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

“God Steps Down Amid Sexual Assault Allegations” an Advent sermon on Luke 1

Listen to the Audio only here

There is a meme doing the rounds on the internet that points an accusing finger at today’s readings: It’s a joke of sorts, that begins with the headline: “God Steps Down Amid Sexual Assault Allegations” The joke continues: “God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth will be stepping down as Supreme Lord of the Universe amid allegations of sexual assault from Mary, the mother of his son. In a guest column of the Jerusalem Times, Mary detailed God’s grooming tactics, exploitation of power dynamics, and physical coercion that ultimately resulted in the birth of their son, Jesus.”

There is another meme that’s been going around the church for centuries. Listen, I think you may know it:  “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, (wait for it….) born of the virgin Mary, … The Apostles’ Creed…As a progressive Christian congregation…we no longer recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship… Nor do we recite the Nicene Creed…

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human.”

In the Evangelical Lutheran Book of Worship and even in the old green Lutheran Book of Worship, the creeds are what is a “may rubric”. Open up your hymnals to page 104

“The Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed may be spoken” The word “may” indicates that the creeds don’t have to be recited, but that they “may be spoken.”  The creeds take us back centuries to a time when various factions in the church couldn’t stop arguing about the nature of Jesus’ humanity. These arguments lead to battles in which hundreds and indeed thousands and thousands of people were killed. Historically, the creeds functioned as a kind of laying down of the law, this is what you shall, no “may” about it this with what you “shall” believe. Most Lutheran churches continue to recite the creeds in worship, even though they are a “may rubric”. So, I wasn’t surprised last week, when I attended an ordination service in which our Bishop Michael presided, that I found myself being asked to recite the words of the Apostles’ creed. Nor was I surprised as the congregation around me dutifully recited the words of the Apostles’ creed, that I couldn’t for the life of me, no matter how much I would like to have simply played ball, I just couldn’t bring myself to say the words of the Apostles’ Creed as an act of worship.  There’s just something about Mary that trips me up every time I try to say the words, for I do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.

Jesus’ mother may have been many things, but I do not believe that Jesus’ mother was a virgin. You see, I’ve been to seminary and I have studied the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament and I know that the very best New Testament scholars in the world teach us that our English translations of the Gospels are based on the anonymous gospel storytellers’ incorrect translation of the Hebrew text found in the book of the Prophet Isaiah’s words “Behold the Lord Himself will give you a sign, a Virgin shall conceive and she shall call his name Immanuel.”

 The Hebrew word which some men chose to translate as “virgin” is more accurately translated as “young woman” or “young maiden” There is a Hebrew word for “virgin” but that word for “virgin” does not appear in the Hebrew text. Over the centuries the anonymous gospel storytellers’ inaccurate translation has been repeated so many times that Mary’s virginity is now considered “gospel” — pardon the pun. Continue reading

Keeping Christmas Well: a Christmas Resurrection Story – a sermon for Advent 4B

The fourth Sunday of Advent is the perfect time to let the Scripture readings speak for themselves and use the sermon to remind the congregation that their coming Christmas celebrations are about so much more than the birth of a baby. Resurrection is afoot! For those preachers who’d like a more scholarly approach to Advent 4B you’ll find it in another sermon posted  here

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. 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 Greatest Birth Story Ever??? Luke 1:26-38, a sermon for Advent 4B

blue madonna babeAs always, I am indebted to the scholarship of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg whose book The First Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving! You can listen to the sermon here

For those looking for a different approach to Advent 4B check out the sermon posted here

Some have said that it was the most amazing birth story ever told. This birth narrative heralded the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth; God incarnate; fully divine and fully human. Not everyone agrees that this is the most amazing birth story ever told. Among the ancients, some insisted that the story Alexander the Great’s birth was the greatest story every told. 

Alexander the Great’s birth story is truly one of the greats. His was, after all the, son of a Queen and a god and a king. His mother, Olympias was a Queen, betrothed to Philip of Macedonia. The night before they were married, Queen Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all around her, and then as if by magic they were extinguished. Philip dreamed that he sealed up his Queen’s lady parts with a seal which bore the impression of a lion. The high priests who interpreted the dream warned Philip not to even entertain the idea of consummating the marriage because one wouldn’t go to the trouble of sealing up something that was empty. So Queen Olympias must already be with child, who would undoubtedly be a boy with the courage of a lion. If that wasn’t enough to put Philip off he found a serpent lying beside Queen Olympias as se slept, which was said to have abated his passion. Later the oracle of Apollo at Delphi went on to explain that this was no ordinary serpent, no this was the incarnation of the God Zeus.

The day that Alexander the Great was born, one of the seven wonders of the world burnt to the ground. The temple of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus was the home of the Goddess Artemis who was said to have been attending to the birth of Alexander at the time. Alexander the Great was heralded as the Son of God and Saviour of the World and as one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known, he went on to conquer a good portion of the planet. But by the time our hero was born, the glory days of the Greeks had long since passed. The Empire of Rome had replaced the Greeks as rulers of the world and they had the conquered lands to prove it. By the time our hero was born, Julius Caesar had established an Empire the likes of which the world had never seen before. Gaius Julius’ prowess on the battlefield was matched only by his cunning in the senate and together had one him the title of Caesar.  But as great and marvellous a leader as Julius Caesar may have been, history tells us that he and his wife were not blessed with children. Alas, Caesar did have a son by virtue of his dalliance with Cleopatra but that’s another story all together; suffice it to say, that that little fellow didn’t stand a chance against the one Julius would appoint as his heir. Born to Julius Caesar’s niece, little Octavian was eventually adopted as his great-uncle’s heir apparent who eventually amassed powers that far outshone his illustrious uncle’s. Continue reading