3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

Luke 4:14-21

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

Too often we sanitize Jesus’ ministry and today’s reading is one of the ways that we as preachers get ourselves stuck sanitizing or sanding down rough scriptural edges for our congregations. If we limit ourselves only to these eight verses, we miss the power and danger of the Holy Spirit.

Look at where this text sits. Jesus has been baptized (the gospel lesson from Baptism of our Lord), driven out into the wilderness (a text we won’t read ‘til Lent 1), and come back filled with the power of the Spirit. He begins to teach in the synagogue and was “praised by everyone.” He is handed the Scroll of Isaiah and begins to read Isaiah 4:17. He concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone is amazed, and if we leave it there, the Holy Spirit works and everyone is #bff #blessed.

The problem is, that’s not the Jesus we get. He comes out of the desert after being tempted and gets right to work. Luke doesn’t tell us how long it is before Jesus arrives in Nazareth, but the gospel relates the events in near Markan breathlessness. Jesus goes from the desert to the synagogue fast. So here is a dusty, emaciated, threadbare son of a local craftsman showing up to read from the prophet Isaiah about how God is going to look out for the poor, oppressed, captive, and blind. The people might have just been amazed and praised Jesus because they were surprised he was standing, let alone reading scripture.

As preachers we have to be honest about the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a safe Spirit. The Spirit is poured out on Jesus in baptism and then DRIVES HIM INTO THE WILDERNESS TO BE TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL. The Spirit sees Jesus through the wilderness, and Jesus returns filled with the power of the Spirit. Jesus takes this power and preaches, and people are amazed and praise him. Until after v 21, when Jesus interprets some more scripture, AND THE PEOPLE RUN HIM OUT OF TOWN. The Holy Spirit should come with a disclaimer.

Now the thing about Spirit-filled ministry is that Jesus is doing it when they are praising him, and he is doing it when he is being run out of town (or driven into the wilderness). It is neither good nor bad, safe nor dangerous. The Spirit will lead where the Spirit needs and wants to lead.

So, how do we break this down for our congregations? What metric can we use to ensure we are doing the work of the Holy Spirit? What compass is there? Sometimes we are run out of town for not doing the work of the Spirit, and sometimes we are run out for being offensive insensitive jerks. Sometimes we are accepted by communities because we are accommodating, uncritical, and unchallenging and sometimes we are accepted because we speak of the hope and promise of Jesus Christ.

“The Great Thanksgiving for Advent” quotes the Magnificat saying, “You fill the hungry with good things, and the rich you send away empty.” Every Advent I am surprised, thrilled, and scared of these words as I stand at the Table and offer them to God and the congregation. Mary speaks to our fears nicely. We want for God to choose us, and over and over again God sides with the oppressed, the poor, the captive, the hurting, and the lost.

This is a terrifying word because it means that God may not choose us. It is scary that the good news might be for someone else and not for me, us, or you. We spend so much time in Christmas parsing the meaning of the incarnation. The Word became Flesh and dwells among usLove came down at Christmas….To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord… Glory to the newborn king, God and Sinners reconciled… veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity. In the season of Christmas and Epiphany we move beyond the reality of the incarnation and dig into the “why” of incarnation. Why did Christ come in flesh? To save us from sin certainly, but also to speak into the reality of the world. To speak the words of the prophets in favor of the poor, oppressed, captive, and the hurting.

The metric we then use to determine if we are doing the work of God is “Am I where God is?” Are we with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, and the thirsty? Are we with God and God’s people when no one else is, when no one else wants to be, when everyone else tells us not to be? Maybe (as hard as this might be for us to stomach as Americans), God isn’t with us. Maybe God is with the people Jesus reads about in Isaiah.

If we as the Church are to claim the authority to act as the Body of Christ, we must be with Christ. Where can your congregation be with Christ in your community? Who can you be with that Christ is “bringing good news” “release” and “freedom” to? God is with us. God is with you. Christ cleanses us of our sin, offers us transformation, righteousness, and holiness. Can we fully grasp that holiness if we stand apart from the favored ones of God?

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord (& Child)

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Jon and Keri welcomed their first child in July 2018, they also have a dog and some bees. Jonathan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves Yadkinville United Methodist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.

