Thursday, January 19, 2017

How Democracies Behave: Ten Years Without Hrant Dink

Ten years ago today, an Armenian-Turkish journalist named Hrant Dink, who had devoted his career to reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia and to championing human rights within Turkey, was assassinated in broad daylight in front of his office by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist.

This assassination did not come out of nowhere: Dink had faced death threats for years from Turkish nationalists and twice had been prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for "insulting Turkishness." He was acquitted the first time, given a six-months suspended sentence the second time, and prosecutors were preparing a third round of charges at the time of his murder.

All because he openly acknowledged the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide and called on Turkey to end its own denial of it.

Today, ten years later, Turkey is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and while Article 301 was modestly reformed in the wake of Dink's assassination, it is still a crime in Turkey to insult the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan--a crime punishable by four years in prison.

This is not how democracies behave.

And now, law professors who spoke out against Donald Trump's nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General are being retaliated against. The Senate is being asked by the majority party to confirm an extremely ethically-challenged slate of cabinet nominations in a slapdash, paper-over effort. And all our PEOTUS seems to have the time to do is tweet about Saturday Night Live, Meryl Streep, and Representative John Lewis.

This is not how democracies behave.

While our American exceptionalism tends to dictate that other countries ought to look to us for inspiration, in truth, it is time we in the States took a lesson from Turkey. Democracy does not come at the point of a lance. Freedom and liberty is not enforced by taking it away from the journalists who strive to protect it. And the ultranationalism that has plagued Turkey is now plaguing us, if the spate of hate crimes, slurs, and hate speech after Trump's victory is any indication.

Tomorrow, the keys of power will be turned over to a new administration, and here, the useful comparison between America and Turkey ends. Unlike Turkey, we had an election last year, not a military coup. That election, while faithful to the precepts of the Constitution and its creation of the Electoral College, still was not democratic insofar as it ignored the majority vote to the tune of roughly 2.8 million voters.

That, too, is not how democracies behave.

But the earth spins on, and the peaceful transition of power continues.

I will not be watching that peaceful transition tomorrow. I have no desire to be a witness for this Caesar who now takes the throne.

Instead, I will continue to desire to serve God and God's will, to continue to speak truth into the emptiness, to continue to write words of prophecy and justice, and to advocate for the very same marginalized and oppressed people this Caesar decided to campaign against.

It will not always be work with immediate returns. But it will be work that bears eventual fruit.

The best epilogue there has been for a journalist like Hrant Dink is that after his assassination, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to both protest his murder and to express solidarity with Turkish Armenians. Chanting, "We are all Hrant Dink," their voices created an eternally-documented witness to the innate human desire to live in peace, to live in kindness, and most of all to live in love.

And that is how democracies behave.

Vancouver, Washington
January 19, 2017

Image courtesy of OpenDemocracy. My apologies for not updating here more frequently--my writing time and energy has been devoted lately almost entirely towards my D.Min. thesis. I will continue to write here as I am able, though.

Monday, January 2, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "A Year of Jubilee"

I was unable to give this sermon on Sunday as we made the decision to cancel church on account of inclement weather--only the second time that we have had to do that in the five-plus years I have been here. But because it is a special sermon, written for the kicking off of my sabbatical that officially begins today, I still wanted to post it and share it. Please enjoy. ~E.A.

Leviticus 25:1-13

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, 2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: Once you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must celebrate a sabbath rest to the Lord. 3 You will plant your fields for six years, and prune your vineyards and gather their crops for six years. 4 But in the seventh year the land will have a special sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord: You must not plant your fields or prune your vineyards. 5 You must not harvest the secondary growth of your produce or gather the grapes of your freely growing vines. It will be a year of special rest for the land. 6 Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food—for you, for your male and female servants, and for your hired laborers and foreign guests who live with you, 7 as well as for your livestock and for the wild animals in your land. All of the land’s produce can be eaten.

