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.

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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 

The Heresy of Male Domination

St. Augustine and the Donatists
St. Augustine and the Donatists

A few days ago, blogger and author Tony Jones called for a Schism in the Church over the role of women, particularly that Christians who uphold an egalitarian view of men and women in the church leave and break fellowship with churches who uphold complementation views, or believe that women should submit to the authority and leadership of me in the home, in relationships and at church.

At the same time. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention and affiliated with the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, said that, egalitarian couples “preach a false gospel.”

[As a side note, Rachel Held Evans, noted that neither of these two have been called “divise”, one advocates schism, the other accuses a false gospel. She was famously called ‘divisive’ for simply asking why a Christian leadership conference with over 100 speakers only have 4 women.]

It is looks like the issue of the role of women in Christianity in North American, particularly among Evangelicals, is starting to boil.

Today, Tony Jones pulled back and said that schism was perhaps too harsh a word. I think he was right to do so. But I also think I know what he was trying to call for.

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) did it in 1977 in regards to Apartheid in South Africa. “The 1977 declaration of the Lutheran World Federation that apartheid constitutes a “status confessions,” this meaning that on the basis of faith and in order to manifest the unity of the church, churches should publicly and unequivocally reject existing apartheid systems.”

White South African churches were excluding Black South Africans. For the LWF, this wasn’t simply an issue of civil rights. This was a “gospel” issue. It was a gospel issue because those churches were denying the gospel to a particular group of people based on physical characteristic. The declaration is the only time Lutherans have agreed to add something to our confessions, to our unalterable doctrines of faith.

It just so happens that right around that time, many Lutheran bodies were beginning to ordain women. Co-incidence? I think not.

You see there is an important heresy that informed both the condemnation of Apartheid and the ordination of women.

Donatism.

Donatism was the claim that the moral character of a person affects the proclamation of the gospel and the means of grace. Or that only “good” or “special” or “saintly” or “chosen by God” people could lead worship, preside over the sacraments and proclaim the gospel.

The early church rejected Donatism. Martin Luther and the reformers condemned this heresy in the Augsburg Confession.

Those who advocate complementarianism or the submission of women are, essentially, Donatists. They are claiming that the Gospel is tarnished or diminished if preached by those who are not for “Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womandhood” or by egalitarian couples. This is heresy. The Gospel cannot be and is not affected by the moral character of those who preach it. The gospel is efficacious on its own.

But more importantly, the moral character (or biological character) of those who preach the gospel and administer the sacraments does not affect their efficacy. The sacraments are efficacious on their own. Men are not specially chosen to preach the gospel. Women are not specially prevented from preaching the gospel.

When people, like Russell Moore, make claims that the gospel is affected by the gender views of those who preach it, they are heretics.

That’s right, heretics.

I don’ think Tony Jones wants a schism. He said as much today. I think he, and many of us, are wanting a re-affirmation of orthodox doctrine. We want Christians and the Church to stand up and say that the rejection of complementarianism is a matter of doctrine and faith. It is “status confessionis”.

But what does that look like in practice?

Well, it is like when I go to denominations who practice closed communion, like Roman Catholics or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (neither of whom allow the ordination of women either), I go up to receive communion anyways. I dare them to excommunicate me, knowing what I consider to be matters of faith.

When I preside at the church I serve, I invite all who believe Christ is present in the meal to receive, even Romans Catholics or Missouri Synod folks (many have received communion from me).

When I work ecumenically, I talk about the ministry of my wife.  I tell my male colleagues from churches that don’t allow women in ministry about the things that she is doing.

And I write here, advocating for things that are good and right for the church.

Naming heresy is not about schism. It about the clear rejection of unorthodox doctrine. But it is also about the invitation to dialogue and the invitation the table.

So here it is. Complentariansim is to be rejected as heresy. And those who uphold it, like Russell Moore, are invited to commune with me… but it will be at a table where both men and women are free to preside.

*** Greg in the comments pointed out that since Ephesians 3:28 does talk about submission of men and women to each other, that a more appropriate title could be “The Heresy of Male Domination”. Good point Greg!***

What do you think? Is Complementarianism a heresy? Share in the comments or on twitter @ParkerErik

More posts on women in ministry:

Putting My Jesus Feminism to the Test

12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

Putting My Jesus Feminism to the Test

mi728x“Well, you could just have a baby.”

I hated it when people said that to my wife.

There was a time when people would regularly make this suggestion to her. She was unemployed, or the technical term in our denomination “without call”, at the time. We were hoping that there would be a position for a pastor or chaplain coming available close to where we were living, because we both wanted to be following our call to work for Jesus in the church. While the baby comment was probably offered with the kindest of intentions, the underlying idea was that her vocation as a pastor could be, and likely should be, easily set aside for the womanly vocation of motherhood.

My wife took all these comments in stride and with grace, eventually she would jokingly say, “This is the worst time to have a baby, I am unemployed and have student loans to pay”.

My wife could make a joke, but I was never impressed, and these comments bothered me. They still bother me when I think about them.

____________

When my wife and I decided to get married, we were living 1000 miles apart, serving congregations in different provinces and synods. We had been seminary classmates, but only started dating a few years after we graduated. We informed our Bishops of our desire to be serving in the same area, so that we could live together when we got married. We were willing to go anywhere.

In the year of our engagement, waiting and hoping for possibilities to open up, we eventually decided to both move. I was called to serve a congregation 100km from my first church, where there were promises of imminent openings for Courtenay, either in parish ministry or chaplaincy. It was just a matter of time.

I was being a given a fairly prestigious opportunity. The largest church in the synod (district/diocese etc…) wanted to call me as their Senior Pastor. This was pretty much unheard of – a 29-year-old pastor with 3 years experience in a small rural congregation becoming the senior pastor of a flagship congregation.

Many colleagues let me know that I had been given a big opportunity and that I had made it to the real show now. Some were concerned that the work load would be too much. Some felt the struggles that the congregation had been having for the last few years were too much for me to deal with. Others thought I would receive a wake up call once I got there. Still others weren’t sure I could manage such a large, multi-staff congregation, with so little experience. All my predecessors had been much older and more experienced pastors. I even heard through the grape-vine that accepting a call like that, to a congregation like that, was surely a sign that I was setting myself up to be a Bishop.

The congregation had contacted me in November, and it took until June before I actually moved. 3 months before our wedding, I started my ministry as the 29-year-old, engaged to be married Senior Pastor of a large Lutheran Church. And this whole time, these promised, imminent options had not become available… there was still no call or position for Courtenay.

__________

“Now listen here Missy! You leave the business and management of this church up to us. You just deal with the ministry.”

My wife has told me about many sexist, ageist comments she has received in her time as a pastor, but that one pisses me off the most.

I always had to hear about the comments from a distance, so when we got married and moved to the same place, the comments started coming for different reasons. They were patronizing statements masquerading as support:

“You will just have to wait because Pastor Erik has a call.”

“Maybe you can get a job somewhere else, there are lots of other jobs around”

“We hope that something comes open for you, because we really like your husband.”

“You could just have a baby, we would love that here.”

“It must be nice to be able to be at home all day.”

“You could come lead the ladies’ bible study or sing in the choir, those are pastor-y things.”

“We will pray that God helps you” (for my wife to see that she should be supporting my call)

“That is just the way older men talk to women, they don’t know any different.”

The worst was when friends and colleagues offered some of this unhelpful advice. As Courtenay was waiting for a call to parish ministry or chaplaincy, many people: family, friends, colleagues, parishioners would try to be supportive.

But so often, their words ended up minimizing my wife’s call to ministry. Somehow my call, because I was a man, because I was a Senior Pastor, because I couldn’t have babies through my body had become more important. It was like God had called me double or triple, and God had given my wife options – be a lady pastor or a mom or a housewife. Those 9 years of education and the call of the church don’t really matter because your body can make babies. Oh, and you have a husband now, so you are real woman and can do womanly things.

___________________

The leadership in the congregation was aware that Courtenay and I were waiting and were unhappy. For most people it only felt like a few months. For us, the process to find two calls had begun over a year before. When after only 6 months, I informed the leadership of the congregation that we were looking at the possibility of two calls elsewhere, people were understandably upset.

Prayer meetings were called and people were genuinely concerned. So many were starting to understand the difficulty that we faced with Courtenay being without a call and unemployed. Many people were wonderfully caring. Many people prayed for God to call my wife to something.

But for some, there was an undercurrent of frustration. There was the sense that Courtenay shouldn’t complain. Her husband was serving a church after all. Wives should support their husbands, especially if their husbands are pastors.

It was even suggested to me that I get my marriage in order, that perhaps we needed marriage advice or counselling to resolve the “impasse” between us.

_________________

Here is the thing, though.

There was no impasse.

In fact, I was the one who suggested we contact another Bishop. We knew of an area where there were 5 churches in our denomination looking for pastors.

Courtenay is amazing. She loves me enough that if I asked her to wait without a call for longer, she would have. She had been waiting for a year, and it would have been at least another, maybe longer as far as we could tell. She would have waited to make me happy.

But I couldn’t bear that. Every day I got to go to the office, I felt guilty. We had made a promise to each other – we could be pastors anywhere, but only married in the same place. I was, now, breaking that promise. We were married but not both serving. Important early years of her career could slip away, sitting at home with nothing to do.

The guilt wasn’t all. I often had the feeling I was the only person taking her call as seriously as mine. I was the only who believed that God had called her to be a pastor in active ministry, just as much as God had called me. I know that sometimes pastors who want to serve in a certain city have to wait, but the limit on my wife pastoring a church was me. I couldn’t do that to her, I couldn’t ask that of her. And I felt God calling me to consider a change, a move so that we could both serve Jesus and be together. I mean, that is why we moved in the first place.

Throughout the whole experience, I could never shake the feeling that people would respond differently if our roles were reversed. I could never drop the idea that if Courtenay got a job at Starbucks, a lot of people would be okay with that. There would be outrage if it were me picking up a service industry job. It always seemed that ‘having a baby’ was a viable alternative for Courtenay to pastoral ministry, but paternity leave would be frowned upon for me. Becoming a “Pastor’s Wife was not out of the question for Courtenay, but not even in the realm of possibility for me.

________________

So Courtenay and I left, after only 9 months of being the Senior Pastor of a prestigious church. We moved to a place where we could both be pastors and serve Jesus, and Jesus’ people.

This was by far, the hardest thing I have ever had to do as Pastor, as a Christian, as a husband. It would have been much easier to go with the tide. It would have been easy to claim that my call to this prestigious church was a priority. It would have been the easy thing to do to make my wife wait, for who knows how long, to do what God was calling her to do. God was also calling her to be my wife, right? It would have been easier to buy into the privilege that so many people were implicitly offering to me, and believe my call was more important than my wife’s.

The whole way along, there were people who ‘got it’ – people who were not satisfied with other options for Courtenay. Those people were great, and we needed them. But too many others were willing to rank our calls by our genders.

Being married to another pastor has completely changed the way I understand God’s call. God can call me to do God’s work anywhere, but I can only be married to my wife where she is. Yet, maybe more importantly, being married to a wonderful woman who is also as pastor, and to a pastor who is a woman, has shown me that we aren’t there yet. We haven’t made it as a Church. Even when we have female pastors and female bishops, we still have hang-ups about women in ministry. We still see men as the ‘default’ when it comes to our image of ‘pastor’, and we are willing to unthinkingly put women’s calls into secondary categories defined by gender.

Things are slowly getting better for women in the church. My hope is that more and more church people will start to get it. My hope is that one day people saying “You have or wait” or “You can have a baby” will be just as unacceptable to tell Courtenay as it currently is to tell me. My hope is, that one day, gender won’t define pastors in the church. My hope is that all of our callings, ordained or lay, in the church, in the world, in the home will be understood as equally valid.

For more on male privilege and women in ministry:

The Heresy of Women Submitting to Men

12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

10 More Reasons Why Being  a Male Pastor is Better

12 Years a Slave – Why Women Should be Equal in the Church

A Young Male Pastor’s Thoughts on Women in Ministry

Have you own story of your Jesus Feminism being put to the test? Share in the comments or with me on twitter @ParkerErik or follow my wife @ReedmanParker

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