Like All Myths, the Stories of Jesus’ Birth are True, for Myths Only Become Untrue When they are Presented as Facts – a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

refugee-nativity-erbile

Readings from the first chapter of Luke included the stories of the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth and Mary’s radical song – The Magnificat.   Listen to the sermon here

Last night my brother Alan and I were chatting online about Christmases past. We reminisced about the Secret Sam Attaché Case he got the year I had to settle for a Chatty Cathy Doll. My Brother’s toy transformed him into a secret agent allowing him to peer around corners with a Secret Sam periscope, and take photographs, while the case was closed. Alan’s toy transformed him into a spy capable of holding his own in the world of counterespionage, while I had to settle for Chatty Cathy Doll that could only say a few words when I pulled the string on the back of her neck. We both agreed that girls’ toys sucked. That is until the following Christmas when I talked my Dad into buying me my very own microscope and my brother and I spent the holidays looking at pond scum. We would head down to the pond and fill jars with the scummiest water we could find and then head home to look at the microscopic creatures that inhabited this strange little world. While we were chatting, my brother told me about a colleague whose son died quite suddenly last year. Suddenly, without warning the nostalgia of Christmas disappeared as we contemplated the horror of losing a child. For so many families this and every year Christmas is forever transformed from the simple joys of nostalgia to the painful experience of longing for simpler, gentler times, when all Christmas had to do was jingle a bell or two to bring out the child in us. Life is a complicated mystery. Life is full of unanswerable questions. Life is filled with all sorts of experiences and emotions. Yet, every year we look to our Christmas traditions, stories and rituals to open us to the possibility of all the joy and peace that life has to offer.

I ended our chat by sharing a treasured memory of good old simpler days, when my brother Alan and I would enjoy our very own Christmas Eve tradition of watching the old black and white version of A Christmas Carol; the one in which Alistair Sim plays Scrooge.  So, last night, 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.”

No ghosts visited me in the night, but just like Ebenezer Scrooge, I did dream dreams of Christmas’ long ago. 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 these 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

Like All Myths, the Stories of Jesus’ Birth are True for Myths Only Become Untrue When they are Presented as Facts – a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

refugee-nativity-erbile

Readings from the first chapter of Luke included the stories of the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth and Mary’s radical song – The Magnificat.   Listen to the sermon here

“The Force Be With You” or “Live Long and Prosper”

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – Luke 1

Recognizing that many do not make it to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, we usually read the entire birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This weekend’s release of Star Wars: Rouge One makes this sermon particularly appropiate. 

star-trek-vs-star-wars

The quotes in this sermon are from Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and Joseph Holub’s “Fear Not” The Acclamation sung, on the audio recording, prior to the sermon is “The Magnificat” from Holden Evening Prayer, by Marty Haugen, featuring Gary Curran and Linda Condy:   Listen to the sermon here

This week as millions of people flock to theatres all over the world to see the latest Star Wars epic (Rogue One), I am reminded of the old joke: you know you might be Lutheran if, when you hear: “The force be with you.” you must fight the urge to say, “And also with you.” While I confess that I have not yet seen the new Star Wars movie, and my memories of the original Star Wars movie are decades old, my social media feeds have been filled with allusions to “The Force”. Over the course of the past few days, I’ve read more than a few articles from would be theologians, which insist that “The Force” of Star Wars is akin to the way many progressive Christians describe our understanding of God. While it is true that may of us who have long since given up images of God the portray the super-natural being who lives off in a galaxy far, far, away, who from time to time meddles in the affairs of earthlings, and many of us have indeed have embraced notions of God that reflect early Christian teachings about the One in whom we live and move and  have our being.

The panentheistic view of God as the one who both lies at the very heart of reality and permeates reality so that God is in all and yet more that all, the one who lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us, may on the surface bear a slight resemblance to “The Force” I can assure you that God is so very much more than the limited notions of “The Force”.

Right about now, I expect that some of you are wondering, why on earth I am rambling on about a childish science fiction movie just days before Christmas when I have all the ramifications of the greatest story every told from which to draw a sermon on this the fourth Sunday of Advent. Well bear with me for a bit, and if we are lucky and the force is with me, I try to explain just how Mary’s response to an angelic annunciation relates to our cultures fascination with “the force” and maybe just maybe assure you of the Good News that the God in whom we live and move and have our being is so much more of a force than the force that would be Jedi warriors all over the planet are embracing. The little that I do know about George Lucas’ force is that it inhabits a dualistic universe that is divided into to camps. On one side, we have “The Empire”, the dark evil side represented by the Sith, on the other side, the good side, the Rebellion, represented by the Jedi. The Force, is the name given to the collection of the energies of all living things that are fed into one Cosmic Force. The Force that is available to both Jedi Rebellion and the Empire of the Sith because The Force has two sides. The Force is neither malevolent or benevolent, neither good nor evil it has a bad side involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving love, charity, fairness and hope. The Force can be used for good or for evil. The Force is if you will, humanity write large, or the human psyche deified. The Force is nothing more than our collective strengths and weaknesses writ large.

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Keeping Christmas Well: a Christmas Resurrection Story

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Our worship service was cancelled at Holy Cross this morning. So, there is no recording of the sermon. Just this transcript of what I intended to preach. Transcripts never fully reflect a sermon; all the tangents that occur in the moment are missing from transcripts. So, this morning you will have to provide your own tangents. Enjoy!

The icy weather is playing havoc with the usual hustle and bustle of the season. Usually, the church’s season of Advent offers a sanctuary from the endless demands of preparation for the big day. Our Christmas traditions, if they are to be maintained, require a great deal in the way of preparation. But there’s one Christmas tradition that I’ve been enjoying since I was a child that requires little or no preparation save for the effort to carve out the time, when time seems to be in short supply. Somehow over the years, I’ve never missed the opportunity to watch the old black and white version of Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. There is of course only one portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge that will do.

Alistair SimIf it’s not Alistair Sim, it’s just not Scrooge.  I usually wait until Christmas Eve to watch the movie. But this year I found the time to read the book and I’ve got to say, there is much in Dickens exploration of Christmas that  I’ve been missing over the years. 

In the words of Charles Dickens:  Ebenezer Scrooge “was as cold and miserly a man as one could ever meet. “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation on Christmas Eve is nothing short of a miracle. Scrooge was a broken man. Broken, years before the story begins. The women he loved, Belle, broke her engagement to him one Christmas, she tells Ebenezer, “you fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the mast passion, GAIN, engrosses you.”

Belle doesn’t tell us how this fear of the world developed. She doesn’t tell us what Scrooge’s nobler aspirations had been. We don’t know what made Belle fall in love with Scrooge in the first place—but we do know that whatever it is, it is gone now. As the Ghost of Christmas Past moves through Scrooge’s life we catch glimpses of what may have broken him – a distant father, the death of his much loved sister, his exposure to wealth in the first place – but we are never quite told what made Scrooge the man he is at the beginning of Dickens’ tale. All we know is that Scrooge is broken and greed and anger have possessed his very soul. Scrooge’s life was broken. While he had all of the wealth, and then some, that any person might need – he was miserable.

I used to think that A Christmas Carol was the story of Scrooge’s metamorphosis. The scene in the movie were Scrooge realizes that it is Christmas morning and that life doesn’t have to be the way it has always been and he does that wonderful dance and sings: “I don’t know anything!  I never did know anything  all on a Christmas morning!” I always thought of that wonderful dance as the culmination of Scrooge’s metamorphosis, like a butterfly bursting forth from a cocoon. But now I see it for what it really is.  It is a dance of resurrection. For Scrooge was dead. Dead and gazing at his own tombstone, when suddenly, and suddenly for me always indicates the work of the Spirit, suddenly, Scrooge realizes that what he is seeing are only the shadows of things that might be. Suddenly, Scrooge knows “that men’s deeds foreshadow certain ends. But if the deeds be departed from surely the ends will change!” Scrooge is born again and is able to declare with confidence, “I’m not the man I was.” And so, the resurrected Scrooge becomes all that God intended him to be. Scrooge’s past didn’t go away—the hurtful Christmas memory of Belle ending their engagement, all of the ill-spent years somewhere between the party at Fezziwig’s and the visit of the spirits would still be a part of Scrooge’s life, resurrection doesn’t erase the past, but transforms the future, hope becomes part of the resurrected life! And so, Scrooge reborn, becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City ever knew…and it was always said of Scrooge “that he knew how to keep Christmas well!” Knew how to keep Christmas well. Keeping Christmas well is very different than celebrating Christmas. Keeping Christmas well is about resurrection; resurrection of our very selves. I always thought of that wonderful dance as the culmination of Scrooge’s metamorphosis, like a butterfly bursting forth from a cocoon. Keeping Christmas well is to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you. Keeping Christmas well is to see your neighbours as just as real as you are, and to try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hearts hungry for human connection, for dignity, for love and for joy. Keeping Christmas well is the realization that the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life. Keeping Christmas well means closing your book of complaints against the management of the universe and looking around you for a place where you can accomplish some good. Keeping Christmas well is remembering the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old; it means not worrying so much about how much your friends love you but asking yourself whether you love, honour and care for them enough; it means stepping down from your pedestal long enough to see that you are not the centre of the universe;  it means bearing in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; trying to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; it means burying your ugly, destructive and selfish motives and nurturing your nobler ones.

