Archives For Reclaim Christmas

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

postcardHere’s a Christmas Eve sermon on John 1.1-16 from several years ago.

If you’re in the area, then come to our Bluegrass Christmas Eve Service at 5:00. 

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight. Christmas Eve.

My mother made us go, my sister and me. We’d never gone to church before so we didn’t know on Christmas Eve you have to come early. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left.

I was a teenager then, 16 or 17 years old. And I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to sit in a hard, uncomfortable pew and listen to a minister preach. Or tell lame jokes.

I mean- why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church?

I didn’t believe. Better still, I disbelieved more strongly than I believed in anything.

I was convinced you Christians just turn God into whatever and whom ever you want God to be. If you’re a Republican then so is God. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat then, surprise, God agrees with you on most essential things.

You put God in a box. You wrap him in whatever flag you’re already flying. You put him on your side of this or that issue.

And what better example of that could there be than tonight? I thought. Christmas Eve, the night when, you Christians say, God Almighty swapped heaven for a trough, when God took flesh and became a baby: a sweet, passive, docile, wordless, dependant baby.

You know…if you want a god that can be used by us, then Christmas Eve is made to order. A baby? That’s a god that lets us be in charge. That’s a god we can worship and celebrate without having to be changed or challenged. I thought.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach said that when Christians say “God” they’re really just talking about themselves in a loud voice. When I was 16 or 17, I was a lot like Feurbach- except I also like Super Mario Brothers and Professional Wrestling.

I didn’t believe. And I knew all the arguments why I didn’t.

The thing is, back then, I didn’t know much about babies.

My first son, Gabriel, was already 15 months old when I got to hold him for the first time. My wife and I, we held him for the first time not in a hospital or maternity ward but in a hotel.

That’s where our adoption worker brought him to us. Instead of pinks and blues, the “delivery” room was decorated with tropical plants and Mayan art.

Technically speaking, he wasn’t still a baby. He was no longer a newborn but his toddler’s eyes still looked out at the world with innocence and wonder. His fingers were still small and fragile beneath their soft, pudgy skin, and they still clutched onto my fingers for protection. And even though he knew a handful of words already, he still most often spoke in shrieks and cries that demanded care.

We spent our first few days as a new family in that little hotel in Guatemala while we completed the paperwork for Gabriel’s adoption.

The wrought-iron table in the hotel courtyard was where I first sat him on my lap and learned how to feed him and wipe his mouth and clean up after his spills.

The slate patio outside our hotel room, where we sat down on the ground opposite each other, pushing plastic cars back and forth, that’s where I learned to earn his trust.

The hotel garden had a tall, thin palm tree growing in it. That’s the tree I pulled on and swayed back and forth, pretending to be an angry gorilla. That’s where I made Gabriel laugh for the first time. That’s where I made him laugh away his fears.

And then there was the old burgundy armchair in our room- that’s where I held him against me and, for the first time in my life, let my too-cool, cynical voice sing soothing and silly songs to him.

When I was 16 or 17, I didn’t know much about babies. I thought that just because they’re wordless and dependant then they must be passive, harmless. I didn’t know then that babies alter lives. They clutch and grab and pull on us when we’d like to get on to something else.

How could I have known at 16 or 17 how babies disturb schedules, how they force us to think about someone other than ourselves? They jumble and reorient priorities. They call out of us a tenderness and compassion we didn’t know we possessed.

Babies give us a glimpse at the person we could be if everything else in our lives was wiped clean or made new.

I didn’t know it when I was 16 or 17, but if you really want to invade someone’s life, if you want to mess with their priorities and preconceptions, if you want to change them or draw out them love and mercy- then you send them a baby.

If the Gospels were college courses, then John’s Gospel would be a 400-level class. John’s Gospel is the course with all the prerequisites because John presumes you’ve already heard the Nativity story before.

John expects you to know that, when the story opens, Caesar rules the world by the sword and that he needs a census to pay for it.

John expects you to remember that this “king” is born to a poor, unwed, 15 year old Jewish girl, whose unlikely pregnancy few will believe is a sign of anything more than what you could read on the bathroom wall about her.

John expects that by the time you get to his Gospel you should be able to write a short answer essay on the paradox of this cosmic news being delivered not to the press or priests, not to the wealthy or the wise, but to shepherds, who in first century eyes were about as smart and savory as the sheep they kept.

You need to know that the news the shepherds hear from angels is an answer to a prayer so old it had almost been forgotten.

John expects you to know all that because John doesn’t just want to tell you the story of Christmas. He wants to interpret it for you.

He wants you to be able do more than point at tonight’s scene and say ‘the manger goes here, the wise men go over there.’

John instead wants you to be able to creep up to the manger and look down upon the baby it holds and say to whoever will hear your awed whisper: ‘This is what it means. This is why this birth, this night, is more holy than any other.’

Holy because the baby Mary holds is, inexplicably, God- made flesh.

His cooing voice is the same voice that long ago said: ‘Let there be light.’ His tiny fingers that hold onto Mary’s are somehow the hands that first hung the stars in the sky, and the light in his half-open eyes is the same unquenchable fire that once met Moses in a burning bush.

Tonight, his skin is still splotchy. It feels new and warm, but the truth is he is timeless. Eternal. And in his small, gently rising lungs is the power to make worlds.

John wants you to know that tonight.

John wants you to look down into the manger and know that God’s plan to finally disarm us of everything but our love is to send a baby.

And not just any- but Himself, made weak and wordless and wrapped in strips of cloth. Made flesh.

