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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When Should Christmas Decorations Come Down?

I have noticed some very distinct and strong schools of opinion on the length of time after Christmas Day it is appropriate to display Christmas decorations.  What got me thinking about it this year was waking up the Saturday after Christmas (the 28th, this year), and while looking out the kitchen window as I poured my morning coffee, seeing the neighbors were completely dismantling their outside Christmas display.  I said, "Well, it looks like Christmas is over at the neighbors!"

Meanwhile, here on the 31st, our tree is still up, the ceramic village is still out, gifts are still in boxes and bags under the tree waiting to be put away in drawers and golf bags, and our outside lights are still burning 24/7 (I will probably at least unplug them today, even if I don't take them down until the weekend).

Here are the general patterns I've noticed - feel free to identify yourself here, or add one I didn't cover:

A. The Scrooge - takes down the decorations as quickly as possible, ideally on Christmas Day while the family is off work/school and all together.  As soon as the last present is opened, don't be surprised to see The Scrooge emerge from the attic with boxes and announce, "OK, if everyone pitches in, we can get this cleaned up, taken down, and back in the attic before dinner's ready!"

B. The Fire Marshall - may be on a similar timetable as The Scrooge, but the primary motivation is getting rid of that large, dry, green combustible covered with electrical wires in the corner of the living room.

C. The Pragmatist - always takes down the decorations on the Saturday after Christmas.  It could be the 26th, it could be the 31st, but you can count on their schedule every year.

D. The Day Minder - similarly predictable and reliable like The Pragmatist, The Day Minder isn't bound by a day of the week, but by a date on the calendar.  Each Day Minder chooses their own date, the two most popular are New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Once established over a three-year pattern, their date can be counted on with certainty.

E. The Liturgical Purist - knows that there are 12 days of Christmas that run through and include Epiphany (January 6).  They are often found mumbling to themselves that for a society that makes such a big deal of Christmas, we don't actually know when it ends and begins.  They use the word "Advent" a lot in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and have been known to hide the baby Jesus figurine in other people's nativity scenes while mumbling something like "He hasn't been born yet - wait until Christmas, people!" (If this happens to you, you'll find him in the nearest drawer.) The extreme Liturgical Purist will only have blue and/or purple lights on their tree until December 24, and no, that's not their theme, it's an Advent Tree.  It will become a Christmas Tree on December 25 when they re-string it white and/or gold lights (but never red and green).

F. The Elf - "Why in the name of Santa would we take down our Christmas decorations?"

Which one best fits you, and why?  What is your reasoning for how long the decorations stay up?  Are there different rules for outdoor decorations and indoor ones?  What categories did I miss?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Five Mothers of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-6,16)


1 A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez was the father of Hezron.
Hezron was the father of Aram.
Aram was the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab was the father of Nahshon.
Nahshon was the father of Salmon.
Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.
Obed was the father of Jesse.
Jesse was the father of David the king.
David was the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.

16 Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary—of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.

Today you are going to hear a sermon from what many people consider to be the most boring part of the Bible.  A long list of names, so-and-so was the father of such-and-such, who was the father and this guy, the father of that guy, and so on.  The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is the “begat” section, an old word that literally means “to bring into existence.”  This chapter is considered so boring that most people skip it to pick up where Jesus Christ is born.  But if we skip this chapter, we skip the fact that Matthew has some important things to say to us in all these names.  May we pray.

Why does the New Testament begin with a genealogy?  Because in those days, if you wanted to know a person, it was important to know about their family.

Like it or not, we are all known by our relationship to our family.  For one thing, there is often a strong family resemblance.  Take a look at this
picture of me and my Dad – is there any denying that I am my father’s son?  No real argument that he’s the one who “begat” me!  When I was a teenager and was heading out with friends on a Friday night, my Dad would always say, “Remember who you, and what family you come from.”  It was his way of saying, “As part of this family, there are certain expectations we have of you, even when you’re out of our sight.  What you do and say out there in the world is not only a reflection on you, but on all of us.”