8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet blown on the tenth day of the seventh month. Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee. (Common English Bible)

New Year’s Day 2017

One of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had the joy to be a part of was a three-week mission trip to sub-Saharan Africa under the auspices of our denomination’s global mission arm, Global Ministries. There, we got to visit mission sites in South Africa, Angola, and Kenya to minister to children, hear from HIV/AIDS activists right in the epicenter of the disease’s epidemic, and, in Kenya, visit a seminary where so many students were dedicating themselves to education and to serving God.

It is exactly what we should hope to see happen in impoverished parts of the world—the setting up of an infrastructure that can give people a means out of extreme poverty while also maintaining their own dignity and autonomy. I cannot stress the importance of that enough: it is one thing to try or want to help another people; it is entirely another to do so in a way that preserves their innate dignity and need for personal decision-making that we all have.

In that vein, I came across this story about a young woman in Kenya named Joice, who was a part of a census performed by a nonprofit charity called GiveDirectly that specialized in providing targeted cash infusions to households to lift those households out of poverty, and trusting those households to use the cash in the best way possible, because they knew more of what they needed than outsiders running a charity. The story goes like this:

The fact (Joice) was receiving a number meant her entire life would change: She’d receive free sums of money and would be required to do nothing in exchange. She could use the money however she wanted; all GiveDirectly wanted was to help people become less impoverished.

Over one year, Joice received three transfers totaling 87,000KSE, or roughly $1,000…The three transfers came in different amounts: one for $80 and two for $460 each.

“What surprised me most was the unconditionality of the money,” (Joice says). “I felt so dignified to be recognized as capable of setting my own priorities in addressing my own needs.”

Joice and her husband used about half of the first sum to buy a goat. The rest they spent on food. As this was happening, Joice was going to school, but knew she couldn’t pay for the education. The fees were mounting. When her larger transfer came through, those debts quickly disappeared.

“In our country, it is very difficult to be recognized as qualified without evidence of education,” Joice says. “This was an opportunity that allowed me to clear the fee arrears from my University and allowed me to be free to compete in the job market.”

I am beginning my sabbatical by trying to see it a little like how the $1,000 affected Joice and her family. Three months is a lot of time, just like $1,000 is a lot of money, but for someone in desperate need of such a resource, a little bit is able to go an awfully long way. To erase student loan debt here in the States often takes tens of thousands of dollars, not several hundred dollars. Goats don’t go for two Andrew Jacksons. And three months of sabbatical, studies have begun to show, can do great wonders in preventing burnout from ministry and losing out on much more than just three months of serving Christ’s church.

Because believe it or not, many pastors live in circumstances of spiritual poverty, even as we are called to be spiritual giants. We end up emotionally and spiritually exhausted and we minister not out of abundance, but out of famine. That is simply no way for us to beuseful  able to do our work.

One of the ways the Israelites had to try to stave off famines was the Sabbath year—in order to let the soil replenish itself, every seventh year the Israelites were commanded to not plant anything and to simply live off of what was grown naturally. It had to be so very hard for them to do, especially when ancient farmers often eked out subsistence-level incomes even in the best of times.

But the alternative, of them completely using the land up, of taking out all of its nutrients and all of its life-giving capacity, was a far worse scenario for them to contemplate. Hence the Sabbath year.

The Sabbath year was not enough to ensure sustainability, though, and so God called for a year of Jubilee as well. After every seventh seven years—so, on every fiftieth year, all families were to return to their original land, which is to say that the land would return to being the property of that family.

The purpose of the year of Jubilee, then, is twofold: one is to prevent the establishment of a small, landed aristocracy that controlled all of the arable or useful land in ancient Israel. The other was to provide every household, every family, a fresh start every so often regardless of poverty or indebtedness. It was to do for the ancient Israelites what an organization like GiveDirectly did for Joice and her husband, or, spiritually, what this congregation is doing for its pastor with a sabbatical.

