?’

Shouldn’t a pastor and his kids be arm-in-arm, on the front lines with Bill O’Reilly, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

 

I mean- sure, Santa apparently turns a blind eye to shaming and bullying among his Jim Crow reindeer. Sure the only difference between his North Pole workforce and a coal mine in Matewan, WV is one of height.

(Where else would his coal come from?)

     I mean- sure, Santa rides in a carriage in the 21st century like a colorblind Amish man.

Sure he’s ‘happily married’ (in an Ike and Tina kinda way) to a wife whom he apparently doesn’t allow to leave the house; meanwhile, he trots the globe wearing what, on anyone else, would be considered a porn star costume.

But hey- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?

So, no, I don’t have a problem with Santa Claus.

If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground.

(The true miracle of Christmas?)

     And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. I don’t think it sets up our children to question everything else once they learn the Claus con.

Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith- biblical faith.

So I’ve never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until the other day.

The other day we had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel says- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? ‘If,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

     (Bam. Damn.)

     And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse looked not a little like Satan himself.

Every year we complain about how the carols and the decorations and the advertisements begin around Arbor Day.  We complain about materialism and greed and stuff- how more and more it’s gotten to be about getting more and more.  We complain about ‘Happy Holidays’ and the ‘War on Christmas’ and how Jesus is the reason for what’s become a secular season. We complain about all of it, but the one thing we don’t complain about is the one thing we should rail against.

Because what could be more antithetical to the Christmas Gospel than this whole idea of kids sitting on Santa’s lap or elves sitting on shelves or God sitting in heaven watching us, judging us, deciding what we deserve- before he decides what he’ll give?

‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’ 

Not to get too preachy but the Gospel is that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’ The Christmas Gospel, therefore, is ‘while we were still naughty, God took flesh and gave us the gift of himself.’

The Gospel is that ‘He became sin who no sin; so that, we might become the righteousness of God.’ That’s 2 Corinthians 5 and the Christmas Gospel corollary to it is ‘God became human; so that, we, who are no good through and through, through him might receive the gift of salvation.’

The Gospel is that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

John 3.16- and you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ has no positive connotations in John at all; therefore, the Christmas Gospel is that God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ.

And then kept giving all the way to a cross.

That’s the Christmas Gospel, and I want my son to know it- to know that God loves him regardless if he’s bad or good or shouts or cries.

I want you to know it too, to know that God loves you whether or not you’re naughty or not so nice. I want you to know that Christmas has nothing to do with how good you are.

And, since you’re all in church today, I want you to know too that you getting this gift from God- it doesn’t mean that you’re good, doesn’t make you good.

For goodness sakes, that’s what we mean by the word ‘grace.’

God doesn’t give us what we deserve and God gives us more than we deserve. That’s the Gospel and it wasn’t until the other day that I realized how that Pavlovian song about a bourbon-bellied fat man wreaks all kinds of naughty on our understanding of Christmas.

And I’m sure ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is just one example of how our message has gotten all messed up.

So now my Christmas Playlist numbers 206 songs not 211- gone are the covers of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Mavis Staples and Run DMC.

I won’t sing it anymore. Or play it even.

And before you accuse me of being one of those reactive ‘War on Christmas’ clergyman, you know who else wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

Santa Claus.

Nichols-Punch-Meme

That is, the real St. Nicholas. The real St. Nick would never sing that song.

The real St. Nicholas, in case you didn’t know, was a 4th century Christian Bishop. A would-be martyr, St. Nick was exiled and tortured under hostile Roman Emperors, one of whom gouged out Nicholas’ eye, trying to compel him to recant his allegiance to Christ.

But you know how I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

The real St. Nick was a delegate at the Council of Nicaea in 325 where he helped write the words of the creed we recited this morning. It was at the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas encountered a rival church leader named Arius, who was later denounced as a heretic.

On the council floor, Arius argued passionately that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is not the fullness of God, that Jesus is not God made flesh.

I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ because it only took him a few minutes of listening to Arius pontificate before jolly old Nicholas started to turn red with anger and only a few moments more before he stood up and strode down to the council floor and then, with all those vicars of Christ looking on, he punched Arius in the teeth, as though they were both in a Martin Scorsese film version of their lives.

1467293_563592787054489_335397325_n  It’s a true story. St. Nick round-housed him right to the nose, until Arius had tears in his eyes and blood in his mouth.

And for it, St. Nicholas quickly found himself on the Emperor’s naughty list. He was thrown in prison. He was stripped of his vestments. His beard was shorn, burnt off.

But while he was chained, naked, in a prison cell, Nicholas received a mystical vision. The Risen Jesus appeared to him, smiling upon him, and restored his beard and gave him a bible.

In other words, the real St. Nick lost his cool, cold-cocked a heretic and, after he gets thrown in the clink, he gets a thumbs up from the Risen Christ.

Don’t you see- Santa is the original Bad Santa. But even when St. Nicholas was naughty, Jesus came to him and gave.

Gave him grace and mercy.

And so I know- not even St. Nick would sing that song about St. Nick.

Because Nicholas staked his life on the Gospel claim that the Jesus who said ‘I do not condemn you’ and the Jesus who said ‘I came to seek and save sinners not the righteous’ and the Jesus who said the Kingdom is exactly like a Father’s embrace of a child who’s lost their way in all kind of ways…

That Jesus is nothing less than 100% God.

