Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Joseph and Mary shouldn’t have been parents

angel_appears_to_josephMatthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Sermon

It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we still have the blues of the season up, the Advent wreath still has one candle unlit. But the signs are showing up that Christmas is close. The trees are up. The church has been adorned with wreaths and lights. And, after weeks of hearing bible readings about the end of the world, or about John the Baptist, we get to finally hear about some central Christmas figures.

The experience of Christmas seems to come, with more and more pressure, each year. Often, many of us spend a month or more preparing for just a few hours of gift giving, a few meals with family and friends, a few days that are supposed to fill us with enough joy to last an entire year. We work very hard to make the Christmas experience perfect.

And so when we hear Joseph’s story today, the contrast he and Mary present does not match the ubiquitous manger scenes we see this time of year.

In fact, Joseph’s story is much more like all the other parts of life that we pretend don’t exist at Christmas time. The parts we don’t like or that we struggle with. The parts that are hard and frustrating, that are disappointing and painful.

Joseph isn’t the first boyfriend to find out that his girlfriend is having a baby, and Mary isn’t the first woman to find out that she is pregnant when she has no plans to be. And they will not be the last unmarried couple that will have to deal with this problem. This story is much more like real life than it is one of those Christmas movies. In fact, this story really is inconvenient for our Christmas image. Christmas should be about the cutest couple you have ever seen giving birth to most beautiful baby in the most suitable of barn stalls. It is not about poor unwed mothers, and potentially adulterous unplanned pregnancies.

And only to add to the disconnect between what we imagine Christmas to be and what Joseph’s story actually says, when Joseph finds out that Mary was pregnant, his options included stoning his wife, because she was like damaged property which must be destroyed. Another option to stay with Mary was not possible either. Joseph would either be known as the guy who got his wife pregnant before they married, or the guy whose son is not really his.

But Joseph did not choose to go that route, instead choose a more humane option. He would dismiss her quietly, which probably meant that Mary would be returned to her father, and hopefully he could get the father of Mary’s baby to pay her dowry and marry her if possible. If not, than Mary’s father would have the option to stoning Mary himself, selling her into slavery, selling her baby into slavery or if he was rich enough –which he probably wasn’t — pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember.

(Pause)

Nelly had volunteered to direct the Christmas pageant at St. David’s, or rather she was the only one who hadn’t immediately said no when asked by Father Angelo. Nelly was busy enough this Christmas, but she decided that if she was going to do it, she would do the pageant right and put forward her best effort.

On the day of the first practice, she only had half the number of people she hoped for. But she decided to make due.

To the men she gave the roles of shepherds and magi. The women would be the angels. The little kids would be the animals. But for Mary and Joseph she only had one option for each. There was gangly teenage boy named Josh who simply didn’t seem like a magi or shepherd and quiet teenage girl named Grace who was dressed like an emo goth punk. The two could not look more out of place and uncomfortable in a church.

“This will not do at all” Nelly told herself. “Maybe I can find a better looking Mary and Joseph before next week”. For that first day however, Nelly dressed up these two out of place teens, and put them next to the manger. Josh could hardly see his lines because his hair was in his eyes, and Grace’s black eyeliner was so distracting, that the angels and shepherds giggled and whispered with each other every time she spoke.

At the end of the practice, Nelly was determined that she was not going to let these unsuitable kids ruin her pageant.

(Pause)

In many ways, the story of Joseph that we hear today, unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we are told to buy each December. All the commercials and ads promise the perfect Christmas, and each year, the world opens up their wallets in the hopes that if we buy enough and work enough, this Christmas will be perfect.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about judgment and the threat of death.

(Pause)

After four weeks of practices, and lots of begging and hoping and nagging, Nelly just couldn’t get anyone else to be Mary and Joseph. Josh and Grace were going to have to be it.

The night of the pageant came, and all the cast was gathered together after the dress rehearsal. The pageant was as polished as it was going to get. The little kids were running around pretending to be the animals they were dressed as. The shepherds and Angels were drinking coffee. Josh and Grace were standing by themselves, looking a little lonely… lost even. Nelly was still frustrated about them, they read their lines woodenly, and never loud enough. And Grace refused to off her black eye liner, and Josh’s hair still covered his eyes.

It was soon showtime. Nelly announced that there was five minutes until curtain up. As Nelly stood up to go and check on the crowd, she glanced over at Josh and Grace. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Josh reached down and grabbed Grace’s hand just for a moment, he squeezed it once and let it go. Grace looked at him and smiled. They were in this together. Josh and Grace against the world.

Nelly almost dropped her stage notes. She began to realize, that Josh and Grace were just like the real Mary and Joseph. All they had was each other, they weren’t perfect, or well suited for the role they were to play in God’s mission in the world, but they were all that God needed to work miracles.

(Pause)

Our perfect version of Christmas has never existed. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to unmarried teens living in poverty. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah.

God does not wait for the perfect moment to begin the work of the incarnation, the work of taking on our flesh and becoming like us. God starts in the most unexpected of places, with the most unexpected of people. With Mary and Joseph, with Josh and Grace, with you and me.

The story of Joseph shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, and our perfect Christmas pageant visions, in favour of a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

For when Mary and Joseph get past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when they get past the possibility of death for adultery, they become guardians of God’s promise.

God’s promise that cannot be re-created no matter how much shopping or baking or decorating or cheesy Christmas movie watching we do. It is God’s promise given to imperfect people, to imperfect us.

A promise whose name is God with us — Emmanuel. A promise whose name is God Saves — Jesus.

Amen.

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Pope Francis is a Marxist, and all Christians should be too.

“Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”Jesus and Karl Marx

Just a couple of days ago in Canada, Federal Industry Minister James Moore made this statement. And of course, once the public and social media outrage (primarily on twitter) got to be too loud, Moore apologized (for being so foolish as to let his repugnant values show in public).

Also, recently the conservative right in the US (Rush Limbaugh, in particular) have called pope Francis a Marxist for advocating for the poor and speaking out against capitalism. Pope Francis responded by saying he is not a Marxist and Marxist ideology is wrong, instead he is a Christian. 

These two media storms highlight a bigger issue that we are facing and that is economic inequality. And I think Christians could benefit from a little Marxism.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street or the recent fast food workers strike show that the economic inequality created by capitalist policies is not really helping most people get ahead, but instead the majority (the middle class) is falling further and further behind the rich few.

Even here in Canada, I hear intelligent, well-meaning people tell me that capitalism is the best economic system for us. I am only 31 years old, but even I remember a time when the ‘capitalists fat cats’ were more joke than revered social leaders.

So here is the thing about Capitalism –  The majority of us are not capitalists in this economic system. Capitalists have the capital (money) to invest in stock markets, to own means of production, to run the economy.  We are workers, the proletariat, the ones off whom the capitalists earn their riches. Capitalism necessitates that the investors and owners take in the profit margins from the production of their workers. In other words, we must be paid less than we make, produce or earn for our employers. That is who capital is made. That is how capitalist invest in and own things. This is system is unequal from the get go, and most of have drunk the cool-aid thinking that capitalism is fair and balanced system.

Our blind support for capitalism is something that capitalists have convinced us is good for us… Christians included.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, said that the Capitalist promise, that what is good for the Capitalist (increased profits, lower taxes etc…) is also good for the average worker, is a big lie. Sounds like the lie of trickle down economics. The one that Pope Francis is naming.

Pope Francis, you are a Marxist.

Christians should be Marxists too.

Here is something else Karl Marx said:

“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”

— Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858

Sounds a lot like another Marxist:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

– Jesus, Matthew 25:35-40

We have all been told that Marxism is unequivocally bad.  And the examples of Marxism or communism that our world has put into practice haven’t been any better than capitalism for making people’s lives better. They have been pretty awful actually.  And I am not saying that we should switch to communism.

But unlike Capitalism, which is a system that is designed to be concerned with and favour those on the top, Marxist thought turns towards the poor and marginalized. Marx’s concern for society or community, was above his concern for the individual. That concern for the poor sounds a lot like that Jesus guy.  Marxism suggests an alternative to capitalism: socialism, perhaps leading to communism.

But this where Marxism and Jesus diverge.

Jesus points out that there is no system that will work perfectly.

“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

– Jesus, Matthew 26:11

Jesus didn’t say you will have the poor until you institute a capitalist, mixed-market, socialist, or communist economic system. He said always.

And this is where Pope Francis is calling us to turn our concern. Christians should not be about one system or another, we shouldn’t be advocating one political or economic system over others. But like Marx, our concern should be for the least of these, for the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized and the weak of the world. Those who are on the bottom and those who are losing ground. Not only is it our government’s job to feed our neighbour’s children, it is our duty and moral obligation.

And as Christians whose attention is turned to the poor, who like Jesus, like Pope Francis, even like Karl Marx,  we who strive for a better world need to balance our concern and work with a confession.

We aren’t going to solve the problem. Our systems, our economies, our politics will not find the solution to starving children. Marxists, nor Capitalists, will find the solution. Human beings will not and cannot find the solution. Every system we create results in someone ending up at the bottom, ending up in the margins.

And that is why as people of faith we turn the One who redeems our failures, who welcomed children when the disciples would not, who promises a new creation, a new system – not of our making, but of God’s.

And in Pope Francis, in food for our neighbour’s children, in small acts of kindness and mercy that go unnoticed each day, we see a glimpse of that New Creation breaking in here all around us – and still yet to come.

What do you think? Are you a closet Marxist? Share in comments or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Similar Posts:

Two Reluctant Prophets: John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela

Is Jesus the Messiah?

Is Jesus really the Messiah?

prison_responseMatthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Sermon

Each year, sometime in the week before the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Father Angelo would call Bill with the same question. “Are we on for this Sunday?” he would ask. Bill always said yes. Every 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo would go together after worship to visit the grave of Bill’s wife Harriet. Then the two would go and have a meal at her favourite Restaurant. Father Angelo had asked a few years ago if Bill wanted to meet on the actual date of Harriet’s death, but Bill insisted that Harriet would have rather marked time by the church calendar, and so the 3rd Sunday in Advent – Joy Sunday – the day Harriet died became their day to remember her.

