Thursday 28 December 2023

Beginning Again

Christmas stories, like the Great Story itself, bear repeating. Especially when they’re childhood stories of traditions, there’s a lot of meaning in those. Even more so when it feels like a ritual, a practice that informs tradition. Sometimes the telling becomes the tradition. So hear me out: maybe I’m making a tradition of telling this story again.

When I was a child, we had a really nice crèche, a nativity scene that we put out at Christmas. There were lots of figures in it, people and animals, even an angel, and they were all handmade, some as tall as 8 inches. It had a beautiful wooden frame of a stable that everyone fit in, and having it out on the sideboard in the dining room was always a highlight of our Christmas decorations.

My Dad usually got it out about the first or second week of Advent. But he never put the whole thing out at once. At first, there would be some animals, a cow and a donkey, maybe a sheep or two in the stable. By the week before Christmas, the angel had taken its place on the wall above the stable and Mary and Joseph had appeared, but there was no baby yet.

On Christmas Eve, the baby would appear in the manger and there would be shepherds and, of course, the star would hang with the angel on the wall over the stable. The magi, the wise ones from the East, would appear in the living room. The living room.

They began their journey on the other side of the living room. Each day or two, when he remembered, my Dad would move them closer to the rest of the scene. They’d travel from end table to coffee table, across the great expanse of the piano, until they arrived at the manger on January 6. That’s Epiphany, the day on the church calendar when the magi arrived and Jesus was revealed to them as the child they were seeking, the Messiah. Once they arrived, it was time to take down the crèche and put it away until next year.

As a child, and especially as a teenager, I’m sure I found that whole thing kind of silly. More recently, I’ve come to realize how wise it was.

I wonder, sometimes, that we spend so much time getting ready for Christmas and enjoying Christmas before it actually happens, that to have it be “over” is often a relief. Already within a day or two of December 25th, Christmas is over and packed away. All we want to do now is get on with the new year. So we put our whole story in one manger at one time.

But that’s not how the story goes, is it? First of all, Mary had to be pregnant for nine months, so the story starts a lot earlier than Christmas Eve. Then they had to travel to Bethlehem and, when the baby was born, the angel told the shepherds, who trudged in from the fields to see Jesus. There might have been more visitors, too, townsfolk or friends, curious strangers marvelling at a baby born in a stable.

The magi followed the star that first appeared with Jesus’ birth. It’s not like they could get there over night. In might even have taken a year or two. That’s why Herod, afraid of this promised “king,” says the story in Matthew’s gospel, ordered that all boys two years old and under should be killed. Warned in a dream, Joseph took his family to Egypt to escape. So, born in a stable, worshiped by shepherds, revered by magi and so feared by a King that he tried to kill him – that’s an exciting childhood! Certainly more than one night.

I’m not suggesting that we should take the Christmas story more literally. It’s just that Christmas is so much bigger than God dropping into a manger one night. When we spend more time with the story, it’s amazing how much God’s love is revealed, not just in the moment of birth, but in the promise and in the living as well. Christmas isn’t just a moment that’s past, it’s the beginning of something new.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Facing Our Fear

In a world so full of fear, can there be anything better than this story we tell at Christmas?

This story of Jesus’ birth that we compile from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, with some insights from the gospel of John, is full of fear. At least, it ought to be, judging by the number of times we hear “don’t be afraid.”

And yet, it doesn’t feel like it.

Any reasonable person would see the challenges here. Angels? However they appear, in daylight or in dreams, whatever you imagine them to be, I don’t think that any of us would readily accept the experience of any of the characters in the story as ordinary and easily explained. Then there’s the news they bring. I bet the social complications of Mary and Joseph’s relationship were challenging, to say the least. The journey to Bethlehem must have been hard and, in its own way, scary. I hardly think the birth of a baby in a barn or stable, whether it was a cave or a building, was anything less than difficult. And the magi, well, you can’t tell me they weren’t at least surprised by how and where they found Jesus and a little bit anxious about getting away from the “disturbed” Herod. 

I doubt that night was the calm, serene pastoral scene we see in nativity sets and on Christmas cards, and hear about in carols that describe a night so still and a “no crying he makes” baby.

No. And I don’t think it was just the angels who said “don’t be afraid,” either. I imagine all the characters in the story, at one time or another, encouraging each other with those words. “Don’t be afraid.” There’s lots to fear.

And yet, it doesn’t feel like it.

I think it’s because Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the magi and all of the other characters we can imagine to be in the story - including ourselves - know that it’s more than just the words, it’s an invitation to be part of what God is doing.

The spirit of love and creation, the life-giving presence of God has been in all things since the beginning. Perhaps in the angel’s invitation to not be afraid, is the invitation to welcome God’s love and embrace it with a hope that engages fear, inspires our actions and moves us to love. Look at Mary and the shepherds. Luke says that their response isn’t just to actively engage what the angel tells them, but to then praise and glorify God for it happening. 

And what’s happening is that power of love creating a new thing. In Jesus, the divine presence will be demonstrated in human expression. The Word will be made flesh, John writes, and we will be able to see, in real terms, what it means to live into the life-giving relationship to which we are born.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone goes away from this story to have a Merry Christmas and a holly, jolly good time. But deeper than the merry is joy and deeper still than the holly jolly, is love.

There are no better words this Christmas: “don’t be afraid: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

Thursday 14 December 2023

Who's There?

The first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, according to the gospel of Luke, were shepherds. I wonder. They were certainly the first to hear The Formal Announcement that the messiah had been born. An army of angels singing is about as formal as you can get.

I wonder, though. We all have different visions of what the night might have been like, from the historically accurate to the romantic, but we don’t know for sure. I wonder if there might not have been others who ended up in the stable (whatever that might have looked like). Or maybe the owner was nearby or others who might have heard either Mary giving birth or the baby’s first cries. Or neighbours, even. Bethlehem wasn’t a big place. Perhaps there was even a midwife handy. They might not have got the “good news of great joy,” but I imagine they would have been happy for Mary and Joseph. 

Of course, they might not have cared, or they might have been cranky about being wakened or even concerned for the poor young couple, travelling with a newborn. I think it’s worth wondering about because we might come to the manger as one of those people, depending on where we find ourselves this Christmas.

But Luke’s not interested in that. He wants us to know that a certain group of people got the news first and, as a result, were the first to visit the baby.

Traditionally, you might have heard (as I did) that’s because the shepherds were the lowest rung of the social ladder, marginalized folks who were poor and lonely, dirty and rough, eking out a living in the fields, away from people. The point being that’s who Jesus comes for: the poor and marginalized.

Okay, good point. Of course, Jesus also came for the lost and for sinners. Don’t forget the sinners. And, besides, there’s some debate about whether or not that’s a true description of what people thought of shepherds in 1st century Judea.

See, shepherd was also an image of leadership in those days, of kingship in particular. David, the most revered king of Israel, had been a shepherd. And don’t forget that Joseph is a descendant of David, that’s why they were in Bethlehem in the first place. What about the 23rd psalm? God is my shepherd, it says. There’s even some suggestion that it’s possible the shepherds in the story could have been priests of the temple, charged with caring for the sheep raised to be used for sacrifice. Later, Jesus will be called the Good Shepherd, even later still, the sacrificial Lamb of God.

I know, I know: it’s a nice pastoral story, why are you clouding it with all these other possibilities?

Sometimes I wonder. Not that we got the interpretation of shepherds wrong or that there might have been other people there or even that it’s important who was first, but simply that it could be anyone. And that means it could be me.

If you want to be a character in the Christmas story, just be yourself. That’s who God’s here for. Maybe you can identify with the shepherds or the folks at the inn or even the animals that might have already been in the stable. Maybe you see yourself as an angel or Mary or Joseph. But, to come to Jesus this Christmas, you don’t have to be anyone but who you truly are.