Epiphany 2(C): The Turn

Epiphany 2(C): The Turn

John 2:1-11

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like the one contained in these eleven verses the best.

Sure, there’s Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons and decrying the abuse of the poor. There’s Jesus the good shepherd and Jesus the smartass. There’s Jesus the gentle, cradling children in his arms, and there’s Jesus the wild and political, flipping over table after table in the temple and making an actual whip out of cords (that Jesus will show up about three verses after this text is over, actually).

I must say, however, that my absolute favorite Jesus is the Jesus of John 2:1-11. He’s the one who gets nagged by his mom then saves the party immediately before he turns the party. The Jesus of John 2 is like a good best friend; I love and relate to him and I remain a little in awe of him, even after all these years. (It helps that he always shows up at just the right time with the good wine.)

Times were hard in first-century Israel. Rome had them conquered and suppressed. Jewish folks like Jesus and the other wedding guests often feared for their lives. They lived with a powerful foreign power as an occupying force. They lived as a minority. Those who had power were very different than they were, and they often found themselves on the wrong side of the use of force.

As always, however, life went on in the first century as life tends to do; people were born, people died, people got married and sometimes people even fell in love. But times were hard. The text doesn’t tell us why the hosts of this wedding ran out of wine. Maybe they were poor, maybe the harvest was bad that year, or maybe they were just bad planners. The Fourth Gospel doesn’t think that’s an important detail. The point is, they ran out of wine. And Jesus’ mom, a guest at the wedding with her son, the Son of Man, noticed.

She whispers to him across the table. It would seem that she knows that he can do something. With a good dose of motherly cajoling including Jesus never actually agreeing, water is turned into wine, and not just any wine: good wine, and a lot of it.

Arguably the best part: in the story, only the servants, Jesus, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ disciples ever knew what happened. It’s the hosts of the wedding that get the compliments for bringing out the good wine. As readers of the Fourth Gospel, we are privy to knowledge that characters in the story aren’t; specifically, that Jesus kept the party going. What’s more, this is the first time that John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ disciples “believed in him” (v. 11). Jesus turns the party, and they believe.

These days, most of us are feeling tired.

The news moves at a pace that even professionals have a hard time keeping up with. Many of us worry about the state of the nation and the state of the world, as things seem increasingly unstable and most preachers feel compelled to comment on news that moves faster than they do. We constantly find ourselves struggling to find the words to say after another shooting and more violence and more deportations and assassinations and nuclear threats and tear gas and terrorists and the effects of climate change and infinite public petty arguments. Most of us, I think, find ourselves torn between being blatantly partisan because we’re just done and the other extreme of flying to the safety and cowardice of “both sides-ism.”

What’s more, during the season of Epiphany, those living in climates where it snows will, at times, find the weather hard to bear. Many, many more live under conditions so difficult that the weather is the least of their worries.

In the midst of all of it, this text finds us, in the middle of January during yet another year in furious America and in a furious world. This is where Jesus shows up and brings the good wine. The task of the preacher is to hold these two together, never neglecting to celebrate the abundance found in this text in the midst of the fury all around us and in the text itself.

John 2 is a text so full of joyful abundance that if you listen, you can hear the characters giggle in tipsy glee and newfound belief. They dance, even as they are in the midst of a furious and violent world and a risky existence themselves, because they are at a wedding, and because God showed up. In the midst of everything, they find something to celebrate: each other, and Christ’s presence among them.

Yes, of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like this Jesus best. So don’t forget to dance at the wedding, preacher. Even in the midst of your worries, have a glass of wine (or whatever it is you enjoy) and take this text for a spin around the dance floor this week. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

 

In the Lectionary text for this week, John declares that he baptizes with water but one more powerful than he is coming who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v16)” and he will use “his winnowing fork… to clean his threshing floor (v17).” The Lectionary then moves to the baptism of Jesus, which is different than the story found in the other synoptics. In Luke, Jesus is baptized alongside others and we do not get the details of the baptism, but are instead told that after he is baptized he prays, and that the Holy Spirit came upon “in bodily form like a dove.” (v22)

Luke does not tell us why Jesus goes to be baptized, and he does not tell us that it is John who does the baptizing, and so we use the scripture surrounding the text to help us understand why it is that Jesus is baptized. After all, for three chapters, Luke has been telling us that Jesus is the Promised One, born without sin. John baptizes as a result of repentance and calls on others to move from their sinful ways and care for those who are in need. One way to read these texts together is to continue reading into Jesus’ genealogy. Upon baptism the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus and a voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I dearly love (v22).” In this baptism Jesus is claimed as God’s child, Jesus’ genealogy is recited, and he begins his ministry.

