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?

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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?

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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.

 

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

Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

John 1:1-14

By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

What does it mean to truly live? This time of year is full of all kinds of wonderful things: friends having get togethers, office parties (though one could question the goodness of those), and family time. These are the times of year that we see people that maybe we’ve lost contact with over the course of the year and maybe we finally manage to reconnect. We get to make amazing memories of the holidays.

I remember my Christmases growing up in North Alabama. There weren’t many white Christmases to speak of, but there were lots of memories. My dad has always loved to decorate the house for Christmas. We always had these amazingly beautiful Christmas light displays: vis a vis Clark Griswold from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” There were two amazingly tall Southern Magnolia trees (magnolia grandiflora) in our front yard. They had to be at least 40-50 feet tall. Though I have to confess, they seemed bigger than that as a child. One year when I was a kid my dad decided that he wanted to hang lights on those trees in the front yard. I thought he was absolutely out of his mind. But he was determined, so he came up with a rig. He basically used a smaller tree with all the branches cut off, leaving only a Y at the top of the pole to run lights up into the huge magnolia trees. I can’t believe it even now! Looking back at it, I am amazed at his determination and his commitment to making something special and amazing of that Christmas.

I think about all of the special memories and amazing moments of my life and I am filled with awe and inspired to try to make wonder filled moments with the kids I work with. When I was in seminary, I remember one of my professors saying, “Christians and Jews march on their memory.” It is a comment that has stuck with me after many other things have passed from my memory. I think it has stuck because it is deeply ingrained in my own spirituality. It’s one of the ways that I seek balance and hope in times of trouble. To remember the depth of God’s love and the continual promise of God’s seeking human redemption. Lamentations tells us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

In certain moments it is very difficult to hold this idea and our experience of our daily lives hand in hand. I’m writing less than a week after the tragic shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My heart is broken by this tragedy and the hatred that has been leveled against my Jewish brothers and sisters. Hate is not found in the heart of God. Crimes of hatred and violence betray the very image of God that lays inside each and every human being. Just a few days after the shooting, I had the privilege of standing alongside Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, Mormons, Lutherans at a synagogue here in Calgary and declare that we will reject hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, and stand together as people of different faiths to support our Jewish brothers and sisters following the massacre in Pittsburgh. It is one of the positive moments to come from such a terrible tragedy, but it isn’t the only one. Our Muslim brothers and sisters formed rings of protection around synagogues in Toronto on the most recent Shabbat.[1] We have to look at the good things that can come from these horrible tragedies. It is hard for us to hold these terrible moments in human history alongside the Glory of God revealed in the incarnation.

It is easy to reflect on the power and prestige of the birth of Jesus, but when we celebrate the glory of the incarnation that comes into such a messed-up world where there’s violence and hatred and evil it is much harder to imagine the God of heaven and earth deciding to enter into this world for its redemption. I would love to believe that Jesus entered into a world that was filled with less hate or less pain, but that simply isn’t realistic. It isn’t true to the human experience, and it isn’t faithful to the message of God’s redemptive acts throughout human history for our salvation. God comes in times that are most confused when people have most lost their hope and direction in life and aren’t sure how to live as God’s people in a new age.

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, it was to break the yoke of Pharaoh’s slavery and give us freedom to worship and love God. When God brought God’s people into the promised land, it was that they might not wander lost in the desert eternally but to give them a home. When God came to dwell among us, it was not into a sanitized world apart from the reality of human suffering, but it was to a people who were oppressed by the Roman authorities and crushed under the burden of the legalistic religious authorities that we might know the freedom of true life. St. John Chrysostom in his famous homily says, “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.”[2]

Jesus comes to dwell in and among our ordinary human life filled with both suffering and beautiful things to show us the true treasure of life and invite us to participate in God’s saving work. That we might know the abundant life to which God has called us a life of freedom and belonging and to open to the whole world the way of salvation. There surely is no greater proclamation of God’s love than God’s enduring embrace of the whole of creation through the incarnation. God reaches out through the incarnation to make God’s love known to us and to the whole of creation.

[1] “‘We Share That Pain’: Muslims Form Rings of Peace at GTA Synagogues in Wake of U.S. Shooting.” CBC. November 03, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/gta-muslim-pittsburgh-synagogue-peace-ring-1.4890743.

[2] St. John Chrysostom. “St. John Chrysostom: Homily on Christmas Morning.” Prydain. December 25, 2008. https://prydain.wordpress.com/2008/12/25/st-john-chrysostom-homily-on-christmas-morning-3/.

 

 

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The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

The Rev. Jerrod W. McCormack was recently ordained a transitional deacon in Diocese of Calgary in the Anglican Church of Canada. He serves as the Spiritual Health Practitioner for the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Alberta and as a deacon for St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary. He’s a native of Alabama but has been sojourning in the Great White North for several years now and is pleased to call the Canadian Rockies home.

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Luke 2:15-21

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

My spouse and I actively debated for weeks what we were going to name our new dog. The name he had been given in foster care, “Harley,” didn’t seem to suit him at all. Nor could we figure out why someone would call this brown hound “Winston,” which was the name given to him by the owner who surrendered him to a shelter. We had only met him once before adopting him, but we knew that those names absolutely didn’t fit. This dog was gentle, bouncy, silly, and anxious (and proved to be even more of all those things once we actually started living with him.) He needed a silly, bouncy name. My spouse and I both being theologians, we were hoping for something a little Christian-geeky too.

Initially, I advocated for “Swarley,” a ridiculous fake name taken from a bit joke in a sitcom we liked to watch. I figured it’d be easier to teach him to respond to a name that sounded like “Harley.” My spouse got the joke, but didn’t like that it wasn’t a real name and that we’d have to repeat it two or three times anytime somebody asked what our dog was called. He liked what I call “people” names, old-fashioned grumpy-man names like Charlie and Carlton. I’ve always preferred naming animals more expressively. Just ask our rabbits, Exodus and Calliope.

In the end, in a graced moment, Chris pointed to a stuffed prairie dog in our house (a souvenir from a zoo trip) and asked, “What did we decide to call this one?” I knew even before I answered him that the name was a winner. And so, when his fosterer dropped him off at our house, we welcomed him as Bosco[1] and Bosco he has remained.

Names take on an enormous symbolic significance in our lives, even when we don’t quite mean for them to. In today’s reading, the naming ceremony almost seems tacked on—an  afterthought. But it is actually the focus of the feast day—the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, if one wants to be liturgically proper. And once you think about it, it makes sense that we’d celebrate the naming of our savior. Naming can make things feel more real. Perhaps it’s seeing your new job title in print for the first time that brings home the realization that things have changed at work; maybe we give titles to the novels and music that we plan to one day write. Having a way to refer to someone or something gives it an identity of its own.

For me, the significance of the naming ties back into Mary’s journey, as told by Luke. She knew this child’s name before she birthed him; she knew it before she even conceived him. How many couples choose their children’s names prior to meeting them face to face? Quite a few among my friends, at least. For those of us approaching or in the early stages of family-making, the topic of names is exciting and sometimes contentious—you hear rules about whether you should reveal a baby’s name before they’re born, or how to “claim” a family name for one’s own baby, or whether to ask someone before passing on their name to a new generation. I myself have always disliked the idea of giving a name to a child before you meet them, but my spouse and I still already have names picked out for our own hypothetical children. It’s a natural impulse, to want to give our new creations something we can call them by. It helps us imagine them, imagine our lives being different with an “other” there.

Though the naming ceremony is the reason for the feast, I’m most intrigued by the verse that says Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Even as the verse grabbed me, it took me several reads to remember why—this verse is quoted in one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Ender’s Shadow, as a nun takes in an undernourished, undersized, but profoundly intelligent orphan and begins to raise him as her own, knowing that he won’t stay hers for very long. Her knowledge of their limited time together means that she treasures all his strange quirks and unexpected habits all the more. I doubt that Mary knew the whole of what was in store for her son. Indeed, I think it would have been cruel for God to give her foreknowledge of either the best or worst of what he would experience. But I think she probably knew well enough that her baby wouldn’t be only hers for very long. In learning his name, she came to know him before he was a living, human reality inside herself; in the naming ceremony, she took the being who had been her own secret and presented him to the world, perhaps with pride, perhaps with profound fear.

Of course, the naming is just the start; the introduction. We name, and then we learn what it is to love that name. And in a new year, we have another chance to meet Jesus again, to use the name anew, and to connect again with the person the name describes.

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Her research revolves around sexuality education in Christian contexts and the formative influence of video games and gaming. She lives in Davenport, Iowa, with her spouse Chris, their dog Bosco, and their two rabbits, Calliope and Exodus.

 

 

 

[1] The name also fulfills Christian nerd requirements as we can claim St. Don or Dom Bosco, a priest who dedicated his life to working with street children, as the patron saint of our dog.

Sunday after Christmas (B): On the Downplaying of Religious Experience

Sunday after Christmas (B): On the Downplaying of Religious Experience

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

Somewhere in the great hazing that was the ordination process, I was trained to stop taking religious experience seriously.

I don’t imagine I’m alone in that, and I don’t imagine I’m alone in having a split attention when people are describing their experiences to me.

If a parishioner is relaying a time where they feel, however fervently, that God spoke directly to them I’ve been taught to take the same tack—nod politely and agree. Make sure what they’re experiencing isn’t threatening to themselves or others. Make sure this isn’t indicative of an abusive situation at home/school/work. Are they exhibiting symptoms of something that might be dangerous to their health? Are those visions seizures? Do I need to refer them to a counselor/psychiatrist/general practitioner, or do I just need to call 911?

The answer to each of those questions has been yes at some point or another in my ministry. There were ambulances that needed to be called, referrals that needed to be made, situations that needed to be reported. All of the questions were good.

But. I was trained to take their circumstances seriously. Not their experiences. Not their God moments.

Which might be why saying the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, every evening at evening prayer never sits quite right with me. The Magnificat is eminently easy—cast down the mighty, lift up the lowly. That’s something I can get into. That’s a canticle I can sing out and sing strong. God’s justice is real and mighty and the words of the Blessed Virgin come screaming off the page.

The Nunc Dimittis, though. The Nunc Dimittis always seems like a sigh compared to Mary’s shout. It is something deeply and intensely personal that I’m slightly ashamed to be let into. This is between God and Simeon. And here I am at the close of my day, reciting a promise that was made for someone else.

This is what St. Luke does though. The whole of Luke’s first two chapters are an action/response sequence that shows God working palpably and intimately in the lives of Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the Shepherds, and finally St. Simeon and St. Anna. It becomes a sort of formula. An Angel appears. Good news is announced. Stories are shared. God is praised.

Elizabeth praises God in Mary. Mary praises God in in the work God is doing in her. Zechariah praises God with a newly opened mouth as he presents his son in the temple. Shepherds come streaming into Bethlehem to tell Mary of the Good News that God showed to them, and the reality of that Good News in the baby that she just bore. As Jesus is presented in the temple, Simeon sings out God’s deliverance.

The Spirit shows up palpably, tangibly, in each of their lives, only to cut to moments of profound and public reflection on the spirits work.

The great songs of our faith—The Magnificat. The Ave Maria. The Benedictus. The Gloria in Excelsis. The Nunc Dimittis. All come from intensely personal moments of encountering God in Luke’s first two chapters. And yet, at least in the mainline, the kind of experiences that Luke is so intent on preserving and crafting as hallmarks of the arrival of the Christ, are the kinds of experiences that make us blush.

More and more I’m convinced that this blushing, this shying away from speaking about the way in which God shows up in tangible and meaningful ways is exactly where the work is. It is exactly what the Church needs to claim.

The twentieth century saw the mainline move its clergy into the model of a professional. We were there amongst the ranks of lawyers and doctors, giving clear and unassuming advice and counsel. Keeping our institutions running well and performing admirably. Such professionalism, as well intentioned as it may seem, can make little room for the Spirit, and even less for the messy ways in which the Spirit shows up in our own lives and in our own experience.

There is so precious little in scripture that backs this up. St. Luke seems to believe, rather clearly, that the Gospel shows up in us before we show up to proclaim the Gospel. As it becomes clearer and clearer that we can fill our desks with the utmost precision and professionalism and still see our numbers fall and our witness fade, we might need to take our stories, our personal encounters with God, as the place to start.

 

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The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Episcopal Priest and native Floridian, received his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013 and serves as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works to build community for the city’s booming downtown, and curates the Cathedral’s neighborhood satellite Circle South. He and his wife are the exhausted parents of two young boys. Feel free to follow the madness on IG @thebrokechurchman. Lee also (rarely) blogs at thebrokechurchman.wordpress.com.