We tend to identify people by their families.  It is true today, and it was true in the ancient world. 

The purpose of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is to introduce us to Jesus’ family, to tell us about his lineage all the way down to his earthly father, Joseph.  Maybe you’re thinking, Hold up there, just a minute.  If I understand the Christmas story, then Jesus was not descended from Joseph’s side of the family.  You’re correct, but you’re thinking too much like a modern person and not like someone in the ancient world.  Genealogy wasn’t about biology, but about belonging.  Mary was engaged to Joseph, so in that worldview, she belonged to Joseph’s family.

We would expect a list of fathers in this genealogy, but Matthew inserts five women – the five mothers of Jesus.  Word of warning here: these women and their stories will challenge our image of Jesus, but the payoff will be that we get to know Jesus better, and have a more accurate understanding of the one we follow.  We may be a little uncomfortable with what we learn about the characters in Jesus’ family tree, but friends, that discomfort is necessary for those who are serious about following Jesus.

One of my favorite scenes in Talladega Nights is when Will Ferrell’s character, race-car driver Ricky Bobby is saying grace before a meal with his family, and he prays to his favorite version of Jesus: “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin' at the air...”

His wife interrupts and says, “Hey, um, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him baby.”  But he simply responds by saying, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Now there’s some humor in that, but there’s also some truth in it too.  All of us have a version of Jesus in our minds we prefer, and this preference usually closely aligns with our own biases.  Too often, we have made Jesus in our own image, but the women named in Jesus’ genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew should change that image.

The first mother mentioned is Tamar.  Her story can be found in the 38th chapter of Genesis.  Tamar was the wife of the son of Judah, and get this, she was not Hebrew.  I don’t want to gossip, but the Bible says that she was Canaanite.  That was scandalous in those days, because it meant that her husband, a Hebrew, had married a foreigner.  Theirs was an inter-racial marriage, meaning that all of their descendants, including Jesus, would be of mixed race.

There’s an old saying that in the beginning, God created mankind in God’s own image, and we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since.  In other words, our image of God is often a reflection of our own biases and preferences.  And so, for Christians whose origins go back to Western and Northern Europe, it’s not surprising that the Jesus in our art, in our stained glass and in our minds has fair skin and rosy cheeks.  Simply put, we often prefer a Jesus who looks like us.

Does it really matter what Jesus looked like?  Yes, because when we have cast Jesus in our own image, it may be entirely too easy to marginalize others who are outside this image.

http://thejesusquestion.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/face-of-jesus-bbc.jpg?w=360&h=449
A few years ago British scientists teamed up with Israeli archeologists to make this picture.  Using advanced forensic anthropology techniques, they took three skulls from the first century found near where Jesus lived.  They used computer x-ray images to add flesh material.  Then they took the three images and combined them to make a composite.  This might be what Jesus really looked like.  Of course, this could also be Peter, James, or John, or any first century Galilean.

Friends, this is what St. Matthew is telling us in the first chapter of his Gospel: Jesus Christ is here to save all people – those who look very much like us, and those who look very different from us.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Tamar, the Canaanite.

The second mother Matthew mentions is Rahab.  Her story is found in the second chapter of Joshua.  Rahab was a woman of ill repute.  Rahab was a working girl in the world’s oldest profession.  Why would Matthew have someone like her in Jesus’ family tree?

Because I have a friend who is a recovering meth head.  He was addicted to meth.  He dabbled in other drugs, but when he was addicted, he would have done anything for meth.  His life was not his own – everything he did was devoted to getting meth.  He lost his job, his home, his family, and he didn’t care.  Years later, he had an amazing story of how God had given him the strength to find a new life.  He got plugged into a church in his town, and the pastor asked him to share his testimony.  He was reluctant to do so, at first, because there are so many churches that would be uncomfortable hearing about his past.

