Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Santa and the Poor

Here's an excellent article about how Saint Nicholas was morphed into Santa Claus: St. Nick in the Big City
 by John Anthony McGuckin, professor of religious history at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas Sermon I'd Like to Hear

Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14; Isaiah 9:2-7

I must say that I’m weary of the way Christmas has been domesticated. I’m tired of how the birth narratives have been sanitized and sentimentalized. They have become so cute, warm and cuddly that they have been stripped of power and meaning. Let’s take a step back and take another look at the story of Jesus’ birth as it is given to us by Luke.

Of course the story begins back in the first chapter with Gabriel’s visit to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). We see here that God chose to enter into human life not by some miraculous, earth-shattering theophany. Rather, God chose Mary of Nazareth a young woman, little more than a child, to give birth to God’s son. God came into the world in the ordinary way; growing nine months in his mother’s womb to be born through labor pains, blood, and water; entering the world through Mary’s birth canal greeted by her cries of pain, relief and joy.

When we see that God chose Mary of Nazareth we see that God chose to come among humankind as one of the poor and oppressed people of the world. God chose Mary of Nazareth, a Galilean. God chose to be one of a people who have known slavery, oppression, humiliation, and poverty. God chose Mary, the girl betrothed to Joseph the carpenter. It’s important to notice that God did not choose the fiancé of the rabbi, scribe, Pharisee, or priest. Nor did God choose the family of a Roman governor, senator, or the Emperor. God chose Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. The place about which it was said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” God’s son would be born and raised by the family of a lowly carpenter in a backwater village of a district of Israel known for producing trouble-makers and rebels.

The son of God, the savior of the world, the one whom Isaiah named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) was born to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth who were forced, along with all their fellow Jews, by the Empire, to report to their home town to be counted and taxed. After the long, uncomfortable journey, the couple find no room for them in Bethlehem. They are forced to spend that night in the equivalent of a barn.

Have you ever been in a barn? If you have you know the smells and sounds. It is not the place you’d want to experience labor and give birth. And yet, that is where God’s son came into this world through the blood and water of his mother’s womb. With all the pain, crying, grunting, and loud breathing involved with the birth of a baby. And after all the crying, shouting, pain, and bleeding were over, the young mother and father laid their newborn son in a feed trough. He occupied the place where the livestock were accustomed to finding their food. I imagine the scene was nothing like the nativity scene my family has in our living room.

After Mary gives birth to Jesus, God’s angels announce the birth to the shepherds. It’s important to notice that the angelic choir did not announce the birth of God’s son to the religious leaders in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. Nor did the angels appear to the regional governor in Jerusalem or the emperor in Rome. God sent his angels to the shepherds in the field with their flocks. God brought the good news of the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth as in heaven to some of the poorest of the poor—the shepherds. Because they worked with animals they were virtual outcasts and seen as unclean among polite society. It’s important to notice that God announced the good news of the birth of Mary’s son to poor, unclean, outcasts caring for sheep in the field that night.

What does this mean? First, it is good news! This story is good news because it confirms what John told us when he wrote: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves the world so much that God risked everything by becoming one of us, one with us, beginning as a tiny, helpless newborn infant son of a young Jewish girl and her carpenter husband. The child grew into a boy, an adolescent young man, and finally a man known as Jesus of Nazareth who traveled the land proclaiming the good news of God’s coming reign on earth as in heaven. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners. He preached good news to the poor, release to captives, recovering of sight to the blind, set at liberty the oppressed, and announced that the time had come when God would save his people. In Jesus God shows the world the way of life in God’s kingdom. In his love and justice God provides all we need to claim our place in God’s household and to help prepare the world for his coming reign.

Second, this story tells us that God has a preferential option for the poor. God is God for the poor, the outcasts, and the oppressed people of the world first and foremost. God comes to the world through the lives and witness of the poor. He does not come through the wealthy and mighty of the world. In the birth narratives of Jesus we see that God turns the world upside-down. God’s power is revealed in what and through those the world regards as weak and of no-account. God’s power is revealed in love, not domination, violence, or threat. Therefore, if those of us who are wealthy, comfortable, and powerful want to live a citizens of God’s reign we must align ourselves on the side of the poor, outcast, and oppressed peoples of the world that God loves. If we who are wealthy and comfortable in this life want to be among God’s friends, we must be friends with the poor.

Finally, we see in the story of Jesus’ birth that salvation is available to all. There is nothing anyone can do to earn God’s love or favor. God does not regard our piety, achievements, wealth, or worldly power as any sort of merit. Rather, the story tells us that if we want God to come to us, if we want to be open to hearing and receiving God in our life, we must become like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zachariah, and the shepherds. We must be friends with the poor, oppressed, and outcast peoples of the world.

