Sunday, December 25, 2011

December 25, 2011 - Christmas Day

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Merry Christmas! Sometimes days like Christmas are the hardest to understand and preach on. We get so many mixed signals about what today is about, what it means. Commercials tell us one thing, family traditions tell us another, the Bible something else. Today, instead of talking about what I think Christmas is all about, I want to focus on what Luke thought it was about.
            There is a book called The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan that I’d recommend to you all. In it, the authors explore the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. What they claim is that the nativity story is really an overture to the gospel. Many symphonies begin with an overture. The overture summarizes the entire work by giving you hints and nuances of what is to come, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story.
            Part of the problem that we’ve gotten into in the Church is fighting about the Bible. Are the stories true or are they fiction? Was Jesus really born in a manger, or was he born somewhere else? Was Mary really a virgin, or not? Did wise men really come to visit the newborn? We’ve fallen into a dichotomy where things are either true or false, but are those really the only two options? The authors of that book don’t think so, and neither do I, nor does Jesus. Consider how Jesus taught during his ministry- he told parables. Parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. No one fights over whether or not there really was a prodigal son. No one says “well, if there wasn’t a son who came back to his father, then I’m going to ignore the story and dismiss it.” It is a story that in some sense, happened, and continues to happen, but speaks to a larger Truth. Parables are not intended to be historical accounts; even the Bible isn’t intended to be a history book. The idea that the Bible is a diary of what happened is a very modern idea, and certainly not the one Luke had.
            After all, think about it- how would Luke be able to write what he did? Luke never met Jesus, he was a friend of Paul, who himself never met Jesus. Luke was written at least 50 years after Jesus lived. Do we really think Luke somehow went around and found those shepherds and asked them what the angels said, did he go and ask Mary about the encounter? How about the fact that no author from that period ever speaks of a census by the Emperor. And why are these stories only in Luke? Mark and John don’t mention a single word about the nativity, and Matthew presents a very different picture of the nativity. I’m not trying to disprove the nativity, I’m trying to allow it to function the way Luke intended, as overture.
            Parables are so often used because everyone likes the story and no one thinks that it’s talking about them. Parables though are often very subversive, they challenge those in power, and that is the case in the parable of the nativity in Luke. Now I want to make this clear so that you don’t report me to the bishop- I do think that Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, I do think that he is the Messiah, I just am not sure that the Bible tells the literal story of his birth. Instead, the Bible tells the more-than-literal Truth, capital T, of his birth.
            Look at what we see in the nativity: the role of women is elevated. Mary and Elizabeth have the major roles in Luke. The angel speaks to Mary, not Joseph as in Matthew. The power of the Holy Spirit is seen in Luke, as it moves and orchestrates the events of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is clearly seen as a king. In Luke, there are no wise men, that only happens in Matthew; instead, Luke has the shepherds, the poor peasant class, come to worship the newborn king. Doesn’t that sound like the rest of the Gospel? Jesus ministers to the poor and the outcast throughout Luke. There’s your overture; these notes we hear in the nativity will show up again. Jesus is called the Messiah at his birth, and will also be the Messiah in his death. Luke is setting up the Gospel with the nativity.
            There is another reason to read the nativity as a parable, and that is out of necessity. For Jesus to be taken seriously, he had to have some larger-than-life elements. The Emperor of Rome was called the Son of God. The Emperor was also called the savior of the world, bringer of peace, and Lord. The Emperor was thought to be the son of Apollo, making him the light of the world. The Emperor, also, was born of a virgin. When telling the story of the birth of a heroic figure, there simply were certain elements that had to be in the story in that culture. Like today, horror stories start with “it was a dark and stormy night,” fairy tales begin with “once upon a time,” and in Luke’s time, stories about the birth of savior figures began with virgin births and glorious titles. So if we read the nativity literally, we are forced to believe things that seem very implausible, but if we read them as parabolic overture, we see that Luke is pointing to the Truth, again, capital T, about Jesus. Jesus is other worldly, he is something special.
            So if I’m right, that the nativity is an overture, then how do we have the sounds of the nativity stick with us throughout our life? The theme that I find in our passage this morning is joy. Joy of the birth of a firstborn child. Joy of the birth of the Messiah. Joy in the song of the angels. Joy in the shepherds as they saw their Lord lying in a manger. Joy in Mary’s heart as she heard all that was said about her son. Joy in Mary and Joseph, who found a way to remain committed to each other through the difficulties of the circumstances.
            CS Lewis said that joy is the “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy, as we all know, is often most appreciated in times of hardship; in those times where we are surrounded by adversity, joy shines the brightest. Joy is not the same as pleasure. Pleasure comes and goes, it doesn’t fill us; joy is different. There are two kinds of joy. And neither joy is something you possess. Joy is simply a reminder, a reminder of the grace which is set before us. The first is a sort of ecstatic experience- your team winning a close game, the birth of a child, getting a raise at work. And this is good joy. The other kind of joy though is the joy of the Gospel. It is a joy of being filled, of being at peace, a joy of being grateful.
            We see much joy in the birth of Jesus- the joy that the Messiah has come, that things will be redeemed. Christmas is the rebirth of hope in our world, and there is much joy in that. But we all know the story of the Gospel- there will be many fights with Pharisees, there will be run-ins with the government, there will be doubters and naysayers, there will be a crucifixion. But this is a story of joy. And Luke, by putting so much joy into the nativity, sets the tone for the whole of the gospel. The notes of joy found here today are also audible in Nazareth, in Jerusalem, in Gethsemane, on Golgotha. These notes of joy are found in our lives as well, even if they are faint, even if the noise of the world seems to drown them out.
            We have much to be joyful about, and perhaps we also have many things to be sad, frustrated, and depressed about. Joy does not mean that everything is the way you want it. Joy does not take away the pains of loss and trouble. There is joy in being loved by God, there is joy in our Savior Jesus Christ, joy in family, in friends, in having homes and food, in having clean water. Even in the darkest moments of life, there is still joy to be found. For Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, there was much darkness. They were all poor, living under the oppression of Rome. Mary was unwed and just had a baby, which is not the situation she would have chosen. And yet, there was great joy brought to them by Jesus.
            Luke reminds us that the story of Jesus is about joy. The joy of redemption, the joy of peace, the joy of our Messiah; and though there will be dark times ahead, joy is still there. It is a reminder that God’s joy overshadows the darkness of death, of fear, of injustice, of doubt. Christmas is about rejoicing in this joy. Today is a time to proclaim “joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Let the joy of today be the overture for your life, the theme music that plays in the background, even amidst the low notes of life.
May the first and last words on our lips this Christmas Day, and every day, be that of joy. May God bless us and grant us all a very joyful Christmas. Amen.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On the Incarnation

