Having to (Work and) Wait a While

I. South African Anabaptist and Christian studies scholar, John W. de Gruchy, wrote an article of excitement and amazement when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa. He followed that article with several others, but none as pivotal, perhaps, as the one he wrote on the occasion of President Mandela’s death. De Gruchy did the unthinkable, as many would certainly view it, when he used the word “messiah” in connection to Mandela. It wasn’t a slip up. He explained, “The term ‘messiah’ is for [the majority of] Christians so exclusively associated with Jesus that it is difficult to think of anyone else in these terms. So we cannot use the world lightly or thoughtlessly when we speak of Mandela in this way.”

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De Gruchy reminds his readers that in Judeo-Christian scripture, the word means “the Lord’s anointed.” In the Hebrew Bible, it is used to refer to those chosen by God to fulfill some divinely ordained purpose such as liberation of oppressed people—for example, Moses who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian bondage into what they took to be their new land of promise. De Gruchy says that many other pivotal personalities in the ancient Hebrew world were referred to as divinely anointed ones: the prophet Elijah, King David, and benevolent Cyrus, the pagan King of the Persian Empire, who allowed—yeah, encouraged—Jews taken into captivity by the Babylonians before the Persians took control, to go back home and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. This being the case, how could it be off base to refer to Nelson Mandela as a messianic figure raised up to lead South Africa out of the bondage of apartheid and into long, long delayed freedom?

De Gruchy insists that those who are self-proclaimed messiahs through their very claims instantly disqualify themselves as what they claim to be. Mandela never did that. In fact, he said point blank, looking back over his hard life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary person who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Therein was his greatness. Quoting De Gruchy directly again: Mandela “would never have claimed the title of messiah for himself, or thought of himself in that way. He lived and acted with the kind of humility, compassion, and self-service that allows us to refer to him as a messianic figure, a true liberator, an agent of God’s justice, peace and reconciliation; someone who, through his life, words and deeds [pointed] towards Jesus and not to himself….”

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 Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be a or the messiah who’d been dreamed of from ancient times. That identity was thrust upon him like the most ill-fitting of garments. It’s all summed up in several places such as in Ezekiel 37:24-28 where the prophet shares what he believes to have been spoken by God Godself:

My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there for ever; and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them for evermore.

Jesus didn’t achieve any of these and didn’t set out to. He wasn’t a failure. He achieved what he set out to achieve. Those who thought he was a failed messiah said all the things the messiah was supposed to have brought about will happen at the end of time when Jesus reappears—this time, finally, as messiah-in-full. You may have heard of the group Jews for Jesus; members are Jews who claim that Jesus was the messiah. There’s another group, Jews for Judaism, that refutes what Jews for Jesus say. The Jews for Judaism make the following points in denying the claims of Jews for Jesus. They say that Hebrew scripture teaches that a complete list of criteria must be met by the one who is the long-awaited messiah.

  • The messiah must be biologically connected to the Tribe of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he—I think there are no references to the messiah as possibly being female—must have descended from King David. Jesus was not connected to that tribe nor was he biologically descended from David through he may have had a legal connection to the pivotal monarch.
  • When the messiah comes to reign as King of Israel, the Jews will be ingathered from the various exiles and all together in their homeland. This has never happened since they initially dispersed. And, by the way, Jesus never ruled over any individual or group.
  • The Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt/restored a third time. This is an odd one since the Temple was standing in all its glory during the life of Jesus. It was destroyed by Rome some 43 years after Jesus’ execution, and has never been rebuilt. When the messiah rules, peace will prevail throughout the world. Hmmm. How much we wish that had ever happened! It surely hasn’t happened in modern times. I saw a news clip the other day pointing out that though wars are waning in so far as the United States is concerned, the Pentagon budget remains robust and untouchable.
  • When the messiah’s reign is in full swing, all the Jews worldwide will be following the commandments said to have been established by God and recorded in what is now known as holy writ. This has never been going on and isn’t going on right now.

 

Now, none of this is a negative reflection on who Jesus actually was and what he was about. He was as remarkable a human being as ever lived—maybe the epitome. But we are operating at a double deficit during the Christmas season in this country. First, Santa Claus is not the reason for the season. Second, the Jesus who is supposed to be, needs to be remembered as the baby who grew up to be a remarkable person, was not a deity, was not a monarch. Nonetheless, we cannot fault those who looked to him as a liberator who might have made all things right. We’d all like one of those.

 

II.

According to Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary brought their baby boy, Jesus, up to Jerusalem to present him at the Temple to the Lord since it had been written in the Torah, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” To mark this joyous event in their lives and to demonstrate their gratitude to God, they—doing what they believed they were supposed to do—offered a sacrifice, likely a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.

 

At the Temple, the little family of three is approached by a man named Simeon, whom Luke tells us had been drawn to the Temple that day by God Godself. Simeon was well known among some Temple-goers as the old guy who insisted that God was going to let him live long enough at least to see the messiah. He believed the well-being of his people, the very future of his people, was dependent on the that person sent from God to for the people what they had not been able to do for themselves.

 

Presumably with Jesus’ parents’ permission, Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms to bless him and to announce to all who would listen in such a bustling place that the long-awaited messiah was now among them though in the form of an infant. That was a bit of jolt for many who expected a messiah, but expected a messiah who was already seasoned, mature, and ready to get to work. They didn’t think they, the Jewish people living and struggling at the time Jesus was born, could wait any more; they might not make it if they tried.

 

Simeon holds up the baby boy and blesses God, praises God saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28–32). This is what Simeon had lived for. He was now prepared to die. He wasn’t going to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and end it all; nor was he going to retire from spiritual seeking despite the fact that in this event he’d been able to check off the last item on his bucket list.

 

Many elderly US Americans, persons of color in particular, had a similar feeling when the news of President Obama’s first election was initially announced. How do you suppose an African American butler felt, a man who had served presidents in the White House from Truman to Reagan? Eugene Allen apparently respected all of them, but by the time Obama was elected he was retired and in service to no one. He was given a VIP pass to the events planned for family and closest friends during the inauguration. He died less than a year about Obama’s first election.

 

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The movie about this gentleman, titled “The Butler,” is still one of the hottest films showing around the country. Simeon thought he could die in peace because his people were now in the hands of the one, whom he believed, God had sent to lead them into the greatest days.

 

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We don’t know how soon after that magic moment he did, in fact, die. Then, an elderly woman, Anna, approaches baby Jesus and his parents. She, like Simeon, takes Jesus to be the messiah, but she has a very different response: “At that moment, she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anna is 84ish years old, and she does not want to die. She wants to preach. Like the faithful ones who will follow her, she is driven to share with others what she has experienced. Anna is a “prophet” (Luke 2:36). In fact, she is the only woman in the New Testament explicitly described as a “prophet.” She then stands alongside women like the judge, military leader and prophet Deborah as well as the Jerusalem prophet Huldah, who, in the days of King Josiah, was asked to verify the reliability of scroll found in some Temple renovation work.

 

Unlike Simeon, Anna is not just visiting the Temple for the day; she is there all the time. According to Luke, Anna “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). Perhaps she was part of some sort of order of widows (Luke tells us her husband died after only seven years of marriage) who had specific religious functions in the Temple.

 

The literary pairing of Simeon and Anna, according to the Biblical Archaeology Review, reflects Luke’s penchant for male-female parallelism when he writes about the recipients of divine blessing and salvation. The story of Jesus’ birth is framed by two such stories—that of Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke 1 and Anna and Simeon in Luke 2. Interestingly, in both cases, the woman is portrayed as the more positive example of a person of faith. The women are not only more receptive to the message, they are more willing to act upon it, with Elizabeth realizing that her cousin is carrying the messiah and praising God for this blessing and Anna spreading the good news. The waiting has been worthwhile! A messiah has arrived, as Simeon recognizes, but, as the prophetess Anna demonstrates, a new era has dawned, and it’s time to act, not relax.

 

 

III. We have said, in this Christmas-time sermon series, that you might be—or should own if you haven’t—a self-identity as a spiritual seeker if you find yourself a misfit, spiritually speaking, among those with whom you come into contact; if your orthodoxy is less significant to you than your orthopraxy; and if your traditional theological beliefs have come in your life to fail you completely. Today, I add another trait/experience to the list, and the fifth and final item in the sequence will be the center of our thinking on Christmas Eve. Today, fourth on the list of five: you might be a seeker—or you should be—if you realize that what you seek doesn’t have to drop instantaneously into your lap to be confirmed as spiritually worthwhile or significant. We may well realize that there is something more out there for us, as well as for others who seek, but we’re going to have to wait and/or work to get it or to get there.

 

Some of us are looking for a pivotal leader—perhaps, a messianic figure. That is exactly what this season is about for many traditional Christians. The world, whether the world realized it or not, was looking for Jesus when his birth delivered him into the service of struggling humanity. In addition, the world is looking for a new appearing of Jesus to close down this chapter of human history since we, it appears to many, have made such a huge mess of things that we are beyond repair.

 

Looking for a better time and/or a better way is fine—sensible even. But have you noticed that most of the messianic figures who have contributed greatly to the betterment of humankind did not think of themselves as messiahs as we said about Mandela earlier; rather, they are much more inclined to roll up their sleeves and get busy with making the world the kind of place it needs to be and has the capacity to be if only people of good will, selfless at least to some degree, will join in and make it so.

 

Have you heard, or do you remember, how the adult Jesus identified his mission—what he saw himself doing? He laid it out at the very beginning of his public ministry, and to hear or hear again what he had to say on this subject we turn, again, to the Gospel of Luke: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That didn’t sound like a mission to make him rich and famous.

 

Just think about the kinds of people he’d have to spend most of his time with in order to accomplish his mission. Also, though, take note of his motivation. It was internalized. He wasn’t looking for anyone else to come along to help him or to mobilized forces that would excite people to join him in trying to accomplish a set of improbable changes. At the end of his life, he had made a huge difference in the lives of countless poor people and prisoners, but the poor we still had with us; same with prisoners. Jesus didn’t have Simeon’s experience of being able to relax because God had raised up some great person to pick up where he, Jesus, had left off. He certainly couldn’t keep preaching as Anna did. Those of us who are seekers influenced by the teachings of Jesus have no precedent other than to keep working and hoping for little pockets of positive difference made. No rest for the weary seeker. Anna and Simeon do, however, give us models for actively looking ahead, despite the odds, to a better day. Amen.

