Monday, November 30, 2015

Christmas Wars

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah.
2 Samuel 11:1a

It is certainly not spring, but recent events caused this passage to pop into my head.  It seems this is the time of year when people go out to battle over anything that even remotely looks anti-Christmas.

People demand that store clerks greet customers with, “Merry Christmas,” instead of, “Happy Holidays,” under the false assumption that how store clerks greet customers has anything to do with Christmas.  Those people seem to forget that the buying and selling of merchandise during a holy season was one of the reasons Jesus overturned tables and drove out merchants.

We are beginning to hear cries of, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  Two things always come to mind when I hear this: 1) if you want to keep Christ in Christmas, does that mean you don't have to pay attention to him the rest of the year?; and 2) this slogan totally ignores and devalues people of other faiths, or no faith, as we insist that everyone must acquiesce to the demands of our religion.

Another popular slogan is, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”  That is not actually true, as the celebration of Jesus' birth was assimilated into an already-existing winter festival commonly called Yuletide (the term Yule log is familiar to many).  And when, exactly, is this “season?”  not all that old, but I can remember the days when no store decorated for Christmas until after Thanksgiving.  But now . . . I saw stores beginning their Christmas preparations before Halloween.  I'm beginning to think the writers of the Charlie Brown TV specials had it right:  When Chuck and the gang go shopping for Easter eggs, they are greeted by Christmas decorations and a banner proclaiming, “Only 246 Days Until Xmas.”

This sentiment also shows a lack of knowledge in that the vast majority of people who make that proclamation remove trees and decorations, getting back to “normal,” within a day or two after Christmas Day, totally ignoring the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.

A few weeks ago my Facebook feed was inundated with some ridiculous claptrap about Starbucks succumbing to satanic atheists out to destroy Christmas because – horror of horrors – their new holiday cups didn't include a Christmas decoration.  We have an overabundance of hungry people, refugees clamoring for protection, an unwillingness by many companies to pay a living wage, and red cups from Starbucks is what Christians are willing to go to battle over?

Everyone from Amazon to Walmart is gearing up for Christmas.  TV and radio ads are reminding us to shop early, put things on lay-away, or to get that “perfect gift for that perfect someone.”  If you haven't noticed, the only ones declaring a war on Christmas are those who are supposed to be honoring an unwed couple displaced from their home by government decree, wandering through the streets of a small town, being refused shelter at every turn, and who eventually give birth to a boy, and laying him in a feeding trough.

Which brings me to Advent.

The Season of Advent begins on November 29 this year.  It is a time of hopeful anticipation.  It is a time of expectant waiting.  It is a time when we look back and forward to the birth of Christ, as well as to his coming again in glory.  It is a time for us to slow down and prepare.

Advent is all about preparation.  So take the time to prepare for Christmas, but don't busy yourself in preparing for a battle that will never happen.  Pay attention to your traditions and don't get sucked into thinking Christmas is what the advertisers tell you it is.  Christmas will come, even though the breathlessness of the perpetually outraged will tell you it's in danger of not happening.  Christmas will come, because babies have a way of doing that.

Pay attention to Advent before you get carried away by Christmas.  Light a candle in the dark.  And if you want to go to battle, pray for the grace to cast away the works of darkness, for the strength to don the armor of light, and the patience to live in hopeful anticipation of the coming of our Redeemer.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon; Advent 1C; Luke 21:25-36

Happy New Year!

With the proclamation of this gospel, though, one might wonder just how happy it will be.  Like last week, we are told of signs in the sun, moon, and stars, and distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.  People will faint from fear as heaven will be shaken.  Be on guard so that the great and terrible day of the Lord does not catch you unexpectedly like a trap.

Happy New Year?

The Church year, as you know, begins with Advent 1 as we begin to prepare for the coming of the Lord.  We look both back and forward to his first arrival in a manger.  We look back and forward to what Jesus said about his coming again.  We are torn between living into the expectation of terrifying apocalyptic visions and of living into a vision of a newborn baby surrounded by loving parents, adoring shepherds, and angels on high, venite adoramus dominum.  Which one is Advent preparing us for?

The answer, of course, is both.

Today we hear from Luke's version of the little apocalypse.  We are told that the Son of Man is coming with power and great glory.  We are told that heaven and earth will be shaken to their core.  We are told to not let that day catch us unawares like a trap.  And we are told to be alert at all times.  In short, we are told that when Jesus comes, the whole world will be thrown into a tizzy.

