Archive for November, 2017

Merry Christmas!

Posted: 2017/11/30 in Christianity, Theology

One hundred, seventy-four years ago, a novella by Charles Dickens with the title A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. was published and Christmas as we know it was both invented and driven into a ditch.

Coupled with Thomas Nast’s 1862 caricature of Santa Clause as we know him, the imagery of a Victorian Christmas described by Dickens is immediately recognizable to us with its decorations, wrapped gifts, Christmas carolers, family gathered around the fireplace, Christmas parties, a large roasted bird on the dining room table, figgy pudding, and, last and hopefully least, a grumpy old Christmas curmudgeon.  This so-called Dickensian Christmas is a cultural touchstone for most of us and beloved enough that it is the pattern we use for our own observances of the time between Thanksgiving and New Years Eve.  While we may freshen it up a bit by replacing the prize Christmas goose with a spiral-sliced ham, tray of lasagna, a turducken, or tofurkey, and gather the family in front of the TV for Christmas parades and football, much of what we think of as a “traditional Christmas” comes right out of A Christmas Carol.  For a culture that has experienced monumental and rapid changes since A Christmas Carol was first published, it is ironic that we insist on living within the heartwarming nostalgia of Dickens’ Christmas each year.  We can’t (or won’t) drive Christmas out of the ditch.

Although most of what we think of as Christmas tradition in our culture is secular, the church is not immune from the desire to revisit tradition each year.  Indeed, there are two ways for a pastor to alienate a congregation and end his career: the first is by having an extramarital affair with someone else in the church, and the second is to mess with Christmas, especially where Christmas carols are concerned.

But Christmas brings with it an enormous paradox that centers on the one person who hasn’t been mentioned yet—the center of the Christmas story, the “reason for the season”, the “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”, the little guy we sometimes have trouble finding when we set up the manger scene—Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate Christmas amidst the trappings and traditions that take us back to Dickens, we might forget that the birth of Jesus changed everything.  The moment God, in the second person of the Trinity, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), the world became a different place, same-old, same-old religious traditions changed, and the very nature of creation was altered, all because God became a part of it in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  No longer was God far off in heaven or hidden within the temple’s Holy of Holies.  No longer was God, the Divine Other.  From the moment Jesus was born, God was with us in the most intimate way, participating in our humanity, knowing our sufferings, and joining in our joys.  In Jesus the child, youth, and adult, God knows us, empathizes with us, stands with us, and befriends us.  There is nothing about being us that God does not know from the inside out.  When we pray out our anxiety, God knows what we feel.  When we offer up our gladness, God knows our celebration.  When we suffer heartbreaking loss, God knows our pain.  And from the inside out, God in Jesus changed what it meant to be human in relationship with other humans.  Instead of issuing commands from his thrown in heaven that we ought to “proclaim good news to the poor,” lift up the lowly, welcome in the outcast, and care for “the least of these brothers and sisters,” and do unto others as we would have them do unto us,  God in Jesus walked among us and did these things, leading us by example and teaching us what love looks like when it’s lived out every day.

So, what do we do with Christmas this year?

Go ahead—trim the tree, wrap the presents and give them away, sing our favorite Christmas carols (and maybe learn a few new ones), gather the family around the fireplace, . . . watch one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol (my favorite is the 1941 version with Alistair Sim).  There’s nothing wrong with beloved tradition.  And we could all use a party this year!  But also embrace the paradox and remember that Jesus changed and changes everything, so that even from within the hallowed traditions of Christmas we want to experience once again, we work with Jesus to transform our world.  Reach out to bring good news to persons in need through generosity.  Offer the gift of self to redeem and reconcile a relationship that has been on the rocks.  Brighten the lives of others who are lonely with a call or visit.  Ask God what you can do to make things better and do it.  And if Christmas is a difficult time, remember that God knows something of how you feel through Jesus.  Let him help.

May you and those you love be blessed by the God who has come among us this Christmas. . . Have a Merry Christmas!