Through baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s church, the family of God, we are made part of God’s mighty acts of salvation, and we are given new birth through the water and Holy Spirit. In the United Methodist tradition baptism occurring at infancy is common and so the vows of baptism are taken by the parents/guardians/ family on behalf of the child, with the hope that the child will later take on the vows themselves. Two of the vows are:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves[1]?”

In baptism Jesus is initiated into the family of God and claimed by God as God’s beloved child. In baptism Jesus accepts his ministry, accepts that he is the one John has been teaching about, and claims his identity as the savior that Zechariah and Mary have both prophesied. But baptism is not just about initiation or claiming God as your God. In baptism we also acknowledge the need to be in community with one another, and to resist wickedness and work towards a world where justice and equality reign. And this, we do not do on our own.

Perhaps that is why Jesus goes along with all the others for baptism not merely to show solidarity with humanity as they seek to repent of their individual sins, but because he knew the need to acknowledge and repent for the corporate sin that all of humanity is part of, merely by being human. In all things we as humans do exist within a structure that is unfortunately flawed and often overtly sinful. In sharing our humanity Jesus needed to name that through his genealogy of imperfect people like David and Abraham, he too is aware of the structures of sin.

We live in a time where it feels like resisting injustice and oppression is a full-time job. Nearly every news report shares another instance of inequality and abuse of a people group or the denial of justice by those who are powerful. I cannot help but think of those who are currently at our border literally wading through the waters of the Rio Grande hoping for freedom and protection for themselves and their children. Or the religious minorities in China and Myanmar who are being routinely killed because of their faith and ethnicity. In our cities, people of color are far more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than whites. Our planet is injured by our collective refusal to be caregivers of the earth instead of plunderers of God’s good creation.

As we preach on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, remembering the vows we take or have taken upon ourselves for our children who cannot speak for themselves is a remarkable way to call our congregations back into focus after the holidays. The work of repentance is not finished; we have work to do. Take this week to call your congregation into actions of repentance, into actions that are worthy of our calling as God’s children.

 

[1] “The United Methodist Book of Worship.” Nashville, Tenn. United Methodist Publishing House, 1992.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles is a Methodist Minister in Atlanta, Georgia. She attended Converse College, a liberal arts women’s college, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Religion. Following college, AnnaKate attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology where she earned her Master of Divinity. She also attended Cambridge University where she wrote her thesis on John Wesley and the Holy Club. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Candler School of Theology. She enjoys traveling and eating tacos.

 

The Epiphany (C): The Light of God’s Liberation

The Epiphany(C): The Light of God’s Liberation

Matthew 2:1-12

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Epiphany!  It is a holiday that I had no real idea about before I joined the Episcopal Church in college. Growing up vaguely non-denominational in the South, the Magi (aka Wise Men aka Three Kings)[1] sort of just went along with the Christmas story and disappeared (along with Mary) after we took down the nativity scenes before the end of the twelve days of Christmas were even up. Now, it is one of the most important holy days in the year for me.

Working in an Episcopal congregation that is about forty-five percent Latinx, the Epiphany, or Tres Reyes Magos (Three Magic Kings)[2] as it is called by many of my parishioners, has taken on new life and energy as it is a major celebration when the Reyes Magos come to pay homage to the Christ Child and bring gifts for the children at church with them (liturgically, this totally makes more sense to me than exchanging gifts on Christmas day, btw). I’ve seen the joy it brings to our congregation—for first- generation immigrants it is a taste of home, for the second generation it is a family celebration, for the rest it is an educational moment, and for all it is a thoroughly spiritual celebration of love of God and others.

The pictures and depictions of the Magi are also really significant. A lot of times they are depicted as coming from different continents, which shows the universality of Christ, the Gospel, and the Church. This means a lot in a time when border crossing is increasingly perilous and politicized and those with different customs and ways are increasingly demonized by polarizing politics and a culture that is being drained of its empathy faster than the political swamp is being drained of corruption. There is a ruler in this Gospel text who lacks empathy for others, and he is by no means shown in a positive light.

