{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Where Does the Church Fit at Christmas?

St. Edmunds Church Dolton, Devon England

St. Edmunds Church
Dolton, Devon England

I know it sounds like a crazy question, but where does the Church fit into the Christmas season?

On the one hand, we can be the people who get all fired up and crazy whenever people take nativity scenes off of public squares or tell us, “Happy Holidays,” when we’re out shopping. We can commit ourselves to fighting an imaginary “war on Christmas” and seek to snuff out any hints religious diversity during the season (never mind the fact that we do so while also observing pagan rituals like putting trees up in our homes, offices, and churches). We can get our blood pressure up anytime we see someone write “Xmas” instead of Christmas and accuse them of somehow “leaving the Christ out of Christmas” (never mind the fact that X is the Greek reference to how you spell Christ). Yes, we can spend the whole season with a burr in our saddle over the encroaching threat we perceive happening to the spirit and meaning of the season.

On the other hand, we can be the kind of people who gripe about the over-commercialization of the season and how Christmas has successfully swallowed up any notion of Advent and even Thanksgiving. For all we know the mammoth consumer holiday might have Halloween in its sights next. We can complain about how consumerism and secularism has ruined what should be a perfectly solemn season. And we can dig our heels in whenever people tire of singing Advent hymns by the middle of December and start requesting the carols they’ve heard 24 hours a day since November 1st. We can throw Rudolph, the Elf on the Shelf, and even Santa under the bus as we try to usher in the season of Advent and Christmas as the season of peace on earth and goodwill toward others.

But what if there’s a different, less antagonistic place for the Church?

What if instead of complaining, we welcomed the idea of being pushed out of the center of the culture? What if instead of being antagonistic and vowing to wage war on anyone who dares to question the superiority of Christmas, we humbly and faithfully found our place on the margins of the season? You see, when you get pushed out of the center of Main Street in society, you’re able to find those who are also struggling to find their place in this season. While the world is marching toward yet another tinsel-stuffed, holly, jolly exercise in indulgence, the Church could be seeking out the people and circumstances that don’t quite fit into a Norman Rockwell scene. We can look in the dark places that might otherwise go unnoticed this season to find those who long for hope. And we can offer them a story and a witness to the sheer power of what “God with us” truly means.

I will be reminded over these next 7 days that the miracle of the real nativity did not happen on Main Street with fanfare, public displays of affection, or joyful adherence from the culture. It happened in the throes of terrible labor pains and a baby crying at the top of his lungs. It happened in the darkness of the night where some farm animals and peasants were the only witnesses. The religious people might have missed it but those we would call secular didn’t. How could they? Angels chose them to be the recipients of the heavenly news.

I suppose that’s the funny thing about this season — God chooses the most surprising people from the most unexpected places to be a part of the story. While the rest of us wage wars on secularism or religious diversity, God is busy in the dark places calling those who might otherwise go unnoticed to be a part of the miracle. And if we’re smart in the Church, we’ll find ways to be in those dark places too and we’ll quit our fighting with, well, everything. Lord knows we don’t want to miss out on God’s surprising work among us.

Faith Is…

 We’re now 5 weeks (give or take) away from the arrival of Baby Gosden. The nerves are starting to build and the anxiety levels will soon be reaching Defcon 1. We’re currently going through the rhythm of baby showers that shower you with gifts, questions and advice. “Are you ready yet?” seems to be a favorite question to ask. It seems to be second nature for people to ask that one. Frankly, I don’t quite know how to answer it. The truth is, you’re never actually ready for a baby to arrive, we only pretend to be. You can prepare a nursery, get bags packed, lay out clothes and even rehearse the trip to the hospital. But no one is truly ever ready for a baby to enter the world. I normally go for the honest answer–if for no other reason than because it’s the easiest to remember–and say, “well I don’t know what ready would look like but we’re excited.”

I admit that some days I struggle with the feelings of ineptitude at having a child. You can torture yourself with the internal questions of, “Will I screw things up?,” or, “Can I actually fail as a parent?” It’s a tough in-between place to be in.

Recently a friend reminded me that having a baby is truly an act of faith. You see, he astutely pointed out that the opposite of faith is not doubt but knowledge. Faith is an act of trust that happens in the face of insufficient knowledge. It’s believing that things will turn out a certain way even when you’re not quite sure how that will happen. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Faith is the belief in things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” In the church we talk so much about faith and what it means to have faith. But sometime I fear we talk about faith in such a way that we demonize doubt, questions, and insecurity. We act as though to have doubt means we don’t have a sufficient amount of faith to ground us.

In a world that seeks to proclaim knowledge of everything around us, it’s exciting to know there are things we’re yet to fully understand. There are still things we have to put our faith in. God cannot be boiled down to a particular understanding and we can’t explain all of the miracles of Creation with a formula. We know how babies are born but there’s a lot of mystery that comes along with their arrival. Who will they be? What kind of personality will they have? How will they interact with you? How will you measure up as a parent? All of these are legitimate questions that we can’t have answers for until we actually live into those answers. It’s the job of parents to search out soon-to-be parents and offer the support that on those uncertain days, faith can get you through to the next day. Lord knows I’m soon to need that more than I probably know.

Putting nurseries together, filling out registries, and reading all of the latest baby books are fine–you have to do that stuff–but they won’t solve those mysteries for us. Life will bring those answers in the fullness of time. And God, well God is with us–even in ways we can’t comprehend. Thanks be to God.

 

We're All From Missouri: A Sermon on John 20:19-28

John 20:19-28:

19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” 26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

I’ve always been a doubter. My grandma used to tell me I was from the “show me state.” I never believed anything until I could prove it for myself. As I’ve grown up I’ve realized I’m really not that strange compared to the rest of the world. When did we all become so cynical? Think about it, how often do we say: “I’ll believe when I see it.” When did doubt become such a part of who we are as people? We’re probably the most skeptical people humankind has ever seen. We don’t believe politicians because they lie. We don’t believe ads because anything too good to be true usually is. We don’t believe in promises because we get let down. We figure it’s much safer staying in our little skeptical worlds filled with unbelief and dismay-at least then we know what to expect.

Our text joins in progress the first meeting of First Church Jerusalem. Some church this is. Here they are sitting together with the doors locked. Open hearts and doors apparently aren’t seen as important for this church. We’re told they’re gathered in fear. We assume they’ve been told about the Easter event because in the previous verses Jesus tells Mary Magdalene in his appearance to her to go and tell the others about what’s happened. How do they react? They lock the doors, stare at the walls, and sit in fear. It’s as though they don’t believe until they have some sort of proof of this wild story. And then, without warning, the Risen Christ bursts on to the scene, walks through the locked doors, and appears among them. And it’s only then that they’re overjoyed.

My mentor in the ministry was appointed as the pastor of a church that looked around and realized they looked a lot different than their neighborhood. Once in a conversation he shared with me, that when he got to this church it was as if they had locked their doors and just sat in fear of the future. That’s all they did. Sunday after Sunday was a cycle of this fear-driven life where it’s safer to keep the doors locked. Now I’ll tell you that in 15 years this church went from 25-30 people to over 700 people and became a beacon and voice for the surrounding community. He told me he really didn’t know whether they unlocked the doors or if God came in despite the locked doors. What he did know is that this church had an encounter with the living God, despite their fear and closed doors and doubt; they were never the same again.

If the story of First Church Jerusalem wasn’t enough, we meet one of their most active members, Thomas. Thomas wasn’t in the worship meeting where the Risen Lord appeared. He missed the miraculous event. Frankly who can blame him? He probably thought he could find something a bit more exciting than sitting behind locked doors staring at walls. We learn that it’s not enough to tell Thomas of the miracle of Easter. It’s not enough to tell him about the locked doors and the walking through walls and the whole spectacle of the Resurrection. Nope. It’s not until he can touch and see for himself. In other words, Thomas says, “show me.”

How many of us, in our most honest moments, can relate to Thomas? Think for a moment real hard. How often to do come to church because that’s what we do? How often do we come and wonder to ourselves in the car on the way over here, “why am I doing this in the first place?” Our friends can tell us all day long about their experiences with God. They can tell us of the moments when they just “knew” God had been so close to them. But we don’t believe them-not until we touch and see for ourselves.

So if we all doubt and fear then what does this text have to say to us today? Well here’s the turn we aren’t expecting in our text. This text isn’t about us-it’s about God. There’s no example here of how to live versus how not to live. There’s no superior exemplar of Christian values. The truth is, no one gets it. Everyone in this story is like doubting Thomas on some level. Everyone’s from the “show me” state here. And that’s why this text can’t be about us. If it were, we’d still have our doors locked and we’d be sitting in fear of what comes next.

This story is about God. This story tells about a God who dares to intrude right in the middle of our lives. This story tells us that even though we have church more like First Church Jerusalem with their locked doors and doubting attitudes, the Risen Christ can still move among us. Here we’re able to bring our doubts and our fears and confess that we don’t always get it. And you know what-it can be the most liberating thing we do sometimes! What better than to say out loud those fears and those doubts about our faith we have week after week? What’s more freeing than to admit we don’t get it? We don’t have to fake it anymore. We don’t have to pretend like we always understand what we do in church. We don’t have to put on the persona that our faith life is the most vibrant part of who we are. Deep down we know we struggle with doubt at times. Deep down we know we fear that we don’t have everything together. And here, Thomas and First Church Jerusalem show us that it’s okay.

But be forewarned-as we sit in this place of doubt and fear we’d best be careful. It may happen when we least expect it. It might be in the words of a song, in the words of a prayer, in a smile of a neighbor, in the call of a loved-one. It might even be in the deafening tenor of the utter silence. But we’d best be careful. The Risen Christ might just come through those walls of doubt we pretend aren’t there and shake us at our very core. He’ll remind us that it’s okay to doubt, but now we can believe too. Now we’ve seen and touched the miracle of the Resurrection. In the meantime, we’re left rocked to the foundation of our being. And all we can say is, “My Lord and My God.”

Hope in the Midst of Sin: A Reflection on 2 Samuel 11:25-12:14

During my time in the Intro to Pastoral Care course we were assigned to construct a family genogram and then write a paper based on the research we did on our family and how that shapes and affects us.  Since we had to go back to our grandparents I had to contact my mother’s sister to learn about my grandparents.  I chose her over my mom because my mom was by far the youngest child and had, what I felt was, an idealized image of my grandparents. I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather.  He was a war hero.  He was such a hard-working man.  He once stayed up 36 straight hours because he sat by my mom’s bedside all night after working a 12-hour day when she had a fever of 104 as a young child.  By the time the fever finally broke he had to go take a shower and put on a clean shirt to go off to work for another 12-hour workday.  This man was a great man in my mind.  He was someone I wanted to aspire to be like.  And then I got my aunt’s side of the story.  She was the oldest in the family and she informed me of some of the many things my mom was sheltered from as a child.  My grandfather was a bigot.  He was a member of the school board outside of Eufaula, AL and was an outspoken advocate for the segregation of schools.  In fact, when my aunt informed him that he was a racist for this belief at the young age of 15, he packed her a bag and threatened to throw her out of the house.  I was so disappointed to learn the truth about this man I had so admired through the years.  He died when I was a child so the legends of his greatness were all I had to hold onto.  This new reality served as a major blow in how I will forever view this flawed man I call grandfather.

This very difficult passage from 2 Samuel today does the same thing to us.  As we have moved through Samuel we have heard the stories of the great David.  David was the great man whom God plucked from the hills as a shepherd boy.  David was the great man who, as a boy, defeated the mighty Goliath with nothing but a slingshot and three stones.  David was the great king who slew many men and was then ordained by Samuel to be the next king after Saul.  It’s a major blow to our idealized image of David when we see this power-hungry side of him.  We’re not sure where to go after this story.  Our realities have been rattled.  Our romanticized image of this great man of faith has been tarnished beyond repair.  But we cannot merely skate past this part of the scripture.  The author of Samuel will not let us.  We are forced to face David, the real David, head on.  This is the David that David probably doesn’t want us to know.  But if we are to understand David at all we have to see him as he is.  But this story does something even more powerful than that.  Through seeing David as he is, weaknesses and all, we are forced to also see ourselves in this same light.  This is the tough part of our text.  You see David’s sins are our sins.  David’s attitude of self-deception in light of his sin is the same self-deception we practice when we try to cover the tracks of our sin.  And like David, just when we think we have avoided the embarrassment of our sin and retained our good reputation, we are faced in that moment with the cold, hard fact that even though we might have fooled the whole world around us, God knows better.

Leading up to our text today we are quickly rushed through the details of this story.  David eyes Bathsheba and sends for her to come to the palace.  It is Spring, and the armies are off to war and David seems to have, as my old boss would say, a case of Spring Fever.  If we go back to early in chapter 11 we find David described by 3 verbs.  He sends, he takes, he lays with Bathsheba.  With no regard for any consequences David seeks to satisfy his hunger.  I would even go so far as to say that this was more than a hunger for sexual satisfaction.  David had a strong hunger for power.  The text says he took Bathsheba because she was beautiful.  But we do not read of him romancing her.  There is no telling of him wining and dining her.  There are no Barry White CDs in the background as he admires this woman’s beauty in the light of the early evening.  No.  He takes purely because he can.  He takes and lays with her and then sends her back home.  This was a good day for David.  That is, until he checks his inbox a few days later and sees the e-mail from Bathsheba.  The subject line contains two words: I’m pregnant.  And thus we are taken through the remainder of chapter 11 and the sordid details of how David tries to get Uriah to go lay with his wife and, when he doesn’t, conspires with his general Joab to have Uriah killed in battle.  After this misdeed is carried out David sends again for Bathsheba and takes her again, this time as his wife since she is now pregnant with his child.  Coveting his neighbor’s wife, adultery and murder-David has quickly broken 3 commandments of the Decalogue.

All seems well for David.  He has a new wife he doesn’t know but who cares, kings had many wives since a greater number signified greater status and power.  He has a new child to care for but who cares, he has the money to provide a life.  More importantly for David, no one would be the wiser as to how Uriah was killed and why exactly this new wife came to be the wife of the king.  Or at least that’s what David thought.  Now we have to read verse 25 juxtaposed to verse 27.  Verse 25 tells us that David said to Joab, “do not let this thing bother you.”  And then in verse 27 our narrative takes the surprise twist when we learn “but the thing David did displeased the Lord.”  This is surely a turn David did not see coming.  It is at this point in the story that we see two narratives collide: the story of how power is gained, used, and inevitably abused in the “real world” and a second narrative about God’s counter plans for the world.

The prophet Nathan comes to David in chapter 12 and tells him a parable about a rich and a poor man.  He tells the story of how this rich man exploited the poor man by taking his prized possession.  And we learn this story infuriates David.  David, who is used to issuing court orders, declares this man deserves death.  And on top of that, before he dies he should pay the poor man fourfold what he took from him.  And then, after a moment of silence, Nathan takes a deep breath and tells David point of the story when he says, “you are the man.”  What a bomb to drop on the king.  Nathan surely risks his life by coming to the king and confronting him of his sin.  But the conversation does not stop there.  Nathan proceeds to tell David his message from the Lord.  “Thus says the Lord: I gave you everything David.  I made you king, gave you riches, gave you your power.  And on top of that I would have given you more if you needed it.

In my difficult study of this passage I am stuck on a question that keeps coming up in my reflection.  We know that in verse 13 David admits his guilt for his sin.  But what made the difference?  What was the turning point that David felt compelled to admit to his sin for the first time in this narrative?  On first glance we assume it was when Nathan proclaimed that David was the wrongdoing man from the parable.  But after a careful reading I am not so sure.  Nathan does not come to David to condemn him for his sin.  He is, instead, sent by God to remind David of, as my mother would say, who he is and whose he is.  You see David’s admission to his guilt is not meant to be just a submission to the commandments, but rather, it is a submission to something more-his covenantal relationship with God.  As Will Willimon writes, “just as we are about to write off David as a moral failure, the prophet calls forth a new David, who is able to submit to the dominance of God’s account of the world.”  You see in this story we see ourselves in David’s cry for autonomy.  But we also see God who cries for covenantal relationship with us instead.

I must confess that this subject of sin is not one I am comfortable writing or learning or much less preaching about.  This text calls all of us to a place where we are not comfortable.  This text takes us to the cold, dark valley of not only David’s sin but also our own.  And yet it is through this journey to the dark places in our lives where, if we pay attention, we can hear God calling us back into a covenantal relationship daily.  It is not through condemnation that he does this but rather through the transforming realization that like David, God has given us so much.  For us, it was not power or wives, or military might.  But rather it was something so much greater.  He gave us himself.  You see only in our humanness do we truly know the redemptive power of God.  This redemption is constantly calling us into a covenant relationship with Him.  Time and time again, God calls us forth into a new life with Him.  Despite the depth of our sin, God’s love is so much greater.

In this narrative we learn that sin carries consequences.  That’s very true.  David’s family will never be the same after this episode.  And we cannot forget that idea that sin carries consequences that often, just as in this story, affect the innocent more than it does us.  But in spite of that sin, God continues to relentlessly pursue a relationship with us.  And we can be reminded through this story of David of the dramatic love of a God who will go as far as death on a cross to remind us not only who we are, but whose we are!  Amen.

Why God Loves the People of Haiti Despite What Some Might Think

I normally do not like to give people like Pat Robertson the attention of my thoughts much less a blog post. But this story has stuck around for a few days now-much longer than I had hoped. And it really bothers me for a couple of reasons: 1) Do we really still live in an age where someone feels legitimated to say that they know why tragedy strikes and that is has something to do with divine retribution? 2) The horrors of Haiti seem to grow everyday. With every day the death toll gets larger and the extent of the damage seems greater, and 3) Pat Robertson attaches the term “evangelical” to himself and those who may agree with him and I can’t resist and opportunity to speak out against such narrow theology that is anything BUT evangelical at its core.

My good friend Brad has a wonderful post about this situation. I would love to join in this conversation with him.

First of all, if we adhere to anything Jesus taught us it is that we are to forgive. I am as human as the next person so I readily admit it is not easy for me to forgive Pat Robertson for such ignorant comments, in the name of God no less. But as Michael Gorman reminds us, if Luke 23:34 means anything, it means we forgive no matter the ignorance of Mr. Robertson.

Secondly, it goes without saying that I don’t believe Mr. Robertson to be an evangelical. Such a label should be reserved for a brand of Christianity that believes the love of God is so great that it was made manifest in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, continued in the ongoing empowering activity of the Holy Spirit, and that this love is greater even than claims of exclusivity by one person or group or even nation. God is in Haiti right now. God sits in the ash heap of rubble. God wraps God’s mighty arms of love and mercy around the people who now know nothing but desolation and despair. And knowing that is what it means to be evangelical in times like this.

Finally, if the cross of Jesus Christ teaches us anything it is, as Brad rightly reminds us, that we humans can have no claim of divine wisdom and authority. The cross of Christ was and is the end of humanity’s claim for divine wisdom. We are subject to a God who, even in the midst of tragedy, can see and begin to make new life. This doesn’t negate this God’s relentless mercy for all who are affected and stricken during a time of tragedy. But it does mean that God will not leave tragedy just as it is. New life is at work even now. But for now, before we can see such new life manifest, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti. We pray for hope and mercy during this time. We pray for the day to hasten when the people will have their cities and villages back. And we take heart in the fact that the God of the Cross is not done with the people Haiti yet!

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