Not just for me, though, but also for you. You’ve got New Year’s Resolutions to either make, break, or try to keep until, say, President’s Day or, if you’re really on a roll, Easter. So why not seek newness that is a bit more enduring, and far more hopeful, for the Jubilee comes not from us, but from God, a God who sees our own need for a Jubilee because God Himself once needed one too.

Our need for renewal and revitalization comes not simply from exhaustion or fatigue, it comes from God. It is Godlike. On the seventh day, God rested. It wasn’t until the third day that Jesus rose.

And from their examples, we are given the Sabbath and the year of Jubilee. Not just for ourselves, but for our entire communities. So while our community will look and function differently for the next three months—I will not be here leading worship on Sunday mornings or in my office during the week—my hope and prayer is that this will indeed be a year of Jubilee for us, of us finding Sabbath rest from the many labors that we have undertaken joyfully together for the past five years to revitalize both our church and our wider community.

Those soul-sized labors do not cease. So it falls to us to ensure that we rest so that such labors continue to inspire us, not burn us out. Truthfully, burnout is the simple way that such labor ends.

But the far better way for our labor to end is to still have the heart for it when the Lord comes again.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 1, 2017

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

January 2017 "New Year, New Dawnings"

Dear Church,

New Year's Eve and Day always brings much in the way of pomp, circumstance, and tradition with it: the making of resolutions, the watching of the Times Square ball, the singing of Auld Lang Syne, and much more. It is a holiday of celebration, of renewal, and of hope for the future.

It feels appropriate, then, that I would begin my sabbatical on the dawn after New Year's Day, for those are indeed my own hopes for my three months away on study leave: to celebrate what we have done, to find sources of renewal for myself, and to plan for the next stage of our future.

This, then, is a (temporary!) good bye to all of you—I will begin my sabbatical on Monday, January 2, and I will be away for exactly three months. I will be back in the office on Monday, April 3, and I will return to preaching and worship leadership on Palm Sunday, April 9. I am very grateful for the chance to take a sabbatical, and to the church for including the contingency for a sabbatical in my contract when I first arrived here as your pastor over five years ago.

I must confess to you that the sabbatical comes at a very needed time for me. 2016 has left me emotionally and spiritually drained--in addition to losing several beloved members of our congregation over the past few years, I've felt enormously grieved by the poverties and obstacles faced not only by many folks right here in Longview, but around the entire world, from Aleppo to Berlin and all points in between. So first and foremost, I am hoping and praying to find some renewal and restoration for my spirit during my time away.

I am also hoping to be able to spend some time working on the future. I already have a pair of sermon series planned for after I return in April, but I also would like to use my work on my doctoral thesis as a chance to reflect on what my ministry here should look like--what I have learned so far from five-plus years here already, and how I can take what I have learned and more deliberately put it into action.

During these three months, the life of the church will be a little different. I will not be involved in the day-to-day running of the church office, and I will not be available for those regular day-in, day-out things that I usually do as your pastor. I won't be around on Sundays or at Tuesday Bible study. I won't be sitting in on Monday morning staff meetings with Charlotte and Jamie. And I won't be making trips over to St. John hospital for pastoral care.

That does not mean you will not hear from me—I will be updating my blog throughout my sabbatical to let all of you know what I am up to, and you will still hear from me in this newsletter column each month, just like usual. And though I will not be physically present at the church, please know that all of you will be spiritually present in my prayers, just as you always are and just as I always hope that I am in your prayers.

I know that while I am away, you will be in good hands--we have some very talented guest preachers lined up, and both the board of directors and the elders have stepped up to be responsive to some of the things that I would ordinarily address in the course of my ordinary workdays. I will still miss all of you, though, and I look forward to my return to the office in April!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Day Sermon: "Joy to the World"

Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”) 24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus. (Common English Bible)

“The First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week Five

One of the things I associate Christmas the most with, for better and for worse, is the music. Sometimes, it really does feel magical to hear a Christmas song played a way that I’ve never heard it, and other times, when I’m hearing some hackneyed, tired rearrangement of Jingle Bell Rock, I want to pull my nonexistent hair out. But most days, it is capable of bringing to me—and to the world—joy.