Friends, that shouldn’t be.  Whatever our past may be, the church is a place where people find new beginnings.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Rahab, the woman with the past.

The third mother is Ruth.  We know about Ruth because she has her own book in the Old Testament.  The story of Ruth begins during a famine, and Ruth leaves her home to be with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  Ruth was an immigrant.

Another pastor friend of mine told us about a ministry his church started to Spanish-speaking people in their community.  People in the church volunteered to teach Spanish speakers conversational English.  The volunteers didn’t have to speak Spanish, they could simply point to a picture and say, “Food” or “Post Office” or whatever.

Some asked, “Why are we doing this?”  The pastor replied, “Because in the Bible in the book of Leviticus it says, ‘Be kind to strangers because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt yourself.’  Because in the Bible in the book of Hebrews it says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware.’  Because in the Bible, Jesus himself said, ‘If you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto me.’”  They said, “But if we do it for some, more of them will want to come here.  Has anyone checked their green cards?”  The pastor said, “No, because this is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Ruth, the immigrant.”

The most scandalous of all was the fourth mother, Bathsheba.  Let me give you the PG version of her story.  One night King David was on the roof of his palace, and he looked out and saw Bathsheba bathing in her backyard.  And David wanted what he saw, even though she wasn’t his to have.  He sent for Bathsheba, she came to the palace, and, against her will, they spent the night together. 

History has, unfortunately, remembered her as an adulteress, and marked her forever with a scarlet letter.  This is just wrong, because Bathsheba didn’t do anything wrong.  She was bathing in her own backyard, at a time of day when darkness should have provided a reasonable level of privacy to her.  She is a victim.

She was also married to Uriah, one of David’s soldiers, and so David had him sent to the front line and then abandoned by the rest of the troops, leaving him to be killed in battle, in an attempt to cover his own tracks.  Bathsheba is twice a victim to King David’s abuse of power.  First, in taking advantage of her, and second, in the murder of her husband.  Matthew’s Gospel explicitly calls her “the wife of Uriah” not “the wife of David” or “the mother of Solomon.”  Matthew reminds us that King David abused his power and took what belonged to another man.  Why the focus on this low point in Hebrew history?

Because, somewhere in town there is a man or a woman who is a victim of someone else’s abuse of power.  They have been marginalized, they have been made to feel guilty because of something that happened to them that they had no control over.  They are not here this morning because they think people here will judge them.  They think they will be condemned.

Bathsheba is included in this story to remind us that Jesus doesn’t identify with the powerful.  Jesus identifies with the outcast, with the marginalized, with the friendless, with the powerless, with those who are victims to others’ abuse of power.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.

And finally, the fifth mother is the obvious one: Mary, the mother of our Lord.  We have heard the Christmas story so many times that it no longer shocks, but perhaps it should.  When God chose to enter human history, he chose an unwed teenage peasant girl from out in the middle of nowhere.  A stable in Bethlehem would have been a dark, cold, smelly cave.  I cannot imagine a lower place on earth for a royal birth.

But if God could reach down from the heights of heaven to a dirty barn and a lowly manger, don’t you think God can reach you or me wherever we may be this morning?  Garth Brooks sang, “I’ve got friends in low places.”  However low you may be, Christ has been there – Jesus was born there.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Mary, the lowly and humble.

"Jesus of the People" by Janet McKenzie
http://churchoftheheavenlyrest.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/jesus-of-the-people-hires8x13.jpg
Does that change the picture you have in your head of Jesus?  I certainly hope so.  Here’s one more image.  In 1999, Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected from 1700 entries to be the cover of the special Millennium Issue of the National Catholic Reporter.  She intentionally painted Jesus with mixed racial characteristics, feminine and masculine features, and friends, this is what St. Matthew is also telling us in the first chapter of his Gospel: Jesus Christ is here for all people – no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, no matter where they’re from, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done.

