Monday, December 24, 2012

The Santa at the Manger

The Santa at the Manger
Julie Worcester in Abingdon press preaching annual relays a story of Christmas

“Advent and Christmas are always beautiful, but one of my fondest memories is of celebrating the season with my new spouse in our new church home, First United Methodist Church. The lovely sanctuary was made even more beautiful by the greenery adorning the windows, the walls, and the chancel area. Children’s eyes sparkled as they gazed upon the beautiful Christmas tree and heard stories behind the hand-stitched symbols and stories of the saints. One of the few decorations in the sanctuary that was not greenery or Christmas candles was the small statuette
of Santa kneeling at the manger. It sat atop the church’s organ. It was so unique, so different, so appropriate, and it piqued my curiosity. I asked the organist and some fellow choir members about the statuette following worship the Sunday prior to Christmas and was surprised by the varied responses. The comments ranged from, “I know, don’t you just love it?” to “Humph!” to “Yea, well . . . ,” and my favorite—“We don’t talk about it.”

Don’t talk about it? What was so controversial? Instead of laying the issue aside, I pressed on in search of an answer. I asked church members and our pastor. I first found out that those who knew who purchased it would not divulge the identity of the family for protective measures. Some in the congregation felt Santa had no place in church, some felt it childish, for some it didn’t matter one way or another, some liked it but were bullied by factions that didn’t like it. Those wonderful congregational disagreements; I know, another sermon for another time.

It took me almost ten years to find out the story of the statuette. The purchase was made by a fellow choir member. She and her husband had happened upon the statuette during a vacation in New Mexico. The purchase was made because this couple felt that Santa should be in the
church. It’s where Santa began and where Santa served. Church was most definitely where Santa belonged and where he should have been all along….”

Saint Nicholas was probably born near 270 C.E. in a port city known as Patara in Myra. Patara was the major naval and trading port of Lycia (Modern day Turkey), located at the mouth of the Xanthos River, until it silted up and turned into a malaria-plagued marsh.

Nicholas of Myra was born to wealthy merchant parents. Nicholas’ parents were Christian and the family worshiped in a congregation that was begun by the Apostle Paul toward the end of
his third journey where he had done some missionary work in the area between voyages.

Legend says that Nicholas’ parents were childless for most of their married life. They prayed every day for a child, and in later life their prayers were answered by the arrival of a son whom they named Nicholas, which means “God is victorious.”

Unfortunately By the time Nicholas was thirteen years old, he was an orphan. The plague claimed the lives of his parents. With no other family, Nicholas turned to God and the church for
solace. Nicholas gave his entire inheritance to the Roman Catholic Church and became a priest. He was appointed Bishop of Myra at the age of twenty-four and lived a life of service to others.
The young bishop was respected and beloved by his congregation and his community for his many acts of generosity.

Nicholas fought for truth, justice, and the Christian way. The gifts that Santa Claus brings are meant to be representative of the gifts and acts of kindness demonstrated by Nicholas for those in need, be it money for dowry or money to help a family pay their taxes to Rome that kept a child out of slavery, arguing before the Emperor Constantine for lower taxes on behalf of a community and region, or saving the lives of those who had been wrongly accused.

Nicholas died in 345 C.E., but within one hundred years of his passing the Santa we know today began to take shape. The stories of the Bishop of Myra spread to all parts of the Roman Empire, including present day England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

Saint Nicholas, Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession became known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and that is how he became the model for our modern concept of Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions ( which is a removal of sounds) and corruptions of the transliteration of "Saint Nikolaos" 

In one story attributed to Nicholas a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. When he heard of this, Nicholas decided to help him, in order to be humble or more likely to prevent the man from being embarrassed by accepting charity he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses(one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.

There are three versions of this story one has him throwing the gold through the window on three different nights, and another over three different years, each time just before the daughter comes of age.  The third year the father lie in wait to see who was bringing these gifts when caught Nicholas states that he should not be thanked but the glory should be given to God.  In a final version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; and finally it may have been that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

See some traditions beginning in this story.

Over time the bishop’s robe, staff, mitre, and Bible were replaced with toys and other treats as symbols of St. Nicholas. His name even began to changed form  Sinterklaas toFather Christmas,
Papai Noel, Niklaus, Père Noël, Winter Grandfather, and Christkindl

Over the years Saint Nicholas became something for the children as opposed as a story of compassion and justice for all people.  He became a cartoon character finalized in a coke add in Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s.

Finally Back to where we started and Julie Worcester’s story of Jesus at the Manger she asks “Would Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, approve of the changes? No” she answers. “
 This pastor and priest, Nicholas, would have insisted that the focus be returned to God. Nicholas would have been directing our attention back to the manger of our Savior where Nicholas’ present-day likeness was kneeling. Like the good bishop, we should be pouring over God’s holy word and worshiping the One who came to this earth, fully human, fully alive and fully divine, the One who was sent to free us, free us from our own preconceived boundaries and allow us to be expressions of the God whose image we are created in.

If we look around, we will find that the kneeling Santa is us. As people of Christ, we, the modern day Santas, present ourselves to God with open hearts and open minds in search for opportunities to help those in need. As disciples of Christ, we should not limit to whom and when we should offer help, and we should seek justice for those who have no voice. We can accomplish all these things because of God’s amazing grace.

As I think of the image santa at the manger, I discover that, like Nicholas, I have been transformed. I have knelt before the manger and left as a new creation because of the grace and forgiveness found in Christ. Like Nicholas of old, and the kneeling Santa of today, may we live always in Christ and strive to live as the Spirit leads us, and may the Prince of Peace and Wonderful Counselor be with you and yours this coming new year. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

To Be Silent

Luke 1:67-79

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),

salvation from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us—

to show mercy to our ancestors

and to remember his holy covenant,

the oath he swore to our father Abraham:

to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,

and to enable us to serve him without fear

in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

to shine on those living in darkness

and in the shadow of death,to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

To Be Silent!

In the desert there are these big green thorny trees that have thorns like long nails a comedian I heard call these wait-a-minute trees.  You can be innocently just walking past when suddenly your shirt will catch on one of these thorns and the tree says “wait a minute”,  You have to stop…untangle yourself and then be on your way.

In today’s story Zachariah has a wait- a- minute experience with God which leads to a spirit filled prophecy.

But it all begins with..


To be silent, is to respond to sound in a very physical way because you may have chosen not to speak as in a vow of silence, perhaps one is incapable of speech or perhaps has never heard speech, without speech our response to sound and communication becomes something very different; be that sign language, or drawing a picture or attempting to write, it is very different from what we are used to.  

In the sound of silence Paul Simon writes;

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

Zachariah is living in silence before our reading today. An imposed silence but a silence just the same.

Ken Gehrls the Pastor of Calvin Christian reformed church writes;
“Silence, sometimes, as they say, it can be golden.
But sometimes, well, sometimes, it can be a difficult thing to experience.
Like the silence of the night.
When you lay in bed, alone, with all the thoughts that roar through your brain
you wish you had someone to share them with, but the entire world is asleep except you.
Or the silence of distance.

You'd love to be able to communicate with a loved one. But for whatever reason you cannot reach them. You can remember them. And wish you could touch them, and hear their voice.
That kind of silence can really get to you after a while.
Zachariah’s silence was altogether different;
Zachariah was a priest in the order of Abijah which is of the eighth of the twenty-four courses (or classes) into which David divided the priests, and his wife Elizabeth was of the house of Aaron.  Zachariah as a priest had duties at the temple in Jerusalem which alternated between each of the family lines that had descended from those appointed by king David (1st Chronicles 24:1–19).[1]
The daily blessing of the priests in the Temple serves to open the Heavenly gates of mercy. Through it, the people of Israel merit not only material well-being - including offspring and longevity - but spiritual blessings as well; mercy, Divine protection and the greatest blessing of all... true peace. Since the priests themselves represent the attribute of kindness, their service brings the flow of God's blessing down to His people.
 Luke states that during the week when it was the duty of Zachariah's family line to serve at "the temple of the Lord", the lot for performing the incense offering had fallen to Zachariah while Zachariah ministered at the altar of incense, an angel of the Lord appeared and announced to him that his wife would give birth to a son, whom he was to name John, and that this son would be the forerunner of the messiah.  Gently reminding the angel of their advanced age, Zachariah asked with disbelief for a sign whereby he would know the truth of this prophecy. So the angel identifies itself as Gabriel, sent especially by God to make this announcement, and added that because of Zechariah's doubt he would be struck dumb and "not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed".  Be careful what you ask for! Consequently, when he went out to the waiting worshippers in the temple's outer courts, he was unable to speak the customary blessing (Luke 1:18–22).
So imagine now Zachariah comes out of the temple after performing the ritual with the Incense and here are the people awaiting the blessing from God through the priest and the priest cannot announce God’s blessing.  The priest is silent, therefore, God is silent.
Ken Gerhls  goes on to write;  “Perhaps we don't think about it much, but between the last page of the Old Testament and the first pages of the New Testament is a span of some 400 years. 400 years since the last prophet had declared the divine word of God to His people. 400 years where the space between earth and heaven seemed absolutely monstrous. 400 years during which the silence began to thunder.
Remember - these were the days before the Holy Spirit was poured out.

There were no prophets.

No inner voice of the Spirit.

Just silence.”  Now this silence is emphasized by a priest of the ancient line, who is married to the lineage of Aaron, to be struck dumb.

The story goes on to state that just by looking at him the people could see that he had experienced a vision.  It also goes on to say that Zachariah keeps motioning at them throughout his time to serve.  We don’t know if anyone was able to translate his gestures or what he was trying to say just that when his time in service was done he went home.

Zachariah went home to be silent but, unlike the silence of Yahweh before, this silence was loud and vibrating through his life.  God had truly awakened him and soon the people of Israel as well but, at this time, he could do nothing about it.  It was his and his alone to carry.

Now I find kind-of sacred bracket here, a frame of Holy silence if you will. A prophecy has been proclaimed in stillness.  The silence of 400 years has actually been broken though no one will be aware of it for a nine months.  Yes events of the prophecy start to manifest but until Zachariah speaks no one will know what has transgressed.  Much like the silence between Good Friday and Easter morn a prophecy is fulfilled but no one knows it in the silence in between.