"On the Incarnation" is the title of a work by St. Athanasius, in which he outlines the orthodox arguments for the redemption given to humanity through the work of Christ. This post isn't really about that, but is just a good title for this week's topic.

I was struck this morning by something I hear on NPR. They were discussing Kim Jong Un, and his father Kim Jong Il. The state media in North Korea is praising the new leader, hailing him as "born of heaven." Immediately, I thought of another person that we talk about who is "born of heaven." In their book The First Christmas, Crossan and Borg explore some of the claims surrounding Jesus' birth. They argue (and I'm inclined to agree with them) that the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke are parabolic overtures to the Gospel.

Symphonies often begin with an overture, which sets the tone for the rest of the work, but also, in a very condensed way, summaries the whole piece. These authors see the birth stories as doing the same. They also remind us of the charged political climate in which Jesus was born, namely that of the Rome. The emperor was seen as a deity, and in order for Jesus to "compete" with this notion of what God should be, some of these elements are found in nativies. The emperor was born of god, so is Jesus. The emperor is king, Jesus is referred to as the king of the Jews. The emperor brought the pax romana (peace), Jesus is the prince of peace. The emperors titles included: Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the World. Sound familiar? The point is that to be divine, you had to have certain credentials, and the writers of the gospels wanted to be sure that Jesus was seen in this same divine light as the emperor.

