Don’t Move so Fast

Matthew 3:13-17 (Homily)

Christmas is over and now we are thrust into the day to day of regular life. Entering the second week of school, it can feel as if we never had Christmas break. Everything picks up where it seems to have left off. Even for me. Even though I’ve an entirely new grade of students sitting at my desks, it’s as if they were always there. Humans are quite remarkable that way: resilient. New becomes normal quickly.

But yet, the events of Christmas did happen. The baby was born. As someone who has had a baby (or a few), I know for a fact that life does *not* just go back to normal within in a day or two. It changes. Forever. And in light of Christmas, the life of the world changes. And yet we seem to skip right over it like we’re in some cosmic competitive game of religious hopscotch.

Our liturgical calendar doesn’t help us either. Liturgically, we moved from the epiphany—the affirmation of Jesus as God incarnate, the long-awaited Christ—to the baptism of Jesus–the affirmation of the affirmation, if you will. So, it would seem we’ve all just moved on from Christmas and are thrust headlong into the descent to Good Friday.

But there’s still Christmas work to be done. This is exactly what happens as Jesus is baptized. As Jesus is baptized and he is affirmed in his divine sonship and belovedness, he leaves the Jordan and will proceed with his ministry. For Jesus, there is Christmas work to be done—it isn’t strictly about getting to the cross as fast as possible. That event will happen and in its own time. But first, there’s healing, feeding, finding, and releasing that needs to be done. African American pastor, author, civil-rights activist, and theologian, Howard Thurman,[1] writes,

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.[2]

However, I want to highlight something that isn’t in the text: I want to add a pause for a moment before we all head out of the Jordan and out of Christmas. Before we do anything, we have to find our footing in Christmas. Before we can even begin to appreciate and understand Easter, we have to locate ourselves in the event of faith in the encounter with God in the season of Christmas. To become substantial actors and doers of the work of Christmas, we must find ourselves encountered by God in Christ born a baby in a manager; we must be encountered in a way that undoes the very fabric of our preconceived notions of the world and of ourselves. Because it is in this encounter where we are brought to the end of the selves we think we are in a world we think we know and ushered into the selves we are but didn’t know in a world we hadn’t seen but see clearly now. We must first lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. We are of no earthly good unless we come to terms with who and what we are; we can’t pull someone else up if we don’t have our own good footing in our known strength and ability.

And in order to do this, we need a moment. We need a pause. And there’s no better week than this week—a week dedicated to your wellness. Take these next few days to just be, to just exist; to feel the sensations of the miracle of breathing, the exhilaration of physical existence, and the weight of emotional life. Take time to look and see, listen and hear, touch and feel; take time to notice the beauty of your friends and of your own wonderful and absolutely amazing creation.

Slow everything down. Live. Take that deep and much needed inhale and release a slow exhale. Be present. Receive and give. Rest. Press into being. Lean. Be aware of your mind and body. Be embodied. And remember you are loved. Beloved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman?scrlybrkr

[2] https://www.bread.org/sites/default/files/downloads/howard-thurman.pdf. This poem, as well as the idea for this homily, came to my attention by mention from a colleague I was listening to recently.

The Cedar Sprig and The Baby

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Homily)

*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.

I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.

In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”

You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.

In the midst of a book that is primarily [1] comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel, [2] why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?

Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.

The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).[3]

This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.

That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.

And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.

The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.

Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.

 

 

1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004. 

2 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451) 

3 “The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible). 

 

*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.

Santa Wars

Nothing makes me prouder to be a Christian during the Christmas season than the Santa Wars. One group decrying Santa and all that is associated with him; the other group eagerly pointing out the benefits of Santa for the religious cause. Each group burdening each other with blog posts, newspaper/magazine articles, scientific data, personal experiences/confessions and the like that either attest to or detract from embracing the myth of Santa. It’s beautiful, really; judgment and defensiveness whirling about like the snow in December. Ahhh…The weather outside is frightful…

I typically just stand back and watch the battle play out. It’s got an expiration date: 12/26. So, the Santa Wars are limited and last, typically, no longer than thanksgiving to Christmas.

So why get involved? I’m 8 years into this parenting/Christmas/Santa thing and I’m just getting around to saying something now? Why?

Because, I’m a slow thinker and I’ve finally gathered my thoughts about it. Also, because I’m tired of seeing Christian v. Christian over a mythical figure. Arguing never really gets us anywhere, but I do think there are other things that have more substance that might be a bit more worth our time to argue over (if you have to argue that is…)

So here are my thoughts…the things I’d like to say:

1. We don’t do the “Santa Thing”

I think it’s important to first reveal what “side” I’m on: we don’t do the Santa thing. Why? For one main reason:

I am the worst at lying.

