Text Study for Luke 18:1-8 (Part Five)

This may be what I do for Sunday — not sure yet.

“You can pray until you faint,” Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964, “but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Fannie Lou Hamer knew that truth from her own experience. I read her story in the book, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, edited by Michelle DeRusha.[i]

The year was 1962. Fannie Lou Hamer was forty-four years old. She was married to a sharecropper. She was the mother of two adopted daughters. Fannie Lou was a black woman, the first person at her church in Ruleville, Mississippi to raise her hand. She was the first who volunteered to go the twenty-six miles to the county courthouse and register to vote. She was the first in line when the white clerk snapped, “What do you want?”

Fannie Lou knew the risks. Blacks in rural Mississippi in 1962 didn’t register to vote. If they did, they risked public abuse, job loss, physical beatings, and lynching. “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a been a little scared,” she said later. “The only thing they could do to me was kill me,” she continued,” and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Mississippi had a literacy test for voter registration. The first time Fannie Lou tried to register, she failed that test. The clerk required her to read and explain section 16 of the Mississippi state constitution. That section described and defined “de facto” laws. Fannie later said that she knew “as much about [de] facto law as a horse knows about Christmas day.” Me, too.

Because Fannie Lou tried to register to vote, she lost her job. Local people threatened to kill her, and she was forced to flee. She dodged bullying and bullets. She also returned to the county courthouse thirty days later to take the voter registration test. This time she had studied. She passed the test.

However, her registration was rejected because she hadn’t paid the poll tax in the previous two years. Of course, she hadn’t paid the poll tax because she hadn’t been a registered voter! Fannie Lou joined the ranks of activists who worked to register other black people to vote. In that role, she was falsely arrested and jailed. she was beaten almost to death. She challenged both local and national power structures.

Fannie Lou Hamer never gave up. And she never gave in to hate. Because of her Christian faith, Fannie Lou Hamer loved even those who wanted her dead. “You have to love ’em,” she said.

“Whether confronting a belligerent voter registration official, lying bloody and beaten on the cold floor of a jail cell, or standing triumphant as a delegate before a national audience,” Michelle DeRusha writes, “Fannie Lou Hamer lived out that love day by day.”

Jesus tells his disciples a parable. This parable is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. Jesus describes a persistent widow to illustrate his point. The widow is a lot more like Fannie Lou Hamer than she is like me.

There’s this judge. He’s not afraid of God’s judgment. He doesn’t give a hoot what people in town think of him. This judge likes his position. He likes his peace and quiet. Beyond that, he just doesn’t care.

And there’s this widow in town. She’s getting a raw deal. The details don’t really matter. Jesus says she’s getting the dirty end of the stick. The judge can straighten things out if he wants to. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t care. If he ignores the widow long enough, maybe she’ll just go away.

But the widow won’t go away. She keeps confronting the judge. “Give me justice against my adversary!” she demands. After a while, the judge has a little meeting with himself. “It’s true,” he says, “I don’t fear God’s judgment. I don’t care about public opinion. But this widow! All up in my business wherever I go! At some point, she’s going to punch me in the face! Best if I do what she wants and get rid of the problem.”

So, the widow wins. She never gave up. She never backed down. She used dogged determination and physical intimidation. The widow got her justice.

Fine, Jesus. Cute story. A little slapstick humor. The underdog triumphs. What’s not to like? But how does this tell me about my need to keep on praying and not be discouraged? Jesus, I’m not quite following you on this one.

“Pay attention to what the unjust judge is saying,” Jesus tells us, “And won’t God bring about justice for his chosen ones – those who are shouting to him day and night? Will God delay in helping them?” The answer seems to be obvious. Of course, God delays in helping God’s chosen ones. Just look at our personal experience and our history. God hardly ever seems to be in a hurry to set things right!

Except, that’s not really what Jesus says. You know, even Bible translators have a bad day now and then. The wording in the King James Version is much better than the NRSV for this verse. “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”

Jesus’ story isn’t about how fast God’s response time is compared to that miserable judge. The parable is about how God hangs in there with us no matter how long it takes. The judge doesn’t care about the widow’s case. But God does! The judge delays because he’s unjust. God bears with us until the world is redeemed. If that terrible judge finally gets to the right decision, then certainly our loving God will get us to the New Life where all things are put right.

The story really is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. But it’s not the kind of praying we usually think about. Jesus is talking about the kind of praying we find in our first reading. Sometimes praying means wrestling with God until we’re ready to be blessed and changed. Answers to those prayers don’t come easy. And sometimes we walk away limping.

Many of you don’t know this. But I’m a widower. My first wife died not quite twelve years ago. I took her to the emergency room on November 8, 2010. She died at home on November 20. She was fifty-one years old. It was awful.

My world collapsed. Most of my prayers were screams of anguish and anger. The one answer I wanted I couldn’t get. Sometimes I thought God had abandoned me. But that didn’t happen. As I raged and wrestled, as I shook and shouted, the Holy Spirit remained within me and around me. God bore with me. God waited until God could help me limp across the river of acute grief onto a new path of life.

That’s the personal angle on this parable. God does bring about justice for God’s chosen ones. God bears long with us – even in the moments of deepest darkness. I can’t scare God off with my anger and despair. That’s my experience and my testimony. I’m always glad to talk about that if you’re interested.

But there’s more to the story here. God’s justice is personal, but it’s much more than that. That’s why I started with the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. She testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when she was beaten and abused, when she thought she might give up all hope. And she testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when the unjust judges of this world refused to give her justice.

You may be crying out to God day and night for personal rescue and relief. In Jesus, God is standing with you in that struggle. And God will bring healing and hope in the end. As a community of faith, we are called to cry out to God day and night for social justice as well. The widow represents all who are abused and oppressed by systems of unjust power. She reminds us that God intends to transform victims into victors – no matter how long it takes.

Jesus ends the parable with a question. All the best parables end with questions. I think all the best sermons do too.  “And yet,” Jesus wonders, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus isn’t wondering about faith in general. Jesus wonders about finding the widow’s faith here. Jesus wonders if he will find the sort of faith that hangs in there, that won’t give up, that won’t take no for an answer. Jesus wonders if he will find the kind of faith that won’t settle for injustice.

Jesus asks you and me that question. How will we answer?


[i] Michelle DeRusha, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2014), pages 327-333).

Message for Luke 16:19-31

16 Pentecost C; September 25, 2022

Last week we read the hardest parable in the Gospels. This week we read the easiest one. The main point of this parable is clear. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. If I follow Jesus, then how I treat my neighbor in need must matter to me.

The story is simple. A rich man spends all his wealth eating, drinking, and partying. He’s rich enough to do that every day. Outside his front gate lies Lazarus. Lazarus is desperately poor, chronically ill, and painfully hungry. Every day the rich man celebrates. Every day Lazarus suffers. Nothing changes.

Photo by Ries Bosch on Pexels.com

Both men die. Then everything changes. Lazarus arrives at “the bosom of Abraham.” The bosom of Abraham is the best seat at the paradise party. The rich man arrives in the fiery depths of Hades. Lazarus celebrates. The rich man suffers. Nothing changes.

So, that’s it, right? If I don’t take care of poor people, I burn in hell. It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? I could argue that I’m no Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. That’s certainly true. But I know I’m richer than most other people on the planet. I know I’m richer than millions of my American neighbors. I know I’m richer than thousands of my neighbors in the city where I live.

Pleading my poverty relative to the super-rich won’t work. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. That takes some of the fun out of that used camper we bought last week.

Is that the purpose of the parable? Does Jesus try to literally scare the hell out of me, so I’ll part with some of my moldy money? I think that is the purpose.

But why does that matter to Jesus? Does Jesus hate rich people? I don’t think so. Jesus wants the best for me. Jesus comes to make me the person God created me to be. That’s what it means in this life to be saved. Jesus tells this story to make me better, not to scare me to death.

Last week, I invited you to compare a parable to a Bugs Bunny cartoon. This week I want to compare this parable to Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol. I think that will help us understand a bit better.