Made every bit like one of us so that every one of us might be made more like God.

Our first night with Gabriel was Easter night, a year and a half ago. My wife was asleep on top of the bed still in all her clothes. The television played softly in Spanish and showed pictures of Easter parades from earlier that day. Gabriel stirred awake next to my wife, crying and fearful.

At that point in my life I’d been a Christian for 11 years. I’d been a minister for 5. And it was Easter. But it was the first time in my life that I really understood tonight.

I sat Gabriel in the burgundy armchair with me. He curled up in my arms and I sang him back to sleep. I saw pictures of the Easter Jesus play across the TV screen and I looked down at Gabriel: tiny, trusting and unknowing. And I thought to myself: ‘This could be God.  In my arms. Breathing against me.’

That’s when the strangeness and mystery of what John tells us tonight really hit me for the first time. Thinking about how much Gabriel had already changed me in just a few hours, I realized for the first time what a powerful thing it is that God does tonight.

I used to scoff at Christmas because I thought a baby was just a safe idol that could be used by us, could be made into whatever and whomever we wanted. But it’s actually the opposite. Babies have within them the power to remake us. What God does tonight is actually more powerful than a hundred floods or a thousand armies.

I mean- go ahead and ask a baby about what you’ve done or not done in the past. Ask a baby about that relationship you’ve yet to reconcile. Ask them about the expectations you’ve not met or about the sins you’ve committed or that thing you’re afraid to tell your spouse or your children or your parents.

You’re not going to get an answer. Babies don’t give answers. They just give light. With babies all that matters is that they are present, that they are there, that they are with you.

I mean- try telling a baby you’re not completely convinced they exist. Try telling a baby: ‘I don’t think believing in you really works in a modern world.’ It’s not going to get you off the hook. With a baby all our questions are relativized.

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

The calendar and the TV said it was Easter, but to me that first night with Gabriel was like Christmas. Holding him in my arms I could sense a new life that he opened up to me. He had neither the words nor the power to absolve me, but, holding him, I felt that everything had been forgiven. Who I’d been before he came into the world no longer mattered.

It only mattered who I would be from that moment on.

Tonight, the baby Mary holds in her arms, the baby breathing against her, IS God. Maybe you’ve heard the story before. Maybe you know where the manger and the wise men should be placed.

But I don’t want you to leave her tonight without knowing that- without knowing that because God takes on a life that means your life is sacred, without knowing that God is new and warm and cooing tonight in order to disarm you of everything but love, without knowing that God is born tonight in order to draw out of you the person you no longer thought could be.

Tonight, Mary holds him in her arms: the Word made flesh.

Tomorrow, Mary’s reputation will still be suspect in the eyes of her community. Tomorrow, she and her fiancé will still be homeless. They’ll still be poor. Tomorrow, their lives will be in danger. Tomorrow Mary won’t know what the future holds or if she’s strong enough to get there.

Tomorrow, her questions and fears and doubts will still be there. And so will yours.

But tonight none of that matters. Tonight, all that matters is he is with us. Tonight, that’s enough.

So listen to John’s invitation and creep up to the manger. Look at the light in his eternal, newborn eyes and know that everything you’ve done or been before tonight is forgiven. Know that all matters is who you are from this moment on, the moment he comes into the world.

Because I can speak from personal experience- this child, he has the power to make you new again.

Merry Christmas.

 

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

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

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

Now….my answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True story.

The original Bad Santa.

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

So Nicholas was set free to become a legend.

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

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

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

But I’ll let you be the judge.

jules-hr-600x300It’s a Wonderful-But-Also-Cliched-And Moralizing Life

This time of year, with Gabriel’s ‘Do not be afraids’ and the heavenly host’s ‘glorias,’people tend to have questions about angels.

Much like the devil, pop culture’s assumptions about angels run far afield of what we actually find in scripture.

And as with the devil, the ubiquity of pop culture stereotypes on angels often makes people reluctant to jettison their Touched By An Angel/Highway to Heaven/Fat Cherub Baby Calendar images of angels.

So, if you’re like all the other people who’ve ever asked me about angels and devils then you’ll read my sober, scripturally based response and decide you like Michael Landon better.

As my son says before I smack him, ‘whatever’ (just joking).

First, what are angels?

Simply put, angels are messengers.

That’s what the word ‘angel’ literally means.

And you should notice how similar it is to the word ‘evangel’ or ‘proclamation.’

Angels do evangelism.

That, with few not contradictory examples, is what they do.

Angels are creatures of God and thus subordinate to God. They’re creatures given over to a specific purpose: the mediation of heavenly revelation or messages.

They’re God’s tweets in other words.

Because they’re creatures given for a specific purpose, they have no free will.

Because they are without free will, they are subordinate in creation to human beings- and if you’re about to push back on that it’s because you’ve got Milton’s Paradise Lost in your head not the bible.

Check.

Mate.

Now, this heavenly revelation bit is key.

The message angels deliver is straight from the presence of Yahweh.

Think of the Holy of Holies and how risky it was for Israel’s priests to venture close to it.

Angels bring the holiness of God near into the present. Therefore, they’re scary. In a fear of God kind of way.

There’s a reason Gabriel is constantly having to say ‘Do not be afraid.’

Just like Jewels in Pulp Fiction, Gabriel is a ‘Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(’

And Clarence, no matter how we might feel about the Jimmy Stewart movie, could never ever be mistaken for a Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(

An angel as sweet and reassuring as Clarence is not an angel sent from the holy presence of Yahweh, the God who is, as Hebrews says, ‘a consuming fire.’ clarence

Back to the Christmas story or just the Gospels in general. What makes the Gospels take an angels distinct (especially compared to some of the Jewish writings in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth) is how the Gospels take on angels is thoroughly Christocentric (Jesus centered).