But in this sacred silence of Zachariah what occurs within him?  I assume it was looked upon as some sort of illness or malady.  He probably couldn’t go back to work; he definitely could no longer serve in the temple for many of the duties required verbal prayer, chants and or blessings.  All he could do was go home and be silent and reflect.

Renowned author Gerald May, in Let Your Life Speak, speaks of some of what I think Zachariah was suddenly called into.  In this sacred silence all he could do was take time to listen, and listen, he had to do.  He had to try to understand this prophecy and what turn his life and generations were to take because of it.  He had to try to understand what his life had been, and now, what it is and will be. To this Gerald may says; “I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about- quite apart from what I would like it to be about.” I would add, in Zachariah’s case, what he may have believed his life to be about.  Zachariah, after a lifetime of service to the temple, to God, and to Jerusalem, he had to re-evaluate everything.

This is a sacred time a time of silence and preparation in anticipation of that which is to come in fulfillment of the prophecy by the angel.  (That sentence applies as well to this story as to today in the midst of advent.)    Now, shortly after Zachariah comes home in silence his wife Elizabeth goes into seclusion herself as she is pondering the miracle that has occurred for her. The Gospel states “she stays there for 5 months saying ‘this is what the lord has done for me as God looked favorably on me and took away my disgrace I have endured among my people.’”  The whole house is now in silence waiting for a birth and for the prophecy to be fulfilled.

In the Advent Meditations by Henri Nouwen  it says :

An awaiting person is a patient person.  The word “patience” implies to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.  Patient Living means to live actively in the present and wait there.  Impatient people expect the real thing to happen somewhere else, and therefore they want to get away from their present situation and go elsewhere.  For them, the moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are, waiting.[1]

Here is a whole Household who has chosen to be in silence and stay, and wait, awaiting the promise of God.  Through the moment of Silence the promise of God is roaring, moving, changing lives.  2/3rds of the way through this whole process the angel appears to Mary proclaiming what is to be.  No sooner does Mary hear the news then she runs to visit Elizabeth and at Mary’s greeting the child leaps within her  and “Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41)

Suddenly after 400 years of silence, of going through the motions, after 400 years of waiting, God is active physically in their midst.  It was as if their lives had gone form a grey mundane experience to suddenly have color.  It is like Dorothy stepping from her old tattered and torn farm house in sepia tone out into Oz in full Technicolor.  God is doing amazing things.  Elizabeth is pregnant, Mary is expecting, and Zachariah is in quiet, patient, prayer waiting, waiting for that moment when he will be called to do as the Angel said.

Finally the day arrives when Elizabeth gives birth and everyone knows the name of the child is to be Zachariah but Elizabeth says no it is to be John.  All those around are confused for there is no one in his family named John and tradition holds first born is named after the father or a grandfather on one side of the family or the other.  Zachariah starts shaking his and gesturing no.  Then Zachariah writes; “his name is to be John.”  Now this is when things get really lively.

For the Bible states; “Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” (Luke1:64) Praising God for, for what?  I believe he started praising God for his 9 months of silence.  For his 9 months to pray, observe and wait.  For His chance to review what his life had been and what he once saw as mundane and maybe even as a rut now had meaning and purpose for all of it, everything he had ever done had all led up to this moment the fulfillment of a prophecy and a story that only he could tell from the beginning for he is the only one that was in on it from the beginning.

“Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”  (Luke 1:66)

I find this odd and yet somewhat expected of human nature.  The initial reaction is fear.  There is no mention of fear when a priest comes out of the temple fully dumb and gesturing trying to communicate what had just happened.  No mention of fear when they can see that he truly had some experience of God.  No mention of fear when a woman who has been barren suddenly comes out of seclusion 5 months pregnant. 

Yet a man is suddenly relieved of his affliction and starts to praise God for the miracles he is witness too and now there is fear!  Why, because the name of God is spoken aloud in Joy?   Why because a prophecy is fulfilled? Or is it more to do with the Prophecy, today’s reading, the Canticle of Zachariah.

For now God is no longer silent. Zachariah proclaims and claims all That which the people had read so much about as happening to the father of faith, patriarch Abraham, and through the generations  of prophets and to the people -
- that was now continuing and coming to fruition among them!

And more would be to come. That's what the prophetic song speaks of - loud and clear for all to hear. No more silence here!
God is redeeming the people. Meaning God is coming to push their enemy out of the way. God is coming to set them free. God is about to become God incarnate, the Human One who would bring salvation to all people.

There would be a future without fear where they could live in the presence of the Holy One, serving the Creator in holiness and righteousness. Meaning they would have the assurance of belonging to God – whole-ly and completely.  They would be able to focus on living God’s will and focusing on being a people of God – living rightly and freely. Nothing would be able to rip them away from God ever again.
No more silence.
No more distance.
No more waiting for distant prophesies to be fulfilled.

That's Zechariah's song, a song of hope, a song of prophecy, a song with which all the events of the advent season are ignited. Now God is once again active in the world, never to be silent again. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has looked favorably on his people.” (Luke1:68)
In this, our advent time, we take time to remember how people prepared for the coming of the Christed One, the anointed one, the One in whom the saving power of God was manifested in human flesh. We prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ physically in this world over 2000 years ago and daily in us. Daily, in moments of silence, daily in those times when we choose to stop and see God active in our lives and we can proclaim, because of this, our lives are never mundane and that; “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


[1] Advent Meditations Fromt He Writings of Henri Nouwen (Fenton, MO: Creative Communications for the pariash, 2007), 10.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A sermon calling friends family and loved ones to come out!

Coming Out Litany
Resource Author: Bill SmithSusan Willm
October 11, 2008
National Coming Out Day Worship
One: In the beginning God came out
All: through the heavens, the earth, and all of creation.
One: The Children of Israel came out of the bondage of Egypt
All: into the land of God's promise.
One: God came out of a closet of laws and commandments
All: through the door of love in the person of Jesus.
One: Today God comes out in the voices and stories of the poor,
All: the displaced, the oppressed in our midst.
One: Today we worship this out God who loves us boldly and accepts us gladly.
All: Today we come out to praise our God and speak our love for one another.
We all have heard the saying, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” We have all grown up hearing children’s sermons or Sunday school lessons that describe the Christian life as a journey to heaven. It’s as if heaven is some place “out there,” out of our reach or experience, but if we live good lives and are not bad boys and girls, when we die we will go to heaven.
The man in Mark’s story is not talking about going to heaven. He’s interested in how to experience eternal life in the here-and-now. Perhaps in exploring his profound question, we can lay to rest the notion that heaven or eternal life, whichever expression we choose, is a “place” or something outside and unreachable through human experience.
We are all conditioned by our environment. What have we kept since we were little children? As adults, we bring our histories, circumstances, and experiences with us. Our outlook on life is tied to this conditioning. Parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, work associates, and enemies have
all contributed to who we are, what we think, and how we live. The man in Mark’s story was also conditioned by such influences. He never murdered anyone, didn’t run around, never stole anything from anybody, never told a lie, had not defrauded anyone, and had honored his parents. Wow! This fellow could be described as the preeminent community example of integrity. Now here it would be said that his possessions had a hold of him but here I put forth something different may have actually had a hold of him his true life, his authentic life.
October 11th was National Coming Out Day.  It celebrates the moment when individuals came out of the closet as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning or as an ally. It’s an important day worthy of celebration because coming out of the closet is not easy.  There are repercussions and as we see from the stories in the newspapers—these repercussions can be deadly.  On National Coming Out Day we celebrate the boldness and bravery it takes to come out of the closet and we also celebrate stories—our coming out stories—stories that tell of those moments when we came out of the darkness and isolation of the closet and told the world who we really were as a Gay man, a lesbian woman, as transgender, as queer, as questioning or as an ally. 
In this day and age my heart breaks when I hear that LGBTQI youth have the highest suicide rate than any other teen or young adult. Researchers have found that suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth is comparatively higher than among the general population. LGBT teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts. According to some groups, this is linked to heterocentric cultures and institutionalized homophobia in some cases, including the use of LGBT people as a political wedge issue like in the contemporary efforts to halt legalizing same-sex marriages. Depression and drug use among LGBT people have both been shown to increase significantly after new laws that discriminate against gay people are passed. Bullying of LGBT youth has been shown to be a contributing factor in many suicides, even if not all of the attacks have been specifically addressing sexuality or gender.
So why come out?  It may have been better if we all just stayed in the closet…no one would know about us, no one would be talking about us and definitely no one could bully us., right?  You know something I was bullied and picked on until I went to college.  When I was little I was born with muscles to short in my legs and they pulled up on my heels so I walked on my toes, my ears were too big, I couldn’t play baseball, I was very socially oriented to kids of my age…whatever  kids will find excuses to tease and or bully.  No one ever called me gay or teased me for it, but I did see them do it to other kids.
National Coming out Day was founded in 1988 by Robert Eichberg, a psychologist from New Mexico and founder of the personal growth workshop, The Experience, and Jean O'Leary, an openly-gay political leader from Los Angeles and then head of the National Gay Rights Advocates. The date of October 11th was chosen because it was the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
The first headquarters was located near here in West Hollywood offices of the National Gay Rights Advocates. 18 states participated in the first national coming out day, which was covered in the national media. In its second year, the headquarters moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and participation grew to 21 states. After a media push in 1990, national coming out day was observed in all 50 states and seven other countries.
Right now there are 28 states in which you can be fired just for being gay and  34 if you are transgender.  There is no federal protection.
Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah still have yet to repeal or strike down their state's sodomy laws, although unenforceable due to the Supreme Court ruling they remain on the books.  Hopefully in the not too far future they will be seen as silly laws such as it is illegal to tie your pet alligator to a fire hydrant in Detroit.
This is why it is important to come out.  When we come out our family, friends and acquaintances now us, love us, and are not threatened by us.  People do not change their minds on how they feel about civil rights by watching an add on tv, some may but statistics show it is because they know someone and know their story and care for that person that minds are changed.
Chris Glaser says in coming out as sacrament; “That coming out is our unique sacrament, a rite of vulnerability that reveals the sacred in our lives – our worth, our lovemaking, our beloved, our community, our context of meaning and our God.”[1] Our coming out is a sacrament in which we come into a wholeness, a holiness of who we are called to be.  We do this in community and those who accept and welcome us participate in the grace of the sacrament of coming out.
But we are not the only ones who have to come out, those who support, love and care for us must come out.  They are the voices that add to the chorus calling for the recognition that we are all created by love, through love and we are all loved by God.
I want to share with you a gentleman’s blog post.  Let me tell you a little about him. His name is Brian McLaren.  Brian is an author, activist, and public theologian.  Brian’s writing spans over a dozen books, including but not limited to Naked Spirituality, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope and why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the road? Christian identity in a multi-faith world. Brian McLaren is also a trustee at Claremont School of Theology. On October 8th he made the following blog entry…this is all his and I had to share this;
A "farewell, Brian McLaren" moment, or not
I recently received this note from a reader of my books, someone I had met on a trip to Asia a few years back:
I read recently about your recent stand on homosexuality ... Don’t know if everything is correct – but this was my comment on that article:,
“I have regarded Brian as my mentor in coping with expressing my Christian faith in the postmodern world but now I have to break ranks with him - it leaves me devastated. "Neither do I condemn you - go and sin no more" the words of Jesus in the situation of the woman caught in adultery gives me guidance on this issue - "not to condemn" is not the same "it is not sin". To use a supra concept of "Loving God and Loving Neighbour" to excuse what is clearly sin in the Bible is to dilute the fundamental of obeying the Bible for its teaching authority in our lives in defining ethical behaviour - what else will happen next?

Brian my dear friend, thank you for journeying with me and opening my eyes to see my faith being worked out in a post modern world - your journey has taken you in a different direction from where I want to go - I feel lost as to who will be my next guidepost, but I will carry on this journey with Jesus as the author and finisher of my faith ...”,

I met you when you were in [Asia] some years ago. If you get to read this and would like to respond it will be great but otherwise it’s ok. God bless you brother.
Thanks for sending me your comment. I appreciate your warmth and feel your sadness in needing to (as you say) break ranks with me. There is a lot I'd like to say - but I'll just offer three (actually four) brief comments.
First, as you probably know, I'm not a "we have to keep ranks" type of guy. One of the characteristics I most appreciate about "a generous orthodoxy" or "a new kind of Christianity" is the freedom to stay unified and stay in fellowship even when we disagree. In fact, if we only "keep ranks" with those with whom we agree, it pretty much guarantees we won't be challenged to think new thoughts and grow into new areas. So, it's important for you to know that if you hold a different view than I do, whatever the issue - I would not want to "break ranks" with you. In fact, I am continually enriched, instructed, and challenged by people who differ with me on this and other issues - and I hope the reverse could be true.
My view on human sexuality has indeed changed over a period of thirty years, and actually, the views of most conservative Christians have also been changing over that period. It wasn't too long ago that the only conservative position was, "It's a choice and an abomination." When that position became untenable due to increasing data, the conservative position evolved to "it's a changeable disposition, and we know how to change it." When fewer and fewer people who claimed to have been reoriented were able to sustain the reorientation, the position shifted to "it's a hard-to-change disposition, but it can be done with great difficulty." More recently, I hear conservatives say "the disposition may be unchangeable but the behavior is a choice, so people may choose to live a celibate life or a heterosexual life, even against their orientation." All that's to say that it would be unfair of me to break fellowship with people who are themselves on a journey, just because they aren't where I am at this point.
So I'm glad that difference doesn't need to mean division. Which brings me to a second comment ...
In many settings - some cultural, some multi-religious, some denominational, not taking a firm anti-homosexuality stance can cost you your reputation, your job, and even your life. Because you have been an outspoken supporter of my work in the past, I can see how my public stand would put you in a terrible position. If you don't publicly break ranks with me, people may practice "guilt by association," branding you a "friend of sinners," or worse - someone in ranks with a heretic. Those costs would be very high. So be assured - I don't criticize you for breaking ranks with me - and doing so in the most public way possible. I can see how even if you privately agreed with me (and I know you don't), it would be almost impossible to do otherwise than break ranks, as you say. Many of my friends have been in a similar position. I'm deeply sad about this - for both sides - but understand it.
Finally, this issue is not going to go away. A significant percentage of people are gay - I would guess around 6%. This percentage seems to be a remarkably consistent feature of every human culture and population, every denomination, every religion, including those who deny it exists among them. If each gay person has two parents, the issue affects 18% of the population. If each gay person has one sibling and one friend, we're up to 30% who are directly affected by the issue.
It's much easier to hold the line on the conservative position when nearly all gay people around you are closeted and pretending to be other than they are. Eventually for some, the pain of pretending will become greater than the pain of going public. Whenever a new son or daughter comes out of the closet, their friends and family will face a tough choice: will they "break ranks" with their family member or friend, or will they stay loyal to their family member or friend - which will require them to have others break ranks with them?
In my case, I inherited a theology that told me exactly what you said: homosexuality is a sin, so although we should not condemn (i.e. stone them), we must tell people to "go and sin no more." Believe me, for many years as a pastor I tried to faithfully uphold this position, and sadly, I now feel that I unintentionally damaged many people in doing so. Thankfully, I had a long succession of friends who were gay. And then I had a long succession of parishioners come out to me. They endured my pronouncements. They listened and responded patiently as I brought up the famous six or seven Bible passages again and again. They didn't break ranks with me and in fact showed amazing grace and patience to me when I was showing something much less to them.
Over time, I could not square their stories and experiences with the theology I had inherited. So I re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) ... we had been wrong on this issue. In this process, I did not reject the Bible. In fact, my love and reverence for the Bible increased when I became more aware of the hermeneutical assumptions on which many now-discredited traditional interpretations were based and defended. I was able to distinguish "what the Bible says" from "what this school of interpretation says the Bible says," and that helped me in many ways.
So - many years before I learned I had members of my own close family who were gay - my view changed. As you can imagine, when this issue suddenly became a live issue in my own family, I was relieved that I was already in a place where I would not harm them as (I'm ashamed to say this) I had harmed some gay people (other people's sons and daughters) earlier in my ministry.
I know this won't be convincing to many people, but it's an honest though brief accounting of my story. I express a similar thought in my new book (p. 52). I'm addressing the issue of hostility toward other religions, something many people feel they must uphold in order to be faithful and orthodox Christians:
I think of a friend of mine from the same background of Christian fundamentalism I hail from. When his son came out, he had no support to help him accept the possibility that his son could be both gay and good. With deep ambivalence, he stood with his tradition and condemned his son. The cost -alienation from his son - was high, but it grew unspeakably higher when his son internalized the rejection and condemnation of his community and took his own life. Or I think of another friend, the mother of a gay son, also from my heritage. She came to me in secret to talk, knowing that one of my sons had come out around the same time as hers. Through tears she said, "I feel like I'm being forced to choose between my father and my son. If I affirm my son, I'm rejecting everything my father stood for. If I stand with my father, I'm rejecting my son."
In religion as in parenthood, uncritical loyalty to our ancestors may implicate us in an injustice against our descendants: imprisoning them in the errors of our ancestors. Yes, there are costs either way.
I want to add one more brief comment. You ask, if we change our way of interpreting the Bible on this issue (my words, not yours) "- what else will happen next?" Here's what I hope will happen. After acknowledging the full humanity and human rights of gay people, I hope we will tackle the elephant in the room, so to speak - the big subject of poverty. If homosexuality directly and indirectly affects 6 - 30% of the population, poverty indirectly and directly affects 60 - 100%. What would happen if we acknowledged the full humanity and full human rights of poor people? And then people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses and impairments? And then, what after that? What would happen if we acknowledged the spiritual, theological, moral value - far beyond monetary or corporate value - of the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, of seas and mountains and valleys and ecosystems? To me, Jesus' proclamation of the reign or commonwealth of God requires us to keep pressing forward, opening blind eyes, setting captives free, proclaiming God's amazing grace to all creation.
So - thanks for your note, for the warm spirit in which it was written, and for the invitation to respond. No need to be devastated. You will be fine. God bless you too, my brother! I hope our paths cross again soon. In friendship, as always – Brian
In Mark 17 10:21 “Then Jesus looked at the person with love” not sadness or anger for Jesus knew where his heart was at in his own process, “and said There is one more thing you must do.  Go and Sell what you have and give it to those in need.”  When we risk everything and come out we gain a world where we are authentic and comfortable in who we are.  As LGBTQIA people we have an opportunity to continue to share what we know with those in need.  We have an opportunity to continue to educate and stand up for those who may not be ready to stand up for themselves yet.
As Brian said; “What would happen if we acknowledged the full humanity and full human rights of poor people? And then people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses and impairments? And then, what after that? What would happen if we acknowledged the spiritual, theological, moral value - far beyond monetary or corporate value - of the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, of seas and mountains and valleys and ecosystems? To me, Jesus' proclamation of the reign or commonwealth of God requires us to keep pressing forward, opening blind eyes, setting captives free, and proclaiming God's amazing grace to all creation.”  What would happen next….I can’t wait to see.  Amen

[1] Chris Glaser, Coming Out as Sacrament (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 9.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tradition a reflection on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


When I was younger one of my favorite Christian rock groups was Daniel Amos they were totally 80’s and totally cool.  They had a song called colored by  I want to share a few of those lyrics with you.
Colored By!
from the album "¡Alarma!"
Words and Music by Terry Taylor
©1981 Paragon Music Corp./ASCAP
You might not recognize, the truth gets colored by
Wrong things, bad things do disguise
Afraid you might despise the real thing

Down at the little church they all wear hats
They feel they're doing right
Over at the big church they hate those hats
It get's them uptight now is that right?

You might not recognize, the truth gets colored by
Wrong things, bad things do disguise
Afraid you might despise the real thing

            There is a small-town church in upstate New York. They'd had a preacher in that church for over thirty-five years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was replaced by a young preacher. It was his first church; he had a great desire to do well. He had been at the church several weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset at him. He was troubled.
            Eventually he called aside one of the lay leaders of the church and said, "I don't know what's wrong, but I have a feeling that there's something wrong." The man said, "Well, Father, that's true. I hate to say it, but it's the way you do the Communion service."
            "The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?"  "Well, it's not so much what you do as what you leave out."
 "I don't think I leave out anything from the Communion service."  "Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous preacher administered the chalice and wine to the people, he'd always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would--"
            "Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition."  So the younger man called the former preacher. He said, "I haven't even been here a month, and I'm in trouble."
"In trouble? Why?"
            "Well, it's something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?"
            "Oh yes, I did. Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity so I wouldn't shock them."
            For over thirty-five years, the untutored people of his congregation had thought that was a part of the holy tradition. I have to tell you that church has now gained the name, "The Church of the Holy Radiator."
In Jesus' day, Jews not only ate kosher food, but they also observed special rituals at mealtime.  One of those rituals had to do with ritual hand washing.  Ritual hand washing had nothing to do with hygiene.  It involved dribbling a small amount of water over your hands -- not enough to get your hands clean -- but getting your hands clean wasn't the idea.  The intent was spiritual cleansing -- washing away spiritual contamination.  It was a nice idea, really -- an acknowledgement that we need cleansing -- a way of getting right with God three times a day -- rather like saying grace at the table.