(Pause)

Today, we are officially past the half way mark of Advent, we are soon done 3 Sundays, with only 1 to go. We call this Sunday Guadete Sunday, Latin for Joy, as reminder of the hastening coming of Jesus, both at Christmas and in the second coming. Joy Sunday can almost be seen as a mixture of Advent and Christmas. In some churches, the colour of vestments and paraments are changed to pink or rose. A colour halfway between blue or purple and white. You could almost say that our little taste of Christmas today was an appropriate glimpse ahead,  even in the middle of our Advent waiting and watching.

Yet, despite the “Joy” of the day, the story of John the Baptist is not exactly joyful. We are brought back down to Advent reality of watching and wating. John the Baptist is languishing in prison… the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see the show last week as John preached in the wilderness, along with King Herod, have decided that John is too much of a threat to their power.

John sends word through his followers to Jesus. He wants to know if it was worth it. The mighty prophet is losing his faith. This really is an Advent bummer.

“Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?” John asks Jesus.

We heard John’s bold and dramatic preaching last week. The fiery prophet was foretelling the coming of a mighty Messiah. A Messiah who was going to come and burn some chaff, to lay an ax to the roots of oppression. John’s Messiah was coming to upend the powerful and lift up the weak. John has high expectations for Messiah. John has a certain vision of what Messiah should look like and what Messiah should do.

Jesus is not what he expected.

A wandering preacher healing a few sick, helping a few poor people, preaching to the hungry crowds and generally staying away from Jerusalem where all the power is – this is not what John was hoping for.

(Pause)

Shortly after Father Angelo started at St. David’s, Harriet got sick. Father Angelo took over from a retired Father Gabe who had spent 35 years – his whole career – at St. David’s. Gabe informed Angelo, that while he was retiring, that he would continue to visit Harriet in the hospital. A few months later, Angelo was sitting in his office late Sunday afternoon, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, when the phone rang. It was a nurse from the hospital asking for Father Gabe… Angelo knew that Gabe was spending Christmas with family in another province. Angelo offered to come, and the nurse sounded grateful.

When Father Angelo came to Harriet’s room, Bill met him at the door. “Where is Father Gabe?” he demanded.

“He is away” said Angelo. “But I am here”.

“Well, we don’t want you” Bill said blocking the doorway. “Father Gabe said he would be here until the end” Bill declared. “He has been our priest for 35 years, and we don’t want a knew one.”

“Are you sure?” said Father Angelo. “The nurse called the church”

“Father Gabe knows what we want, and what we expect in this time. He is the one who should be coming. Thank you, but we don’t need you to stay” Bill was getting agitated.

So Father Angelo turned to leave.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we can carry with us expectations of what Messiah is supposed to be. We want Jesus to be a sweet little baby in December. A conqueror at Easter. A non-intrusive presence a lot of the time. We want a God who will show up when we need help and stay out of the way the rest of the time. We want a Jesus who will fight our battles and be on our side and act when we want him to act.

We imagine things going a certain way, and we can begin to lose hope when they don’t. When we find ourselves in prisons of suffering, isolation, crisis, brokenness… we can begin to question the Messiah, just like John does. We thought Jesus was going to do and be what we expected… but Jesus rarely measures up.

We want a powerful voice to silence our enemies, but Jesus makes the deaf hear.

We want a Jesus to see how good we are, but Jesus gives sight to the blind.

We want a Jesus who will carry our burdens and troubles, but Jesus makes the lame to walk.

We want to never experience suffering, or pain, or discomfort, to never be touched by disease or illness but Jesus cleanses the most diseased of all, the lepers.

We want to rich and blessed, but Jesus bring good news to the poor.

Jesus receives John’s doubt with mercy. Jesus doesn’t scold the prophet for his questions, nor rebukes him for his uncertainty. Jesus praises him instead. John is the prophet who has prepared the way, who has announced the coming of Messiah. Even if it isn’t the Messiah John imagined, it is still Messiah.

And just as Jesus does for John, Jesus receives our lofty expectations for God with grace too. Jesus doesn’t scold us for not getting it. Jesus gathers us into his Body, Jesus prepares a place for us at the table, even when we have imagined something completely different. We are still made to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, bringing about God’s kingdom.

(Pause)

Father Angelo took a few steps and then turned back to Bill.

“I am not who you want, I am not Father Gabe” he said to Bill. “But I have come to bring the one who you need and that is Christ. Father Gabe, nor I, can prevent the end from coming, but we both come in the name of the one who will meet us there.”

Bill didn’t answer, but he stepped aside and let Father Angelo enter the room. Having been at death beds before, Angelo could tell that Harriet was near the end of her life.

Before Angelo could say anything, Harriet looked up to him and said, “Father, you came.”

“Of course” Father Angelo replied.

“Read to me what they heard in church this morning” Harriet asked.