Ebenezer Scrooge loved money. No, that’s not quite right. Ebenezer Scrooge hated generosity. He hated giving of any kind. He hated sharing himself or his stuff with others. He hated Christmas giving. He hated giving to the poor.

Scrooge hated anything that connected him to the needs of another person. Dickens described Scrooge as “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Even the rich man in our parable sounds good compared to old Ebenezer, at least for the moment.

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge gets a ghostly visit from Jacob Marley – Scrooge’s business partner, dead seven years that night. Marley tells Scrooge that three spirits will visit the old miser. Those spirits will bring Scrooge the chance and hope to be a different person. We travel with Scrooge on the journey through Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

This journey connects Scrooge with other human beings. Each spirit hammers on the hard shell of that man who was “secret and self-contained, as solitary as an oyster.” We meet Scrooge’s beloved sister, Fan. We party with dear old Fezziwig. Scrooge falls in love and out of love. As his fiancé ends their engagement, she says, “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you, [Ebenezer] in the time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

The “idol” Scrooge’s fiancé mentioned was his love of money. That great love of his life tolerated no rivals. Scrooge was left alone, just as he wished.

Only human connection, compassion, and community could save the old skinflint. The spirits bring him to the stool of Tiny Tim. In spite of himself, Scrooge begins to care for the boy. Without help and support, Tiny Tim will soon die. Suddenly Scrooge has an unfamiliar feeling.

“Spirit,” he says, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.” Unlikely, the Spirit says, if nothing changes. “What then?” the Spirit proclaims, “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge, to his shame, had spoken those very words just a few hours before.

We come to Christmas Future. Scrooge witnesses the aftermath of his own death. He has died neither missed nor mourned. Some of his wealth enriches the poor whether he likes it or not. Tiny Tim has also died, but his memory is cherished.

As Scrooge faces the open mouth of his own grave, he shouts his repentance. “Spirit!” he cries, “hear me! I am not the man that I was. I will not be that man I must have been except for this intercourse. Why show me this,” Scrooge demands, “if I am past all hope!”

Now we come back to our parable. Lord Jesus, why show me all this, if I am past all hope! The most important character in the parable isn’t the rich man. The most important character isn’t Abraham or even Lazarus. The most important characters are those five brothers, still alive, still able to repent.

I am the sixth brother in the story. Why show me all this if I am past all hope!

Scrooge’s story has a happy ending, unlike the story of the rich man. After his Christmas Eve travels, Scrooge is still alive. But he gets more than a reprieve. Scrooge really is not the man that he was. He gets a new life. That new life means connection, compassion, and community. He finds family with Fred, his nephew. He finds friendship with Tiny Tim, who did not die after all. He finds the joy of giving as he pays for the relief of the poor.

As Dickens puts it, Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the old city knew…” Scrooge became the person he was made to be. And he was truly happy.

How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. Jesus loves my neighbor in need and wants the best for my neighbor. Jesus also loves me and wants the best for me. Jesus longs for me to become as good a person as the good old city knew. Jesus wants that for you too.

We cannot follow Jesus and hide from the poor. Greed hides us from the poor. Generosity connects us. Money is a wonderful tool but a terrible lord.

In using wealth as a tool for God, we can “take hold of the life that really is life,” as we read in our second lesson. That’s what is at stake in our parable. The rich man had his hands full of a life that really is not life. At the end, his hands were empty, his humanity drained away. Jesus wants better for us. Jesus wants us to have the life that really is life. Will we accept that gift and do the giving?

An Early Lamb

Luke 2:1-20

“But Dad, you HAVE to come to the Christmas program. We have all the best parts this year!” Holly planted her ten-year-old fists on her hips. Her lips curled into a prodigious pout. And she stamped her foot three times on the linoleum of the kitchen floor to punctuate her point. “Kevin is the narrator. Cindy is the angel, Gabriel. Jeremy is the littlest shepherd. And I get to be Mary this year instead that stupidhead, Becky Jennings. It’s Christmas Eve. You just HAVE to be there!”

Dad was still in his brown, insulated coverall and five-buckle snow boots. He tipped his head to the left, squinted his eyes tight shut, and scratched the three-day-old beard on his right cheek. If they were going to be on time for the Christmas program, Dad had ten minutes to transform himself into a clean-shaven and respectable Christmas pew-sitter. “Kids, you know how much I want to be there. But one of the ewes down in the barn is going to have a lamb tonight. She’s having some trouble already, and I think things are going to get worse. Besides, the wind chill is forty below outside. If I don’t get that lamb some place warm, that poor thing will be dead in ten minutes. I have to stay here. I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t a satisfactory explanation, but it was the end of the conversation. Dad headed back to the barn, and everyone else went to the car. Dad had started the 1967 Ford Fairlane wagon a half-hour ago, so it was toasty warm when Mom and the kids got in. Dad’s explanation had not appeased Holly in the least. She flung herself in the back seat to punish the vinyl for the unfairness of life. It groaned under the abuse.

Kevin sat in the front passenger seat and kept his own counsel. Last Christmas he had arrived at a startling insight. For a few years, Kevin had noticed that the family was always ready unusually early to leave for the Christmas Eve program. That was especially odd because they were never early for anything. Mom and Dad bundled them all into the car—caps and mittens, boots and scarves, snow suits and presents for Sunday School teachers.

Dad would climb behind the wheel. Then Mom would say, “Dear, I forgot the flashlight (or the iron was still on or the Christmas ham needed to be turned down or some such thing).” Dad would grump and moan and head back into the house while everyone else waited in the car. Some years ten minutes passed before he returned. All hope of being early had vanished. But strangely, Dad always came back to the car humming and smiling.

Kevin knew from long experience that when they returned home from the Christmas eve program, Santa’s deposit of presents would be safely under the tree. The cookies they put out for Santa were eaten; the celery for his reindeer consumed, and Santa’s milk glass was empty. It was a wonderful miracle of perfect timing on the part of Old Saint Nick. Kevin had wondered for a couple of years about the coincidence. Then last year, when the dome light in the car came on, he noticed a slight milk mustache on Dad’s upper lip. The whole thing looked very suspicious.

Kevin was unwilling to draw any firm conclusions—no sense burning one’s bridges unnecessarily. But he did see a correlation, and it made him very excited tonight. There was some kind of connection between Dad’s behavior and the number of presents under the tree. Maybe the presents this year were so numerous or so large or so complicated that Dad couldn’t take time for the Christmas program. That had to be the explanation for Dad’s strange behavior. It was way too early to have any lambs anyway. Kevin hugged himself with anticipation. There was going to be a big haul this year.

The Christmas eve children’s program was, for the most part, uneventful. Kevin’s narration stumbled only once. Rather than noting in Luke 2:2 that Quirinius was governor of Syria, Kevin pointed out that some fellow named “Queerness” had taken the job. Giggles were suppressed throughout the sanctuary. Holly stuck her tongue out at “that stupidhead, Becky Jennings” a few times when she thought no one was looking. Naturally, everyone was.

Cindy’s tinsel-covered halo crept down to the bridge of her nose as she said her lines. But the words were crystal clear: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And Jeremy brought all the dignity his four-year-old frame could muster to the bathrobe and tea towel conscripted to be his shepherd’s costume. Each child received the evening’s payoff from a deacon at the door—a brown paper bag filled with assorted nuts, chocolate peanut clusters, peanut brittle and candy canes. Children began trading for their favorites almost before they got out the door.

Cindy wore her halo and Jeremy his shepherd’s towel all the way home. Holly still basked in the glory of virgin motherhood. But Kevin was wandering in visions of new bicycles, miniature race cars, remote controlled airplanes, a new chemistry set, his own television—enough dreams to occupy someone for a lifetime of Christmas eves.

Mom pulled the car under the tree next to the chicken house. Before she could stop him, Kevin was out of the car and headed toward the house at a gallop. He shed his snowy shoes on the back porch, dropped his sack of candy on the kitchen table, and burst into the living room. As he passed the couch, he froze in astonishment. Not one thing had changed since they left. Not a package, not a stocking, not so much as an explanatory note had appeared. Kevin sprinted back to the kitchen. Not one bite out of the cookies or one sip of milk gone. This was a disaster of epic proportions!