But hand washing wasn't required.  At least, God didn't require it of ordinary people.  God required priests to cleanse their hands before performing sacred duties.  The Pharisees decided that, if it was good for priests, it must be good for everyone.  They made a new rule.  Everyone should go through ritual hand washing before eating.  That seems like a good thing, doesn't it!  Except that they forgot that it was their rule --
not God's rule!
At one level, the controversy here is between the Judean elite who were a very small percentage of the population, and everyone else. The elites lived in towns and cities and had access, time, and money for the water needed to follow their interpretation of the washing required to follow the Torah.
This is what the ritual looked like;
Before the Jewish elite would eat, they poured water over their hands with the fingers pointed upward. This water was kept in special jars and guarded to be free from any impurities.  Then they washed their hands and then poured water again over their hands from the wrists; this time holding their fingers downward.  It was thought that in this fashion, they would purify their hands from any ceremonial uncleanness.  Now this action had nothing to do with hygiene.  It was merely a ceremonial washing, and it had become a very important tradition.
The problem with such traditions is that they became more important than the things they represented.  In verse 8, Jesus states, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the traditions of men.” This is to strike against the Pharisees challenge of him and his disciples. When we read it today, we need to be careful to read this as a condemnation of the Judean elites and not of "Jews." Indeed, the crowd of peasant Jews with Jesus was cheering him on in this confrontation. Jesus is condemning hypocrisy not Judaism, and the all-too-human tendency to make sacred what is actually human customs and traditions.