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“I’m a Misfit!” (First sermon in a five-sermon series for the Season of Expectation aka Advent: Signs that You Are (or Should Be!) a Seeker)

I.

As much as many human groups prize conformity, we realize with only a tiny bit of reflection that the world would never have progressed to any great degree without misfits.  Had every one remained a status quo type, nothing could have changed.  Knowing that, however, typically doesn’t make a misfit popular or welcome.  A spiritual community in which most everyone is a misfit might be an exception to that pattern.  Regardless, let me be quick to point out that there is often a heavy price to pay for being a misfit in groups that fear nonconformity.

Jonathan Merritt is a young and very successful writer of books and blogs.  His blog is called “On Faith and Culture,” and on 9/11 of this year he published a piece on a misfit pastor.  Imagine how hard it would be to find one of those!  Where in the world would you look?!?

If any of you thinks I’m an alien, you need to get acquainted with the Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She’s the author of a wildly popular book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.  She founded a congregation in Denver, which was named House for All Sinners and Saints; it’s an Evangelical Lutheran church, and an increasing number of people out there are drawn to it.  This is something for our Growth Committee to keep in mind!

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The Reverend Bolz-Weber has tattoos all over and makes no effort to hide them.  She cusses when she pleases even when her congregants are in earshot.  In the blog post to which I have referred, Merritt shared an interview he did with this pretty amazing woman.  One exchange went as follows.

Merritt:  You’re something of a misfit pastor, and you seem to embrace this identity.  In your book, you talk about your unusual call to ministry.  Can you tell us about this?

Bolz-Weber:  I left the fundamentalist Christianity of my youth when I was a teenager and spent a decade outside of the church quite literally hating Christianity. When I returned to it, I came back to a very particular tradition that had an articulation of the gospel and a liturgical tradition that put language to things I had already experienced to be true in my life. So, despite the fact that in some ways I’d rather be something besides a Christian, I cannot deny the experiences in my life of a surprising and unexpected and destabilizing God.  To not confess that would be to deny what I’ve experienced in my life.  So I have no other choice.

Pondering my sermon subject during the week, I found myself humming over and over again a song that was majorly popular when I was barely into my teens.  It was a solo release by Cass Elliot who was part of the group Mamas and Papas; these were the words of the refrain:

You gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along

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Thoreau certainly made his own kind of music.  He knew it.  He thought about it and wrote about it.  This snippet from Thoreau hung in poster form on the wall of one of my college professors:

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If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

There’s a spiritual short-short-short story by Shams-e Tabrizi.  I have no idea who the narrator is supposed to be, but we get the point.

I have been a misfit since childhood. I knew that no one understood me, not even my father.  He once said, “You are not a madman, fit to be put in a madhouse, nor are you monk to be put in a monastery. I just don’t know what you are!” I replied: “You know, father, I can tell you what it is like. Once a duck egg was put under a hen to be hatched. When the egg hatched, the duckling walked along with the mother hen until they came to a pond. The duckling took a nice dip in the water. But the hen stayed on the bank and clucked.”  Now, my dear father, after having tried the sea I find it my home. If you choose to stay on the shore, is it my fault? I am not to be blamed.

II.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus were misfits—though John was a PK (preacher’s kid) and more predictably became a misfit!   John, Jesus’ second cousin, was a little older and had gotten into the ministry biz before Jesus realized his commitments would take him in the same direction.  Initially, John was Jesus’ mentor, and Jesus springboards into ministerial service on John’s teachings and his example—though Jesus’ ministry would take him in a significantly different milieu.

Jesus still held onto his carpentry skills for money to live on, but John had rejected what he thought was corrupt society and had moved out into the wilderness to join a group of spiritual seekers who were convinced that they could never be the people God wanted them to be as long as they lived in the middle of societies bound by self-centered standards and not by God’s radical call to be light in the world’s darkness.  Therefore, John joined an escapist—I think that’s a fair description—religio-political party within Judaism called the Essenes, and he lived with this community out in the wilderness depending on nature alone to provide for his needs.  His monastic community’s shelter was carved out of a cave.  His clothing was made from shorn camel’s hair, and his food, distinctive wilderness delicacies:  sun-dried locusts and fresh-out-of-the-hive honey.  There has been some disappointing research lately trying to prove that John didn’t eat insects—one of the reasons I’ve always thought John was so cool—but rather that the word often translated as “locusts” actually refers to carob-like plants.  Oh well.  Believe what you will, but John wasn’t going to be dependent on a city-based market to get access to what he needed to be nourished.

Jesus was a standout disciple in John’s band of followers, and the day came when John knew that Jesus had to leave the wilderness-nest and take up his own ministry that would reverse what John personally had done.  John left big city pressures and corruption, as I’ve said; people who wanted to hear him preach had to go out into the wilderness to do so, and if they were sufficiently committed to John’s radical ethics as made known in his fiery sermons, they would be baptized right there in a part of the Jordan River that ran into the wilderness area near where John and his brother-Essenes lived.

The time came when Jesus needed an introduction, and the person who decided to introduce him was his rabbi, his mentor, his second-cousin, John the Baptizer.  John preached to various collections of Jewish city folk who had come to hear him and, having been deeply convicted by the truth of what he said, more than a few renounced their attachment to Pharisaism and Sadducaism, for example.  As a sign of their new turn in life, they chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan River and to give their lives to the model of spirituality that John’s sermons demanded.

His converts, we could call them, realized as they heard John preach that, indeed, religious rules would not make them or keep them rightly connected to God or to human beings.  They had to admit in great discomfort that the ways they had seen themselves and portrayed themselves as superior to others, other Jews included, showed how small and small-minded they really were.  In their baptismal moments they agreed to serve from that point forward all those they’d heretofore given their lives to treating with angry disgust because they believed themselves to be so much better than anyone who didn’t do religion the way they did.

These converts to John’s take on living in such a way as to honor God must eventually have said to their Baptizer, “We leave you now, Preacher, for we must get on with the business of serving, but we will always honor you and know it was you who saved us from being swallowed up by lifeless religious rules.”  John said in response to their pledges of devotion to what he was about, “Hold on here, gents!  I baptized you with water for repentance, but one who is more spiritually grounded and gifted than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

John believed that Jesus “got it” even more profoundly than he did; thus, the real guy to go to henceforth was not John but John’s disciple, Jesus, who was so spiritually mature that John regarded himself unworthy, spiritually speaking, to be Jesus’ slave.  It would have been a slave’s job to carry her or his master’s dirty, dusty shoes.  Thus, because of a misfit, the adult Jesus—Rabbi Jesus, Minister Jesus, Misfit Jesus—was introduced to the world.

III.

Are you, or should you be, a seeker?  Many of us at Silverside Church consider ourselves seekers.  “Seeker” isn’t a code word for anything; there’s nothing formal about it.  The word “seeker” simply means that many of us refuse to believe that the end of all truth is anywhere in the past.  Having agreed on that, we couldn’t agree on hardly any point of theology even if you tied us in chairs and made us watch endless broadcasts of televangelists until we agreed to subscribe to a creed.  We’d be watching Franklin Graham until the cows came home.

Many of the folks in this same core group of misfits, frankly, don’t find theological reflection all that meaningful; nor do they believe that their spirituality must grow out of biblical teachings or theological formulations.  There have been plenty of prospective members here through the years who are very unhappy with all the organized religion of which they have tasted but who are afraid to let go completely of the beliefs and behaviors they once thought made them right with God and, perhaps, “saved” them.  Someone who keeps one foot in any established organized religion evidently believes that she or he will always have a safety net in case assurances of heaven are needed.

Silverside misfits are free-fallers.  They have no theological or ecclesiastical safety nets. They have no need to conform to what other religious folk think of the pathway they have chosen to travel.  Since I’m just an old-fashioned Bible preacher, I don’t know how I’ve survived here for 13-plus years!  (ha! ha!)

Seriously though folks…

There’s are prices to pay for demanding spiritual fresh air.  One of those prices is being a misfit and being willing to be regarded as a misfit by those who know you best.  I won’t say it is impossible to make this happen, but pretending to be a conservative or a traditionalist while being in the closet as a progressive is infrequent.  Some clergypersons do so to get a pay check.  How suffocating that must be.  I feel so bad for my clergy sisters and brothers who believe this is what they must do for survival.  And who knew that Mother Teresa, at least early in her life before she became a gold mine because so many people admired her work, sincerely served the poor, but only went through the motions of being a faith-based nun—not that she could help it.  I do not say that to be critical of her.
Some of you, I’m sure, have read excerpts from her diaries showing that from the time she began her work with the poor in 1946 through the moment she died in 1977 she felt absolutely no connection to God.  Listen to her words penned in writhing:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

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If someone at Silverside felt that way, she or he would say so—not that Mother Teresa kept her doubts a complete secret.  Her admirers and benefactors around the world didn’t know, but as Adam Lee points out, “The church assigned a long series of priests and bishops to act as her confessors, trying to help her recover her faith, but all of them ultimately met with failure.”  How sad for her.  How lonely.

Speaking of loneliness, misfits can easily find themselves without community, and few of us do well without community.  At Silverside, we have tried to connect without other groups, but nothing been lasting for us in that regard for the last several years.  I may have found us a solution though.  There’s a group, and I don’t know how I missed knowing about them, called “The Wild Goose Chase.”  They have an online presence, and they meet every summer down in Hot Springs, North Carolina, for their communal boost.  This coming summer, the conclave will be held June 26-29, and I’m thinking I’ll be scheduling a week off then so that I can attend.

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One of the participants describes the Wild Goose Festival as a progressive “Christian gathering centering on spirituality, justice, and art….The people the Wild Goose Festival attracts are from a very diverse range of spiritual heritages—many of us are recovering fundamentalists, along with a mix of mainliners, evangelicals, agnostics, neo-pagan-christians, `nones,’ spiritual-but-not-religious, confused, and everything in between.”  Misfits who need misfits are the luckiest misfits in the world.

At this time of year, as we anticipate our rather non-traditional way of celebrating or commemorating the birth of Jesus from Nazareth, we should incorporate into our reflections the vital role of a serious misfit who got Jesus started in a ministry that would change the world—John the Baptist.  John modeled for Jesus the life of a spiritual misfit.