This is a challenge to most North American mainline congregations. How many members can say they know a poor person or family by name? What are they doing to be advocates for social and economic justice for the Marys, Josephs, and “shepherds” of our world? Have we repented of pride, idolatry, self-centeredness and our complicity in the powers and principalities that contribute to poverty, homelessness, violence, and oppression?

The story of Christmas is beautiful and powerful when we strip away all the sentimentality. It is a story of God’s love for the world that comes through the most unlikely, surprising people and places. It is a story that turns the world as we know it upside-down. And it has the power to set us free for lives of love, compassion, and justice as citizens of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Church Needs to Hear About Sin and Repentance

Matthew 3:1-12

Last week I had a conversation with a good friend, who also happens to be one of my teachers. We spent most of our time talking about some of the problems facing the United Methodist Church today. When he was asked “What are some things that need to change?” one of his answers surprised me. He said, “We need to preach about sin.” My friend went on to explain that he’s not talking about sermons about our mistakes and character flaws. When he says we need to preach sin he means the big stuff, the sins that resulted in the death of God’s Son: pride, indifference, fanaticism, lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, , , etc. If we take the cross the suffering that Christ endured there seriously we need to be truthful about ourselves and the church’s complicity in Christ’s suffering today.

At first I was puzzled by my friends comment. But as I thought about what he said, the more I recognized his wisdom. I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon about sin from a United Methodist pulpit. I’ve heard countless sermons on how much God loves me and how God want the best for me and how good I really am in God’s eyes; but not a single word about the reality of the human condition and the reason for the cross.

The second Sunday of Advent presents an excellent opportunity to preach about sin and part of its cure, repentance. The preaching could talk about John and his ministry of calling the people to repentance as a way to prepare the way for One coming after him. John understood that the people needed to confront and repent of their sins before they could follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. But I’m not holding my breath that I’m going to hear anything even approaching that.

Last week I also had an opportunity to meet Dr. Donald Messer, Executive Director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS. He gave a presentation on his work of pulling the church into action on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. He told the group gathered to hear him about the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund administered by the General Board of Global Ministries. The goal is to raise $8 million by the end of 2008. That’s $1 for every member of the UMC in North America. The fund was organized after the 2004 General Conference.

The Fund is well short of its goal largely because most United Methodists in North America have not heard about it. I’m one of them. For example, last Sunday (December 2) was Global AIDS Sunday. HIV/AIDS was never mentioned during the worship, in announcements or in the bulletin. There was no mention in the newsletter. Nothing! Dr. Messer believes that United Methodists have not given to the Fund simply because they have not been asked.

One of the sins the global church, which includes the UMC, needs to repent is its indifference to the suffering and death of countless millions in Africa, south Asia, Latin America, and the USA from AIDS. On that day when Christ returns he will look at the North American church and say “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

I suspect this is one of the reasons most North American congregations choose to ignore Advent with its relentless emphasis on the coming again of Christ in favor of jumping right into Christmas. We don’t want to deal with things like repentance and judgment. We’d rather not contemplate our complicity in the suffering of Christ in the world that we can see, if we bother to look, in the faces of AIDS orphans.

I agree with my friend. We need to hear the truth about ourselves (sin) in this culture of over-indulgence, entertainment, gluttony, and individualism. Only then will our hearts ever be truly open to the one who can heal our disease and set us free for holiness of heart and life.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Challenge of Advent

Advent is a challenging time of the Christian calendar. It is difficult to keep because it always gets swallowed up by Christmas. When we get to the first Sunday of Advent the world around us is well into Christmas music, Christmas programs, Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, and Christmas decorations and cards. When people go to worship that day and hear in the Gospel lesson the adult Jesus, shortly before his trial and crucifixion, talking about the coming day when he, the “Son of Man,” will return to judge the world they wonder “what’s this got to do with Christmas?”

If you read the Scripture lessons from the Old and New Testaments selected for the Sundays of Advent you very quickly see that the season is much more about the second coming of Christ than it is about his first coming. The four Sundays leading to Christmas are time for the church to look toward the future before it celebrates the past event of Jesus’ birth. This is the one time in the liturgical calendar the church devotes to reflection on the promised future God has in store for the world and its people. We get a glimpse of that future in the Old Testament lesson for today (Isaiah 2:1-5).

The theme for today, the first Sunday of Advent, is watchfulness. Are we paying attention? If Christ were to return today, would we, would you, be ready? Or, would we be too busy shopping, spending, eating, and partying with the rest of the world to be aware of the signs of Christ’s coming reign on earth as it is in heaven?

Christ’s invitation to us in Advent is also a challenge. It is an invitation because it is a gift of grace, hope, and freedom. It is challenge because it is counter-cultural. If we accept his invitation we will resist the world and its materialism, individualism, nationalism, racism, and narcissism. Christ’s invitation is to watch and be ready for the day he will come again. Paul describes it well when he says: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,
and put on the armor of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ
came to visit us in great humility;
that in the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen