Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Law Against Christmas

If you are a person who believes that strict adherence to all laws is the best way to live communally, I have some news for you. Your position would have resulted in preventing Christmas. Here is how.

In ancient times, marriage was less a romantic notion about life choices and couples' aspirations than it was a contract between two families. The deal worked like this: families with daughters arranged with families with sons to transfer responsibility for the daughters to the families of sons in exchange for a price, a dowry. In exchange, the families with sons received a young woman of child bearing potential to provide subsequent generations. The arrangement was a betrothal contract. It promised that responsibility for the daughter would be transferred to the family with sons.

The betrothal contract was binding. The sons had no choice. The daughters had no choice. They were bound by the betrothal contract to carry out the arrangements that their respective families had reached. As soon as the daughter of the one family reached the age of child-bearing, the betrothal contract of with the son's family was enforced. There were few ways out of the betrothal contract. Most were unlawful. The sons or daughters could vacate themselves. They could run away. If they did, however, they could never return. Such a crime was punishable by death. The female could become impregnated by another male, thus breaking the betrothal contract. Again, however, the crime was punishable by death. In fact, in such a case, the groom-to-be son of the one family was obligated under the law to be the first to cast a deadly stone at the otherwise bride-to-be daughter of the offending family. The betrayal brought shame on the daughter's entire family, and, not incidentally, her own death.

This situation is particularly applicable to the nativity story of the Gospel according to Matthew. While betrothed, but prior to marriage, Mary, who was obligated by her family to marry Joseph, was found to be with child. The law was very clear. Joseph was obligated under the law to see to it that Mary was stoned to death. In fact, he was obligated to be the first to cast the deadly stone. Joseph was in a tense position. He did not want to see Mary die. He resolved to break the law by dissolving the contract between his family and hers. (This was an illegal act!) In Matthew's Gospel account, Joseph, not Mary, is warned in a dream, by no less than an angel of the Lord, to honor the contract, despite Mary's betrayal, and take her as his wife. (Another illegal act!)

In the briefest of accounts, Joseph breaks the law and takes Mary as his wife. If he were a man of honor under the law, he would have cast the first rock at her public stoning. If Joseph had done what he should and ought to have done, there would have been no nativity, no birth, no Jesus. Had Joseph held to the letter of the law, there would be no Christmas.

So, if we want to protect Christmas, let us do so with compassion, understanding and creativity. Let us not demand a strict adherence to the letter of our Christian orthodoxies or ecclesial laws, rules or regulations. Had Joseph rigidly clung to those obligations, Mary and Jesus would have died. It is only through compassion, mercy, imagination, forgiveness and grace that we have Christmas at all. Thanks to the unlawful Joseph, Jesus is born to Mary. Christmas is saved!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent Stinks!

I have a problem with the season of Advent. I imagine that you, too, might.

Not a single Advent season passes that I do not get at least a small handful of well-meaning suggestions that we in the Church ought to get with it and begin celebrating Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving is over. What is wrong with celebrating Jesus' birth, after all? What is wrong with Christmas Carols? Who nominated you and the Church as our corporate Scrooges or Grinches? Let's have some fun!

Well, fine; except for this one, small thing. It is not yet Christmas. Liturgically, at least, Jesus has not yet been born. He is still anticipated, hoped for, feared and promised. Therefore, the Church observes Advent. Advent is the season of preparation that precedes the birth of the Christ Child. It is intentional readiness for the policies and practices of Christ Jesus, a time of "making his paths straight." Those paths can look radical and seem dangerous, even unorthodox. They call us beyond some simple assumptions about Jesus' life and death.

My problem with Advent in the Church is that it is so contrary to the practices of the world around the Church. Everywhere we look and hear, there are Christmas sales, Christmas carols, wrapping paper, Christmas lights, Christmas parties, and, God forbid, glitter. So much glitter! The world moves to Christmas in mid-to-late-October, even before Halloween. By the end of November, even on Thanksgiving Day, the stores are open and ready for those Christmas, Black Friday sales. Cyber Monday takes place before we even reach December.

Advent is about the authentic Jesus, not about some characterization of him that traditions have created. The authentic Jesus comes as a corrective to traditional faith, that which falls too simply into categories of black/white, good/bad, in/out. He comes as a sign and symbol of God's inclusive will and tolerant acceptance. He comes with a concentration on those who had been excluded, rejected, despised and feared. He comes for others, not for himself. He does not care about life after death, but about the state of living on earth. He cares less about our sins than he does about our capacity to practice heavenly virtues in relationship with our brothers and sisters, helping those who have been victimized and oppressed.

The Church has a lot of work to do to "make these paths straight." The Church has a great deal to prepare. We have to move the accent of our words about Jesus to a completely other syllable. We have to rewrite sentences where we have been the subject, and see, finally, that others receive Jesus' emphasis. We have to empty ourselves of ourselves. Jesus was not about himself. Neither may we be. To put it bluntly, Advent is a way for us to unlearn many of the traditions that we have blindly accepted and the assumptions that we have been fed. It is a four-week period of re-acquainting ourselves with the real Jesus, who demonstrated the true Christ.

So, we in the Church cling to Advent, a season about the coming apocalyptic that Jesus brings. We remain in a time of serious preparation, even as the world sings of grandmas who are run over by reindeer and hippopotamuses for Christmas. I don't like it, but there you have it. Advent is about the birth of the genuine revelation of God's will, even if that looks nothing like what the world around the Church is celebrating.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

The people of Israel had returned to their ancestral homeland after spending some fifty years in Babylonian bondage. They had been freed by an edict from a warrior king who thought it an ultimate insult to Babylon to send their former slaves back to their own lands. The former slaves certainly supported the policy.

Some of the Israelites remembered the former glory of their homeland, the Temple, the buildings, the roads, the public squares. They left Babylon, eager to return home. Many made the arduous trek, while others remained behind and established themselves as Judaism-in-diaspora. Those who returned were overjoyed as they approached what had once stood as the gates to Jerusalem. What they found, however, was utter devastation. No stone remained upon another. No Temple stood. There was no palace. There were no passable roads. Everything lay in ruin.

It took decades for the priests and prophets to inspire the people into any semblance recovery. They had been immobilized by hopelessness and immovable in their victimization. They were bitter at the fates that had brought them back to their own ancestral land. They blamed their leaders. They blamed the nations around them. They blamed God.

After some time, however, the priests and the prophets broke through the solid veneer of Israel's hopelessness by reminding them that they had been brought out of Babylon. Their freedoms had been restored. Their sovereignty was renewed. The only thing that was keeping them from restoring the splendor of the nation was the attitudes and perspectives of a broken people. The priests and prophets began to sing songs of celebration and thanksgiving. They began to paint pictures of hope and possibility.

Eventually, the people heard the songs of the priests. They envisioned the possibility that was promised by the prophets. A thankful heart slowly replaced the bitter and resentful one. A grateful attitude shaped a perspective of potential and possibility. They placed stone upon stone, and there was soon a building. They laid them, one against another, and there was a road. They built one structure at a time, one neighborhood, one vital element of their relationship with God. Within a century or so, the Temple was rededicated. The people of Israel had genuinely returned home.

The spirit of gratefulness and thanksgiving changes everything. You who read this are likely not the citizenry that is disenchanted, weighed down, frustrated. Instead, you are the priests and prophets who need to sing for the people songs of hope, possibility and promise. We are the harbingers of thanksgiving. We envision the new day.

Sing, friends! Shout! Let the people hear of God's love and forgiveness. Let them know that God's Spirit is within them and upon them, that nothing is impossible if we rely on the strength of that Spirit. Let them see the deliverance, the hope, the embodiment of God's will on earth. It is just out of our reach. An attitude of thanksgiving and a perspective of praise allow us to reach it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!  

Monday, November 14, 2016

Safety (pins)

It is undeniable. Since last week's Presidential elections, some of our brothers and sisters are running scared. Those who had formerly been on the periphery of inclusion and acceptance, those who had been working their way into cultural acceptance, feel that they are now being pushed outside of access and participation. Whatever our politics, and whatever our systems of belief, we must acknowledge their fear.

Some homosexual persons are afraid that their recently-granted right to marry is now in  jeopardy. Some women in hijabs fear being attacked and assaulted. Some Black Americans worry about a return to segregationist America. Some Muslims fear religious intolerance and discrimination. Some Latinos sense an approaching cultural backlash. Some women fear that their rights to decide the fate of their own bodies is under attack. For many, these are tense times, whether or not others of us think the fear is warranted. Our brothers and sisters live in fear and worry about what is to come.

What can those who call Christ "King" do?  What are those who refer to him as "Master" offer to those who are in dread these days?

Maybe we can do as Christ did. Maybe we can offer safety and acceptance to those who are in fear of being excluded, rejected, even assaulted. Maybe we can do even more. Maybe we can offer welcome and acceptance to those who may be seen as potential sources of exclusion and rejection. Maybe we can see past the politics of the fear to the simple fact that lies beneath and above it. In Christ, we are all one. No race, kind, clan, sexual preference, economic or political status, religion, color, creed, gender or gender identity is naturally better than any other. We are unified in Christ. We are one.

At Shiloh Church, we offer you this opportunity to express the notion that you are a person of safety, both for those on the periphery and for those in the cultural core groups. Some of our crafty population will make available special "safety" pins, starting this coming Sunday. These pins are not anti-anything. They are pro-safety, pro-acceptance, pro-tolerance and pro-love. Some of the pins will bear the UCC Comma, some will have rainbow beads, some will be plain. The differences mean very little.

Wearing the safety pins may be very meaningful, however. They may mean that someone who had been in fear feels a sense of support and acceptance. They may mean that someone who feels pressure in our culture to believe or think in certain ways are accepted by people of faith. The safety pins are a sign and symbol of support and acceptance. Pick yours up from the green table on Sunday. They are free for the taking.

One other note. Even if you do not wear one of our safety pins, treat persons with the respect and honor due them as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. Reject no one. Exclude no one. Love every one. Everyone. This is what it means to call Christ "King."

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Just the Beginning

I admit it. I care who is elected today as President of the United States. While I have not yet, I will vote today. For whom I vote is not your business. I do not care to attempt to convince anyone that my vote is the correct one. I will vote for what I think is the best course for the country that I love. I trust that everyone is doing the same.

My concern comes on the days, weeks, months and years that follow election day. For the sake of the nation, whichever party wins the presidential election will have to work with whatever party loses. In order to address the problems that we face, and in order to make us an even better nation, we will all have to put aside petty party politics, anger, fear, suspicion and doubt and focus our unified energies on the issues that had divided us. Obstructionism has to become a thing of the past. Intolerance has to pass. Vitriol and hate speech have to be erased from the national dialogue. We have to care so deeply about our fate moving forward that we are willing to bend our opinions and our convictions, many of which are fostered by a media machine that cares more about sensationalism and profits than it does about reflecting truth and reality. We have to learn to work together, even if we had disagreed.

Thus, my pledge. Even if the candidate who I favor, for whom I will vote, is defeated in this election, I will do everything I can in moving forward productively and positively. My work will not be misdirected in opposition to or obstruction of the work of whatever candidate wins. I will accept the presidency of the winner. I will support the work of moving forward from the contention of this election cycle to a more unified national hope, vision and direction.

I will not disrespect those who voted differently from me. I will not disrespect the candidate for whom they voted. I will not use accusatory or inflammatory language in conversation with or about them, their preferred candidate or their stances on the issues. I will not, however, tolerate such language or treatment of those who voted the way I did, or with the winning candidate, whoever that may be. If we are to be unified in our directions and actions as we move forward, there is no place in the process for foul, ugly epithets, or judgmental action or language. Even if the opportunity should present itself, I will refrain from such action or language.

Now, who will join me in this pledge of civility and respect? Who will join me in promising to do everything we can in channeling our communal energies toward a positive and productive direction for this nation? Who is tired of it all and ready to set a higher standard for dialogue and resolution of the challenges that we face?


Monday, October 31, 2016

Christ Culture?

Change is not welcome. To my personal knowledge, no one likes it. Most of us do nearly anything within our power to resist it. We prefer stasis, reliability, solid foundations upon which we are to store and secure our stuff. When things change, reliability and assumptions fly out the proverbial window. Chaos ensues.There is no control. There is no stability, nothing upon which to safely rely.

There are times, however, when change is good for us and for everyone. This past week's Revised Common Lectionary Gospel text was the Zacchaeus narrative. Zacchaeus knew no grace. He lived a life of demand and supply, collecting taxes for the Roman government in Jericho. He had become rich by collecting more than was owed by the Judaic citizenry. The man cheated others in order to become wealthy. But he was despised. Zacchaeus was a pariah. The mention of his name was accompanied with a sneer, much like the geographically racist term "Samaritan."

When Jesus came through Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus was determined to see the embodiment of God's grace. He climbed the now-famous tree. Jesus saw him and called to him. When Zacchaeus ran to Jesus, Jesus embraced him, welcomed him, accepted him. Zacchaeus was not accustomed to such treatment. He encountered grace. As a result, his world changed. Zacchaeus promised, from that moment onward, to give half of everything he owned to the poor and to repay anyone that he had defrauded fourfold. In meeting grace, Zacchaeus becomes grace to, with and in his community.

Apocalyptic works in a similar fashion. Just as Zacchaeus had encountered grace, we begin to corporately and communally imagine a better world, a healthier existence, lives of universal abundance. When we encounter that world as a genuine possibility, we being to shape our behavior according to that world. We change in the process of changing the world in which we live, all in an effort to change the way we live in culture and society.

Zacchaeus changes for the better. He becomes grace in his community. Apocalyptic changes us for the better, compelling us toward a more faithful walk with our Lord. Change can be good. It can be very good!

Which brings me to the point of this week's post. Our culture is in the process of axiomatic change. The old rules no longer apply. The old assumptions no longer hold. The ground upon which we have so reliably stood is shaken and crumbling. According to Phyllis Tickle in her fabulous book, The Great Emergence, such axiomatic cultural shift takes place in human culture every 500 or so years. If the last shift took place in the Great Reformation of the 16th century, then it should come as no surprise to us that one should take place in the 21st.

Since the late 1960's, culture has been shifting. It has been shifting away from authority and power relationships toward egalitarian justice, inclusion, unity and acceptance of diversity. Sectarian kinds, clans, groups, orthodoxies and ilks are being supplanted by the universality of the human condition and the need for mutual support and care. I take this to be a step forward in the cultural evolutionary process, one with which we are uncomfortable still. It pushes us toward sacrifice of privilege and position for the sake of assisting those who lack the power to compete.

In my humble opinion, culture is catching up with Christ. We have evolved to the point of apocalyptic, where we can now exchange one world for the other, where Christ can and may become culture's new reliability and standard for assumption. We can see that such a world is possible. Even though we despise change, we are invited in the process of cultural evolution to embrace it. Maybe it is time that we stop resisting the change and see it as a step forward in our evolution toward Christ.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reformation Sunday

This coming Sunday, October 30, is Reformation Sunday. I know. It is just another Sunday in the liturgical calendar that is met with a resounding yawn in our congregations. Who in the world cares about a Reformation that took place in 16th century Europe? What does it matter to us? How does it ease our suffering, calm our pain, or meet our needs?

Perhaps Reformation Sunday is about more than a memory of something that happened long ago, however. Maybe it is an ongoing process, an unfolding evolution, a forest instead of trees. Maybe we can expand our vision and understanding in order to breath new meaning into Reformation Sunday.

The Great Reformation began around 1450, with the invention of the movable type printing press. By the time Martin Luther nailed 95 statements of disagreement with Roman Catholic theology to the doors of a cathedral, in 1517, the die had been cast. People were, for the first time, reading the Bible in the vernacular and would no longer fall for being told that the Bible said things that it simply did not. They were learning to read and interpret it for themselves. Information brought about change. It was change that those who were invested in the Roman Catholic Church despised. Those who protested saw the Reformation as a way out of oppression and into religious liberty.

The time was chaotic. It was upsetting. It shook the foundations of everything about which many were solidly convinced and permanently persuaded. After about a century, the Great Reformation settled into the uncomfortable distinction between Catholic and Protestant. In the Protestant world, denominationalism divided Christian practitioners into schools of arcane orthodoxy and sectarian practice. Some believed some things, while others believed otherwise.

Phyllis Tickle, in her fabulous book, The Great Emergence, saw in the Great Reformation an ongoing cycle of 500 year cataclysmic change. That is, every 500 years, culture had evolved into something other than it had been in the previous 500 years. Her point is, of course, that we are living in the transition of another of those 500 year transitions. We are again evolving, reforming, changing and moving.

The change is uncomfortable for those who have a stake in the configurations of the past 500 years. The term "uncomfortable" is an understatement. The change is uncomfortable like puberty was uncomfortable. The change is akin to having one's chair pulled out from under her or him. It is like building atop a foundation that has shifted, or perhaps one that has disappeared altogether. This next 500 year configuration will undo much of what we had been so completely certain. It will shake our very understandings of the world in which we live.

There is a road map for the transition, however. If we allow ourselves to identify those things of the past 500 year configuration out of which we are transitioning, then we can consciously contemplate their loss. If we can anticipate the new configurations that will shape the coming 500 years, then we can move in those directions. This is Reformation. It is being open to changing the foundations upon which we have relied to ones about which we are uncertain, but hopeful. Reformation is always a move onward from what has been to what is coming.

One additional point. I firmly believe that the cultural evolution in which we have found ourselves since the late 1960's is a positive move toward fulfillment of human spiritual life. The evolutionary process is bringing us nearer blessed, abundant, whole, and healthy human life. It is a step onward in the process of becoming one people under God.

This is Reformation Sunday. Bring it on!