Golden Globes, Football, Fiscal Years and Epiphany: A Tale of Liturgical Seasons

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My church kicked off the season of epiphany in style this morning with a fun Epiphany introductory video I made with some kids.  Then we sang the traditional We Three Kings, followed by a bunch of fun upbeat songs about “light.”   Then we read the lectionary Psalm (#29) together and talked about what it means to be in Jesus’ fan club.

But I have to be honest and admit that now Christmas is over, Epiphany is one of the last things on my mind.  Instead, this first month of a New Year is weighed down by seasons of another sort.

My news feeds are saturated with stories of the Golden Globes, reminding me that for the entertainment industry this is Awards Season, a time filled with what we might call liturgies of human glory and honor.  In fact, if I was a bit more of an arrogant Hebrew Prophet I would call the awards shows worship services to the idols of vanity.

So too my social media feeds remind me that the NFL is providing another season, or rather a post season.  This week we watched the first of the teams falter in their quest for dominance, a liturgy itself of human strength and cunning.  And we watch and wait to see which team will rise to the top.  150 million will watch the last match, which is a bit more than the number of people who voted for a US President just months ago.  The angry Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those games worship services, worship to the idols of violence and competition.

Then there is this other thing weighing on my heart and, mostly, mind.  My church ends its fiscal year on February 28th this year.  With the close of a fiscal year comes a mountain high list of responsibilities.  We have numbers to crunch, vision to share, a new board to elect and goals to set, all of which will be accomplished with no less than 1 dozen business meetings.  We might call these a liturgy of institution.  The arrogant, angry and overwhelmed Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those meetings worship services themselves, worship to the idol of human control and manipulation.

Yet today was not just the first Sunday of Epiphany.  It was also the Baptism of our Lord.  The Gospel text for today was Matthew 3, that famous story where Jesus begins his ministry by entering into the waters of the Jordan River.  John the Baptist didn’t know quite what to do with Jesus in the water and I don’t either.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus had not sinned.  The waters are for the spiritually dead.  Jesus was more spiritually alive than anybody has ever been.  The sacrament is for humans.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Yet here is Jesus, wading into the waters of death, sin and chaos and beginning his ministry right where we are at.

In a way the Baptism of Jesus reenacts the incarnation.  This might be why Mark and John leave out the manger, in favor of the water.  In the baptism waters Jesus is taking on flesh again, taking on the unique position of being a human after Adam, a human represented by all humanity’s shortcomings.  This is a God entering into sin and death as one of us.  Like the manger, this is Immanuel, a God with us, a God among us, a God meeting us in our human liturgies of award shows, violent competition and financial reporting.  Here is God in the flesh, come to redeem us from the life taking, death dealing liturgies of the world and light up the better way which is the only way, the liturgy of the cross and the resurrection.

So my hope this Epiphany season is that God will enter into our awards shows, our sporting matches and our business meetings and bring new Epiphany so that our feet can stay on the path of life!

The Sermon I Should Have Preached: About those Pesky Shepherds

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For various reasons I chose to preach through the Psalms for Advent.  This meant not being able to talk about the traditional aspects of the season, namely shepherds, wise men, a star, the virgin Mary and the like.  Yet over the last year I have read a lot about the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith and come to appreciate more fully how Jewish Jesus’ story is from start to finish.  Therefore the following is a short sermon, or even devotional thought, I have put together in my head and wanted to preach this season but did not have time too:

Tell me if you have heard this sermon before around this time of year:  “Jesus was God, in very nature God, completely God and Jesus came to save the world and reassert God’s reign over it.  He was a King!  But Jesus didn’t do it like any other King would do it.  Instead he chose to be born of a lowly virgin Mary who came from the wrong side of the wrong town.  He wasn’t born in a palace but a barn (or a cave) and God announced it not to elites but to lowly shepherds.  After all shepherds were the laughing stock of the 1st century Middle East.  They were lowly nobodies.  They were worthless to society and to make it worse these shepherds seemed to be working the night shift.  Yet God thought them so important that angels sang to them of the newly arrived Baby King.”

I like that sermon.  I have preached it myself a time or two and for the most part it holds up.  But some time in the last year I began actually reading and studying about shepherds and not just the cultural context of shepherding in the 1st century middle east, but about shepherds in the entire Bible.