At that moment, Dad stepped into the kitchen carrying a cardboard box. He had a hand towel wrapped around his face. The towel was dotted with chunks of ice and flecks of straw. The sleeves on his coverall were frozen dark and stiff with what could only have been blood. His coverall and jacket were unzipped to his navel. Kevin could see that Dad had spent most of the evening stripped to the waste, on his knees, next to an old ewe, in a frigid barn. There was no Christmas eve deception here. What Kevin noticed most, though, was Dad’s eyes. They were red and puffy—like he had been crying.

Mom and the other kids struggled through the door. “I’ll get the hair dryer and some towels,” Mom said. It was the standard routine. A frozen little bundle of wool and hooves was placed in a box on the furnace register. The old hair dryer—only rarely used for its stated purpose—was placed on a chair, pointed down toward the box and turned on high heat. A little milk replacer was mixed up in a saucepan and warmed on the stove. Then all waited to see if the verdict would be death or life.

After all was in place, Mom noticed the pain on Dad’s face as he sat on a kitchen chair in a flannel shirt, white long johns and wool socks. “Are you all right, dear?”

Dad sighed. “I should have sent that old girl off to market last fall. But it was that little Cheviot—my favorite, I guess. That white face and the pointy ears and the tiny feet—you know, she was one of our original flock. She produced a lamb every spring just like clockwork. I guess she got to be kind of like an old friend. But I should have retired her. Having a lamb was just too much for her this year. Her calendar was all screwed up. I guess that’s why she was so early, She couldn’t take the strain. She was suffering terribly. After the lamb was born, I had to shoot her to put an end to it.” A trickle of tears ran down each of Dad’s cheeks.

There was a shuffling sound from the cardboard box that said “Van Camp’s Pork and Beans” on the side. Then a small bleat came from the box. In a few moments two tiny ears appeared above the rim of the cardboard. Then the small lamb stumbled a bit as he shook off the burlap wrappings that had kept him warm in his first moments on earth.

The kitchen had witnessed this small miracle dozens of times before. But something else came to pass on this night. Cindy spoke in her clear and sweet seven-year-old voice. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Cindy paused for a moment, as if to allow all to absorb the profundity of her announcement. The lamb insisted on further attention by trying to crawl out of the box. Cindy spoke again, “Daddy, I think we should call him ‘Good News.”‘ And so the lamb was named all the days of his life.

Christmas returned to normal after that. They all ate chocolate covered cherries and peanut butter kisses. Mom took pictures until she ran out of flash bulbs. Dad stayed up to watch Midnight mass from New York City and to complain about how the Catholics made it all too big of a production. In the morning, the presents were under the tree, the cookies were eaten, the celery was consumed and the milk was gone. There was no bike or racetrack or chemistry set, but it was nice anyway. And by noon, Good News was in a pen out in the chicken house—the first of several orphans from the latest lambing season.

Often, years later, Kevin thought about that Christmas—how it was more special than so many others were. An early lamb came into a hostile world. He was engulfed in cold and darkness and the threat of death. A mother gave herself for him and wondered if that threat would follow his steps. Wrapped in burlap feed sacks and carried in a pork and bean box, his prospects were poor. Only a scruffy and overly sentimental shepherd saw the birth as anything approaching glad tidings. Yet the early lamb stood up and shook off the wrappings. He stretched out to feel the warmth and the touch of light on his face. And he walked into a world just as hostile as the moment he was born. But it was a world where he could live and give life.

Leave it to Cindy to see through the details and to name that lamb “Good News.” For Kevin the reality was inescapable. Jesus came into the world as that early lamb—the product of an untimely birth, wrapped tight against the cold, threatened on every side. But shepherds came to worship him. Who else would know better the power of this miracle? Who else could better appreciate this good news?

An early lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—an image of that good news had stood among them that night in the kitchen. He was the lamb who came at an unexpected time, at God’s time, to bring life and light to all the world. He started out in a box and ended up on a cross. Yet the world could never be the same again. His name, too, is ‘Good News.’ It took an angel to tell them about it. It took a shepherd to adore him. May that early Lamb be born in us today. Amen.

Another Perfectly Good Christmas

John 1:1-14

He really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. The man didn’t hate this time of year. That would have taken far more energy, passion and commitment than he was willing to spend on anything. He wasn’t opposed to the season in the way that, for example Dickens portrayed old Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. That, too, would have required a personal stand and individual effort that he just couldn’t muster up at this time of year. No, for him, Christmas was more of a dull ache or irritation. Christmas was a fingernail cut too short. It was elastic on his underwear that had lost its vigor. Christmas was a pebble in his shoe, a rattle in the dashboard. He didn’t like it. But he could hardly generate the initiative to do much about it.

His name was Hilbert Neugebauer. He was the custodian at the old downtown church. That probably didn’t help his Christmas mood any–what with taking chairs down and putting them up for fourteen different Christmas teas, the interminable vacuuming after children’s programs and concerts, after parties and receptions, after luncheons and meetings. Worst of all, it was his job to put out the decrepit old Nativity scene. Reuben and Mildred Broadbuckle had made and donated the set nearly forty years ago. Apparently no one had the gumption or the nerve to suggest that the decaying plywood characters should be replaced by more state of the art Christmas decorations. So year in and year out, the old custodian put up the same characters in the same places at the same time. He just didn’t like Christmas very much at all.

The Nativity scene itself was fraught with tradition and required behaviors. December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, was the unwritten deadline by which the scene must be erected on the church lawn. Only once in his years as custodian did Hilbert miss that deadline. His tardiness was still the topic of conversation when things got a little slow around the church coffee pot in December. The positioning of the characters was also sacrosanct. Mary was to Joseph’s left. The donkey had to be to the right of the sheep. The shepherds were downstage left. The wise men were upstage right. The star was fastened to a strand of number nine wire connected to the left arm of the wooden cross that served as a background to the whole scene. The angel was fastened in the same way to the right arm of the cross. The angel was required to be exactly eighteen inches higher than the star, to reflect how Reuben and Mildred understood the divine order of creation. Hilbert thought it was all a royal pain in the…oh, never mind.

It was Monday and there was a new phrase on the church sign. It was a Bible verse, although the custodian couldn’t quite place where it came from. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The old man could always tell when the pastor was feeling overworked and harassed. Those were the times when the pastor resorted to a Biblical quotation rather coming up with some clever and pithy saying. It took far less effort to just whip out a few choice lines from Holy Writ than to invent something that might actually be novel and stimulating. The old custodian grumbled to himself, “None of it ever changes. The same crummy nativity set, the same tired Bible verses, the same silly Christmas carols–why don’t we just phone in this whole Christmas thing and save a lot of trouble!”

Hilbert just didn’t like Christmas very much. Part of it was that for years he had been particularly sensitive to illnesses and deaths around Christmas. Working for the church for as long as he had, he was pretty much in the know about all such events in the community. He remembered when the Johannsen boy was driving a tractor and pushing some snow, not two days before Christmas. The boy got a little over zealous with the tractor and rolled the rig right on top of himself. The custodian remembered the big funeral on that bitterly cold December 26th. Then there was Agnes Plueger, their next door neighbor–finest pumpkin pecan pie the world has ever tasted. And there she was, in the ground on December 16th of 1972. Every time something like that happened, he would sit by the table at home and cluck knowingly, “Another perfectly good Christmas, all shot to…” But before he could finish that dire phrase, his wife would shoot him a glance that stopped all speech in the room. Anna Neugebauer had no patience for his swearing and would have none of it in her house, especially when the subject was Christmas.

It was all smug speculation until that first Christmas six years ago when she was no longer there. She hadn’t felt quite herself for a few days, and he nudged her a few times about seeing the doctor. But she was sure that it was just a little indigestion. Then, on December 17th of 1993, she was gone. No goodbyes, no final tearful embraces, none ofthat–just alive when he crawled into bed that night and gone the next morning. Even now he could remember standing next to the bed after futile efforts to wake her and thinking to himself, “Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…” Even now, out of love and respect for her, he could never bring himself to finish that awful phrase.

He was thinking about his Anna the second Monday in December as he performed his annual cleanup of Nativity Scene vandalism. Another of the unwritten traditions connected with the Nativity Scene was some creative, but very secretive, remodeling of the Nativity scene by the senior high Bible class. Sometimes the vandalism was quite creative. About ten years ago Hilbert came to the church one morning to find the Mary and Joseph characters stacked on top of the manger. Attached to Joseph was a note that read simply, “Luke 2:16.” Hilbert looked it up and read these words, “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. ” Other years were not quite to clever. Unfortunately Joseph had clearly distinguishable fingers on his right hand. Hilbert had lost track of the number of times he had to replace all but the middle finger on that hand. Once, Mary appeared made up with glaring purple nail polish, false eyelashes, ruby red lips and half a pound of rouge on her cheeks. That, Hilbert thought, was quite a commentary on the Virgin Mother.

This year was one of the least creative efforts. The baby Jesus was up in a tree limb. The sheep were placed in morally questionable relationships to one another. Joseph had a pack of Camels in his hand and Mary had an open bottle at her feet. Hilbert grumbled, “Even the Christmas vandalism isn’t what it used to be.”

That night disaster struck. The vandals returned to complete the job. A lack of creativity turned into an expression of malice. Some lighter fluid and matches did the trick. In a few moments the ancient, tinder-dry figures had flames licking at their faces. The wind picked up, and the flames moved to the ancient wooden cross behind the Nativity. There wasn’t enough fire to reach the church or damage any buildings. But the Nativity scene was a total loss. Worse yet, the base of the cross, fragile from years of rot and moisture, gave way. Fortunately no one was injured, because the twenty foot cross toppled into the middle of the ruined Nativity, flat on the snow.

Hilbert’s phone rang in the early morning. “Do you know what time it is?” he shouted into the phone before he even looked at his alarm clock. “It’s 6:30 a.m., Hilbert.” The pastor was on the other end. “You better come to the church. Someone burned down the Nativity.”

Oh, the curses and imprecations, the fantasies of dismemberment and execution that went through the old custodian’s mind as he drove to the scene of the crime! He saw Joseph, blackened from the chest down. He looked at Mary, paint curling up toward her chin. He saw scorched shepherds, singed wise men, charred camels and stumps that used to be sheep. He began to clean up the mess. He muttered to himself, “Don’t know what difference it all makes. Nobody seems to care anyway. Christmases come and go and nobody notices. Should have probably burned this stuff years ago. Oh well, what can you expect. Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.”

The one item that survived the fire in good shape was the sign, the one with the Bible verse–The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe it was just plain a miracle. Who knows? At any rate, in a day or two, there was a Nativity resurrection in front of that old church. First there was a shepherd that looked suspiciously like Herbie Husker. Then there was a wise man who bore a striking resemblance to the Smoky the Bear figure down at the fire station. Mary and Joseph seemed to have had a previous existence as manikins in the J.C. Penny store that closed a year or so ago. The donkey was a first cousin to a pinata character that Lillian Dornbusch kept in her parlor. The new camel was apparently a fraternal twin to Jefrey Giraffe from Toys’ R’ Us. The new manger might have been liberated from the county fairgrounds, although no one was talking. The star seemed to be a spotlight from Andy’s Auto Repair down the street. The angel still had on his Superman cape, but somehow that seemed to work into the scene. The baby Jesus had done time as a Cabbage Patch kid, and he looked relieved to be working a new gig. Finally, some considerate person put a small fire extinguisher in the new manger as a precaution against future adventures.

Hilbert just shook his head as the gifts continued to appear. To one side that wretched sign kept broadcasting its message: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In the middle of it all lay the cross–singed, blackened and broken, but still there. And as he worked and grumbled and moped, he was suddenly reminded of another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.

It was a Christmas with more than its share of rough spots–a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a pregnancy of questionable origin, parents of impeccable credentials but with little credibility, a birth in a barn and a crib licked shiny by the tongues of a hundred cows. Yet, for all that, it looked awfully good for awhile. Angels, shepherds, magi–a cast of thousands to be sure. Songs of praise, words of wonder, treasures of great price–things were certainly looking up for the little boy and his family. A miraculous escape by night to a foreign country, a trip home to wondering relatives, years of growing in wisdom and stature and favor with God and people–the boy showed great promise. It was a perfectly good Christmas.

Then the inevitable shadow appeared. It was a shadow in the shape of a cross. That shadow lay across that perfectly good Christmas just like the cross lay across the makeshift Nativity scene. The little boy who had cried in that Bethlehem stable screamed from a Jerusalem hill, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The twelve year old who debated fine points of theology with temple scholars whispered in agony, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The young man who looked up to a heaven torn to shreds and heard the words, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”–he groaned his final words, “It is finished.” This teacher and healer who made the lame to walk and the blind to see–he breathed his last and committed that breath to his heavenly Father. And he too was dead. Just like my Anna, Hilbert thought. Another perfectly good Christmas, shot to…well, you know.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That sign just would not quit. Because here was something else. Here was resurrection. Here was new life where there had been only death. It was an act of foolishness, of stupidity, of irrational malice that burned down the Broadbuckle Nativity. How different was that from the sin, the death, the evil that had nailed Jesus to a cross so many years ago? Not very much, Hilbert thought. Yet, the Nativity refused destruction. The darkness took its best shot and lost. A new light shone forth from a tomb. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.

The makeshift Nativity scene stayed up all that Christmas season. After Christmas people decided to take up a collection and buy a new, respectable set of characters. The old wooden cross was retired and a new steel one was set in its place. The whole area was illuminated with a security light, and the tradition of Nativity scene vandalism became a subject of exaggeration and legend. But Hilbert always remembered that Christmas. After it was over he went to the cemetery to Anna’s grave, to talk to her like he did sometimes. He said to her, “You know, Anna, it was another perfectly good Christmas.”

In That Region There Were Shepherds

Luke 2:8-20

The Larson Chapel is a lovely stone building in the center of the Lautenberg University campus. The chapel once stood downtown, not half a block from the old county courthouse. Then a generous (and slightly loopy) alumnus decided that the chapel would look better at Lautenberg U. He bought the chapel and paid to have it moved stone by stone from the city square to the tree-covered campus. There Larson Chapel has stood for nearly a hundred years.

Albert Neugebauer was the Lutheran Campus minister at Lautenberg U. He belonged to old Christ Lutheran Church downtown. In fact, Christ Lutheran stood on the spot where Larson Chapel had once been. Christ was one of four “Christ Lutheran” churches in the city, so people affectionately called it “Christ on the Corner. “

The folks at Christ on the Corner had a special concern for Lutherans at Lautenberg U. It was historically a Roman Catholic institution. Members of Christ on the Corner were afraid some of their young folks might be infected with the alien Romish theology. So they hired a half time lay person to bring the true Lutheran gospel to the benighted campus. Albert was the latest edition of that fortunate person.

It was Christmas Eve. Albert walked toward the Larson Chapel. It was the first time he would lead Christmas worship there. A few students were staying on campus during winter break. Most happened to be part of Albert’s little flock. They begged him for services on Christmas Eve. He offered to transport them to worship at Christ on the Corner. But they insisted that it simply wouldn’t be the same. They loved their little stone church and their tight-knit community

The chapel was in sight. Snow crunched under Albert’s boots. He thought about his little congregation. In the beginning, he had such high hopes. He longed for a church filled with theology students, a choir composed of music majors, and faculty members who would be stirring and credible guest preachers. All of that happened. But it happened during daily mass In the campus auditorium.

For some reason, most of the Lutherans were theater majors. Fine folks all. But as Albert’s grandfather—the sexton at Christ on the Comer—would say, they were all “about a quarter bubble out of plumb.” They didn’t want a “normal” Christmas Eve service. They wanted to act out the Christmas story, complete with script, costumes and special effects. Albert rolled his eyes, took a deep breath and (against his better judgment) agreed.

They were already at the chapel door! Albert shook his head and sighed. The crowd looked like a collision between a camel caravan and a Renaissance festival

“Merry Christmas, Al!” caroled Sarah Potter. Clearly she was the Virgin Mary, ready to deliver at any moment. Brian Bingum dressed as Joseph, complete with a tool belt over his Bedouin robes. He thought the cultural contrast was a powerful artistic statement.

Brian was studying theater construction, so he built a wooden donkey to transport his betrothed. When Brian pulled on the reigns, the donkey’s eyes lit up. A tug on the donkey’s mane produced a braying that caused passersby to believe the poor thing was dying. A switch under the left ear controlled the tail. When turned on, it spun like a propeller.

“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Albert replied. “Let me get the key so we can go in.” Several groups used the chapel during the week. The university administration, however, would allow only one key. So that key rested in a small hole in the rock above the great double doors. It had been a foolproof system— until tonight.

“Oh, good grief,” Albert sputtered. ‘The key isn’t there! Now, how are we going to get in?” He felt the anxiety of the group go up as the temperature dropped.

H. Randall Hanson produced a cell phone from beneath his robes. The “H” stood for “Herluf,” although Randy revealed that only within the confidentiality of the confessional. “Call Campus Security and I’m sure they’ll let us in.”

Albert did a double-take. “H. Randall, what are you supposed to be?” He wore a pointed wizard’s hat. His robe was fluorescent gold covered with sun, moon and stars. He carried a staff with a bulb on one end that flashed when he tapped the ground. “I’m one of the wise men, Al! Can’t you tell? They were magicians, weren’t they?”

At that instant, Albert grasped his situation. He was surrounded by magicians, belly dancers, Roman soldiers, angels, and a herd of livestock, all anatomically correct and walking upright. He dialed Campus Security at record speed.

No one answered. Albert suspected some well-lubricated merrymaking down at the secunty office. The message said that in case of emergency, he should call the local police. At the moment, Albert wouldn’t have made that call for a million dollars

“I’m afraid we have to go to Plan B,” Albert announced. “We could drive down to Christ on the Corner and have our service there.” His words hung in the suspicious silence that followed. A few cynical souls suspected that he had planned this. Albert beat a strategic retreat. “I suppose we could try some other alternative.”

Amber Ellingson, one of the goose-pimpled belly dancers, said, “Let’s go looking for a church that needs us! We can walk to several from here.” She clashed her finger cymbals together for emphasis.

Albert rubbed his eyes and tried to remain calm. When Lautenberg University was founded, it rested in the little village of Lautenberg. It was a safe haven from the big city. But the city captured the village Now it was a neighborhood of pawn shops, adult book stores, delicatessens, bars, palm readers and vacant lots. The Lautenberg U. brochure said the neighborhood offered a “culturally diverse setting.”

Amber was already headed down University Avenue. The whole group followed. The lone musician produced a recorder and began to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Albert felt like a leaf riding a tidal wave.

They were in their fourteenth chorus of “O come, let us adore him,” when they passed a vacant lot. A ten foot high chain link fence guarded the space. Out of the darkness charged a pair of bull mastiffs. The dogs hurled themselves against the fence. The costumed singers fled in terror.

Albert stood his ground as the growling sentries returned to their posts. Jackie Muller, dressed as a Guernsey cow complete with all the plumbing, said, ‘Now we know what Mary and Joseph felt like when the Roman soldiers announced the census.” People nodded, and the singing resumed.

The lights were on at River of Life Church of God in Christ. ”Let’s go in there!” Summer Judson exclaimed. Summer’s skin was so fair that she glowed in the dark. Albert was certain his little flock would be, shall we say, “conspicuous” in the African American congregation—even if they didn’t look like refugees from an Arabian garage sale.

Summer was not dissuaded. “Come on, Al! It’ll be fun!” Choir members were warmmg up in the front of the sanctuary. They were in red robes trimmed in gold. When the Lutheran parade entered, they stopped singing. The silent seconds stretched to a minute. Then Summer began in her clear soprano voice: “Angels we have heard on high.. ” The choir members joined in. Soon everyone was swinging, swaying, and clapping.

H. Randall Hanson approached the pastor, the Reverend T. Everett Hollandsworth. “Reverend, may we do our Christmas play for your service?” Hollandsworth had served the congregation for forty-three years. He thought he had seen it all. But this was anew one.

“Son,” he said, ‘that’s kind of you. But we already have our young folks ready to lead worship. I don’t think it will work. But please stay and worship with us!”

That wasn’t what the Larson Chapel crowd had in mind. Amid shouts of “Merry Christmas!” and “Thanks anyway!” they headed back down University Avenue.

Two blocks later they were in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Services had just ended, and people were coming down the big stone steps. Frigid stares were common. A few people crossed the street to get to their cars. “I didn’t realize the Drag Queen convention was in town,” someone said in the dark. One compassionate soul came over and said, “Kids, church is already over. We’re going home to have Christmas with our families. You should do the same.”

Heads sank and shoulders sagged. Andrew Norgaard—who hardly ever spoke and was dressed as a lamb—said, “Wow! I guess there was no room in that inn either.”

Albert hoped that common sense might return now. But the joumey was not yet complete. Amber Ellingson saw activity in another vacant lot. “Look, there are people around that fire barrel. Let’s do our play for them!” The tidal wave was on the move again. Albert began to compose the letters he would write to parents explaming what had happened to their precious children. He felt nauseous.

They arrived at the lot and began the play. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world would be taxed. ” The Roman soldiers began waving their swords at Joseph and Mary.

At that moment a police car pulled up, The officers strolled toward the group with their night sticks unsheathed. Albert started to calculate how much bail might be for twenty-three people. H. Randall Hanson held out his helmet and sword to one of the officers. “We’re telling the Christmas story. Would you like to help?”

The man hesitated for a moment. Then he put his cap on Randall’s head and assumed his post as Caesar’s centurion.

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. ” On cue, Sarah Potter dropped to her knees and uttered a blood-curdling scream. She then produced a naked doll from beneath her robes. Brian Bingum took the doll and swatted it firmly on the bottom. A computer chip—installed personally by Brian—produced a reasonable facsimile of a baby’s cry.

A homeless woman had edged closer during this scene. Without a word, she held out her arms. Sarah gently handed the doll to the woman. She held it close and rocked back and forth. She wept as she rocked. Sarah’s cheeks were damp, too. “I guess she’s a lot more like Mary than I am,” the college girl whispered.

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people… ” At that moment, the other police officer hit the spotlight and the siren. The fire barrel crowd scattered in fear. When nothing happened, they returned to see angels glittering in the white light and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. ” The police officer’s smile was almost as bright as the spotlight.

The light revealed shepherds kneeling at the feet of the homeless woman. They had used every bit of fake beard material in the theater department. Their robes were musty from decades of storage. Their hands and faces were smudged and greasy. One enterprising youth had even blacked out four of his well-tended front teeth.

One of the University natives declared, “Hey, you guy look just like us! Can we be shepherds, too?” Four homeless men knelt with their university colleagues.

“In that region there were shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night. ” A few days later, the president of Lautenberg University learned of the Christmas Eve adventure. He decreed that such a thing should never happen again. He also ordered two dozen keys made for the Larson Chapel.

Too bad, Albert thought to himself. On that night, Jesus was once again among his people. Boundaries of class and race and education melted away. Shepherds were once again watching in the fields, and angels told the Good News. The inns were full, but the baby found loving arms. Albert hummed a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Look Deeper

Luke 2:1-20

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise there is nothing to see.

It was the night of November 14th, 1940. Four hundred and fifty German bombers flew toward England. Their target was Coventry. Coventry was a city filled with aircraft factories, munitions works and chemical plants.

The planes dropped one million pounds of high explosives and forty thousand fire bombs. Fourteen hundred people died or were wounded. German Air Marshall, Hermann Goehring, created a new word to describe the devastation. He warned other British cities that they would soon be “Coventrated.”

Coventry hosted an ancient cathedral. Bombs ripped the old building apart. Flames engulfed the structure. Parishioners saved what books, pews, and liturgical vessels they could. The senior pastor laer said, “It was as though I was watching the crucifixion of Jesus upon the cross.”