On a more personal note, I find myself relating to the Magi here on a few levels here:

As someone with a tendency to spend too much time in his head (read: nerd), the Magi are a reminder that the mind and the soul can become one in our quest for the Divine—much like St. Thomas Aquinas’ lifelong goal. As much as anyone can tell, astrology was an odd combination of science and magic in the ancient world, so perhaps their commitment to spirituality and to the observance of the natural courses of creation leading them to God is a helpful example in a time of changing climate and uncertainty about our future. Their heeding divine warnings about a perilous future if they keep their present path and deciding on an alternate, better course to prevent needless tragedy seems like a wise example here.

As a queer person, I love that Scripture isn’t ashamed of the Magi’s queerness or strangeness. In fact, it is their queer sensibilities and their queer ways that enable them to see and appreciate the actions of God at work right under the very nose of the Temple and other authorities, who either miss what’s happening or get so upset by it that they take tragic actions to stop God’s new and liberating work being done among the poor and the animals and the foreigners and the queer people. It’s hard not to relate to the Magi on this one. That and their aforementioned affinity for astrology, which is totally a thing in the queer community (and if you don’t believe me you can consult any queer social media and see exactly what I’m talking about). Additionally, many images of the Magi depict the men dressed rather flamboyantly and differently than others we see depicted in Scripture (an admirable commitment to style given the fact that they are on a presumably long journey).[3] The story of the Magi and the Epiphany is, to me, possibly one of the most affirming texts in the whole of Scripture for queer readers. And I might not be the only one to think so. Manila Luzon, Peppermint, and Alaska 5000 from RuPaul’s Drag Race even did a shockingly reverent and comfortingly queer music video We Three Queens with each of them representing one of the Magi with a traditional gift.[4]

The other level at which I find myself appreciating the Magi here is being an Episcopalian in the rural south. When we have visitors from the local Baptist or Methodist or non-denominational churches, one gets the impression that sometimes they have no idea quite what to do with us and our peculiar ways as we offer vessels of gold and rich incense at the altar of the Lord while adorned with unfamiliar vestments and saying or chanting strange prayers. Still, the message here is clear; gifts given by sincere hearts are acceptable to Christ whether they come from unfussy shepherds or zhuzhed up Magi.

The story of the Magi and the Epiphany is a message of warning to those who are trying to stop the flow of God’s gracious and liberating work in the world; you can do whatever you want, pull any strings you want, commit any atrocity you want, but you will not win. More importantly, it is a story of comfort to those who are on spiritual journeys or who find themselves feeling strange or outside of the regular come-and-go of life in either their church or broader communities. Whether the light of the Epiphany enables us to get a taste of our old home as we make a different life in new lands, or encourages us to be more welcoming of those who are traveling across borders, or shows the cruelty of rulers who abuse children in the name of politics, or brings our minds and souls into a singular commitment to God, or helps us own our place adoring and following a Christ who accepts our queerness without shame, or helps us to be more appreciative and understanding of those with different religious traditions than our own, or some other profound message that is no doubt embedded in the rich, but surprisingly brief, story, it is a light we need in our time. May it shine all the more brightly on all of those who encounter it.

 

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The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.

[1] How many stage names do y’all need, honey?

[2] Apparently at least one more

[3] Werk!

[4] Either they think of this text in a liberating way or are just cashing in on a cheap pun for the holidays.  Whichever it is, I’m claiming it.  The Spirit moves where and how It wills.

The Holy Name: A God of Surprises

The Holy Name: A God of Surprises

Luke 2:15-21

By: Chris Clow

It might not seem like it, but I promise I’m going to tie this one back into the gospel. You’ll just have to bear with me for a bit.

One of my favorite prophets is Jeremiah. I suppose it’s because – like a lot of my favorite religious and spiritual people – he’s honest. Sometimes, brutally honest.

“You seduced me, LORD, and I let myself be seduced;

you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.

All day long I am an object of laughter;

everyone mocks me.