On the one hand, people are looking forward to this event.  Without attaching negative reasons to this (revenge, for instance), let's just give people the benefit of the doubt and say they are looking forward to the event because, Yea, Jesus.

On the other hand, people are terrified of this event because it's the end of the world as we know it.  Things we thought we knew are unknowable.  Old patterns of behavior are thrown off as we are forced to cope with a new way of being.  Things that were are being cast down, while new things are being raised up.  And that terrifies some people.

Advent reminds us that the world as we know it is ending with the coming of the Son of Man and for us to be prepared to live into this new reality.

But in Advent, we also begin to prepare again for the coming of the Christ child.  We begin to look forward to Christmas in hopeful anticipation.  We begin preparing for the coming of the Son of Man born in a stable to a young girl.  That time and those images are just a few short weeks away.

And despite images of softly falling snow, horse-drawn sleighs, and beautifully decorated houses, despite hymns of holy nights or dreams of sugar plums, Jesus' first arrival was much like his second – that is, disruptive.

Let's take a look at the description of the apocalyptic vision and apply it to Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

The Son of Man is coming with power and great glory.  Anyone who has ever had a child knows that they wield an incredible amount of power.  A newborn child has the power to cause you to reschedule your life.  It has the power to change your sleep patterns.  It has the power to determine if you stay in or go out, and for how long you'll be gone.

This child also arrives with great glory.  Pictures are taken at every opportunity.  Now, videos are posted to Facebook daily.  Grandparents are proud.  Namesakes croon.  Sleeping babies elicit contemplation and giggling babies generate glorious laughter.

For those of us who have had children, they shake our idea of what life is, our sense of heaven and earth, to our core.  No longer can we live only for ourselves, but we realize we are living for this tiny other person.  During the  pregnancy, we are given multiple lists, books, and advice of what to do before and after the birth.  Cover the outlets, learn to cook with pot handles to the back of the stove, buy life insurance, get a car seat, build a crib, cloth or disposable, and be alert at all times.  In short, our world as we know it is thrown into a tizzy.

The first coming of Jesus threw the immediate world around him into a tizzy.  Mary and Joseph were new parents.  Angels appeared to shepherds.  Turning to Matthew, kings quaked with fear and attempted to eliminate him.  The first time Jesus came, he came with power and glory for all to see who were willing to see it.

Jesus, whether he comes for the second time, or whether he comes again for the first time, has a way of upsetting the world both as we know it and as we want it.

Be alert for Jesus to come when you least expect it.  He has already come when people least expected it.  Christmas is also coming, and it has a way of sneaking up on us like a trap.

These things are all around us.  Nations are distressed and cower in fear.  The noise of the world confuses many.  People are fearful of what is coming their way.  Babies are born, turning the world of those around them upside down.

But you, when you see all this, stand up, raise your heads and know your redeemer draws near.  When you hear of these things, and hear people proclaim a message of fear and isolation, be not afraid.  It is into this world that Jesus comes.  And it is this world that will be thrown into a tizzy.  Because that's what happens when an upside down world is turned right side up.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Finals Weekend

This was Finals Weekend for me.

First, an inter-denominational continuing ed group I have been part of for the past two years came to a close.  It was a program through Fuller Seminary and is called a Micah Group (based on Micah 6:8 -- What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?)

This was sort of an experiment of sorts as it gathered people scattered from Portland to Ashland.  Over the two years we lost a few people due to theological issues or job issues, but we maintained a decent core group of people.  We would meet both in real life and virtually about once a month.

Friday was our last time together.  I'm not sure how many of them will read this, but it was a pleasure being with Mark, Steve, Dave, Murray, Randy, Joel, and Barbara.  Blessings to them all as we continue on in our various ministries.

Second, I worked my last football game of the season.  I didn't really work it, since I was the alternate (Should an official be unable to complete his duties, you will be called upon to finish the job).  But I rode up to the game with the crew, worked on the sidelines managing the chain crew for the Head Linesman so he could concentrate on the game and not the chains, we said goodbye to a 40-year official who retired after this game, and generally had a fine time.

It was a long, good weekend, but man is my brain fried and I need a nap.

I have one more meeting to attend, and then I think I will be going to bed.

Sermon; Last Pentecost, Proper 29B; John 18:33-37

All hail the power of Jesus' name, let angels prostrate fall.  Crown him ye kings, with many crowns, for he is King of all.  But this is a helluva way to present that king – bound, beaten, deserted, standing alone before his judge awaiting his execution.  This is not how we envision our kings.