And so Father Angelo read to her the story of John the Baptist, asking if Jesus was the one. When he had finished, Harriet smiled.

“Read the last part again Father” she said. “The part about the messenger”.

Angelo nodded.

“`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’”

After that the three sat together until the end.

And every year afterwards,  on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo met to go to grave, and for lunch. And Father Angelo would read the story of John the Baptist, wondering if Jesus was the Messiah.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we wonder if Jesus really is the one. We lose hope, when our expectations are not met. Yet thankfully, Jesus has not come to be what we want, to live up to our expectations for Messiah. Jesus doesn’t conquer our enemies, nor protect us from all harm, nor bless us with riches.

Jesus has come to give us what need. Sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, the lame to walk, the lepers to be cleansed, good news for the poor.

Jesus is the Messiah who is meeting where we are, who is coming into lives that we live, not the lives we hope for. We want a Messiah who will take us away and give us a new world, but Jesus comes here and now, to show us mercy.

“Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” It is a question we all ask.

And Jesus, meets our doubts with grace. “I have sent my messenger to you. The Good News has been announced to you. Your way has been prepared. I am the One, who is coming to you, the Messiah.”

Amen.

11 Christmas Eve Sermons that often get preached, but we don’t want to hear

easter-church-coloring-106We have all been there before. It’s Christmas Eve. The church is full. A whole bunch of people who aren’t normally at church on Sunday mornings, are sitting in the pews. Perhaps you are one of them.

Christmas carols have been sung. Maybe there was a pageant with a real live Mary, Joseph and baby. Maybe the sunday school kids are singing a sweetly off-key version of ”Away in a Manger”. There are some prayers and more singing, and someone has read the familiar Christmas story that begins, “In those days a decree went out…”

But before you can hold the candles and sing Silent Night, the pastor is going to ramble on for a while. This is the part you dread. What is the pastor going to say this year?

As a pastor, I am deeply aware that most people in church on Christmas Eve are not there to hear me. It is a weird night for us who preach. I would wager a guess that many Sunday morning folks look forward to sermons, or at least welcome sermons as an important part of worship. But Christmas Eve is different. Churches are uncharacteristically full. Visitors, strangers, unfamiliar faces fill the pews. It feels like the Superbowl of the church year. Your small group of devoted fans have been watching you all year, but now the whole world wants to see the show… well not really the show, they are really there for the commercials.

I have been in the pew more than in the pulpit on Christmas Eve during my life. And I have been subjected to atrocious Christmas sermons. Sermons from good preachers that make me think… “Huh? Did I miss something?” For some reason, Pastors pick strange sub-themes for their Christmas Eve sermons, sub-texts that are really about something else… I call these Junk Food sermons because they are mostly empty calories that don’t really fill us. They are more about the anxiety of the preacher, than about the story of Jesus. Here are 11 of them.

  1. The “come to church” sermon: The pastor tries tell all the visitors that because Jesus was born in a manger, they should try out this church on some other days of year. Churches are usually described as places that are pretty to cool to hang out at, or at the very least not so bad that they should be avoided. Pastors try to be welcoming but can come across as lonely people, in need of some friends.
  2. The “come back to church” sermon: This is related to the last one but it is for all the non-attending kids and grandkids of the regulars. The Pastor stresses the importance of Jesus’ birth, and the commitment that follows. Jesus was born for you, so you better join a committee and give some money. Well, not quite that direct, but there is the awkward sense that we were signed up for a job without our permission.
  3. The “why are you here?” sermon: This is preached by the pastor who has done a few too many “come to church” sermons. It is a passive aggressive lecture for the Christmas Eve crowd. It reminds them that coming to church once a year doesn’t count as being a real church goer, and so we should all feel bad for missing any Sundays at all.
  4. The “Jesus is the reason, so Santa is not” sermon: This one is a bit of a killjoy. The pastor tries to explain the “real story” behind Christmas, by telling us that Santa isn’t real. The War on Christmas folks love this sermon, but everyone else feels a little sheepish for having the wrong kind of Christmas joy, and writing “From Santa” on the present they gave to their kids. (The War on Christmas people wrote “From Jesus”).
  5. The “This God stuff sounds implausible, but you can believe it because we love each other” sermon: This one can get a little esoteric. The pastor talks about virgin births, angels, and magi following stars. It all sounds a little fantastical yet skeptical at the same time. But the pastor assures you that it is okay because the rest of us believe this crazy stuff.
  6. The “magic of Christmas” sermon: This one has all the feelings. And nostalgia. Maybe the Pastor shares a story of a childhood Christmas complete with grandmother’s knitting and Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The only mention of Jesus is an uncomfortable apology for his awkward presence.
  7. The “chicken soup for the… huh?” sermon: This is a storytelling sermon. The Pastor pretends to tell the story from the perspective of the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem, or the inn-keeper’s nagging barmaid wife, or even from the vantage point of a nearby tree. It seems to be somewhat related to the Christmas story, but no one is sure why or how… not even the pastor, apparently.
  8. The “theology lecture” sermon: This one is long, dry and confusing. It has big words like incarnation, eschatology, missio dei. The pastor seems to be really explaining what all this Christmas stuff is about, but you can hear snoring, a teen playing games on an iPhone and  a baby crying the whole time. No one knows when it will end.
  9. The “anti-consumerism, let’s meet at the soup kitchen afterwards” sermon: This one is full of high-minded values, except everyone feels ashamed for having seen a Christmas commercial or accidentally singing along with a Christmas carol on the radio in the previous month. The good news is that the local soup kitchen has been informed that we all are coming to serve dinner after the service.
  10. The “christmas spirit will make you believe” sermon: This one talks a lot about faith, believing, finding the divine, opening our hearts, letting the spirit in. The Pastor says just have faith, but what we are supposed to have faith in is not quite clear. Is it Jesus? Or Santa? Or Christmas Trees? Or Holiday spirit? All seem like valid options.
  11. The “please believe in Jesus, my job depends on it” sermon: This one is from the pastor who is feeling pressure to get more members. We are encouraged to start believing in Jesus, even if it isn’t cool. But Baby Jesus was cool. Oh and join the church, even though it isn’t cool. But our youth worker is cool! This one feels desperate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of great Christmas sermons that have been and will be preached. I know that many of my fellow pastors work hard to proclaim the story of Jesus born into the world for all creation and for us in particular. But I think Christmas can drive pastors, squirrelly, trying to preach a good sermon on the same story year after year. And if you do get one of the sermons above, forgive your pastor. He or she is just trying to do a good job on, maybe, the most pressure filled day of year.

To my colleagues. I don’t have the answers, I am an unrepentant story-teller. But try to keep it simple. Tell the story of God coming into the world. Don’t worry about why we should believe it or getting visitors to come back. Let God do that stuff. Just preach it like the angels:

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”


Any stories of Christmas sermons you have endured? Are there more to add to the list? Share in the comments or on twitter @ParkerErik or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor

***Thanks again to my wife for contributing. You can follow Courtenay at @ReedmanParker on twitter.***

Other Advent and Christmas posts:

I am at war with Christmas

Two Reluctant Prophets: John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela

Two Reluctant Prophets: John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela

Nelson and JohnMatthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Sermon

Messiah is coming.

This was the promise that our Advent waiting began with. Each year, as we begin a new church year, we begin with waiting. As the world explodes Christmas everywhere, with sales and music, concerts and tv specials, we wait. We wait and sing hymns about preparing and getting ready. We pray for God to stir us up, for God move us as the Body of Christ. To move us with compassion and love for a world desperately in need of a saviour, desperately crying out for healing. As green and red colours dominate the  colour scape of our world, we decorate here with a defiant blue. Blue that symbolizes patient waiting and hopeful anticipation.

Today is the second week of Advent. Advent can feel at times like finishing your vegetables before getting dessert. It can seem like a punishment pastors force on congregations for having too much Christmas cheer in December. Advent is not really a  favourite of seasons for most of us. The stories in Advent are jarring. Advent always starts with apocalypse. John the Baptist’s crazy rantings mark the middle. The uncomfortable news of an unexpected pregnancy for an unmarried couple finishes Advent off. Advent is not the sweet picture of a mother and newborn in a cozy stable. Advent is very much about discomfort. We wait, we watch. We repeat the promise:

Messiah is Coming.

We acknowledge that we aren’t there yet.

Last year, the middle of Advent was marked by a mass shooting in an elementary school in New Town, Connecticut. This year, our Advent waiting will be marked by global grieving, remembering and celebrating Nelson Mandela. How very inconvenient and how very appropriate. Advent is about discomfort, and what could make us white, North Americans more uncomfortable than dealing with the legacy of a figure who challenged our position of privilege, a man who was jailed for 27 years because of the colour of his skin, and someone who then became an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is hard to not to think of Nelson Mandela as we hear John the Baptist preach this morning. John is standing on the banks of the river Jordan, out in the wilderness of Judea. He is a figure who is outside of the political systems of his day. He is not a priest preaching in the temple of Jerusalem. He is not a rabbi teaching in the synagogues. He is a prophet, a truth teller, preaching in the wilderness. And John’s message does not uphold the traditions. He is not hoping to help people learn or grow in their faith. He is pointing to the problems and injustices of the world. His message is a warning – the world, and us along with it, is going to be transformed.

We might expect that John’s warnings would be dismissed as crazy, the announcement of the change to come sounds impossible. He should have been all by himself preaching to the sand and locusts. But everyone has gone out to hear him. Those who are oppressed and suffering, the ones looking for hope, and those who are in power, the ones looking to maintain control. And his message is the same for all. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, do not rely on your position in the world. Messiah is coming and Messiah is going to turn it all upside down.

John’s message would have sounded unbelievable to his hearers. The rich were rich, the blessed were blessed, the clean were clean, the righteous were righteous. The people thought God wanted things that way, that God had chosen the powerful to be powerful. And the poor were poor, the cursed were cursed, the unclean were unclean, the sinners were sinful. The people thought that God wanted things that way too, that God had chosen those on the bottom to be on the bottom.

Apartheid in South Africa was based on the same ideology. White Afrikaners believed that God had chosen them, chosen white, rich, privileged people to rule over the black, poor, marginalized people of the continent. And many believed that this system was immutable and unchangeable. It is not just in South Africa that people have believe in a system of privilege like this. In the United States many felt white people had the right to own black slaves. Here in Canada, many felt that white Christians had the right to civilize indigenous peoples in residential schools.

And even still, we too, get caught up in believing that our world is as it should be. That the poor deserve to be poor, that the rich deserve to be rich. It is easy for us to unthinkingly assume that privilege belongs to a certain few. That we are owed something because of our gender, our skin colour, our economic status, our religion. Just like the scribes and Pharisees, we protest, “But we have Abraham as our Father.” as if we have earned our place in the world, earned our place in the eyes of God. Just like the crowds, we long for justice, but don’t believe it possible.

But today John the Baptist declares a new reality. Who your parents are, how much money you make, the colour of your skin, your ability to keep religious laws, the number of times you attend church in a year… none of those things matter to God. God is sending Messiah who will turn the whole world upside down. God is sending a Messiah who will repent us, who will transform us, who will burn our chaff away, our selfishness, our sinfulness, our sense of privilege and position. God is sending a messiah who will gather our wheat, who will gather our transformed, forgiven, renewed selves into God. God is not interested in maintaining our systems of power and privilege.

John declared that the system of power and privilege for a few were coming to an end. John threatened those in power, and gave hope to the marginalized crowds.

In the same way Nelson Mandela stood outside the systems of privilege and power, of white against black, of rich against poor. He was released from prison and began to show his people, and the world, hope. Hope in something new and different. Hope by showing us a new vision for the world, a new vision where all are treated the same and all are equally loved. Nelson preached the transformation of forgiveness and reconciliation.

John and Nelson preached a new reality, a transformed world. They preached the world of Messiah. John with stern warnings of axes and fire. Nelson with defiant humility and unwavering mercy. But neither John the Baptist, nor Nelson Mandela claimed to be the one who would bring about the transformations they imagined. They only pointed to the hope. They were prophets, prophets who pointed to the current reality and imagined a new one. They pointed to Messiah.

To the Messiah who is coming with the axes and fires of transformation. To the Messiah who is coming with forgiveness and reconciliation. To the Messiah who is coming to gather God’s poeple. Messiah who will name, claim and gather God’s people, rich or poor, black or white, powerful or powerless, clean or unclean, righteous or unrighteous. Messiah is who is coming into the world of the people standing on the banks of the river Jordan, Messiah who is coming to the people of South Africa and the world, Messiah who is coming here to us today. John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela pointed to the Messiah’s world.

For weeks now, we have been getting ready for Christmas, the songs, the decorations, the colours have been out for weeks. We have been looking forward to the big show at Christmas. But these preparations are only a small piece of Advent.

John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela get at the bigger task of Advent. The naming of reality. The prophetic word about the unjust systems that exist in our world. Systems like the temple of Jerusalem that withheld God’s love from the people. Systems like slavery, residential schools, Apartheid. Systems that perpetuate the economic, racial, gender and religious inequality of our present day. We name those things today, and then we declare, with John and Nelson, that Messiah is coming. Messiah is coming to throw out the old systems, to transform us into something new.

Today, as our Advent waiting continues. Today, as we hear anew the voice of John the Baptist. Today as we mourn the death and celebrate the legacy of Nelson Mandela, we are shown a vision of the Messiah. We made uncomfortable as our systems of power and privilege are threatened. We are given hope for a world that is changeable and that will not remain unjust and unfair. Today, we are declare the Advent promise anew.

Messiah is coming.

Amen.

I am at War with Christmas

war-on-christmasSomeone better tell Fox News and Jon Stewart that I really exist. I am the actual guy waging war on Christmas.

If you have been anywhere near the internet these past few days, you know that the annual “War on Christmas” meme is in full force, particularly on Fox News. Jon Stewart took advantage on Dec 3rd, to poke some hilarious fun at the idea that Christmas is under attack.

That being said, I think this year I am actually signing up. I think I  want to openly go to war with Christmas. Against Christmas. As Christmas’s enemy.

Every year as soon as Halloween is over, I see myself falling into the same patterns of avoiding Christmas. For nearly two months every year, I work hard not to have Christmas. So why not be open about it? Why not embrace the War on Christmas?

Throughout most of November and December, I do many things to keep Christmas from being celebrated. I try very hard to avoid saying “Merry Christmas”, and I prefer to be greeted with Happy Holidays. I even actually like the shorthand X-Mas. I make note of all the other holidays being celebrated in my calendar. Hanukkah, the Feast of St. Nicolas, Santa Lucia, Kwanzaa etc… I have even been able to cancel a few community/workplace Christmas pageants in the past few years and it felt great! I don’t think Christmas should be in schools, I don’t think it should be in the workplace, I don’t think it should be noted by public figures or politicians. If I could remove Christmas from most of the last 8 weeks of the year, I will have succeeded in my war.

Christmas music can be the worst! I generally don’t listen to Christmas music in my car or at home, and it irks me to have to listen to it when I can’t control the sound system. I complain when hear Christmas music in malls. The sound tracks playing in most commercial spaces make me want to thrown up. Christmas concerts annoy me, especially the ones on TV.  I get sick of Christmas music so quickly. It feels like the drummer boy is using my head as a drum. And when pop musicians make Christmas albums, I almost wish I was deaf.

When I see decorations in public spaces, a part of me wants to tear them all down. All the green boughs, the red bows, the holly, the wreaths, the ornaments, all of it could just disappear and I would be fine with it. I just don’t get why people want Christmas lights all over the place, even if it does get darker sooner in November. I often criticize stores that sell Christmas merchandise and I try not buy any. Christmas inventory is so kitschy most of the time. I scoff at people who put light displays up on their house after Halloween. And don’t get me started on those who put up Christmas trees in November… it drives me nuts. What is the point of having a giant tree up for month in anticipation of present opening day?

Often, Christmas movies make me cranky. Christmas TV episodes, specials, and Christmas themed TV are almost always awful. It is like they are trying to capture some mushy, gooey feeling  that I want no part of.  But Christmas commercials and advertising needs to be banned from existence. Another “Ho ho ho” from Santa and I think I will lose it. You will find me in some corner sobbing as I whisper “No more Santa, No more.”

In my work life, I spend a lot of time encouraging the people around me to keep from celebrating Christmas too. I try to keep Christmas from invading my workplace and I always schedule work for myself on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then after those big days, I have time with my family and friends. I am becoming more sure that the people I work with think I am the grinch who has stolen their Christmas joy, because I force them to put a lid on the Christmas celebrating.

Now with Facebook and Twitter becoming ‘War on Christmas’ battle grounds, I have become a Christmas grinch on social media. I have called out my friends for loving Christmas too much. I have advocated pairing down the celebration and toning down the cheer a notch.

In November and December most years, I just wish Christmas would go away. So when Fox News folks start complaining about the War on Christmas, I feel like saying, “Yeah, finally we are winning.” Christmas is getting what it deserves. It is getting pushed aside,  moved out of the way. I want something else to take its place, I want a new holiday for November and December.

Or rather, I want an old holiday.

For you see, I am a Lutheran Pastor.

And I love Advent. I think our world needs Advent. I think we all need Advent. When Christmas begins in November, it stops being what it is supposed to be, which is “The Feast of the Nativity.” When Christmas becomes a two-month long celebration of shopping and a chance to gorge ourselves in sentimentalism and nostalgia, it is not the “Mass for Christ’s Birth.”

Sarah Palin, one of the Popes of American Right-Wing Christianity recently said, “I love the commercialization of Christmas, it spreads the Christmas cheer.” She has missed the point. Obviously. But she has named an important reality. We just don’t want to deal with the things that Advent deals with. We want to avoid the harsh realities of life, and have a big party instead. A party that has now become the symbol of global inequality and broken social systems.

Christmas has no meaning on its own. Christmas is empty and vapid when it is a two month opportunity to increase debt and avoid real issues.

Christmas only makes sense at the end of Advent.

It only makes sense when we have waited and watched for Messiah. It only makes sense when we have longed with Israel to be released from captivity, exodus, exile, and oppression. It only makes sense when we have admitted our failings and imperfections, when we have admitted the suffering of the poor and lowly around us, the injustice of the marginalized and victimized, when we have admitted that we are complicit in perpetuating systems of violence, abuse, and death.

There is a reason, I wage war on Christmas each year. Because it isn’t Christmas yet. We haven’t got there, we have missed what needs to come before. As we long for Messiah through Advent, and discover again all the ways in which our world needs a Saviour, the Feast of the Nativity, the Feast of the Incarnation can finally take real shape. The coming of Messiah into our dark and broken world can finally be the light and hope we truly need.

Our world is still very much in need of a Saviour, our world is full of captivity, exile, exodus, oppression, conflict, suffering, poverty, systems of violence, abuse… and death.

We don’t like Advent because it means we aren’t there yet, and that feeling opens up a whole world of emotions, ideas and experiences that we don’t want. We want to be at the party, not sitting outside hoping to get in. But that is where most of the world is, sitting outside waiting to get in… and realizing they almost certainly never will.

So tone the Christmas down this year. Put out 4 candles, and wait with all those who still need a Saviour more than Christmas present.

And maybe after waiting with me, with Israel, with all those who still need saving, you will see why we don’t sing “Joy to the world” until we have  sung “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” first.

What do you think? Should we be at war with Christmas? Or is it okay to celebrate Christmas for two months each year? Share in the comments or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Interested in some more snark:

12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

7 Reasons Church isn’t for You

The Heresy of Male Domination

When Grandma Dies and You are the Pastor

06familiaA Sermon for my grandmother, Agnes.