A quick look at the genealogy of Jesus reveals that Jesus is the son of Tamar the Canaanite, the woman of mixed race.  Jesus is the son of Rahab, the woman of ill-repute.  Jesus is the son of Ruth, the immigrant.  Jesus is the son of Bathsheba, the victim of abuse.  Jesus is the son of Mary, the lowly and humble.

The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel should be a challenge to our thinking, our preferences, and our biases.  It invites us to rethink who is in and who is out in God’s kingdom.  It invites us to rethink who God can and cannot work through.  Jesus not only associates with those of low-degree and ill-repute; his family tree reminds us that he is one of them.  Jesus was onto something when he later told us that whatever we do to the least in our society, we do to him (Matthew 25:40).  For Jesus, it’s personal.  For Jesus, it’s family.

Too often, we have only further marginalized those who are already on the sidelines of life, but friends, let us remember that how we treat others, regardless of whether we like them or agree with them or approve of what they do, how we treat others is how we treat Jesus, himself.

The family tree of Jesus reminds us that he is both son and savior of all.  Here in the church of Jesus Christ, we worship One whose lineage shows a love, and whose genealogy shows a grace, that is wide enough to embrace all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

One Night with the Innkeeper and His Wife (Luke 2:1-20)


Candlelight Christmas Eve 2013
Shared at Morehead United Methodist Church
and Stokesdale United Methodist Church

Written and enacted by Revs. Ashley & A.J. Thomas

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said,14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.


Husband: I’m not such a bad guy, you know.  I only get one line in the entire Bible – “No room in the inn” – and all of a sudden I’m some sort of heartless Scrooge who almost ruined Christmas.  I know what you all say about me – “Can you believe that rotten old innkeeper, turning an obviously pregnant girl away!” but it wasn’t like that at all.  For one thing, it was just our family home.  I’m no more an innkeeper than you are!  Innkeeper – makes it sound like we were running a Holiday Inn or something, but I promise you, our home is not regulated by the Bethlehem Lodging Association.

That’s not to say it doesn’t sometimes feel like we’re running a bed and breakfast, though!  Some of you have houses overflowing with company this time of year, and our house was no different.  But you know, we’re Jewish, and we take our hospitality seriously, because God told us to.  When visitors show up, you welcome them and you attend to their needs even above your own.

I remember that year was particularly busy, what with the census taking place and all. Everyone had to register for the census in their ancestral hometown, and so our normally quiet town was filled with visitors – all of them tired and stressed out.  Driving their donkeys the wrong way down one-way streets, asking locals for directions but not believing us and heading the opposite direction of where we told them to go.   Tourists!  Distant relatives – many of whom we had never met – showing up on our doorstep and staying for weeks on end, sleeping in our bed, eating our food, using our water, subjecting us to their views on politics and religion and who knows what else!

“Make yourself at home; our house is your house” – We had all sorts of visitors, coming and going, though some not going as quickly as they should – can anyone here relate?  I confess I welcomed our guests, but more out of a sense of duty than because I really wanted to.

Sometime after supper, there was a knock at the door.  Standing on my doorstep were an old man and a young girl who was obviously pregnant, I mean, she was PREG-NANT!  Their shabby clothes were filthy, indicating they had travelled some distance.  As soon as the man opened his mouth, I immediately recognized the country accent of someone from Galilee.  He said his name was Joseph, and he was the son of Jacob, the son of Matthan, the son of Eleazar, the son of “Blah Blah Blah” I have no idea who these people are but I assume we must be related somehow.

Like all the others, they needed a place to stay, and I mumbled the first thought that came to mind, “But we don’t have any more room!”  It wasn’t personal; we were simply out of space.

Before you judge me, ask yourself, in my situation – What would you do? A house full of company, no more room, and unexpected guests show up in the middle of the night – what would you do?