You’ve got angels, most notably Gabriel, at the beginning of the Gospel in the Nativity story.

You’ve got angels at the end, in the form of the strangers at the tomb, when Jesus is raised from the dead.

In the middle, you’ve got Jesus.

Why no angels? Because, back to the top, angels mediate God’s revelation.

And Jesus Christ is himself the perfect, complete revelation of God.

No other messengers necessary.

Which leads to a theological question I don’t have time for now but you can feel free to weigh in on:

Since God has sent us Jesus, the complete revelation of God’s message….

And since Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit….

Do we need

and/or

does God continue to send angels?

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

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

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

So, no, no problem here with Saint Nick.

Per se.

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

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

Except.

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

Bam.

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

Eye-of-sauron2

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

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

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

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

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

And so do I.

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

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

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

Christmas Eve Sermon

Jason Micheli —  January 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

20121222-173929A lot of you have asked about a podcast from the Christmas Eve service. If you weren’t there, the format followed something more like the arc of a play with ‘the sermon’ being drawn out over the course of the service in vignettes using actors. For that reason, it’s been tricky to get a good recording.

Here’s a video from one of the 5 services.

Here’s audio of just my portion of the sermon. It’s also in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Below is the full script of the sermon and actors’ lines.

Merry Christmas. Only 1 day left of the season.

———————————————————————-

Believe

Opening 

You want to know a dirty, little secret?

There’s a whole lot of every Sunday church people who think its enough just to believe in God.

There’s a whole lot of religious folks who think they’ve done their job if they just believe that God exists.

But there’s a difference.

There’s a difference between believing in God and believing God.

There’s a difference between believing in God in here (the mind) and believing the promises of God in here (the heart).

There’s a difference between believing in God and believing God, believing God can be at work in your life, alive in you, fill what is missing in you and turn your world upside down.

And you want to know another secret?

That difference- that difference is the secret of the Christmas Story.

Act 1: Zechariah

[Zechariah kneeling, holding a bible, praying silently with incense] 

Everyone thinks the Christmas story begins with Mary and the angel Gabriel.

Not so.

The Christmas story begins months earlier with Jesus’ uncle.

A man named Zechariah, who’s a priest.

For generations Zechariah and his people have suffered at the hand of Caesar and his Empire. Rome.

And for generations they’ve prayed for God to send them someone to save them, to send them an Emmanuel, a Messiah.

Every day of his life Zechariah has prayed this prayer. He’s an old man now.

His prayer’s expiration date has long since passed and Zechariah has given up all hope that God will ever answer.

But one day, when Zechariah is in the Temple offering the same stale prayer he’s always prayed, God sends a message:

Gabriel: Zechariah…Zechariah….

  (Zechariah, falls back, completely startled and visibly shaken.)

  don’t be afraid. 

  Your prayers have been heard. 

  Your wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a son. 

  Name him John. 

  He’s going to bring you great joy and happiness, but that’s not all. 

      Your son will also be the Lord’s messenger. He will be the one to    prepare the people and make them ready for the One you’ve been      praying for for so many years, the Messiah.

Zechariah: (confused) But this is too much to believe! 

      Look how old I am! My wife, Elizabeth, too! 

      It’s much too late for those prayers to come true. 

Zechariah’s an every Sunday religious person.

Zechariah believed in God; he just didn’t believe God.

He’d given up believing God would ever answer his prayer, would ever work in his life.

And because he didn’t believe, the angel renders him mute.

(Zechariah, rendered mute, feels his mouth and tries to talk to no avail.)

He’s pushed to the sidelines. Because he didn’t believe God, Zechariah has to watch what God’s doing in the world from the outside looking in.

You want to know a secret? [Zechariah begins to take off costume]

Once you get past the incense and bible-timey, Raiders of the Lost Ark costume, Zechariah’s no different than you.

He’s just an old man who’s rubbed the same prayer raw.

Until he finally tossed it in the trash. [Chucks his bible off to the side]

Now I don’t know all of you. I only know the every Sunday folks.

Even still, I know enough of you to know there are Zechariah’s all over this room.

Sometimes-

Zechariah is a woman with cancer, convinced God’s not with her. Convinced God can’t beat it.

Sometimes-

Zechariah is a mom, who’s exhausted from praying the same prayer for her teenager and no longer believes that anything can be done for her.

A lot of times-

Zechariah is a husband and a wife, whose relationship has frayed past the point of repair and if anyone, angel or otherwise, told them anything different, then they’d react the very same way as Zechariah: ‘That’s too much to believe.’

There are Zechariah’s all over this room.

But hear the good news: Emmanuel does come. You’ve got to believe.

Act 2: Magi

The magi- the wise men- were Gentiles.

Meaning: they weren’t Jews.

Meaning: they didn’t know anything about God or God’s promise of a Messiah.

They were astronomers. Not priests or prophets.

They were men of science. Not faith.

They were men of cold, hard empirical facts, trial and error, objective observation.

They were the kinds of people that if you can’t see it with your own eyes, if you can’t hold it in your hands for yourself, if you can’t explain it rationally and back it up with evidence then it simply isn’t true.

It’s a fantasy we might still tell our children but we’ve outgrown it.

[Magi’s cell phone begins to ring underneath his costume…Magi picks up and begins to argue with his mom]

Jason: 

Um, excuse me. 

Magi: [to Jason]

Just a sec. 