But the music makes up so much of this season for me, and so much of my life. I listen to the jazz radio station to and from work most days. I still keep an extensive collection of CD’s for when I’m not in the mood for jazz. And I still end up moved by stories like this one from the Washington Post, which conveys the story of a homeless man in Montreal, Canada, named Mark Landry who is a street musician who plays the violin quite beautifully—at least, he did until his violin was stolen, and he turned to his faith in God to find a new one.

This is not nothing—this isn’t someone asking for something utterly superficial. The violin represented Mark’s livelihood. But then Jean Dupre, the CEO of the Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra, heard about Mark’s predicament, and I’ll let the Post take it from there:

The Montreal man doesn’t have much in terms of material things. He lives on the streets, but he brightens many commuters’ days with his violin, which he’s been playing since he was 17 years old, in Metro stations around the city. That small piece of hardwood and taut strings also kept him fed, as he used it to busk during rush hour…

Landry prayed, convinced in his faith that God would deliver him a new instrument.

“God’s gonna give me a new one,” Landry said. Otherwise he would “go through a lower level of poverty, which is to live without my violin.”

He told Dupre that he was lost without his instrument.

“I talked to God this morning and said I cannot live without my violin,” Landry told him…

Tuesday afternoon, Dupre, joined by a CBC news crew, delivered the violin to Landry. The resulting video shows the bearded man’s eyes light up as he rips off his red-and-black checkered jacket to free his arms and begin playing.

“Immediately when I gave him the violin, he opened the case and said, ‘God listened to me,’” Dupre said. “He just grabbed the instrument right at that exact moment and began playing.”

There is joy to behold in that story, but that joy comes as a direct result of human participation—or of God participating through us. We pray to God, but, as the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard is quick to point out, prayer is meant to change us, not God, and then we in turn change the world!

This has a sermon series for the church season of Advent, which is known pretty much in every other context as “the Christmas season” or “the holidays.” Except it isn’t the Christmas season: the twelve-days-long Christmas season (yes, just like the Twelve Days of Christmas carol) begins today, on Christmas Day, and extends to January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived at where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been bedded down.

Advent was meant to be a season of preparation, and not just preparing for the Christmas dinner parties and the tinsel and ornaments, but a preparation for the least material of all things: of divine life becoming human life. To help us prepare for the birth of the Christ child this year, we revisited the work of John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg who, if you remember, were the authors of The Last Week, a book I used as the template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. The First Christmas represents their sequel to The Last Week, and much as The Last Week sought to go verse-by-verse through the Passion narrative and place it into its historical and anthropological context, so too does The First Christmas deliver a similarly thoughtful treatment of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

We end this sermon series, then, one day after the last day of Advent and on the first day of Christmas, with an excerpt from the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Joy to the World:”

Advent and Christmas are about a new world…How will this transformation of the world come about? To say the obvious, it has not yet happened, despite the passage of two thousand years…Does this mean that the Christmas stories are a pipe dream? That they (and the New Testament as a whole) are another example of failed eschatology, of hope becoming hopeless…?

We who have seen the star and hear the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories…

The birth stories are not a pipe dream, but a proclamation that what we see revealed in Jesus is the way—the way to a different kind of life and a different future. Both personal and political transformation, both the eschatology of rebirth and the eschatology of a new world, require our participation. God will not change us as individuals without our participation, and God will not change the world without our participation…

Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow Him. Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around Him, He is, for Christians, Emmanuel: “God is with us.”

God is with us. Today, we celebrate that at long last, God is indeed with us.

When it feels like we have been abandoned, when we have had something most precious taken from us, like Mr. Landry, or when we feel like we ourselves are that precious thing that has been taken, we are reminded on this day that one day, over two thousand years ago, God decided that it was finally time to become flesh and bone and blood in order to speak to us, minister to us, and save us in a way never quite done before.

And truthfully, we don’t know for sure if that grand adventure began on December 25. We celebrate it on this day, but neither Matthew nor Luke say that this was the day. We rejoice in it, though, because we know that regardless of the day, God worked within us and upon this earth in a brand new way in sending to us, as the angels in Luke said, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

It is the prophecy in Matthew, though, which Borg and Crossan refer to here, and it comes from the seventh chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Look, a virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”

God is with us. What a revolutionary thing to say to a people who have felt so trodden upon!

Because when we do feel abandoned, when we do feel bereft…well, part of that feeling of loneliness is a feeling that maybe God is not with you after all.

But Christmas changes all of that. Forever.

And for that, we say joy to the world. We say that the Lord has come. But when we say those things, we are saying something very particular, and very special: that not only are we meant to be changed by what has taken place in Bethlehem, but that the world is meant to be changed by what has taken place in Bethlehem.

It does us no good to keep that joy for ourselves. The carol does not go, “Joy to the church…” It does not go, “Joy to the United States…” It goes, “Joy to the world.”

We’re taught that this world is only a temporary home, that we’re just passersby here, and yet, joy is meant for this world. Joy is a part of God’s design and wish for this world. Joy is a part of what should be our experience of this world.

I know that were I in Mark Landry’s shoes, I might well find joy hard to come by. I could easily wallow in self-pity and resentment at being shelterless and at losing one of the dearest possessions I had.

He did not. He trusted in God, and acted with great joy when that trust was rewarded.

So this Christmas, keep your trust and faith in God, however hard it may be for you to do so.

And when God does appear in your midst, when you do indeed believe that Emmanuel is here, that God has come and is with you, then it is right for you to react with great joy.

Earth, receive your king! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 25, 2016

Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas Eve Sermon: "And on Earth, Peace"

Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. (Common English Bible)

Christmas Eve 2016

So much of what I do in performing weddings is simply preparing the couple emotionally and mentally for the big day—not just spiritually preparing them. It’s almost like I’m their coach—I give them pointers on how to make their wedding the best for them, I offer suggestions of what works and what doesn’t, and I also always prepare them for the fact that, true to Murphy’s law, something will always, always go wrong.

Sometimes, that thing which goes wrong is a relatively simple fix, like, say, the pastor forgetting to bring the marriage license (yes, I have done this)—you just get everyone together later and sign it.

But sometimes, the snafu is a bit bigger—like a wedding dress that breaks apart on the day of your wedding, which happened to a bride in Canada named Jo Du. But then, well, fate intervened in a truly inspiring way, as Jo’s wedding photographer, Lindsay Coulter, conveyed on her Facebook page:

The neighbor living next door to the house they had rented for the wedding had his garage door open…so I suggested they run over and ask if he had pliers. One of the bridesmaids quickly went over and spoke with the neighbor.

She came back with a handful of tools and some interesting information: the next door neighbor was hosting a family of Syrian refugees and the father was a master tailor and would be happy to help if we weren’t successful. After a few minutes of further attempts there was a knock on the door and the neighbor along with the tailor and his son arrived to help, sewing kit in tow…they had just moved to Canada four days ago. They didn’t speak a word of English, and had been communicating by using Google Translate…

Every weekend I take photos of people on the happiest days of their lives, and today one man who has seen some of the worst things our world has to offer came to the rescue…I’m in awe of the families who have welcomed these strangers in to their homes and lives, and I’m inspired by the resilience of the Syrian people.

I must confess that Syria has been on my heart of late as reports came in of the civilian inhabitants of Aleppo posting online videos of what they feared might be their very last public statements ever as the government forces of Bashar al-Assad closed in around the city and began summarily executing dozens of civilians.

For all of this is happening just days before we claim the birthday of a Savior whom is also known as the Prince of Peace, of whom the angels say here in Luke 2, “and on Earth, peace among those whom He favors.”

Perhaps it might be simple enough to say that God and Christ do not favor a violent strongman such as Bashar al-Assad, and fair enough, but what of the civilians whom Assad is killing? What of their favor with the divine?

The truth is, we should see Christ in this world already, long before He arrives on Christmas Day, because Christ leaves the world the exact same way many of the people in Syria have—by being murdered by a brutal and merciless ideology of oppression. It is the hurt that God sees in the world and the hurt that God sends Jesus neck-deep into in order to give us the means to fix for good.

Yet, we still have not. The pain and hurt the world is in remains the one great undone task of the church—especially when we ourselves are at times guilty for some of that hurt and that pain.

None of this I say to you to try to take away from the Christmas story, but in fact, I say it to hopefully add clarity to the Christmas story. It was not a feel-good moment for Joseph and for Mary to have to travel across the country with her nine months pregnant at the beck and call of the occupying empire that told them to do so, and it was certainly not a feel-good moment for them when she was forced to give birth in a barn because there was no room for them at the guesthouse.

In other words: we have made Christmas into a feel-good moment, and, I suppose, good for us for having done so. But that isn’t what the original Christmas was. It has never been what the original Christmas was.

But the original Christmas was, in the midst of that pain and humiliation and fear, the Good News that born unto us, unto you, this day, in the city of David, is a Savior, and that because of Him, there may yet again one day be peace on earth. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or the next day, but one day. That is the hope that God gives us to hang our hat on, and the hope that we must abide by still.

For God sees the hurt and trouble the world is in, and that the Israelites are in, having been violently handed over from one foreign empire to another for 600 or so of the past 700-some years, and not only does God do the right thing, God does the *most* right thing possible: God gives us this child, God’s Son, divinity made flesh. God could not possibly have done more right by us in this gift of a newborn Savior.

And so we, in turn, are meant not just to do right by God, but to do the most right by God and, by extension, the most right by one another as well. By a bride, by a refugee tailor, by each of us. All.

So when you return home from here, as you go from the Lord’s house back to your own house, and as you gather around the tree or the fireplace with your families and friends and loved ones, please lend an ear to what these angels are saying in the most fleeting of moments between their entry into earth and their return into heaven: “Glory to God in the highest, and upon earth, peace among those whom God favors.”

And whom does God favor? Most likely, the dregs of the world. Not the kings and men of power, for God did not come to earth as one of those, but as a humble child born of humble parents, cast out to the margins of society. And if we make haste to walk alongside them, then, we pray as Christians, we too, like Mary, might find favor with God ourselves.

For Luke then continues: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. So they went with haste…’”

And so should we all upon having heard the Good News that not just in heaven but also on earth that there is peace among those whom God blesses. Alongside the shepherds now, and the wise men to come twelve days later, let us go with haste in the name of peace to the manger in Bethlehem to ask what centuries of Christians have asked before us: “Newborn Christ, here I am. What is it you want me to do?”

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 24, 2016

Sunday, December 18, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Fulfillment of Prophecy"

John 1:15-18

15 John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’”

16 From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; 

17 as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ. 

18 No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known. (Common English Bible)

“The First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week Four

I remember as a kid that meeting your sports heroes was just about the most amazing thing that could happen, right after an all-day Power Rangers marathon on television or pizza day at the school cafeteria. It probably would have taken on even more meaning to me if I were not raised in the comfortable circumstances that I was, but was instead this little boy on the very margins of the world as an exile who idolized Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, whom Sports Illustrated writes about here:

Six-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi, an Afghan boy who rose to online fame by wearing a makeshift Lionel Messi jersey made from a plastic bag, finally met the Barcelona star after months of waiting. After a meeting was set back in February, and Messi sent along some signed jerseys and a signed ball, the boy was forced into exile in May amid threats from the Taliban. He emerged on Tuesday, alive and well, in the arms of his hero.

It is a heartwarming story, and yet even behind it, there are shadows that give the adult version of me pause. Messi is accused of tax evasion in Spain, where he plays his club soccer. The event was covered by the Qatari organization dedicated to putting on the 2022 World Cup, a tournament almost certainly awarded to them by bribing the FIFA executives who voted on where to host it.

As an adult, I have long since learned that my fellow adults will often let me down—and that I will often let myself down. It is why we need a fulfillment of prophecy like Jesus, who, as John writes here in John 1, provides for us “grace upon grace.”

This is a sermon series for the church season of Advent, which is known pretty much in every other context as “the Christmas season” or “the holidays.” Except it isn’t the Christmas season: the twelve-days-long Christmas season (yes, just like the Twelve Days of Christmas carol) begins on Christmas day and extends to January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived at where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been bedded down.

Advent is meant to be a season of preparation, and not just preparing for the Christmas dinner parties and the tinsel and ornaments, but a preparation for the least material of all things: of divine life becoming human life. To help us prepare for the birth of the Christ child this year, we will be revisiting the work of John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg who, if you remember, were the authors of The Last Week, a book I used as the template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. The First Christmas represents their sequel to The Last Week, and much as The Last Week sought to go verse-by-verse through the Passion narrative and place it into its historical and anthropological context, so too does The First Christmas deliver a similarly thoughtful treatment of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

We began this series three weeks ago with an excerpt from the chapter “An Angel Comes to Mary,” and then we turned to a passage from the book’s next chapter, “In David’s City of Bethlehem.” Last week, we arrived at the next chapter, entitled “Light Against the Darkness,” and this week we come to the chapter entitled “Jesus as the Fulfillment of Prophecy,” which ends thusly:

(Jesus) is, according to Matthew and Luke (and the rest of the New Testament) the completion of the Law and the Prophets. He is their crystallization, their expression in an embodied life. He decisively reveals and incarnates the passion of God as disclosed in the Law and the Prophets—the promise and hope for a very different kind of world from the world of Pharaoh and Caesar, the world of domination and empire.

That Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, is not a fact to be proved, as if it could be the logical conclusion of a syllogism based on the argument from prophecy. Rather, to call Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, Lord, and Savior, as the Christmas stories do, is a confession of commitment, allegiance, and loyalty. To do so means: I see in this person the anointed one of God, the decisive disclosure of God—of what can be seen of God in a human life, the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest yearnings, the one who reveals God’s dream for the world. This is what it means to call Him Emmanuel and to affirm that Emmanuel has come.

For Borg and Crossan, the truth of Jesus is not something that can be laid out in a logical or mathematical proof, it is something that must be experienced and understood in one’s bones before they say yes to God in a way that is indeed a confession of commitment and loyalty to the divine.

But it is a confession we ought to be able to make freely, willingly, and gladly precisely because we do know that our human heroes are, in the end, simply humans with all the attendant foibles, flaws, and pains that come with that fragile state of being, a state of being so fragile that we do indeed need, as John says here in John 1, grace upon grace from the fullness of God.

And betwixt God's fullness and our hollowness, there arrives Jesus, the fulfillment of all our wildest expectations in our souls.

We have our heroes, and it is right that we should have them. They light the way for us, show us the way forward in how to be better persons and a better people.

But they are not perfect. Nor are they are not the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus was and is. Even our greatest heroes cannot, and would not, aspire to the mantle of godhood. When Emmanuel has come, we mean a very specific and special thing, that it is Jesus who has come to earth and will come to earth again.

Who are we, compared to such goodness and greatness as that? It is so very easy as a pastor but honestly, as any Christian who has been going to church for years, for decades, to say that we know what and who Emmanuel does indeed look like, and of course it is like those we most admire for their deeds, or their politics, or their stories.

We may see Jesus in our neighbors, we may see God in the stranger’s face, and it is right that we should do so. After all, God made us in God’s own image in Genesis 1. But we cannot allow that good nature to turn into us forming an Emmanuel in our image, rather than the other way around.

For Emmanuel represents not just a fulfillment of small slivers of prophecy, of a verse here and a verse there, no, Emmanuel represents the fulfillment of an entire history of prophecy, of centuries of a people waiting for and longing for a Savior in the truest sense of the title—someone who would save them, and save us.

That is a God-sized task, to save an entire world. And paradoxically, that God-sized spirit will have to take the form of a tiny baby first, who only after years of nurture will grow into the Lord we seek.

We’re one week away from Bethlehem, brothers and sisters. Stay devoted. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 18, 2016

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Jesus We Create

In my children's sermons this month, I've been teaching them about the nativity scene, since this Sunday they'll be putting on their annual Christmas pageant (you know, the one that is always dripping with cuteness and is about as accurate and true to history as a Hollywood script). Despite the artistic liberties that we routinely take with the nativity scene in order to portray it in our churches, on our mantels, and in our front yards, it remains a means of teaching our kids, and then decades later, their kids, about the Christmas story in a way that is tangible and concrete--no small thing when we're talking about a birth that took place over 2,000 years ago.

And I love nativity scenes, even as I sometimes poke fun at them--a few years ago, I used my chess pieces to create a nativity scene that received equal measures laughter and good-natured mocking on Facebook, as apparently I couldn't be bothered to go out and get, you know, an actual nativity set (an oversight my parents promptly rectified by sending me a nice olive wood nativity set that now sits on my desk in my church office).

All of these Christs are made by hand--and our hands, not God's. Which means we are apt to make these Christs in our image rather than the other way around. The kid who plays Jesus in the nativity scene looks like us because parents often pass physical characteristics onto their kids. The actor/underwear model who plays Jesus in a Passion film looks like us, only with longer hair, because we're the ones who are casting him, directing him, and paying our money to see him perform.

Christmas, a joyous time that it might otherwise be, has in truth become a time of irony for me as a I realize just how much we have made Jesus into our image rather than the other way around--and in so doing, created our own form of idolatry. We are not so much following a Jesus as much as we are following an idealized version of ourselves.

But does this idealized version of ourselves actually advocate on behalf of Syrian refugees, or does it repeat the xenophobic platitudes of our president-elect and is only now, with civilians being summarily executed by pro-government forces, getting on the #Pray4Aleppo train, as though a prayer now will excuse their apathy then?

Does this idealized version of ourselves really underscore the radical nature of the Christmas story, of a nine-months-pregnant teenager giving birth in a stable full of dirt and animal shit, or does it simply give us the warm fuzzies that a nice piece of gingerbread or a cup of egg nog could just as easily do this time of year?

Part of us making Jesus into our image, rather than the other way around, is not just making Him to look like us, it is to cut Him down to size--to exactly our size, in fact--rather than the cosmic-sized Savior that He is and continues to be.

I honestly wonder if part of the reason why Christmas seems to be a bigger deal at times than Easter (it's not like Easter themed-commercials hit the airwaves before Ash Wednesday, after all) is precisely because we actually prefer our Jesus small, infantile, and non-threatening.

Indeed, as one of the verses in a Away in a Manger goes, "The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes/The little lord Jesus, no crying he makes."

But we have little babies in my congregation who cry out, and to me, that is the true miracle--that they have voice, that they are known, and that they refuse to be invisible in this world.

Dammit, I want my little lord Jesus to cry out. I *need* Him to cry out. I need to know that He does indeed sit on the throne, see the ill that is happening in our broken world, and calls us to do something about it.

So instead of a nativity scene or a baby Jesus, today's post has the image of Christ the Pantokrator--which, in Greek, literally means Christ the All-Powerful or Christ the Omnipotent.

As difficult as it is for me to subscribe to the notion of an omnipotent Christ--He was also human after all--it is a damn sight more comforting to me this Christmas.

If a baby who miraculously does not cry is what brings you to the manger this Christmas, then by all means, let Him call you forth. But for this Christmas, I need a Savior who cries out. I need a Messiah who is indeed Lord. And I need a Christ whose miracle is not the absence of crying, but who is in fact quite capable of it--for Syria, for Newtown on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, and for all of us who long in our bones for a better world.

We're 11 days away from Bethlehem, brothers and sisters. Stay devoted.

Vancouver, Washington
December 14, 2016