Whenever I speak, I must cry out,

violence and outrage I proclaim;

The word of the LORD has brought me

reproach and derision all day long.” (Jer 20:7-8)

Now that’s a prophet I can relate to. Not just moody or temperamental – no, Jeremiah is able to be honest about his struggles. But don’t be deceived; Jeremiah is also a powerful prophet, and he gives us some of the most beautiful imagery in the Bible.

“The word of the Lord came to me:

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jer 1:4-5)

It paints a beautiful picture – that God, the great infinite, what Rudolph Otto referred to as the wholly other, knew Jeremiah (and, hopefully, us) before we even came into existence. To expand it out further, to think that our occurring here is no random cosmic accident, but in some way, shape, or form, intentional. We are part of the plan.

It’s something that I have been reflecting on more and more ever since our child was born back in September (and yes, I know that a lot of these Christmas reflections have turned into parenthood ones – look, we’re celebrating the story of a child’s birth here, you draw from your own experiences, etc). When my wife was pregnant, we made a big point of not wanting to find out the gender. “There are so few surprises left in the world,” she told me. “It would be nice to still have this one.” And so, every time someone would ask us what we were having, we’d say “We don’t know,” and they’d always smile again (or very rarely give us a look of confusion). I know that others would want to know, but we were happy not knowing.

But we were confident it was a girl. We didn’t tell people this, of course, but we knew it. My wife started having a couple of dreams towards the end of her pregnancy of her. I had always pictured having a daughter first. Towards the end of the pregnancy, we were using her name already, and starting to envision the life we would have with her. And so, even before she was born, we were already anticipating her.

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

I still don’t know if we’re ever going to tell our son Xavier that we were so sure he was a girl.

Yeah, we were totally wrong. And it’s funny how sure we were. We were using the girl’s name, for crying out loud (which I won’t use here in case Xavier ever gets a sister someday). We thought we totally had this one figured out. It would be a surprise to everyone else, but not us – we knew who this child was going to be. We had figured out the plan.

As the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh…

When it comes to God, I’ve always tried to expect the unexpected. I would like to think that is what everyone in our gospel story was doing as well (see, I told you I’d get there). We read about the shepherds who go to see the child and his parents. It’s important to remember what a weird welcoming party this would have been. When my wife was in labor, in the very distant back of my head was the thought of how to introduce our new child to our parents, who were very excitedly and expectantly awaiting the good news.

The shepherds were not setting out that night to go find Jesus. They were not waiting in anticipation for Mary to give birth. They were just watching their flocks, probably hoping for a quiet, simple night, because quiet meant safe – no wolves, no thieves, no threats. The sudden announcement of that Good News was a frightening thing to them, at first. It was not what they were expecting. Mary and Joseph, I’m sure, were not expecting Mary to have to deliver in an animal trough, much less that they would be visited by a bunch of random shepherds in the middle of the night. They would have liked to stay in the inn, or to have been in their home – this was not their plan.

What a strange story. And yet, what joyful news this is. The shepherds tell everyone about what they had seen. Mary, Jesus’ mother, who certainly is weary from the birth and the stress, not to mention the unexpected visitors, instead hangs onto these moments. She sees in the midst of the stress and the dashing of plans once held, the surprise of God.

The naming of Jesus is given one sentence in Luke’s gospel. It is the most unsurprising part – Jesus is circumcised at 8 days and given his name, the custom of the time. But we know that this name will be associated with something extraordinary. We know what Mary took on faith, and what his disciples and friends would have to come to learn – that this Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

We also know that, no matter how cute the nativity scenes might paint it in our churches, there is something off here. Jesus, the King of kings, is born into poverty, lying in an animal’s feeding trough. Jesus, the one who will save all people, will be forced with his parents to flee to Egypt as a refugee. Jesus, the Son of God, who will in time spend his days healing the sick and lame, restoring the downtrodden to community, and even raising the dead, will become a criminal, sentenced to death by the state. In the midst of God’s grace-filled surprise, we still see evidence of the brokenness we know all too well. And yet, we finally know that the name of Jesus is not just tied into all the fear and violence he endured, but also the grace, glory, and salvation he means for us.

To think – all of that mystery and majesty, sorrow and joy is contained within a name. The name may be simple, but the person behind the name carries such hope and promise and power. Mary knew what the angel had told her when they named their child Jesus, but she couldn’t really have predicted exactly how his life would have gone. Jeremiah didn’t know the extent of what being a prophet for the Lord would lead him into (though he probably had an idea). When my wife and I brought little Xavier home, we had no idea how the next few weeks would go, whether we would ever sleep again. We have no idea what his life will hold, what he will love and think and do, what his name will mean to other people.