Keeping Christmas well includes the realization that your generation is not the last generation; that you have received an astonishing inheritance given by God, that your very next breath of life is pure gift; that all your various abilities and capacities were knit together in your mother’s womb and you had nothing to do with this original blessing, and that the bounty planet earth offers—its beauty and majesty – are both a wondrous blessing and an awesome responsibility; it’s the realization that you have duties to perform as citizens of a free nation in a dangerous world; that matters of war and peace are not just problems for others to solve; that much, if not most, of what goes on in the space around you depends upon your choices and your actions. 

Keeping Christmas well is about being fully alive to all that life has to offer and being gracious in your responses to this amazing grace  and living into all that God created you to be. When you keep Christmas well you are willing to believe that forgiveness is the doorway to a hope-filled future;

that mercy reflects God’s nature; and that love is the most powerful thing in the universes—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death! Keeping Christmas well is living with the knowledge that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. e Scrooge’s metamorphous began, dancing and singing:  “I don’t know anything, I never did know anything, all on a Christmas morning.”  To keep Christmas well you must first realize that in the grand scheme of things you don’t know anything. For then, in humility, you can see the hope that lies in the manger. The hope of resurrection.

Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well, may that be said of all of us. And as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us everyone!      

The Nativity: A Parable So Simple a Child Can Understand It! – a sermon for Advent 4a

nativity drawningHistorian and spiritual philosopher, Ian Lawton describes the dilemma of those of us who seek to put a “little reason into the season” this way: “Picture the scene. Mary and Joseph are huddled together in a manger surrounded by farm animals. Joseph is drifting in and out of various dreams. Angels fly in and out of the manger singing songs and bringing earth-shattering messages. Three eastern kings gather around Mary and Joseph with gifts. Out of the window a large star can be seen in the day sky. Two sheep sit beneath the window having a conversation. One says to the other, “I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn. Let me go through this one more time. The virgin is having a baby. They’re naming him Jesus because of a dream. Angels told them that their baby would become the saviour of all humanity. Kings travelled hundreds of miles to find the place of birth like a needle in a haystack because they were led by a giant star moving through the day sky.  Now which part of this are you having trouble believing?” The Christmas story is fantastic in the literal sense of the word.  It is mostly fantasy.  Which parts of it do you have trouble believing?

You’re in good company.  This story is as unlikely as talking sheep. The laws of nature tell us that sheep don’t talk, virgins don’t have babies, stars don’t travel across the day sky and then hang like a blip over one home and angels don’t sing choruses. Even if a reliable source suggested that something happened that broke the laws of nature, you would demand evidence and there is little evidence for the details of the Christmas story outside of the Bible which has contradictory details.  All in all, the Christmas story is highly unlikely. But don’t let details get in the way of a good holiday story, right? If you’re like me, you’re torn between the desire to be true to your common sense that is skeptical and your heart that just wants to let the story be a good story.  The good news is that you can have both. You can question the literal account of the story AND you can enjoy the timeless message of the story. You can put a little reason into the season, and still take a yuletide joyride of inspired meaning. The Christmas story is mostly myth, but the message is real and powerful.”