If you know that you’re a misfit spiritually speaking and you can embrace it, giving up the need to conform to any religious group’s theological expectations of you, then you’re probably a seeker.  Come on in!  The water’s fine…and I don’t mean in the baptistry!

Amen.

Be Happy. Cultivate Optimism!

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I.

Someone has said, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  One of things we realists watch out for are cliches, maxims, and moralisms that reduce the challenges to near nothingness.  I don’t know of anyone who has lived more than a few years without knowing something about pain in living; maybe a few of us get to skip over those impossible decisions that MUST be made, but not a lot of us.  The worst thing in trying to deal with a real challenge is to trivialize it—or worse, in my mind, to have someone offer us free advice that suggests, bottom line, that we trivialize whatever threatens our loved ones or us.

Some of the worst of those efforts to trivialize that I’ve heard include these.  “Well, you have to take the good with the bad.”   “We all have our crosses to bear.”  “Too blessed to be depressed.”  “God doesn’t give us anything we are unable to handle.”  “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  Then there is my maternal grandmother’s favorite line since she thought that no one had ever endured pain the way she had, “That’s nothing.  You don’t know what real pain is.  Let me tell about it.”

Back to where I began, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  This one I like.  Optimism has something to do with making the most of what we have to work with, believing that the worst case scenario doesn’t have to be the one that will win out.

There are those who set out to do something good, even noble, and because their cause is clearly a good cause they somehow believe that God or the Universe will bless their efforts and, more or less, guarantee their success.  Yet, sometimes—even with divine blessing or the smile of the Universe—our good cause falls flat.  Optimism has something to do with enjoying the journey, blessing ourselves for our efforts regardless of outcome, refusing to let negativity block the little rays of light and hope.  I like what Vera Nazarian said on the subject:

People who are too optimistic seem annoying. This is an unfortunate misinterpretation of what an optimist really is.  An optimist is neither naive, nor blind to the facts, nor in denial of grim reality. An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all options available, no matter how limited. As such, an optimist always sees the big picture. How else to keep track of all that’s out there? An optimist is simply a proactive realist.

There’s a website called  “OptimistWorld.com” that I like a lot.  In fact, after years of complaining that most of the reported news in our culture is either terror or tabloid, I found OptimistWorld.  It is now the site that opens up when I click on my default browser.  If I do my internet searches through OptimistWorld there are benefactors who make contributions to charities just because I initiate my searches there.  But, that’s only one benefit for me.  I love the fact that news showing up on my screen is good news.  Yesterday, one of the lead stories had to do with the fact that scientists using human cells may have found a cure for many kinds of baldness.  Now, you may think that news is rather thin, but there’s more!  Cardiac surgeons have developed a new, less-invasive technology used to treat heart failure.  Volunteering can improve one’s mental health, and helping others may help some helpers live longer.  Admittedly, there were no stories about war or politics, but there are optimistic stories from the world of sports.

The site tells me which TV shows to watch if I want a dose of optimism.  And the website’s slogan is “100% Recycled Negativity.”

A retried ophthalmologist, Dr. David Abbott, now spends his time trying to correct the inner blindness that he calls “negativity.”    He is author of the book, Maximum Strength Positive Thinking.  This is what he says about the inner blindness of negativity:

Negative thinking is the most powerful poison in the world.  It’s the only poison I can give to my family, friends, and enemies without legal consequences.  Thought poison destroys them just as effectively as dioxin, DDT, or strychnine.  Unrestrained negative thinking will also destroy my life.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.  I don’t tolerate it in any form or to any degree.  I don’t say it, think it, write it, infer it, or agree with it.  It’s always wrong and never right.  It always makes my life worse and never makes it better….Drinking poison, handling cobras, and negative thinking are bad for my health, and I don’t partake of them.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.

There’s a story about an avid duck hunter whose old, faithful bird dog had to be retired, so the hunter found himself in the market for a new dog.  He was amazed to find the dog that had to be his!  This dog did not swim out into lakes and streams to retrieve ducks that had been shot in flight; instead, this dog walked on water.  The hunter bought the dog and couldn’t wait to put him to work.  He knew his friends wouldn’t believe any stories he might tell about a dog that walked on water so he invited one of them, the most pessimistic one in his group of friends, with him on his initial hunt as soon as season opened.  Sure enough, when the dog’s owner would shoot a duck and it would fall to the water beneath it, his dog—at most getting his paws wet—would walk across the water and retrieve the duck that would soon be someone’s dinner.  The friend whom he had brought along obviously saw what the dog was doing, but said not one word about it the whole day. Finally, on the way home, the man who owned the amazing bird dog asked his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?”

“Sure did,” said the friend.

“What was it?” the owner asked boastingly.

“Your dog can’t swim.”

II.

Today is Reformation Sunday. After the split with Roman Catholicism was complete and Protestantism its own entity Protestant churches began to remember every year the courage of Martin Luther in standing up to the immoral church hierarchy of his day, and the day chosen for the commemoration was the anniversary of Luther’s nailing to the castle church door in Wittenberg his laundry list of topics about which he wanted to debate the Pope himself!  This would be roughly equivalent to a priest in our time making out a long list grievances he had with the Vatican and posting them on Facebook.  It was a gutsy step to take.

Let me be quick to say, by the way, that when Protestant churches grew sufficiently to have their own hierarchies, they ended up doing exactly the kind of things that Luther protested against when unwittingly he started the Protestant movement.  Abuse of power is not the private possession of any one religious group.

Luther had to have been an unbridled optimist, despite some personality characteristics that would call that into question. Patrick Ferry, the Lutheran historian, believes that Luther’s optimism was related to his confidence in the power of preaching to convey his ideals to the common person; Luther wasn’t so much worried about the literate person or the well-to-do person.

In a sermon preached on November 25, 1531, Luther acknowledged that from all outward appearances preaching seemed rather insignificant. However, he argued that, in fact, all else was insignificant in comparison to the preaching of God’s word. He proclaimed: “In the eyes of reason the preaching of the divine Word is unimpressive next to kings and princes. But what are princes or emperor, yes, the entire world, heaven, earth, and all creatures compared with the Word? They are dirt.”

He had to have believed that something better could come about as a result of the tremendous risks he took in challenging the powerful church hierarchy of his day. Some people in those days who challenged the Pope, we’re talking certain geographical areas, could end up dead for such an affront. A priest who was drawing his income from the church, in as much as those who take vows of poverty receive funds, could be left out on the street literally with nothing. And in some areas a priest on the run from a monastery, or for that matter a nun on the run from a convent, could be legally killed and the killer congratulated.  Not many people are going to die willingly for a cause the expenditure of their lives could not improve.

You might well imagine that the mighty and powerful Pope, Pope Leo X, might have wondered if there were a speck of truth in in what Luther spoke. But like most people in power he justified all the means toward the end of keeping the church wealthy and the hierarchy unbothered by the rank-and-file church member.

It is interesting that Luther as a priest himself and a professor in a major university was so cloistered away that he did not realize the corruption of his own church until he made his pilgrimage to Rome and saw with his own eyes the abuses of the church–using all sorts of guilt tactics and superstition to milk money out of the people; eventually, out and out fear tactics would be used by those assigned by the church hierarchy to preach about the necessity of purchasing indulgences to avoid going to hell for eternity and, of more concern to some, keeping the souls of their loved ones already in purgatory from slipping on into the fires of hell.  Luther was, in a word, mortified.

The abuses of the very people whom the church existed to serve distressed Luther to the point that he could not rest. And so he took the risks as I’ve described them and openly challenged the Pope to answer for presiding over a church existing at the basest level to which he, Luther, believed the church could possibly have fallen.

Again I say, to have believed that anything anything good at all could have come from his challenge to such a powerful and paranoid hierarchy demonstrated that Luther was an optimist. He refused to believe that a church that had so much good and so much more potential good could die, the victim of self-inflicted wounds numbing the pain with the anesthesia of absolute power.

Eventually, Martin Luther realized that the church as it was, was too corrupt to be redeemed.  The church and the Pope were hindrances to the future he saw for God’s people.  Said Luther, “The Church needs a reformation. And this cannot be the work either of a single man, as the pope—but it must be that of the whole world!”

There IS a better way, Luther reasoned.  And there has to be a better day.

Anybody who doesn’t see that the church in the twenty-first century is in desperate need of reform is either an ostrich or a comfortable clergy type who wants things to stay as they are, with all the dollars flowing her or his way just as they are now.  If my read on the current Pope is anywhere close to accurate, I sense that he believes his own end of the Christendom—which is the largest and most influential in the world—is in need of reform and that he is unafraid of the fallout.

We already see that the pattern of dividing Christians up into little pockets of denominational groups strewn here and there across the world no longer works; maybe it worked to a degree for a while, but even so it is clearly not working now.  Denominations are dying.  This is one cry for modern reformation, but only one.

Here’s another.  When any branch of the church that presumes or pretends to exist as an extension of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth can act violently, professing the name of Jesus as they maim and mutilate, something is beyond wrong.  Most recently, and right in our faces, the Islamic Society of Delaware had its sacred space defaced by some group who saw themselves as some kind of representatives of Christianity and therefore took some of the debris the resulted from their destructive acts and pieced it together in the form of the cross—for good or ill, the primary, unmistakable symbol for Christianity.

I don’t see how anyone entrenched in such negativity can be optimistic about anything, much less about how their brand of so-called Christianity can endure.  Sadly, anyone who doesn’t understand that there are many different kinds of Christians in the world—and that would be a huge number of people scattered across the globe—thinks we are all the same.  The optimism I have for the future of the church rests entirely in reformation; the church of the future shouldn’t and shouldn’t want to look like the church of the past, even when parts of the church of the past were doing well.

Carey Nieuwhof is a professional dreamer, and he dreams about what the church of the future will look like.  Wanna peak at some of his dreams?  The church of the future has learned to say no to people and groups glued to way things once were.  The church of the future is passionate about people outside their walls and will establish a pattern of reaching out to people on the basis of what we can do FOR them, not what we may be able to get FROM them; it will be streamlined and flexible.  The church of the future will be more comfortable embracing smaller congregations than the church of today is; mega-churches, some of them, will still be around in the years to come, but most of us will not participate in huge congregations.  The church of the future will learn, hopefully not the hard way, to value cyber relationships and to treat online contacts as real people, significant people.  The church of the future will be less afraid of questions, and it will embrace experimentation as the needs of people change more rapidly today than ever before.

III.

There are two instances of amazing optimism in Judeo-Christian scriptures that come to mind today.  I’m sure there are many more, but these two stand out for me today.

The first is the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child together when she was 90ish, and he was tapping on 100.  No adoptions.  No surrogate.  No viagra.  Both of them laugh, separated from each other, when they hear that God has said Sarah will be impregnated by Abraham.  Frederick Buechner, years ago, in retelling this story as an example of comedy in the Bible, made the crack that Sarah delivers in the geriatric ward, and Medicare picks up the tab.  Laugher or not, along came little Isaac.

The second instance is from the final book of Christian scripture as it was ultimately collected and ordered, the book of Revelation.  The abuse of this book has made more crazy preachers rich than any other piece of holy writ in any of the religions of the world.  Alas, there is nothing fanatical about this astounding book of symbols; finally, it is a book of hope.

The book of Revelation doesn’t pretend that people and nations go unscathed by evil; it doesn’t pretend that innocent people avoid suffering through absolutely no fault of their own. The seer who had the visions that make up the episodes in the book—or the scenes in a great play, as my beloved and late Christian scripture professor James Blevins believed—saw, after much strife, that evil ultimately loses out.  Good wins, but it takes a complete restoration and reordering of things to make that work.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the dwelling place of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be with them.  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be a thing of the past;  mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away permanently.”  And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” The one on the throne also said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.  It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

Don’t worry.  Cultivate optimism!  How?  Maria Shriver evidently is quite the optimist, and she has a number of suggestions about how to cultivate optimism.  Among them are looking for solutions rather problems; acknowledging any movement, however small, toward your goals; and minimizing distractions that keep you from focusing on your happiness or on some specific goal.  I have to tell you.  Nothing saps my optimism more quickly than negativity, about which we thought earlier, and naysayers.  I’m going to have to contact Maria to find out how to get over those hurdles.

Maybe geography has something to do with optimism.  Did you see the list that just came out of the five happiest places to live in the world?  Did you ever wonder why Else is so happy, other than because of Bob?  Well, three of the five happiest places are in Scandinavia—one from each of the three Kingdoms there.  (I’m intentionally excluding Finland and Iceland, as several cultural geographers do.)   Aarhus, Denmark.  Oslo, Norway.  Malmo, Sweden. Geneva, Switzerland.  And Utrecht, the Netherlands.  The Americas—not so much.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a good decision or felt good about life when I allowed myself to remain at a place of pessimism.  How about you?

Christmas Means Love

 I.

There’s a huge difference between love and sentimentality. By no means am I suggesting that love is absent from many of the Christmas traditions that we treasure and remember, but I am suggesting that many of the feelings we identify as love are in reality sentimentality.  Sentimentality is not a bad thing by any means; but it’s not the same as love.  

Love is a much sturdier word, concept, process.  “Love never fails,” says the apostle Paul to a reading/hearing audience who didn’t love him much at all. Sentimentality, however, may well fail.

What if we could not create the Christmas traditions that have been so special to us for years and years? The loss of meaningful, stirring, sweet sentiments would hurt, but it shouldn’t take away the love of Christmas. Love that is genuine remains.  So I may not have any longer the beautiful Christmas tree that my mother and sister, for the most part, decorated while Dad repaired or replaced burnt out lights, and I may not have that wild rush to open gifts at a time you only barely could call morning as we practiced gift opening in my family of origin as well as in the family I raised. It was so much fun watching the kids open the gifts chosen just for them and seeing their eyes sparkle with delight.  I miss that, but those days are gone unless we re-create them some day when there are grandchildren. Until then, though, I don’t want feel unable to celebrate because my favorite Christmas sentiments are unrepeatable at the moment.  There’s still something significant about the whole collection of Christmas events that point to love–real love, lasting love, love unattached to sentimentality.

Let us keep in mind that the way we celebrate Christmas today is a patchwork process spanning many generations and countless adaptations. The way many of us celebrate Christmas in our corner of the world has nothing to do with the way people in other places do their Christmas celebrating. There isn’t a right way and multiple wrong ways to do it unless you completely commercialize Christmas in which case it becomes detrimental to the remembrances of the birth of the one who would grow up to change the world because of his own untiring devotion to live out love in the most complex of situations.

If we want any kind of an authentic Christmas celebration, commercialization has to go, and compassion for strugglers must move to center stage.  Acts of compassion are tied to love; buying gifts unneeded by anyone on our list, gifts that may be into the back of a closet in short order is not Christmas, and yet not just any compassion will do.  The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, one of the noted pastors of the Riverside Church in New York City and a minister who could be called a “tough love” pastor, said:

 

To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make her or him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.

 

Coffin absolutely clarifies the difference, or a difference, between sentimentality and love.

         I’m thrilled at the ways this congregation continues to stay focused on helping those in need every way we can.  How could I not be thrilled when you go above and beyond to make a practical difference in the lives of people who without you might have no food or clothing or shelter at all?  Let me be clear for the sake of you newbies; I didn’t bring that ministry of compassion and concern to Silverside.  I found it inextricably entrenched when I arrived. 

         That said–and we do care about motivation around here, not just end results—we hear what Coffin said to his congregation not terribly far from Hell’s Kitchen; if all we do is feel sorry enough for someone to toss some money in the pot for groceries or gloves without taking plenty of time to understand why she or he is in that position our actions haven’t been loving, but rather sentimental.  The needy, grateful people on the receiving end probably don’t give two hoots about our motivation for giving, but we should.  Jesus didn’t do all he did for the strugglers in his world simply because he felt sorry for them though, certainly, he was a compassionate person.  He envisioned communities in which everyone had her or his basic needs met, no one going without or doing without.

         There is little doubt that one branch of the early Jesus Movement, after his Roman execution, set up such communities of sharing where all material goods were held in common by everyone within the communities even if they’d had little or nothing to bring to the establishment of the community—widows and orphans, for example.  In these communities, everyone had responsibilities that contributed to the common good so learning skills and taking responsibilities would be a part of the future for them if they hadn’t already embraced those in their pre-communal lives and lost them for the same reasons people lose jobs and homes and investments today.

         Teju Cole is a native of Nigeria who came to this country to try to make a greater mark on the writing world, and he has.  While he appreciates much about our country, he has not been able to miss the reality of an ever-present racism.  He wrote, not with Christmas in mind but for me it applies:

 

From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED [Technology, Entertainment, and Design—Ideas Worth Sharing] the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex. The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs– including, importantly, the sentimental needs–of white people and Oprah.

 

II.

When we celebrate Christmas today we should know something of the background of the holiday, and we have to start by pointing out that the earliest followers of Jesus did not celebrate his birth at all. They began by focusing on his death and the life they sensed from him even after he was no longer walking on this earth.  In other words, the earliest followers of Jesus were caught up in the fact that physical death, biological death was not the final word for or about him in their experience, and from there they worked backwards over a period of hundreds of years to get to the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  There were many reasons some Christians felt the need finally to introduce a celebration of Jesus’ birth into the Christian calendar. It had nothing to do with love, however.

Many pagan traditions were intertwined in the various types of celebrations used supposedly to commemorate the birth of Jesus, such as those brought to Britain by invading Roman soldiers. These included covering houses in greenery and bawdy partying that undoubtedly became the paradigm for modern office Christmas parties.  The truly hilarious and dearly departed Phyllis Diller said in one of her standup routines:  “The thing I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a new job the next day.”

The church attempted to cover up pagan practices and give Christian meaning to those customs that just wouldn’t go away.  For example, Christmas carols that had begun as pagan songs for celebrations of midsummer and harvest were taken up by the church so that by the late medieval period the singing of Christmas carols had become a Christian tradition.

Christian groups also attempted to infuse Christian meaning into the use of holly—first, by making it a symbol for whatever had been used to craft the crown of thorns crammed down on Jesus’ head in a ridiculous display leading up to the crucifixion. According to one legend, all holly berries originally were white, but a little orphan boy who was living with shepherds when the angels announced Jesus’ birth wove a crown of holly for the newborn baby’s head.  When he presented it, he became ashamed of his gift and started to cry. Miraculously, according to the legend, the baby Jesus reached out and touched the crown. It began to sparkle, and the orphan boy’s tears turned into beautiful red berries.

I believe the earliest evidence we have of scattered Christmas celebrations are in the mid-third century.  Christmas celebrations did not gain prominence, and then hardly universal, until the early Middle Ages; however, even then Christmas wasn’t the big deal Easter and Epiphany were.  You know what Easter is, but you may not know that the Season of Epiphany is the season of the Magi who finally get to Jesus when he’s about two years old.  The season built around their long journey and non-Jewish interest in a little Jewish toddler was groundwork for seeing the work of Jesus as having a universal component.  Remember that all of this was reasoned through long after Jesus’ execution.  Very little of this was pondered during his life or immediately after his loss of life.

The prominence of a day to celebrate Jesus’ birth increased gradually after Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800.  By the time of the high Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were prominent in a number of places around the world.  There were places, England for one, where Christmas celebrations were opulent and excessive, sounding more like Mardi Gras than what looks and feels like Christmas to us today. 

Not everyone was happy about what they saw in celebrations of Jesus’ birth.  Many Puritans, for example, blatantly condemned the celebration of Christmas calling it a purely Roman Catholic creation with “trappings of popery” in evidence at every turn.  Yet, those who tried to do away with Christmas in England met with fierce opposition.  Not so in Scotland where the Parliament abolished possibilities for legally celebrating Christmas in 1640; in the Parliamentary proclamation accompanying this act, the lawmakers claimed that, thanks to them, the church had been purged from observing superstitious days.  Not until 1958 was Christmas reinstated as a legal public holiday in Scotland.

In Colonial America, the influential Puritans weren’t shy or quiet in making known their disapproval of Christmas; thus, the celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681 when an English governor made celebrating Christmas legal. Legalities aside, it still was not “fashionable,” we could say, to celebrate Christmas in and around Boston until the mid-1800’s.    

There were places where Christmas celebrations were central before Boston came around.  Christians in New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina made celebrating the birth of Jesus a major part of their respective ways living and worshiping. 

Alas, another hard hit for Christmas during and after the Revolutionary War.  Those fighting for American independence believed that Christmas was an English custom and, therefore, should be left out of life in America altogether. George Washington spent December 25, 1776, finalizing his plans to attack German mercenaries the next day at what came to be called the Battle of Trenton.