Jason: 

I’m kind of in the middle of something here.  was just about to make my big point about how the magi were basically like all of us. 

[To Magi] 

What else do you guys have under there? [Magi pull out other gadgets] 

Magi: 

It’s not what you think…See, I’ve this Star-Finder App on my iPhone. That way, not only can I track the star I can research it on Wikipedia. I can learn about this obscure Jewish prophecy and Google maps can lead us right there to this King.

I bet you don’t know that the magi’s star charts- their reason and research, the latest technology- only gets them as far as Jerusalem.

It doesn’t get them to Bethlehem.

The wise men get lost. They miss Bethlehem by about 9 miles.

The wise men have to ask for directions, which implies they had some wise women with them too.

[female magi enter]

The wise men had to ask for directions.

Who do they have to ask?

Scribes. People who studied scripture. People of faith.

They’re the ones who point the magi in the right direction.

The magi believed in facts, in data, in human wisdom.

And maybe they believed in god the way you believe in gravity.

But that kind of belief only got them so far.

For them to find their way to Bethlehem, to make their way to the manger, they had to believe God.

To believe God’s promise about a little, no account town 9 miles beyond Jerusalem.

For them to make their way to the manger- they had to believe- believe God was doing things in this world they couldn’t see or prove, Google or Tweet, deduce or demonstrate.

They had to believe.

And so do you.

If you want to get close enough to the manger…

close enough to offer this God your best gift

close enough to see him at work in the world with your own two eyes

close enough to hold his presence within you

close enough for him to change your life in a way that resists all explanation

…if you want to get close to the manger, then you’ve got to take a leap of faith.

And believe.

Act 3: Mary

If you’re like me-

When you picture Mary, you picture like the Mona Lisa but dressed in pink and blue. You picture a 30-something woman who looks like Al Pacino’s Sicilian wife from Godfather Part II. Before she explodes.

If you’re like me, you picture this angel who’s glorious and not threatening at all even though he’s constantly having to say ‘don’t be afraid.’

And you picture Mary bowing down stoically ready to serve the Lord at a moment’s notice.

You picture something like this…[Overly dramatic and stoic]

Gabriel:

Mary! The Lord is with you! You are touched by his grace! Among all the women in the world you have been blessed.

Mary: (like she was expecting this)

Gabriel : 

You have found favor with God. Listen, you are going to have a Son. His name will mean: ‘God will save us.’ He will be the answer to your people’s prayers.

Mary: 

How can this be? 

Gabriel: 

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you. That’s why this holy child is not just your son but is the Son of God. Remember Mary, the impossible is possible with God.

Mary: (Bowing stoically) 

You want to know a secret?

That’s not who Mary was. And that’s not how it went down.

Not at all.

[Mary removes her costume, revealing more ordinary and contemporary clothing]

According to tradition, Joseph was an older man, marrying Mary as a favor to her family because they couldn’t afford to provide for her.

According to Jewish Law, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any you-know-what before her wedding day would be considered adultery.

And now the angel Gabriel has just told Mary she’s expecting.

Not by Joseph.

By the Holy Spirit.

Just curious: if someone told you they were pregnant by the Holy Spirit, how likely would you be to believe them?

I didn’t think so.

That’s the dark side of the story we never picture when we picture Mary.

The angel’s news is news almost no one will believe.

And Mary’s got to know that the second Gabriel’s finished talking.

I’ll tell you what else a good Jewish girl, like Mary, would’ve known.

Mary would’ve known that if she was accused of adultery then, according to the Jewish Law, she would be brought before a priest.

She would be shamed publicly.

And then-under oath- she’d be forced to drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written accusation against her.

If the drink made her sick, which was very likely, then she was guilty.

And if she was guilty, then she’d be stoned.

Mary would’ve known that the second the angel started talking.

She would’ve known that Joseph would be humiliated.

And she certainly would’ve known that her child would be regarded as illegitimate and banned as an outcast.

No matter what we picture when we picture Mary, that was the reality she knew.

And yet-

And yet when she hears Gabriel’s news: [Understated, Gabriel more empathetic, Mary more troubled]

Gabriel : 

Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. 

Listen, you are going to have a Son. His name will mean: ‘God will save us.’ He will be the answer to your people’s prayers.

Mary:

How can this be…I’m not…I mean, I’ve never….how is this possible?

Gabriel: 

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you. That’s why this holy child is not just your son but is the Son of God. Remember Mary, the impossible is possible with God.

Jason: And Mary replies…

Mary: 

‘May it be with me according to your word.’ 

Jason: In other words, Mary says…

Mary: 

‘Here I am God. I trust you.’ 

Don’t take it from me. Take it from Mary.

There is a big, life-changing, ante-up, make-or-break difference between just believing in God and believing God. 

Believing that, no matter how things look now, no matter what obstacles stand in your way, no matter what it seems life has dealt you, nothing is impossible.

Nothing is impossible. 

Nothing is impossible.

With God.

Act 4: Joseph

[Jason interrupts music]

Wait …what is that?

[Musician replies]

[To crowd]

Do you all know that song?

Actually, come to think of it, do you all know any songs about Joseph?

I didn’t think so. I don’t either. I mean, there are no ‘Ave Josephs.’

I’ll let you in on a secret:

The Church has treated Joseph like an extra in a story starring his wife and her child.

It’s the annunciation to Mary that artists have always chosen to paint, not the annunciation to Joseph.