Luke 2:25–32, 36–39

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,  28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29”Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace,

your word has been fulfilled;

30for my eyes have seen your salvation,

31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Sermon

The season of Advent began last Thursday, and today we are well into the first week of the season. Advent is where Christians and the Church begin waiting and watching for the birth of the Messiah.

It was last Wednesday night that our family received the phone call that Agnes had died. That mom, grandma, great-grandma had died. Agnes died on the last night of the church year. Perhaps she didn’t have another season of waiting and watching in her. Perhaps she didn’t want to start the whole process over again. Perhaps for her, the Messiah had finally arrived to take her home.

It has been more than a season of waiting and watching for us, Agnes’s family. We have been waiting and watching over her for years, as her healthy body kept on going, her mind slowly degenerated because of Alzheimer’s. We waited and watched AND struggled with decisions about her care, and it was hard at times to agree what was best for her. But now Grandma’s waiting and watching is over. Now our watching and watching over her is over. Now, we are left to deal with the final things of her life. With the last thing, with death.

Grandma would not have liked talk about death. She had more important things going on. She was a hard worker. She was a faithful church member. She was devoted wife, mother and grandmother. She always had some cookies and juice when you stopped by to visit, or extra pairs of slippers in the closet. And she was almost always dressed in her best clothes and jewellery, even just to take a trip to the grocery store or the bank. She liked looking her best, she liked showing off her spotlessly clean home, and she liked being noticed for being her best. Grandma liked to fuss about the little things. I remember seeing her pull out a comb to fix my hair or my sister’s, or my dad’s or grandpa’s. When I started growing a beard, she told me often that I needed to shave it, because bugs would start growing in it. She often insisted that she knew what was best for all of us. We didn’t always listen. I didn’t listen and I still have the beard 15 years later, and no bugs. But Grandma fussed over us none the less.

Grandma fussed over the details, which often was her way of avoiding the big things. Big questions like death.

Like so many in her generation, she didn’t want to deal with the hard or difficult parts of life. She would often shush conversation about uncomfortable or controversial topics. She would leave the room if people disagreed with her. She only had two ways of dealing with hardship. Pretend it didn’t exist, or get angry. On a day like today, she would have preferred not to talk about what we are doing today. But I haven’t accepted her advice about today either, because talking about death is exactly what we need to do today.

Death cannot be avoided today. Death cannot be unspoken today. Today, death is right here in the room with us. It is a real as it can be.

Death made grandma so uncomfortable for the same reason it makes all of us so uncomfortable. When we can’t pretend that death doesn’t exist today, like we try so hard to do most of the time, we are left to face our own mortality. We are left to face our own powerlessness. We are left to face our own inadequacy. We left with our own sinfulness and brokenness. We have to deal with and speak of uncomfortable things today.

But this is what Advent is for. This is why the Church waits and watches. We take the time and space to admit our flaws and faults. We admit that we cannot pretend everything is fine anymore. We admit that we need someone bigger than ourselves. We need a saviour. We need Messiah.

Simeon the fateful servant of God grows old waiting for the Messiah. He grows old, serving God and hoping for the one who will come to save Israel. He carries the hope of an entire people, of generations. And when he finally lays eyes on the baby Jesus, he speaks prophetic words, “Now Lord you let your servant go in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation.”

They are prophetic words not because they predict the future, but because they name reality. Simeon has waited a life time for Messiah. An entire life-time.

These words, “Now Lord you let your servant go in peace” are words spoken each night in evening prayer. They are rehearsed and practiced every night by Christians around the world. They are also words often sung at funerals. The words that Christians use for prayer on a nightly basis are a rehearsal for that final moments of life, for when are at the end. In Advent practice as we wait. We rehearse what takes a life time to get used to. We practice getting to the end. We practice so that we can talk about the difficult things of life, so that we have the words to speak.

And the whole while as we wait and practice, God is there with us. Even as we wait for God, God waits for us. As Grandma waited for her end, as we waited and watched, God was right with her, with us, waiting and watching too. That is how God is, while we are expecting for the big show of Christmas, waiting everything to be perfect, shushing or avoid the difficult things, God is showing in the places we least expect. God shows up in Advent, in our waiting. God shows up in our suffering, in our powerlessness. And today, God shows up in death. Because Messiah, who is coming in Advent, is not coming just to lie in a manger. Messiah is coming for the cross, coming to die. And in death, Messiah comes to show us through, to show us the way to the other side. The way to new life in God.

Grandma’s waiting for Messiah ended on the last night of the church year. Our waiting has now started over again. And even as we wait and admit that we are imperfect, flawed, suffering, sinful people, God comes to us. God comes to us in our waiting, comes to us in our suffering. God comes to us in death. And by coming to us in death, Messiah waits for us with New Life, New life that is the next part of the conversation, the part that comes after death, even when we don’t want to talk about it. And that is why we name death today, even thought Grandma wouldn’t like it. Because Messiah has come to show her, and show us New life. And then when our waiting is over, we can say with Simeon:

Now Lord you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled, for my eyes have seen your salvation.

Amen