So with that in mind, I heard the North Korean claim that the heir is "born of heaven" as as similar sort of claim. They want (mostly their own people) to know that this is the only leader. And I got to wondering, in our context, what would we claim about Jesus to make him seem divine? If we were to re-write the birth stories, what would we say about Jesus? That he has a career batting average over .400? That he leads a congregation of 15,000 worshipers? That he gives millions to charity each year? That he has bipartisan support? 

Of course, none of those apply to him that was born in poverty and ate with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus never really ended up being the sort of king that the Emperor was. As we approach Christmas, let us reflect on the incarnation. In the person of Jesus, the fullness of God dwelt (paraphrase of Colossians 1:19); or in other words, in the incarnation we get a glimpse into God. And if we can trust this vista, then perhaps God isn't as concerned with power, prestige, wealth, or even royal birth as we thought. This coming Christmas, let us remember the God we worship: not the expected military messiah, not the royal king; but instead the champion of the poor, the spokesperson for the outcast, the advocate for the poor, the non-violent leader, the suffering servant, the speaker of Truth, the embodiment of love. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Week of December 11

Not preaching this week- so I'll offer some quick reflections on the lectionary. Readings are available here.

We read about the everlasting throne of David being established, the Annunciation and the Magnificat (we'll use it instead of the Psalm for the day). Our Gospel reading includes the wonderful line: "'For nothing will be impossible with God.' Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'"

What I like so much about this encounter between Mary and the angel, and the person of Mary in general, is her willingness to live for God. The Church desperately needs more Marys. Mary was a young teen when she was told that she was pregnant (or became pregnant, I'm probably not what you would call orthodox when it comes to the doctrine of the Virgin birth), and for that she could have been exiled, or even killed. But she did not run from the situation. She trusted that God was with her and that God could redeem any situation, including this one. And because of her great faith, courage, and openness to the Spirit, she is now known as the theotokos, or God-bearer.

As we approach the fourth Sunday of Advent, we should all consider how we are all theotokoi. How do we bring Christ into the world? How do we (or don't we) trust in God's redemption? How often do we say "let it be with me according to your word? What helps us to say that? What prevents us from saying that?

In Christmas, we see God's ultimate "yes"- God's yes to redemption, God's yes to incarnate love, God's yes to all of Creation. Let us consider how it is that we are messengers of that yes and how we accept and affirm God's affirmation of us.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

