Thursday, December 29, 2011

It's Okay To Spend Tax Dollars On Me

Canon Air Force base is about twenty miles from where we live. 10% of the population of Clovis, where it is located, are directly employed at the base, so it plays a major role in the area in terms of economic impact.

I was recently at an event where the base did a presentation on what's going on there and the changes they are expecting in the near future. Their current proposals have them spending $20 million in the next ten years on upgrades to the base and also to the bombing range, which is located in the town where one of my churches is. That is in addition to their normal expenditures.

Now this area also tends to be heavily conservative and anti-tax, but not a single person raised any concerns about spending that amount of money on the base. In fact, they were quite thrilled that that level of money was coming to the area.

Which proves again that people are quite happy when tax money is spent on them (and New Mexico brings in more than it sends out in federal expenditures), but its when the money is spent on other people, ones who are undeserving, that the problems arise.

How do we begin to change the conversation so that people understand that money they receive has the same consequences on the budget/deficit as the money that other people receive?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War on Christmas

I don't really watch much news in general, but I definitely don't watch Fox news. But very early this morning I was sitting with a parishioner in her hospital room as we awaited her scheduled 6 am surgery and Fox News was on the TV.

There were several stories that are typical of why I don't watch Fox. One was on how Obama's Christmas in Hawaii is beyond the reach of most Americans, which it is, and how nice for him to be one of the 1%. Of course the story really wasn't about economic inequality and what we might do about it, but instead about bashing Obama for taking the trip, or at least that seemed to be the point. Another story was about how Nancy Pelosi's police escorts are costing tax payers $34,000 for her trip to Hawaii for Christmas.

Now I am not going to defend most of the ridiculous perks that politicians get, as most could safely be gotten rid of, but why single out just Pelosi on this? What about the recent story that the security detail for Rick Perry is costing the tax payers of Texas almost $400,000 a month? Why not attack the special benefits that Speaker Boehner gets, or Sens. McConnell and Reid, as minority and majority leaders get? It's great to actually talk about these things, because if we want to find money, this is a good place to start.

And, while we're at it, let's also address the six police officers needed to guard college coaches, as if they are necessary, or the police escorts that football teams get. How much did the tax payers of Hawaii spend to escort the Southern Mississippi and Nevada football teams around at this year's Hawaii Bowl?

Now none of this is new. Bob Dole was famous when he was in the Senate for sending his tax payer funded car back to pick up his dog after Elizabeth had gotten ready, and bringing the dog back to the office so it could be with him during the day. I'm all for reducing waste and giving people perks they don't usually need simply so they can feel better about themselves and feel more important, but let's be "balanced" and "fair" about the whole enterprise.

But the one that really got me was a special notice from Fox News, which said "Happy Holidays from Fox News."

This is from Fox News, the same organization which is spearheading the whole ridiculous "war on Christmas" theme, which if you've been reading my sermons you know I think is ridiculous. Fox News is not wishing us a Merry Christmas, but instead a bland "Happy Holidays." Do you think Bill O'Reilly will call them out?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Miracles

Here is my sermon from our Blue Christmas service. The text was Luke 2:8-20:

Tonight I’d like to share two stories with you. The first comes from Jenee Woodward, who runs a website called, which gives complete resources on the weekly lectionary readings. Jenee was a lay minister planning on a career in biblical studies, when she gave birth to Philip, who was severely autistic, requiring to put her career plans aside, although her ministry now takes place through what she does. Here is her Advent story:

“As many of you know, my son Philip has autism. He is 10 years old and is severely handicapped by his disability. Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago when he was unable to tolerate *any* of the celebration. He could not handle the changing scenarios - the twinkling lights, the changes in grocery store displays, the changes in the sanctuary at church, presents appearing under the tree, the tree ITSELF, and the moved furniture. He would fall on the floor and scream, unable to move, afraid to open his eyes, almost constantly from Thanksgiving until well after Christmas when it was all over. We carried him through that time his head covered with his coat so we could get through the grocery store, or sat with him huddled in his room, carefully ordered EXACTLY the same since summer, with no Christmas trappings.

Of course our neighbor across the street was one of those folks who bought every new outdoor Christmas display. My son slept on the sofa in the living room for two Decembers, trying to stay awake so he could make sure that all of the lights across the street (on the whole block!) were functioning correctly. If one went out, or if the lights came on or turned off outside the proper times, he would scream and cry in panic until it was fixed. (I spent an hour one cold night on top of a neighbor's garage, replacing ONE BULB in a Santa display so the boy would stop screaming and sleep!)

Worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was over-crowded and yet hushed, not a good combination for an autistic child. Christmas celebrations at home were a nightmare. Phil would scream and cry as each package was moved and (gasp!) unwrapped. As frightened as he was when each new thing appeared, he was equally frightened when it changed or disappeared. We'd try to find him a present he'd enjoy, but he'd merely scream and cry in panic at the intrusion on his carefully ordered world, and the gifts would sit ignored until he outgrew them and we gave them to some little boy who could appreciate them.

He wanted nothing. He would look straight at toys we thought he would like, and he would not react at all. He asked for nothing. He anticipated nothing. He just screamed and cried at all of it. It is no bliss to have a child who doesn't get it - who doesn't want anything and doesn't want to have anything to do with Christmas commercialism - or it is only bliss in some romantic fantasy. In real life it is a surreal nightmare.

This year, right around Thanksgiving, we once more asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Our 14-year-old daughter sat down and made out her list. And our 10-year old son, for the first time in his life, answered the question. "PlayStation 2," he said. "I want PlayStation 2 Christmas." We just about fell over. His sister gave him a piece of paper. She wrote "Phil's Christmas List" at the top. He wrote, "PLAYSTATION TOW" under her heading. "At Sam's," he said. "Go to car."

So, we drove to Sam's. He has never looked at anything there, never seemed to notice that Sam's has anything he might want. But he led us right to the PlayStation 2 sets, picked out the bundle he wanted and put it in the cart. "Open at Christmas," he said. He watched gleefully as we wrapped the package, and then he solemnly placed it under the tree. So, a PlayStation 2 game set sits there, wrapped, with his name on it, and he waits to open it. "December 25," he says. "Open PlayStation 2 December 25."

Last night we'd returned from yet another Christmas rehearsal with our daughter, Phil found a Best Buy ad in the paper and turned immediately to the PlayStation games. He circled "Harry Potter" and "John Madden Football", handed the ad to Bob, and said, "I want Christmas." There were tears in my eyes. It's such a small thing, but such a truly amazing thing. It's one more bit of hope that he will be able to function in some semblance of society as an adult one day - that he might be able to live just a BIT more independently, and one day want the things he needs to survive enough to work for them. (Not a foregone conclusion with autistic folks, which makes them particularly unemployable, no matter their intelligence.) Consumerism might be "the enemy", but a kid who understands none of it is only a hero in a Chicken Soup For The Soul story.

This Advent season I am grateful for being able to appreciate what complexity and miracle is involved in such small "selfish" acts as wanting something for Christmas and expressing those wants to another person. I'm grateful that my son is able to enjoy some of the commercial cultural trappings of the holiday this year instead of running from them screaming. I'm grateful for the many ways Phil helps me stop and look again, even at my most "Christian" conclusions. And I'm especially grateful that my son helps me see Christ's humble birth, over and over again, even in the midst of nightmares and worries I could not have imagined 10 years ago, even in the midst of Advent.”

The second story is my own. At the Christmas Eve service at the church where I was doing my internship during seminary, as I was greeting people at the door following the service, I head a loud crash come from the area where people gathered for coffee. As it turned out the son-in-law of one of our members had been asked to carry a bowl of hot cider out to the table following worship, and as he was exciting the kitchen the bowl literally exploded in his hands.

The worst part was that his three-year-old daughter Hannah ran over to see him as he exited the kitchen and the majority of the cider poured over her. She was rushed to the emergency room, but because she had second and third degree burns over 18% of her body, she was transferred to the Shriner’s Burn center in Boston for treatment. When they arrived and taken to the urgent care unit, a nurse came in with a basket of toys for Hannah to play with while the doctors treated her wounds, which took most of the night.

As they were being discharged at around 6 am Christmas morning, her parents asked Hannah to pick up the toys and asked the nurse where they should put the basket. The nurse said, “oh no, that basket it yours to keep for Christmas.”

As it turned out, several years before another family like Hannah’s had also spent Christmas Eve in the burn unit at Shriner’s and because they were so grateful for the treatment they received and for their daughter’s recovery they pledged that they would bring in a baskets of toys every Christmas eve to be given to families who were going through what they had gone through. Hannah recovered from her burns, and other than some slight scaring on her arms there is no indication that she experienced what she did.

Now the title of the message is Christmas Miracles, but these are not miracles the way people normally think of miracles. There were no miracle cures or last second reprieves. Philip is still severely autistic, and Hannah does still have scars as well as the memory of that horrendous night, those have not gone away. But the miracle occurred in the small things that happen.