I came up with, what I thought anyway, was a pretty good solution, given the circumstances.  Here in the rocky hills of Bethlehem, there are little natural caves carved into nearly every hillside.  It so happened that the back of our house was very close to one of them, and we and our neighbors used it as a barn to keep our animals in.  It was mostly protected from the elements, and honestly, if you got a good fire going in there, it would warm up just like our house.  I know, it wasn’t ideal, but hey, it’s better than nothing, right?

Wife: What I remember of that night…I can certainly tell you, it was not silent. People had started streaming into town all week. Everywhere we went, our little town, was about to bust at the seams. And everyone was so grumpy. This census was ours to complete but it is not for us. Likely to be used against us. People were angry and scared. Receiving so many family and distant relatives, I was simply tired. When you’re Jewish, hospitality is essential. God commands his people to be gracious hosts, to be a people who welcome strangers. God said at any time we could entertain angels unaware. Unaware…indeed we were. We would welcome so much more that night.

The knock came like all the others. And I thought, “God, you have got to be kidding me! How on earth are we going to fit anyone else in the house! We have no more room!” But, there they were, Joseph and his new bride. When my husband opened the door and I saw them, my heart sank. Oh, to be THAT pregnant. Traveling so far. I’m surprised they made it here!

We found room. It wasn’t much, but it was something. The part of the house by the stable would have to do. I was so embarrassed. Who puts their guests in a stable?! We should have been better prepared. We thought we were.

But Mary and Joseph were gracious guests. They seem to be just fine taking that part of the house.

As my husband got them settled, I went back to the kitchen to redistribute tomorrow’s meals so there would be enough for Mary and Joseph. Then, I heard the scream! It was time. That baby was on its way. In addition to the cooking and cleaning, I would be midwife tonight. I grabbed a couple of other female relatives for assistance. We moved the men out of the room. Not that it took a lot of convincing… But, for our culture birthing was solely the work of the women. It’s dangerous work. It’s miraculous work.

From that moment in the evening on, time vanished. I can no more tell you the hour or hours of that night. All births leave you astonished. But, I tell you this one…Starlight flooded the room. I’ve never seen a sky so bright as that night. I asked Mary what they were going to name him. She smiled and said his name had been decided long, long ago. He would be called, Yeshua. I believe you pronounce that Jesus. It means “God saves.” About that time a crazy band of shepherds, pale as ghosts, were at the stable saying they had to see this baby. But, I knew why. I must admit, as crazy as it may sound to say out loud. The face of that child. No person has ever looked back at me with such understanding. No one has ever looked at me with more love, not even my husband, as that baby of Mary’s. A baby?!

While the shepherds visited, I went to go get my husband. He needed to this this, too.

Husband: My wife – she’s the eternal optimist in our family.  She’s the hopeful one, the believer – she has enough faith for the two of us, which works out well, because I’ve always been a bit of a doubter and a skeptic.

Wife: As soon as the baby and parents were settled, I rushed in to get my husband, to come out, and see for himself.  Have you ever experienced something so beautiful and so wonderful you can’t quite put it into words – the only way for someone else to know what you’re talking about is for them to experience it themselves?

Husband: I don’t know how long we were waiting, when my wife finally came back in.  Even in the moonlight I could tell that she was beaming – beaming!  It was a boy – mother and baby were both doing fine.  Would I come out and meet the baby?  Actually, she kept calling him “the wonderful baby.”  Would I come out and meet the wonderful baby that was born right here in our home?  There was an excitement, a joy, a wonder about how she spoke that I had never seen before.

Wife: We went out across the yard – and my husband stopped for a minute and looked up.  He was literally gazing up into the heavens; this man who never notices anything seemed to see the same thing in the sky I had noticed all night – that every star was twinkling with every bit of twinkle it had, like each one had some cosmically brilliant story to tell on that night.

We walked in, and the baby was lying in our manger.  My husband just stood there for a moment and was silent.  Don’t miss that – my husband, silent!

Husband: What was I supposed to say?  There isn’t much to say.  I am really not one for sentimentality – yes, it’s a baby, and babies are cute, but that’s not what left me speechless.  I can’t quite explain it, I just felt like all of a sudden, I was in the presence of something bigger than myself.  That in a tiny, wonderful baby, I sensed that he held all of eternity in his little balled up fist, and that his tiny heart was beating with a love big enough for the whole world, yet simple enough for even someone like me.  That doesn’t even make sense, does it?  Yet that’s exactly what I felt.

Wife: Extend hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware.  What an understatement!  We didn’t just entertain angels that night.  I think we may have played host to God himself.  For unto us a child is born.  Unto us a son is given.  O come, let us adore him!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Before You Freak Out Over "Xmas," Please Read


Have you ever wondered what the deal is with using “Xmas” as a substitute for “Christmas?”  Is it lazy?  Disrespectful?  Politically-correct? Offensive?  Part of some secular “War on Christmas”?  (By the way, if you’ve been by the mall lately, it would appear that if there is, indeed, a war on Christmas, Santa has called in plenty of reinforcements.)

A friend from college posted on his Facebook page earlier today, asking about the use of “Xmas” rather than “Christmas.”  He wasn’t attacking the practice, only curious about it.

If you do a little homework, you might not be so offended by the practice.  You might even come to see it as a bit more reverent and respectful of God and God’s begotten Son, Jesus.

Huh?  How’s that?

The “X” in “Xmas” is not actually our English letter “X.”  It is the Greek “Chi” (pronounced “kai,” like a K with a long “I”).  It’s the first letter in the Greek word Χριστός (pronounced “kristos”), which comes into English as "Christ".

Χ (“Chi”), as the first letter of the word, was often used by the early Greek-speaking Christians as a sort of shorthand for the complete word of Christ, or sometimes Χρ (“Chi” “Rho”) as the first two letters of the word.  Simply put, “X” meant “Christ,” so “Xmas” is not taking the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” it’s just representing it in a different way than we’re used to seeing it.

So, were early Greek-speaking Christians lazy?  Unable to spell the whole word?

The use of “X” as an abbreviation is partly convenience.  Certainly, in my seminary notes, as I was furiously trying to keep up with lectures, you’ll find “X” all through them to represent Jesus. (You’ll also find Θ, Greek letter “Theta” to represent “God”, because it’s the first letter of the word Θεóς [Theos, think “theology”], the Greek word for God.  In my notes you’ll also find “HS” to represent “Holy Spirit,” but that one is pretty self-explanatory.)

So yes, the use of “X” as an abbreviation for “Christ” is partly convenience.  It’s also partly respect and reverence.

How so?  There is an ancient Hebrew tradition that is still carried on in some places of neither pronouncing nor completely spelling out the sacred name of God.  It was a way of showing respect and reverence, and remembering that it is God who names us, not we who name God.

Practicing Jews were forbidden from speaking the name of God aloud.  They would commonly write the Tetragrammaton (“four letters”) יהוה (transliterated YHWH).  While YHWH is the most common transliteration of the Tetragrammaton in English academic studies, the alternatives YHVH, JHVH and JHWH are also used.

You’ll see this a lot in the Old Testament.  You know where you’re reading and it says “The Lord did such and such,” with ‘Lord’ in all small caps?  Usually when you see that, it means the Hebrew author used an abbreviation for the unspeakable name of God, and the English translator represented it with Lord. 

That’s a very long and technical way of saying that there’s a tradition, one that predates Christianity and certainly one that predates Christmas, of using abbreviations when it comes to speaking and writing about God – a tradition rooted in respect and reverence.

So, next time you see “Xmas” written out instead of “Christmas,” it’s probably not part of some conspiracy to take the Christ out of Christmas.  It may, in fact, be someone with an appreciation and knowledge of tradition who, wisely, doesn’t want to throw God’s name around too casually.

