Welcome Home to the MYSTERY that IS LOVE – Christmas Eve sermon

A number of years ago, back when I had only been a pastor for a couple of years, on the Sunday just before Christmas, immediately after our worship service, I travelled over to the hospital to pay a visit to a member of this church. I was all decked out in my Sunday best.

So, I very much looked the part of a pastor. Back then, I was very unsure of myself in my new role as a pastor. Nothing made me more uncomfortable than hospital visits. I felt like I was a bit of impostor. It was the Sunday before Christmas, and even though the collar around my neck often felt like it might choke the life out of me, that collar proclaimed to everyone at the hospital that I was there in my professional capacity.

I enjoyed a very pleasant visit with one of the seasoned members of this congregation, who went out of her way to ensure that we both enjoyed the visit. As I was leaving the floor, a woman beckoned me into a visitors’ lounge, ever so quietly she asked, “Could you please help me?”

I sat down beside her and listened to her story. When you’re wearing a clergy collar people presume all sorts of things about who you are. This distraught young woman presumed from my attire that I was a competent professional who could accomplish what she could not. Tearfully, she told me that her farther, from whom she’d been estranged for many years, was dying and needed a priest. She had called the Roman Catholic churches in town and none of the priests were available to come right away. The young woman explained that she was afraid that there may not be enough time to wait for a Roman Catholic priest. She asked me if I would be able to administer the Last Rites to her father. I hesitated as I considered her request.

I was frantically going over what I had been taught about the Roman Catholic practices commonly known as “the Last Rites:” Confession, Absolution, Communion, Anointing the Sick. I had been trained to do all of these as a Lutheran, but not as a Roman Catholic. The Last Rites always were intended to provide comfort to those who were dying. But for centuries, many Roman Catholics had come to believe that the dying needed to receive the Last Rites in order to assure their place in heaven. This popular misconception created all sorts of anxiety about securing the services of a priest. While I was tossing this over in my mind, the young woman, grabbed my arm and loudly asked: “Protestants do have Last Rites, don’t you?” Continue reading

Preparing to encounter eternity – a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

The memories described in this sermon were provoked by the writings of Thomas Moore. I am indebted to Moore’s chapter on “The Christmas Tree” in his book “The Soul of Christmas” for opening me to some of the realities of our tree rituals. Dr. Seuss provided the Whos from down in Whoville.  you can listen to the audio here or watch the video below

Fear Not for the Progressive Grinch Who Stole Christmas Does Indeed Have a Heart – a sermon for Advent 4

GrinchThe story told in this sermon can be found in Maeve Binchy’s book of short stories “This Year it Will be Different.” As always I am indebted to those progressive grinches Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and Michael Morwood for their insights into the sacred. Our sermon hymn was No Obvious Angels. The readings were all from Luke 1:1-56.

You can listen to the sermon here  

Years ago, I struggled with most of the stuff I was reading both in the bible and about the bible. I’d been attending church every Sunday since I was 15 and I was doing my best to be a Christian. But the more I read the bible, the more I studied the stories in the bible, the more difficult it became to reconcile all of the inconsistencies. Nowhere are those inconsistencies more apparent than in the stories about the birth of Jesus. Long before I ever dreamed of going to seminary to become a pastor, I was introduced to the work of progressive scholars like Marcus Borg, Dom Crossan and Jack Spong. It was a relief to learn how to take the bible seriously without taking it literally. It was also a relief to discover that my pastor and indeed most of the pastors I knew didn’t take the bible literally. But I have to admit that Christmas in the Church just hasn’t been the same since I learned that the stories about the birth of Jesus that appear in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke are not historical narratives. I must also confess that since we here in this community embarked upon this grand adventure together of ReThinking our Christianity, the celebration of Christmas in our worship together has become more and more of a challenge. There are days when I feel like a progressive Grinch who is determined to steal Christmas. Then there are other days when I feel like the Grinch’s little dog, who try as he might he just can’t seem to balance those reindeer antlers on his tiny little head. There are days, and some sleepless nights when I simply long for the good old days, when we could sink into the sentimentality of the season without having to delve into scholarship or worry about our evolving theology.

I miss those Advents when we all acted as though prophets foretold the birth of Jesus centuries before it happened, when we suspended disbelief and went along with the idea that angels visited Mary and Joseph, and we marveled at the fact that Mary conceived will still a virgin. It was easier when that Star guided wise guys and heavenly hosts actually visited shepherds abiding in their fields. Damn those progressive Grinches who’ve robbed us of our simple ways of celebrating the birth of Jesus

and as for those radical Grinches who have us questioning everything from the divinity of Jesus to the cosmic reality of the Christ, well I for one wish they’d leave us alone to sing our songs in peace. We Whos did just fine down here in Who-ville before those Grinches tossed all the elements of the birth stories upon their sleighs and left us here wondering what to do and how to sing. For however shall we celebrate the birth of the Son of God now that we know Mary couldn’t have been a virgin, and Matthew and Luke were the worst historians ever?

Well fear not my friends, because like all Christmas stories ours too has a happy ending. The good news is that those progressive Grinches who have stolen Christmas, do indeed have a heart after all. Even that Grinch Marcus Borg knows a thing or two about opening his heart to the wonder of the stories about Jesus birth. Yes, Borg, just like the rest of those Grinches like Spong, Crossan, and Morewood, leads us to understand that the stories of Jesus birth didn’t actually happen the way the gospel storytellers wrote them. The good news is that Borg, just like the rest of those Grinches, does have a heart big enough not to just stop with the reality that the birth stories are not history. Borg’s heart is big enough to cope with his mind’s ability to give us a better question than, “Did the birth stories happen they way they were written? When Borg encourages us to ask: “why did the gospel story-tellers tell their stories they way they told them?”

Borg’s heart leads him to remind us that the stories may not have happened exactly the way they are written, but they are absolutely true because these stories are always happening. The sacred is always being discovered in the ordinary stuff of life. Every birth is sacred because in every birth their lies among the muck and the mess of birth the reality of Divinity which lives in, with, through, and beyond each and everyone of us. The birth narratives open us to the reality of the sacred, which lies at the very heart of life; all life. Humanity is born over and over again, and over and over again comes the sacred possibility of abundant life; life in which we are capable of living deeply and loving more fully that we can possibly imagine.

In the life and teachings of Jesus people experienced this divine abundance and it opened them up to the possibilities of a world in which the reign of God who is LOVE accomplishes peace through justice. Why did the gospel storytellers write about the birth of Jesus they way they did? Could it be that the divinity embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth could not be killed by the worst that the Romans could conceive? The storytellers told the story of Jesus birth using the tools that they had available to them to open their contemporaries to the reality that in Jesus the sacred dimension of life was experienced in the flesh. These parables about the birth of Jesus have opened generations to the sacred Holy One in whom we live and move and have our being. When we begin to experience the more-than-literal meaning of these parables about the birth of Jesus, we are opened to the sacred in our midst in ways that only LOVE can open humans. Continue reading

Fear Not for the Progressive Grinch Who Stole Christmas Does Indeed Have a Heart – a sermon for Advent 4

GrinchThe story told in this sermon can be found in Maeve Binchy’s book of short stories “This Year it Will be Different.” As always I am indebted to those progressive grinches Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and Michael Morwood for their insights into the sacred. Our sermon hymn was No Obvious Angels. The readings were all from Luke 1:1-56.

You can listen to the sermon here  

Cheap, Small, and Plastic: a Christmas Eve Sermon for Progressive Christians

I have been asked to post last year’s Christmas Eve sermon. You can listen to it or read a transcript.  The progressive version of God Rest Ye Progressive Christians appears in the transcript. I searched without success for its source. If you know who wrote it please let me know.

Listen to the sermon


Last night, while suffering from a serious case of writers’ block, panic set in as I desperately struggled to figure out what to say to you all this evening. I’d spent most of the afternoon in my office, reading and re-reading chapters, articles and sermons, searching for a way to express the inexpressible. Christmas Eve is a challenge for a preacher. You all know the story so well that there’s nothing new that I can say.  Then there’s the fact that many of you don’t make it to church all that often, so we preachers kinda want to make our Christmas Eve sermons something special, in the hope that we might just inspire you to come back some Sunday morning. Add to that the fact that we at Holy Cross fall in to a category of Christianity that has been called “progressive” which means that we’re pretty clear on the fact that the Christmas stories in the New Testament  are full of metaphors and symbols that point to various truths about the nature of the MYSTERY we call God, as well as truths about ourselves and our life in the world.

As Progressive Christians living in the 21st century, we are fond of using the best scholarship available as we study the scriptures and so we know that the New Testament stories about the birth of Jesus are not actual historical accounts of the events of Jesus’ birth. So, last night as the panic began to get the better of me, I did what writers do when we are in the midst of a serious block, under the threat of a looming dead-line, I looked for a way to distract myself in the hope that if I gave my brain a rest, something might occur to me. Well by the time I made it back to my computer, I was determined that I’d throw caution to the wind and write a very informative, scholarly sermon which would give you all a progressive Christian view of the nativity. But you can all relax because, thanks to the arrival of an email, you have all been saved from Satan’s power. The email was from a colleague in  Australia for whom the Christmas Eve deadline had already come and gone, so he was feeling more than a little smug about having finished his sermon. His message to me came in the lyric of a song, which I’d love to sing for you. But most of you know that with my singing voice it is better that I just read to you what he wrote:

“God rest ye Progressive Christians, let nothing you dismay.

Remember there’s no evidence that there was a Christmas day.

When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say.

Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;

Good tidings of rea-son and fact.

 

There was no star of Bethlehem; there was no angel song.

There could have been no wise men for the journey was too long.

The stories in the Bible are historical-ly wrong.

Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;

Good tidings of rea-son and fact.

 

Much of our Christmas custom comes from Persia and from Greece.

From solstice celebrations of the ancient Middle East.

We know this so-called holiday is but a pagan feast.

Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;

Good tidings of rea-son and fact.”

Well after singing that over to myself, I shut down my computer and went to bed. I went to sleep longing for the good old simpler days, when my brother Alan and I could enjoy our very own Christmas Eve tradition of watching the old black and white version of A Christmas Carol; the one were Alistair Sim plays Scrooge. I told myself that if I just went to sleep, something would come to me and I’d wake up knowing just what to say to you all on this night of nights. So, I dozed off with Alistair Sim’s Scrooge dancing in my head and singing, “I don’t know anything. I never did know anything. But now I know that I don’t know. All on a Christmas morning.”

It may not have been the ghost of Christmas past who visited me last night, but it certainly was a Christmas from my past. I must have caught a glimpse of it earlier in the day, when the box of Christmas decorations was hauled upstairs. It’s a small thing really. Something I bought to adorn my very first apartment. You see, my first apartment was just a small studio, everything in one little room, so there was no room for a Christmas tree. So, I decided that if I couldn’t fit a tree in there, I might just be able to manage a nativity set. But I didn’t have much money to spare and all the nativity sets I liked were outrageously expensive and then one day I saw it on a store-shelf, a tiny little nativity that I could actually afford. It had been marked down, from $16 to $12.95. From where I was standing it looked like it had been carved out of the finest wood. I knew that I just had to have it. When I reached out to take it off the shelf, I realized that it was actually made of plastic and suddenly the $12.95 price tag seemed way too much to pay for this mass-produced piece of plastic. But the longer I looked at it the more I knew that my little apartment needed it. Would you like to see it?

It may be small. It may just be a cheap imitation, but when I look at it I see all the hopes and dreams of all the years as they are told in the story of stories. No more ghosts visited me in the night, but just like Ebenezer Scrooge, I woke up knowing just what I had to do. You see Scrooge wasn’t the only movie that my brother and I used to watch. Alan was particularly fond of science-fiction movies. Sometimes, when he would manage to convince me to watch one of this movies with him, I would complain after just a few minutes in, that the premise was just too unbelievable; I mean really nothing like that could ever actually happen. Alan would remind me that you don’t have to believe them; you just have to watch them, go with the story, see where it takes you. When you really think about it, many of our best-loved stories never actually happened the way we tell them. Take Scrooge for example; does any one of us actually believe that Ebenezer was really visited by three ghosts?  We know that it is a story that never actually happened the way it has been told to us; and yet it has the power to take us somewhere, to move us as we watch the incredible transformation of old Scrooge and we too are moved to keep Christmas well. Continue reading

The First Nativity – Cheap, Small, and Plastic

The First Nativity for My First Apartment

The first Nativity purchased years ago for my first apartment – Cheap, small, and plastic.

A Christmas Eve Sermon for Progressive Christians

The First Nativity: Cheap, Small,

and Plastic

Listen to the sermon here

The Greatest Birth Story Ever?

WOMAN DOVE

 

Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 23, 2012

Listen to the sermon here

Greatest Birth Story Ever?