Many of the sentimental traditions meaningful to many of us in our Christmas celebrations were initiated by English writers such as Charles Dickens.  There were some Americans, too, who contributed.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said in 1856 that he detected a transition about the celebration of Christmas in New England.  His words:  “The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.”  And in Reading, Pennsylvania, a newspaper reporter wrote in 1861, “Even Presbyterians who have hitherto steadfastly ignored Christmas–threw open their church doors and assembled in force to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior’s birth.”

 

III.

We have said in these weeks leading up to Christmas that Christmas means joy, and Christmas means gratitude.  Today, we say that Christmas means love.  Getting back to our beginning point, love is not sentimentality.  What is it then?  Well, that’s much more of a challenge to say, but we could begin by saying what it’s not. 

The opposite of love is not hatred as I heard someone say years ago.  The opposite of love is apathy or indifference.  Maybe that is just a clever play on words, but it still raises something vitally important.  At least hatred is active and can be seen and confronted.  Not so with apathy; it’s hard to see and nearly impossible to challenge. 

The key character in the Christmas story who demonstrates love is God. God initiates the Christmas story in retrospect because God adopts Jesus as God’s child and then gives him as a gift to the world. Jesus ministers consistently in God’s name and thereby lives out human life as God would’ve lived it out if that were possible. Of course God is not human, but we get a sense of God’s concern from the way Jesus lived—demonstrating real love rather than sentimentality-based compassion.

Some few years we had a series of sermons dealing with how to speak of God, how to think about God, and one of the emphases was the need to move away completely from anthropomorphisms for God. So we really cannot say that God loves since all we know of love is human love, and human love at its best could not measure up to divine love if we could fully grasp it. What we could say with a fair amount of agreement is that God IS love; that’s quite a difference. We still are left even with the inadequacy of human language to be able to define God; still, it would be rather universally affirmed by many who have any sense of God that God is love.

The beautiful song, which the choir has sung, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” has one of those melodies that captures anyone who listens carefully to it. While we understand from the words the message the writer wishes to get across, we must avoid the mistake of assuming that there was no divine love operative in the world until it was revealed through the life and teachings of Jesus.  Love has been from the beginning and will be to the end.

What Christmas does not mean and can never mean is that God gave God’s unique child to the world to be slaughtered as the only acceptable sacrifice powerful enough to appease God’s wrath toward humanity caused by human disobedience to God’s expectations of us. It’s a horrible thought, but it comes up every Christmas as well as Easter for that matter. If that’s what Christmas celebrates then, indeed, there should be no Christmas.

God is love, and love is action from a human standpoint; love is action. Yes, we humans have loving feelings toward those who are dear to us–our children, our significant others, our parents, our friends.  Those are wonderful feelings, but until we act on them they are mere sentimentality. So children grow up telling their parents of their love for them, and most of the time everyone, including the parents, believe what is being expressed is honest and authentic. But circumstances may change, and just saying, “I love you,” no longer does the trick.  There may come times when love must take action.  So I see from my pastoral vantage point adult children who in love begin caring for their aging parents and doing tasks for the aging parents that they can no longer do for themselves. Adult children must often make decisions for aging parents that they are no longer able to make for themselves.

In wedding vows we still ask couples most of time, do you promise to love her or him in sickness and health, in poverty and wealth?  It’s one thing to say, “I love you,” when all the trappings of a beautiful wedding enhance feelings. It’s quite another to say, “I love you,” to the person to whom you have pledged your undying love who suddenly shows a weakness you didn’t notice at all during the years of dating and maybe even living together.

Sentimentality will not get us through.  Love that is love is, again, sturdy and determined.  Baby Jesus grew up to put love into practice in the most hopeless of situations.  That is what Christmas must be about.  Christmas means love.

Amen.

 

 

Christmas Means Gratitude

Image

 

 

I.
    For many folks in our culture, Christmas–even if they keep
the birth of Jesus in their conscious–has become a time to expect
specific gifts rather than to bask in gratitude that we are gifted at
all, however small the gift. There’s competition among certain
religious groups and subgroups over whom Jesus was primarily
given or sent to so those who regard themselves as God’s
favorites gloat at Christmas. There are huge differences between
gloating and gratitude.
    Someone has pointed out that expressing gratitude or saying
thank you to a person is nearly as important as saying I’m sorry
when I’m in the wrong or expressing sympathy in response to
loss. Back when I was teaching the geography of religion
segment in a Human Geography course, I stumbled upon an
anthropologist’s research pointing out that In many traditional
societies all over the place, the first words taught to a child
capable of initiating her or his own verbal responses were,
“Thank you” spoken to their elders, to visitors in their homes, and to other  children.
    Just about everybody appreciates being thanked for a
good turn even though they may brush it aside by saying, “Oh, it
was nothing.” Saying thank you is a polite way of telling other
people that their help was appreciated and neglecting to say it
may be taken to mean that the good deed was not appreciated
and may have been unwanted.
        One of the three or four giants in the field of pastoral theology in the twentieth century was Dutch Roman Catholic scholar whose last teaching post was at Yale Divinity School. The following beautifully stated insight is from the late Henri Nouwen:

In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneousresponse to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realizethat gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. Thediscipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledgethat all I am and all I have is given to me as a gift of love, agift to be celebrated with joy.

    Perhaps the last thing we should be concerned about when
pondering gratitude is what expressing can do for us, but this
might be worth tucking away for further reflection some other
time. A couple of years ago, some researchers at Kent State had
a group of student volunteers agree to write one letter every two
weeks. I’m sure stipends must have been involved! Each letter
written had to be expressed positively from start to finish. The
guidelines stipulated that some insight and reflection had to be
evident and not of a trivial nature. Finally, each letter had to
contain a significant portion of its content focused on gratitude.
What do you suppose happened? After each letter, the
researches asked these university students to complete a survey
to gauge mood, satisfaction with life, and overall feelings of
happiness–all of which increased with each letter written. The
more they wrote these gratitude-filled letters the happier they
were.
    Angeles Arrien has said:

There is a fundamental spiritual quality to gratitude thattranscends religious traditions. Gratitude is a universalhuman experience that can seem to be either a randomoccurrence of grace or a chosen attitude to create a betterexperience of life; in many ways it contains elements of both.Grateful people sense that they are not separated fromothers or from God; this recognition of unity with all thingsbrings a deep sense of gratefulness, whether we arereligious or not.

II.
    Christmas means gratitude, or it should. Therefore, as part of
our contemplation in today’s Gathering I want to visit two places in
the Christmas story where thank-you’s were certainly uttered
even though the Gospel writers do not report them.  The Innkeeper who has been perpetually portrayed as a villain in the Christmas story because he had to tell Mary and Joseph there was no room in his Inn for them was actually no villain at all. He was politely letting them know that there was no room for them to sleep in his Inn and especially given the likelihood that Mary was going to deliver a child in the next few hours. Inns in those days were not individual rooms the way we expect to find our accommodations when we book a hotel or motel today. Rather, they were big wide open spaces where people kind of in the style of a hostel were given space to spread out their sleeping gear and to sleep there for the evening. So the Innkeeper was actually a good guy for protecting Mary’s privacy and also for offering them the only place he had to offer them, that was a place to have privacy for the delivery of the child in his barn. The barn may have been attached to his house, which what was not uncommon, or it may have been built nearby and would have looked something like a pavilion probably less than what we would call a barn today. Or it may have been a nearby cave.
    Many of you know about the vast uses of caves in many parts of the world historically and today. Some of the oldest art we have preserved in tact are sophisticated cave paintings, not stick figures by any means. And today, our own Margaret Walker, for
example, has just returned from a wonderful, amazing visit to
Morocco where a part of her agenda included having lunch with a
woman who lived in a cave. That must be an upcoming forum
topic. How many churches all across the land today could say one
of our members has recently been to Morocco where she ate
lunch with a cave woman?
    In many ways the Innkeeper was a life-saver for
accommodating Mary and Joseph given the vast number of
travelers crowding around Bethlehem and other key cities for this
mandatory census; there weren’t many places available, much
less a place for a woman to have a baby in the night. Therefore I
can imagine smiles of gratitude on their faces when he said there’s no room in the Inn, but there’s a more suitable place I can make available to you; it’s in the barn.
    We mentioned last week that in the Pope’s new book he says there were no animals at the manger. He still apparently believes that Jesus was born in of some kind of a barn-like setting and perhaps even laid in a manger, a feeding trough, though animals were not there at the time of his birth. I don’t get this, and I don’t see what difference it makes. I don’t know how all this information came to the Pope. But I do know that much more has been made of animals attending the birth of Jesus in Christmas carols than the Gospel writers take the time to describe. I make a number of assumptions based on the fact that since Jesus was born in a barn, barnyard animals such as cows and sheep and goats were close at hand.
    The kindness of the Innkeeper made all the difference. No
words of gratitude are recorded in the story, but if the events took
place in any way like they are described by the Gospel writer then
we can be assured based on a culture that put so much emphasis
on hospitality that the beneficiaries of hospitality at the very least
would have said, “Thank you; thank you; thank you so much.
How could we ever repay you for making this space available to
us?”
    If not for the Innkeeper’s concern, Jesus may well have been
born along an unsafe, darkened roadway somewhere. As it turns
out, though, he was born in this space either attached to the Inn
or somewhere close by, and it is my kind of common sense
reasoning that because Mary was a young woman, a teenager
about to birth her first child, that the Innkeeper’s wife and/or
perhaps some of the women staying in the Inn that night took the
roles of midwife to help Mary deliver her first baby. I can’t imagine
it would have been any other way. If that’s the case then we have
another instance of Mary’s gratitude, and probably Joseph’s too,
being expressed. “Thank you; thank you so much for helping our
baby come safely into this world.”
    A poem-prayer by e. e. cummings:

I thank You God for this most amazingday: for the leaping greenly spirits of treesand a blue true denim of sky; and for everythingwhich is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.Tell you what. In place of the angels and the Magi and theanimals in your crèche set, add the Innkeeper and his wife.

