22 December, 2005

The meaning of Christmas?

The third week in November, the local Christian radio station ran an advertisement for a program that was about giving toys to disadvantaged children on December 25th. A nice man with a mellifluous voice came on the air and encouraged everyone to “spread holiday cheer, and show a needy child the true meaning of Christmas.” While I have nothing against giving presents to children, and in fact I hope lots of people do so this December, I cast a skeptical eye on assigning such a grand title to that activity. If we could try to capture the ‘true meaning’ of incarnation, I doubt seriously it would include wrapping paper and a bow.

To be honest, tinsel and elves and flying reindeer disturb me, just a little. Why? Because I’m afraid that the fairy-tale world we create for ourselves at Christmas blinds us to the awe and wonder of the Christmas narrative. The event we remember is fairly simple—a young Jewish girl gives birth to a baby. Was it an international event at the time? No. Was there something clearly miraculous about it? Maybe. Two of the four gospel stories in the Bible don’t even mention Jesus’ birth. But the other two gospels tell a story that a scientific age has problems with.

The miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth wasn’t the issue for early Christians. They didn’t follow him, gives their lives to him, lay down their lives for him, because of what they knew or didn’t know about his parentage. They weren’t convinced because they had heard stories that he didn’t have a human father, or because of stories of angels and mangers and stars and camels and shepherds when he was born. No, they followed because of what they saw in the man.

Jesus showed them a new kind of living. A new kind of being. A new and unexpected manifestation of God’s love, God’s power. They looked at him and saw something of the mystery and wonder of God. They saw in Jesus something so profound, something so deep at the bedrock of reality, that their very natures were transformed by his presence. And, at the limit of their ability to comprehend what was going on, they confessed: God was in Christ.

It would not have occurred to the Biblical writers to separate this story from the world of everyday occurrence. So, in the supernaturalistic world in which they lived, they told the story of his birth with poetry and song, with silver starlight and the roar of angel wings, to allow us, the readers of the story, a way of brushing against the significance of the man as we slide past. As the creation stories of Genesis tell not how the world was created, but why, so the birth narratives stretch past the mundane, past what happened? and on toward Why? Who was this man? and What can it mean?

But when we 21st-century folk read the stories of the virgin birth, we wonder how such a thing might really happen, and we find ourselves in danger of reading into the gospel account the conclusion that Jesus was special because he was fundamentally different, when instead the story is trying to tell us that he was human, the same as us, from birth to death.

Modern Christmas stories leave me quietly disturbed because when we tell each other stories of flying reindeer and magic elves, we know they’re not in any way real. Sure, they’re heartwarming, or inspiring, or funny. But maybe, when we tell those silly stories, we push the story of Jesus away from our reality at the same time.

If we allow Jesus to be a fairy-tale, then he’s something other than one of us—kinda like us, but not really one of us. And then the gospel melts away into dirty slush, right along with the January snow.

20 December, 2005

Writing sermons is hard (part 2 of many)

Yes, I've now included several sermons as blog entries. (another one on the way soonish)

I'm firmly convinced that a sermon is an oral event. A conversation between God, the text, the preacher, and the congregation. What God says to me may get lost in translation on the way to you, which might be a good or a bad thing. Several times already at St. Thomas, I've experienced God taking what comes out of my mouth and working with it in the air on its way to you. People have commented to me at the end of the service that they've loved what I said about [turnips], when I was talking about [geese]. That's all to God's glory.

But I write sermons, and I do write most of them down as a manuscript, to be heard rather than written. You're aware that spoken English uses different grammar and rhythm than written English. Alliteration loses its power. Repitition, phrasing, become the product of the reader's attention level rather than the preacher's delivery. As a result, most of what I've been told are 'good' sermons look terrible on paper.

I'm also firmly convinced that a sermon is an event for a specific time and place and people. St. Thomas is a crowd of suburban anglo-saxon upper-middle-class Episcopalians. We're not a good cross-section of San Antonio, the United States, or Christianity for that matter. Sermons sent out written hit unknown ears, and I can't even think about writing for *everybody* in God's creation or I get totally paralyzed.