Jesus saw through their tradition and the trap they were attempting to lay.  He saw that they were more concerned with outward things than they were with the things that really count.  Their worship was vain because they exalted tradition to the status of doctrine.
In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says, “Woe to you. Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.”
Jesus cut through the superficiality of their outward observances to stress that the inside was more important than the outside.  Jesus was more concerned with their heart condition than their hand condition.  Jesus was more concerned about their spiritual practice than their ritual practice.
The "tradition of the elders" is NOT the teaching of Moses as found in the Bible. It is the practice of the Judean elite which they are seeking to impose as THE one and only correct practice. And, as noted, the amount of water, time and money to follow those practices was beyond the reach of most people, and so most people were seen by the elites as unclean or, more likely, saw themselves as superior.  Only God can lift one human above others and only God was and that was through humble servitude.
There have been times throughout church history when human traditions became a major problem because they were essentially added to the Word of God. Even today we have Pharisees in the world.  There are people that would rather pick and choose Bible verses and traditions that were written for another time and place, they intentionally add words or mistranslations just so the Holy Book can say what they want. They would prefer to take texts out of context and use it to enslave, berate, condemn and persecute others just so that THEY can feel important... and for what; Their Church, memberships, Money, Ignorance, Foolishness? Is that what causes the twisted interpretations of Scripture and formation of the traditions, People in the spirit of the Pharisees? That is just Foolishness!
After all of the miracles Our Lord did in front of these Pharisees...none of that mattered because His disciples didn't wash their hands? The Lords teachings to the Pharisees didn't raise alarm as to who was really standing before them? Why is it that none of these "Pharisees" washed Our Lords hands after performing any one of the numerous miracles He did RIGHT BEFORE THEIR EYES?
Even today we are not immune from making our own tradition-additions to God’s Word.  We still have a nature that loves to make its own laws and decrees and commandments. How many times have we heard, and it doesn’t matter where or when you heard it, that famous line; “but we have always done it this way!”  There is just something innately in us that wants to hold on to the way it was always done. I think this is why the Buddhist teaching of impermanence can be so essential.
The Buddha taught that because all things in existence are in a constant flux of change attachment to them becomes the cause for future suffering. 
Holding onto human traditions as something sacred only gives a place where to establish a hierarchy.   The elitye of the ancient Jewish tradition believed they were better than others for they were performing this extra ritual.  Which really only scorned and belittled those of lesser stature in their community.  There are so many things we use, sometimes unconsciously, to separate ourselves from other.  We use politics, education, jobs, and even our clothing to separate ourselves and establish false sense of importance. I know people who would look down upon us just for not dressing for Sunday meeting.
  Your political party and views do not make you a better person before God.  Your organized and prioritized schedule does not give you license to look down on others.  Your well-behaved children do not merit you a “perfect parent” award except in Marilyn’s case.  Your church attendance and attempts to be nice to the people you like does not make up for a dormant devotional life and for failures to live up to your faith when it is inconvenient.  Inside every one of us is a little Pharisee who loves to elevate his or her own status before God because of some human standard we have set for ourselves and mentally morphed into a divine dictum.  But to that inner Pharisee Jesus says, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” 
We do the same thing in church.  We quickly learn to count on a certain predictability of our activities and worship, and we are very hesitant to see them change.  If we are not careful, some of these expectations become full-fledged traditions.  They take on significance far greater than simply being a convenient routine.  Some things become almost holy and unchangeable.  When that happens they have moved from being a routine to become a sacred cow.  Then, when someone tampers with a sacred cow, people become very upset.
Every church has such traditions that have become sacred cows.  In one church the color of the carpet had become the sacred cow.  They had always had red carpet, but now the property committee was going to change it to blue.  Some people just weren’t sure they could worship God on a BLUE CARPET, God forbid.
At another church, they had the Great Hymnbook Controversy of 1975.  For twenty years, the 1956 version of the hymnal had been used and cherished in that church, but now the music committee wanted to purchase the newly updated 1975 version.  This decision sparked a major debate on the quality of music in each hymnal.  The final decision was made at a two-hour church-wide business meeting where they finally hammered out a compromise that barely averted dividing the church.  The 1956 hymnal would be kept in the sanctuary, and the 1975 hymnal would be used in the chapel.
I have heard about a church where a similar controversy erupted over whether the Communion would be served before the sermon or after the sermon.  Other churches fight over where the piano is placed, where the Doxology is sung, or even how to take the offering.
It seems that every church manages to elevate certain practices from the routine to sacred traditions.  Church growth specialist Bill Easum once wrote a book about this phenomenon.  He called it “Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.”  Churches that grow have to find a way to eat those sacred cows.
A young rabbi went to serve his first synagogue, and he noticed that on the first Sabbath, when he said the prayers, the congregation on the left side of the synagogue stood at the beginning of the prayers, and the congregation on the right side remained seated.  The young rabbi thought this was a little odd, but continued to say the prayers.  After the first couple of petitions, he noticed a murmuring, which intensified as he continued the prayers.  Finally, it got loud enough that he was able to make out some of the words.
The murmuring in the congregation was a disagreement between the two halves of the congregation; the left half was saying that in this synagogue the tradition was that the congregation stood during the prayers, and the right half was saying that in this congregation the tradition was that they sat during the prayers.
As the prayers continued, the voices got louder, until finally the rabbi stopped because he was sure that God was the only one who could hear him anymore.
Hoping that this event was due to having a new rabbi (and attempting to influence him), the young rabbi did not discuss it with anyone, but the next Sabbath, it happened again.  The argument once again got so loud that the young rabbi stopped before he had finished his prayers - people were actually yelling at each other.  The tone had gotten rancorous, and each side of the congregation started to engage in accusations of heresy and other name-calling.
The young rabbi looked up the elderly rabbi who had served this congregation for years, and told him what was going on.  The question he asked at the end of his story was, "So is it the tradition of the congregation to stand during the prayers?"
The older rabbi stroked his beard and replied, "No, that has never been the tradition of that congregation."
"So the tradition is that they remain sitting during the prayers?"
The older rabbi looked off into the distance, as if remembering the good years serving God as a rabbi and said, "No, that was never the tradition of that congregation either."
The young rabbi threw his hands in the air in exasperation, and said, "There must be some solution to this!  The way things are now, they just end up screaming at each other during the prayers."
The old rabbi's face lit up in a smile as he lifted an admonishing finger to the sky and said, "Yes!  That was our tradition!"
But not all traditions are bad.  Some traditions are important.  They can be a valuable aid in communicating to us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.
When we talk of tradition, most of us who have seen the movie “Fiddler On The Roof” cannot help but remember the wonderful scene in which Tevya sings the theme song, “Tradition.”  As he sings that song, he explains to the audience the value of tradition as he sees it.  At one point he says, “Our tradition tells us who God is and who we are.”   When tradition can do that, it is a good tradition.  You see, tradition is meant to speak of the reality behind the tradition.
For two thousand years, the Church has observed the twin traditions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and both of them are the very best kind of tradition.  They meet the test that Tevya gave us – they tell us who God is and who we are.  And both speak of spiritual realities behind and beyond the tradition itself. At MCC’s all over the world we returned to the tradition of the open table.  I say returned for there is nothing to indicate that Jesus ever had any boundaries around any table that he partook of. Especially the table of the final Passover he would celebrate, what we refer to as the last supper.
God wants to do a new thing today, and we need to be open to it.  What worked yesterday may not have power for today.  We live in a new day with new challenges, and we need to hear the word of the Lord for today.
Maybe that’s a good way for all of us to look at tradition.  Respect for tradition is good.  Elevating tradition to the level of God’s Word is not.  Following traditions that express Christ’s gospel and demonstrate why the gospel is so important to us is good.  Following traditions because that’s just the way things are done around here is not.  Traditions should not become additions to God’s Word.  Traditions, whether ancient or relatively new, are simply another way for us to proclaim Christ’s message God’s love for all to all who have gathered in his house.  That’s a message that’s worth proclaiming in Word, Sacrament, song, and even tradition! 
 Paul said in Philippians 3:13, “Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Let's be open for God to do a new thing in our lives.  Let's be open for God to do a new thing in our church. Let us be open to all the possibilities god places before us everyday.