Text:  Romans 10:11-18

This one hits like a brick . . . As followers of Christ, one of our tasks–maybe the most important one–is to tell others about him and the love of God people can experience through him.  Very often people tell me (in so many words) that they feel awkward sharing their faith or that they don’t know what to say (which is usually a rationale that provides cover for feeling awkward).  So they keep their witness and testimony to themselves.  Until reading today’s text we might write this off saying, “it’s okay; faith sharing is not for everyone.”

And then Paul throws this fastball:

“All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.  So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in?  And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of?  And how can they hear without a preacher?”  (vv. 13-14)

In other words, unless one is told through witness, testimony, proclamation, or interpretation of Scripture, one will not learn about God’s mighty works in Jesus Christ to redeem us all and they will most likely not develop a saving relationship with God.  Every time we have the opportunity to offer Christ (or clear up misunderstandings about him) and decline to do so, we bereft someone of the opportunity to either begin, grow, or restore relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Yeah, this is heavy stuff and a big responsibility . . . No one said the abundant gift of God in our lives didn’t come with the imperative to share.

One may try to cleverly object to this, saying that Paul talks about the message being conveyed by a preacher (v. 14), therefore only those with “preacher” in their job description have a faith-sharing responsibility.  Balderdash!  Everyone whose life has been touched and transformed by Jesus can tell others about the Christ they know.  Everyone can share a word about Christ, and if excessive eloquence doesn’t get in the way, all the better!

Text:  Luke 21:1-4

Jesus noticed a poor widow pitching two copper coins into the collection box on the wall of the temple treasury.  The only evaluation he made was that unlike wealthy donors who gave from their spare change, the widow gave all she had to live on.

This set off alarm bells.  I’ve known too many elderly people, mostly widows, who were preyed upon by all manner of charitable organizations seeking donations.  I suspect many of these organizations target the elderly due to their perception that they are soft-hearted, have money in the bank, and may likely have a touch of dementia compromising their judgment.  Some of the worst are dodgy para-church organizations claiming to help poor children.

Was the poor widow observed by Jesus a vulnerable victim?  The temple hardly needed the widow’s meagre wealth and yet she felt obligated to make her donation.  The cynic within me is quick to blame the temple’s leadership and bureaucracy with targeting those who should have been protected from further impoverishment.

The only commentary Jesus made was to mark the contrast between the widow’s huge economic sacrifice and the paltry and painless display of piety by wealthy donors.  Surprisingly, he made no value judgment about any of the donors but left it up to listeners and readers to ponder.  He neither gave praise to the widow nor criticized the wealthy.

I easily understand the wealthy donors giving their pocket change–it was easy.  I wonder about the widow.  Maybe she was victimized by a coercive sense of religious obligation.  Maybe she knew exactly what she was doing and in faith gave the best she could expecting that God would work things out for her.

During a time of the year when so many hands are outstretched hoping for gifts, I want to believe the widow was giving her last coins in love and faith, but . . . I just don’t know.

Text:  Luke 19:45-48 — Jesus, the Great Disruptor

Although our current president, Donald Trump, likes to advertise himself as The Great Disruptor, he was could have learned a lot about disruption from Jesus Christ, the
Great(est) Disruptor.

Today’s reading offers two illustrations:
First, Jesus disrupts the institutionalized corruption that characterized the sale of small birds and animals to worshipers for sacrifice.  That vendors were working within the temple precincts was not the issue, but their price gouging was a problem of the kind OT prophets, such as Isaiah, criticized.  When Jesus ousted corrupt vendors he disturbed an economic system that had developed to the benefit of both vendors and those who were oversaw the operations of the temple.

Second, amidst the establishment consisting of temple priests and religious legal experts, Jesus attracted the people and taught them his understanding of their religion, characterized by the summary commands to love God with all we’ve got and love our neighbors as ourselves.  And he laid out a vision of the coming kingdom of God (as we read throughout the gospels) that was one without the structures of power, position, and privilege his society knew.  He preached and taught a disruption of power and privilege that would disrupt the wealth and position those who benefited from them and showed us a world shaped by social and economic leveling that brought justice to the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised.

As disruptions go, this is so much different than the Trumpian disruption that merely seeks to shift power and wealth from one group of the privileged, powerful, and wealthy (the so-called Washington establishment) to another (Trump and his family, friends, and wealthy supporters).

