The Tyranny of Titles – A Christmas Pageant Homily

Matthew 18.1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make the connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2016 has been a rough year with the political rhetoric and partisanship at its worst, and all the culturally significant individuals we lost (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Gene Wilder, John Glenn, etc.), and with the migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe at the highest levels since the Second World War… our preschoolers have had a tremendous year.

Today, we adults live under the tyranny of titles. We want to label individuals based on a crazy assortment of criterion. He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat, that family is poor, that family is rich, that woman is black, that man is Hispanic, that couple is gay, that couple is straight.

But the Preschoolers who gather in our basement don’t see the world and one another the way we see the world and one another.

Instead they see each other as Cruz, and Hadley, and Charlie, and Ellie Rose, and Owen, and Maddie, and Graham, and Henry. They, unlike us, do not view the world through the cynical lens that so many of us have adopted over the years. They, unlike us, see the world like Jesus.

Like that little girl with her father, they understand the cost of discipleship in a way that few us can.

I’ve been here long enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about what the Preschool should be teaching the children. I’ve had consultations with the teachers about curricula and paradigms. I’ve even met with some of you to discuss the growth and transformation of your children in response to the nurture and education they receive in the basement.

I’m guilty of the same cynicism that treats young people like objects to be molded in a factory to come out prepared for the world. When Jesus is the one who calls us not to make children into adults, but to change adults into children.

This Christmas, I have a challenge for you. Instead of being consumed by the desire to transform your little ones to fit into one of the labels of society, try to let them transform you. Try to look at the world the way they do. Try to love one another the way they do.

For it is on Christmas that we celebrate the birth of God in the flesh, born as a baby in a manger to a young couple all alone in the world. God did not come to change the world through political power or through economic wealth or through militaristic might. God changed the world through a baby, not unlike the ones we are celebrating with tonight. Amen.

A Drop In The Ocean – Election Reflection

Isaiah 12.1-6

You will say in that day; I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

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The line was long when I arrived at my voting location. I sauntered along with the others who were shivering in the cold until we made it to the door and the warmth. We listened to three different people explain the process of voting, we were shifted like a herd of cattle from one side to the other, and then one by one we had to hand over our driver’s licenses to prove our identities.

The woman holding my license (with a picture of me at 20 years old) brought it right up to her face in order to examine every fine detail. Without looking at me she said, “state your name and address.” So I did. And only when handing the card back did she look up over her glasses to say, “you’ve changed.” Which actually sounded more like “you look older than the card says you are.”

Like a sheep, I was then shepherded over to a separate table where I filled in four bubbles, took the card over to the machine, waited for it to beep, and was given my sticker. All told, I was there for ten minutes. 18 months of anger and political outrage, 18 months and nearly 5 billion dollars spent on advertising and campaigns slogans, 18 months and national turmoil all came to fruition in a ten-minute dance in a church social hall for four votes.

If I’ve heard one thing as a pastor more than anything else about this election over the last year and a half, it was this: “God is punishing us.” “God is punishing us for our sinful ways and making us choose between the lesser of two evils.” “God is punishing us for electing a black president 8 years ago.” “God is punishing us for not getting faith back in schools.” “God is punishing us for our lack of faith.” “God is punishing us and the world is going to end with this election.”

Want to know a secret that shouldn’t be a secret? The world is not going to end tonight when all is said and done.

God has been God a whole lot longer than this world has had democratic elections. God has been God through every presidency. God has been God long before America existed. God has been God, and will be God, long after we’re gone.

We Christians believe that Jesus is Lord which means we believe that God is in control. We believe that God spoke the whole of creation into being and has called each of us by name. We believe that God is almighty regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. And perhaps most importantly, we believe that God calls us to love and pray for our enemies, which today means we are called to love and pray for the people who voted for the other candidate.

Can you imagine? Christians praying for people they disagree with? Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and it has been so absent during this cycle. Instead, political offices have been bombed, churches have been burned, and voters have been intimidated at the polls.

And perhaps we want to blame Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than whoever will become the next president. The problem is us. We get the people we deserve running for office. Instead of seeing one another and brothers and sisters in Christ, we have adopted the world’s identification system and see one another as liberal or conservative. Instead of listening to those with different opinions, we just shout louder. Instead of believing that Jesus is Lord, we have fallen prey to the belief that the world hinges on this election.

But this election pales in comparison to God’s willingness to elect us. Not by a show of hands, not by absentee ballots, not by filling in a circle on a form, but electing us to salvation through his Son.

For it is Jesus Christ who humbles us to pray for those we hate. Jesus, though scorned and ridiculed by the people, does not call for votes to be cast, but says, “Follow me.” Jesus leads us on the path that leads to life, not prosperity and political prestige, but life eternal. Jesus places the uncomfortable yoke around our necks and says the burden is light. Jesus invites us to feast at the table and we do not deserve it. Jesus, high in the air with the nails in his hands and feet, says, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

If we’re honest, we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know what it means to be a Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our political identities and Christian identities in tandem with one another, and we don’t know how to love the people we hate.

But we do know the truth: Jesus is Lord.

So we give thanks, for even though the Lord has been angry with us, he comforts us. Surely we know and believe that God is our salvation. We will trust, and not be afraid, for the Lord God is our strength and our might. Through the immeasurable gift of his Son we have been elected into a strange new way of life. With the knowledge of this joy we draw water from the wells of salvation. As we remember and contemplate our own baptisms we remember who we are and whose we are.

So we give thanks to the Lord, and call upon God’s name. We proclaim God’s mighty acts from the beginning of time until this moment. We sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously.

Though some will say that our faith is fruitless, that to gather here at this moment, while the party lines are being heavily fortified for future derision, is pointless; that to pray for, and love, the very people who drive us crazy is a waste of time. Some will even be so bold as to believe that gathering at the table while the country is in chaos is no more than a drop in a limitless ocean, that it can never transform the world. Yet, what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? Amen.