You don’t see many Renaissance paintings of Joseph snoring on his sofa as the angel Gabriel whispers into his ear:

[Joseph laying down to sleep]

Gabriel: [whispering]

‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, all this is happening to fulfill what the Lord promised: ‘The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel.’ 

But when we ignore Joseph, we miss something important.

Because everything about Christmas- it all hinges on the angel’s three words.

Gabriel: [whispers]

  ‘Joseph, son of David.’

If Emmanuel is to be born the son of David then Joseph’s got to be the father.

Our salvation hinges on what Joseph decides to do about Mary.

If Joseph believes the angel then Mary will have a home and a family and her child will be born the son of David.

But if Joseph wakes up from his dream, rubs his eyes and files for divorce, then Mary is an outcast forever- either stoned by the priests or disowned by her family, leaving her and her illegitimate child to beg.

Or worse.

Whether or not he’s the biological father doesn’t matter. According to Jewish Law, Mary’s child becomes Joseph’s child just by Joseph claiming him as such.

So everything about tonight hangs on Joseph.

You think you struggle with believing the virgin birth?

Joseph wakes up one morning to find his fiancee pregnant, his trust betrayed, his future and his reputation ruined, the life he thought he had gone forever.

And then he’s asked to believe.

The unbelievable.

Everything we celebrate tonight- it all hinges on a very big IF- if Joseph believes.

Even though we treat him like an extra in someone else’s story, of all the people in the Christmas story, Joseph is just like you and me.

Joseph doesn’t get a Burning Bush telling him beyond a shadow of a doubt what he should do.

Joseph doesn’t get an Annunciation like Mary does. The angel Gabriel doesn’t stand in front of Joseph’s own two eyes and say: ‘Hail Joseph.’

Joseph just has a dream. [Gabriel whispers silently into Joseph’s sleeping ear]

Which would’ve felt like… what exactly? A hunch? A gut feeling?

Joseph doesn’t get a Burning Bush.

And neither do we.

When we’re faced with circumstances beyond our control

When we’re tempted to choose the easy way out

When we worry about it might cost us or what pain will come our way or what others might think

We have to wrestle with what God wants us to do

And then we have to believe

Believe that if we make the hard choice and do the right thing

Then God will be with us.

Because that’s what Emmanuel means.

God is WITH us.

Act 5: Angels and Shepherds

[Luke’s Nativity is read. Shepherds and Gabriel take spots during reading.]

Has anyone seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

He finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

I’ll tell you a secret, something most church folks don’t know.

Before Luke ever wrote his Gospel.

Before Jesus ever preached ‘the’ Gospel.

Rome already had a Gospel of their own. You know what it was?

All over the Empire, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women just like you- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Glory in the highest. Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’

Peace by any means necessary.

To anyone who wasn’t stuck under Rome’s boot, the advent of Caesar Augustus was considered gospel: “Good news of great joy.”

You see, it’s no accident when the angel Gabriel appears to the shepherds, he plagiarizes Rome’s Gospel.

He takes it and he literally turns it upside down:

Gabriel: 

  “Do not be afraid. I’m bringing you GOOD NEWS of great joy for all the people. For you, a SAVIOR has been born. Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

Glory to God in the highest.

Gloria in excelsis Deo…We hear those words as a pretty song.

But to the shepherds, to Mary or Joseph, to Zechariah., to anyone else living in Israel- for a generation those words had instead always sounded more like this…

(Liz plays the Darth Vader music). 

The angel Gabriel takes Rome’s Gospel and he twists it and then he turns it to point not at a throne but at a manger.

And of all the people in Judea, Gabriel delivers this news to shepherds.

We’d call them unskilled workers.

[Shepherds remove their shepherding costumes]

Shepherds were at the absolute rock bottom of society.

Not only that, their work made them ritually unclean, which made them invisible to the rest of society.

We’d call them unskilled workers.

Gabriel:

“I’m bringing you GOOD NEWS of great joy for all the people. For you, a SAVIOR has been born. Glory to God in the highest and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

That’s not just a birth announcement written in the sky.

It’s a defiant declaration. It’s a declaration that dares us to believe.

Not just to believe in God. Anyone can do that.

No, the angels dare us to believe that things in our world are not as they seem.

That Caesar and Herod and Rome and anyone like them in our day or in our lives- they’re not in charge.

That pain does not have the last word.

That poverty does not exclude you from the grace of God.

That Power goes by another name. Because Christ is King.

The angels dare you to believe.

That as small or insignificant or unlikely you might see yourself, just like shepherds, you can play a part in his Kingdom.

 Act 6: Simeon

The Christmas story doesn’t end with ‘Silent Night.’

After Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph take their baby to Jerusalem, to the Temple.

To offer a sacrifice to God. Two pigeons, a peasant’s offering.

[Mary and Joseph and baby enter] 

And there in the Temple they dedicate their baby to God.

But the story doesn’t end there either.

An old man sees them there in the Temple.

[Simeon rushes up to them]

Scripture says he was a man who’d been praying his entire life for a Savior.

Scripture says God had promised him that he would not die without seeing the Savior for himself.

But God never gave him any details: no who, what, when, where or how.

So he’s has just been waiting and praying his whole life.

And somehow he doesn’t need an angel or the heavenly host or any clues about a babe wrapped in bands of cloth to point him in the right direction.

Somehow when he sees this tiny scrap of a child- somehow he believes:

Simeon:

‘God, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment, but now I have peace for I see salvation with my own two eyes.’ 

His name’s Simeon.

I’ll let you in on one last secret.

The Christmas Story doesn’t end there either.

It can’t…because here are all of you.

And I know enough of you to know there are Simeons- young and old, religious and not so much- all over this room.

