Archives for November 2016

What We Need From Christmas, Christmas Day (II)

[RCL] Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7)8-20; Psalm 97 

For churches across the country, the month of December is devoted to preparation—not only the kind of spiritual preparation that Advent invites; but rather, practical planning: where (and when) to hang the decorations, how to assemble the Christmas liturgies, when to organize the Christmas parties and festivities, and so on. Altar guilds and worship committees across the country are in high gear at this time of year!

And yet, beyond Christmas pageants and church bazaars (that’s daring enough for most of us!), there is a church in just about every community across the country that takes things to the next level and puts on a live Nativity scene!

You know the kind: a makeshift stable is assembled with live animals—a few sheep, a donkey or two, and maybe a camel if the committee started preparing well in advance. Someone dresses as an angel and stands on the rooftop of the makeshift stable, others dress as shepherds or wise men—which we’ll assume arrived a few weeks early. And of course, there are the central figures: Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus—usually portrayed by the youngest child in the parish. For a few nights in the lead-up to Christmas, everyone plays their part, standing as still as possible under the glare of a spotlight.

Most of us have driven by such a scene, and a few of us may have even participated in them. It’s a lovely image because it captures the scene we’ve grown up imagining and brings it to life before our very eyes. It puts us in mind of the Holy Family gathered with the shepherds on that first Christmas, rejoicing in the awesome power of God made flesh in this tiny little child. All is silent as the whole world stops to behold the birth of this child—the birth of God made flesh!

But if you pay careful attention to these scenes, you’ll notice that they are rarely as peaceful and serene as they first appear! For starters, livestock will be livestock: sheep are ornery, donkeys are stubborn, cows are lazy, and camels have a temper! The wind seldom cooperates, costumes fall apart, people fidget, and babies cry!

Despite all of our creative imaginings to the contrary, this unintentional chaos is more similar to the way things actually happened on that first Christmas than the peaceful and serene still-life that we so often imagine.

After all, if you’ve ever visited or worked on a farm, you can imagine the stench that must have accompanied Jesus’ birth; and if you’ve ever been anywhere near a hospital delivery room, you know that there’s no “meek and mild” about the miracle of childbirth! The truth is that the birth of Jesus was anything but silent or peaceful or calm. Mary was a teenager made to grow up way too quickly, Joseph was in way over his head, and the conditions in which Jesus was birthed were less than ideal, even by first-century standards.

And so, why do we dismiss what we know about Christmas: that it was surely a scene of chaos and surprise, in favor of what we imagine about Christmas: that it was a peaceful and serene ode to Jesus meek and mild?

Perhaps the answer has something to do with what we need from Christmas.

In 2016 alone, more than 13,000 Americans have died because of gun violence. Nearly 3,500 of them were children under age 18. There have been more than 300 mass shootings this year, and nearly 300 police officers have been shot and killed.[1]

We have faced the most vitriolic, negative, hate-filled, not to mention expensive, election in modern history. We’re busier than ever, we’re working harder and making less, and the cost of living just keeps going up.

And so, we imagine a peaceful and serene Christmas because that is precisely what we need. We need peace and serenity and beauty; we need a place to worship something pure—something warm and peaceful; something inspiring. We need a Christmas that brings peace and delight, rather than chaos and disorder.

But that’s the paradox of Christmas! On the one hand, we desperately want to believe that Jesus’ birth was a serene, orderly, peaceful moment in which the whole world stood still; but on the other hand, the Gospel stares us in the face and proclaims just the opposite: disruption, disorder, and chaos.

The Christmas of the Gospels reminds us that God in Christ hasn’t come into our lives to make things a little more peaceful or to inspire us to be a little more cheerful. No, God in Christ has come to change everything we thought we knew!

God in Christ hasn’t come to rehabilitate our old lives or to make them a bit more bearable; God in Christ has called us to a new life of redemption and resurrection!

God in Christ comes to us, not in the center of town or in an ornate palace, but in the place where we least expect him: in a tiny little town on the margins of society.

He is born, not in the presence of kings and princes and rulers, but in the presence of dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep. He is born, not of a princess or a queen, but of a poor, terrified, teenaged mother who did not ask for this!

This is the true story of Christmas!

And if we listen closely, we can hear God whispering something to us that, deep down we’ve always known but have been afraid to admit: The life we’ve so carefully crafted for ourselves; this world that we work so hard to manage and control, cannot satisfy our souls.

But the promise of God that was born on that first Christmas speaks to us still: God in Christ has come to us, not to give us more of the life we know, but to give us new life! Christmas is not the celebration of what once was a long time ago, it is the celebration of the One who was and is and is to come! It is the inauguration of God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ—it is the beginning of our salvation!

And that, dear friends, brings joy to the world indeed!

Merry Christmas!

Written by The Rev. Marshall Jolly (@MarshallJolly). Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, an ecumenical, international lectionary-based preaching commentary authored exclusively by Millennials. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.  

[1] Gun Violence Archive, http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Here’s How Much I Love You, Christmas Day (III)

[RCL] Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14; Psalm 98

In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman plays Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp, who refuses to conform to prison life. In a famous scene, Luke tries to escape, but he is caught and dragged back in shackles and brought to the captain of the prison. In order to make a lesson of him, the captain berates him in front of the other prisoners. When Luke makes a wise remark, the captain lashes out at him and utters the famous line: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

It’s a great line. It’s also what makes the stuff of both great comedy and tragedy. Remember the comedy routine by Abbott and Costello called “Who’s on First?” Abbott is trying to help Costello out by telling him the names of the players on a mythical baseball team. The lineup is: “who’s on first, what’s on second, I don’t know is on third.” It’s all very funny, and it’s all based on a failure to communicate.