December 11, 2011 - Advent 3B

O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Amen.
            So today is an interesting Sunday. The third Sunday of Advent is full of history and tradition. One such tradition is that of gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word which means “rejoice!” Historically, Advent had been a season of fasting and introspection as we approach Christmas. Our readings the last two Sunday have been challenging as we heard about the coming of the Son of man, and then last week we met John the Baptist who calls us to repent. Gaudete Sunday began as a break from the rigors of Advent. This is why we light the pink Advent candle this Sunday, as pink is lighter in intensity than purple. And though this tradition started in a different place and for different circumstances, we too need to hear the words of “rejoice!” this morning. We are at the half-way point in Advent; two weeks in, two weeks until Christmas. Are you rejoicing, or are you coping? Do you end you day with a smile as you reflect back, or do you let out a stressful sigh? Let this Sunday be a reminder to us to remember what this season is about, the coming of our King, and for that, let us rejoice.
            The other piece of history is that today is also called “Stir-Up” Sunday. Our Collect today begins “stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” Traditionally, most Sundays leading up to Christmas had the Latin word excita in the Collect. Excita of course is tied to the word “excite.” As the story goes, pudding was always prepared for the Christmas season, you know, figgy pudding, and it had to stand for a few weeks before being served. So some say that the use of the words “stir up” were also a reminder to cooks and servants that they needed to be stirring the pudding so it would be ready for Christmas. But there is also a spiritual meaning to it. Stir up is a call to wake up and focus, it’s our half-time pep talk as we go through Advent. Maybe the first half of Advent has been great and full of spiritual meaning for you, maybe it hasn’t. Either way, let today be a reminder to let the excitement of the coming of our King stir up your hearts and minds, your hands and feet.
            These tones of rejoicing and excitement are found within our readings from both Isaiah and John. This portion of Isaiah comes from what scholars denote as Third Isaiah. Chapters 1-39 are written before the Babylonian Exile, chapters 40-55 come from Israel’s time in Exile, and 56-66 are written after they return to Israel. So at this point, the people have returned to their homes, and they are joyful. There is good news to share with the oppressed. The brokenhearted will be bound up, or better translated, made whole. The captives will be set free. The prisoners of darkness will be released. The year of the Lord’s favor will be proclaimed. And those who mourn will be comforted. Scholars also see this passage as one of the Servant Songs. The Servant is seen as Israel’s Messiah. Now there is a danger in reading Jesus into Isaiah, but it is acceptable to read Jesus in the light of Isaiah. Afterall, Jesus saw this passage as essential to his self-identity. In Luke, when Jesus begins his ministry in the Temple, he reads this passage. The thing which we are to be excited about on Christmas is this sort of good news, and this is a good reminder to us of that message of hope.
            This passage from Isaiah is also a favorite of liberation theologians. Liberation theology has its roots in the 1950s in Latin America, where government abuse, human rights violations, poverty, and social injustice were spoken out against. Liberation theology calls for Christianity to transform our world, to change our politics, our personal actions, and our prejudices so that justice and equality might thrive. It realizes that Christianity has become the slave to money, to success, to power, to prestige, and that it has ceased to be the radical and counter-cultural movement which it once was under the leadership of Jesus the early disciples. Liberation theologians called attention to the fact that the Church was not transforming our world, the Kingdom of God was not coming on earth as it in heaven, at least not through the Church. Instead, culture was transforming the Church. The Church was more interested in self-preservation and its growth of power and influence. And they were right. Christianity should be odd, not the norm. Christianity should be transformative to our world. So this reading from Isaiah is an invitation for us to consider our own issues of liberation and transformation.
            One of the great things about the Advent season, about all of these readings about the coming Messiah is that we are reminded that we need a Messiah. If any of you do not need to be set free from something, if you don’t need a Messiah, then I’m not sure why you are here. We need to be redeemed. So the first question in considering our liberation is- what enslaves you? Is it work? Is it some image, either self-generated or from others, of what you should be instead of what you are? Is it addiction? Is it the need for revenge? Is it doubt? Is it fear of not having enough? Is it watered down religion? Is it guilt? Is it fear of death? I know it’s not easy to think about these things. These are the sorts of things we all try so hard to forget, the pains, the rejections, the stereotypes, the mistakes, the prejudices.
One thing that the Republican nomination process has shown us is that we all have skeletons in our closet. Isaiah speaks of the coming of the year of the Lord, which is also known as the jubilee year. It is a deeply Hebraic and Biblical idea of liberation for all people. The jubilee happened every 49 years, and it was mandated that all stolen property be returned, all slaves be set free, all debts be forgiven, all fields will rest for a year. Isaiah is proclaiming the ultimate jubilee year, a time where we all are set free from our debts, our enslavements, our crises.
But the interesting thing about this concept of being liberated, is that we have to let go. God can only free you if you let loose of the chains. If you continue to define yourself by your mistakes, by your shortcomings, by your fears and doubts, then you will never be liberated. Your faith will never transform you. We hang onto these things because we think we can control them, because we’ve hidden them so deep in our mind that they’ve taken root in our souls. Advent is a season about preparing for the coming of Christ the King, and this King will liberate us from all of these things, but we have to let him.
One thing that desperately holds us back from doing this during Advent is Christmas. We need to be liberated from Christmas. I’m not talking about the celebration of the birth of Christ, I’m talking about Santa, shopping, and sentimentalism. I really don’t mind the commercialization of Christmas. Shopping helps the economy and giving is not really a bad thing. But the sentimentalization of Christmas is a major problem.