What might America look like if the existing structures of power and privilege were disrupted and transformed so that benefit did not just “trickle down” but was a flood and ever-flowing stream?

Text:  Luke 19:12-26

. . . The readings are NOT getting any easier!

I need to read this passage every time I want to sit back, soak in, and do nothing else with that warm’n’fuzzy,  comfortable, and satisfying feeling of spiritual fulfillment that can come from reading a favorite Bible passage or being present for an uplifting worship service.  It’s all well and good to have a feel-good and/or profound experience through my spirituality, but such an experience is not meant to be merely taken in, like watching a movie or eating a pizza. There is always the need to answer the unspoken but ever-present question, “So . . . now what?”

As much as we want or claim our faith, church, and especially worship to be counter-cultural, we are more often than not driven more by the culture of consumerism that shapes us. If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we’re into spirituality and worship for what we get out of it, and we sometimes get a bit cranky when we don’t get out of it what we expect or want.  Moreover, we can forget that spirituality and worship are not therapy.  Worship, especially, is not about you and me (fill in the blank: Christians worship ___________ .  If you filled in anything other than “GOD” please see your pastor, confess your idolatry, ask God for forgiveness, and sign up for remedial Christianity).

The problem with turning our spirituality and worship inward is that through them God gives us an abundance we should grow and share.  Like the good servants in Jesus’ parable, we’re called to invest the blessings of our spirituality, BIble reading and study, worship, and prayer into spreading the love of God and Good News of Jesus Christ around our parts of the world.  Especially with worship, when we merely consume the experience, we become like the servant who hid his master’s money, doing nothing with it. Don’t know about anyone else, but I want to be reckoned a good servant for sharing the abundance God gives me every day.

Howsabout you?

Text:  Luke 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus’ moment meeting Jesus Christ reminds me of the moment I met Jesus for the first time.  I had been involved in church since childhood but I had not developed anything that could be mistaken for a relationship with God.  Like the diminutive Zacchaeus who had climbed up a tree to see Jesus pass by, I was “up a tree” when Jesus passed by, and like Zacchaeus, Jesus stopped and called out to me–“Come down, for today I am coming to your house.”  It was an invitation that changed both our lives.

That’s the way it is sometimes.  We’re up a tree just trying to see above the crowd and get above the busy-ness to get some air, when Jesus is standing at the foot of the tree inviting us into his presence, reminding us how much we matter and offering us the opportunity to come down and experience his grace, forgiveness, and peace.  And when we accept his invitation into our lives our very existence changes.  Zacchaeus’ eyes were opened to his exploitation of his own people and the pathway to redemption.  My eyes were opened to a life centered on God rather than myself.

If you find yourself up a tree and Jesus stops to invite himself into your life, what will you do?

Text:  Philippians 4:6-9

Option 1:  Be frustrated, worried, and eventually bitter.

Option 1 has so much going for it:  It keeps one’s energy level up during periods of anger.  Stress-induced cortisols flood the body, ready for fight or flight on a moment’s notice 24×7.  Hypervigilance for the disaster that must be just around the corner.  Bitterness and spite keeps people away so one can have some solitude.  Emotional paralysis at those times when clear-headed decisiveness is just too much bother.  The generation of lots of nervous energy without accidentally putting it to use.

Tried this option.  It’s a grand waste of time and effort.

Option 2:  Be relentlessly positive, optimistic,  & enthusiastic.

Option 2 . . . are we kidding?!?  Positive and optimistic with all the troubles this world throws at us?!?  Naïve idiocy! . . . or . . . faith and wisdom kicking a**!

Since option 1 is worthless, I can’t come up with a reason against option 2.  If positivity, optimism, and enthusiasm get me nowhere, then at least I’ll he happy and content when I get there.  And people are drawn to positivity and energized by it.  (I really don’t want to finish as a bitter and isolated old man)

Our attitudes and perspectives on things more often drive where we take them.  If we think something will likely fail, then it almost surely will (that ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ thing).  So why not take it the other way–give our expectation a positive spin and see if that helps to work things out.

I’d rather be a happy failure than a miserable one any day, and if not failure . . .

Text:  Luke 18:1-8

Don’t give up.

