“Shopping for Jesus this year.”

“Shopping for Jesus this year.”

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Easton, Pennsylvania

Advent 3 at Trinity Easton 2018

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation,
that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a
mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

If we make it through December
Everything’s gonna be all right, I know
It’s the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow
If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime
Maybe even California
If we make it through December, we’ll be fine

Got laid off down at the factory
And their timing’s not the greatest in the world
Heaven knows I been working hard
Wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl
I don’t mean to hate December
It’s meant to be the happy time of year
And my little girl don’t understand
Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas gifts

Merle Haggard, the late Country Music star, was an amazing story-teller. And of all his songs. “If we make it through December,” is my favorite. It speaks of struggle, disappointment, frustration and worry. It is ultimately a song of hope, though. Even though the story teller in this song does not have answers, he has faith: “If we make it through December, we’ll be fine.”

Now some might thing that is not an appropriate song for the Christmas Season. And the Advent police might not want to hear any kind of “Christmas Song.” I imagine those other catchy lyrics: “Millard, Millard, what you gonna do? What you gonna do when the Advent Police come for you.”

Well, I have an answer—third Sunday of Advent marks the shift in focus which takes place every Advent. There is even a lovely title for this Sunday—“Gaudete Sunday.” “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice.” From December 1st through 17th our focus has been on the future. We have been invited to think about the coming in glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ at the end of time. We are encouraged by the promise that when God’s kingdom comes in fullness, it will bring an end to hatred, violence, war, injustice, poverty, abuse and oppression. At the same time, we have been challenged to ask, “What obstacles prevent God’s kingdom—already present in the here and now—from being fully realized.” And, “what are we able to do to overcome and remove those obstacles?”

The 18th through the 24th, though, focus on our preparation to remember, recall and celebrate the birth of Christ. Thus, it is very helpful to honestly discuss the abyss which separates what this season is supposed to be and what it often actually is. Such a reflection might offer us an opportunity to take a deep breath, to relax and to enter these final days of Advent with less stress and with, possibly, a sense of peace.

Merle Haggard tells us that this is “meant to be a happy time of year.” It is meant to be a season full of hope and joy. The advertisements show happy families lovingly reunited in warm and comfortable homes. They eat delicious meals—lovingly prepared at home. A few of them go to Church—but then we see them happily unwrapping perfect gifts. Everyone gets just what they longed for and they are all perfectly content. They all get along. There are no fights or harsh words or awkward moments. Well, that might happen on TV, but it does not always unfold that way in our homes.

Merle Haggard reminds us of another reality.
— Not every worker has a job.
—Not every shopper has money to buy gifts.
—Not every hungry person has food to eat, clothes to wear, or even a warm and
comfortable place to sleep.
—Not every child will receive a gift at all. Not every person is in good health.
—Some homes will have empty places at the table;
-some family members do not have time off from work;
-some family members are in the military and are stationed in foreign
countries and will spend the day in danger.
—And some homes are in mourning because a beloved family member has died.

For all these people it is a season of darkness, rather than light and of sorrow, rather than joy. Like others, I can not help but worry that the most holy feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom! Yes, I know that may not be the upbeat message you hoped to hear—and yes, it may sound like an extreme presentation. Please bear with me as we move along.

Just yesterday, I had an incredible conversation with an amazing person who shared the most fascinating insight with me. At first, I was shocked by his words. But then, when the “grand maul” did not happen—and the “lightning did not strike”— I was relieved, and then delighted—and then filled with joy. “Several years ago,” he told me, “I came to a surprising realization. Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. It is NOT my birthday. I do not need a gift.” He also realized that it was not his wife’s birthday or his children’s birthday—or the birthday of anyone else he loved or cared for. None of them needed a gift, either. So, he did not need to go into debt, or go crazy trying to find the perfect gift for everyone he knew.

However, he concluded, “if it was Jesus’ birthday, and if he did love Jesus, then Jesus did indeed deserve a gift.”

A new dilemma and crisis! What am I going to give Jesus for his birthday? Wow! If ever there was someone who doesn’t need anything! If ever there was someone who was not into accumulating possessions or collectibles! If ever there was someone who did not want or need clothes or jewelry or electronics! Someone who does not want a new car or a luxurious home! Someone who does not want a vacation to “get away from it all” or a night out on the town!

Do we have any idea what to get Jesus for his birthday?

It is no accident that John the Baptist is the hero of the Third Sunday of Advent. It could be ironic that on “Rejoice” Sunday we hear a fiery sermon which begins by calling people a “Brood of Vipers.” After he calms down, though, John gives a perfect and complete gift list. Note that he has nothing to say about what people ought to believe! Instead he challenges people to live as if though they are acting on behalf of God. He challenges them to live generous, caring, affirming and loving lives. He challenges them to be authentic people who lives of integrity.

To each group, John gives specific advice:

To everyone: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

To tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

To soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

And then he turned the focus away from himself to Jesus. He wanted them to understand that he was someone who would prepare the way: “One who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

What if we made this our list of gifts to give to Jesus this Christmas?

Feed the hungry
Clothe the naked
Find housing for the homeless
Visit prisoners
Comfort the mourning
Care for the needs of widows and orphans
Fight injustice
Work to end racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and religious-based prejudice
Work to protect the environment and nurture creation

I am not suggesting that we become miserly or cheap or like Scrooge. But what would happen if we placed our focus this Christmas on Christ? There is nothing wrong with exchanging gifts with others. But is Christmas the only time that could be done? In some countries, gifts are exchanged on the Feast of the Epiphany. Perhaps that is a wise custom. Certainly, it is something worth considering!