On Mary, the mother of the Messiah

one of my two readers (readership now growing at an exponential rate) has left a comment that deserves a weightier response than I can give, but here's a try.

yes, the last entry was a sermon. I made a rule for myself that I would only post a sermon as a blog entry if someone asked for a copy of it and it was already out there in written form somewhere. And in the sermon, as a deliberately shocking rhetorical device, I described Mary as a little girl. Why? Because my congregation is largely upper middle class anglo Episcopalians, who picture Mary in their minds' eyes the same way she was in their parents' or grandparents' ceramic nativity sets--blue flowing robe, white headcloth, blond hair, blue eyes, about 20-25 years old. Which, of course, is just about as likely as Oprah being a natural blonde. The fact that Jesus probably looked far more like Osama Bin Laden than, say, Kevin Costner, is something we get, intellectually, if we stop and think about it.

For all that The Blessed Virgin Mary is such a significant figure in Christianity (particularly Roman Catholicism), the gospels don't give her much press time, and precious few lines.

In fact, some scholars (I shouldn't reference scholarly ideas without attribution, but it's late and I'm tired...Bultmann, for one) deny the historical veracity of the gospels' claim to Jesus being virgin born. There are many other stories from other faiths and/or mythologies that claim virgin mothers for their heroes, for one thing, and Christianity may have utilized a common story in such a way as to reach Greek-speaking audiences. Stronger challenge comes from the fact that two of the four canonical gospels don't mention it at all, and that Paul's letters contain no mention of it either.

The gospels often give us summaries of events, and almost never get to the kind of narrative detail that modern writing strives for. The annunciation story begins with the angel's announcement, and ends with Mary's acceptance--a mighty act of faith and devotion. But for her answer to such a world-changing pronouncement to be instantaneous, without fear or doubt or even anxiety, strains credulity (at least for me). I think it more likely that she acted in fear, which makes her response to God's call all the more faithful.

She then was, for the vast majority of his life, the mother (and maybe single parent) of the messiah. The creeds of faith say that Jesus was both human and divine, and Mary would have had enormous impact on making Jesus who he was. It's not too much of a stretch to say that the child Jesus learned obediance to God's will from Mary.

Was the anunciation an event forced on Mary? No.

The next question to be asked is, does it matter if Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived?

18 December, 2005

4th Sunday in Advent

It was dark.

Late at night, and she couldn’t sleep. So she crawled out of the bed that she shared with her parents and her sister, stepped over the sleeping dog in the doorway, and quietly slipped outside into the night. In the dead of night, the village slept, silent and still. She glanced up at the stars and crossed her arms over her chest against the chill, a little peasant girl, in a little village in the middle of nowhere important.

Suddenly, and still silently, from behind her shone a fierce light, piercing and white. She whirled around, and there, behind her, huge and terrible, was what could only have been an angel of the Lord. Her arms and legs turned to wax, she began to take a step backward, and collapsed in an undignified heap on the dusty ground.

A voice that shook the earth said, “you will conceive, and bear a son. You are to name him Yeshua, and he will be save his people from their sins.”

And Mary’s whole existence was laid bare in a flash. She began to think of the shame of becoming pregnant without being married, the shame that she would bring to gentle Joseph, the carpenter to whom whe was betrothed. The shame that she would bring to her parents, the shame that she would endure for the long months of her pregnancy, the shame that she would carry for all the rest of her days, an invisible scarlet letter that could never be removed.

And then the rest of the Angel’s words sunk in.

The messiah.
The son of the most high God.

And she dared to look the angel in the face. The Angel saw the fear in her eyes. Shaking with fear, reeling, unbelieving, she asked:

“How can these things be?”

* * * * * * * * * **

It was growing dark in the region of the Gadarenes.

The sky fading from blue to purple, and the villagers watched young Yeshua walk into the graveyard.

In there, in the shadowy corners amongst the tombs, lived the horror that everyone knew, but that no one in the village spoke of. The thing that had once been human. His eyes burned with an alien intensity. He smashed anything in reach. He foamed at the mouth. He chewed ropes in half and broke chains with his bare hands. At night, his tortured screams echoed off the hills and roused the sleeping children.