God in the flesh.

image

I know St. Nick would not sing that song about St. Nick because Nicholas gave his eye and his beard and his status and was ready to give his life for the Christmas Gospel that when God comes to town in Jesus Christ, the gift he gives he gives to the naughty and to the sinners and to the traitors and to the liars and to the narcissists and to the addicts and to the bigots and to the cowards…just like you and just like me.

(Thank God)

     ‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’ 

     I love music. All kinds.

But ever since the other day I’ve pared down my Holiday Playlist to 206 Christmas Cuts.

Santa Claus may still be coming to town but he’s not doing it on my stereo anymore.

And maybe I’m overreacting, who knows.

Of course, Gabriel suggested that if the song’s message was so contrary to the Christmas Gospel then rather than forbid the song and expunge it from iCloud, I should write my own song- a song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ that even the real St. Nick would sing.

‘That’s a good idea’ I thought.

But even though I love music, I quickly discovered that writing a catchy jingle-jangle song about a one-eyed celibate with a singed beard and anger management problems, who pimp-slaps a fellow cleric over incarnational theology and gets a slap on the back from the Risen Christ as a reward…that’s a harder song to write than you might think.

Not to mention, it’s hard to find rhymes for the word ‘Christological.’

As much as I might like to write my own song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ one that proudly proclaims what the real Nick knew so well- that we are, all of us, all naughty and all loved; that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more- as much as I might like to write that song, I can’t.

I’m a music fan not a music writer.

Instead of verse, I’ll have to stick to prose.

I’ll have to figure out a way to communicate that message not in a catchy, 2 minute jingle but in the everyday, humdrum words and actions of my life.

saint-nicholas

 

 

 

Untitled44One of the deficiencies in arguing that Jesus (only) comes to die for our sin is that it leaves no redemptive room for the life and teaching of Christ.

His birth and life are just prologue.

Only Jesus’ death matters for salvation.

As NT Wright likes to quip, ‘What about all those bits in the middle?’

It comes as no surprise then that for many Christians our lives are only prologue as well, possibly interesting but not essential.

As Brian Zahnd likes to point out, when we deemphasize the life of Jesus we, in effect, demote the Ascended King who’s been given dominion of the nations to ‘Secretary of After Life Affairs.’

In §10-12 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins to take up a theme held by his fellow Church Fathers; namely, that salvation begins not on Good Friday but on Christmas Eve, for the eternal, macro goal of creation is theosis, the joining together of the infinite and the finite, of humanity with divinity. But therein lies the problem for Athanasius- not our guilt but our inhumanity.

Because of sin, we’re not sufficiently human to be joined together with life of the Trinity.

We no longer resembles the image of God so joining with God is an impossibility. Our image needs to be repaired.

And this is where Athanasius finds a redemptive purpose for the teaching of Christ that many common takes on the cross neglect- and not just the teaching of Christ; this is how Athanasius views the purpose of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible too.

A lot of times we throw around the phrase “made in the image of God,” as a way to dismiss others without sounding bigoted.

It’s often “we’re all made in the image of God, but…” It’s become the theological equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…”

But…what if we took it seriously?

What if in every human being, in every person we met, we truly believed we saw the ‘image of the Living God?’

champions-of-the-faith-athanasius

It’s easy to saw when looking at children, or Mother Theresa, or Nelson Mandela. But what about Stalin? Or Attila the Hun? Or Sarah Palin?

There are people we see everyday and when we look at them the image that stares back at us could not look anything less like God. Or perhaps its not even the face of someone else – maybe its the face that gazes back from the mirror that shows no sign of God’s likeness.

Athanasius took the phrase “made in the image of God” seriously.

An Egyptian bishop living 300 years after Jesus, Athanasius took seriously the claim – the promise – the declaration that God made humanity in God’s image. Imprinted on each of us is a portrait of the God who declared “Let us make Humanity in our image.”

“Let us make them in the likeness of God.”

And Athanasius knew something about images.

Once when he had run afoul of the emperor he had to flee Alexandria and hide in the tomb of an Egyptian mummy. He would have been surrounded by once beautiful painting – paintings that had faded. Painting that had flaked and cracked. Paintings that were worn away by the elements.

Athanasius imagined that what we see in the prophets – what we see in the life of Israel – what hear from Scripture – was an attempt to repair, to repaint our portraits. Moses and Isaiah, Daniel and Miriam, Jacob and Ezekiel, they all briefly saw God.

They saw what the original subject of the portrait looked like. They caught a glimpse of God’s likeness and returned to their people.

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-FranzenBut its hard to reproduce a painting from memory.

Whatever restoration they attempted was second hand at best.

A vague reflection, a vague memory of the original.

In Jesus – in God made flesh, “God with Us,” the original subject – the likeness of God is made flesh.

In Jesus we can look upon God and can, through him, restore our image.

In the life of Jesus the perfect image of God is manifest – made available to all of us.

When Mary looked at the baby she had carried for 9 months, when Joseph looked at the son he would raise, that he would love and take care of – when they looked at Jesus they saw God’s image for the first time.

In Jesus’ life and faithfulness, in his words and deeds, we discover not only the image of God in which we were created but also the possibility of our own image.

 

– Thanks to Andrew DiAntonio who contributed to this post

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

 

1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 

 

2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?

 

3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 

 

4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 

 

You don’t really need the answer key do you?