I recently read an interview with the author of a new book- and I love this title because it is so straightforward and truth-telling, the book is called Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. And isn’t that true? Christmas morning seems like a birthday party on steroids for each of us.  People are starting to realize that what we do during December is unhealthy and unchristian. There are big movements online right now called “Advent Conspiracy” and “Occupy Advent,” which urge us to spend less, give more, and love all people. And they have some truth to share. Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas. Some analysts suggest that global hunger could be eliminated with only $30 billion a year. And remind me, how is that dichotomy helping us to celebrate the coming of our King? Is it Jesus’ birthday, or ours? This isn’t to mention the fact that we spend over $500 billion a year as a nation on making war. For every $1 that Americans earn, we spend, on average, $1.22. I forget that part about spending beyond your means in the Sermon on the Mount. How would Greensboro and our world be different if for every dollar you spend on gifts, you also donated a dollar?
Or how about the ethics of Santa? We teach our children that Santa brings toys to good kids and coal to bad ones. What about a generous and loving God who gives grace and salvation to all people? How about our Christmas outreach? We adopt a family by spending an extra $50, which is a nice gesture, I’m not trying to diminish that. But is $50, or even $100 really a sacrifice? Wouldn’t the bigger sacrifice be to live in such a way that poverty didn’t exist?
I really don’t mean to be raining on the Christmas parade. It’s just that Christmas has the potential to be truly transformative, Christmas has the ability to change our world for the better, but not in its current form. It is sentimental and devoid of meaning or sacrifice. I want to reclaim Christmas for Christ, the King of the outcast, the champion of the poor, the spokesperson for the oppressed. If Martians landed in America today and did a study on Christmas, what would they think it was about? I don’t think Jesus would be on page 1 of their report. Let’s change that, let’s liberate Christmas and thereby transform our world.
What we must ask next in our survey of liberation is- who is the oppressor? Now, I’m not encouraging you to scapegoat here, a lot of the problem is with the person in the mirror, but there is injustice that needs to be spoken out against, this is what’s going on with the movements of the Arab Spring. It’s also what Isaiah was talking about. When he speaks about the captives being set free and the oppressed getting good news, he’s talking about the abuse of the poor. When the Israelites returned home, the rich people became gluttons for power and money. They reclaimed all of their old lands, and grabbed up land that wasn’t theirs. There was a system that kept the poor under the heel of the rich, a system that kept the outcasts outside. And folks, I don’t think I have to say it, but these systems are alive and well today. Isn’t this what the Occupy movements are all about? Now it doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum, and I don’t fully agree with all that Occupy stands for, but you can’t deny the absurdity of the top 1% owning 35% of the wealth and bottom 80% owning only 15%. That’s simply not the Kingdom of God.
In considering liberation, we must realize that we are liberators sometimes, sometimes we are the enslaved, and sometimes we are the oppressors. Yes, in the US we are the 99%, but compared to the rest of the world we are the 1%. In fact, an annual income of $40,000 would put you in the top 97% of the world’s wealthy. There are a lot of ways to address this. We can live more simply, we can buy local to cut down on carbon emissions, we can avoid products that are made by slave labor, we can give more to charity. But I’m just wanting to do is to remind of ourselves of this fact- we are the 1% and we are the 99%. But neither of those are our calling as Christians. Instead, our task is to be the agents of God’s liberation for all people. Our mission is to stand up for justice, to stand up for better regulation, to stand up for the Kingdom of God.
And the final thing for us to consider in liberation this morning is-who is the liberator? Let’s turn to our reading from John. People really didn’t know who this John the Baptist character was. They could tell he was important, that he was proclaiming God’s vision, but was he the Messiah? Was he Elijah the prophet? And he says “I am not.” He is simply the voice crying out in the wilderness. As the gospeller John so eloquently puts it, John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
John the Baptist reminds us that religion is bigger than you, bigger than me, even bigger than us. And this is because it is about God. There is a temptation out there these days to be spiritual but not religious, to say that you find God in nature, to claim that being a moral person is how your live out your faith. In other words, folks are making up their own religion; which is preposterous because we have a God for that. We don’t need a man-made religion because we have a God-made religion. John the Baptist reminds us that there is a light shining. We don’t need to search for the light, we don’t need to kindle the fire, we don’t need start a fire; it’s already burning.
And remember, John the Baptist was a bit weird. There’s a reason why he wasn’t a prophet in Jerusalem, he was on the outskirts of town for a reason. And he is a reminder to us that this light of God shines in odd and unexpected places. One theologian said that the light of God can only shine through a cracked skull, and don’t we all have some cracks? The light of God shined 2,000 years ago in an unwed mother, and it still shines there today. It shines in the cracks of interfaith dialogue, it shines in moments where Christians surround Muslims in prayer to protect them from danger. The light of God shines in hippie college kids protesting in Zuccotti Park, it shines in soldiers reaching out to children in Afghanistan. It shines in weird and counter-cultural people like St. Francis, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.
And this light of God is transformational. This light is liberating. This light overcomes the darkness of fear, of extremism, of doubt, of death, of disease, of betrayal, of injustice, of apathy, of a sentimental Christmas, of dictators, of intolerance, of greed, of evil. This is the light of the world, we don’t need to reinvent it; we just need to be mirrors- so that we can reflect this light and share it with others, so that it can transform us and our world.
As I started this sermon, I talked about Stir-Up Sunday and Gaudete Sunday. As we approach Christmas, let us be stirred up. Stirred up to transform how we celebrate the coming of Jesus, stirred up to stand up to our oppressors, external and internal. Stirred up to take a counter-cultural stance to free the captives and comfort the oppressed, and stirred up to live a truly transformational faith. And let us also rejoice this Advent. Bask in the light of Christ, the light that transforms darkness and liberates us from all fear.
And I know this is hard. I know it’s hard to re-envision how we celebrate Christmas. I know it’s hard to be counter cultural. I know it’s hard to face our captors. I know it’s hard to embrace our liberation because we’re not sure what comes next. It’s difficult to stand up to liberate others. It’s difficult to be transformed in ways that seem odd and challenge all the things we’ve assumed and done for so long. But let us take solace in Christ, our Light and our coming King, whose has gone before us in transforming and liberating. Let us all join in the song of saints and angels- “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Week of December 4