III.
    Another part of the Christmas story where gratitude was most certainly expressed though the writers didn’t chronicle it was a thank you from Mary to Joseph for having confidence in her and believing that he was the father of her child as an act of God
comparable to the way old Abraham impregnated Sarah as an act
of God. It took God to make everything work properly when there
was no Viagra.
    We had a study one Wednesday evening years ago when we looked at the possibilities for who Joseph might have been. We sorted through details about his life, possible details, that might help us understand something about him. Had he been a young man getting married for the first time he would have been about 17 or 18 years old and his bride about 13 or 14 years old. But it was not uncommon for older men to marry younger women if the appropriate arrangements were made between the man and the girl’s parents. Nor was it uncommon or unlawful for a man to have more than one wife. We kind of leaned that evening, those of us who were digging into the study, to the idea that
Joseph was probably an older man. Betrothal arrangements were
a step beyond engagement but not yet to marriage. Apparently
sexual relations were permitted at the betrothal stage.
    The thing is Joseph obviously had not been confident that all of his parts still worked properly; therefore, he had no idea how Mary could have been impregnated. Mary tried to explain to him that God worked it out and divinely compensated for any possible deficiencies so that what he thought could not have happened indeed had happened. “Thank you for trusting me and believing me against odds, Joseph,” said Mary.
    A significantly different twist for your consideration. A few
years ago we had Dr. Robert Miller, one of the Fellows of the
Jesus Seminar and a professor of religion at Juniata College in
Pennsylvania, return to Silverside for a second set of lectures. He
is a liberal historian early Christianity, rubbing scholarly elbows
 with likes of Elaine Pagels at Princeton and Bart Ehrmann at the
University of North Carolina.
    One of Dr. Miller’s lectures was on the subject of Jesus’
paternity. One of the theories he dealt with at length was the
widely held notion in the ancient world, and I warn you before i
say it that it is so shocking to some as to send painful emotional
currents through your system. The theory was that Mary was
raped by a Roman soldier during an invasion into the lands of the
Jews about a year before Jesus’ birth, roughly 7 BCE using the
flawed calendar in use since the Middle Ages when a Vatican
scribe dozed off and lost his count of years he was adding up. Given the lateness of the hour and his nearly burned out candle he chose to make his best guess and call it a night. Thus Jesus was born in 6 BCE. That is another item the Pope agrees with in his book. Historians and archaeologists tell us it would not have been uncommon in a Roman raid for a soldier to rape one or several women.
    I mentioned this a few years back at Christmas time, and a
number of you were shocked to say the least. Some of you
claimed to have relatives rolling over in their graves that you even
gave ear to such crude heresy, and I’m sure the theory could still
be unsettling for many of you. I’m just trying to talk some
possibilities.
    Now if the soldier raped Mary, and she become pregnant
perhaps she never told Joseph what happened because she
didn’t want him to think she was used merchandise. When the
pregnancy became undeniable she had to have something to say
to her betrothed, her husband to be, and the great thing about
Joseph is that he loved Mary profoundly; as a result he believed
what she told him. So you can bet she and her family expressed
their heartfelt gratitude to Joseph over and over again for
believing the best of Mary instead of taking the route most men
would have taken, with full legal endorsement, and had their
fiancées stoned to death. Had Joseph not believed Mary, he
made up his mind that he would quietly annul the engagement
and betrothal and send her to live somewhere else where her
unfortunate plight would not be known.
    We don’t know which story Joseph ultimately believed, but he could not separate himself from Mary and Jesus. In any case, he must still have had a few good moves in him because he and Mary had other children before he died leaving Mary a widow and
in the care of her firstborn, Jesus. Joseph was absolutely
convinced that God was behind all the good things. And, yes, he
thanked God in the manner his ancestors had thanked God such
as by singing with gusto Psalm 100.
    Here’s a new version of that beloved psalm for modern folk,
from “Psalms for a New World” by Christine Robinson. She calls
her renderings improvisations on the psalms. To be more precise,
she calls her psalm summaries improvisations “…USING
INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE AND INCORPORATING THE MODERN
LENSES OF ECOLOGICAL AWARENESS, TAOIST
SENSIBILITIES, AND POST-MODERN THEOLOGY.” I like her
work!

Be Joyful—everybodyMuslims, Christians, Pagans, Atheists.  Gladly serve the good.  Rejoice in the gift of life.  Highest above, deepest within.  Around us in nature, present in each.  We are yours, You are ours.  We enter your presence with thanksgiving.  With chants and songs.  With grateful hearts and open hands.  And know a flash of eternity. 

   I close with a word about gifts from psychologist Robert
Leahy:

I have a suggestion for a gift — a gift that you can receive and
give at the same time. It’s called “gratitude.” What you can do
is think about the people that you love, the special people,
and contemplate why they matter to you. What would life be
like without your best friend, your partner, your mother or
father, your kids? Imagine that they no longer existed and
now you had a chance to get them back — but only if you
could prove that you really were grateful. What would you
miss about your best friend? Think about the conversations,
the memories, the laughter, and the tears — you both shared.
Now think about how grateful you are for having him or her
in your life. Now, tell them.  I think back about my mother who died several years ago. I am forever grateful to her. She cared for me when I was a child, made me laugh, gave me confidence, kissed me and gave me the ability to love. I am grateful today. And always will be. I am grateful for people and things that are gone–but stay with me forever because I keep them in my gratitude. No one can ever take away my appreciation.

 

    Amen.

Deborah: The Wisdom of Woman (sermon three in series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

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I.
     There are two companion reasons that women have not served as frequently as men in positions of political leadership throughout history.  Of course, in some places women have served just as consistently as men, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Those two companion reasons that women have not served are:  1) that men dominating societies liked running things and made conscious choices about how to keep women from serving in the positions men wanted to keep; and 2) the persistent assumption that women were/are morally inferior to men.
    The idea that women are by nature morally inferior to men goes back to the horrible branding of all women by the behavior of Eve in the Garden of Eden where she apparently was the first to eat of the forbidden fruit. Anti-women’s groups have certainly gotten their mileage out of dear ole Eve. We all know with a little bit of careful reading in Genesis 3 that what Eve did was no worse than what Adam and the Serpent did. Therefore, Eve is no more dastardly than Adam or the serpent.
     Much has been written and spoken about the superior gender: male or female.  In several areas of life some women have demonstrated prowess over male counterparts. Politics may be one of those areas. The following are ten of the most successful women political figures, past and present. No man could do or could have done a better job in the context.  

  1. Sixty-seventh US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  Some see Secretary Clinton as the epitome of triumph in the face of adversity. Although her presidential run against President Obama was unsuccessful, she achieved a high-ranking appointment in his cabinet. While she might have been the butt of a few bad jokes during her husband’s presidency, who’s laughing now?
  2. Governor Sarah Palin, proof that I didn’t create this list.  She was the youngest person and the first woman elected Governor of Alaska, Palin served there from 2006 until her odd and oddly timed resignation in 2009.  Four years ago, we knew her as the wildly popular vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
  3. Margaret Thatcher holds the record for being the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the twentieth century. Thatcher is also known for building a strong relationship between her country and the United States through President Reagan, for increasing home ownership, and reducing the government’s role in business.  She was forced to resign in 1990 after instituting some very unpopular taxes.  (I did several internet searches and couldn’t find any hits, not even one, for “popular” taxes.)
  4. Indira Gandhi fought her way up the political ladder and became Prime Minister of India in 1966, making her the first woman leader of a democracy in the world. Gandhi served as Prime Minister until 1977 and was reelected to the same position in 1980. Although her own bodyguards assassinated her in 1984, her importance to India and to clarifying the importance of women in politics will live on.
  5. Personal friend of Judge Stapleton, Sandra Day O’Connor worked as an attorney for many years before becoming the first female Supreme Court justice. She was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by President Reagan.  She retired from the Supreme Court in 2005 for several reasons, perhaps the most pressing one being to care for her ailing husband.
  6. Angela Merkel is the first woman to serve as and the current Chancellor of Germany; she’s the first woman leader of Germany since it became a modern nation-state in 1871. Forbes Magazine sees her as the most powerful woman in the world. 
  7. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt from 55 to 48 BCE, Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty. She tried to enlist the help of Julius Caesar while trying to keep Egypt free and eventually bore him a son.  She won the protection of Rome through an affair with Mark Anthony, having three children with him. Cleopatra was a highly educated woman who studied philosophy and international relations and was well ahead of her time.
  8. Queen Elizabeth I. Queen of England from 1558 to 1603.  Her rule was characterized by acts of tolerance and government reforms.  Like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I was highly educated, and she turned her court into a great center of learning. Elizabeth remained single for life, although she was constantly under pressure to marry to form political alliances. Elizabeth is famous for defeating the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 but also for the long wars during her 45 year reign, now referred to as the “Elizabethan Age.”
  9. Golda Meir served as Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1978. Becoming Prime Minister of Israel in the late 1960s was a real political feat for a female at that time. Known for being powerful and tough.  Meir retired from politics when her Labor Party fell from power as a result of the Yom Kippur War.
  10. Susan B. Anthony was an activist her whole life, fighting for equal rights for everyone. She worked to abolish slavery, reform education, and to gain for women the right to vote. She was the first woman ever to vote in a presidential election in 1872, even though she did so illegally and was arrested for her vote. Anthony continued to work tirelessly for women’s rights until her death in 1906.  If not for her work, women most assuredly would not have achieved the right to vote in 1920.

