5th Sunday after Epiphany: Saying “Yes!”

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Saying “Yes!”

Luke 5:1-11

By: The Rev. Kim Sorrells

This story, and its parallel versions in Mathew and Mark, is a familiar one for many of us who have grown up in or around the church. The readily available imagery of fishing and catching lends itself nicely to children’s stories and Vacation Bible School themes. For me, growing up in an evangelical setting this story was often used a charge to go out and “save souls,” or convert people to Christianity. While there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to share something meaningful with others around you, to reduce the mission of Christ to focusing on individuals misses out on the transformation of the world and ultimately falls short of the fullness of Christ’s mission.

This story is about the calling of the first disciples not only to become followers of Jesus, but to be able to continue to carry out his mission of bringing about the Kin-dom of God on earth as it is in Heaven. As Arland J. Hultgren says, “Jesus has come into the world to reveal God and to redeem the cosmos. But he is known to us only through the witness of his apostles.” It is fitting then, he says, that the church read this story during the season after Epiphany—a time when we celebrate the manifestation of God in Christ and in turn contemplate our involvement in his mission in the world.”[1] Christ, the manifestation of God’s love and justice among us, has come to bring about the kin-dom of God’s peace and justice on earth as it is in heaven and show us the way of this work. In this way, the calling of the disciples is less about saving individual souls and more about building a movement to continue to build the kin-dom of God.

When I worked in faith-based political organizing, we spent a great deal of time talking about and working on “building the movement.” To create change, to bring about a more just society, we needed people to understand and believe in the cause we were working on, and then we needed them to also go tell their friends. In a way, it sounds almost like those “pyramid schemes” we hear about—I go recruit 5 people, who in turn do the same. Yet the reality is, this is how change happens on a larger scale. This is how we share the ways of peace and justice: by casting out our nets and catching people. Building a movement; a movement that builds God’s kin-dom of God on earth, takes ordinary everyday people deciding to get up and follow Jesus in his way of justice and peace, and to bring in others with them.

While Jesus is the main character, this passage is just as much about Simon and the others as they recognize Christ as a manifestation of God and make the choice to follow him in God’s mission. Like other call stories in the Bible, we first see hesitation from Simon. He is hesitant to let down the nets, but does as he is asked, calling Jesus “master.” However, as they haul in an abundance of fish, a miraculous portion, Simon recognizes that this man is more than a teacher. Here, his language shifts—calling Christ “Lord” as he falls to his knees in awe. Still resistant, this time from a sense of unworthiness, but as Christ calls to him to follow, he does. I imagine as he recognizes Christ’s nature he is compelled to follow, even as daunting as it might seem.

The call to be a disciple of Jesus is no less “all in” for believers today than it was for Simon and the first disciples. Certainly, the circumstances have changed, but the call is the same: to go forth and further the mission of God’s kin-dom on earth, catching people and building the movement. I imagine that for many of us, the call feels daunting. Maybe we too are hesitant and feel unworthy. Maybe sometimes the task feels too big. And yet, when we catch a glimpse of Christ among us, recognizing God in the midst of our lives, we are reminded that we are not alone in this journey. Rather, we are compelled to follow and empowered by Christ with us. Like those first disciples, Christ is at work in and among our everyday ordinary lives and among ordinary people. We need not have all the answers or have It all together.  Rather, all that is required is simply to say “yes” and follow.

As you sit with this text and what it says to our communities of faith, perhaps it’s worth asking where it is we see the movements of Christ among us, cultivating God’s Kin-dom on earth? Where is it that Christ is calling us to join into that movement and how is it that we might continue to call others into this movement with us? Maybe these questions don’t yet have clear answers. We need not know it all, we simply must be willing to say “Yes” and join in the movement.

[1] Hultgren, Arland J. (2010, February 7). Commentary on Luke 5:1-11. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=506

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The Rev. Kim Sorrells

The Rev. Kim Sorrells is an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ, with an interest in Spiritual Practices and Justice work. Kim is also bi-vocational and spends their “day job” working for Atlanta Pride as the Programs and Partnerships Manager.

4th Sunday after Epiphany: How Not to Deliver Your First Sermon

4th Sunday after Epiphany: How Not to Deliver Your First Sermon

Luke 4:21-30

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

 

In June of 2017, at the age of 27, I was commissioned as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. As it goes in the Methodist itinerant system, I was then appointed to a church. The church to which I was appointed (as associate pastor) happens to be a church that my father pastored and that my family attended from 1994-2001. You can imagine the mixture of feelings I had about that appointment, but most of all, I was elated to be given the opportunity to go home and minister to a congregation that had a hand in raising me.

My first Sunday there, I recognized so many faces. So many of the people in the congregation that morning had an enormous impact on my faith at an early age. A great deal of the sermon I preached that morning looked at the simplicity of the task Christ has given us. At the end of the sermon, I focused on thanking Northbrook for loving me at an early age and into my teens, and for showing me what it looked like to be a part of a loving, gracious community that loves people and most of all Jesus.

I am now halfway through my second year at this church. To serve a community that was so instrumental in my growth as a person and believer has been a joy. The honeymoon continues to this day, and I hope it never ends.

Our Scripture, Luke 4:21-30, finds Jesus in a similar situation. However, his honeymoon ends quickly. Jesus has come home to Nazareth; to his home-synagogue, and he is surrounded by people that raised him in both stature and faith. He preaches his first sermon, and Luke tells us that after claiming to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah, the congregation is impressed and even proud, looking at one another and saying, “That’s Joseph’s son isn’t it?”

Unfortunately, the pride is short-lived. At this point, our parallel stories of preaching to our hometown crowds diverge as Jesus essentially tells them that the prophecy which he has fulfilled today—that he will be the one “…to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind,” and freedom to the oppressed—does not have a whole lot to do with them (4:18-19). In fact, it has a great deal more to do with the Gentiles and, using examples from 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 5, Jesus demonstrates that, historically, this has been a long time coming.

Luke’s Gospel and its sequel (the Acts of the Apostles) paint a portrait of Jesus that cares for the underprivileged, the sick, blind, lame, widows, the poor, AND the Gentiles. Jesus is not just the Savior of the Jews. Jesus is the Savior of humanity! The Gospel of Luke inaugurates Jesus as the Savior of Jews AND Gentiles, and the Acts of the Apostles shows that same good news going viral, into all the world, to everyone!

Just 2 chapters before this, Simeon takes baby Jesus into his arms and proclaims that this child is indeed both a light for the Jews AND the Gentiles. Afterwards, he looks at Mary and acknowledges that this child will also be the cause of much division and heartache. And in Luke 4, we see the first fruits of that division. The message of salvation, of God’s grace for ALL is a hard truth to swallow, specifically for the insiders. The evidence? Jesus’ own home synagogue tries to kill him for such a message!

Nevertheless, Jesus’ message to the Gentiles and to the marginalized and to the world is so important that he has to begin his ministry with this universal message. His first sermon cannot leave it out. It has to be in the forefront.

As you ponder this passage, think about a few things:

  • What is something that, if preached, would cause your congregation to lose their minds in intense anger?
  • Who are the people your congregation intentionally or unintentionally leaves out? Why?
  • Why is an inclusive message so difficult for some to grasp?

Jesus has called us to preach hard truths; to reach out to those on the outside. That may very well cause division. May God be with you as you carry the inclusive and difficult message of Jesus. May God be with you when you bring the Gospel to those you know and those you don’t know, your hometown and out-of-town crowds. May God move you in the direction of spiritual growth. And may you always look to Jesus Christ, who continually shows us what it means to be human, what it means to be a disciple, and what is means to love.

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The Rev. Andrew Chappell

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

 

3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

Luke 4:14-21

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord (& Child)

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

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

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

 

The Holy Name: A God of Surprises

The Holy Name: A God of Surprises

Luke 2:15-21

By: Chris Clow

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

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

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

you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.

All day long I am an object of laughter;

everyone mocks me.

Whenever I speak, I must cry out,

violence and outrage I proclaim;

The word of the LORD has brought me

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

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

“The word of the Lord came to me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chris Clow

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

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

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

Luke 2:41-52

By: The Rev. Joe Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Rev. Joe Mitchell

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

Christmas Eve(B): Flat Jesus

Christmas Eve(B): Flat Jesus

Luke 2:1-20

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

 

Curtis Headshot
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