Maybe like Simeon, you’ve been waiting and wondering if what’s missing in your life will ever come.

Maybe like Simeon, you’ve been longing for the hole you feel in your life to be filled.

Maybe you’re like Simeon and peace is the one thing in your life, the one thing in your family, the one thing in your marriage that you still don’t have.

If you’re like Simeon, if you’re like Simeon at all, then I dare you.

I double-dare you.

To believe like Simeon.

Believe that the meaning you’ve been waiting for, the significance you’ve been longing for, the peace you’ve been praying for your whole life-

It’s there in Mary’s arms.

Merry Christmas.

And may the peace of Christ be yours now and forever.

Magi Math

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

the_magi_henry_siddons_mowbray_1915-zkq72e2This Sunday is Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to Bethlehem.

Around January 6, the symbol +C+M+B+ with two numbers before and two numbers after (for example, 20+C+B+M+14) is sometimes seen written in chalk above the doorway of Christian homes. The letters are the initials of the traditional names of the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These letters also abbreviate the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.” The beginning and ending numbers are the year, 2014 in the example above. The crosses represent Christ.

Here’s a contemporary take on the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s filmed in Bethlehem – a modern city of hope, pilgrimage, and unspeakable sorrow – it is powerful in its own understated way.

 

23COVER-articleInlineTomorrow evening at 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 many of the pews will be occupied by what preachers and church people call the ‘Christmas crowd.’ Or, as they’re called in the NY Times opinion piece this Sunday, ‘Chreasters,’ those who attend only on Christmas and Easter.

Every year, like the Times article, there’s a story in the paper or on TV talking about the preacher’s challenge on Christmas Eve. They  always want to know how does the preacher come up with a creative, attention-grabbing, stuffed-to-the-gills-with-the-gospel sermon to connect with those people who only come on Christmas Eve, who only come because their mother-in-law makes them, who will never come again until next Christmas. Or maybe Easter.

When it comes to the ‘Christmas Crowd’ here’s what I can’t say about them in my sermon tomorrow night:

The dirty little secret is that often the way preachers and church people talk about ‘Chreasters’ makes them sound like the bad guys, like we want to make them feel guilty for not being regular church-going people.

Which doesn’t make any sense to me because I gotta think ‘Chreasters’ are exactly the sort of people Jesus would prefer to hang out with.

It’s true. It’s all in the bible: those of us who look down our noses at those who only show up once or twice a year, while we faithfully serve and worship God week after week, have more in common in with the Pharisees, who killed Jesus, than we do with those Jesus chose to hang out with. How ironic is it that Matthew, to whom one of the Gospels is attributed and from whom many churches will be reading tomorrow night, was a tax collector. Not a good religious person.

So rather than looking down on them with guilt-inducing contempt. We should, like the Lord we adore, simply welcome them in the thrill to be with them.

The NY Times article reflects on how the changing demographics and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated means there will be less ‘Chreasters’ in the pews tomorrow night than ever before. As someone who loves Jesus, I gotta think that’s a bad thing.

THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.

Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.

Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.

The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.

The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”

Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.

How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?

The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.

Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.

Here’s the rest of the article.

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‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ – Acts 1, 2

I was surprised the first time I realized that Mary, after only Peter and Paul, receives the most mention in the New Testament- 217 mentions in the New Testament. I was shocked the first time I read the beginning of Acts and noticed Mary’s name dropped in there among the list of those who comprised the first church.

A Christian legend holds that, following the crucifixion, the Beloved Disciple took Mary with him to Ephesus where they lived quietly and while he cared for her. It’s a legend that, perhaps unwittingly, portrays Mary as rendered helpless by her grief.

The legend abides and you’re likely to hear it repeated upon a visit to Ephesus today.

Luke, in Acts, gives us a much different take on Mary. There Mary is quietly mentioned as a leader in the Acts church, devoting herself along with everyone else to Jesus’ teaching, to the fellowship of the community, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the believers gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts? How is it we never think of Mary as one of the disciples who receive the gift of tongues at Pentecost? Yet surely, since she’s mentioned here along with the others, she also participated with them in the Pentecost miracle.

If Pentecost is a story of God unwinding the effects of Babel and creating a new community, a new family of God, then Mary is there at this new family’s birth, as one of its leaders.

I like to think that in the birth of this new community Mary finally sees the promise of Messiah coming true, that in the life of this new community the Jubilee she’d sang about in her magnificat was finally being fulfilled. After all, here was a community ruled by love rather than thrones, a community where the lowly are indeed lifted up and the hungry filled because ‘everyone held everything in common.’ Just as she’d sang about before his birth, all of this is made possible by her Son.

What Mary must realize in Acts, little more than month after her Son’s death, is what she must have started to guess at the Annunciation: that God was bringing together a new People, a people distinguished not by the usual lines of blood or family but a people called together by the particular life which claimed them, a people brought forth not through simple biology but through practicing the life of Jesus.

We return today from the Highlands having discovered that we’re a part of a community which transcends all the world’s definitions of family.

Because of what God does in a manger at Christmas, you have family in parts of the world you hadn’t even looked until now.

 

 

Musing on Mary in Guatemala:6

Jason Micheli —  December 21, 2012 — 1 Comment

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An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you…‘ – Matthew 2

Though it’s not the stuff of Christmas cards, Jesus is born with monsters at his manger. Because the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and Herod’s bloody reprisals typically gets read the Sunday after Christmas, few Christians are even aware of the story.

Biblical scholars will tell you how Matthew depicts the flight to Egypt in order to buttress the similarities between Moses and Jesus. Just as Moses leads his people from Egypt to deliverance so too does Jesus go down to Egypt and later deliver his people. Just as Moses threatened and incurred the wrath of Pharaoh, Jesus also ignites the fears of Herod the Great.

The parallel with Israel is instructive.

When God delivered Israel from Egypt and instituted the covenant with them, God included the stipulation that Israel was to care for the stranger and the alien among them for they too once were strangers and aliens in another land. In other words, because of their saving story they were called to identify with others. Whatever else Matthew may want us to know about the flight to Egypt, I think he also wants us to identify with refugees for Jesus himself was once a refugee in anther land. It’s not enough to say, tritely, that Jesus is born ‘into poverty.’ It’s better to say that Jesus was born into the sort of family we see so much of in our community- poor families who’ve fled their homeland and live, legally or not, among us. Of course, these are the same ‘refugees’ who are missed by many of the families in Guatemala you serve this week. Too often Christians treat such strangers as a political problem or a social cause but fail to, firstly, see them as Jesus.

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.‘
– Matthew 2

When my wife and I brought our first son home, we received more gifts than we could have possibly used: three baby swing sets, bottles of every kind and color, clothes and enough toys for a classroom.

But frankincense, gold and myrrh?
What kind of gifts are those for a baby?
Frankincense was something you used in worship, in the temple. Myrrh was what you used to anoint a dead body for burial.

I wonder what Mary made of the strangers who came to greet her new baby? I wonder what she thought when they bowed down before someone wearing diapers? I wonder where her mind went when they presented him with those auspicious gifts?

And every year I wonder how the scene must have looked through the magi’s eyes. Their gifts, their audience with the King in Jerusalem, their ability to take a long journey to Israel all suggest they were men of wealth, power and sophistication.

Surely Bethlehem was not the sort of royal birthplace they would have expected.

Mary and Joseph and whatever humble home they’d made wouldn’t have looked anything like a throne.

The holy day when the magi meet Jesus is known as Epiphany and it usually centers on how Christ’s coming opens salvation to the gentile world as well as the Jewish world.

Read more simply and less theologically, I think the magi remind us how, in scripture, strangers almost always represent an unexpected blessing from God.

Indeed, at times strangers can be angels in disguise and, always, strangers are those who cause us to reorient our self-images, our assumptions about the other and the things we value.

 

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
– Luke 2

In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is most often depicted as beautific. In our Christmas crèches, she’s gentle and passive. She’s sweet and fresh-faced on Hallmark cards, and in Christian art for two thousand years she has been somber, sober, soft and white-faced. But what Luke knows is that Jesus is born with monsters at his manger and that Mary delivers him into the world at a cost to herself that we have difficulty imagining.

When the Holy Spirit overshadows her, the Spirit also, for all practical purposes, hangs a bulls-eye on Mary’s back. By the time her belly begins to show, Caesar Augustus had already been emperor for longer than she’d been alive. Caesar ruled the known world, and he was revered for bringing “peace” to it- peace, by any means necessary. While God was beginning to work a different plan in the shadows of Mary’s life, Caesar ruled a kingdom of absolute power, a kingdom that brought “glory” to the man on top and “peace to those on whom his favor rested.”

By her second trimester, 1500 miles away in Rome, Caesar will lift his little finger and
a young Jewish couple will find themselves submitting to a census, to be taxed, to pay for Caesar’s brand of peace. And by the end of her third trimester, in Israel, Caesar’s puppet, Herod, will hear news of a promise rising with a star and this young Jewish couple will find themselves hunted.

Before Jesus grows and preaches one himself, Rome already had a gospel of its own. About their emperor, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’ To a first century world grown numb to the headlines of war, the advent of Caesar was considered “good news.”

It can’t be accidental that when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with an unexpected future, he tells her that the child she’s to bear will be called ‘son of God.’ It can’t be accidental that when the angels break open the sky directly above the shepherds, they make a threateningly familiar proclamation: “…GOOD NEWS of great joya SAVIOR has been born.” And then the angels all sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary. When the wise men show up at the scene, Mary just as surely would’ve known that Herod’s interest in stars and babies was far from innocent. For Mary, it could all add up to only one thing. If her son was Savior, then Caesar- even if he could compel a census- was not. If her boy was King, then Herod- even if he could hunt them- was not.

The annunciation makes Mary not just a mother. It makes her a refugee because Mary was delivering not only a baby but a new Gospel story. And this new Gospel made Mary’s life dangerous. Gabriel didn’t have to spell it out, Mary knew that by saying ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’ Mary was agreeing to have God place her in the dangerous middle of two competing Kingdoms. You see, Mary didn’t just have a baby entrusted to her. She had a different, dangerous story to steward safely. It’s not just the fact of this new baby that sends Mary running into Egypt; it’s this new Gospel that makes her a target.

It’s this news that God was about to bring down the mighty and fill the poor with good things, that those who sit on thrones and in the halls of power don’t have the last word, that the limits and circumstances of our lives are never final. Christians around the world and throughout history have venerated Mary for being sinless, chaste, and pure- for being the ideal woman and for having such faith that she was ready to say ‘Yes’ when God called her. Yet Mary gets no credit for being someone who safeguards and shares the Gospel story at risk to herself. We owe Mary more than we think- we owe her the story we gather around this time every year.

I mean, we never stop to think: who was the first person to tell the Gospel story?