We expect our kings to be dressed in regal attire.  We expect our kings to wear gold crowns.  We expect our kings to command armies.  We expect our kings to demand loyalty from their subjects.  We expect our kings to be the face of empires.  But our King is not like any other king.  And our King is not of this world.

On his blog,, Dr. Richard Beck has been writing a series called, The Voice of the Scapegoat.  In general, it's an in-depth look at the theology of the late Rene Girard, his opposition to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), and how Mark Heim addresses this in his book, Saved from Sacrifice.  It's a seven-part series and the second article is entitled Sacred Violence, Scapegoats, and Myth, wherein Dr. Beck really gets into the explanations for, and problems with, PSA.

In this second of the series, Dr. Beck writes about the need for sacred violence and scapegoats in societies.  The scapegoat allows a society that is on the verge of disaster to focus their paranoia, hysteria, and panic on one particular individual, or group of individuals, and carry out communal violence against the few in return for the safety of many.  Scapegoating allows the dominant group to blame a safe minority of THEM for the problems besetting society.  As such, the scapegoat is punished or executed to appease whatever deity or socially acceptable rationalization is needed to restore order.  Think Salem witch trials, the Holocaust, homosexuality, or Muslims in general.  Whatever the problem is in a particular society, the scapegoat is identified and then sacrificed in some manner in order to return to normal.

Scapegoating IS a solution to a problem, but it is a short-term solution at best because it must be repeated every time a new crisis threatens the stability and safety of the society.  In the tinderbox that was Jerusalem at Passover under the Roman occupation, Jesus was that scapegoat.

But Jesus wasn't just any scapegoat.  Rather than the typical scapegoat who was deemed guilty of a great offense to society and deserving of death, Jesus was the innocent man of Isaiah's suffering servant.  Jesus was the innocent man who bore OUR offenses.  It is not Jesus the scapegoat who is guilty, it is us.

One of the things Jesus does here according to Dr. Beck's series, is that Jesus gives an ultimate voice to the voiceless.  He speaks out in a way that removes our need to find a scapegoat.  Jesus made victims visible.  Jesus became the face of victims everywhere.  And it is this act that makes Jesus our King.

The regal attire of Jesus is not a gold-embroidered cloak over a satin-lined robe with a gold crown.  The regal attire of Jesus is the worn out clothing of a man with no permanent home and a crown of thorns.  King Jesus commands heavenly armies that are not used to conquer earth by force.  King Jesus doesn't demand loyalty from anyone, but accepts loyalty freely given.  And King Jesus is the face of an empire, but that of an empire unlike any on earth before or since.

His empire, despite what some people think, isn't forged in battle or through the conquest and deaths of non-believers or different believers.  His empire is won through self-sacrifice, by picking up our cross, and through the paradox of losing our life to find it.

Whereas other kings would imprint their image in royal coinage signifying how the kingdom was run and who was in charge, the image of our King adorns a cross.  The image of our King is of one who speaks truth, gives a voice to the voiceless, and is not controlled or defeated by the powers of this world, despite being bound, beaten, and deserted.

The kings of this world place their image in prominent locations for all to see.  The kings of this world have slick P.R. campaigns to boost their ratings.  But our King has a different location to place his image.  Our King's image is to be found in the faces of the poor, homeless, hungry, outcast, and despised.  Our King's image is to be found in the faces of the persecuted and forgotten.

We need to be very careful with the whole idea of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords.  I am not saying he isn't, but if we aren't careful, we run the risk of becoming like Pilate, those who handed Jesus over to him for execution, and the mob at the gates demanding that Jesus exhibit his kingship in terms that we understand.  If we aren't careful we will expect and demand that King Jesus come swiftly in power and glory to crush our enemies under our feet like any good king.

But that's not the way our King works.

Our King is found on the cross.  Our King is found in the midst of the weak, vulnerable, and expendable.  As Dr. Beck writes in his scapegoat series, and using Saul as an example, Jesus saves Saul (and us) by identifying with the victim.  Saul eventually repents, becomes Paul, and stands with the victims whom he persecuted.  He joins with those whom he had been scapegoating.

This, then, is our King – one who had been victimized and scapegoated, but the one who now gives victims and scapegoats a face and voice.

On this Last Sunday after Pentecost when we celebrate Christ the King, let us never forget that our King wears the clothes of a wandering preacher who had no permanent home.  Let us never forget that our King wore a crown of thorns.  Let us never forget that our King carries our sins.  And more than anything else, let us always remember that the face of our King is to be found in those who are faceless, voiceless, powerless, victimized, and persecuted.