In the darkest of times, there was still a bright light that shone through that darkness, there was a feeling of being blessed, of feeling hope, and yes even joy, during the darkest of moments. There was Philip, reminding his mother of Christ’s humble birth, causing her to question everything that she took so much for granted, and being joyful and hopeful about the future, and in creating a new way to be in ministry to the world she has touched all of you, even if you didn’t know it before tonight. And there was Hannah, going through a nightmare scenario that none of us want to imagine, being given toys by some people that she has never even met because they too had been there, and they decided to reach out and give their love to others, not knowing who they are but knowing that in the darkness the light of God is necessary, and knowing that it is at times like these that that light can shine the brightest and mean the most.

That is the Christmas miracle, it is the experience of God’s love and Christ’s light even when we didn’t think it was possible, even when we felt as if God might be a million miles away, even when we did not think that anything could reach us. Whatever it is that you are feeling or needing this year, I pray that you remember that there is no darkness which can overcome the light of Christ nor is there anything which can separate us from God’s love. Even in the darkest of time, Christmas miracles are out there. Let me close with this prayer from Ted Loder:

O God of all seasons and senses, grant us the sense of your timing to submit gracefully and rejoice quietly in the turn of the seasons.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of endings;
children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying,
grieving over,
grudges over,
blaming over.
O God, grant us a sense of your timing.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of beginnings;
that such waitings and endings may be the starting place,
a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born—
something right and just and different,
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love—
in the fullness of your time.
O God, grant us the sense of your timing. Amen

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ghost of Christmas Future

Here is my sermon from December 18. The text was Romans 16:25-27:

For the past two weeks we have been looking at Christmas through a lens provided for us by Charles Dickens in his classic story A Christmas Carol. (Does anyone know the Christmas carol that is actually used in the story? It’s God rest ye merry Gentlemen). In the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, who approaches Christmas, and really everything in his life by exclaiming famously “bah humbug”, is visited by four ghosts. The first is the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley, who is forced to carry the chains of his misdeeds in his life around with him for all of eternity. Marley comes to warn Scrooge that his fate will be the same unless Scrooge makes changes and that he should heed what the ghosts who come to visit have to show him.

The first ghost is the ghost of Christmas past who helps Scrooge to remember a different time in his life when he didn’t approach everything as simply an economic exercise in which to make, or save, as much money as possible and when he approached life with excitement and verve. He was also shown the process by which he had become the man he was so that he would understand what changes could be made so that he could become someone different and not face the same fate as Marley. It was important for him to understand that who he was was not who he had to be, that he was not locked in chains yet, that he could make other decisions in his life and change his future.

Two weeks ago we too looked with the ghost of Christmas past how we came to celebrate Christmas as we do. What we saw was that Christmas didn’t come to be celebrated until the 4th century, and that there has always been a battle between the religious celebrations of the day and the more secular, party aspects and most of our understandings of how Christmas is celebrated, including gift giving and tree decorating did not develop until the mid 1800s. That is, even though the traditions seem old to us, within the history of Christmas they are fairly new having been invented less than 200 years ago. This helped us to understand how we got to be where we are so we could understand that we too are not locked in the chains that sometimes seem to hold us down, that we can make changes to free ourselves. That led us last week to being visited by the ghost of Christmas present.

This ghost showed us the hyper-consumption and consumerism that affects how we celebrate Christmas today. We want Christmas to mean more for us and we worry that we have gotten caught up in everything else and have forgotten the reason for the season, the birth of Christ, but because we can’t quite figure out how to make our celebrations more meaningful we focus on trying to make society’s celebrations more Christian in order to compensate. And so to do this we begin focusing on things, which I believe, distract us and distance us from truly understanding what the birth of Christ means for the world.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first sermon quotes from the prophet Isaiah, which we heard last week, in which he says “the spirit of the lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If that is one of the messages which encapsulates what the good news of Jesus looks like and what the proclamation of the kingdom of God is about, which I believe it is, then how do we make that a part of our Christmas celebrations and proclamations? How do we celebrate Christmas as Christians knowing that in America alone we will spend an estimated 465.6 billion dollars on Christmas this year, and yet everyday more than 20,000 children around the world will die as a result of malnutrition, war and water-borne illnesses, problems which can be solved with a fraction of what we spend on Christmas every year? How do we make Christmas transformative and life-changing not just for us but for the world? These questions lead us to the final visit.

The ghost of Christmas future is the scariest of the ghosts which Scrooge encounters. Indeed, he says, “I fear you more than any specter I have seen.” The ghost of Christmas future is usually personified as the grim reaper who is there to show Scrooge his own death and people’s reactions to it. Certainly not an image that most of us want to spend any real time contemplating, especially at Christmas. Scrooge is filled with fear because he doesn’t know what to expect from this ghost, and at the same time he also does know what to expect, and in some ways that scares him even more.

Scrooge is really being forced to ask what the legacy is that he is leaving for those around him. Is the world going to be better off because he was in it or not? Of course he knows the answer is that few people will be upset to see his demise and that many will be glad to see him go. I think what the ghost of Christmas future calls to us is to answer what legacy we are leaving about what Christmas means to us, how we recognize the birth of Christ and how we live that out in the world?

After my Thanksgiving sermon two years ago, in which I talked about being grateful for what we actual had, not what we wanted to have, or those things that we believe would make us happy or complete if only we had them in our lives. After the service, a man named Steve came up and said that he had everything he could ever possibly need and wondered if there was some way the church could help him and his family to change their Christmas story and their expectations of the season so that the money that would normally be spent on gifts could instead be given to charities to help people who were truly in need. That simple request led me to begin looking around at what churches were doing and I found the Advent Conspiracy, which I used for the first time last year.

I know that not everyone who was exposed to it last year did anything with it, just as I know that not everyone here will do anything with it, but for those who did many of them told me that the experience was life changing. That being a part of the advent conspiracy, of rethinking Christmas, what they did, and how they did it changed their lives. Sadly enough it is the only time in my time in the church in which someone has told me they have been transformed by something the church did.

I would hope and pray that being in a relationship with Jesus Christ also changed their lives, but maybe this is the stepping stone to deepening that relationship and coming to understand the difference that the birth of Christ makes for us and for the world. That the incarnation, which is a big church word which means that God has been made flesh, that the incarnation matters as much for us 2000 years later as it did for those who may have been there on the night of his birth. That the angles still sing for us today and proclaim, “fear not” Scrooge was terrified of the future, but the angel says, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people for today in the city of David a child has been born” and his name is Emmanuel, God with us, God with you and with me.

Even though Steve was the one who got this started, he was not there last Christmas as the church began to conspire together to rethink Christmas because he had been diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and he was simply too sick from the disease and the chemotherapy to make it to church. But his simple idea changed our life and how we celebrate Christmas and it changed the lives of many others, and maybe will even change your life.

Now I suspect that some of Steve’s desire and need for Christmas to be something different to mean more to connect him to something more than just shopping and acquiring came from the fact that several years before he had lost his youngest daughter to suicide just before Christmas. He understood fundamentally that the most important things about Christmas are not the stuff that we buy each other but instead about our relationships, our relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ. Which takes us back to the first question that I asked two weeks ago, which is to think of your favorite Christmas memories, which I speculated had little to do with gifts we had given or received, but instead of time spent with family and friends.

The last funeral I did before moving here was for Steve, and during the time in which people were given the opportunity to make a remembrance, a man came up to the mic and said that no one there knew who he was, although Steve would have known, because Steve had been his doctor, and he had been the one to treat him when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer 15 years before, and he wanted to let everyone know that the only reason he was able to be standing there remembering Steve was because Steve had saved his life. The ghost of Christmas future asks Scrooge what difference he has made in people’s lives? Now obviously most of us cannot save someone’s lives when they get cancer, but we can still change people’s lives in fundamental ways. We can make a difference because Christmas makes a difference, how we celebrate makes a difference, and how we welcome the Christ child into our lives makes a difference.

Our Christmas traditions in many ways have not kept up with the reality of the world. I remember when I was growing up every year we would receive an orange in our stocking, and I could never really figure out why because it didn’t really make sense to me. But then when I was in my late teens or early twenties I finally understood why that was part of my parents traditions, because when they were growing up, as well as for many of you, you could not just go to the grocery store at any time of the year and have access to fruits and vegetables that were out of season. When they were growing up, oranges at Christmas were a special treat because they were not usually available. But when I was growing up that was no longer the case. You could find oranges in December just as easily as at any other time of the year. The tradition did not meet the reality.

At the time when gift giving at Christmas came into importance, people lived primarily in a culture of scarcity; gifts were very special. In addition, since the majority of people lived then in the isolation of rural America, the hustle and bustle of Christmas that arose with our traditions broke up the monotony of a down time in the agricultural cycle. It gave new excitement and meaning to the time. But our situations have radically changed from that. Most of us no longer live in scarcity, and even here in rural America we are still involved in the normal everyday hurry of society as a whole. Christmas is no longer the alternative to what our lives are normally like, but instead has become just an extension of it and sometimes even a hyper-extension of it. Because our situation has changed, what would make Christmas special, I believe, has also changed.