Thursday 7 December 2023

There are Angels

Many churches have a creche or Christmas Crib or nativity or manger scene at Christmas time. By whatever name we call it, it represents the fullness of the story we tell. Each figure has their own story but when we put them together they create a lovely pastoral moment, that beautiful, gentle moment when Jesus is born in Bethlehem. We’ll gather there on Christmas Eve, candles in hand and sing “Silent Night.” Like the characters in the story, our journey there may have been anything but calm and bright. But, for a brief moment, we can set aside other things and just rest with Jesus in the manger.

That’s a good opportunity to reflect on the characters that are gathered there. The newborn Jesus is there in the manger, of course, with Mary and Joseph. There might be some animals that you’d find in a stable or barn, like sheep, goats, cattle, chickens - the list of our imagination likely far outstrips the reality of first century Judea. There would be shepherds, who heard the news from the angels. They might have brought some sheep. You’ll likely see magi, with a camel or two, though their story happened later than that night. But it’s good to include them anyway, they sure seem to belong there. If your creche is particularly elaborate, you might have an extra character or two, like an innkeeper peering around the corner, or a couple of curious towns folk. There should be a star and maybe even an angel.

Ah yes, an angel. It’s the one moment in the story where there’s no mention of one being there. But you know they were. Without angels, there’d be no story.

An angel visits Mary. An angel reassures Joseph. An angel (and a host of angels) shares the news with the shepherds and sends them to the stable. An angel helped the magi get home safely after they saw Jesus. An angel helped the family escape Herod and return home. Angels are everywhere else in the story and you can bet the manger was surrounded by them.

Angels bring the most important message of the story. That’s not the divine pregnancy or the good news of the birth or even protection from danger. It’s this wisdom: don’t be afraid.

There’s no doubt that the sudden appearance of an angel - however you might imagine that to happen - inspires fear in the earthbound characters of the story. Their message likely did, too, even if it was also one of hope or joy. The story is full of challenges. There’s a lot that’s unexpected, unlikely and uncomfortable.

But each time the angel says “don’t be afraid,” the characters find a way to not be afraid. At least, they find a way forward. I suspect they’re still anxious and afraid, but they know something we could really use today.

Emmanuel. When the angel visits Joseph and tells him not to be afraid to marry Mary, Matthew proclaims it to be the fulfillment of a prophecy: “‘look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23).

God is with us. The spirit of love and creation, the life-giving presence of God, has been in all things since the beginning. Perhaps in the angel’s invitation to not be afraid is the invitation to welcome God’s love again, and embrace it, so that, whatever lies ahead, we know we don’t go there alone. 

Thursday 30 November 2023

Meet Your Expectations

Advent begins this week. Depending on your traditions, you might have started the season of preparation for Christmas on the fourth Sunday before Christmas or on December 1st. If you’re doing Advent. And I hope you are.

For some people, there are four Sundays in Advent, measured by the Advent wreath with a candle to light for each Sunday. In some traditions, we’ve also given those candles themes: hope, peace, joy and love. Three of them might be purple or blue, the third one - that’s joy - might be pink, and then there’s a middle candle that’s white for Christmas.

Others might use an Advent calendar that begins on December 1 and has a little door to open for each of the twenty four days leading to Christmas. Some of those little doors have a little picture behind it. Some have a little chocolate. Some have anything from a fancy chocolate to a cookie to Legos to socks, makeup, tea, various fancy foods, meats, different kinds of alcohol, books, model cars, even seeds and plants. Anything, really. While it might seem that its purpose has slipped simply into entertainment, it’s still fulfilling the first part of its function: counting down the days to Christmas.

Or, more appropriately, counting up the days. Both the wreath and the calendar address the time that needs to be covered, but what are you doing with that time? How are you preparing for Christmas?

We talk about Advent as a time of anticipation, a time of expectation. One of the most frequently sung advent hymns is Charles Wesley’s “Come, thou long expected Jesus.” Jesus has come (the expected messiah of the gospel stories), is coming to our hearts again and again (expected in how we live out those stories), and promises to come again (the expected “second coming”). So we take time to reflect, in preparation for the expected.

I think there’s more than that in our sense of expectation, though. Along with Jesus, some are expecting a busy season. Some expect events, parties and dinners. Some expect baking, shopping and decorating. Some expect family gatherings, traditions, familiar carols and yes, church services. Some expect a difficult time, grieving a person missing or better times in past years.

And it’s not just that. We have expectations about how those things should go, what they should be and what they should mean. And: we’ve already decided that.

But the story we celebrate is full of the wonder of the unexpected. Mary and Joseph didn’t expect to hear such life changing news from angels. Neither did the shepherds. The magi didn’t expect the star or the promised king to be a child in poverty. Mary and Joseph didn’t expect magi at their door, either.

Imagine how the world could be if we came to it with wonder, rather than expectations waiting to be met. Imagine if we lived into the hope and promise of what Jesus is all about. That’s a message for us personally and as a community.

Wreath or calendar, weeks or days, take a moment and wonder. Wonder at how each of the characters in the Christmas story engaged the unexpected with an open heart and an open mind. There’s no better way to be prepared.

Thursday 23 November 2023

More ways to get to the same place

“Why do you tell stories, Jesus?”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has told a few stories (he’ll tell many more), when one of the disciples asks why he does that. Conveniently, this happens right after he tells the parable of the sower and the seed, and before he explains it. 

I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I’m not really convinced that the answer Jesus gives is all Jesus. I wonder if it isn’t the author of Matthew interpreting for Jesus, interpreting both the parable and the conversation.

I think Jesus uses the stories (parables) as a teaching tool to illuminate the point he’s trying to make or to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like. I think he wants them to be understandable on a surface level to do that, but he also wants to prompt the listener to look deeper, to think more about this kingdom of heaven that Jesus wants to bring here. That, Jesus hopes, will help us better understand how we can make it happen. So it’s not just a vision of something other worldly or unattainable, a nice idea we can hold out at arms length and admire, but something we can work towards, that is truly “near,” even within our grasp. Maybe it won’t quite be heaven, but it can certainly make the world a better place.

In Matthew, Jesus answers that the disciples already have a better understanding than the average person. They’ve been with Jesus, seen and heard what he’s doing, even lived it. Their hearts and minds are more open. But many aren’t. Some just aren’t ready for it, some hear it but don’t follow through, some hear it but are already too entangled in the world around them. They’re going to need leaders, like the disciples, to help them understand.

You can see where this is going. It’s going right into the interpretation of the parable Jesus then gives. 

In the story, a farmer plants some seed. The seed, Jesus says, is the word of God. Some ends up on the path, where birds eat it up. That’s those who aren’t ready for the word. Some ends up on the rocks. That’s those who hear it but give up. Some lands among weeds and that’s those who are trapped in the world. Some lands on good soil and flourishes and that’s the disciples.

Sure. That’s a great way to understand it. One of the ways, anyway, based on where the seed lands. And you might then want to find your way to being good soil and helping others to be good soil, too. I think Jesus would say you could do that with love.

But, what if you were the seed and instead, where you land is the various places we find ourselves in life? You might then wonder how to get through those barren or overwhelming times and get to greener pastures. I think Jesus would say you could do that with love.

Or, you might be the farmer. That raises a big red flag, because no farmer would throw around seed like that. They’d be more careful, finding the best place to grow and caring for the soil. But what if the farmer is God and the seed is love? What if this is how love should be shared, unconditionally and without expectation or limitation? This is how Jesus shows us to love, so I think Jesus would say you could do that with love, too.

This is why Jesus tells stories. So that we’ll wonder and feel and think and find our way to love.

Thursday 16 November 2023

What Everyone Needs

It’s not fair. How often have you heard that? Or thought it? Or said it?

Seems like we hear it a lot lately, especially in the negative, and almost as an accusation.

Fairness seems to be something we seek, but I wonder if we really know what it is we’re looking for. Just, equal, impartial and deserving are words we often use to define it, but I wonder if we really mean that. It’s hard to be objective about those things when we’ve already been influenced by so many variables like desire, personal and societal values and structures — especially when it comes to things like work ethic — not to mention power and our understanding of things like empathy and compassion. Or the absence of them.

And then there’s comparison and competition. Why’s this happening to me? Why didn’t I get the same deal as someone else? Why isn’t my work/time/product worth more?

The world’s a very conflicted place right now and it feels like we’re leading more with hostility and aggression than anything else. When we do that, I think we can become even more subjective about our sense of fairness.

Jesus has an interesting perspective. I don’t think Jesus is as concerned with what we’d call fairness as he is with the fundamentals of what should — that’s should — make it: justice, equity, respect, self worth. I think Jesus is also inclined to employ empathy and compassion instead of comparison and competition.

That’s not to say that Jesus isn’t very much aware of what we think about fairness and those ways we might perceive it. That’s why he’s always trying to poke a stick in them, if not completely up ending them or tearing them down.

One of the ways I think Jesus does that is by talking about what he calls “the kingdom of heaven” and how it’s near, even here. See, I think what makes the kingdom of heaven so different from this one is that it’s made of those very fundamentals on which we should build things like fairness. That’s the things with which we build relationships. We started there, but the building took on a life of its own and became something else with comparison, competitiveness and all those structures, institutions and traditions we built. It became something that separates us, disconnects us, even breaks us.

Think of how often Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is like …” and then tells a parable that points to that particular fundamental he’s illustrating. Take the story of the landowner who hires labourers to work in their vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). They hire day labourers, but at different times of the day, working different hours, but, at the end of the day, pays them all the same. When those who worked the longest complain, the landowner simply says we had a deal and I can pay the other what I choose, even challenging them that they’re envious of the landowner’s generosity. “The last shall be first and the first, last,” they say. Things are turned upside down, it seems.

Yes, they are. There are a variety of interpretations of the parable, from religious to socio-economic and everything in between, but go to the fundamentals that make the kingdom of heaven — after all, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Everyone is offered what they need. Everyone is treated with equity. Everyone is offered grace, everyone is loved, just as they are, first at the gate or not. There’s no hierarchy, no structure, at that very basic level of being because that’s where we start. Jesus knows not everyone wants to go back there and acknowledges it’s hard.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Come As You Are

We don’t sing a lot of the old timey classic hymns anymore. That’s sad for some, but, like anything else, we’re looking for hymns to have meaning for us today and, whether it’s the language, the theology or simply the relevance, there are lots of hymns that get left behind. They’re not gone, though, especially when they’re tied to memories and traditions. Sometimes, they just get a “tune up.”

Every so often, a line or two from an old classic just jumps out at you, though, because it’s saying something so profound, so meaningful and so important that you best not ignore it. In 1834, Charlotte Elliott wrote a hymn with every verse beginning “Just as I am” and every verse ending “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

Have to sing it this week, because it goes with a story Jesus tells about how we come to God in prayer. It’s really about how we come to Jesus and to each other, too. We should come just as we are.

The Gospel of Luke relates how Jesus was concerned about how people can sometimes be a little self righteous and full of themselves. So he told them a story about a pharisee and a tax collector or publican. Pharisees were a unique combination of religious leader, politician and community leader who had a great influence, particularly when it came to strict adherence to the law. They were meant to be holy people. During the Roman occupation, “publicani” were local business people who contracted with the Romans to collect taxes, supply the army and run public works. They were also notoriously corrupt, overcharging, accepting bribes and pocketing their own side profit. They were often despised and treated with contempt.

The pharisee makes a big show of going into the temple and standing front, pointedly praying his gratitude for not being like “those” people - sinners, all - especially like that publican. Not only does he pray, he fasts and gives regular donations to the temple. He does everything “right.”

The publican stays back in the shadows, away from people, and simply prays for mercy. I’m a sinner, he says, have mercy on me.

Jesus tells them it’s the publican who’s right with God. The pharisee prays from his own self importance, he puts on a show and has only contempt for those around him. The publican simply comes as he is, prays from his heart and asks for mercy. “Just as I am,” the publican seems to say.

Jesus frequently talks about the importance of sincerity, of authentically engaging and expressing what’s in our hearts. It’s not the letter of the law, it’s not the ritual practices or the traditions (or even the things we just keep doing because we’ve always done it that way), it’s what’s in the heart.

Thing is, prayer is just the first step. God already knows us, just as we are. When we come to God, it’s about how we come - is it authentic and sincere, true to who we really are? Prayer doesn’t change God or God’s relationship with us, it changes us and our relationship with God. And when we are changed, we change things. We take action, action that’s based on what is true and authentic in us.

I like to think the publican goes away right with God into a different life, but Jesus doesn’t say. I think that’s the point. It’s a challenge to those who heard him then and to us now: pray with honesty and sincerity, then do something.

Thursday 2 November 2023

Three For the Price of One

It’s complicated. If we’re going to talk about the parable of the Prodigal Son - as Jesus tells it - that’s got to be the very first thing to say about it. It’s complicated.

I feel I have to be clear that I mean Jesus’ telling of the story as it appears in the Gospel of Luke because it’s one of those parables (like the Good Samaritan) that has made it’s way into general culture. Sort of. There have been a variety of retellings, in different eras and different contexts, and the term itself has come into everyday use. Sure.

But I wonder sometimes, if we don’t use the term out of context and in a simplified way or simply focus on one aspect of the story. Like all the parables of Jesus, this one has layers, but it has many more than most and the characters and their relationships are much more complicated than a simple “return of the one that left” kind of story. 

That’s not to say there haven’t been contemporary retellings of equal complexity. It’s just that either one focuses on a particular aspect of the story or one dives into its complexity. I think that might even be the secret to its enduring popularity: it can speak very clearly, but at the same time offer an opportunity to engage the struggles that we might see in our own family dynamics or in those around us.

The message might at first seem simple enough. A son chooses to leave home and live a “prodigal” life, one that’s extravagant, lavish and reckless. When the money runs out and the first son finds themselves destitute, they decide to return home. The father welcomes them back unconditionally. The lost is found, he was dead and is now alive again, the father says. There’s a big party to celebrate. That seems to be the end of the Prodigal Son Story.

But that’s not where Jesus stops. There’s more. It’s the Resentful Son Story. See, there was two sons and the other one stayed and worked. When the prodigal one returns home, no one bothers to go and tell him, out in the fields where he’s working. He finds out when he returns at the end of the day, exhausted. He’s hurt, resentful and angry. When the father tries to bring him in, he refuses. He tells his father he’s worked like a slave since the other’s been gone and won’t hear the father’s love and joy that his brother has returned. And that’s where Jesus ends it. There’s no indication what that son does now. We’re left to decide.

But I think that’s why Jesus stops there. There’s more. Let’s call it the Unconditional Love Story. Both sons are offered love, each responding to it their own way. One goes, loses his way, but finds his way back. I would say that the other loses his way too. Was he just resentful of his brother when he said that he’d worked like a slave or was there more? Is it just his brother’s return or was that simply the climax of a life of feeling stuck and unappreciated? It’s complicated.

We don’t really know where any of these stories go next. Does the prodigal son stay and live well? What does the resentful son do? And how does the father embrace them both? What we do know is that Jesus tells these stories in a very real context: he’s been spending his time with the lost and broken, the sinners and “tax collectors” - all the wrong people, according to the temple authorities. And when he welcomes those lost and broken home, the temple authorities criticize and complain. They see Jesus flaunting the structures, rules and traditions they’re trying to uphold. All Jesus sees is love. 

I think that’s why Jesus leaves this story hanging. Jesus wants us to wrestle with it. Faced with the practicality of structure and societal norms on one hand and the extravagance of unconditional love on the other, where does the story go next?