Yeshua disappeared into the shadow of the tombs. And, as everyone knew was coming, the harsh, grating screams began—and then suddenly and abruptly stopped. The silence hung over the village, and they looked at each other in surprise.

Then, out of nowhere, every pig in the village began to scream. Scream as if hundreds of invisible butchers were wielding their knives all at once. They went wild. They smashed the fenceposts, cut themselves on shards of wood. Blood splattered the walls of the houses. They trampled over each other, over small children, over pots and wagons. The whole herd rushed as one down the hill, screaming and kicking, and then, as one, in defiance of all logic, in defiance of all natural animal behavior, threw themselves over the cliff into the sea.

And all was quiet again.

The crazy monster of a man walked down the main street of the village next to Yeshua, calm, in his right mind. And the villagers looked at each other. And Yeshua saw the fear in their eyes. And they asked,

“how can these things be?”

* * * * * * * * * **

It was dark.

Deep, angry dark, and the Sea of Galilee heaved and pitched like a monstrous thing. Twelve frightened men in a tiny fishing boat, far too many for such a craft, getting in each others’ way. The waves licked greedily over the side of the boat, and it rode lower and lower in the water. The rain came down sideways, the wind howled through and tore the sail to shreds. Invisible fingers in the water tore the oars from their hands.

All was lost. All was lost. And then, right over there, oh God, there’s somebody out there. Somebody walking on the water. And Yeshua stepped into the boat, and the wind stopped. And the waves were still. And the disciples looked at the sea, and looked at each other, and Yeshua saw the terror in their eyes, and they said:

“how can these things be?”

* * * * * * * * * **

It was getting dark in Bethany.

Mary and Martha wept outside the tomb, but Yeshua said, “roll the stone away.” Out of the mouth of the grave flowed the darkness and the stench of death. Yeshua called out with a loud voice, and there, oh God, there is Lazarus. Mary and Martha crept closer and saw. Yes, he’s really alive. They looked at Yeshua, and Yeshua saw the fear in their eyes, and they asked,

“how can these things be?”

* * * * * * * * * **

It was noon in Jerusalem, but the clouds rolled in and blanketed the land in an eerie, thick, oppressive shroud.

Mary stood, not far from the top of the hill, not far from the foot of the cross, trying to avoid catching the eyes of the Roman soldiers. Trying harder to avoid looking up, at her son. Her firstborn. Pierced, splayed out, exposed, whipped almost beyond the point of recognition, bleeding from a thousand wounds.

Yeshua looked down and saw the fear in her eyes. And she whispered,

“how can these things be?”

* * * * * * * * * **

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, three women went to the garden tomb to care for the body. But the stone was rolled away from the door, and the open mouth of the grave was silent.

As they stood there, in the cold quiet early morning darkness, suddenly there appeared a fierce light. A voice that shook the earth said, “why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here.” And as the others turned to flee in terror, Mary dared for the second time in her life to look into the face of the Angel. And the Angel looked at Mary and saw in her eyes fear, and wonder. And she said,

“how can these things be?”

And the angel said:

Fear not.

For nothing will be impossible with God.

06 December, 2005

In by a yard

Just got the news today...my fantasy football team made the playoffs.

By a yard.

I'm the last seed. There are three teams with identical records tied for hte last place. First tiebreaker is records against like teams, which is inconclusive. Second tiebreaker is total points scored for the season. I outscored the other guy 1047 to 1046. a 0.1% difference.

It gets better. The other guy's stud RB is Shawn Alexander, who played on Monday Night Football last night, in the snow. He scored two touchdowns, and was taken out in the second half, because the Seahawks were winning and the coach didn't want him hurt. Turns out he ended with 49 yards. Four fantasy points. Fifty yards, five points, and he goes to the playoffs. But no.

There's something theological in there, but I have to think about it.

(several things that might be said about the whole concept of fantasy football, but let's not go there for the moment)

02 December, 2005

Writing sermons is hard (part 1 of many)

This is finally making its way through my thick head:

Preaching is hard.

I heard it and heard it, but I didn’t believe it. I sneered at my classmates who said they wrote their sermons on weekends. I actually visited at the home of one of my best friends, a priest, who trotted himself off to the bedroom on Saturday night to write his Sunday sermon, and proceeded to chew him out. And then I found out that one of the better Episcopal preachers I know actually writes his sermons on Sunday morning.

I’ll confess something, on behalf of my brethren clergy in the Episcopal Church: most of us can’t preach our way out of a wet paper bag. Some of us are too scholarly, still stuck in seminary. Most of us are too centered on sacraments, and consider preaching just one of the things of lesser importance that happens on Sunday, in contrast to the Eucharistic celebration, which is the biggest thing. (While, theologically, I can see their point, it’s also the kind of mentality that leads to moving the candlesticks an inch to the left to maintain the symmetry and scowling darkly at the acolytes because they’re wearing flip-flops under their robes.) These folks are lazy, I thought. They’re not taking this seriously. Many of us are afraid of talking in public, and have never mastered that fear. A few of us, Lord have mercy, think we know better than the average sinner in the pews, and have become pompous and arrogant and judgmental.

Maybe it’s having been dipped in the Baptist tradition for a few years, but I think the sermon is equally important with anything else the church does. That the 10-25 minutes I’m going to stand up and speak are the most important minutes I spend all week.

At Seminary, I read all the books on the homiletics professor's suggested list. He would mention a few more in passing during lectures or in conversation. Read those too. I currently have...um...three books on the art of preaching and three books of sermons sitting on my on-deck shelf.

This week I led chapel for the school. I led morning and evening prayer. I visited the sick and the shut-ins. I consoled the grieving friends of one of our own, who died after a long illness. I prepared for and taught two Bible studies. I scheduled visits for Eucharistic ministers. I bought the card stock for invitations to my ordination as a priest. But this is a week when I’m preaching, so none of that has given me a sense of accomplishment. Nothing has brought peace. The upcoming sermon hovers over all.

I had it in my head that I would have this routine. Based heavily on the advice of Fred Craddock, one of the great teachers of preaching. Monday: exegesis. Tuesday: main point and outline. Wednesday: draft. Friday: revision. Saturday afternoon: delivery practice. Sounds good, seen from afar. Worked, too, while I was in seminary. And then I went to a congregation and got busy. And then the senior pastor went and gave me Mondays as my only day off. Tuesdays are staff meetings, which, to my great irritation, eats half the day. Now my schedule is shot, and I haven’t even started.

Add to it that there’s really no finished product for a sermon. It’s pages of text, printed out and scribbled on, delivered into the open air of a meeting of God’s people. I don’t get to see it land. I don’t see results. When someone weeps or laughs (and when that might be a good thing), I take a mental picture to hang on to. When people write me notes about my sermons, I save them in a drawer. Seriously.

Most awful of all is knowing what I’m daring to do. First the Bible is read, Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle. Then a section of the stories about Jesus are read. The lectionary wizards are pretty good about stringing them together so that there’s a textual crescendo. And then I get up, poor damn fool in a round plastic collar, and dare to speak God’s word in the present day. Sounds crazy.

I’m not such a fool as to think that my words are going to save someone or bring life. That’s Jesus. Got that pretty clear. But that’s not an excuse for not giving it my best effort.

And here it is, Friday afternoon, not a word down on paper. My four-year-old is in extended after-school care, and I'm feeling more and more guilty about that as the clock ticks on. Tomorrow we have things to do. I can't just drop them and come back up here and write. Knowing that other first-year ministers struggle with this doesn’t help. I’ve read their blogs, too. The comments to their posts are usually jokes about procrastination and red-eyed Saturday nights.

Maybe it’s the season. Secular Christmas=be nice to other people. (and spend lots of money on stuff nobody’s going to remember next year) And I categorically refuse to preach banality. Maybe it’s the text. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. The one coming after me is greater than I; I’m not worthy to untie his shoes. Maybe I don’t want to preach repentance.

This is the thing saving me at the moment: advice from Eugene Sutton. Instead of making the preparation for preaching, and the preaching exercise, an expenditure of energy, instead, make it an energizing thing. This is what I was called out to do. This is what God takes delight in. To quote one of my top-5 favorite movies: I believe God made me for a purpose. For [missionary work in] China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.

And I do. Sometimes. But not right now.