After Jesus is born, Gabriel is not heard from again. The shepherds go back to their flocks. The wise men return home. The Story stays with Mary. Rome called Caesar SAVIOR and SON OF GOD. His rule was GOOD NEWS because he brought PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTED. Not so subtly, the angels use those very same expressions to announce the birth of Christ. And not so safely it’s Mary who begins to tell the Story, no matter what it might cost her.

The Story of the Son’s birth and what it means and what it contradicts comes to us by word of the Mother. When Mary runs for her boy’s life to Egypt, you can bet she holds this Story as closely to her as she holds her baby.

Behind our proclivities to picture her in gentle pinks and blues, Mary is a figure of boldness and strength. Perhaps Mary herself can caution us against making assumptions about the women we serve this week. As much as we might tend to see them as simple or passive or powerless, Mary should remind us to look for the boldness that can face down empires.

 

 


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

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

———————————————————

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

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

Matthew 1

The Genesis of Jesus

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, discharging her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano. The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger, prompting one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

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

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

The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived.

So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel.

At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘We’ve got no room.”

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

John was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door. They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them.

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

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

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy. At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more uptown gigilo than biblical character.

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

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program. On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes. Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

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

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

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a woman married to a man more than twice her age; she’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

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

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

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business. Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation. The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

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

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

Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

Do you really think this is appropriate?

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

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus and a census, about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

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

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

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but Dennis wouldn’t let me.

Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of begats, going all the way back to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:
Everything about Christmas
Every promise this Christ child offers you

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

stable.
The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- it’s not the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-
There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat.
Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining

character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he slept with the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah.

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

I mean- these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth getting in to bed with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary. She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads.

Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began.

I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree.

About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list.

About her daughter’s broken marriage.

And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back. ‘No…no, I think it’s perfect.‘

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

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was up and down and then it was over.

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

What I mean to say is-
I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

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

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

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story. I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

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

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

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

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ – Luke 1

It’s remarkable how easily we disguise the Christmas story with sentimentality. We even hear much talk about how Jesus ‘is the reason for the season,’ yet the reason for his coming is never precisely explained. When we allow ourselves to be vague and even sentimental about Jesus’ coming, we inadvertently allow Christmas to get abstracted away from Jesus’ life, teaching and death. What does Christmas then have to do with the rest of the Gospel? Or is it, as it seems to many, just an origins story designed to satisfy our curiosity or prove the fulfillment of prophecy?

How odd that we should be so uncertain about the reasons for his coming when his mother Mary immediately speaks quite explicitly about what Gabriel’s news means.

Actually she sings.

In the Torah God had mandated that every seventh year would be a sabbath year in the life of Israel. Fields would lie fallow, witnessing to Israel’s faith that God would provide their sustenance. Every 50 years would be a Jubilee year. Not only would fields lie fallow, debts would be forgiven. Land seized or transferred by creditors would be returned. Captives (to debt, indentured servants) would be freed. Wealth and resources would be redistributed so that everyone would be filled and fed. Though Jubilee is given by God to Moses as part of the covenant there is little evidence Israel ever observed the law. Too much stood to be lost by the wealthy, the elite, the comfortable, the powerful for Jubilee to be taken seriously.

Towards the first century Israel’s longing for a Messiah eventually became joined to the longing for someone who would institute the Jubilee.

Mary’s song is a song of Jubilee.

As confused as we can sound about the purpose behind Jesus’ coming Mary knows in an instant how to interpret Gabriel’s news. The one she will bear will be the one to bring Jubilee to her people. Even though we often reduce Jesus to being an object of our personal piety, Mary, who perhaps has more cause than anyone to reduce Jesus to personal terms, understands that her boy’s birth will have much larger implications.

A few lessons we can draw from Mary’s song of Jubilee:

That Mary magnificates- literally ‘bursts forth’- with these particular words should tell us something about Mary’s faith and the hope to which she clinged. No passive, pastel or one-dimensional character, Mary is someone who obviously longed for God to set things right in a broken world. Her faith was active and strong so that, when the moment presented itself, she already had the words within her to respond.

That Mary sings this song while Herod and Caesar are still very much on the throne tells us something of her courage. In the face of the world’s power, she boldly casts her lot with the newness God was about to wreak. We’re so accustomed to seeing Mary painted with stoic, beatific hues we forget how really she was a woman ready to shake her fist at the powers of the world and call upon God’s power.

That Mary sings this Jubilee song not in the future tense (God will cast down the mighty…) but in the past tense (God has cast down…) should tell us something even deeper about Mary’s faith. Despite the unlikelihood of a Messiah being born to a poor, unknown, teenage girl, despite the long odds that Jubilee would ever be accepted by the people- in spite of everything common sense might suggest, Mary is confident in God’s promises enough to sing as though God already accomplished them. Mary knows that any promise of God is as good as done.

That Jesus’ very first sermon in the synagogue is also from a Jubilee text is suggestive. Mary’s boy grows up to express the reason for his coming in exactly the same terms Mary sings about here. Not only is she a woman of obvious faith, which we seldom acknowledge, she also has a hand in forming the faith of Jesus, which we never acknowledge.

Interestingly, in the 1980‘s, the dictatorial regime of Rios Mott banned any public reading of Mary’s song in Guatemala. Mary was deemed politically subversive.

Maybe more than anything, this week I hope we will hear Mary’s song with Guatemala in mind and, in particular, I hope we will hear her words mindful of the people we serve this week. I hope this week will give us faces, names and places to picture the next time we hear Mary singing about God using her son to turn the tables on injustice and poverty.

 

 


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

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

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

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

I hate preaching Christmas though. Hate it.

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

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

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

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

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

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