To be sure, shepherds in the 1st century were not popular or revered.  However, in the Jewish society being a Shepherd was actually a high honor because King David was a shepherd and King David taught us that God is a shepherd (read all the Psalms).  For those of you unfamiliar with David’s biography, David didn’t convert from shepherd to King.  He wasn’t a shepherd who suddenly decided being a shepherd was bad and then chose to be a King.  Instead David took his shepherding role with him to the monarchy.  He was always a shepherd, a shepherd King.  This reality profoundly impacted how Israel viewed God’s kingship over us.  God is our shepherd King.

So during this time of year when we read and sing about angels going to shepherds, the point may not be that God could have sent angels to kings but went to lowly shepherds instead.  To the Jewish ear, trained in the Hebrew scriptures, God did send the angels to kings, the true kings, the shepherds.  The angels and shepherds are not God doing a new thing.  It is God doing that same old thing God did throughout the entire Old Testament, going to the true salt of the earth, the meek who work hard with their own hands and live quiet but profound lives.

One of the most influential essays I have read in the last few years was written by George Orwell about coal miners in the industrial revolution.   Back then, coal mining was a miserable chore.  They worked long hours for very little pay and mining was hazardous in the extreme.  This was before labor laws so even children and women were forced to work in the mines.  Most of the miners died prematurely.  In addition coal miners had the same reputation that 1st century shepherds supposedly had.  It was a reputation we might give to warehouse workers today.  They were uncivilized.  They didn’t dress well.  They weren’t educated.  They were immoral.  For that reason, the elite of society propagated a fantastic lie that the coal miners could change their lot by changing their behavior, that if those lousy coal miners would just become moral and civilized they too could matriculate from the mines to a high society position.  George Orwell pointed out that if that did indeed happen, if revival did break out upon the coal miners and they all managed to gain upper class banking jobs, the entire economy would shut down and the homes of the wealthy, moral, civilized bankers, wouldn’t even be able to have heat.

More than that, before writing the essay, Orwell lived among the coal miners for a few years and discovered that they had a deeper morality than any other elite.  Far from being immoral, the coal miners were a courageous bunch, a generous bunch, a loving bunch and they were the most valuable group to England because they braved the conditions and extracted the fuel that kept Industrial Society running. (You can read the full essay here)

As much as I love Orwell’s essay, it was hardly original.  Orwell seems to have plagiarized the entire Bible.  God wrote that essay 2500 years ago when God sent the prophet Samuel to a shepherd and chose David to be King in Israel.  God revised and updated it again when God sent angels to shepherds to proclaim Jesus’ birth.

Here is a God who is not the God who condones the rich and powerful.  Here is a King who values and adores those who work hard with their own hands.  Here is a King who understands that shepherds and coal miners and truck drivers and manual laborers of all stripes are far closer to the character of God than any other group.  And here is a Savior who taught us “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  Here is a God who commands us to be meek and lowly like the shepherds because God established what Orwell discovered, that coal miners and shepherds actually run the world.

Autumn Sermons Now Live

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Hey everybody, I just received word that my sermons from Autumn through Advent #1 are live.  You can also check out the sermon series from Exodus last summer.

In the past I made little youtube videos of them but that was horribly tedious and not a good use of time.  But now they are on my church’s website so you can follow the link if you dare.

I would make a list of recommended ones and not recommended ones but then the more sinister of you would listen to the “not recommended” first and try to figure out why I hated them so much.  You know who you are.

So just let the Spirit guide your finger or mouse arrow to the sermon for you or something religious like that, or maybe spiritual.

Either way, enjoy!

Here’s the link:

http://www.rosewoodlane.org/index.php/sermons

Viewing Nativities

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I try to write this blog with a few simple rules.  One of them is that I try not to write what I might one day preach, or have preached before.  At the same time I try not to preach what I will one day blog or have blogged before.

With that said, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon about the little town of Bethlehem from Micah 5 I have been viewing nativity scenes all afternoon and pulling 40 of them into a Powerpoint to be the backdrop of Sunday’s sermon.

I was very moved by Micah’s statement that the savior’s influence would spread around the world.  Jesus’ influence has certainly done that.  The nativity pictures on Google are proof.  Some are made with cartoon characters and action figures.  They are from China, Russia, Native America, churches, storefronts, the middle east, Africa, South America and even the suburbs.  I tried to pick 40 of them for my Powerpoint, 40 that illustrate that Jesus’ greatness truly does extend to the ends of the earth.