So last night I had dinner with a fraternity brother before an alumni association meeting for our Chapter. He graduated a year after me from Wake, so we got to know each other fairly well. He is a commissioned (yet to be ordained) Methodist minister in a small town in eastern NC. I enjoy talking with him once a month or so and getting up with him the few times a year when our schedules bring us together. Over dinner we discussed some of the struggles, joys, and conundrums of parish ministry. Specifically, last night we discussed the difference between American Christianity (that is, Christianity in name only) and Transformational Christianity (that is, authentic and faithful discipleship).

He told me about NT Wright's writing on the four spiritualities, which I was not familiar with. I did a little research this morning and it appears that these are discussed in Simply Christian. From what I can gather, Wright says that each person hears "the echoes of a voice" which calls them to do something. The way my friend explained it is that each person, Muslim, Christian, atheist, or deist all are motivated by at least one of these voices or spiritualities. They are:

  • longing for justice (equality issues, social justice, outreach)
  • quest for spirituality (prayer, academic study of religion, meditation)
  • hunger for relationships (outreach to others, friendship gatherings, dinner groups)
  • delight in beauty (art, spending time in nature, music appreciation)
God is in each of these movements, and God's Kingdom can be built through each of these with some intentionality. Hiking is listening to the voice of delight in beauty; but we all know that hiking, in itself, isn't spiritual, nor does it really accomplish the work of the Gospel. But that isn't to say it can't be those things. It can. Our focus is what matters. I think that many of us hear these "voices" daily, but often we over look them as calls from God or as invitations to be spiritual.

As we talked, I wondered which of these spoke to me the clearest. This morning I served with others at Urban Ministry as we prepared breakfast for the homeless, and I realized that for me, the longing for justice is what I most yearn for, it is the voice that I continue to hear.

So going back to this past Sunday's readings, what is the voice calling out in the wilderness saying to you? Which of these four voices calls the loudest to you? How do you ignore or silence these voices? How do you respond to these voices? How do you help others to hear the call? Some good things to consider this Advent season.