It is also the stuff of great tragedy. Remember the end of Romeo and Juliet? They both end up taking their own lives. And why does this happen? You’ve got it. A failure to communicate. If only Juliet could have texted Romeo rather than relying on a messenger to let him know the plan about taking the potion that made her only appear to be dead, then everything would have worked out. But, alas, it was not so, and never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo. And it was all because there was a failure to communicate.

In our own lives, we know all too well the reality and pain of failing to communicate. One of the leading causes of marriages falling apart is lack of communication. People say, we just drifted apart. We don’t talk anymore. We are leading separate lives. You’ve all probably heard of “the silent treatment.” It’s one of the cruelest things human beings can do to each other. Failure to communicate can cause chasms to open up between us or it can intentionally wound others in the cruelest of ways.

In our collective lives, we also know the pain of failing to communicate. I’ve heard people say that a crowded city is paradoxically one of the loneliest places to live. People don’t know the next door neighbors. People don’t talk to each other on elevators. The difference between being part of a crowd and part of a community is the ability or the failure to communicate. If you communicate with your neighbor, you belong to a community. If you fail to communicate with your neighbor, your just part of a crowd, a lonely crowd.

On the other hand, we all know what a blessing it can be when we really communicate with someone. When we really connect with people we say things like, we had a heart-to-heart talk.

In a Reader’s Digest story, Maureen Macay gives a lovely example of a grace she experienced while traveling in China. She writes, “Traveling by train in China, my son and I shared a sleeping compartment with a Chinese couple. They spoke no English and we knew few Chinese words, so conversation was impossible — until an hour into the trip, when the man called someone on his cell phone. After a few moments, he passed the phone to his wife who also spoke into it. Then, to my surprise, she handed me the phone. Feeling rather foolish, I said, ‘Hello’ into it. The person at the other end was the couple’s daughter, who spoke perfect English. I told her about us and our trip, and she relayed the information to her parents. How delightful that a simple phone call could teach us such a lesson about Chinese graciousness.” And the ability to communicate.

God knows about the struggle to communicate. Our Bible is the story of God’s struggle to get God’s message of love across to humanity. God tried over and over again, to reach us, but we kept turning deaf ears to God’s message of love. We ignored commandments, prophets, and sages, invitations, threats, and promises.

What is the opposite of a failure to communicate? Saying exactly the right thing.

The message of Christmas is this: God found a new way to say exactly the right thing. The letter to the Hebrews says, “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

A baby. The Son of God, the Word, co-eternal with God from before all time, became incarnate, took on flesh, real flesh, a baby’s flesh. God became one of us, and like us, came into the world as a baby. The one at whose “command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets, in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home”[1] became for us an inarticulate infant.

In the words of today’s psalm, God “sends out his commands to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” At Christmas, God chose to let his Word have to learn to crawl first. The one whose “Let there be light,” rang throughout the darkness and set off the spark of creation, became for us a speechless baby, limited to communicating through cooing and crying.

The one used to the praise of countless throngs of angels, singing their unending hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” surrounded himself with new music: a mother’s “hush, sweet baby, hush,” the ahhing and oohing of shepherds leaning over a manger making baby talk to the baby, cattle lowing, the rustling of straw. God found a whole new way to communicate, a whole new way to say exactly the right thing. The Word took on a whole new language, and it turned out to be—baby talk.

What does a baby say? Actually, not much. Without the power of speech, they are, in fact, rather limited. But they do say two very important things: Here I am, and, I need you.

And God, in God’s love, as the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as a baby, says this as well: I am here. I need you.

Shocking, isn’t it? The Word becomes flesh, a vulnerable, inarticulate baby. And we don’t say, the message is this: someday, the child will grow, which is true, and become an adult, which is true, and will walk and talk and love and live and say things and do things that will show us just how much God loves us—all of which is true. But even here, even in these days of the Christmas season, what we celebrate is not the potential for communication that a baby has—that someday God will speak through incarnate life. What we celebrate is that this baby, the Word made flesh, was already a completely formed message of love, full of grace and truth toward us. Here I am. I am with you. I am for you. I am trusting myself to you. I need you.

In Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter, the character Scobie describes the incarnation, and the amazing risk God took in becoming human in such a vulnerable way, a pattern of openness that would continue throughout Jesus’ life and in the sacraments, as well. The narrator says, “It seemed to him for a moment cruelly unfair of God to have exposed himself in this way, a man, a wafer of bread, first in the Palestinian villages and now here in the hot port, there, everywhere, allowing man to have his will of Him. Christ had told the rich young man to sell all and follow Him, but that was an easy rational step compared with this that God had taken, to put himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word. How desperately God must love, he thought with shame.”[2]

How desperately God must love. Desperately enough to find a new way to say exactly the right thing, which, even in the cries and coos of an infant, turns out to be: “Here’s how much I love you.”

Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. His ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. He received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.  

[1] Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer, 370.

[2] Greene, The Heart of the Matter.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (III).