Since the end of the first century, some 1900 years now, the Christmas story has been told. Lately the church has become a little embarrassed by the way in which this story has been told. All sorts of experts have weighed in to tell us that it could never have happened the way we all remember it. Biblical scholars, historians, theologians, bishops, pastors, professors even scientists have cast doubt on the details of the story of the nativity. But even though we know how impossible some of the details may be we cling to this power of the story.  Despite the wisdom of the experts, regardless of our doubts this story still has the power to stop us in our tracks. No other story or image is more recognizable to people the world over than the Nativity scene of the birth of Jesus. The images of an angel announcing the birth, a virgin responding in faith, a carpenter leading a woman on a donkey to a stable in Bethlehem, cumulating with Mary and Joseph gazing fondly at the baby Jesus, while the shepherds look on and the heavenly host sing their praises, these images are crystal clear to all of us. The story is part of us; it’s in our bones. Every year this story causes our lives to shift from the routine of winter, to marveling at the wonder of it all, as we enter into a sacred time, where families are drawn together, and strangers greet one another with kindness and from near and far the hope of peace on earth is a dream shared by us all.

Now, I know that somewhere in the deepest darkest recesses of our being, or for some of us, just beneath the surface of this dream, the wisdom of the experts causes a shiver to run across our spines as we wonder how the hope for peace on earth can possibly lie with such an unbelievable story. That shiver used to haunt me, until the day I recognized the power of the truth that lies in the story of the birth of Christ. It happened a few years back, when my youngest niece Sheri Lynn was about three years old. I have three nieces and over the years I’ve gained a bit of a reputation as their eccentric auntie. I can’t help myself, my love of stories and books just oozed over into my role as their auntie. And so to mark every occasion in their little lives their dear old Auntie Dawn showered them with books. Before every birthday, every Easter, and every Christmas every special occasion I could be found in the children’s section of the bookstore, scouring the shelves to find the perfect book that told the perfect story. My family used to tease me mercilessly and insist that I ought to get those little girls something they could play with. But only books were good enough for my nieces. So, you can just imagine the collection of books they have that tell the story of the Nativity. My family are not churchgoers, so on Christmas Eve I used to go to the Midnight service before heading over to my brother’s house to spend the night. Well the year that Sheri Lynn was just three, I arrived at my brother’s house at about 1:30 in the morning. My brother and his wife, my parents and my nieces were all safely tucked up in bed. On the dining room table were the remains of the milk and eating the cookies that had been left for some other visitor. I poked my head into the room where my youngest niece was sleeping. Little Sheri was snorting as little ones do when they sleep. In the glow of her nightlight I could see a rather unusual gathering on the floor by the foot of her bed. Standing upright on the floor was a large picture book opened to show a picture of an empty stable above which a star hung in the night sky. Beside the book was a doll’s cradle; inside the cradle was a naked doll covered only in a tea-towel. Sitting proudly with their legs sprayed out as if they were doing the splits were what could only be Mary and Joseph even tough they looked a lot like Barbie and Ken. Surrounding this scene were all sorts of little people, some smurfs, a few princesses all, no doubt, standing in for shepherds and angels. The most wonderful part was that all of God’s animals were there,  not just the donkey, the sheep and the cattle, but giraffes, zebras, horses, pigs, lions, tigers, turtles, alligators, elephants, hippos, bears and even an alligator and a snake. It was just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold a peaceable kingdom were all the animals lived in peace together and where the lion would eat straw with the ox and the wolf and the lamb would lie down together. The great thing about toddlers playing with animals is that in their minds all of the animals can play together. Sheri Lynn knew that the giraffe eats leaves because I saw her holding it up to the Christmas tree so that it could feast.  She knew that the horse and the cow and the sheep and the chickens lived over at the Fisher Price farm and that some of the other animals lived aboard Noah’s ark, and that snakes and alligators could be very scary indeed, but on this night all the animals played together, and all of them gathered together at the baby’s cradle to love and to warm and to care for the child, who lay naked and vulnerable before them. Sheri Lynn had created an image of the Nativity story; an image whose details weren’t exactly correct, but an image that told the truth about all our longings during this most holy season. Continue reading