Like: BAD. B.A.D. BADBADBAD I have this strict moral code (one I can’t seem to do away with) that drives me to tell the truth. Trust me, it’s not a “i’m-so-righteous” thing, I actually hate it. This is the “thing” that gets me into horrible conversations with people, because I just want them to have the full truth, and I spend time either spinning my wheels in the conversation or desperately trying to pull out of death spin. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little bit better about this conviction, but it requires me to say nothing at all and just nod. Case in point: I met someone recently who was explaining to me that since they were Messianic Jewish they were obviously Kosher. And my inner theologian was screaming at the top of her lungs: WHAT ABOUT JESUS APPEARING TO PETER?!?! But I just stood there: “Hm, mm…I see…”

So, you can see how the Santa tradition would be a hard one for me.

I’m also lazy. I don’t have the energy to even begin to perpetuate the myth and stand in lines to see him, and talk about him, and build the suspense.

The other influential decision is this: my husband and I decided that we just didn’t want to offer anything false around something that is true and is by far the hardest thing to wrap your mind around. An Arch Angel with a prophesy to a young, single woman? God being born? Almighty God now a vulnerable infant? There’s nothing “unmagical” about that story that we felt we needed to add other aspects. The story of the incarnation of Christ demands A LOT of trust; we just didn’t want to have to deal with: oh yeah, we lied about Santa, but NOT JESUS WE ARE TOTALLY SERIOUS ABOUT JESUS! So, early on we just decided we wouldn’t do Santa.

2. Both of our boys believed in Santa at one point or another

At some point, both boys, typically when they were in Kindergarten, came home and professed their belief in Santa. I loved it. They were pint-sized Santavangelists. Part of me–when I wasn’t panicking about how I was going to deal with their new found “faith” considering I’m a rotten liar–was impressed with them. They would come to the dinner table and explain why and how Santa was real. Oh really? We would say. Yes! They would reply, and they would go on and on. When I stepped back from the event and looked at what they were doing I some some really cool things: 1. they felt free to come to us and talk to us about their belief in Santa even though they knew we didn’t believe in like they did. 2. they were firm and held-fast to their beliefs. Zooming ahead 18 years, I saw two young men standing for their faith; I saw two young men feeling the freedom to talk about different ideas that they have from their parents; I saw a family discussing ideas and concepts, all of us having different twists and takes on those ideas and concepts; I saw a family interacting in the framework that is created by the freedom of the Gospel.

It was really cool.

3. I don’t think Santa is Evil

I think at this point you  might be thinking that I look down on those (Christian) parents who do do Santa…Well I don’t. I don’t think Santa is evil nor are you “bad” for doing the Santa thing. I don’t think your child will be scarred when they find out that Santa isn’t real and that you’ve been playing along and so they wind up rejecting the Christian story; but I also don’t think that your child will have an easier go at believing the Christian story than mine. Case in point: both my brother and I were raised with Santa; I’m a Christian and he’s an Atheist–possibly the most “unspiritual” person I know. Faith has no correlation to potential receptivity of abstract myths; faith is a gift (period) From God (period) Received through the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel and not because one believed the Santa myth or because one’s parent’s never lied to them about Santa. The only thing we can do to help our children *toward* faith is to both (fervently) pray for them and keep telling them the old, old, good, good story.

4. So, HAVE FUN!

I think Christians forget that one of the hallmarks of the Christian life is joy. I don’t mean some sort of church mouse joy where we confuse contentment for joy. I mean JOY! FUN! LAUGHTER! The doctrine of the justification of sinners by faith alone ceases the every present desire to self-actualize (read: defend why I do or don’t do the Santa thing). We don’t have to spend (read: waste) time defending ourselves and our actions because our self is no longer tied up with our actions and is determined (actualized) in the declaration from Christ: forgiven, brother/sister. When we embrace the need to defend why we do or do not do Santa, we are looking for how our choices, our works justify us. (I’m doing the right thing, I’m making the right choice, so I’m good, right?) So, joy in life is a tangible manifestation of the working out (or the working in) of your justification by faith, of your *real* freedom.

So, if you do the Santa tradition, DO IT! You are free to have fun and enjoy the whole aspect that is the Santa Tradition. You are free to talk of the hooves on the roof that woke you from your slumber with your son the next morning. You are free to remember fondly waiting to sit with Santa at the mall, and enjoy when you see your daughter’s face light up as she, with the same awe and admiration you had at her age, slowly walks up to the jolly man, dressed all in red, who is waiting to hear her heart’s desires. When she looks back at you, enter in with her. And I dare someone (anyone?!!?) to give their kids coal addressed from Santa and then become the heroes of your own story as you unload present upon present on your children: good thing we love you unconditionally, just as Jesus loved us! I mean, seriously, this would be an amazing L/G moment for the whole family. Have memory building fun!

For those of us who don’t do the Santa Tradition, let us have fun, too! Have unrestrained, unlimited fun! It is the season for Joy. True and abounding joy: for Emmanuel has come and has ransomed captive Israel!