 

While scrolling through pages and pages of nativity scenes with shepherds, wise men, angels and stars, I found that I was deeply moved in the Spirit.  It was hard not to shed a tear of joy and appreciation as I studied hundreds of them.  You see, for centuries now, people from all ages, all walks of life and all countries have paid homage to the baby with these incredible nativity scenes.

Micah is quite correct that Jesus’ influence has stretched around the world.

Below are some of my favorites.  I would welcome you to turn on a Christmas song and scroll through them or do a Google search of the “nativity” yourself while you consider that this baby in the manger is the one who:

Will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace.

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An Advent Monologue for Lectionary Year C

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As I am preparing for our four Advent worship services, I have gone searching for proper monologues for the more drama inclined in my church to perform.

I have found precious few resources online.  What I have found are either incredibly cheesy or more Christmas than Advent.  And I was unable to find anything tethered to the lectionary, particularly the prophets whom I use to lead us to Jesus.

So I sat down yesterday after a long Sunday that ended a long weekend and put this little number together, thinking I would share it with all of you worship planners for your services.  This is to introduce the candle of hope on the first Sunday.  Enjoy!

(From the last century B.C. in a land called Israel under occupation from the Roman rule.)

My people are an oppressed people.  Our once great kingdom lays in ruins and has for hundreds of years.  Our once great leaders are gone.  In their place stand tyrants and sell outs.  Our tax collectors collect much and our employers give little.  We are waiting for freedom.

My people are a storied people.  We tell tales of men toppling colonnades and floods wiping away the corrupt.  Our prophets lived in the bellys of whales and the caves of mountains.  Our kings killed giants and built great cities with palaces and temples.  Our women conquered warriors with tent poles and gave birth to heroes even in old age.  Our God tore down cities to make a home for us.  Our God split open both seas and rivers, struck the corrupt dead on their feet, sent plagues upon our enemies and rained food from heaven down upon us along with water from a rock!  We are waiting for God.

My people are a corrupt people.  We had the eternal decrees of our righteous God in our possession.  We had a great and everlasting covenant with God that would guarantee our freedom and our safety.  We broke it.  Over and over again we broke it.  From our kings to our warriors to our prophets to our farmers and blacksmiths, every person from every tier of our society turned our back on our deliverer.  And we paid a steep price.  We are waiting for redemption.

My people are a promised people.  Though we sinned, though we abandoned our God, though we live in oppression and agony, we proclaim the promises of our prophets,

That a righteous branch with spring up to execute justice and righteousness in the land.

That the Lord will return to his temple and he will purify us!

When he does, the prophets say that he will rejoice over us with gladness, renew us in love and exult over us with loud shouting!

And He will stand there and feed us so that we will rest secure and be children of peace.

We are waiting for the Lord to enter his holy temple again.

My people are a waiting people.  Day after day we carry on in our sordid state.  Day after day we cry out tears, tell our stories, remember our past greatness and long for our God.  Day after day we long for a different story, a new chapter, a glorious homecoming.

And day after day we are let down as we wonder how long our God will tarry, how long until He comes back to his Holy Temple.

We are a hoping people so today I light this candle, the candle of hope.

Waiting for Advent

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This morning I got in my car to run 8 hours of errands for my church.  My IPod happened to be in my wife’s car so I went looking for a radio station.  The first one I found was a generic pop station that plays current hits.

To my absolute surprise, they were playing Christmas music.  So I went looking for another station.  Later in the day I found myself at a Starbucks, killing time between errands and to my surprise they were playing Christmas music too.

It is November 10th, 17 whole days before Thanksgiving and a month and 16 days before Christmas.

And it isn’t just the music.  The Holiday displays are out and not only in big box stores but in grocery stores as well.  More than that, we are starting the Christmas Culture War earlier than ever and this year the battle happens to be over coffee cups.  More than that, I found that Netflix has debuted all their Christmas content all ready.

There was a day not long ago when I wrote a rather cheesy editorial for my high school paper about how Christmas is now a month long and begins the day after Thanksgiving.  My classmates ridiculed me, saying their family didn’t start Christmas until a couple weeks into December.  They further thought it was weird that anybody would think to celebrate it earlier than that.  Wishful thinking though that was they were wrong then and are super wrong now.