A final thought. The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a big deal for us. As the old phrase puts it so well—for us, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But not everyone shares our faith. There are other celebrations which take place these days. Rather than being defensive and becoming soldiers in the “Christmas War,” why not acknowledge the other celebrations? Why not accept that some do not—and do not want to celebrate anything? I can not imagine that Jesus would have a problem saying, “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings.”

It is shocking to some to discover that we Christians do not have an exclusive claim on Jesus! We do not have a copyright! Many other faith-traditions respect, value and treasure Jesus. Why not take the opportunity to ask them how they view Jesus—and please do not make the mistake of confusing Jesus and Christians or Jesus and Churches or Christian Communities.

Have you ever asked someone who is Jewish how Jesus (Yeshua, a practicing Jew all his life) is viewed in Jewish eyes? Have you asked a Muslim how Jesus is viewed in Islam—or what the Qur’an has to say about him? What about Buddhists, Hindus, or Baha’is? What about Pagans, Agnostics or Atheists? If they have reason to think that we will really listen without trying to correct them or convert them, we might be surprised to learn how positively they view Jesus and how significant his life, ministry and teaching are. And we might be inspired to live lives that so reflect who Jesus was and is that they think more kindly of Christians too!

Advent is coming to a close. December will soon end. “If we make it through December, we’ll be fine.”

“Am I not here who am your Mother?”

A sermon for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

December 12, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

What does it take to convince us that God loves us—that we matter and are important—and that God wants to have a relationship with us? This was a burning question at the very beginning of the Jesus Movement. In the simplest form, the answer was the theology of the “incarnation.” Far more than saying that God “took on flesh,” the message of those early communities of faith was that in Jesus, God had become totally one with us—truly, fully, and completely God—truly, fully and completely human. St. Paul, for instance, wrote that Jesus was like us in all things, but sin.

Imagine a loving Creator who not only made us in their own image and likeness, but who, then, became one of us. A God who knew from personal experience all the beauty and pain of the human experience. A God who knew the reality of love and sorrow, of joy and suffering—of loss and death and sorrow. A God who, through, the Resurrection restored hope and who promised health and well-being—both in the here and now—but also in a new life after this one comes to an end.

But how to present that message in such a way that it would be intelligible—that it would make sense—that it would be compelling and attractive? The Gospel According to Saint Luke chose to introduce the good news with the story of Jesus’ infancy. This touching story was full of amazing Jewish figures—Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist. With angels and shepherds thrown in for good measure. All of this would have made sense to a gentile audience which was struggling to understand what it meant to be grafted on to the tree of Israel.

The Gospel According to Saint John—writing to a Greek speaking, gentile audience, chose an even more audacious way to communicate the good news. In the prologue a familiar Greek philosophical concept was used—the Logos—the eternal divine presence of God. The word who was from the beginning, who was with God, and who was God. The very word through whom everything that was made came to have being. That word which did the most astonishing thing — “pitched a tent among us” and became one of us.

The danger, though, is that without even realizing that they are doing so, missionaries—those who bear the good news of the incarnation—more often than not make a horrible mistake. They confuse the Gospel with the culture of their origin and the many ways in which they have experienced the Gospel being lived out by a specific community of faith. The sad result is a cultural imperialism which exports both the seed of Christianity along with the soil from a specific time and place. That never works out well for either the evangelizer or the evangelized!

In reflecting on this, Pope Paul VI, of happy memory wrote a famous Encyclical—Evangeli Nuntiandi—“On spreading the good news.” He called for missionaries and evangelizers to practice “Inculturation.” The seed of Christian faith, he suggested, should be planted in the rich soil of each culture. Watered and warmed by the love of God, the seed will sprout and a plant will emerge which is nourished and shaped by that culture. It will have all the essential elements derived from the seed—but will be formed by the language, music, arts. food and the lived-reality of the soil in which it will be planted. It will be authentically and fully Christian—but will be expressed in new and exciting ways.

This is the message of Guadalupe. Those tender words which the Virgin Mary addressed to Juan Diego make this point clearly, powerfully, and unmistakably: “Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the fountain of your joy? Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?”

A lovely compassionate and tender Mother appeared to that peasant, Juan Diego. A lady who spoke to him in his own language, who wore clothes that made sense to him, and who used familiar images which he understood. But even more importantly, a lady who looked like him-who could have been his own mother, his sister, or his daughter. Her brown skin proved that she was Aztec and her accent proved that she was a Nahuatl-speaker—like him.

What does this celebration say to us today—here and now? This was a real game-changer, a paradigm shift for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Suddenly they came to understand that this foreign God who had previously not made much sense to them was in fact their God too. They were important, valued and loved by God.

For them—and for the conquistadores, it had an even more shocking message—they were sisters and brothers-members of the same family! The Spanish would be forced to recognize that the native peoples of the Americas were not less than human, were not expendable and must be treated with love, dignity and respect. Or else, they could not claim to live authentic Christian lives.

We are not there yet! But from generation to generation we do make progress—even if slowly–towards justice, equality and healing. “God has made one family of all the peoples of the earth.” That is the good news which the Apparition at Tepayac reminds us today—and which it challenges us to make real, present and effective—here and now.