I'd like to wish you a Merry Xmas, but I can't, because it's not Christmas yet.  It's Advent!  But, I suppose that's another post for another day.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pregnant with Possibility (Luke 1:39-56)


39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
56Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

We were barely back from our honeymoon when the questions started, “So, when are you two going to have some kids?”  It didn’t come so much from our families or friends as it did from two very curious congregations, who perhaps felt more license in asking about their pastors’ reproductive practices than we were comfortable answering.

We soon realized that people were watching us for clues.  Heaven forbid Ashley wake up under-the-weather, OR in a particularly good mood – causing someone to say, “Is there a particular reason you feel the way you do today?”  Even having a few saltine crackers between worship services caused someone to say to Ashley, “I noticed you’re having saltine crackers in the morning,” to which my wife replied, “Yes, because I’m hungry, and I still have another service to get through before lunch.”

I don’t ask people about their plans for children.  For one, I figure that’s their story to tell, and when they are ready to tell it, they will.  For another thing, I have come to realize what a deeply personal and sometimes painful topic that can be for folks.  I think of those I know who desperately want to be parents, but for some reason can’t be.  I think of those who have made an intentional decision not to have children.  I think of couples where one partner desperately wants children and the other doesn’t, and it’s a source of constant fighting between the two.  I think of those who are struggling with issues too painful, complex and difficult to talk about.  I think of those who waited for years to adopt a child, only to have the whole thing unravel at the last minute.

I don’t ask, and I don’t assume.  Kids, and the issues around having them, can be complicated and difficult, to say the least.  If anyone knew that, it was the two women we’ve met in today’s Scripture reading: Mary and Elizabeth. 

By the time we meet up with Mary and Elizabeth, some extraordinary things have happened to both of them.  Elizabeth, already an old woman and believed to be barren, is with child.  An angel appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and given him the message that the son to be born to them will be a prophet, one who will speak for God.

Now, it seems that Mary is also pregnant.  She was young, perhaps 12 or 13, and she was unmarried.  An angel had visited her and given this extraordinary news: she would give birth to the Son of God.

Both women were carrying very special babies, but both women would also face ridicule and social isolation.  Can’t you just hear the gossip now?  “Hey, did you hear that Elizabeth is pregnant?”  “Who, the old priest’s wife?”  “Isn’t she a little OLD to have a baby?”  Or, “Hey, did you hear that Mary is pregnant?”  “Who, the young girl engaged to the carpenter?”  “I know – shameful, really.”

I imagine Mary was scared to death.  An unmarried, pregnant teenager, which was about as low on the social ladder as you could get in those days.  Sure, she had her story about this being God’s baby, but do you really think the gossipy old biddies around Nazareth were buying that story?  Unless human nature has changed drastically since then, I don’t.  We know that even St. Joseph, her fiancé, didn’t believe her at first, not until an angel appeared to him in a dream.

I doubt there were many options for a girl in Mary’s position.  The penalty for pregnancy out of wedlock was death-by-stoning, if Joseph had wanted to pursue it.  Nazareth wasn’t the most forward-looking place on the planet, and certainly not the kind of place Mary would find support and help in a time when she needed it most.

Some have asked where Mary’s mother was in the picture – the Scriptures don’t say – but I’ve wondered many times if it wasn’t Mary’s mother’s idea for her to go and visit Elizabeth.  Perhaps Elizabeth had shown some particular kindness to Mary at a family reunion a few years ago, but for whatever reason, Mary leaves her home in Nazareth of Galilee and makes the long journey south to the village of Ein Karem, in the forest-covered hills of Judea, and shows up on Elizabeth’s doorstep.

At the sound of Mary’s greeting, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy for one simple reason: Mary was carrying the Son of God.  Mary was bearing God’s very presence to Elizabeth, and when Elizabeth opened her home and her heart to receive Mary, she also received God’s very self.