I know enough to know what Starbucks, the grocery stores and that secular radio station are thinking.  They can make more money if they begin the “Christmas spirit” early.  More people will flock to their station and they will capitalize on a niche crowd, making more ad revenue.

After all, American Christmas is all about money.

And American Christmas is far removed from traditional Christian Christmas.

Traditional Christmas was precluded by four weeks of despondency, a time called “Advent.”  Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter.  It is a time of stepping back from the world and taking a good hard look at it, reminding ourselves again that this is still a dying world that desperately awaits the life that comes with Jesus’ second coming.

Advent isn’t really the season of shepherds and wise men.  They are for the 12 Days of Christmas and Epiphany.  Instead Advent is the season of the Old Testament prophets whose poetry and prose describe a broken world desperately awaiting the messiah.

In Advent we join Jeremiah on the mountaintop over a ransacked Jerusalem, crying our chapters of lament.  This is why this season is a time for sad and desperate songs like, “Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

We sing these songs during the four darkest weeks of the year as we cry and fast and pray and contemplate.

Then, on the darkest day of the year (or what turned out being 4 days after it) we suddenly gather together in the Mass, bringing our observations of brokenness into the sanctuary with us.  And then Christ comes!  After four weeks of mourning and fasting, joy fills the world because though the darkness seemed to win, light now streams forth from a manger!  And light will stream forth again in the eastern sky when Jesus returns.

We use Advent to wait for Christmas.  However, lately it feels like I am using Christmas to wait for Advent.  After all, our broken world thinks it needs more Christmas spirit, more snow filled holidays and more songs about silent nights, frosty snowmen and red nosed reindeer.  What we actually need is prayer, fasting, crying and lamenting.  We need more embraces of our dark and broken world and more longing for a savior who is coming.

For this reason I close with one of the most unsung Advent songs, written by my favorite, Charles Wesley.  Enjoy!

Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Now redemption, long expected,
see in solemn pomp appear;
all his saints, by man rejected,
now shall meet him in the air:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
See the day of God appear!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Unwritten Grace

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When I started this blog I was really new to this whole “online brand” thing.  I thought all you had to do was create a page, give it some nifty, trendy title that includes a pop Christian buzz word (like “grace”) and people I didn’t know would flock to it.

When they clicked on over from wherever in cyber space they found my link, they would read the entertaining musings of a unknown pastor.  His very intricately and detailed life experiences would strangely mirror their own but he would stay a disembodied soul without a name.  They would rush to their social media accounts to share the link, and through it, the experiences of this poor, faceless pastor stuck in a church somewhere in America whose life is full of grace.

Online brands don’t work that way.  It turns out, you have to share the link first, which means you are effectively branding yourself through your family and friends and parishioners.  This means 90% of people who click over here know who I am, where I am and, unfortunately, who to complain to if they don’t like my writing.  Strangely, the random compliments at conferences and events make me the most uncomfortable.  Seriously people, these posts are not that great!

I bring all this up to say that sometimes I experience things that are chock full of grace but still cannot be written.  After all, I am a pastor bound by confidentiality clauses and desires for privacy and good common sense.

Several times in the last months I have sat down to write about an experience I had, only to finish half the post and realize, “I can’t post this for oh so many reasons.”  The people involved know who they are.  The people not involved know who the people involved are.  Their are too many ways that the post could be misread as offensive (though I never intend it).  Mostly, my interpretation of the “grace” in their lives would be unwelcome, especially in a public forum.

I wrote such a post this morning and it hurt to delete it because God’s grace was so evident.  Instead I decided to post about that post as a reminder to myself and all of you that some things don’t need to be written, just appreciated.

Even though I can not write about these graces I can still pray about them.  I can still think over them and ponder them anew in my heart.

That last phrase reminds me of the Virgin Mary whose humility is a hallmark of the advent season.  After the wonderful birth of the savior, sung by angels and praised by shepherds, she did not join the shepherds in proclaiming the good news, “but she treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

In closing, I would welcome you to join her, in praying over the unwritten and hidden grace in your life.  Count your many blessings and ponder anew the love of our God and treasure it up in your heart.

Have a graced Sunday!