All hail the power of Jesus' name.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sermon; 25 Pentecost/Proper 28B; Mark 13:1-8

I always envision the unnamed disciple in today's gospel as Little Red Riding Hood . . . “My, what big stones you have!”

And now that that's out of the way . . . Today's gospel comes from Mark 13, commonly called the Little Apocalypse, and, other than three verses, is one long discourse from Jesus.  Today's event takes place deep into Holy Week.  Jesus has ridden into town, overturned tables, argued with temple priests and elders, told anti-establishment parables, and watched a poor widow give away her last two cents.  And now the disciples want to spend their time praising the grandeur of the temple.  In response, Jesus begins talking about the end of the world.

For some people this provides a mother-lode of material for scary stories, misguided teachings, and bad theology.  The list of people who teach, or taught, that the world was ending soon, that the rapture is imminent, and that Jesus would return on a specific date is embarrassingly long.  Longer still is the list of people who have been convinced and boondoggled that those people were right.

Why is that?  Why is there a plethora of people who read Mark 13 (and other apocalyptic stories in the Bible) and spend their time plotting out end-of-the-world time-lines?

I think one reason is because it's easy.  It's easy to make calculations, offer simple blanket statements along the lines of, “Scripture clearly says . . .” and then sit back and wait for Jesus to show up on his white horse reaping vengeance on all who doubted.  It's easy to turn the reigns over to God and do absolutely nothing to advance the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  It's easy to not have to do the hard work of discipleship if you know Jesus is coming back next February 17th.

A second reason is that there is more than a small revenge fantasy at play here.  When the end of the world comes, and all the real, true faithful have been whisked away, and Jesus shows up on his white horse to punish the unbelievers, then those righteous faithful will be able to look on the unrighteous who have been cast out into the outer darkness of eternal punishment with a gleam in their eye and say, “I told you so.”  And it will be in that moment that they will be proven right.

A third reason is a direct result of, or correlation to, the above, and that is a fragile faith.  We should proclaim a resurrection faith.  We should attempt to live a faith steeped in holy mystery.  We should live a faith of long-term discipleship, not instantaneous conversion.  And we should live a faith in which doubts and questions are welcomed.  What does it say about our faith when we can't question or explore, where we constantly look for the easy answers, and where we expect and demand certainty; especially the certainty of a manufactured end date?

Instead of reading these apocalyptic stories and looking for time-lines and prophecy fulfillments and whatever else we can come up with to usher in the end of the world, we should probably spend more time paying attention to the apocalyptic imperatives.

The first imperative is what Jesus is saying about religion.  Look what large stones and buildings we have.  The reply – it will all be thrown down.

In other words, if all we see and do revolves around the building, we are missing the point.  Don't get me wrong, the buildings are nice.  And it's a joy to worship God in the beauty of holiness.  But if the building is our sole focus, we are doing it wrong.  Our focus should be Jesus.  Our goal should be proclaiming his good news to the world.  If we evangelize the building and not Jesus, it will all be thrown down.

A second imperative is, “Beware.”  Beware of false teachers.  Beware of people trying to lead you astray.  Beware of those coming in Jesus' name.  Be alert.  Do the research.  If someone uses religious language steeped in Musts, Onlies, and Exclusions, be wary and beware.  Oftentimes that leads not to a gospel of love and welcoming, but a gospel of mistrust, fear, and limitations.  It is, in a word, anti-Christ.

And a third imperative is do not be alarmed; or, as our new Presiding Bishop said in his opening sermon, and quoting Bobby McFerrin, “Don't worry, be happy.”

“Don't be alarmed” does not mean, “Don't be prepared.”  But it does mean to recognize that we live in an imperfect, sinful and fallen world.  Because of that, conflicts will arise, both personally and globally.  Stuff happens.  Sometimes really bad stuff happens.  But rather than praying for the rapture to come and take us away, or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an apocalypse safe-house, pay attention to where God's light needs to be made known.

Right now, refugees need to be welcomed, food and clothing need to be bought and delivered, people of all kinds need to know God loves them.  Rather than be alarmed, we need to stand up and simply say, “Don't worry – on behalf of God, you are welcome here.”

This is the true apocalypse.  The end is certainly coming, but the time is unknown.  Our job, therefore, is to do what the apostles failed to do in the garden – keep awake and keep watch.

Apocalypse, remember, is a revealing of things to come.  It is not a blueprint for how things will be, but a slight opening of what God's plan looks like.  This apocalyptic vision we have in Mark is for us to keep awake, to be alert and to watch for God to be revealed in the world.