I get it when God says, “NO,” to something that either crosses his character and purposes or is something I really don’t need.  But then there are those times when the request is consistent with who God is and what God does, when the prayer is for something that ought to be done, like the justice sought by the widow in Jesus’ parable.  When God is silent and those prayers go unanswered, it can be disappointing and frustrating, and it’s not long before I give up.

Just as the widow in the parable badgers the unjust judge until he gives her satisfaction, we too must sometimes persevere and be persistent.  That God sometimes (often?) answers only after a time of silence is just what God does.  After all, God is God and can do things any way he desires.

I believe that God is not quite so inscrutable when it comes to answering prayer.  When God is silent for a time, I am forced to test my commitment to that which I have requested of God.  When the request is for something large that will take much effort to realize, I think God wants to know that I am willing to stay the course and even sacrifice to reach the goal.  And when the prayer is for something that can not and should not happen overnight, then God wants to know that I will stick with it until that goal is reached.  I did not learn to make music on any of the dozen or so instruments I play without a long time of learning to play each.

Right now, I have some big prayers outstanding and would be delighted to wake up one Sunday morning with all of them answered.  But today, I have to wait . . . And ought not sit still but continue, in faith, to persist and persevere and pray.  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?” (v.8)  I hope he finds me faithful.

Text:  Luke 17:26-37

It will happen.  No preview of coming attractions (suitable for all age groups).  No series of announcements in bulletins and newsletters.  No email or text blast.  No notification on Facebook, Twitter, et. al. social media.  “Thy kingdom come” will be answered without fanfare or pomp and circumstance.  Without warning, the old, established, comfortable for some, hard-scrabble for many, reality will be gone, transformed into God’s new reality.  The prophetic imagination that throughout the Bible offered views of an alternative reality to our own will be itself realized.

Are we ready?
Can we let go the old?    What will we be giving up?
Are we willing to embrace the new?

Today’s reading, with its recollections of Noah and the flood, the fiery end of Sodom, and vultures gathering around a corpse, has a fearsome tone.  God’s kingdom will come and all the broken-world stuff we cling to, but which dominates and plagues our lives, will be swept away, and with it all those unwilling to let go.  For the really scary bit is that we will not simply wake up one morning in the new kingdom but be confronted with the new reality that calls us to give up all the ways we live high on the hog at the expense of others and the health of our planet, all the ways we inflict violence in the name of national interest and security, all the ways we profit from injustice, all the ways we take it upon ourselves and our churches to judge who is loved and who is condemned by God.  In other words, we will be confronted with giving up our lives and gaining Christ and kingdom or saving our lives as they are and losing everything.

We had better get ready.
We had better be able to let go the old.
We had better embrace the new.

After all, it’s not just some delusional Camelot but the Kingdom of God and God is good!

Text:  Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Poised to enter the Promised Land where the wilderness-wandering Israelites would experience a prosperity they had never known, they received a warning:  When you get fat and happy, don’t forget the Lord your God who made it all possible!  Furthermore, do not deceive yourselves into believing your success is your own doing.

A trope within our culture is the increased attendance in churches and an associated low-level religious revival that come when there is a major crisis.  A response to disaster is to seek out God.  While we may argue whether this is still a widespread phenomenon, there is, will likely always be, something within us that looks to whatever we think of as more powerful than ourselves for help in times of trouble.

Peace and prosperity bring about the opposite–a comfortable, self-satisfied complacency in our relationship with God.  For the nominally spiritual, this is expressed as religious apathy.  For those more engaged with the divine, being fat and happy can be a spiritual disaster.  Prosperity can stimulate a fat-headedness that ranges from a wholly self-centered belief in one’s own success to a delusion that God has given a special dispensation of wealth and privilege to the faithful.

Today’s passage reminds us that our success, our prosperity, and the good that we experience is not just our own.  Indeed, we participate by farming our crops and writing and testing our source code, and more, with as much excellence as we can muster, but without God all our efforts would not amount to much.  We can become rich, powerful, and even famous without God, but such prosperity as the world know it is fleeting and eventually meaningless.  But in God’s rich grace, we can be rich without money and prosperous without wealth, power, and privilege.  The riches of God are neither fleeting nor meaningless.  Thanks be to God!