Mary, the young girl and Elizabeth, the old woman. Distant relatives they were: Mary, mother of our Lord, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.  Two women from two very different generations, both with complicated and difficult to explain pregnancies, both carrying children through whom God would change the world into God’s peaceable kingdom.  Both Mary and Elizabeth were literally pregnant with the possibility of God’s promise.

Elizabeth says that Mary is blessed and highly-favored.  We use that word, “blessed” an awful lot around church.  But as Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

We often count our blessings or number our blessings.  Blessings are almost a materially-quantifiable thing – “look at my possessions, my home, my family, my things, I have been blessed.”  Yet, in Scripture, being blessed means something very different.

Will Willimon says that if an angel appears to you and tells you that you are blessed and highly-favored by God, if you’re smart, you’ll run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.  Contrary to popular belief, receiving God’s blessing is not going to make your life easier or more comfortable.  Being comfortable and being blessed are two very different things, and we would do well not to confuse the two.

I doubt the one who left the splendor of heaven to come to earth as one of us, who took on our infirmities, who was born to the lowest of the low and who died a criminal’s death – I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time believing he’s calling us to a life of ease and comfort.

In short, God blesses us in order to be a blessing to others.  With great privilege comes great responsibility; to whom much is given is much required.

Friends, be very careful about asking God to bless you.  Because God might just give you what you ask for!

Every blessing we receive, we feel compelled to share.  What God gives to us, we feel called to give away.  Maybe that’s why we place an emphasis on giving at this time of year, maybe that’s why Scripture teaches it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Our whole faith is predicated not on the accumulation of things, or possessions, or wealth, or power.  The mystery of the Gospel is that God’s kingdom comes when we give those things away – God’s kingdom is a reversal of the values of the world – whereas the world tells us that true meaning comes in the accumulation of power and prosperity, greatness in God’s kingdom comes when we give all those things away.  It comes when we who are blessed make everything in our lives a blessing to others.

Sure enough, that’s what Mary was singing about in today’s Scripture reading.  Mary sings a song about what the child in her womb will accomplish – a song that is good news for the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden, a song that is not such good news for the wealthy and powerful.

A song we often sing this time of year is “Mary, Did You Know?”  It asks if Mary knew everything that her child would accomplish.  Based on the song she sings, I’d say Mary did know.  Most importantly, what she knew was that the blessings she received were not intended exclusively for her, they were to be shared, and would be a blessing to the entire world.

How about you?  How do you view your blessings?  As a gift specifically to you, meant for your exclusive enjoyment, or do you realize that God has blessed you in order to bless others?  When any of us views ourselves as the final destination of God’s goodness, then we’ve missed the point entirely.  But when we realize that what we have is meant to be shared for the well-being of others, then the kingdom of God is very close, indeed.

Being blessed didn’t make Mary’s life easy.  Even by the time she breaks into song in today’s reading, life is already hard for her.  It’s not going to get easier for her, and yet she keeps right on singing God’s praises, her soul just continues to magnify the Lord.  Her joy is not tied to her circumstances, indeed there is hardly anything in her circumstances, from a worldly point of view, that would make her happy.  Rather, her joy came from the presence of God within her, and she anticipated the abundant life that child would bring to all, the resurrection, even, of all that was dead and broken and destructive in the world.

Despite the circumstances of her life and her world, Mary kept singing.  Today, we are invited to join our voices with hers, to learn her song, to raise our voices in a song that continues to glorify God in all circumstances, trusting that whatever seems lost now will someday be redeemed.  We are called to sing her song because so many in our world desperately need an encounter with the healing presence of God.  In the words of Meister Eckart (1260-1327), “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.”

Mary sang because she looked around at her world - a world addicted to injustice and oppression and exploitation, a world in which the wicked seem to prosper, where hopelessness, and hate, and violence, and despair seemed to rule the day - Mary caught a glimpse that through her child, the whole world was about to change.

Mary sang because God would get the last word - and the Word is Jesus.