There is an awful lot of hopes, dreams, and wishes placed on his little name right now.

But, even though we were not expecting Xavier, he is still the child that we hoped for. He is still the one we talked to in the womb, the one whose ultrasound we watched, the one we tried to plan for. He is the one we left for the hospital at 4am for, the one whose cries we are now attentive to, and the one whose smiles seem to make the rest all worth it. There is so much still that we don’t know, so many surprises left to discover. We do not yet know what his name will mean, but we look forward to discovering God’s surprises to come. Mary did not yet know just what the name of Jesus would mean, but she, and we all, would come to know just what God’s latest surprise would have in store.

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Chris Clow

Chris Clow is a new parent, campus minister, and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. He and his wife Emily mostly now spend their time tending to their young infant Xavier, but he also still enjoys working with the students and playing music, finding time for games of all sorts where he can, and converting his son to St. Louis Cardinals fandom in time for Spring Training.

1st Sunday after Christmas(C): A Little Child Will Lead Us

1st Sunday after Christmas(C): A Little Child Will Lead Us

Luke 2:41-52

By: The Rev. Joe Mitchell

During my days as a youth minister, I served a church in South Carolina with a large number of children.  One such child was named James, and on one particular day I was serving at the altar and saw James, along with his sister and mother, coming up to the rail for Communion. James was running ahead of them, and when he got to the rail he stretched out his arms and loudly exclaimed, “Give me a cracker!”  His mother was embarrassed, worried that some of the Old Blue Hairs in the church might think her overly excited child shouldn’t even take Communion if he doesn’t know what it is. “Do any of us really understand what’s happening up there, though?” I asked. “What he does know,” I continued, “is that something special is happening, and he wants to be a part of it.”

We all know those folks in our churches who would have the same reaction to a child like James as all of those Old Blue Hairs did. Children should not fully participate in church until they have a grasp on how to behave and an understanding of what is going on! This is nothing short of a heresy, and the proof is right here in our Gospel text for the First Sunday during Christmastide.

Unless we break out the Gospel of Thomas—which, let’s face it, we really should sometimes!—we don’t get a clear picture of what Jesus was like as a child. Matthew features nothing between Jesus’ birth and his earthly ministry, Mark starts off at his baptism, and John has him existing before creation itself. Only Luke offers us anything resembling a childhood for little Jesus, and it occurs during the Passover when Jesus was 12 years of age. Granted, Jewish custom said that a boy became a man at such an age—12 is the traditional age for a Bar Mitzvah, after all—but even back then no one would have seen Jesus as anything more than a child (a fact made clear by his own mother’s exclamation, “Child,  why have you treated us like this?”). Nevertheless, regardless of his age Jesus is drawn to the temple, to its teachers, and to the holy task of asking questions and wondering. It is here in this moment that Jesus, as young person, sets an example for each of us to follow, pursuing a relationship with God with excitement and wonder.

Like most children, Jesus doesn’t listen to his parents. He is not part of their caravan that came up to the holy city and was now heading back to Nazareth. His curiosity and wonder have gotten the better of him, and in a very real sense it seems that pre-teen Jesus is giving children of all ages the permission to wonder, to wander, to ask, to be excited, and to pursue God in their own creative ways.

I wonder what our own churches and faith communities would look like if we could instill in our people that they are to treat children the same way that those teachers treated Jesus. They didn’t shoo him away or ignore him. Rather, they engaged with him and let him speak. They did not negate his own experience of the holy, even if he was but a child. What might happen if the next time you heard a child cry out in church you stopped and listened? What might happen to your church community if the people saw children as full and equal partners, ministers of the Gospel by virtue of their baptism, and seekers of God no less so than they?

The Incarnation is beautiful for many reasons, not the least of which is the reminder that God was a child like any of us. In Christ, God wondered and wandered and whined and wailed. In Christ, God has set for us an example of what it means to be fully human, including what it means to be a child. Children are vulnerable, like little baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers, but children are also inquisitive like 12-year old Jesus wandering the temple to talk with the teachers about God. Somewhere we lost that perspective and treated children as nuisances that are to be silent until the day they get confirmed and learn all the secrets of the faith. Thanks be to God that James’ mother did no such thing and let her son run up to the Communion rail to ask for his cracker!

