2nd Sunday of Christmas: The End of the Pageant

2nd Sunday of Christmas: The End of the Pageant

Jeremiah 31:7-14

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

A lament for The Second Sunday after Christmas Day.:

Celebrant: Oh oft maligned and regularly forgotten Second Sunday after Christmas Day! Whereas the First Sunday after Christmas Day has a rotating cast of texts for each year of the cycle, never deigning to repeat a text in three years, you are constrained to the same four texts year in and year out!

All: SELAH!

Second Sunday after Christmas Day, rarely do we see you. You appear only if the First Sunday after Christmas Day visits the calendar on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th. Often you are dethroned by Epiphany or the First Sunday after the Epiphany!

SELAH!

Oh Second Sunday, on you the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t place such a heavy weight as an Old Testament or Psalm reading, instead letting you venture into the rarely explored realms of the Apocrypha, so valiant Priests and Preachers can spend time explaining to the faithful few parishioners who braved the post-holiday doldrums just exactly what the “Apocrypha” is (and why it might not be in their bibles).

SELAH!

The Methodist’s method includes dropping you completely from the Lectionary in the Book of Worship! The stalwartly traditional Episcopalians can’t make up their minds about you, dear Second Sunday after Christmas Day, for the Book of Common Prayer assigns to you the same text for all three years!

SELAH!

You, Second Sunday after Christmas Day, truly are the Gen-X of the lectionary.

Amen.

All joking aside, the text from Jeremiah and the particular day it occupies in the liturgical calendar presents some difficulty when it comes to interpretation and preaching. The Old Testament text selected is  joyful but found in the midst of some of Jeremiah’s more acerbic prophecy, stopping just short of a weeping and wailing Rachel refusing to be consoled in verse 15. The Interpreter’s Bible spends all of its time with this text (vv. 7-14) debating if Jeremiah even wrote the passage, without actually discussing the text itself. It seems like the Church/Revised Common Lectionary committee picked out one of Jeremiah’s most hopeful passages, hoping that no lector accidentally overshoots and crashes into verse 15 so we can all just keep the peaceful feeling of Christmas going for another week.

In spite of being consigned to a forgotten role, my now beloved Second Sunday after Christmas Day is probably one of the most real days in the Christian Calendar, exemplified by this prophetic word from Jeremiah. Often on a Sunday when there is snow on the ground but the roads are still passable, I look out at a diminished congregation. On those Sundays, many chose not to risk getting out in the ice and snow, and I wonder what makes some people willing to gather for worship on those days? I suspect that for many, it is because they are searching for something. All of us come (or came initially) to church because we are looking for something;  something we can’t find anywhere else.

What is it that makes people come to church on January 5th knowing that some of the joy of Christmas will have evaporated into simultaneous exhaustion and relief knowing that they made it through another holiday season? Why do most churches get a bump in attendance after the new year? (Why do we go back to “normal attendance” in February?)

Jeremiah’s vision for the future in chapter 31:7-14 is compelling. It tells of a time that is coming when all will find themselves coming into a kingdom prepared for them by God, on straight and smooth paths leading to lush gardens. In this land there will be dancing, singing, and shouting. God will trade the people’s mourning for laughter, and their sadness for joy. Those who don’t have a place now; the blind, disabled, mothers, and those in labor, will have a place of honor in God’s gathering.

In a world that is constantly growing louder, busier, faster, and more overwhelming, the Church gets to be a counterpoint. The church has an opportunity to be a people and a place where you do not have to fight for a place or position, because in the gathering of God’s people our place is secure.

The pageantry of Christmas and Epiphany is beautiful, but it fades into the calendar and is overtaken by the dark and cold of winter and “normal” life. There is no candlelight illumined “Silent Night” in January, only a joyful promise from God of healing and dancing, sandwiched between anger (30:24) and Rachel’s weeping and wailing (31:15). How blessed is the community of Christ that we are called to live into this kingdom of healing, joy, and dancing. Be careful while extolling the ability of God to heal, don’t discount or make light of the pain and grief people carry into worship. Hope and healing don’t negate grief, oppression, and suffering; instead, they show us that while pain might be a part of our story, it is not the end of our story with God.

As people seek refuge from the wounds of disillusionment, discontent, exile, expectations, and oppression, the church gets to stand and say, “The Lord has saved!” (v. 7). There is a place of healing and abundance for the hurting, the exiled, the oppressed, the tear-filled, and grief stricken.

People show up on January 5th, make resolutions to go back to church, and continue to walk through the doors every Sunday because they are looking for a community of abundant healing and salvation. What will you and your congregation find on this the Second Sunday after Christmas Day?

Gaylord
The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

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 UMC in Yadkinville, North Carolina.

 

 

 

The Holy Name: Poetry in the Midst of Prose

The Holy Name: Poetry in the Midst of Prose

Philippians 2:5-11

By: The Rev. Brandon Duke

Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stops his prose and begins quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blesses the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blesses God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels teach lowly shepherds a song of adoration, sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. While returning to their work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat, the Church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).

By now, the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The Church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday—the twelfth and last day of this short feast. Unbeknownst to most, the “New Year” was the first Sunday of Advent (this past year, falling on December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name, the Church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” an 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder not only to remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as its answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body and being the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?

Brandon_Duke
The Rev. Brandon Duke

The Rev. Brandon Duke serves as parish priest to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Follow his blog at https://fatherbrandon.com.

 

 

 

 

Christmas 1(A): One Long Nightmare

Christmas 1(A): One Long Nightmare

Matthew 2:13-23

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

 

When is a door not a door?

When it’s ajar.

When is the Revised Common Lectionary not common?

When it’s Christmas.

The Episcopal Church formally adopted the Revised Common Lectionary at its 2006 General Convention, but only in part. I’ll save the reader, especially the non-Episcopalian crowd, the full legislative history, but as a piece of the process of adopting the RCL, in 2000, the Episcopal Church revised the Revised Common Lectionary. The most heavy-handed revisions occur during the Christmas Season, wherein the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is substituted fully for both the First and Second Sundays after Christmas. So, while y’all are preaching from Matthew’s long nightmare, I’ll be sharing with my people the lofty and uplifted image of Jesus Christ as Logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel. In fact, all things being equal, I’ll never actually have the opportunity to preach on Matthew 2:13-23, as that full pericope is never appointed in our revised version of the Revised [Common] Lectionary.

If you made it that lengthy introduction, then you know that I’ve already betrayed my opinions on the standard Gospel lesson in the RCL. Sandwiched between two dreams in which God sends a message to Joseph is the brutal story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It is the kind of story that brings up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the role that God plays in the evil that happens in the world. These are the kinds of questions that people don’t much enjoy with their peanut butter blossom cookies and hot apple cider, but they are questions that a tired preacher ought to probably consider before the rush of services from Advent 4, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Christmas 1 leave you scrambling at midnight on December 28th.

We can all understand why God would send an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream in the hopes of protecting Emmanuel, the Second Person of the Trinity who was sent to earth bring salvation for our sins. What is less easy to understand is why God didn’t send angels to every father of a toddler under two living in and around Bethlehem to protect them from the crushing sadness of losing a child to the deranged paranoia of a powerful tyrant. Sandwiched between the two dreams of Joseph as it is, the slaughter of the innocents is exceedingly troubling for those of us who follow a God who is assumed to be loving, just, and compassionate such that the story can feel like one long nightmare from the flight to Egypt, through the slaughter of the innocents, to the return to Nazareth. The quotation from Jeremiah makes matters worse. At least in Matthew’s mind, the death of these small children seems to be a part of God’s plan. A plan that is elsewhere in Scripture described as “good and perfect.”

God’s good and perfect plan was to send the Son into the world so that the world might be saved, but how that plan gets lived out in real life brings with it all kinds of skirmishes between good and evil, the God and Maker of All and the powers and principalities which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While this story is meant to show us that even as an infant, Jesus is more powerful than any political leader hellbent on destruction, a preacher, especially a preacher in Christmastide, would do well to help their congregations see and understand that the Innocents weren’t killed by God’s divine plan but by the sinfulness of humanity, the wonted corruption of political power, and a madman who lived every moment of his life in fear of losing all that he had gained.

The Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered with its own Feast Day on the Fourth Day of Christmas and recounted by the Revised Common Lectionary on Christmas 1 to remind us of God’s ongoing plan of salvation in the light of humanity’s epic ability to do evil. We remember those young souls as martyrs because their deaths remind us of what happens when the powers of this world are confronted by the power of God’s love. We tell this story during the “most wonderful time of year” to remind ourselves that God’s will, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “is to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” In order to get there, we must admit the truth of that nightmare, that this world is corrupt, evil, and violent, in order to then flip the script and move toward a place we dream of when on Christmas we sing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.”

 

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The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Steve holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.

 

 

Christmas Day(A): Delivering a Good Word

Christmas Day(A): Delivering a Good Word

John 1:1-14

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

Christmas is always such a strange holiday. And I don’t mean the way it has taken on a secular life of its own and become another occasion for buying and selling and overdoing almost everything in life. I mean the actual Christmas or nativity stories we get in the gospels are really strange. They have women young and old prophesying. They have young men dreaming dreams. They have the most glorious birth in human history being honored by common shepherds and livestock, and later on foreign magicians. They even feature a balance of life and death when one expands the scope into the passages commemorated on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

By far the strangest “nativity” story to me, though, has to be the one in John’s Gospel. It really begins at the beginning, emphasizing that the One coming in a particular way to dwell among us isn’t just a person like we think of people, much in the same way that Matthew and Luke go out of their way to show us that he isn’t a king or messiah just as we often think of kings and messiahs. He is the genesis of all people and indeed all things, manifest in a particularly acute way in the life of a Jewish teacher in the Ancient Roman Empire.

I have always been acutely drawn to the section that discusses the Word or Logos – the Divine Reason or Creative Principle. John’s nativity doesn’t just begin at Jesus’ birth. The “birth story” for John begins not just with a baby in a manger, but with the birth of all creation. In so doing this gospel shows us something extremely important and often neglected; each of us finds ourselves in Christ. More than that, we find the whole cosmos in Christ. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In Christ we find the people we love and the people we hate. We find the animals that charm and terrify us.  We find the natural elements that nourish and control us. We find the tame and the wild. We find the lamb and the lion. It brings to mind Ephesians 1:23, where Christ is “all in all.” Or the end of the Book of Job, where God actually shows up and takes both Job and the reader on whirlwind tour of creation, showing that all things find meaning and belonging in the One in whom we live and move and have our being. This kind of spiritual connection with the rest of creation isn’t quite the hippie song it sounds like. It means we have a real, unbreakable connection with everything else in all of creation.

That is a truly tough lesson to digest. There are some people, animals, and things in creation I don’t ever want to see near me, much less be connected to in all of eternity. And brings a whole new light to the command to love our enemies. We have to. There’s no getting away from them if we are all really one in Christ. I have to confess I don’t always like how that makes me feel. As a queer person I don’t know that I want to be connected to those who have assaulted my community and will continue to do so. Then I remember that part of why my own oppressors have seen themselves as justified in their violence in the past is that they’ve been able to disassociate queer folks from the Christ to whom we have always belonged. So, I resist that same (admittedly satisfying) temptation in favor of the hard truth that will, in the end as in the beginning, set both sides free if we let it.

Our world specializes in breaking apart and destroying this unity which God ordained from the beginning by making all things and doing so through the Logos (or Cosmic Christ as Richard Rohr so often likes to say). Thinking of this Logos, this Word, this Spiritual Union of all created things as a light which cannot be overcome is a precious gift, especially when one considers the curses of human division and opposition in the world. It is all the more hopeful when one considers too the bitter harvest of climate change we are reaping for abusing the delicate balance of all creation. This bit of the Christmas story reminds us that we are all connected. It goes back to the beginning of all things and re-infuses our reality with Divinity from the first minute. It reassures us that no matter what bitter oppression or danger we face; Christ is present with us. And that is an incarnational theology which can bring some real hope to our often sterile, clinical, over monetized, hyper partisan, and bitter reality. What a gift indeed.

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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.

Christmas Eve (A): All Together Now

Christmas Eve (A): All Together Now

Luke 2:1-20

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

I was seven when it was my turn. Seven, because my mama was the one who directed the Christmas pageant, and she let all the other girls my age take their turns first.  So, I was seven when I finally got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant. To be fair, for a very long time my mom had to force me to participate in anything that had to do with being in front of church people because I was really shy. But being Mary was as magical as I imagined it would be—a light blue gown with gold thread trimming and a delicate white head scarf safety-pinned into place under my chin.

The story was very straightforward to me back then. The angel announced that Mary would have a son and that she would call him Jesus. Mary thought this was a great idea, and it was so. Blessed Mary—obedient, demure, and full of grace.

Several decades and some theological education later, I understand Mary a little differently—not quite as obedient or demure, although still full of grace. Honestly, I would be a little more hesitant to step into Mary’s role if asked, but not because I am shy about speaking in church or because of my theological education.

Mostly, it’s that I’m not sure I would have gone along with “The Plan.” The Church often tells the Christmas story as if it can be reduced to the tag line, “a baby will fix it!” For some Christians, this particular baby was divine, literally God-made-flesh, sent to make right what went wrong in the beginning, a “starting over’ of sorts. Jesus was the “New Adam”—the Adam without sin. In this scenario, Jesus was born to die, to be punished in our stead, to atone for our sins.

On the other end of the theological spectrum, the plan to save the world with a baby has nothing to do with divinely sanctioned child sacrifice. Rather, it is the most unexpected thing God can do. It is what makes Christianity so subversive. The Jesus birth stories were written in the midst of Roman occupation of Jewish people and destruction of the Temple. Everyone was waiting on the next King David to come with sword and shield to save the people in exactly the same way they had been taken captive: by power and control. But God’s plan to redeem the world was not through violent takeover, but a revolution of love that started with the crying infant who would grow up to teach forgiveness and mercy. The Empire would never see it coming.

As far as stealth and surprise go, The Plan was genius. However, when it comes to practicality and thoughtfulness, using a baby to save the world is shaky, at best. Quite frankly, it would have been reasonable if someone had told God that this was a terrible idea. Babies do not care about other people. They only worry about themselves. “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Nope. That is not in the Bible. That is a Christmas carol written by someone who apparently had never spent any meaningful time with an infant. Sweet baby Jesus probably screamed his tiny head off on that not-so-silent night. Perhaps God might come up with a plan that does not involve so much crying.

Interestingly, there is very little information about baby Jesus in scripture. Two of the Gospels—Mark and John—skip his infancy altogether. We are simply introduced to Jesus as an adult, seeking baptism. The other two gospels, Matthew and Luke, really say very little about baby Jesus. Instead, the birth narrative focuses on people who the Church has designated as the supporting cast. The Gospel of Luke in particular dedicates a serious amount of real estate telling us about everyone who surrounded the baby. When we consider the text before and after the lectionary selection for Christmas Eve, the supporting case is rather large.

Luke’s first story is about Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. We are told about Mary running to Elizabeth, who convinces her everything really is going to be okay and that this baby will be a blessing. When it comes to the actual birth, Luke focuses on all who attended. This is the part we know best—the heavenly host and the anxious shepherds, who show up and declare the baby to be a child of God. Then, post-birth, we are introduced to the prophets Anna and Simeon, who were at the temple to greet Mary and Joseph and their infant son. They welcomed him into the community with a blessing.

The way Luke tells it, the Christmas story seems not to be about a baby at all, but rather about the people who raised that baby—the men and women who showed up and stuck around; the host of people who believed that they had a responsibility to give their best to a child; the people who promised to encourage the child to be curious and creative, to be faithful, to love every single other, and taught the child that he was a beloved child of God.

Maybe this is what the Christmas Story is really about: that God used an incredibly random assortment of folks—holier-than-thou angels, the near-homeless shepherds, a pair of young parents mentored by an older couple, strangers and friends—to save the world.

Is this a narrative of the Church that describes our congregations? Or might it be our vision statement? How are we carrying on the legacy of the rag-tag holy community that raised the Savior?

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

 

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.