There is nothing wrong with gift giving or Christmas tree decorating or any of the other ways we celebrate Christmas as long as that celebration is working for us, but if it’s not working, if we want something more, or something less as the case may be, then change is possible. When we want Christmas to mean more, to be different, but we jeep doing the same things then nothing will change. What is the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Last week I said that in order to find the heart of our Christmas celebration and what it can be for us, that we should ask first what would be gained if we stopped celebrating Christmas? Then the opposite must also be answered, what would be lost if we stopped celebrating Christmas?

All traditions were invented at one time, and so they can all be stopped as well if they are no longer functioning the way they were supposed to. Our traditions should not be chains that bind us for all of eternity. We can create new traditions, new traditions which again capture the power of the Christmas story and message, new traditions which can again make a difference for us and for the world. Children have a sense of wonder, awe and magic at Christmas, a sense of excitement and expectation. While they want to rush and open all the presents, at the same time they also seem to understand that it takes a while to get there and they revel in that expectation and anticipation of something to come. We lose that as we grow up, but how do we reclaim that sense of wonder, awe and magic for this Christmas and for the Christmas’ yet to come, to create a legacy for Christmas futures that will make a difference?

Advent is the time for waiting and preparing for God to transform the world through the birth of Christ. But Christmas is not a noun, Christmas is a verb, it is about doing and being in the world. It is about God being in the world and it is about us being in the world. Some people won’t get what we are trying to do. They’ll ask why they can’t just get their present and move on. They won’t understand how we are trying to change what Christmas means for us. But we can’t wait to make changes based on others. If God had waited to give us Jesus until God knew that everyone would accept him, that everyone would understand what his birth meant, then we would still be waiting for him to be born.

Today’s writing from Paul is the closing to his theological masterpiece of Romans. It is his doxology, or song of praise and acclamation. Today is also our doxology to the Advent season, and we remember Mary’s joyful response when she breaks into song in thanksgiving in what is known as the magnificat, and she is filled with joy. We too should be filled with joy but not joy as it is typically understood. Joy is not like happiness. Happiness is dependent upon what is going on around us. But, joy sets the mood; it is not dependent upon other things. It’s like someone who asked whether hope and optimism where the same thing, and I said that they were not. Hope stands out even when optimism has been given up, in fact it is those times when hope is most necessary and important, the same as it is in times of despair when peace, love and joy, the other themes of advent are also most important.

God does not come into the world in the person of Christ because everything is great, nor does he come in spite of the fact that everything is in turmoil, but instead Christ comes because the world is broken, he comes because we need him in order to restore relationship with God. He comes as greatest present that God can give because we need him so much. So what will we do? What has Christmas meant to us in the past? What do we want it to be for us in the present? What do we want it to be for us and for others in the future?

Dickens closes his story by having Scrooge say, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” Scrooge became filled with the Christmas spirit and lived it out in everything that he did. We too are filled with the spirit because “the spirit of the Lord is upon us because he has anointed us to bring the good news.”

Let us live out in our lives the true meaning of Christmas , let us make this year be the year that we make Christmas more meaningful, that we connect to the things that really matter, that we welcome the Christ child into our lives today and every day. How is Christmas changing you? What does Christ’s birth represent and mean to you? Is it just about giving and receiving gifts or is it about receiving the one and most important gift, about receiving Christ into our live?

“And it was always said of” Scrooge, Dickens says, “that he knew how to keep Christmas well…. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us every one!” May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kids Say The Darndest Things, 80s Music Version

Was listening to the classic 80's song Mr. Roboto by Styx, and my daughters were singing along saying "secret, secret, I've got a secret..." And then my oldest daughter says "Hey daddy, I know what his secret is, but I can't tell you because it's a secret."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Digital Silent Night Candles

As I was playing with my phone (Droid X2) I downloaded a candle app. It basically shows a burning candle, and when you move it, the flame moves accordingly. Don't know what you would necessarily use it for, maybe for concerts instead of bringing a lighter, but it's still cool. But it got me wondering: What if instead of using candles during silent night on Christmas Eve we had people download a candle app and lift their phones up instead, a 21st century version of an old tradition? Would love to try it, but also don't want to be strung up by my fingers for messing with tradition.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11:

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” so begins the classic Andy Williams song. Last week as I began my message I asked you to reflect on your favorite Christmas memories. For many of us we can remember a time when Christmas was perhaps as Andy Williams said the most wonderful time. But I also was willing to guess that most of our favorite memories had nothing to do with gifts we have given or received. That instead they involved other things, like time spent with family. And yet, even though that is what we remember about most Christmas, every year most of us get sucked into the cycle of rushing and buying in order to prepare for Christmas. Even though we say we’re not going to do it this year, we end up doing it anyways.

Last year, on the Monday after Thanksgiving I was at the bank and the two people in line in front of me, were talking about how they spent Thanksgiving and how much they enjoyed it and the time spent with their families, and then one of them asked the other what the plans were for Christmas, and the woman said how much she dreaded the whole Christmas season. That Thanksgiving was such a better holiday for her because it was much more relaxed and there weren’t any great expectations, but she felt hurried for all of December and she just didn’t enjoy Christmas anymore.

The man agreed and gave a similar story of woe. I suspect that many of us can sympathize with that sentiment, and maybe we even feel the same way. That is certainly the feeling of some who make the claim that Christmas has become too commercial and that if only we could reclaim the way Christmas used to be that everything would be better again, would return to the true joy of the season and we would remember what Christmas is all about.

In Charles Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts. The first is the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley who warns Scrooge not only of the other ghosts that will be visiting him that night, but also that he needs to change his ways or he will end up like Marley, carrying chains for all of eternity. The first ghost that visits is the ghost of Christmas past, who takes Scrooge into the past, obviously enough, so that Scrooge can remember what has happened to make him who he is so that he can understand in order to be able to change.

Last week, we too looked into the ghost of Christmas past so that we can understand how we came to celebrate Christmas as we do today. You might remember that most of the things that we practice today, including gift giving and the decorating of Christmas trees for example, are fairly new ideas begun in the mid-1800s, and what we also found was that the lament about how Christmas is celebrated, and how Christ is being left out, is as old as the holiday itself, which even led to the celebration of Christmas being made illegal in England and America and different points in time. So much of what we know as the “traditions” of Christmas were invented fairly recently. While they are, for the most part, all we have ever known, they are new in the history of the celebration. With that information we move today into seeing the ghost of Christmas present. But before we begin to see what today’s ghost has to show us, let us clear up one issue of semantics.

According to Bruce David Forbes, the term Christmas now really has two meanings. The first is the religious celebration, and its attendant festivities, which surround the birth of Christ. This is the spiritual side of Christmas, and might be referred to more appropriately as the Christmas Holy Day. But, Christmas also has its secular side as well, of which we are all aware. These are the social things of Christmas that have little to do with the religious experience of the day, and might be referred to as the Christmas holiday. We all use the term both ways, and use them interchangeably, although they are not. But they are also not just pure black and white categories as they have significant overlap.

Gift giving has religious significance, we remember the gifts of the magi to the Christ child, and we remember God’s gift to us, and since we are made in the image of God, we are to be givers, there is religious significance to giving gifts, and gift giving also has secular significance, especially through the purchasing of store bought gifts. Christmas songs, which are one of the few Christmas traditions which date back to the earliest celebrations, have religious significance, one of Charles Wesley’s most famous hymns is Hark, the Herald Angel Sing and they also have social significance, one of the best selling songs of all time in Bing Crosby’s classic White Christmas. As much as people might try, I do not think you can sort of divide them and make a clean break. We cannot say we are going to remove all the secular celebrations from Christmas in order to regain the true spirit of, because the two ideas are inherently connected in our culture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change how we celebrate, because we can.

If you’ve ever read A Christmas Carol or seen a movie version, you may remember that the ghost of Christmas present is a large jovial fellow who is surrounded by piles of presents and sometimes food. If Dickens were to write the story today, this ghost may stay the same because he can be the symbol of the over-consumption which is so prevalent in Christmas present.

This year on the weekend after Thanksgiving, which of course encompasses Black Friday, consumers in America spent 52.4 billion dollars, which was a 16% increase over last year. The average consumer spent nearly $400, and according to the National Retail Federation, as much as people were complaining about the early opening times of stores this year, of the 226 million people who bought something over the weekend, ¼ of them, or 56 million people, were out shopping at midnight. And of course with that we got the usual stories of craziness.

There was the woman in California who pepper sprayed a group surrounding an amazing Xbox sale at Wal-Mart. There was the story of Walter Vance, a 61 year-old man who had a heart attack in a Target, where witnesses say some shoppers stepped over him as he lay on the floor in order to get to their sales. But my favorite story was of a stabbing at the Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento, California. Now this is not my favorite because a man was stabbed but because of the news story which reported it, which concluded by saying, and I quote, “the stabbing did not interrupt shopping activities…” In other words, a man was stabbed, but don’t worry because it didn’t stop anyone from buying anything, including the man because he was leaving the mall when he was attacked.

According to Forbes, Americans spend an average of nearly $800 on presents at Christmas, which includes, amazingly enough, $130 on presents for themselves, and we spend an additional $1800 on other items, which we tend to forget in our Christmas calculations, like Christmas trees, decorations, food, Christmas cards and travel, for a total of more than $2600 a year. And yet, Stacey Powell, who is an accountant and financial coach, says the most common feelings about Christmas she hears from her clients are shame, regret, anguish and embarrassment. Doesn’t sound like it’s really the most wonderful time of the year for many people.

For most of us we get sort of caught up in this time. We want it to mean more, to be more, to connect us to something different, and yet we’re not sure how. Bruce Forbes, a professor of religious studies, says that “on the one hand, a number of Christians are introspective and self-critical, asking themselves if they have become so preoccupied with the decorations, gifts and dinner preparations that they have forgotten the “reason for the season,” the birth of Christ. On the other hand,” he says, “some Christians complain about public actions and displays at Christmastime that do not acknowledge Christianity or Jesus…. In other words,” Forbes continues, “one concern is about whether my own personal Christmas observances are Christian enough, and the other concern is about whether society’s Christmas observances are Christian enough.”

Because we can’t quite figure out how to solve the first concern about our own celebrations, we seem to be spending our time focusing on the second, and the reported “war on Christmas.” But let me say two things. The first is that I do not believe there is no war on Christmas. While the Supreme Court might say that corporations are people, I can proclaim that corporations are not and cannot be Christians and if we have fallen so far that we expect business to be the ones to proclaim the gospel message for us, then we are done. We might as well close the doors of every church, because we have failed. It is not the responsibility of business or of the government to proclaim the Christmas message, it is up to us. It is our job to proclaim the incarnation to the world, to proclaim that the light of the world has entered the world, it is our job. Why would we ever expect business to do the work of the church? And secondly why would we ever even want to turn that obligation over to anyone else. Jesus does not say, “Go and let someone else make disciples,” Jesus tells us to do it, in fact he commands us. It is not up to Wal-Mart or Best Buy to proclaim the gospel message it is up to us.

Secondly, we cannot proclaim that Christians no longer control Christmas, because as we heard last week, the holiday was never fully controlled by the church or by Christians. This battle between the secular and the sacred has been a recurring theme throughout the history of the celebration of Christmas. This year Fox News listed all the stores that will be saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” but then questioned whether they were doing this because they really meant it or simply because they thought they could make more money by doing so. A popular song on the internet called Christmas with a Capital C, which sets out to tell us why we shouldn’t say happy holidays but instead Merry Christmas, says in their introduction that in the past everyone said Merry Christmas because, in their own words, “it wasn’t about religion.”

In other words, it appear they want to recapture Christmas as a cultural celebration in which we can all proclaim something which is devoid of its religious meaning. I don’t think that is the right goal for us as Christians in proclaiming the birth of Christ. We do not get control of Christmas by making others do it for us, we only begin to control Christmas when we take control of it for ourselves personally. When we turn off the auto-pilot mentality of the season and instead we take the time to decide what is important to us, how we are going to celebrate and what the incarnation of Christ means to us, and what we are going to do about it, not sometime in the future but what we are going to do about it right now in the present. How we are going to live that out in our lives? Rev. Frederick Schmidt perhaps put it best when he said “If we really believed in the life-changing nature of Christmas, then we wouldn’t be unhinged by the commercial blather. We would look straight through it. We would realize that the debate about commercialism and Christmas isn’t the issue at all. The real issue is the inability of the culture to grasp the nature of Christmas itself.” That is where we make our stand, because we can and hopefully do grasp the nature of Christ and so we can look right through everything else.

In today’s passage from Isaiah we are given a vision of what God desires for us as humans. This is not a vision of salvation that will take place sometime in the future, but instead a vision of salvation for the here and now. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news,” Isaiah says. Good news to whom? “To the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….”

What is salvation for Isaiah? It is the good news of God. What is Good News for us? It is the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is the good news, it is the same message. This passage might have sounded familiar to you because this is the passage that Jesus chooses to preach from for his first sermon which is simply, “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is the good news, and the message of who that good news is for remains the same. We do not need to look far to see the injustice of poverty and abuse, hunger and oppression, we can see them in our own communities. So how do we proclaim that as we celebrate Christmas?

If you’ve been here for a few weeks you’ve seen one of the videos from the Advent Conspiracy, which highlights the fact that it would take only $10 billion to provide clean running water to everyone in the world. It would take $4.5 billion to rescue 1 million people in the world today who live in slavery, many of them sexual slaves. It would take $6 billion to provide basic education to everyone in the world. It would take $13 billion to provide basic health care and nutrition to everyone in the world, and yet according to the National Retail Federation this year we will spend $465.6 billion in America on Christmas.

A group of five women in Dallas have recently put up a billboard which says “I miss you saying Merry Christmas,” and it’s signed “Jesus.” But what I imagine Jesus saying is how are you proclaiming the good news and to whom are your proclaiming it? We are worried about the person at the check-out counter who is ringing up items we don’t need paid for with money we don’t have saying Merry Christmas to us, and yet we live in a world where today 16,000 children will die from malnutrition. We live in a world where today 500 children will die as a result of war. We live in a world where today 4000 children will die from water-borne illnesses. And we live in a world where millions of people do not know what it means to have peace, hope, joy or love, the names of our advent candles.

What does the incarnation mean to us and what does it mean to the world? “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news.” Last week we heard John the Baptist say that he is only baptizing with water, but that the one who is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit. As baptized people who have been given the Holy Spirit, we too should be saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, is upon us, because he has anointed me, us, to preach the good news….”

This is not about doing away with Christmas, I love Christmas, but this is instead changing how we approach Christmas and what Christmas means to us. The incarnation means that God entered into the world fully, so celebrating Jesus’ birth with some things of the world seems appropriate, but it does not mean giving everything over to the world either. So as we look at our Christmas present, there are several questions I believe we need to ask ourselves.

The first is to ask, what would be lost if we stopped celebrating Christmas? And what would be gained if we stopped celebrating Christmas? When we answer those questions honestly then we will find what is at the heart of our Christmas celebration, and it will then allow us to begin to answer what we want Christmas to be for us and our families this year.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for God to transform the world through Jesus Christ, but it is also a time in which we recognize that God has already transformed the world through the birth of Christ. It is a time of all-ready and not quite yet, a time of celebration and a time of repentance and preparation. Christmas is not about whether we say Merry Christmas or not, but instead about choosing to live like Christ and proclaiming Christ to the world.

As we prepare to look to the ghost of Christmas future next week, let us make the Christmas present what we need it to be for us. Instead of being simply one more Christmas, just like last year or all the years before let us make this Christmas a time in which we see God’s incarnation as transformative and life-changing not just for us, but for the world. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Personality Cults

I think one of the hardest things to do in the ministry is to keep churches from becoming personality cults. The itinerancy in Methodism helps put some checks on this, but there are still issues. The problem with personality cults is that once the minister leaves, people who are there because of them leave as well.

I don't want the church to be based on me, or to have attendance increasing simply because I am the minister, I want it to be more on the church and what people find in the church. But that is hard because so much relies on the minister. The simple fact is if you have a poor preacher people are less likely to come, and if you have a good preacher and a good service people are more likely to come. (some of this builds on my post on quarterbacks and ministers).

We record each service and make the service and the sermons available for people to take for their own use or to give to others. I have never had someone take the full service, but they take the sermons all the time. Is that building a personality cult? I don't know, but it's something with which I struggle.

What has me thinking more about this are the recent events at the Crystal Cathedral in California and the New Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. Following Schuller's retirement at the Crystal Cathedral there has been a lot of turmoil leading them to recently sell their building. The future is unknown for them but they clearly are not the same without Schuller there, and their days as a "megachurch" seem to be clearly numbered. Eddie Long recently left his church as well, and there is a lot of conversation about whether that church can continue. Members are saying that they need to remember that a church is bigger than it's minister, but can they keep the same church and the same size without Long as the head? Like the Crystal Cathedral, the future is very uncertain.

Can megachurches sustain pastoral changes and survive as they have been? I think that this is something we are going to have to see. Will Saddleback be the same without Rick Warren, or Willow Creek without Bill Hybels, or even in the UMC will the Church of the Resurrection be the same without Adam Hamilton? How much of the participation in these churches is based on the church and how much on the pastor? Even if these pastors have passed over some of the responsibility to others, they still exert tremendous influence over the direction and operation of the church. Rob Bell's recent departure from Mars Hill will be a good indication of how at least one church does after the departure of a charismatic leader.

Clearly there are some pastors who thrive on the personality cult, and others who work hard to keep the focus on Christ and the church, but will that make a difference in the end? I certainly hope so, but don't know. In looking through attendance figures in the New England conference there was almost always a drop in attendance following a ministerial change (there were exceptions to this of course), which indicates to me that more people might be connected to us than we actually realize.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Capitalism is Dead

Capitalism is dead... or at least the usage of that term by the GOP is dead. According to reports, language genius Frank Lutz is telling GOP governors, and through them the rest of the GOP, to stop using the term "capitalism" because it now has negative connotations for most people. Instead, they are to use the terms "economic freedom" or "free markets."

In addition, there are no longer to talk about entrepreneurs but instead "small business owners" and "job creators." And these job creators are not helping the middle class, but instead helping "hard-working tax-payers," except when it comes to the taxes of the rich, then it's about the government "taking" their money.

Even though I don't agree with him politically, I like Frank Luntz a lot and he has been very effective in the past. He was the one who changed the talking points away from "estate taxes" and to the "death tax" which then helped congress eliminate it. Pay attention to these nice new catch phrases as we move into the election season.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What is a "Heisman Moment"?

There has been a lot talk this year about which candidates for the Heisman Award have had a "Heisman Moment." Could someone please explain what that means and why it's important? I remember Desmond Howard taking the Heisman pose in the end zone against Ohio State, but that was after everyone figured he would already win. Is that a Heisman moment?

Others are talking about Trent Richardson's touchdown run against Auburn as being a possible Heisman moment. It was a great run, but it was more about terrible tackling by Auburn then anything else. Some are saying that Andrew Luck can't win because he didn't have a Heisman moment, while others are saying his one-handed catch earlier in the year could be that moment.

The Heisman Award is supposed to go to the "most-outstanding" player (by that they almost exclusively mean quarterback or running-back) in the country. But what does that criteria have anything to do with one moment?

Great players make great things happen, but they do that all the time. To try and reduce it to one moment, to me, seems to totally dismiss the idea of putting together a great season. Maybe you can have a Heisman game, although that is also a stretch, but let's forget having a moment and instead focus on players having a Heisman season.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Multiracial Crayola

I recently saw a commercial for Crayola products which totally surprised me, and had both my wife and I turn to each other to confirm that what happened actually happened. This commercial featured an interracial couple, and it was very clear that they were married. In doing a little research I found that this was not the first interracial couple in a commercial, but it is most definitely the first I can remember seeing.

The fact it was surprising shows how far we still have to go in our portrayal of race relations in this country. It was also a white male and black female which is still more acceptable than the reverse, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

I applaud Crayola for this commercial, and wrote to them to tell them, and hope that we will see a lot more. My wife and I already buy crayola products for our daughters, but will be making sure they get our dollars over other companies.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ghost of Christmas Past

Here is my sermon for last Sunday. The text was Mark 1:1-8:

I want you to think of one of your favorite Christmas memories? Do you have one in mind? Does anyone want to share a memory? I’m willing to bet that most of them do not involve a gift you received or even a gift you gave? This is going to be true even if you are thinking of childhood memories. Sure there may have been a bike, or some other special gift that really stood out, but most of our favorite memories of Christmas are about experiences we had, of time spent with family and friends, maybe it’s decorating the tree, or eating the meal, or a special visit to Santa, we might remember opening presents when we were a children, but not actually remember most of the presents themselves.

So as another exercise, I want you to write down or at least try in your head to name five to ten things that you received as a present for Christmas last year? Can you do it? I’ve had a while to think about it as I was preparing this and I could only come up with a couple of the gifts I received. I remember what Santa brought the girls last year, but that is primarily because the elves didn’t assemble them before Santa put them under the tree, but I can’t remember what we got for the girls. And yet, even though we can’t remember the gifts we receive, even though most of our best Christmas memories have nothing to do with gifts given or received, we are constantly told that Christmas is all about gift giving, that it’s about going to the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t be happy this Christmas, will think that we don’t really love them, and our children will grow up unhappy and turn into old scrooges because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year, Yet, even though we know these things aren’t true, year after year we keep doing the same thing.

In Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol, which greatly impacted the creation of our modern understanding of Christmas and its attendant celebrations, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts. The first is his former business partner Jacob Marley, who comes to warn Scrooge of the three ghosts who will come to visit him during the night. Marley is himself bound with chains which he says he is forced to carry for eternity as a result of how he lived his life, and so he has been sent to see Scrooge so that Scrooge might free himself of the chains which hold him back in this life so that he can be free of chains in the life to come. In order to help understand what those chains are and how he came to acquire them, the first ghost, the ghost of Christmas past, comes to help Scrooge remember and to learn from the past so that he can move into the future, and today we are going to do the same. We are going to look at how our Christmas celebrations came to be so that we might be able to try and free ourselves of some of the chains that fetter us so that we can come to see Christmas in a new way.

Now I feel that I have to start by saying that I am not doing this because I am a Scrooge in hiding who wants to ruin Christmas. In fact it is quite the opposite. I love Christmas, love it. I am the opposite of the Grinch who “hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season.” I start thinking about Christmas decorations for my front yard in June, and start listening to Christmas music in October. I love Christmas, so what we talk about over the next three weeks is not about doing away with Christmas, it is not about not giving gifts, because as we discussed a few weeks ago, giving is important, indeed we are celebrating God’s gift to us in the birth of his son, but that’s really the point. As a recent book title said, Christmas is not your birthday. So how did we come to celebrate the way we do?

We’ll start with why we celebrate when we do. We have birth accounts in only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, and neither of them gives an accounting for when Jesus was born, and so the early church had to come up with a date if they wanted to celebrate his birth. Now I am sure that most of you have probably heard the story that December 25th was a pagan holiday that the early Christian church co-opted, and there is some history to this. In the year 274 in order to give credit for a victory to the sun, the Emperor Aurelian marked the winter solstice as a day to celebrate the birth of the invincible sun. We do know that by 336 Christians in Rome were celebrating Jesus’ birth on this day. So, following this story, the church sort of built off the pun of sun and son, and made a pagan holiday their own. It certainly makes a good story, but it is not the only story.

In looking for how scriptures predicted Jesus’ coming, as we see in the passage from Mark today, the early church was also looking for how creation foretold Jesus’ life. The early church placed Christ’s death as happening on the vernal equinox, and since they believed that Jesus was perfect then the date of his death and his conception must be the same, and so if Jesus’ was conceived on the vernal equinox, and everything is perfect, then he would be born on the winter solstice, which is exactly nine months later. Having the light of the world be born on the darkest day of the year would also match with their theology. In addition, because we are told in Luke that John the Baptist is six months older than Jesus, that would indicate that John would have been conceived at the fall equinox and born at the summer solstice, and therefore creation would match the birth of these two figures. Now this might seem like a stretch, and it’s easier to say that they just co-opted a pagan holiday, except that the writings of the early church are filled with this sort of theological reasoning, seeking to give theological justification and to find the importance of Jesus in everything.

But regardless of why this date might have been chosen, it was not universally accepted. Many orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on December 7, where it is accompanied by a feast which breaks a day of fasting and does not have gift giving associated with it. In addition, Christmas was never the most important holiday in the church year, regardless of the fact that that is what it seems to have become today. In fact, the celebration of Epiphany, which is the day that the wise men are said to have arrived, which sometimes included gift giving, and was also when Jesus’ Baptism was celebrated, is not only an older celebration in the church, but has been considered a much more important holiday than Christmas for most of Christian history. Again within Orthodox and Latin American churches, Epiphany is the third most important holiday behind Easter and Pentecost.

As Christmas celebrations continued over the years, its emphasis waxed and waned. By the middle ages people would celebrate by attending worship, where they often listened to mind-numbing sermons, some things don’t change, then the rest of the day would be spend in revelry with the consumption of large amounts of food and even larger amounts of alcohol. A large number of births in late September and early October, especially to unmarried mothers, also indicated what else was taking place, and caused concern for some in the church. By the time of the Protestant reformation in the 16th century, the reformers were disgusted at what was taking place, and argued that since there was no Biblical witness to when Jesus was actually born, as well as because of how the day was being celebrated that Christmas should be deemphasized or removed from the calendar all together. And that is exactly what happened in some cases.

In 1647, Parliament passed a law forbidding the observance of Christmas in England, and in 1659 a similar law was passed in Massachusetts, which at that time consisted of nearly the entirety of modern New England. The law in Massachusetts was repealed in 1681, but the celebration of Christmas did not return with the appeal of the law. A perfect example of this is found within Methodism. The Methodist Church in America was founded in 1784 at what was called the Christmas Conference in Baltimore. Approximately 60 of the 83 Methodist preachers in America gathered on December 24, for the first of a week of meetings to vote on the creation of a new church. They did so not because they thought that gathering to worship together at Christmas would be a good idea, but instead they chose this because Christmas was an opportune time when there was little else of importance going on in the church so that they could gather. I would challenge anyone to try and call a church meeting beginning on Christmas Eve now.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas began to again rise in popularity, and the church wasn’t doing anything with it, it became more of a secular holiday much like what was taking place during the middle ages with great revelry and carousing, but these celebrations became a threat to civility and peace. People again began to look for some sort of remedy, but rather than banning Christmas celebrations as before this time they changed or created new traditions. The years 1823-1848 have been referred to as a sort of “big bang” for the creation of Christmas as we know it, and many of the ideas rest with the writings of Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote “A Visit from St. Nick”, and, of course, Charles Dickens. What these three writers did was to domesticate the holiday, to bring it into the home so that now when “out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,” instead of it possibly being wassailers who might be doing damage, it was now Santa. Christmas trees also began appearing at this time as a regular feature in people’s homes. Although legend has it that Martin Luther was the person who created the Christmas tree, since Luther was one of the reformers who denounced Christmas celebrations there is little likelihood that this is a true story. The first known reference to the use of Christmas trees in America does not come until 1821, but its common use is not seen until the 1840s when it quickly took off in popularity. In 1850 Dickens said that the Christmas tree was still that “new German toy,” by 1891 President Harrison, who was the first President to have a Christmas tree in the White House, referred to the tree as “old fashioned.”

What also arose during this time was gift giving as we now understand it as a commercial enterprise. Prior to this there is some record of gift giving, but it was most usually done on Epiphany, on the feast of St. Nicholas, which is December 6, or at New Year’s. The first movement to gifts at Christmas came in the form of Gift Books, which were elegant “literary annuals” printed at first to be given to women by their admirers. Later books were also printed for children, but these books were advertised as being for Christmas and New Years. By the beginning of the Civil War the popularity for these books disappeared, but by the time they did gift giving at Christmas, instead of at New Years or other times, had become the accepted practice. But, it wasn’t giving just any gifts but instead giving specifically store bought gifts. The age of commercialization had been born.

Now the laments about Christmas, as we have already seen, are, in the words of Leigh Eric Schmidt, “One of the culture’s fondest, most pervasive jeremiads.” I think the complaint that things were different, and it was better when we were kids is also a common refrain, as even Ralph Waldo Emerson bewailed the commercialization of Christmas, and the selling of gifts as “a cold, lifeless, business.” By the turn of the 20th century, a major retail publication was saying that November 1, was “none too early” for stores to begin their “Holiday Campaign.” And women were recording in their diaries, “Still shopping all day long, seems I will never get through,” or “Oh! This silly Christmas trash makes me tired,” and “So busy, and Children all crazy too… we always get so at Christmas,” and tired store workers were relenting the long hours dealing with harried customers. In other words, they were dealing with the same things and complaining about the same things about Christmas that we deal with and complain about today.

The ghost of Christmas past showed Scrooge how he got to where he was so that he could understand and begin to make changes in his life. In the passage from Mark today we are also taken into the past in order to understand the changes that are taking place. Mark interprets John the Baptist through the lens of the Isaiah passage which we also heard this morning, of the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the lord. John is not a voice harkening to the past out of a sense of nostalgia. It is not a voice saying, “if only we could go back to the way we imagine it used to be then everything would be okay.” Instead this is a voice that is calling us out of the hustle and bustle of the city, out into the wilderness in order to come into contact with God. This is a voice which is calling us to repent, to turn around, not really the voice we are used to hearing during Christmas, but it is the voice necessary in order to help us prepare for the coming of the Christ child. It is the voice which helps us with preparation and anticipation. It is the voice that tells us “someone more powerful than me is coming.” John calls us to come to the wilderness, to leave the city behind, to leave behind all the things we are told by society that we should be focusing on and instead to come and hear the voice of God, to come and prepare for the coming of Christ.

Martin Copenhaver says that “the Christian story begins with longing,” as best illustrated during this time of Advent. Most of us long for something different during this season. We want to feel connected to each other and to God. We want to be connected to something deeper and more meaningful. John calls us away from the stuff, to go to the wilderness in order to prepare and the ghost of Christmas past shows us the things that may lock us in chains, and then we are given the opportunity to make changes for the future. This Advent season let us take the time to reflect, to ponder, to go to the wilderness as we prepare next week to encounter the ghost of Christmas present. Amen.

Friday, December 2, 2011

One of the Best Pitching Lines Ever

This is one of the best pitching lines of all time. It comes from the Charleston River Dogs, the low-A affliate of the New York Yankees, from July 1 of this year:

Mark Montgomery, RHP: 1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 2 WP

In case you don't understand, Mark pitched one inning, gave up two hits, one run, and struck out five (striking out three gets you out of the inning). It's the last number of 2 wild pitches that makes the difference.

This is one of the things that makes baseball the best sport because you never know what you are going to see, even something that seems impossible like recording five outs in an inning.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

One Nation Under God

As we were driving home last week from our Thanksgiving trip, I saw a billboard on the side of the highway that said simply "One nation under God." This statement always makes me nervous for many reasons. The first is the conflating of nationalism with religion, which doesn't usually have positive outcomes. The second is that what this truly means is up for wide interpretation, which led me to a new thought.

Those who seem to push this idea the most these days don't seem to be asking for "one nation" but instead "my nation." That is that anyone who doesn't agree with their narrow view are the other, the outsider, non-Americans, and are welcome to be anywhere else then here. This view shuts down all dissent and differences of opinion. It seeks to make "unum" not by consensus or dialogue but by ignoring, or worse silencing, those with whom they disagree.

Of course, one the scripture passages usually accompanying this is from the 33rd psalm which says "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord," but for some reason the next verse is always left off which says "the people whom he has chosen as his heritage." The way I read this is that it is God who does the choosing not us.

Anytime someone says that there is only one way to be or to think, whether it is conservatives or liberals, then the way has been lost.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Who's Your Doggy?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 13:24-37:

Every Thanksgiving morning when I was growing up my brother and I would get up and go into my parent’s bedroom and climb into bed with them and together we would all watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade all the way until Santa Clause appeared, which was the best part because that was the official beginning of the Christmas season and the time when we could begin playing Christmas music. That is one of my fondest childhood memories. As an adult, it is also one of the traditions I have tried to keep alive.

Even this year when we were at the Grand Canyon we watched the parade in our hotel room. Linda and I have also gone to New York to see the parade with the girls twice, although they do not remember going. Now, following the parade broadcast, NBC shows the National Dog Show. Since Linda and I have begun our own traditions for Thanksgiving, it has included watching the dog show as well. Now, if you can disregard the overt racism that comes with and was very much a part of the founding of kennel clubs and dog breeding which seeks to create the perfect breed and to make sure that the breed remains pure, if you can disregard all of those facts, dog shows can be fun to watch. But, you may be wondering, what in the world do dog shows or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade have anything to do with the first Sunday of advent or the scripture that was read this morning?

Traditionally the minister has been seen and talked about as being the shepherd to the flock. I’m the shepherd and you’re the flock. This has been the symbolism both metaphorically and also literally for a long time. Ministers will often refer to having to take care of their flock, congregations often use the same type of language, and the Pope and even our bishops carry a shepherd’s crook. We are supposed to be the shepherd guiding and keeping the flock safe. However, this is an image that has always bugged me and as the scripture this morning illustrates, it is actually incorrect.

The minister is not the shepherd, nor is the district superintendent, the bishop or even the Pope the shepherd. I understand what a powerful image the leader of the congregation as shepherd is, and I can see how it became part of the tradition. But, the simple fact is, it is wrong. I am not the shepherd; God is the shepherd. Now scripture is full of shepherd imagery, but it is nearly always God who is the shepherd not someone else. As the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd….”, or as we are told in Matthew, that Jesus had compassion for the people because they “were like sheep without a shepherd.” So first of all we need to remove the idea of the minister as shepherd from our thinking. But, if the minister is not the shepherd then what are we?

Many of you will have already figured this out from the title of this message; if God is the shepherd, and you are the flock, then the minister must be the sheep dog. Now, I really wish I could take some credit for the idea, but it is not original to me. Several years ago a friend of mine was appointed to a church in the middle of the year, after the minister there was indicted. This was a congregation that had a history of troublesome ministerial appointments, and so for her first Sunday at the church, in order to give her some adjustment time, the daughter of one the members of the congregation gave the sermon. She wanted to talk about what had happened to the church, about its future, about its obligations to itself and about moving on. In order to help illustrate her point, she talked about how ministers were a lot like dogs and dog shows and I loved the analogy and thought it would be great to try and pass some of it on to you.

There are currently more than 150 different breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, and there must be at least than many different types of ministers, but all of them will fall into certain types of categories. The first category, and one we’ve probably all seen before, is the show dog. The show dog is most concerned with the appearance of things. It wants to be groomed and primped and showered with praise. It wants everything to be just right, to have everything in its place as it were. As a result, everything looks beautiful, most especially the show dog, and this is very impressive to behold and many people are won over by this display.

Unfortunately, even though it looks as if this work is being done for those who are witnessing the event that is actually a deceptive appearance because everything is about the dog. The dog is the most important thing. I don’t know how many people have had ministers like this, but you’ve almost certainly seen one of them on television. All the energies of the minister and also of the congregation go into feeding the ego of the minister. Everything that is done, even the good and beneficial things, are all ultimately done for one purpose: To make the minister look good.

Now, there are some benefits to having a show dog as a minister because their desire to be recognized and to be the best in show invariably helps to bring attention to the church, and people will come to someplace that is getting attention. The show dog might help to put butts in the seats, as they say, but ultimately, because they are so consumed with themselves, they can do little to make sure that the flock is being properly cared for. Little hurts are caused and ignored which eventual become open wounds which injure the community. But, by the time this happens the show dog has usually moved on because there is always a bigger and better show to move go to.

The next category of dogs is known as the toy dog, or as I like to refer to them “yip dogs.” In real life this category includes Chihuahuas and dogs like that. Now I’ll admit my bias against these types of dogs by saying that any dog that can fit in a woman’s purse is not a real dog. These dogs tend to have lots of energy and run around barking, trying to imitate real dogs and in that sense they can be cute and certainly there are lots of people who are attracted to this sort of dog. But, my obvious bias aside, they are supposed to make wonderful pets, especially for families and those living in the cities. They are loving and friendly to everyone and can climb and sit on you lap, giving them their other moniker, lap dogs.

Ministers who take after toy dogs spend lots of time running around, being ultra friendly and talking a lot. Again this is very appealing to some people because it looks like they are doing a lot of work. They are also certainly friendly enough and who does want a very friendly minister? But there are several problems with this type of minister. The first is that there is a big difference between looking busy and actually doing work. The expenditure of energy does not necessarily indicate that any work is actually getting done.

The second problem with yip dogs lies in their friendliness. For you see, there is a solid rule for clergy that is little discussed outside of the ministry: The minister is not a member of the flock. Ministers and congregants are different. I can never be one of you. I will always be the minister no matter what we are doing, I can never separate from that role. Now there are certainly ministers who violate this code, who try and be just one of the sheep, but this is almost always to the detriment of the minister and most importantly to the detriment of the congregation. When these boundaries are crossed bad things tend to happen.

Now I am not saying that the minister shouldn’t be friendly and likable, because that is certainly not the case. Nor does this mean that the minister shouldn’t love each and every member of the congregation, because that is the case because most importantly, we are the guardians and have to treat each and every member of the flock the same, no matter if you are a white sheep or a black sheep. We cannot show favoritism based upon whom we like or dislike. We are obviously human, and this is very hard to do because clearly there are going to be members of the congregation that we get along with and those that we don’t. But that is the very problem. A minister has to provide their services to all regardless of how they feel about them, and therefore they cannot show signs of favoritism. In times of crisis and times of joy, the minister needs to be able to convey the love of God for all and to all.

The final category is that of the working dog. Now this is a fairly wide category and will include the majority of pastors with whom you will ever have to deal, but there are also still some specific types within this group. First, there is working dog who doesn’t really want to work, or more blatantly, the lazy dog. The one who seems to spend their time lounging in the sun while the flock does whatever it wants to do. They tend to be those who are burned out or those who, for whatever reason, seem to be there simply to collect the paycheck and await retirement. But caution must be made when deciding if the sheep dog is lazy or not, because there are also those who appear to be lazy who aren’t.

Like with the toy dogs who seem to be always busy but who are getting little done, just because the dog is laying down at the side of the flock does not mean that he is not ever alert, watchful and doing a lot of work. It is entirely possible that they are getting a lot of the work done that needs to be done when the flock is not paying attention. But a good watch dog usually makes sure that the flock sees the work they are doing, not only to stop this sort of thinking, but also to let others, who might be a threat to the flock, know that the dog is ever vigilante as well as to let other sheep know that there is a good dog working with the flock.

The second type of working dog might be known as the point dog. This is the type of dog who, wanting to get a flock moving, goes out front and then turns around and starts barking in order to get the flock going. When the flock doesn’t move, they’ll take a few more steps forward in order to show the way and then start barking even more. When the flock still doesn’t move, they will then run back right in front of the flock and start barking a lot. This is type of minister who will use a lot of shoulds, you should be doing this, you should be doing that. The problem is, as one person so eloquently told me, people don’t like being should upon and many will leave the flock when they feel they are getting too much should. Of course the sheep dog in this situation is not in any position to do anything about it because they are so far out in front they can’t stop those at the back from leaving. The dog doesn’t understand what has gone wrong because he was only trying to lead the flock to better pastures, and the flock doesn’t understand why dog let so many other sheep get away, leaving resentment on both sides.

But, the best working dogs take combinations of all of the positive attributes and combine them. The best watch dog stands at the side when things are going well in order to survey the entire scene, but also to let the flock do its own thing. The flock has responsibilities to take care of itself as well. A good sheep dog not only lets the sheep do what they are supposed to be doing but also helps facilitate those things the sheep need to take ownership for, including bringing more sheep into the flock. One of the primary misconceptions about getting new sheep into the flock is that it is up to the sheep dog. But here’s a simple lesson in biology, sheep dogs cannot make new sheep, only sheep can make sheep. The sheep dog certainly plays a role in being able to get more sheep because they provide security, comfort and stability and they help move the flock to where the shepherd is calling them for the health of the flock, but by themselves sheep dogs cannot make more sheep.

The good sheep dog should spend his days wandering among the flock, checking on all of them, keeping them from straying to far and making sure they are content as a flock. The sheep dog does not care whether you are a white sheep or a black sheep, whether you stay firmly with the flock or whether you are more prone to become a stray. The dog doesn’t care because the shepherd doesn’t care. The shepherd has no particular favorites but loves each and every sheep exactly for whom and what they are, white wool, black wool, or no wool at all.

Now occasionally the flock will need to move in order to find better pastures. One of the problems with sheep, and other grazing animals, is that if they are not moved from time to time then they will destroy the pasture where they are. Now many sheep will be hesitant to move and some even resistant because they don’t see anything wrong and more importantly they remember how good the pasture has been to them. They remember how green it used to be and how much grass there was and they think if only we can bring that pasture back then everything will be fine. Now certainly, the sheep figure, they can’t have that old pasture again if they leave it, so they don’t want to leave. But the simple fact is, sometimes in order to regain the abundance of the past, in order to regain a thick grass on which to feed and which other sheep would like to join, the flock needs to move. And it takes a good sheep dog to know how to do this.

A good sheep dog will pick out a few of the sheep and get them moving forward, for the flock is always more likely to follow other sheep then they are some foolish dog. Once those sheep are moving, and this may require some barking, the sheep dog will move among the rest of the flock cajoling here and there, barking some and sometimes maybe even nipping at some heels in order to get the rest of the flock going forward. The dog will also make sure the flock is moving in the right direction, all under the instruction of the shepherd, and working from the back and the sides to make this happen. The flock will follow the sheep leading at the front, and the dog will keep those at the back moving with them. That is how a good dog operates, with the entirety of the flock in its mind and always looking for ways to make the flock stronger on their own. The more the flock can do for itself the better off the flock is going to be, for there is only so much that one dog can do.

Now obviously I hope that I am more like the last dog then the others, but the reality is that every minister has a little of all of these types in us. There are times when I will be a little show doggy, although that makes me very uncomfortable, I know there are times when I will want to be the point dog, but I hope I spend most of my time as the last one, working within the flock, inviting the leaders in the flock to provide the movement and direction, nipping where necessary to get everyone moving but letting the flock do what only the flock can do best. Because here is the most simple truth about sheep dogs, we come and go. The only constant is the flock and the love and presence of the shepherd.

The shepherd will never leave or go away, and the shepherd cares more for and about this flock then even the best sheep dog ever can. The strength, the endurance, the vitality, the spirit, the essence, the life and the future of any flock does not reside with sheep dog; it resides in the sheep and their relationship to the shepherd. The sheep dog will always exist outside the flock and they are always prone to change. The only constant is the flock itself, and that is where the power of any church lies. It resides in the flock, in each individual member and in their trust in the shepherd. So this week as we enter the season of advent, as we prepare to again celebrate the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus, the greatest gift we can receive, let us remember that God is the shepherd, the guide, the light of the world who shows us the way. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kids Say The Darndest Thing, Thanksgiving Edition

My oldest daughter, who is in kindergarten, was learning this week about Thanksgiving, and asked me what happened to the Mayflower. I told her I thought it had sailed back to England, but didn't know. When I asked her what she knew about the Mayflower, she told me what she could remember.

I then told her she should tell her teacher that she is a descendant of a signer of the Mayflower Compact, thinking this might impress her and give her something to brag about, to which she replied "can I also tell her that I have the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving DVD and that if you go all the way to the bottom on the menu you can watch the Mayflower cartoon?" Yes you can...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turkey Talk

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 6:24-34:

I’m sure that all of us have some story about Thanksgiving dinner not going quite right, but whatever stories we might have, I think that Mary Clingman can beat us. For you see, Mary has been a receiving calls on the Butterball Turkey hotline for more than 30 years. She recounts the time that a woman called and asked what she needed to do differently to cook the turkey at high altitudes, when asked how high she was, the caller said, the 32nd floor. Or there was the woman who called to say that her kitchen was on fire and wanted to know what to do, she was told to hang up and dial 911. Then there was the person who called and asked if the yellow netting and wrapping should be removed before cooking. The answer was yes.

But I have to say my favorite was the man who called to ask if their frozen turkey was still good. When asked how long they had had it, he said it was at least five years, but they couldn’t really remember. Had it always been kept frozen, she asked, no, he said, they had moved once and then there was the time that the freezer stopped working, so it had probably at least partially defrosted a couple of times, after being told him that the turkey probably was not good and should be discarded. The man said that’s what he had figured, so he was glad he had given it to a charity.

Today in the church we celebrate both Christ the King Sunday, which is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and the reason we opened with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”, and is is also the Sunday in which we celebrate Thanksgiving. This is always a day that I find tough to do because people often want you to try and do both, to cover Christ the King and Thanksgiving, and do both well, but that’s nearly impossible. So instead of doing both, it has been my policy to switch each year, and this year we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a strange holiday, for it is not a holiday that people seem to spend a lot of time thinking about or concentrating on. There are not special stores that pop up to sell things specifically for the day, and there is no special candy. Even the marshmallow peep company which seems to make peeps for almost everything these days does not have a Thanksgiving peep. Nor is there any sort of quasi mystical mascot accompanying Thanksgiving. Maybe this is because it’s sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas, two big holidays, maybe it’s because most kids don’t get really excited about eating a lot of turkey, although having the extra days off from school is sure nice, so no one really focuses their attention on the day. In an article she wrote Kathleen Bergeron said that Thanksgiving is almost the forgotten holiday.

Outside of travel arrangements, and some people who fuss over everything, we just simply don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or preparing for it, and yet in many ways it is one of the dominant holidays. It is the busiest travel holiday of the year, surpassing even Christmas, with airfares running as much as four times the average cost, which indicates that of all of the holidays it is the one that most families will be together for. Maybe that’s why some of us try and forget it because if we thought about all the time we will have to spend time with our families we would either be miserable or go insane. In doing a search for stories about family fights at Thanksgiving, I came across this post from Ann, who lives in she said “Thanksgiving horror stories? I have none. I find the key to family holiday success is buying as much wine as you think you need, and then doubling it.”

While I don’t think Jesus really had Thanksgiving in mind when he gave today’s passage, it certainly can apply. Matthew places this lesson as part of the Sermon on the Mount. Although the teaching is also included in Luke, he places it much later in Jesus’ ministry. I have also expanded what the lectionary calls for by including the line prior to the main passage about not being able to worship both God and mammon, and then closing with the passage telling us not to worry about tomorrow. I did this because I believe those two lines are crucial to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us, and because it also builds on what we have been covering for the past three weeks.

Now, we often throw out the line about not being able to love God and money as a claim about the problems of wealth. And it is, but it is about more than that, as we see by the passage that immediately follows. This line wasn’t meant to apply just to those who have wealth, but even to those who are poor because the desire to have wealth and things is just as damaging as actually having those things. It is in thinking that only if we have one more thing then we will be truly happy. Indeed, American Capitalism is based almost solely these days on the massive spending that we do on things that we are told that we “need.”

Now in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the lowest level are those things we need to survive, food, shelter, security, but that is exactly what Jesus is talking about. Jesus does not say don’t worry about how we’re going to be able to afford the vacation house or a television for the garage. Instead he says don’t worry about we are going to eat, or drink or wear. And notice that he does not say if you are worried about these things, meaning that some worry and some don’t, instead he assumes that we are worried about these things. These concerns may not seem all that important to most of us, but remember that for the majority of Jesus’ listeners they often did not know where their next meal was coming from. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, which precedes today’s passage by just a few verses, and ask for God to give us this day our daily bread, it was not just some idle request being made, nor should it be an idle request now. It is to put our reliance on God that God will provide what we needed, which is what today’s scripture is about.

In one of my favorite lines from the movie Mary Poppins, after the children, Jane and Michael, tell the bank manager, wonderfully played by Dick Van Dyke, that they don’t want to put their money into the bank but instead use it to buy food for the birds, and the manager tells them “fiddlesticks, feed the birds and what have you got? Lazy birds.” I think sometimes we read these passages as if Jesus is saying that all we have to do is sit back and do nothing and God will give us what we need. But that is not what is being said. In fact, Jesus says that we must strive, but we are not striving for food or clothing. It is the gentiles, Jesus says, who strive for the things of the world, who feel that they need more things to be happy. But, this always leads us to needing more and more because these things will never make us truly happy and if we are constantly trying to accumulate then we will always be worried about when we will have enough, and of course we will never have enough.

Instead we are first to strive for the kingdom of God, and then all these things will be given to us we are told. There is effort and diligence required on our part, but effort and diligence directed in the proper way. One commentator remarked “the call is for radical trust and single-minded service. That which is uncompromisingly primary is orienting one’s life to the approaching reign of God. After all, life is qualified by what one seeks. If relative, created values are made absolute, then there is no release from anxiety with their attainment.” That is what Jesus is telling us. When we focus on our wants and our needs then we begin to worry about things which are beyond our control and that leads us away from following God. Worry does not solve any problems or help us overcome our difficulties. Often worry serves the opposite of what it is intended to do and becomes a stumbling block for us, because instead of focusing on what is truly important in our lives, we become dominated by our worries. They become our god. Worry does nothing but create doubt and uncertainty; it distracts us from more important matters and paralyzes us from doing what needs to be done.

In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote about one afternoon when the men had all walked back to their barracks after their day’s labor. They were laying in their beds, exhausted and sick after having spent the day in a cold rain. Suddenly, he says, one of the men ran into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside. Reluctant to leave their beds, but hearing the urgency in the man’s voice, they staggered outside. They found that the rain had stopped, and although dark heavy clouds still hung in the sky, the sun had broken through and was reflecting on the puddles of water on the floor of the courtyard. “We stood there,” Frankl said, “marveling at the goodness of the creation. We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself.”

There were obviously lots of things that Frankl and his other prisoners could be worried about and focused on, and they were, until someone brought them out of it and they stood in awe at the beauty of creation. Can Thanksgiving be that moment for us? It can be, but we have to decide to make it so. According to Dr. James Barton, “it is known that about one half of the patients consulting a physician have no organic disease....” Instead, he says, “the cause of the symptoms is tenseness or worry, strain, and fatigue… [all of which] can affect the workings of all the organs of the body.” In other words, worrying can literally make you sick.

On the other hand, in an experiment at the University of Michigan, researchers found that students who kept a “gratitude journal,” a weekly record of things they feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began.

In another study researchers found that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others, and either to God or to creation in general, tended to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole. This result held even when researchers factored out such things as age, health, and income – equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty may have more to be grateful for. In other words, expressing gratitude can not only make you happier but can make you healthier. No wonder Jesus tells us to be like the birds and lilies of the fields.

Now I know that Thanksgiving celebrations can add to our stress levels, but they need not. Remember why it is that you are gathering together, wherever that may be, and stop for a time to relax and reflect. In order to help prepare you, I would like you to take out your green daily Bible reading insert, if you haven’t already, and we’re going to spend a few moments writing down some of the things we give thanks to God for on the backside where we can write down the things we will like to remember from today’s service. We are not giving thanks for things, because that places the emphasis on the object, whatever it is, but instead we are giving thanks to God who provides for us. So instead of saying, I am thankful for my home, which can take on the tone of saying thank you that I am not one of the homeless, we say instead, Thank you God for the shelter that you have provided me, and I ask you to help all those today who do not have a place to call their own. Or you might say, I thank you God for the friends and family who surround me with their love and their care, and remember those who feel alone or isolated and ask that your love might be felt by them. So take out your paper, begin your thanksgiving journal by writing down one or two things you want to give thanks to God for...

Jesus calls us to move away from what our culture says is important into a life of trust and obedience. Away from worrying and being obsessed with the mights and coulds in our lives, to striving first for the kingdom of God; striving away from putting our dependence on ourselves or other things and instead putting our reliance on God. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Let us strive for the kingdom and let us take the time to give thanks to God. Thanks be to God sisters and brothers. Amen.