As we continue our Christmas celebration, let us remember not only the meek and mild baby but the inquisitive pre-teen who wanted to know more. Let us be mindful of such eager hearts and minds in our own congregations and seek to foster a community where those questions are not only tolerated but encouraged. We may find some of our older folks starting to wonder themselves, and we may find our own dried-up sense of wonderment renewed. After all, a little child will lead us!

 

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The Rev. Joe Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

Christmas Eve(B): Flat Jesus

Christmas Eve(B): Flat Jesus

Luke 2:1-20

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

This past July, Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis (where I serve) placed statuary of the Holy Family in an enclosure on our front lawn in order to draw attention to the crisis of Family Separation on our southern border. The aim for this icon was the same as all other icons: to cause us to pause and consider the materiality of the object of our prayer. To have an image, a display, draw us into the reality of a concept, and further into the eternal reality that lies among the object or person the icon depicts. All good iconography is good prayer. All good statuary, all good architecture, serves to draw us materially into the spiritual reality that permeates all of creation. While we as people are capable of high-level abstract thought, we’re not very good at it. We need something visible or tangible to ground us. A place to point to and say that, while God is not constrained, there are places and objects in which God is reflected. Pointed to.

By the time Fox News picked up the images and video of our display we were receiving quite a bit of correspondence. Much of it was nasty and polemic, which didn’t particularly phase me. What gave me pause, however, were a line of responses with a similar proposition—that the Holy Family was a materially privileged one. That they were not sojourners or wanderers in a strange city. That the stable was sufficient housing, the manger a well-made bed. And as such our work of identifying Jesus in the plight of the refugee and the migrant was ill-founded. Our icon did not reflect the Jesus that they knew. They Jesus they were convinced was pious object of yuletide devotion. The tidy and flat Jesus of countless roadside creches, white and flood-lit casting long shadows in front of equally white and empty crosses.

When St. Francis of Assisi made the first Crèche in the City of Greccio in 1223 he did it to put real and incarnate life to a static celebration. In what was perhaps the first of a millennium of attempts to “put Christ back in Christmas” the Saint called for a living display, he “made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be (sic) brought unto the spot.”[1]  It was a living icon. An act of theatre. Contextualized, and situated in 13th century Italy, certainly, but it was a contextualization of those scant few lines that St. Luke gives us, that, “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” On a cold December night an infant slept in hay. Oxen and Asses smelled as Oxen and Asses do. It was noisy, and odd—so much so that Saint Bonaventure made sure to note that Francis had papal permission to do it.[2]

There is a part of me that wonders what we’ve lost in losing the newness, the life and the vitality of this icon. If we’re still able to see the radicality of the God’s incarnation that comes to us in the most unexpected way. If we’re able to see that God from God and Light from Light took on mortal flesh in the midst of a forced-government relocation. In a town so crowded that a trough was all that was open. At an unattended birth, with Shepherds as the first visitors.

Who are we to flatten the life in this? Who are we to tame a God that comes to us in ways that take us aback. Who are we to tame the mystery of the incarnation. To condense it. Sell it. Whiten it. And then claim that its ours? In a sentence no less profound than the opening line of St. John’s prologue, St. Luke tells us that Christ came to us a displaced Child born in a barn, and Angels shouted Glory!

We cannot afford to tame this. We cannot afford to own this. We cannot afford the great and terrible cost of re-making Christ’s nativity in our own image.

It is our job, then, to keep it wild. To break open the coming of God’s incarnation with awe and astonishment. To see behind every icon of the Holy Family a real and living Christ. A tender and exhausted Maria. A bewildered and beleaguered José.

Its up to us to let the icons and stories do what they are here to do.

Point us to God, and send us out in love to our neighbors.

[1] THE LIFE OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI. Saint Bonaventure, Translated by E. Gurney Salter (1904 by E.P. Dutton, New York, US.) Accessed at: https://www.ecatholic2000.com/bonaventure/assisi/francis.shtml#__RefHeading___Toc351061216

[2] Ibid.

 

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The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univerisity, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman