The Problem Is Bigger Than A Name

The school board in Staunton, VA recently voted 4-2 in favor of changing the name of the high school (Robert E. Lee) after a long and very public community debate. Frustrations about the name were certainly present while I lived in the community and I once dared to address the controversy from the pulpit…

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

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And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

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We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

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Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove ALL the prejudice and ALL the racism and ALL the judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

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We Always Marry The Wrong Person – A Wedding Homily

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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From my perspective, which is to say the Pastor’s perspective, weddings are better when you really know the couple. Worshiping and celebrating together is always joyful and full of excitement when you’ve taken the time to get to know the people who are entering into the wedded covenant.

But when you know the couple as well as I know the two of you, it becomes that much harder.

What can I possibly say to the two of you that I have not already said before! I know the two of you too well to make the language of love and commitment intelligible because I cannot look at either of you with unbiased perspectives. I have memories of both of you stretching back so far that standing here before you, tasked with speaking the truth about what you are about to do, feels like an impossible assignment.

However, unlike so many weddings where you might hear the fluff about how love is all you need, I can be more vulnerable and honest with both of you, and everyone else here, because I’m actually going to see you again!

I told both of you months ago that regardless of whatever scripture you picked for your wedding, that I reserved the right to chose my own as well. This was not meant as a slight, I know you two know the scriptures well enough to pick a proper wedding text, but I also know both of you enough to what another scripture that gives light and life.

Luke 5.1-11

“Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

The Three-Fold is not quickly broken and Jesus Gone Fishing.

Jesus and fishing are like a match made in heaven, on earth. Throughout the New Testament people go fishing all the time and they never, ever, catch a single fish unless Jesus is with them. Fishing was so important to the early Christians not only as a way to survive, but they also carved out the sign of a fish in the secret catacombs to let fellow disciples know it was a place of worship.

It’s clear, at least in the witness of scripture, that Jesus liked fish: the first disciples were called after a night of fishing, Jesus fed the 5,000 with just a handful of fish, and Jesus first meal after the resurrection was broiled fish over a charcoal fire.

It’s only fitting that Forrest proposed to Katie while on a fishing trip. And, Jesus was definitely with you, because you actually caught her.

That’s when everyone’s supposed to say “Aww.”

And for as much as Jesus liked fish, and fish have become inextricably connected with the Christian faith, fishing has also become the de facto metaphor for romantic relationships. People say things like “You caught her” or “Don’t worry, you just need to work on your moves and maybe you’ll get a few bites” or “Of all the fish in the sea, I’m so glad you swam to me.”

We’re stuck with that language whether we like it or not. And the truth is, relationships, and in particular marriage, is much more like fishing than we give it credit for. However, it cannot be boiled down to a nice and cute and cliché Etsy print that you could hang on the wall.

The deep and profound truth of marriage is this: We always marry the wrong person.

Now, lest you two run away from me for saying something so heinous in the midst of your wedding, lest you scratch your heads as to how that relates to fishing… Let me explain.

So much of what the world tells us about marriage is destructively caught up in the lie that in marriage you will find happiness. I hope and pray that you two are happy in your marriage, but marriage itself is not indicative, or predictive, of happiness. We are told again and again that there is a soul mate for us out there, and that if we fish long enough we will find the “right” person.

We never really know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we marry the “right” person, just give it a little while and he or she will change.

Forrest, take a good look at Katie: Beautiful, intelligent, fierce. We both know that she loves you more than you love yourself. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing, she’s just deeply in love with you. But she’s not going to be like this forever. She’s not going to even be like this tomorrow. You, Forrest, are about to make a crazy promise – to love and share life with Katie knowing that you do not know how she is going to change.

And Katie, take a good look at Forrest. I know he’s as handsome as they come, but he’s not going to look like this forever. Sike, whom am I kidding, Forrest is going to look like he’s 18 forever! But really, he’s kind and committed and knows way too many random factoids that only make for good conversation when you meet strangers. He can tell you what state produces the highest number of toothpicks each year, and where are the best places to go urban fly fishing in the DC metro area. But he’s going to change. It is inescapable. And you, Katie, are about to make the same crazy promise – to love and share life with Forrest knowing that you do not know how he’s going to change.

            Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Marriage is only made possible when you know who you are such that you are willing to enter into the mystery of the other with your whole self.

8 years ago the three of us traveled to Guatemala together. We spent the majority of our time in Chiquisis, a small and remote village in the Highlands. We slept on old bunk beds, and woke up every morning to coffee as thick as porridge before we went out to work on building our stoves. As the leader of the trip I got to pair everyone in work crews, and I chose to work with you Katie, and I sent Forrest to work with my sister Haley.

I remember about halfway through the week, when the exhaustion and routine was so strong that we were able to work for hours at a time without talking, I interrupted you while you were mixing concrete and I asked you a difficult question: “Why Forrest?”

And I will never forget how you didn’t even look up, or pause what you were doing to answer, “Because he makes me feel like me.”

4 years ago Forrest, you and I went fly-fishing by ourselves in the middle of nowhere Virginia. We hiked and hiked up and down along the banks of the creek, we fished for hours and hours, and we never even saw a single fish. And I remember about halfway through the day, when frustration and the routine was strong enough that we hadn’t said anything for a long time, I interrupted you in the middle of a cast with a difficult question: “Why Katie?”

And I will never forget how you kept casting when you answered, “Because when I’m with her, she makes me feel like me.”

   I feel like me.

It is in the knowledge of self that you two come to this place on this day with a strange and beautiful and bewildering promise. To me it is a sign of God’s abundant grace and mercy that you two found partners who make each of your feel more like yourselves. In a world where we decipher far too much of our identities based on the people around us, it was through your joining together that you somehow became more fully the individuals God has called you to be.

When Jesus called Simon Peter by the lakeshore, he called the wrong person. What kind of Messiah calls a fisherman, who catches zero fish, to be a fisher of people? Why choose the one who shouted, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner” to be the first disciple? Everything about Simon Peter was wrong. Jesus chose the wrong person.

            But that’s exactly what made it right.

Throughout the gospels Simon Peter becomes the disciple who responds to Jesus’ healing, teaching, and preaching. Simon Peter is the one who confesses Jesus as the Messiah first. Simon Peter is the one whom upon whom Christ would build his church.

Not because he was a good fisherman, not because he was gifted with leadership potential, not because of anything within himself.

Simon Peter becomes the person God called him to be because Jesus was with him! Only when Jesus was in the boat did the nets begin to break under the weight of the fish. Only when Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God was Peter able to say, “You are the Christ.” Only when Jesus handed Peter the bread and the wine at the table was he able to become the rock of the church.

    Jesus’ presence changes us.

Christ is the third part of the threefold cord that is not easily broken. Christ is the one sitting with us on the boats of life beckoning us to throw the nets over one more time. Christ is the Lord of impossible possibilities.

Peter was the wrong disciple, just like we marry the wrong person, because we don’t get to control the people we love. We are bound to them and they are bound to us in the sanctity of marriage in ways that remind us over and over again that only through profound witness of faith can something so incredible become manifest.

Only when Jesus is with us on the boat, can we hope to catch some fish.

Now, I want you two to take a look at all the people here. They, like Jesus, believe in impossible possibilities. They believe in you. They are here as a witness and a testament to the individual lives brought to this place on this day, and they are the promise made manifest to hold you to the impossible possibility of your marriage.

Now look at each other one more time. Deeply. I hope each of your know how tremendously blessed each of you are to have the person in front of you staring right back, this old friend who has shared so much of life with you, this absolute stranger who is becoming your marriage partner.

Now back to me! Your wedded life will be filled with mountains and valleys, with monsoons and droughts, with good fishing days and bad fishing days. But no matter what, keep tossing the net and keep casting your rods.

Know, deep in your bones, that the Lord is with you on the boat, that the threefold cord is not easily broken, and that you need not be afraid.

We always marry the wrong person, but that’s exactly what makes it right. Amen.

Don’t Make Jesus Hangry

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Easter 3B (Acts 3.12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3.1-7, Luke 24.36b-48). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and he and I help share the responsibilities for editing the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including tee-ball, the challenges of returning to church after paternity leave, looking at the verses before the lectionary text, offensive evangelism, the elect and the reject, MLK’s legacy, the absence of silence, hol(e)y hands, and Jesus’ immoral teaching. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Make Jesus Hangry

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The Gospel In 4 Verses

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 1st Sunday after Christmas [Year B] (Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 2.22-40). Our conversation covers a range of topics including what gifts we should offer to Jesus, The Bachelor, incarnational theology, the importance of sermon titles, and how to keep the joy of Christmas in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel In 4 Verses

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We Start With The End

Luke 1.46-55

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

There’s a grocery right around the corner from my house and I go there way too often. I’d like to blame it on the strange hours of church work, or my incredible cooking skills that sends me off looking for strange and rare ingredients, but honestly having a toddler requires visiting the grocery store with regularity.

I go enough to know when not to go. For instance: Sunday afternoons are the absolute worst. They are the worst because people like me remember all the things they forget to pick up earlier in the week and decide to go at the exact same time as everyone else.

And during the holiday season, it’s all the worse.

So, of course, it was on Sunday afternoon that I found myself at the grocery store with the always wonderful assortment of necessary items in my basket: baby wipes, chocolate morsels, and deodorant.

And I was not alone: every aisle was filled with families and individuals frantically seeking out all the items on their list. Some moved at a snail’s pace checking all of the nutritional values for every single item, while others were just swiping items into their carts indiscriminately. Like all stores around this season, there were older couples smiling at babies, young couples avoiding the babies, and babies crying at everyone.

I held my requisite items and dashed as quickly as I could to the “10 Items or Less” aisle which, of course, was filled with many people with way more than 10 items. And so, I practiced my Christian virtue, and I tried being patient and non-judgmental.

And that’s when the fight broke out.

Four people up from me in the line stood a young woman having just shoved the cashier across the conveyer belt. From my vantage point I could only make out brief words and lots of loud noises. There was some disagreement about payment, and then insults started flying, and then arms started moving, and the rest of us in line just stood there doing what we do best when we go to the grocery store: we distracted ourselves with the trite headlines on bad magazines, we glanced at our watches, and rechecked our email inboxes on our phones for the third time in a row.

Eventually, after the items had been sorted and the argument came to its conclusion with the manager stepping in, the young woman began weeping. “I’m just so hungry,” she said, “please let me take something.” And the cashier politely responded, “Ma’am, if we gave you something for free we’d have to give something to everybody.” And with that, they told her to leave or they’d call the police.

And we all stood there, doing nothing.

Today is the 4th, and final, Sunday of Advent. Some of you are here because you’re eagerly awaiting tonight and tomorrow morning, some of you are probably thinking more about what’s under the tree than what’s in store for worship, some of you are waiting in deep grief thinking about how all the best Christmases are behind you, and still yet some of you are here with the hope that you will receive a little more hope.

This is the day when the pre-Christmas frenzy is at its zenith. Many of you will rush out of church this morning to take care of all the remaining items on your list because Christmas hits us like a brick wall tomorrow. And it is at this precise moment, with all the fear and fervor, that we are treated to the voice of a poor young Jewish girl with a song of praise.

Mary sings her song in declaration of the new arrival of God made manifest in her womb. She not only accepts her call to bear God in the flesh, but also marvels at God’s amazing grace that will, and perhaps already has, come to fruition in the promise in her womb.

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Mary’s song, her Magnificat, begins by celebrating the greatness of God: among the entirety of the world, God chose to bestow God’s favor on Mary, a lowly servant of God. Then she proclaims God’s liberating compassion for the poor. She declares that God will flip the expectations of the world upside down, and that nothing will ever be the same. Mary identifies the God growing in her womb as the God who identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

And, at its best, Mary’s song is just another verse in God’s great song to humanity. A song that begins with “Let there be light” that transitions to “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” and finds its chorus in, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

But the tense has changed.

            In God’s initial covenant it is all about what will come to pass, but in Mary’s song, God has already acted and changed the cosmos, prior to Jesus’ birth.

Mary sings amidst a world suffering under oppression, and even though we are far removed from the days of Mary, things can look pretty grim these days as well.

I’ve come to find that because we know the story of Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, all of it so well, that it no longer shakes us the way that it once did. Instead of being rocked by the fulfilled promises of Mary’s Magnificat, we imagine Christmas as portrayed by little children wearing bed sheets and pipe cleaner angel wings.

But the story is as real as the person sitting next to you, and it demands our attention and reaction.

On the front of your bulletin you’ll find a modern Mary and Joseph.

I am almost positive that the image will offend most of us in church this morning. But, to be frank, if you’re here in worship on a Sunday morning that also falls on Christmas Eve, you’re probably the kind of Christian who can handle the offense.

The image shows Mary and Joseph as if they were waiting outside the 7-11 down the street from our church. And the attention to detail is what shakes me when I see the image: Mary wears a Nazareth High School hoodie, reminding us that she was truly a young woman. She wears an engagement ring around her finger, given to her by Jose, otherwise known as Joseph. There’s no vacancy at Dave’s City Motel (The city of David: Bethlehem). And Mary even rests under the star, though this one is neon and serves as an advertisement for an adult beverage.

This image might come across as upsetting, and if it does, it’s only because we’ve lost sight of how offensive the Christmas story really is: God chose these people to bring the incarnation into the world. God chose these people to right all the wrongs committed by the world. God chose Mary’s womb to start the story that ends with an empty tomb.

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I am not proud to admit that we all kept standing there while the woman in the grocery store ran away out of shame, fear, embarrassment, and hunger; a hunger that I will probably never know; a hunger that most of you will probably never experience. But I’m positive it’s a hunger that Mary knew.

Mary was the “least of these,” a phrase we throw around far too often without contemplation. She, in the midst of a frightening life, perhaps among the pangs of hunger, declared that in her womb was the coming change that would reverse the doom.

She, as the favored one, saw what would be accomplished by God’s promise before it even happened. She, like us, knew the end of the story. God’s story in Christ, in Mary, is offensive simply because it is so contrary to the world’s expectations, and even our own.

If we encountered the couple on the front of our bulletin, there’s a good chance that we would treat them the same way that others and I treated that woman at the grocery store: with indifference.

We’ve got our own problems to worry about: children to feed, presents to wrap, in-laws to impress. We haven’t got time to feed the hungry when we’ve got bills to pay. It’s hard to think about bringing down the mighty when we feel so powerless.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay because this transformative work is God’s business. We get to participate in this work with God for sure, but in Mary’s song she rightly points away from herself to the one who is, was, and is to come:

            God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

            God has demonstrated his incredible strength.

            God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

            God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

            God has lifted up the lowly.

            God has filled the hungry with good things.

            God has sent the rich away empty.

            And God did, and does, all of this in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.

Like Mary, we start at the end. We read the Magnificat in the knowledge that the tomb will be empty. We hear Mary’s song as a triumphant declaration about how God changed, and changes, the world in the incarnation and the resurrection. In these words we experience the past, present, and future of God’s reign.

The great challenge of following Jesus is cultivating the ability, like Mary, to see God’s promises as already having come to pass. Such that, instead of ignoring the woman at the store, or the couple on the corner, we see them as intimately involved in God’s toppling of the powers and principalities; that, instead of accepting the status quo, we recognize how all of us are works in progress; that instead of passively accepting this song, we hear it for the controversy that it truly is.

Our God is scandalous. Our God chooses an old couple in Abraham and Sarah to mark the covenant between God and humanity, a couple we might relegate to a retirement home. Our God chooses a little shepherd boy named David to bring down the mighty Goliath, a boy we might chastise in church for being too loud. Our God chooses an unwed pregnant teenager to bring about the one who will lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty, a girl that we might judge from afar without offering assistance.

We are so steeped in the world of our own making that we forget how scandalous our God truly is. This season in particular has the capacity to bring out the very best, and the very worst in us. But Mary, in her remarkable song, reminds us that wealth and power have no ultimate influence in the realm of God’s kingdom. In fact, they are used to serve the lowly.

            That’s not a popular message to bear during Christmas, but it wasn’t popular during the time of Mary either. In fact, that’s the message that got Jesus killed. But, thanks be to God, we know that what started in the womb was also there in the empty tomb. Amen.

Keep The Cross In Christmas

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rubén Rosario Rodríguez about the readings for Christmas Eve [Year B] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Ruben is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He is passionate about Liberation Theology and keeping others honest about Karl Barth. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the temptation (and need) to preach political sermons on Christmas Eve, the themes of light and darkness, singing new songs on one of the highest attended worship services of the year, the fragility of victory, trembling in church, and keeping the cross in Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keep The Cross In Christmas
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Remembering The End At The Beginning

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Anita Ford about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent [Year B] (2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38, Luke 1.46b-55). Anita is (as she puts it) a bonafide lectionary nerdling and serves at her local church as the lay leader. Additionally, Anita is a big fan of the Strangely Warmed podcast and has contributed to Voices in the Wilderness from Pupit Fiction in the past. Our conversation covers a range of topics including singing Christmas hymns during Advent, sanctuary orientation, God’s promises, the theotokos, responding to revelation, three difficult words, and magnifying the mystery. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Remembering The End At The Beginning

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