That revealing in the world is not a call for us to sit and wait for Jesus to show up, but it is a call for us to make Jesus known in the world around us.

We are, therefore, not only an Easter people, but we are also an apocalyptic people.  Stay awake.  Be watchful.  Beware.  And do the work we are called to do – reveal Jesus to the world.


Sunday, November 08, 2015

Sermon; 24 Pentecost, Proper 27B; Mark 12:38-44

It's pledge season, not only here at St. Luke's, but at pretty much every church in the country.  This is the time you are asked to evaluate your budget, where the church ranks in importance to everything else you spend money on, and then prayerfully decide what part of your budget you will give to the mission of God as expressed in this particular arm of the Church.  In turn, the finance committee and vestry do their best to work up a budget for the coming year.

It also seems that around this time of year we get readings that have to do with money, stewardship, or something that makes us think about our pledge.  I’m not sure if that's actually the case, but it sure seems that way; especially when today's gospel story is often referred to as The Widow's Mite, The Poor Widow's Offering, Faithful Giving, or something else along those lines.

We have become so used to seeing this story about the giving of the widow that we miss other aspects of the story.  We have become so used to people holding up this widow giving her last two cents as a virtue we should try to emulate in our own pledging, that we miss other points of the story.

First, let me be clear about this: I would never advocate a person pledging in such a way as to be irresponsible or harmful.  Turning off your lights, turning down your thermostat, using less water, and passing those savings onto the church is one thing.  Turning off your heat, cutting your food purchases in half, or not filling your prescriptions is something else entirely, and totally unacceptable.

And of course we could “spiritualize” this and say that it isn't really about giving our last two cents, but that it is an allegory about giving our all for Christ and the mission of the Church.  But that focuses yet again on the giving of the widow and our own giving.  And in focusing on that, we miss other important points of the story.

Another point of this story just as important as the widow, maybe more so, is the financial system that put the widow in a place of hardship in the first place; a financial system that caused the widow to have nothing but two cents left to her name.  Jesus told his disciples to beware of the scribes who want all the best stuff, but devour widows' houses.  In other words, watch out for those who increase their own wealth and status at the expense of those who can least afford it.

We live in similar times.  Corporations have been classified as people in order to gain certain protections and avoid certain restrictions.  Payday lenders prey upon those poor who get caught in a financial whirlpool, getting sucked down further into poverty.  Banks use predatory lending practices with no concern for the welfare of their clients.  And the New York Times reported last week that corporations have begun inserting arbitration clauses in the fine print of contracts as a way to protect themselves from class-action lawsuits, basically allowing them to endanger people at will.

Recently Takata, V.W., and G.M. have been found guilty of concealing defects that have killed people, or of hiding systems designed to harm the environment.  In Montana, W.R. Grace mined and processed vermiculite, the key mineral in asbestos, and hid or destroyed findings that that product caused cancer, while lobbying for the safety of the product; even to the extent that they lined school playgrounds with it.

These are things we need to be thinking about as people who follow Jesus.  These are things we need to think about as we elect public officials, looking to find where their loyalties lie – with the scribes who devour widows' houses, or with the widows themselves.  These are things we need to think about as we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”

Unfortunately, amid all this thinking, I don't have a solution to any of this.  I don't know how to get corporations to lessen the pay gap between their board of directors and the people who work for them so people don't have to visit payday lenders.  I don't know how to get those payday loan companies to quit charging anywhere between 300 and 600 percent annual interest.  I don't know how to get corporations to care more for the widow than for their bottom line.

As much as it may sound like it, this is not a rallying cry to take to the streets with pitchforks in hand demanding a change to the system.  Don't get me wrong, a change to the system would be good; but maybe that change comes from the example of the widow.

Notice something about the scribes who devour widows' houses, the situations I named, and the widow.  The former are based on systems of greed, hypocritically hiding behind veneers of religiosity or slick P.R. campaigns.  They are intentionally misleading and are less-than-truthful, if not outright dishonest.

The widow, on the other hand, lived faithfully and honestly.  She was faithful to God and the temple, regardless of where she found herself in life.  She was honest with God about her position in life.

We may not be able to take on corporations and systems that devour the homes of those on the margins, but we can be faithful and honest in our dealings with God, the Church, and others.  And maybe it will be through that widow-like behavior that we will change the world.

Because, really, I’ll take faithful and honest over greedy and hypocritical any day, no matter how much it hurts.