That was the surface view. On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

The morning after the attack, the cathedral stone mason was picking through the rubble. He noticed two charred timers. They had fallen into the shape of a cross. Parishioners had put that cross on an altar made of smashed stones. Someone wrote two words on the wall behind the makeshift altar.

“Father, forgive.”

That cross and those words remain today in the ruins of old Coventry Cathedral.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

It is a strange story. At first, it seems like business as usual. The powerful give the orders. The powerless comply. Only two things are certain—death and taxes. The Emperor calls the tune and the Empire gets up to dance. But then we take a closer look.

While they were there,” Luke tells us, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Here is a look beneath the surface. This night we see the cross in the midst of the rubble. We see hope underneath the despair. We see new life built on the ruins of the old.

In 1865, near the end of another war, William C. Dix wrote a Christmas carol. He named it, “What Child is This?”

What child is this, Dix asks us, sleeping on Mary’s lap? Shepherds show up to hear good news. Angels sing celestial songs. Heaven and earth meet together around a cattle trough. On the surface, it is all just too strange.

So take a closer look.

“Why lies he in such mean estate,” Dix wonders, “where ox and ass are feeding?” If you look beneath the surface, you can glimpse what is happening. Listen to the angelic announcement: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!”

This child is a sign that appearances are deceiving. What matters is underneath, deep down, in the heart of God. And that’s precisely where this child comes from.

We could stop there and be happy with the clutter of Christmas cuteness. But the story will not stay put. “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,” William Dix reminds us. “The cross he bore for me, for you.”

Now we know why our eyes linger on the surface. You don’t see any cross-filled mangers at Wal-Mart. You find no Christmas crucifixion cards at the Hallmark store. Why do we refuse to g deeper? Because the depths hold death. And that is the one deep thing we want to avoid.

The surface is where the world helps us lie to ourselves. Here are some of those lies. I can have love without suffering. I can have happiness without community. I can have peace without justice. I can have power without responsibility. I can be my own god.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

So we look deeper. Like Mary, we ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts. “Good Christian, fear,” Dix reminds us, “for sinners, here the silent Word is pleading.”

Now we can see the depths of God’s love for us and for the world. Here is Emanuel, the Word made flesh. Here is God, who will not abandon us to our own foolish devices. Here is the Creator of the Universe who comes as the Redeemer of the World. Caesar may issue orders for the moment. The world’s one true King has come to overturn all the powers that imprison us.

If we see that, we must be changed. Otherwise, we have seen nothing.

The charred cross remains in Old Coventry Cathedral. A new church has been built along the ruins. In the new church you can find the headquarters for Coventry’s international ministry of peace and reconciliation. This ministry focuses on forgiveness and changed lives as the key to global peace.

A deeper look changes us. Otherwise we have seen nothing. We must not exchange one set of chains for another. It is not enough to climb from one casket into another. In the end, that is all the world can offer.

William Dix offers this invitation. “The King of Kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.”

Let loving hearts enthrone him. This is the call of Christmas. This is how we change when we look deeper. Let us be amazed at the words of the shepherds. Let us rejoice in the song of the angels. Let us smile at the coos of the baby. And let us pray about the call of Christmas.

Will Jesus sit on the throne of your heart? Let us pray…

Worth Pondering

Luke 2:1-20

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

It was such a mean old world. What a time to have a baby! The government raised taxes at the point of a sword. A pregnant women was ordered to travel dark and dangerous roads on the brink of birthing. An old king worried himself into a genocidal rage. Poor people were turned into migrants and refugees at the whim of a distant despot. Housing demand exhausted supply. A damp, dark cave became a delivery room.

And it was all so…so normal. Graft and greed, vice and violence, fraud and fear…this was the order of the day. There was nothing to ponder. No one was surprised. It was such a mean old world.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. This was not just any old baby. This was a promise fulfilled. “For a child has been born for us,” Isaiah declares, “a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. So the days of this mean old are numbered. Oppression will be over. Combat boots and bloody fatigues shall fuel the fires of festivals. God’s justice and righteousness shall be the order of the day, every day. God’s passionate longing to set things right shall be satisfied.

For the shepherds it was just another cold night in this mean old world. They lived in the shadows of society, on the rim of respectability. Their safe and familiar darkness exploded into terrifying light. “Do not be afraid,” the angel thundered, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” Somehow, their mean old was world about to change.

To you,” the angelic announcer continued, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, 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.” This was anything but normal.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. Love was born in a manger on the margins. Love was born to migrants on the move. Love was born to overturn oppression. Love was born to defeat the darkness of death and despair. Love was born into to this mean old world to bring all that meanness to an end.

It’s still a mean old world. I confess that too often it burdens me. We live in tribes divided by twisted truth claims. We are divided by race and class and gender and age. The world worships power and rewards arrogance. People are trafficked and tortured, abused and abandoned. Shouting heads and lying lips fill our airwaves. The mortality rate is still one hundred percent. And the meanness rate is close behind.

And it is all so…normal…for us. It’s so easy to forget that none of this is normal for God.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul writes to Titus, “bringing salvation to all…” Tonight we can treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts. Love is born into our hearts and into our world in Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. It is a night to remember all the ways that Love is born into this mean old world.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the gratitude of families as they received bulging baskets of food here for Thanksgiving. I ponder the celebration of one of our own members just a year removed from jail and now building a life of faith, hope and love. I ponder the joy of children hugging our own Santa Claus and receiving gifts from the angels here at Emanuel because their parent cannot give from behind the walls of a prison.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the witness of our young people who showed us the best Christmas pageant ever and pointed us to all the horrible Herdmans in our own community. I ponder the love and care you show to one another as injury, illness, grief and death still shadow our homes and our lives. I ponder how we are blessed as a faith community to serve and to celebrate in this season of life and light.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

So I invite you to ponder as well. Where is Love born in our life today, this week, this year? It is worth some quiet time in prayer and reflection. Amid the mayhem of this mean old world, a manger is filled with light and life. And we are invited to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and see.

It’s a mean old world. But into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. Let us ponder how we can make our world the birth place of Love.

Bedroom Talk — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Bedroom Talk

“If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” wrote St. John of the Cross, “you will never find him.” Tell that to Mary in her room in Nazareth! God comes as the original alien invader. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary.

Easier said than done.

I don’t share this often, but it seems appropriate today. I was in my bedroom on our farm west of LeMars, Iowa. It was Christmas break in 1978, my senior year in college. A few weeks before, I had failed to take the Graduate Record Exam. That was required for me to apply for the doctoral program in my future. The application deadline had passed. I hadn’t made any conscious decision. I simply forgot.

To this day I cannot imagine how that happened. I can remember the day with relative clarity, but I cannot see how I could have missed such an important appointment. Others have suggested over the years that Divine intervention was the cause. I’m not willing to write off my own sloth, lack of organization, and subconscious resistance (perhaps) as God’s work. Instead, I’m grateful that God could take such shoddy material and create a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

Photo by Tan Danh on Pexels.com

In any event, there I sat in my room, wondering what to do with my life. I was engaged to be married. I was going to graduate with degrees in history and philosophy—highly unmarketable majors. I hadn’t told anyone except my fiancé about my failure—not my parents, not my friends, not my advisor. There was no comfort in that December bedroom for me.

Late one night during that lonely Christmas break, I heard a voice that said, “Go to seminary.” Speculate if you will whether it was a real voice — whatever “real” means in that context. Wonder about my mental stability at the time. I certainly did (and have never really left off wondering). Debate whether this came from vocation or desperation. It makes little difference.

My first question was, “What did you say?” My second question was, “Are you sure you have the right number?” Of course, somewhere in there was the factual question — What’s a seminary?

I didn’t hear the voice again, but the voice vexed me. When I got back to school, I really had to make some sort of decision. One morning, I called my home pastor. I said, “I think I’m supposed to go to seminary.” I waited for the laughter on the other end of the line. He said, “I’ll be there by supper time.” He drove the five and a half hours to see me and hear my story.

Before long I visited Wartburg Seminary, registered for my New Testament Greek class, and the rest, as they say, is history. I did not find God in the comfort of my bedroom. Instead, God decided to make my bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed. That hasn’t changed much in forty years.

Because of my experience, I have a special place in my heart for Mary, the mother of our Lord. This week, we read the story of the Annunciation—the angelic announcement that God had big plans for this little girl. She did not find God in the comfort of her bedroom. Instead, God decided to make her bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed.

This announcement is about Mary’s vocation. Her first question is, “What did you say?” Her second question is, “Are you sure you have the right number?”

God comes to us — where we are, whether in bedrooms or boardrooms, in faith or in doubt, in comfort or in crisis. That is the heart of the Christmas message. Strip away the tinsel and trees, the parties and presents, the elves on shelves and hooves on housetops. God comes to us. And as a result, nothing can stay the same.

God comes to Mary with a call. That’s always the way with God’s coming. She is not qualified. She does not apply. She doesn’t even know there’s an opening. God’s grace comes first. “Greetings, favored one!” the angel declares. “The Lord is with you!” In response to this announcement (and after the questions), Mary sings a song of praise that we call “The Magnificat.”

God sees Mary in the depths of life and calls her to the heights of faith, hope, and love. She puts her trust, according to Luther, not in the gifts but rather in The Giver. She loves God for God, not for what God will produce. She can do that by the Spirit’s power because she is loved “for nothing” rather than for what she can produce. This love, which is the fruit of faith given by the Spirit, is the only source of real peace for the believer.

The Magnificat begins with that mystical experience of God’s unconditional regard, but it does not end there. The result of that experience, as Lois Malcolm puts it, is Mary’s “prophetic witness to God’s great transforming work of justice in history” (page 171). This witness issues forth at precisely the moment when Mary is at her “lowest,” just as the great work of Life issues forth precisely when Jesus dies on the cross.

“The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner,” Malcolm writes, “Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society has seen as insignificant and giving her a new status…as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign…Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life,” Malcolm argues, “Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (page 173).

God comes to us. That Christmas message is for you as well. Greetings, favored one! You—beloved of God, marked with Christ, sealed with the Spirit—the Lord is with YOU! You are not qualified. You need not apply. You may not even realize there’s an opening. God comes to you in Jesus. You have found favor with God. That is true even, and especially, when we find ourselves at the lowest points of our lives.

God comes to us – especially at those low points. This is the heart of the Christmas message. God comes to you and me with a call. Now we can return to that opening quote from St. John of the Cross. “If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” he wrote, “you will never find him.”

When we need God’s comfort, God will indeed bring it. But mostly we want God to give us a life that is undisturbed and pain-free. That’s not something God will do. Because that sort of life is not worthy of those who bear the image of God in Creation. We are not called to be boring and mediocre.

God comes to us. And when God comes, God turns our lives inside out and upside down. The Holy Spirit turns our focus from inside ourselves and out into the world. The Holy Spirit turns our worldview from a race to the top of the heap to a love for the least, the lost and the lonely.

Our God does not come as a theological therapist. God comes as the Divine Disruptor. Our God is not nice. Our God is not safe. Our God is not comfortable. Our God is good and loving and merciful — and destabilizing.

God invades our sanctuaries and changes our lives. And our God has big plans for those who are called to bear Jesus to the world.

Just ask Mary.

And then look to Mary as a model of faith. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says. “Let it be to me according to your word.” We can relax into self-satisfied serenity. We can resist the call and run the other direction. Or we can surrender to the call of the Holy Spirit and find true comfort and peace.

That surrender will involve struggle. It will require sacrifice. It will produce pain. I tell people that I have spent almost forty years trying to run the other direction. But there is no joy in fleeing. There is only joy in accepting. Accepting God’s call makes us bearers of God’s presence in the world, just as Mary has led the way.

The revelation of the Kin(g)dom of God is not reserved for spiritual savants or religious rulers. It does not happen only in temple precincts or pastoral pulpits. The Holy Spirit is not an endowment limited to the privileged few or regulated by academic or ecclesial authorities. As John reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Age or gender, status or ethnicity, position or power – these are not factors in determining where the Spirit works and through whom the Spirit speaks.

God comes to us where we are. These are the last words of the Advent season. God comes calling in Jesus. How will we respond?

References and Resources

Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).

Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55.

Jacobson, Rolf, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55-3.

Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.

Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/306.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.

Text Study for Luke 3:1-6 (Pt. 7); December 5, 2021

Further Complications

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I think it will be most helpful to read through verse nine of Luke 3 this Sunday. Take a look at the first sentence in Luke 3:7 in particular. “Therefore [John] said to the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him, ‘Offspring of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” It’s worth comparing this to the other Synoptic accounts and then reflecting on the differences.

The Markan composition doesn’t portray John the Baptizer as yelling at anyone about being the illegitimate children of serpents. The writer of Matthew, on the other hand, really likes this description. That writer likes it so much that it shows up three times in the Matthean account, in Matthew 3, 12, and 23. Matthew applies the tag first to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then to the Pharisees by themselves, and then to the scribes and Pharisees.

Photo by Erik Karits on Pexels.com

Luke has John yelling in general at the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him. There may well have been Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes in those crowds – as well as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. It’s clear that Matthew and Luke share this label from a source upon which they both relied. But why does the Lukan author make the particular editorial choice to spray this insult with a firehose rather than to apply it with a squirt bottle?

I think the Lukan author is addressing a mixed crowd, even though the author appears only to be addressing a member of some elite group, the “most excellent Theophilus.” The Lukan author is not merely worried that the Markan composition is somehow incomplete, although that is a concern for the Lukan author.

I think much more is going on. A generation after the Jewish War and two decades after some thought the End of the Age would arrive, Jesus followers appear to have become complacent. On the one hand, the Lukan author is encouraging Jesus followers to settle in for the long haul and to see the Kin(g)dom of God already in their midst. On the other hand, the Lukan author is challenging the Jesus followers not to settle for the values and practices of the larger culture.

As I read the Lukan account, it strikes me that the author has at least three groups in mind here. Next Sunday, we will hear from the “little people” who come out to John. We’ll look at this in more detail in upcoming posts, but we can make some transition here. The Lukan author does not ask those people to give up their “jobs” to resist the values of Empire. Instead, the author reports that John calls them to do their jobs with integrity rather than in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement.

In particular, the Lukan author singles out those who would experience the greater pressure to conform – tax contractors and mercenary soldiers. I think these two classes were made up primarily of Jews at the time of John, and that fact continued to hold in the time of the Lukan account. The author will spend more time with such folks in the coming chapters, but we get a preview here of how Jesus followers engaged in “The System” are to behave.

John also addresses the poor and indigent in the crowd. Who could blame them for trying to come out on top in the day-to-day struggle for survival? But John commands the standard of “enough” even for those whose daily bread is a daily question. In John’s time, this group would have made up an increasing percentage of the population, as the Romans squeezed the Syrian province for more and more funds to underwrite adventures elsewhere in the borders of the Empire. The Lukan audience would not have experienced much change in that dynamic in the two generations after the Resurrection.

The third group, the one that seems to get the most attention in the Lukan account, is those who can presume upon their pedigree and privilege. “Produce fruit that is worthy of repentance,” John commands them, “and don’t begin to say in yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as father…’” That reliance on the holy genealogy will get them precisely nothing. That status is worth as much as the stones along the road. If God wants to turn those stones into children of Abraham, God can do it with a word.

The Lukan account will criticize repeatedly those who presume upon their power, position, privilege, and property. I think of the parable of the Rich Fool. The real punch of that parable is the smug self-satisfaction of the rich man. “Self,” he says to himself, “you have plenty laid up for years to come; take it easy, eat, drink, and be merry!” Of course, it didn’t work out all that well for the Rich Fool. The conclusion of this line of thought is clear – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It’s clear from the introduction to the Lukan account, that the primary audience for Luke-Acts is this population of the relatively privileged. They have survived the debacle of the Jewish War. Jesus has not returned to make their riches irrelevant. Now they must learn how to follow the Jesus way rather than the Roman way, despite the fact that they are attached to that larger cultural system through their status, wealth, and privilege.

While the Book of Acts moves the narrative into the larger Gentile world, it begins with a concentrated focus on how those with wealth can be part of the community of Jesus followers. In Acts 4, we get the description of the common life of the early Jesus community. They held in common their trust in Jesus as if they had one heart, one soul, and all their physical possessions in common. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35, NRSV).

The Lukan author then tells the story of the Cypriot Levite, Joseph Barnabas. He converted his property to cash and placed the offering at the feet of the apostles. In contrast, chapter five begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They, too, converted some of their property to cash and delivered a portion of the proceeds to the apostles.

The problem, apparently, was that they wanted the community to think they were more generous than they were. They held back a portion for security and thus lied to the Holy Spirit and the community. The result of this deception was the consecutive deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

It should be clear to us as readers that the Lukan author is addressing a number of relatively wealthy members of the Jesus community. There’s no reason to discuss the proceeds of real estate transactions with people whose property inventory consists of a second cloak. One of the questions facing the Lukan community as they settle in after a generation of relative chaos is not whether the privileged can be part of the community but rather what to do with that privilege as part of the community.

References and Resources

Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048893.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/a-season-for-truth-telling.

Hearlson, Adam. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-5.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Mora, Raul Alberto. https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/key-concept-counter-narrative.pdf.

Norton, Yolanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-7.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-malachi-31-4-6.

Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).

Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire. https://www.academia.edu/7832495/Luke_and_Empire_An_Introduction?from=cover_page.

Miller, Amanda C. Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke. (preview, 2014). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Rumors_of_Resistance/QwQDAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PR3&printsec=frontcover.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

And That’s the Good News — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Luke 21:1-36

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

My world has been coming apart at the seams and from the center since long before I was born. “Things fall apart,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919, in ‘The Second Coming,’ “the centre cannot hold.” Yeats wrote his twentieth century apocalyptic verse in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, the near-fatal illness of his wife, and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Disintegration was in the air around the globe.

Secular prophets had predicted and pointed to the dissolution of modernity even earlier. “God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “and we killed him!” The collaboration of Enlightenment modernity and liberal Protestantism had produced a sterile and empty consensus which equated Christianity with high European culture. That empty consensus was the soil out of which National Socialism arose as the old world continued to fly apart.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I didn’t know about these things in my young life. The world seemed put together well-enough for my tastes. I was born while the myth of American innocence and the ideology of American exceptionalism still seemed to make sense. There was that odd little police action on the Korean peninsula that threatened to unmoor us a bit, but we recovered from that. Joe McCarthy rattled the chains of authoritarianism, but he was too stupid to make that stick.

My world – the world of White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism continued to turn, apparently undisturbed. But under that serene surface, my world was disintegrating.

Thurgood Marshall moved the Supreme Court into only its second spate of morally defensible rulings on race. But the world that produced me pushed back – some schools resisting until nearly the end of the millennium. Sputnik threw us Americans into a beep-beeping panic as we wondered if we really were the best and the brightest this cosmos had to offer. But Jack Kennedy, poster boy for these best and brightest, promised that we would land on the moon before the end of the decade.

President Kennedy nearly got us blown out of the cosmos before the first space capsule could be launched with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We survived by a hairsbreadth. Then Lee Harvey Oswald ripped the façade off our invincibility from the School Depository window. The center began to wobble. The foundations started to shake.

I learned to speak, to write, to read, and to think while Civil Rights and Vietnam filled the newspapers. The nightly news carried the body counts, the bombings (both foreign and domestic), and the cities on fire. Malcolm died, although I didn’t hear about it until later. Then Martin. Then Bobby. The wobble became a shaking. The foundations were crumbling.

I lost a school bus driver, a friend, and a cousin to the body bags. I came of political age in the era of Watergate. I cast my first vote for Carter, but the tide was already running to Reagan. Law and order, family values – White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism pushed back hard. My world was held together with myths and lies, with enemy lists and Iran Contra, with law and order that was hardly lawful and anything but orderly.

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

I got to seminary and learned to watch my language. I wasn’t swearing in class, well, not much. But I heard about inclusive talk, something my conservative little church college had kept safely in the shadows. I knew the critique was correct and started to wonder what else I assumed that was wrong. The list was and is so very long.

I hadn’t gotten out of seminary yet when I heard that everything I had learned, all the training I had received, was obsolete. I had been trained as a pastor in “Christendom” (whatever the hell that was), and the time of Christendom was now over. I had to be contemporary, seeker-sensitive, visitor-friendly, and driven by attendance numbers rather than membership statistics.

I learned about the homogeneous unit principle of church growth, although I never learned to love it. And I went to conferences in places that looked like gyms and warehouses rather than basilicas and cathedrals. Megachurch pastors were like rockstars. I didn’t want to be one, but it didn’t hurt to imitate them.

Well, that had a short shelf-life, decreased in part by the misconduct of giant egos and in part by the classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and narcissism of the models employed. That wasn’t the answer. But my world kept spinning into wider chaos, deeper despair, murkier visions of the future.

So, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing a dying world because that’s what I was given.

Our personal worlds have a tendency to fly apart as well. I thought I could see the path from the all-consuming parish to a quiet retirement with my spouse. But the denomination and the congregation had other plans. The denomination made the right decision on homosexuality, and some of those closest to me in the parish made the wrong kind of response. It was time to go, and to let go of that part of my world.

A few months later, I was no longer married, and my first wife was buried. Only now did I really experience what it was like to have a world disintegrate, to have the future run through my hands like so much sand. There was no going back to the way things were. There was no recovery. There was only being pushed forward into a newness that I had not sought and for which I was not prepared.

My world has been disintegrating my whole life, and most of the time I didn’t even know it. Yet, that disintegration is the good news.

It’s the good news because large parts of that world need to die in order for God’s love to live fully among us. A world constructed for the sake of White Supremacy does not deserve to continue. A world built to preserve Male dominance is not worth saving. A world that makes northern European the definition of normal and cultured is too limited for the grandeur of Human being. A world that seeks moderation in all things always ends up underwriting the status quo of those with the power. Unfettered capitalism will destroy us and our environment on its own unless we find another way.

We know from the Hebrew scriptures that there is nothing new under the sun. Those who claim to be the only ones who can save us – those charlatans are a dime a dozen in human history. Nonetheless, we are often still seduced by their siren songs. Wars and insurrections are everyday realities now and have been for millennia. Conflict between nations, empires, kingdoms, and tribes is ubiquitous. Natural disasters arrive like clockwork, plagues (and pandemics) don’t care about scientific progress, and famine is a perennial feature of human greed.

“Now,” Jesus tells his followers, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

We who follow Jesus proclaim that we are not destined to face the disintegration alone. The Son of Man is the Coming One – not just once or twice, but always. This is the very heart of the one we call Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. That’s why we can lift up our heads in hope as the world is falling apart. Heaven and earth will come apart, he tells us, but his words – his promise of hope and salvation – will never desert us.

“This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us,” Serene Jones writes, “as clergy, could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the divine coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s presence” (page 39).

It is that presence which makes the proclaiming possible. White Christian Nationalism must be dismantled if humans are once again to flourish as part of the American project. White Male Supremacy must be abandoned if all people are to live out their identities in hope and love. An economic system that places the majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of a group small enough to fit in a conference room is a system that cannot be allowed to continue. A world political order that declares democracy obsolete and human rights impractical is an order that must fall.

You see, I have just described my world – the world I inherited, the world I accepted uncritically, the world that has given me more power, position, privilege, and property than I could ever deserve. That’s the world that has been disintegrating for longer than I’ve been alive. That process of dissolution will continue long after I’m gone. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will look back in disgust at the world they have left behind.

I’m no utopian. The world as we know it, on our own terms, is always coming to an end. And that’s the good news. But there is something about our time which has a particular stench of death and decay about it. And the dim outlines of a different way are beginning to rise up out of the debris.

So, we hear the call of Advent to be awake, to be alert, to stay sharp, and to do it all with prayer and courage. And that’s the good news.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.