Monday, December 28, 2015

Temple Tossed

Here is the sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 2:41-52:

Today, and for the next few weeks we are going to find ourselves in a sort of time-warp.  We celebrated Jesus’ birth just two days ago, and yet we find him today at the age of twelve, then next week we jump back to when he was somewhere around the age of two, and then the week after that we jump ahead to the time when he is about 30 years old.  I don’t know if the group who puts together the lectionary readings really thought about the reality of today’s passage in regards to the holidays, but it’s totally appropriate because it starts with Jesus’ family going to Jerusalem for Passover, one of the high holies, when Jerusalem and the Temple would be packed with people and everything would be a little crazy, and then everyone went home and just three days later everything is calm and quiet again.  There is plenty of space for Jesus to be in the Temple wiling away the days.  The same is true for the church, on this Sunday which is traditionally one of the lowest attended worship services for the year, all the guests we had for Christmas Eve have gone home, or are close to going home, everything has turned back to normal, there’s plenty of seating available and it’s a little quiet again.

This is a passage that is very unusual for the gospels, especially for Luke’s gospel.  First because this story makes no sense in relation to Luke’s birth narrative which precedes it.  After all, it is in Luke’s narrative that Mary is visited by an angel and told that the child she will carry is special, and Mary responds by giving us the magnificat, her beautiful poetic response.  It is in Luke’s gospel that John the Baptist, who has his own miraculous conception story, is a cousin of Jesus who leaps in his mother’s womb when his mother Elizabeth and Mary meet.  It is in Luke’s narrative that the shepherds are sent to Bethlehem by an angel and come to pay homage to the child in a manger, and we are told “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”  And it is in Luke’s narrative that when Joseph and Mary present Jesus at the Temple shortly after his birth and make an offering for their first born son that Anna and Simeon both make claims about who Jesus is and what he means to Israel.  And yet if we just read today’s passage none of this seems to have taken place, or if they did then Mary and Joseph have totally forgotten about them after only twelve years, which seems very unlikely.  Mary even refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father.   This story just simply doesn’t match up with what has come before it.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Gabriel's Message

Here is my Christmas Eve sermon.  The text was Luke 2:1-20:

I had a really hard time coming up with what I was going to say for this message.  Normally I have something roughly planned out for Christmas Eve by the time we hit Halloween, but this year nothing was coming to me and as we got closer and closer I finally did the smart thing and asked my wife what she thought I should preach on.  She asked what I had covered the past two years, see she’s not paying attention either, and I said two years ago I had talked about Joseph and the importance that people play in each other’s lives, and last year I had talked about the shepherds and the fact that they didn’t come up with excuses about why they couldn’t go see the baby, but instead followed God’s commands.  She said that it seemed like I had a little theme going, even if I hadn’t planned it, of covering the characters in the Christmas story and so she thought I should preach on Mary.  So following her advice, I decided to preach on the angels.  I don’t think I’m going to get a very good present this year.
Angels are a familiar part of the Christmas story.  There is the archangel Gabriel who makes first makes the announcement to Zechariah and Elizabeth about the coming birth of John the Baptist, and then makes the announcement to Mary that she will bear a child.  There are the angels who make the announcement to the shepherds in the fields, and we cannot forget angel second class, Clarence Odbody, in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  I think my favorite portrayal of an angel is not in a Christmas story, but instead was done by John Travolta who portrayed that archangel Michael, in the movie of the same name.  A smoking, hard drinking, hard living, slob, with a rather colorful vocabulary.  Someone no one would ever believe was an angel if it weren’t for the two wings growing out of his back.  And you know that John Travolta is a really good actor when he, a scientologist, can play the leading messenger for God.

We actually don’t know very much about angels from the Bible.  Most of what people think about them, or think they know about them, comes from extra-biblical sources, some of them quite modern, and we could talk about them but then we’d have to end up talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pine.  But that is not to say that angels aren’t found in scripture because they are.  The first time we hear of an angel is after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the entrance is guarded by cherubim who has a flaming sword, think of it as the world’s first light saber.  The cherubim are winged creatures who act sort of as guardians, and if you remember Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark correctly, they are the images formed onto the top of the ark of the covenant.  Later we will also hear about seraphim, who are winged creatures said to be found guarding God’s seat inside the Temple in the Holy of Holies.  If I remember correctly, it’s the cherubim that hang from the ceiling and the seraphim that come up from the floor, or maybe it’s reversed, I often get it wrong.  But while they are angelic like creatures, outside of the wings, these are not really angels as we typically understand them or think of them, or as they are found in the rest of scripture.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Blue Christmas: Love Never Ends

This is the sermon I preached for our Blue Christmas Service.  The scripture readings were Isaiah 9:2-7 and 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8, 13:

Mourning at Christmas is difficult.  18 years ago I attended the funeral for my uncle on Christmas Eve.  Mourning at Christmas is different than mourning at other times of the year, whether it’s mourning the loss of a loved one, the loss of health, the loss of a job, whatever it might be, it’s hard because we are told that’s it the most wonderful time of the year.  We’re supposed to be holy and jolly and merry, and many of us aren’t. Then people wonder where our Christmas spirit is, wonder why we can’t just get past it, and wonder why we can’t just try to be happy at least for this season.  They ask those questions because unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve been mourning at Christmas, it’s hard to understand.  But it’s also because they don’t understand Christmas that they ask these things of us, because they think that Christmas is supposed to be about the bright and happy things, rather than about the dark and mournful things.  But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of Christmas.  If we want to truly seek to keep Christ in Christmas, if Jesus is the reason for the season, then we need to understand that God did not send Jesus because everything was great.  If everything was great we wouldn’t need Christ.  The themes of Advent, which is the season leading up to Christmas, are peace, hope, joy and love.  Again things you don’t need when things are great, but things we need when things are looking dark and bleak.
The first passage we heard from tonight was from the prophet Isaiah, who makes his prophetic statement that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.”  Isaiah says this because he is prophesying at a time of deep turmoil and conflict for Israel, which leads, eventually, to the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrian Empire.  And so Isaiah tells the people, tells us that a light will come which will shatter the darkness, a child will be born from the line of David who will bring endless peace, not because there is peace, but because we need peace, and we need hope, and we need joy, and we need love, and we need light in our darkness.

We don’t actually know when Jesus was born, and there are lots of reasons why December 25, was chosen, but one of them was because under the Julian calendar, it was the winter solstice, which meant that every night from the celebration of the coming of Christ, the light of the world, would start getting shorter, and every day there would be a little more light, another indication that the darkness could not overcome the light.  That is why we hold this service today, on the longest night of the year, because from here until the middle of June the light will get more and more.  We might go to sleep tonight covered in darkness, maybe even in the dark night of the soul, but the light cannot overcome the darkness, for those who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light.  And here is what those of us who have been in the darkness know, which is something all of us, and that is that light is most necessary in the darkness, and that it only takes a little bit of light to overcome the darkness.  Later when we sing silent night, and light our candles, our light will overcome the darkness that surrounds us.  It might not feel like the darkness will ever dissipate, or that anything can overcome it, but the promise given to us is that we are never alone, that God is always with us, that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whatever that shadow may represent, that the light of Christ shines for us and God is with us because God loves us.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Jesus' Wish List

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Hebrews 10:5-10:

Several years ago, Jimmy Kimmel asked the viewers of his late night show to prank their children and to tell them they could open one present they had gotten for Christmas a few weeks early, but rather than giving them something they wanted, to instead give them something they wouldn’t want.  People did and posted it on YouTube with the message “hey Jimmy Kimmel, I gave my kids a terrible present.”  Take a look at some of these gifts…   I can’t decide whether Jimmy Kimmel is a genius in exposing some of our thoughts about Christmas or if instead he is going straight to hell.  I think the kids subjected to this, especially the little boy who thinks it’s the worst Christmas ever, definitely are going with the second of the options.  We find it funny not only because of the reactions from the kids, but the sort of uncomfortableness we feel that this is what Christmas is, and what it seems to be about, getting presents.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, concludes our sermon series which has actually been entitled Christmas is Not Your Birthday.  We act like it’s our birthday, and I’m not obviously talking about if December 25th is your actual birthday.  Be we think it’s about giving gifts and getting gifts, especially for kids, and especially for stores.  When people talk about rethinking Christmas and perhaps shopping less, one of the things that comes up is that we are told that stores are dependent upon Christmas sales for their very existence.  That’s one of the reasons black Friday is named what it is, because it’s the first time that many of them have gone into the black.  But is that really our duty and obligation as Christians, to make sure that we shop enough, go into debt enough, as they say to buy presents we don’t need with money we don’t have, in order to keep the economy going?

Now this year I haven’t really talked about practicing Christmas differently as I have in years past, and perhaps that is the reason that this year no one has accused me of not liking Christmas, of wanting to suck all the fun out of Christmas as people have done in year’s past.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas, and I believe we can love Christmas, and everything that goes along with it, including giving and getting gifts, and still think that perhaps we are missing something, that maybe there could be something which could connect us to the season just a little bit more.  Or, as the Grinch comes to realize, “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas, perhaps, means just a little bit more.” And so today we conclude our Advent sermon series by looking at Jesus’ wish list.  Which might be part of what we can get out of Jimmy Kimmel torturing young children for our amusement, is that we ask children and each other what they want for Christmas.  But even when we claim that we want to keep Christ in Christmas and that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that rhymes so it has to be true, have we ever actually asked the question “What does Jesus want for his birthday?”

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015 Doublespeak

One of the things we love to do is to make up words and phrases that cover up harsh realities.  So, for example, people don't die, they pass away, no one is laid off or fired, they are downsized, phased out or we "eliminate redundancies in the human services area."

This week Ted Cruz was talking about the need for the military, and what would happen if he were commander in chief, to carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion. The first part of the problem is the fact that the military doesn't carpet bomb. It is not US policy, nor is it needed with "strategic" and "smart" bombs.

But it is what Ted Cruz said about the results of carpet bombing that make it worse, and that is, in his words, that there is "inadvertent collateral casualties."  What he means by that is that when we indiscriminately bomb people, and even when it is targeted, that we kill innocent bystanders, not just those we seek to kill.  But that is not what he said, because he doesn't want people to hear that he is calling for widespread death and destruction of non-combatants (and yes I know these could be doublespeak too).

Ted Cruz calls himself a Christian and is also "pro-life" and so maybe that's why he can't just come out and talk about the fact that bombs kill people, but talking about "inadvertent collateral casualties" doesn't make it better. It just makes him dishonest.

And as we move closer to Christmas and the birth of Christ, whom we proclaim as the prince of peace, do we think that Christ's answer would be carpet bombing as long as we try and limit "inadvertent collateral casualties"?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pete Rose, Gambling and MLB Hypocrisy

Yesterday Pete Rose’s bid for reinstatement to Major League Baseball was denied by new commissioner Rob Manfred.  For those unfamiliar with the issue, Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, was banned in 1989 for gambling on baseball, which is said to be the cardinal sin of baseball.  The first problem with this is that Rose was totally worked over by then commission Bart Giamatti.  According to Rose, and some investigative reporters, Rose agreed to sign a statement accepting a one-year ban from baseball, with no finding of fault, and then he would be reinstated at the end of the year.

But, during his press conference, Giamatti said Rose gambled on baseball and there was no agreement in place to limit the length of the suspension.  Giamatti then died 8 days later, and so Rose has been in perpetual limbo since then. As the ban went on Rose continued to deny that he had gambled on baseball, even though it’s pretty clear that he did, but he finally admitted it because he was told by numerous sources that if he did admit it, all would be forgiven and he would be allowed back into the game that he loved.  So he did, and the immediate response was “see we told you so, that’s why he can’t be allowed back in.”  MLB has given special permission for Rose to appear at official MLB activities, but only when it was useful to them (ie makes them money).

I honestly have no problem with Rose being banned, although I think it’s hugely hypocritical, which I’ll get to in a minute, my problem is that he is not allowed into the Hall of Fame.  The Hall has a rule which says that no one on the “permanently ineligible list” can be voted into the Hall.  That rule is not established by MLB but by the Hall itself.

What they need to decide is if they are going to be a shrine or a museum.  If they are going to be a shrine, and keep out all the “undesirables” then there are lots of current members that need to go. That includes Adrian “Cap” Anson who is largely responsible for creating the “gentleman’s agreement” which kept African-American players out of the game, or Ty Cobb, who was a rabid racist.  Those are just two of many that don’t belong in a “shrine.”

But if it’s a museum then they belong and Pete Rose also belongs, and how can you have one of the greatest players ever to play the game not included with the list of the greats.  Everyone knows how great he was and so it lowers everyone else included not having him there.  I think the easy solution is to leave him banned from MLB but have the Hall change their rules and put him in (getting the committee to actual vote for him is a whole other topic).

Now back to the hypocrisy.  The reason why gambling is the cardinal sin is because of the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which 8 players were accused of throwing the World Series, thus impacting the “integrity of the game.”  We’ll ignore the fact that no African-American players were allowed to play in the game at the time, and so how much integrity could they really have?  But, MLB also quickly overlooks the case of collusion in which the owners and managers of the league made an agreement not to sign free agents in order to keep salaries down.  The courts found that this took place from 1985-1987, although some speculate it was longer than that.

But what this meant is that teams did not go out and get players that could make their teams better, get players that might be able to get them into the playoffs and perhaps even to the World Series.  Which means, in fact, that the owners of the teams worked to fix the World Series for at least 3 years.  They didn’t throw it the way the White Sox allegedly did, but it worked out to the same because some teams were clearly kept from becoming better and thus becoming contenders (including my Yankees).  Many of those who were responsible for this will end up in the Hall.  Why are they not being permanently banned in order to protect the “integrity of the game”?

And finally, MLB is in deep in the online daily fantasy games, including being a part owner of DraftKings.  But at the same time they have forbidden any MLB players from participating in DraftKings, you know, “for the integrity of the game.”  So it’s okay for the owners and league to make money from gambling but not the players, and there is no integrity issues for the league on this because “it’s good for the game and drives up interest.”  Of course what they also say is that it’s not truly gambling, even though many states have now forbidden it because they consider it gambling, and they have forbidden the players to do because it’s gambling.

And to me fantasy gambling is an even greater threat to the game, because it’s not about who wins or loses, but about how players did.  So far there has been no proof that Rose ever bet against his team, but there is evidence he bet for his team.  The problem with the White Sox is that they bet against themselves.  But when everything comes down to the individual, it’s much easier to get one player to do something that can affect stats, to bet against themselves.  It might or might not hurt their team, depending on what it is they are doing, but could make gamblers lots and lots of money.

But don’t worry because MLB says this is okay, and they are making money off it, and we just have to overlook the hypocrisy of it all and take our animosity out on the person who truly deserves it, Pete Rose.

(And just to mix a little religion into the matter, thinking that Manfred would overturn it was like believing that Pope Clement VII was going to overturn the ruling of Pope Julius II that had allowed Henry VIII to marry Catherine of Aragon in the first place by giving him an annulment.  Popes don't like to overrule other popes because it makes them look like they were wrong, and so Manfred was not going to essentially overrule the decisions of three other commissioners.)

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Scandalous Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Zephaniah 3:14-20:

Scandalous is defined as causing scandal or shocking.  Most of us could probably tell a story of a scandalous love, of a love that wasn’t supposed to be, or wasn’t allowed to be.  We might start with the ill-fated Romeo and Juliet, perhaps of King Edward the VIII who abdicated the English throne to marry the American Wallis Simpson, or perhaps its Richard Loving, a white man, who married Mildred Jeter, a black woman, whose arrest for getting married made it to the Supreme Court which struck down anti-miscegenation laws.  Or maybe Elizabeth Taylor and all of her husbands.  Or maybe it’s Tinni, a domesticated dog, and Sniffer, wild fox, who are the best of friends.  It’s Disney’s Fox and the Hound being played out in real life.  Even with centuries of breeding working against them, Tinni and sniffer are now inseparable when they are in the woods together.  A truly scandalous love.
Of course scripture too is full of scandalous loves.  There is David and Bathsheba, an affair which gets Bathsheba’s husband killed.  There is Ruth and Boaz, a marriage between an Israelite and Canaanite, something that just isn’t supposed to happen.  Then there is the story, probably not as well-known of Hosea and Gomer.  Hosea is one of the twelve Minor Prophets, minor in this case having nothing to do with importance but instead about the length of the collections of their prophecies.  Hosea is seeking to be faithful to God, and God tells him to go and marry Gomer, who is a prostitute.  In fact, God says to Hosea “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress.”  There is something more than just scandalous about the relationship of Hosea and Gomer, because Gomer is the excluded one, the one people like down upon, the one no one wants to know, and certainly not the person people talk about in polite company, definitely not in church.

But why does God tell Hosea to marry that woman?  Because Gomer, Hosea’s unfaithful wife, represents the Israelites who are unfaithful to the things they are called to do, and yet in spite of all of that God loves them and wants to be in relationship with them.  Hosea is God in the relationship, faithful and true, and Gomer represents the Israelites, always being unfaithful and straying from the relationship.  Hosea says “the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”  I don’t really understand that last part, but I think it’s about liking fruit cake.  God is faithful, but the people stray.  A scandalous love.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tire Deflationgate - Go Tell Roger Goodell

Several weeks ago when I got into my car in the morning, I received a warning on the dashboard that one of my tires was below pressure.  Now it just so happened that I had looked at the air pressure the day before and so I know that my tire had been at 30 psi.  But the next morning it was at 27 psi.

The reason I had checked it the day before is that I know that when it gets cold that air contracts, and thus I think I am disqualified from being an NFL executive, and so I wanted to make sure my tires were still at the right pressure.  That night just happened to be the first really cold night in Albuquerque, and during the course of it I lost 3 psi.  I did not rush right out and fill the tire up because I also knew that as the day warmed up, and as the tires warmed, that the air would expand and I would then be back at pressure.

Now I say that because "deflategate" is still taking place with the NFL going for an appeal sometime in later winter or early spring.  It is very clear from their initial report that they had no idea that air contracts in cold weather and expands in warm weather and so if you take temperatures inside and then outside you will get different readings.  They didn't know that even though they all live on the East coast where the temperature extremes are even greater then they are here in New Mexico, and thus they should all know.  Or perhaps their cars are always kept only in covered, and perhaps heated, garages and so they never have to deal with needing to put air in their tires.

All that is to continue to point out the stupidity of their punishment, let alone freaking about it in the first place, and if we want to talk about protecting the "integrity of the game" it seems we should be focusing much more on the officials then deflation of game balls.  Or we should have Goodell start conducting a $5 million investigation into every time we have to put air into our tires in the fall and winter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Muslims and Religious Freedom

For years we have been hearing all about how Christianity and Christians are under attack.  It might be true in some places, but it’s not true in the US.  The biggest problem is not understanding the distinct difference between being preferenced, which is what was taking place for years for Christians, and being persecuted.  But we have all heard about the cry for and need of religious liberty.  But, now the really truth about what they really wanted is coming out.

As most everyone is probably aware, Donald Trump has called for banning all Muslims from entering into the US, including those who are citizens.  This has followed on months of similar rhetoric, although not quite so extreme, not just from Trump but from the other Republican candidates as well about observing and being vigilant with Muslims, up to and including registering them and putting informers in the Mosques.

When these ideas were being promoted there was little if any objections from the right, the very same people who would flip if someone proposed anything even close to the same thing for Christians.  Which means they are not really concerned with religious liberty or freedom for all, but simply religious liberty for themselves, or people like them.

It’s like those who are using Hanukah as a celebration for religious freedom, when, as a story in the Washington Post pointed out, it should better be understood as freedom to force other people to worship the same way that you do.  That, of course, is not religious freedom, but religious tyranny and that is what those who regularly talk about religious “freedom” truly want is to be allowed to force everyone else to believe the same things they do.  It’s as we saw in Animal Farm, “everyone animal is equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Although the response has not been overwhelmingly opposed to Trump’s statement, when Cheney comes out and says you are wrong we at least know there is a line that can be crossed that will bring some rebuke.  Now the question is will the rebukes increase and will this by the straw that finally breaks the back of Trumps racist rhetoric.

* I originally put in the wrong Orwell title, and from the comment changed from 1984 to Animal Farm.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Giving Up on Perfect

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The scripture reading was Philippians 1:3-11:

Freedom from Want
by Norman Rockwell
This is one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings, and it has been seen to sort of represent the perfect holiday gathering. Grandma and grandpa serving the turkey with the entire family gathered around the table.  It, along with much else that Rockwell had to paint, has become a symbol of a sort of lost time in America, except for the fact that these times never really existed.  This image is a fantasy. It’s not even an event that ever took place.  The woman serving the turkey is Rockwell’s cook and housecleaner, and Rockwell took a picture of her with the family turkey.  While her husband is in the picture, it is not the man next to her playing the role of the grandfather, he is the older man at the front left of the painting.  And none of them were ever sitting at one table at the same time.  He posed them by themselves in his studio and then took pictures to later use to compose the image he wanted.  Rockwell himself said that he didn’t paint what was, but instead what he hoped to be.

We have sanitized, idealized and idolized this image, just as we have done with Rockwell’s other paintings, that this is what things are supposed to look like.  This is what we are to strive for.  And if we don’t make it look like this then we are missing something, because surely others are having these types of holidays aren’t they?  And so we strive to have that perfect Christmas, and we strive and we strive and we strive, and yet we never quite get there, it’s always that allusive thing that’s just beyond our grasp, and so we simply say, “well next year, this is what we will do differently in order to make it perfect.”  We try and live into this perfect picture, this perfect world, this perfect ideal, but not only can it never be, it never was either.  And we’ve done the same thing with our story of the nativity as well, in order to sentimentalize it, we have removed it from reality.