II.
     The “judges” in ancient Israel were powerful leaders in the days before the monarchy–that is, before the days of Israel’s first king, King Saul.  These leaders usually acquired their political positions after they led Israeli troops to be successful in battle.
     The first such judge, Othniel, set the pattern: the oppressed Hebrews cried out to God, and the spirit of God came Othniel who judged Israel’s concerns as worthy and then himself went out with the troops to battle.  The Hebrews believed their win was God’s doing so they praises God and got Othniel a contract.  
     We don’t know how Deborah rose to power–through a similar incident or strictly because of her wise judgments.  In the book of Judges, there’s a story of Deborah and a song of Deborah placed side by side.  In the song, Deborah describes total breakdown of order in Israel. Travelers had to go around Hebrew territory to avoid danger; in those days there was no rescue, someone sings, “Until I arose, Deborah, until I arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).  Somehow Deborah brought order back to Israel.  How this happened, again, neither the song nor the story tell us.
     One day, Deborah called General Barak and said to him, “Did not the God of Israel command us, ‘Go and pull toward Mount Tabor and take with you ten thousand men from the men of Naphtali and Zebulun. I will draw Sisera, the head of Yavin’s army, and his chariotry and masses to Wadi Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.”‘
       Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
     Judge Deborah responded. She said, “I will indeed go with you, especially since you will get no glory on the way you are going, for into the hand of a woman will God deliver Sisera.”  This is exactly what it happened.  Deborah went with Barak to Qedesh.  Barak gathered the troops, and ten thousand men went with them.  Deborah won the battle.
      What prompted Deborah to call Barak in the first place?  Maybe the people asked that she call him. The people not only regularly went to her for guideance, but also they came to her for a particular kind of “judgment.” The poem provides a hint as to what they wanted: “Then the people of God went down to the gates:  ‘Awake, awake, Deborah.  Awake, awake, sing a song.  Arise, Barak, take your captives.'” (Judges 5:12).  This heart-wrenching outcry may have motivated Deborah to begin the war of Liberation.
      Deborah calls Barak in her role as a prophet, a catalyst through whom God works. Moreover, Deborah hints that she is following up on a previous call to Barak: Did not the God of Israel command it?
    God had already spoken to Barak, and Deborah’s call is a second summons. Still, Barak is reluctant to go, like Moses before him, like Gideon and Samuel after him, others were called by God to be envoys. He seeks assurance that God is really with him and insists that Deborah go with him to the front lines where the warriors assemble.
    Readers have often been bothered by Barak’s reluctance to go without Deborah, declaring that his hesitation makes him “less manly” or tarnishes his potential glory. But Barak has good reason to be insecure: Yavin, after all, has nine hundred chariots!
    Prophets play several roles in battle: they stir and inspire the troops.  They declare God’s timing for fighting to begin. Prophets are such an important presence in battle that Elijah and Elisha are called “Israel’s chariot and cavalry.”
    Many readers of this story have been particularly troubled by the presence of women in war, believing that women are out of place there and assuming that ancient Israelites would have felt the same way.  Yet, most of the Assyrian prophets were women, and reports from both the ancient and more recent Near East show a consistent pattern of the presence of women to inspire the troops and taunt the enemy. There is no reason to think that biblical readers found anything strange about Barak’s request to Deborah, as either prophet or woman.
    “Sisera mustered all his chariotry, nine hundred iron chariots, and all his people from Harosheth‑Hagoyim to Wadi Kishon….Deborah said to Barak, ‘Arise, for this is the day that YHWH gives Sisera into your hand. Does not YHWH go out before you?’….Barak quickly descended from Mount Tabor and ten thousand men after him….YHWH distressed Sisera and all the chariotry and all the camp by the sword before Barak and Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot….Barak chased the chariots and the camp to Harosheth‑Hagoyim and fell on Sisera’s camp with the sword. Not even one remained.”
     On Mount Tabor, Deborah the prophet announces the victory. She herself does not go down to the battle. Like Moses, Deborah is not a battle commander. Her role is to inspire, foretell, and celebrate when a celebration is in order. Her “weapon” is the word, and her name is an anagram of “she spoke” (dibberah). The battle itself is not essential to the story.  It is important only to remember that God fought and won: God “distressed” Sisera. Deborah announced God’s victory, Barak facilitated it, and God carried it out. The Song of Deborah provides a glimpse into how God defeated Canaan: God brought a flash flood that made a bog of sliding mud in which chariots were useless.
     Both the story and the song emphasize the fact that Deborah is a woman. The story tells us that she was a prophetess‑woman, adding the word “woman,” ishah, when the female noun “prophetess,” nebi’ah, already conveys that information. She is called “Lapidot”‑woman or Lapidot’s woman, again repeating the word “woman,” eshet.
     The song stresses that Deborah was a “mother in Israel.” The femaleness is neither hidden nor incidental: it is an integral part of the story. The motherhood of this “mother in Israel” goes beyond biology. It describes her role as counselor during the days before the war, and it indicates her role in preserving the heritage of Israel, in her case by advising in battle.
     The fullest sense of Deborah as mother is revealed in her name, which is not only an anagram of “she spoke”; it is also a noun meaning “bee.” Like the queen bee, she raises up the swarm for battle, sending out the drones to protect the hive and conquer new territory.  (Much material in segment two of this sermon has been borrowed and sometimes quoted directly from Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky; she was Professor of Hebrew at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  An amazing career cut short; death took her in her early 60’s.)

III.
    Mary Wolestonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley who authored Frankenstein, was a determined women’s liberation advocate in England well ahead of her time.  Her very important book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, remains a significant piece of literature.  May I share some quotes from that work that jump out at me?

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

“[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”

“…men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”

“I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists. I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings are only the objects of pity, and that kind of love which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.”

*At this point in the Gathering, the Pastor left his prepared notes and spoke without notes of any kind.  There is no transcription.  You may listen to the last part of the sermon by finding the link to it on the church’s website’s home page.   http://www.silversidechurch.org

Weeks or months from now, the sermon may be transcribed and offered in print.

A Carpenter Also Cooks (Seventh Sermon in Series, “Memorable Biblical Meals”)

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I.
In the collection of materials the Gospel writers passed along to generations after them we have a limited number of stories, which is to say, among other things, that we don’t have a whole lot of information at our disposal about Jesus. Many of you have heard me say before that we have about 33 days of information and that out of a life that lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 years. That’s not much data. It is important detail, but what we can know is painfully limited.
By the way, there was upheaval in the world of scriptural scholarship this week, the scholarly world of those who are primarily experts on Jesus material. One of the more liberal Jesus scholars at work in our time is Dr. Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Dr. Ehrman is an agnostic who takes a strong interest in the material about Jesus, and usually comes down at a liberal place, rather consistently irritating conservatives or even moderates.  Here’s the lowdown, and remember you heard it here first–most of you, anyway.
There’s so little material available about Jesus, and much of it parallels the events in the lives of other notable religious figures, including some who were known as deities, that some scholars across time have concluded that Jesus is a fictional character.  They have said out right that Jesus never existed. Now Dr. Ehrman is in the fascinating place of defending Jesus. Rather than interpreting something Jesus said an entirely new way or questioning whether Jesus would’ve said such a thing, it is Professor Bart Ehrman taking the lead and criticizing those who are trying to start a new round of doubt about the existence of Jesus. Those kinds of arguments are theological fads, and they come and go.
Ehrman, however, is absolutely convinced that Jesus lived, and he believes that no one has or will ever be able to disprove that. So the conservatives are applauding him guardedly because they know that, even though he will bolster a means for believing that Jesus existed, the Jesus he believes existed isn’t anything at all like what most of the conservatives want Jesus to be.
Among the limited number of stories we have about Jesus some few are accounts of post-resurrection appearances. If you are familiar with the Jesus material you know that after the story of the resurrection there are accounts of Jesus dealing with people, seeing his closest followers and so forth over a 40 day period. And it is not until the so-called ascension that he leaves the earth and goes to dwell in heaven with God. So in this 40 day time span there are some significant encounters Jesus has with strangers as well as followers and friends before being taken up into heaven, his ascension.
Some folks believe literally in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus; others do not.  I once assigned the ascension text to a preaching student for his next in class sermon. I was teaching in Switzerland at the time, and the student went to his advisor who was a liberal theologian and complained about having been assigned this impossible text, which the student claimed not to believe.  He told his advisor that he did not believe in a literal resurrection or literal ascension but rather looked for the spiritual meaning in such accounts. The professor who remains one of my great friends, I’m happy to say, said to the student, who by the way has preached in this pulpit, “Why would you worry about that text; its message is simple:  what goes up must come down.”  Preach that and enjoy the look on Farmer’s face.  The student came and reported the advice to me, and I said, “If you do preach on the text as if that is the meaning I can guarantee that you will not pass the assignment.”
The story before us today falls in that category. It is one of the post-resurrection appearances Jesus makes presented as such. On occasion a Gospel writer will take a post-resurrection appearance and reposition the story as if it were something that occurred before Jesus’ execution/resurrection/ascension. Perhaps as one scholar suggested to me some years ago this would’ve been one way of having Jesus appear to have been clairvoyant. That is not the preferred interpretation for a number of readers and hearers, both conservative and liberal, but it is an option.
In our story, Jesus comes across several of his closest male followers, the disciples, and he is clearly in this state of having been raised from the dead as the story goes yet awaiting his departure from the realm in which we now live.  This is an absolutely fascinating story.  It has so many levels of meaning, and it offers us so many reminders of what is involved in being a follower of Jesus in the real world.
The connection with the current sermon series, which has to do with memorable biblical meals, is that Jesus prepares breakfast for his disciples who have been fishing all night long.  The post-resurrection Jesus who is the same guy who did carpentry work is now cooking breakfast for some of his closest male followers who were fishermen.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.

Not all the disciples were present, only seven of them.  If we keep symbolism in mind, which would be a very appropriate and important thing to do when we read the Gospel of John, then we would immediately take note of the fact that seven is the number in Jewish numerology of the period that symbolizes perfection–the completion of divine acts involving humans at their best, the blending together of the divine number, 3, with the number representing humanity at its best, 4.
Since Judas had committed suicide and hadn’t yet been replaced, there were eleven men remaining in the men’s group.  Wouldn’t you have hated being one of the five not included at this important event?  Well, maybe those four not present, like Matthew who was a tax collector, didn’t do fishing.  Even so, what about the two unfortunate souls who were unnamed by the storyteller who goes into detail naming the other five?  Ouch!  It would be something like Dr. Bill Linn publishing his Church Council minutes in our newsletter, and in the section that reports attendance he reports something like this:  “Attending our meeting were Council Chair, Bruce Smith; Council Vice-Chair, Karen Smith; Clerk of Council, Bill Linn (of course!); the Pastor; and a few others.”
The fact that the writer of the Fourth Gospel listed seven men was his subtle way of saying to his first readers and hearers that precisely those who needed to be present were there, even if there were two whose names the author neglected to reveal.  Seven represented just-right-ness; God is pleased and present (#3), and humanity is at its best (#4).  Three plus four equals seven.
My college math professor, Dr. Cary Herring, began class one morning at our small religiously affiliated college by insisting that mathematics would be part of our careers whatever they turned out to be.  I raised my hand and said, “I’m going into the ministry, and none of what we’re learning will ever be used by me.”  Well, I have just proven that Dr. Herring was right, and I was wrong!  Three plus four does equal seven.  I suppose I owe Professor Herring a letter of apology.

II.

Simon Peter said to his six colleagues, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” The seven of them went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

So just the right people were present; perhaps just the right people in this case meant those who were fishermen by trade and were getting ready to go to work on the graveyard shift. Perhaps there were a couple of others whose names we won’t bother to mention or even think about who were pretty decent at fishing and might’ve come along to help out.  Who knows?  The professional fishermen did not want any of the others to come along if they knew nothing about fishing. They did not want colleagues to come along who talked loudly and incessantly and scared the fish away.  Maybe one or two of the other four disciples did not want to come along because they easily became seasick.
The next point the writer is making in the telling of the story is that sometimes we do poorly what it is we supposedly do best. These professional fishermen went out as they regularly did–sometimes during the day, sometimes during the night.  It was their job.  On this particular evening, they worked a whole shift and caught not one fish.  This was their livelihood so not only were they disappointed fishermen, but also disappointed businessmen, disappointed fathers and husbands because they had no fish to bring home to their own families. They had caught nothing, zilch.
I would guess this was probably rare, but this likely was not the first time it happened. The disciples who were fishermen were well trained in their profession, but sometimes they did poorly. Occasionally, that had something to do with their technique or where they decided to fish, something like that; at other times they did everything perfectly from a technical standpoint, but the fish just weren’t biting, or in their case diving into the nets.
I think this passage should call highly competent people like all of you to realize that there are times when we set out to do what we do well as a rule, what some say we’re the best at, and the results are zero. How hard it is to explain a failing to our peers, to our bosses, and to those whom we supervise. People watch us all the time to see how this particular task is done.  We, directly or indirectly, are their teachers, their coaches, their encouragers; but here’s a shift when we’re supposed to be doing what we usually do well during which nothing goes correctly. It is as if we expended no energy whatsoever. Others who watch us to see how this particular task is done shake their heads in disbelief and wonder if what they’ve heard about our great skills is reality.  Most painfully, during these disappointing times, we doubt ourselves.
Here is a therapist who been counseling effectively for years. One day, client after client after client comes and goes, and the therapist realizes that she or he has offered not one of them even the tiniest bit of help or support. The right words would not come. The connections that usually were there emotionally weren’t there. No matter what the counselor tried to do between sessions to make sure it didn’t happen again was futile; she or he did essentially nothing except of course to collect the fee at the end of the counseling hour, which is 50 minutes not 60 minutes.  I might need to check with Dr. Herring to be sure, but I don’t think 50 minutes make up an hour.
Here’s an athlete who has been noticed by the whole world for her or his amazing skill and success in this particular sport. During the Olympics is a great time to visualize what I’m about to describe.  In every game or contest she or he is a winner and most often the top winner. One day this athlete goes into the event, and nothing happens; she or he is at the bottom of the list of performers that day. Nothing happens; nothing is accomplished.  Failed effort after failed effort.
Here’s a presidential candidate who won the oval office by a landslide.  On the next try, however, he and one day she suffers a humiliating loss. How could this possibly be the case?  The pundits are puzzled, and the news writers don’t know what to say except, “Carter loses.”
Here’s the church who has been exemplary. This church has done all the right things, and its members along with any nonmembers who care to observe know that’s the truth. For years other churches looked to this church’s success with envy, though envy is not supposed to be a trait planted in the hearts of spiritually-grounded people. The church grows; the church has blooming finances.  The programs the church offers never fail to meet the needs of those who participate in them. It is an amazing sight to behold year after year after year, and then finally one day nothing goes right anymore. The staff is shocked and confused and saddened as are the lay leaders of the church. They do things the way they’ve always done them, the way that always brought results and success.  Suddenly, that way doesn’t work no matter how many times they retry.
I hope you don’t know what that’s like, but my suspicion is that most of us know exactly what that’s like.  We set out to do what we know we do well and what others know we do well, and we fail miserably.  We aren’t sure what that means. If we are aging we may say to ourselves, “I knew I would be slipping one of these days, and here’s proof.”  We have been cool, calm, and collected as parents, and then one day we lose it and create distance between ourselves and our children; we wonder if anything we’ve ever done parentally has been worthwhile.
I could give more examples, but you know what I’m talking about.  Thankfully there’s more to the story.

III.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

The weary disciples feeling the full force of failure did not know what to make of the question the stranger on the shore asked them as they left their boats behind and began to call it a night.  “You didn’t catch anything did you?”, the stranger asked the seven disciples who did not know he was Jesus.  They didn’t know if it were an honest question from somebody who knew they were the best fishermen around.  Or was the question a way of mocking them, a way of saying, “You must be losing your touch.  Will you ever be able to catch fish again?”
Then the stranger still completely unknown to the disciples gave them some fishing advice. They weren’t accustomed to taking advice from anybody.  They were the best around, and had they known this was Jesus resurrected they would still have been put off at the directive because he was a carpenter.  Carpenters didn’t know what fishermen knew about fishing.
This story is part of the closing of the Gospel of John.  The very well-placed episode is intended to make a number of points; one of the points was especially directed to the struggling Christians at the end of the first century when the Gospel, the last of the four, began circulating in its final form.  The final point of the story is probably the crux of the story:   never become unteachable. Never think you know so much that you are unable to benefit from the input of others–someone who may know a little more than you know or someone who simply might have a different approach.
Never become unteachable.  I think of two notable instances in my life when I felt stubbornly unteachable–one happened a long time ago and the other fairly recently.
The one from long ago took place while I was teaching in Switzerland–right after grad school. Occasionally, between classes I would slip over to the chapel when nobody was present and enjoy playing the piano, which for much of my life has been something I’ve enjoyed doing primarily for myself. One day I was in the chapel playing away, and the Seminary’s gardener, Herr Rosenthal, entered the sanctuary and stood at the back listening to me for a while.  I assumed he was taking a break and enjoying what I was playing.
When I finished the piece, he walked up to me as I sat at the piano, and I assumed a compliment was on its way.  Instead, Herr Rosenthal said something like, “You could get a much better sound if you used your wrists more; you are too stiff.”  I thought to myself, “Well, even if I am, who are you to give me instructions on how to play the piano; you’re the gardener.”  I remember making a decision to pay no attention whatsoever to what he said.  I’d taken lessons for years; I knew how to play–though today were you to hear me play you might question that, not that you’re going to hear me!
Actually, I was an OK pianist.  The problem was never that I lacked the ability to play; the problem was insufficient practice although I didn’t have what it took ever to become a virtuoso or even live in the next neighborhood over.   I would say that at one time I was competent, and that’s as far as it went.
I left the chapel and went to the faculty lounge where I happened upon one of my colleagues with whom I felt free to talk, and I laughingly told him the story of what had just happened in the chapel.  He laughed and I laughed. What I didn’t know for several minutes was that he was laughing at me; when he regained his composure he said, “You should listen to Herr Rosenthal; he is a concert pianist who just does gardening for the benefit of his physical health.”
The other incident, which was fairly recently, was an editorial matter.  I have been an editor for 30 years.  I have edited much more than I’ve written in terms of publication, and I think I learned to be a good editor, which is not to say that good editors always provide error-free work.  Once a publisher hired me for an editing gig, and the contract she asked me to sign read, “…will submit error-free manuscripts on or before designated deadlines.”  Hilarious!  I wouldn’t sign the contract, and I don’t recall what the amended version read.  I certainly do make editorial mistakes, and even the best of editors are not typically good at editing their own work.
Well, be that as it may I was asked several months ago to write four brief chapters in a book for preachers, duh, coming out next fall, and I completed my assignments and turned them in according to the process that was pretty much as it has been for years. I have written for this annual volume a number of times and kind of know my way around the process.
Three of my chapters were well received by the new editor, but the fourth he hated.  Never have I been criticized stylistically for anything I’ve written.  This new editor sent feedback on that one chapter, which insulted me as a writer and as a theologian.
I did not take kindly to his critique of my writing at that level or his suggestions for improvement, but I pondered the situation and the critique for a day or so and told him and the publisher that while I didn’t like how he, the editor, related to me, I wanted to force myself to be teachable in that moment.  The publisher who has known me for years was stunned and speechless when she heard my response.
I was so proud of myself for being so mature.  I called both of my sons to tell them their dear old Dad was mellowing.  Each of them asked me what I’d been drinking.
This story is not told to brag; in fact, I share it with you because it is one of several moments in my life when I needed to be teachable, but was not.  In the end, I suppose it’s the end of the issue for real, I was insulted to the point that I could not make the corrections; I couldn’t adjust the material. I’m not proud of how I responded.  I was and am in the wrong in more ways than one.  Chances are, I’ll be the loser because I am refusing to learn from someone who just might be a better editor than I, who just might have a better sense of what his readers want and need.
Jesus said to those disciples who were professional fishermen, “Hey, boys; try putting your nets down on the other side of the boat,” and the fishermen looked at each other in disbelief.  They knew that it wouldn’t make any difference which side of the boat they dropped the net from.  Why they took the stranger’s advice, we don’t know; but they did, and when they tried one more time they had so many fish they couldn’t pull the nets up out of the of the water.  Had they remained unteachable they would’ve caught nothing at all, but because they were teachable even though at the time they thought it was probably an unskilled fisherman giving them direction they were more successful than they ever had been.
My friends, all of us individually and in the groups in which we are a part–whether families, churches, corporations–are rut-inclined.  We will follow a workable pattern we have set knowing, probably subconsciously, that one day we’ll have to make some changes but dreading that day.  New information will be discovered.  Technology will advance.  Our competitors in the work world will leave us in the dust if we refuse to keep up with the times, which means that from time to time we have to learn new things and make changes. What finally forces the change, if we are able to manage a change which some of us are not, is most likely when we fail miserably at what has been for us the tried and true way.
When I am critical of the church, my intent is always to be constructive, and I am ever aware that I am a part of the reason constructive criticism needs to be offered.  That said, I have two questions for us.

1) Is change our enemy and routine our friend?
2) Have we already learned all we’re ever willing to learn as we try to be a church in the tough modern world?
Walter Shurden, one of the finest lecturers with whom I was ever privileged to study, wrote a book he called Not a Silent People.  In that book, he wrote that the most famous LAST words of a church (that is dying) are:  “We never did it that way before.”
Eventually, the seven disciples realized that the stranger was Jesus, the carpenter.  A carpenter had taught them to fish successfully after which he cooked their breakfast–some bread and what else was it?  Oh yeah.  Fish!