Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Day sermon: "I Am Because You Are"

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[b] because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[c] (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (TNIV)

Last night, at the midnight Mass in Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI spoke these words in his sermon—he said: “Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God's humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity. Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light." If my ego were truly the size of this sanctuary, I would follow this up with—“Church! Church! Look what we did! The Pope is preaching our Advent Conspiracy material!” But since my ego is only slightly smaller, I will instead say this—it means so much to me that the work we are doing in this church, the message we have been trying to spread to our community, is the exact same one that was preached in the Vatican at the stroke of Christmas midnight. And it is a more important theme than we know—because while the simplicity will begin in earnest soon—the trees will be taken down and the decorations will be put in storage for another eleven months—the Christmas story we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew is, surprisingly, one of true simplicity.

You see, almost all of the theatrics of the Christmas birth story are in fact found in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew has the visit of the wise men, in chapter two, which we will visit two weeks from now. Almost everything else is in Luke—Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, John the Baptist leaping in the womb, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the stable birth, the manger and swaddling clothes, the angels singing, the shepherds, none of that is in Matthew’s accounting of the birth story. In fact, aside from a cameo appearance from God’s favorite supporting actor, Gabriel, it is a story of something that is still very much popular—a home birth—and a story that is without any external drama whatsoever—all the drama happens inside the dilemma of Joseph.

And it is a dilemma that hopefully makes the earthly father of God more human to each of us—the girl he is to marry, the girl he will spend his life with, whom he loves, is pregnant, he is not the father, and Joseph does not cause a scene, nor does he want to—just like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph’s first thoughts are never of himself. Perhaps it would be easier for us to understand if Joseph did make a scene, if he did rage and huff and puff and demand Mary’s ejection from his family. He could have gotten it, too, had he wanted it. But he didn’t. It is difficult for me to describe, but I have this hunch that Joseph didn’t do this because he respected Mary as an individual—though he clearly did. No, it was because Joseph understood how intertwined he was to her already, brought together not only by God, fate, chance, or mystery, but also simply because the visit by the angel Gabriel communicates one extremely powerful, extremely simple, but extremely difficult-to-grasp truth—Joseph is who he is because Mary is who she is.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there is an ethical philosophy called ubuntu—there is no good English translation of the word because what it conveys is so directly opposite the philosophy of individualism that reigns here in the West. Roughly translated, it means, “I am because you are.” I am who I am because you are who you are. It is the courage and willingness to let yourself be defined by the people and the community surrounding you. It is the courage that brings you to church to begin with, to even dare to allow yourself to be called, even if only by association, a Christian, rather than as Bob, or Ted, or Stan. As Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it, “You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality, you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

But if this philosophy of “I am because you are” turns our own philosophy on its head, then the Bible turns both on their heads. Because it is not enough in church to say that I am because each of you are. I am because Christ was, and because Christ is. Only because Christ came to earth, that he walked, and talked, and broke bread, and sang songs and in the midst of that ministry saved the world entire, only because Christ did that, can I be who I am. Joseph saw it. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary saw it. Only because this child was who he was could they in turn be who they were. And in Matthew’s Gospel, here, what Joseph is told by Gabriel is not, “Please see Mary as a person, don’t do this,” because Joseph already did. No, it’s “You are who you are because Mary is who she is, the mother of God.”

So, in the end, perhaps Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story is not as simple as it appears on the surface. After all, we have not yet gotten into the story of the wise men, or of the descent into Egypt, or any of those other stories of Christ’s infancy that only are told to us by Matthew. And before any of that dramatic action, we are still given the immense, profound privilege of seeing into the heart of an ordinary man, a carpenter, a blue-collar nobody, and see how who he was meant that the entire world would be changed forever. It is not shepherds in the field. It is not angels singing hallelujahs. It is not a long and dramatic journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But it will do. In delivering to us our Lord and Savior, it will surely do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 25, 2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Eve sermon: "Be Not Afraid!"

Luke 2:1-14

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (TNIV)

It’s an old wheezer of a joke, but it’s still a good one—a man, completely devout in his faith in God, is living peaceably in his house, minding his own business, when suddenly, on his radio comes a weather warning that his area is at risk for sudden flash floods. But the man says to himself, “God loves me, God will save me if He must.” And he stays where he is, even as the floods begin. Sometime after the floods begin, when the waters are now several feet high, a woman comes by in a canoe and she says to the man, “You, over there, your house is flooding. Come, join me in the canoe and I’ll row you to safety.” And the man says to her, “No, God loves me, and God will save me if He must.” The floodwaters continue to rise, and a helicopter flies overhead, and a voice in a megaphone shouts out, “You down there, your house is flooding. Come, join me in the helicopter and I’ll fly you to safety.” And the man shouts up, “No, God loves me, and God will save me if he must.” The man drowns, and at the gates of heaven, he demands an audience with God. And he says to God, “God, I thought you loved me. Why didn’t you save me?” And God replies, “Dude! (If God indeed used the term “dude.”) I sent you a radio report. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a helicopter. What more to you want from me?”

This is the time of year when we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ in human form, with a heart that beats, hands that hold, and a voice that proclaims God’s love for all people. And really, it is what we needed most to be sent from God. Because if what we needed was simply the lesson, the lesson that God loved us, God could have sent us a teacher. If all we needed was to be made well of our illnesses and our aches and pains, God could have sent us a doctor. If our greatest need was equality, God could have sent us an prophet, and if our greatest need was forgiveness, God could have sent us a priest. But because each and every one of those was such a great need for us, the only thing God could do was to send His Son to us instead. And so in moments when we are tempted to be as the man in the flooded house was, asking God why God did not do more for us, remember—God has already given us the greatest gift of all, His child, a living embodiment of divine love who was born this night in Bethlehem.

The man in the flood story is waiting for God to hit him over the head, to dazzle him with divine presence enough that he would be saved from the disasters that were awaiting him, and it didn’t quite turn out that way. Imagine now, the circumstances of the very first Christmas, way, way, back in that little stable in Bethlehem. The prophets of the Old Testament have long since come and gone, telling us to prepare for the coming of the Lord who will rescue Israel from the mighty empires of the time—Assyria and Babylon. The prophets who foretold the coming of a suffering servant, born to a virgin mother, can no longer guide or comfort Israel under Roman occupation. And so Israelites like Mary and Joseph set out, ready to obey imperial rule, ready to go and be registered for the taxation census. And the baby boy is born, and the heavens rejoice so much that the seams between heaven and earth are broken and the angels pour out, shouting out to the shepherds in the fields, “Be not afraid!”

What a ludicrous thing to say! It is the middle of the night, darkness is all around them, and when they see the curtain between heaven and earth split, the shepherds, Luke says, are rightly terrified—to say nothing of any previous fears they may have had—for their herds, or their families, their own livelihoods—all of the exact same fears that plague us today! Put a different way—the floodwaters are at the gates of their homes, and the angels are saying to them, “Be not afraid!” And any sane person would have to laugh, or keep going about their sane person way. They certainly would not stop and listen! They would go home, sleep it off, maybe call their psychologists in the morning. They wouldn’t actually take the angels’ words to heart!

But…if I were not a cynic, then after such a display of divinity, I would not want to be afraid either—after that sort of reassurance, I would expect God’s return to earth to come in all manner of power and splendor that is deserving of an almighty God. And if that is what the shepherds are expecting, God save them when they arrive at the manger and see a baby instead. Those shepherds could well have reacted as the man in the flood did—“God, I thought you loved me. Why didn’t you save me from my lot in life?” To which God simply says, “Shepherds, I sent you my only Son, whom I love beyond all measure. What more do you want from me?”

Of course, we all know that is not how the story turns out. The shepherds instead return home rejoicing, not feeling for a lack of God’s presence at all. Which is, of course, as it should be. It is not, however, as it always will be…especially for us today, when we will return to the world of work, of obligations, of pressing deadlines and uncompromising financial insecurities, and probably before too long, we too will come close to asking God the same question—“God, I thought you loved me. Why haven’t you saved me?” And if you get to that moment in time, I only ask that reach back to this moment, to this night, 2,000 years ago, when God’s only Son came to earth not in the dazzling cloak of divine wonder, but in the gurgling, crying, and laughing form of a vulnerable baby boy, and while the rest of the world continued turning, for these shepherds, they knew, that God had arrived in the world and that one day, all would be well for them once more…all because the wall between heaven and earth had vanished, and an angel had actually taken the time to preach to them what I have to think the moral of the Christmas story truly, truly is—“Be not afraid!” Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 24, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Winter Solstice Service Sermon: "Deep Calls to Deep"

(Author’s note: This sermon’s theme and refrain of "deep calls to deep" was inspired by the September 11, 2011 sermon delivered by a ministry colleague and longtime friend, McKinna Daugherty. –E.A.)

Psalms 42:7-11

7 Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.

8 By day the LORD directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. (TNIV)

Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your waterfalls. The pastors from America were stunned—here, far from their comfortable homes and offices, their richly designed sanctuaries and worship centers, here, in the depths of material and spiritual poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, they were seeing water being drawn from a swamp, for there was nowhere else to receive water. In their shock, they swore to one of the village elders to return, to help bring wells and safe drinking water, and the elder said, “Many of you have promised us such things in the name of this Jesus. None of them ever do.” Dry not only was the village, dry was the spiritual life of the people who had given up on the name of Jesus. And how understandable of them—the Psalmist is not describing God as the water of the swamp, no, God is the water of waterfalls, of waves and surfs that engulf us in the presence of God’s love. Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your waterfalls!

The Psalmist, like the village elder, is in a state of spiritual desert, and he is longing for, dreaming of, praying for, communion with God. And I do not mean in the personal relationship type of communion that we speak so much of these days, the “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your PERSONAL Savior” type of questions. No, communion in its richest sense, to be surrounded by a family, a community, a great multitude of believers, to be swept up in the embrace of a community, to be engulfed by the presence of the Lord not as a hermit, but as a person who is a part of something far greater than themselves.

The holidays are supposed to do exactly that for us. Even if all year long, we’ve been an “I,” or a “me,” the holidays are supposed to make people an “us” by giving us a cause to reconnect with family and friends. And…it does not always quite work out that way. We doubt if Christmas really will bring us any joy and cheer—Christ came to us 2,000 years ago, and we’re still muddling along in a broken and fragile world. We expose ourselves to our own doubts, and those doubts, they have so, so much power over us. Look at what the Psalmist says—after being ripped open to doubt by his enemies, his enemies who taunt, “Where is your God?” He feels an ache, a pain and emptiness, he feels it in his bones—you feel something like that in your bones, you know that things are not the way that they are supposed to be. And what is worse, we, like the Psalmist, respond to the outside world, telling us that there is no God, by even daring to entertain that notion ourselves, even if only for the briefest of moments. Far from the temple, far from the sanctuary, far from wherever God is present in his life, the Psalmist openly wonders, “Where is my God?” And far from the spirit of Christmas, far from the joy and celebration of the holiday season, we too would well be forgiven for openly wondering, “Where is my God?” Engulfed not by the waters of God’s love but by the fierce breakers of unemployment, and addiction, and hardship, and loss, we wait to see if it gets any better, if the waters will recede and we can again walk instead of crawl and run instead of limp. Deep calls to deep, at the thunder of your waterfalls!

The beauty of this Psalm, though, is that we do not know what causes the Psalmist’s abrupt change of heart in these last two verses. Suddenly, without explanation or hesitation, the Psalmist asks himself, why be so downcast? Why feel so empty? This was not…it is not…a sweeping of his pain and hurt under the proverbial rug. Because it is not pretending that things are better in the here and now—it is a promise that it will get better—for I will YET praise Him, my Savior and my God. I will survive this—my demons, my enemies, the ache and the pain, I will survive all of this to praise my God yet again. The simple answer is that this is a show of faith. The longer answer, though, is that it shows a specific kind of faith—the faith that after death comes resurrection, that after loss comes rebirth, that after the heat and fire of the desert, there is a balm in Gilead, the kind of faith that will bend, and will buckle, but that will not completely break. And in the Psalmist’s case, the faith is that after the thirst and dryness of loneliness and heartbreak, there will be the soothing, powerful water of God’s limitless grace. Deep calls to deep, at the thunder of your waterfalls!

As for the village of the elder who had justifiably lost faith in the church, well, they did indeed end up building a clean water well. The swamp, as a source of water, is no more, but it is nonetheless a reminder, even a reassurance, in a way, that such faith is never as easy as it often looks in the eyes of the born-again believer or the cradle Christian. Faith is, and always will be, work. And because of that, in the grand scheme of things, in the scope and grandeur of the entire world, there are so many other dry spiritual deserts of intimidating size. But, sometimes, it is enough, just enough, to offer praise to God that in the midst of that desert, in the witness of all of the shortage and famine of food, shelter, and love, that the world can still be made a better place. I believe it still, simply because deep does call to deep at the thunder, at the grace, at the mercy, at the awesomeness of God’s presence. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 22, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Loving All"

Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors." (TNIV)

The Advent Conspiracy: Spending Less, Giving More, Worshiping Fully, Loving All, Week Four

It’s an old church camp song, one that I’ve known since I was a little kid, that begins with the lyrics, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my soul magnifies the Lord, who is worthy to be praised.” Like any church song, its roots could of course be found in Scripture, but it was not for many years that I realized this camp song came from this passage, from Mary’s Magnificat. Which was probably just as well—as a little kid, if I had been told that song came from Mary, I would have just assumed it meant the song had cooties. And while I have often been asked about the rhyme and reason behind the Roman Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary (because that makes perfect sense—ask the Protestant pastor about Roman Catholicism!) the truth is that we, too, glorify Mary in many, many ways in Protestant tradition too—even we are not well-known for it like Catholicism is. And the thing is, Mary absolutely is worthy of our reverence, and not simply because she bore the Christ child, for that reduces her to a means to an end, a woman who, like any other in the Ancient Near East, had no worth beyond her womb. No, Mary is worthy of our reverence because of the lyrics of her song, her Magnificat, that she is willing to glorify God out of her own lowliness and loneliness in the world, her first thoughts are never of herself. They are of God, and of believers everywhere who would otherwise be lost to the world.

This is the fourth and final Sunday of our current sermon series, as well as the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, the season the church traditionally dedicates to preparing the way for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. And…well, we do prepare for Christmas Day, but these days, it feels like it is more for the arrival of Santa Claus than the arrival of Jesus—the arrival of presents and stocking stuffers, rather than the arrival of our salvation. And so in response to this, three pastors across America started this project a few years ago called “The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?” as a means to preach preparing for Christ’s coming by giving differently. This project promoting charity revolves around four main themes—spending less, giving more, worshiping fully, and loving all. Via the major prophets who preceded Christ—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—plus Jesus’s mother, Mary, we’ll explore a different theme in each of the 4 Sundays of Advent, and this Sunday’s theme is “Loving All” coming on the heels of the three earlier sermons that revolved around the themes of spending less, giving more, and worshiping fully.

Loving all might be the most clichéd of the themes, but if it is, it is for a reason—it is also far and away the toughest one to actually follow. Love requires effort, love requires follow-through, love requires your whole self, or nothing at all. If ever there was anything in Christianity that must, absolutely must, be preached upon in terms of black and white, it is not heaven and hell, it is not sin and righteousness, it is not saved and unsaved, it is being loved…and unloved. The love we give at Christmas, the generosity we are called exhibit as Christians, it does not come in the form of the glitzy gifts that denote the value of love and the worth of the recipient by the dollar amount on the price tag. The love we are called to give, the love that the archangel Gabriel has called upon Mary to give for the world, cannot be given with anything less than your whole self. And if you worry that your whole self is in a spiritual draught, suffering from a poverty of faith, that is fine—what matters is that you offer it all in how you love. The widow’s gift of the two coins was worth more than all the vast sums donated by the wealthy, because she gave entirely, she gave out of everything, she gave everything.

And Mary is being called to do nothing less here—consider that childbirth in Biblical days was at best a coin flip, and at worst a death sentence. Consider that an unwed mother was shunned in the society of the Ancient Near East so badly that even if she survived childbirth, she was likely to die from lack of shelter. Gabriel has not inspired Mary with a divine charge so much as he has assigned her upon a suicide mission, and her response is not to curl up in fear, or to react in anger to God’s messenger, but instead to praise God over, and over, and over.

And in the midst of this praise, she utters this often misinterpreted line—“for He has looked in favor upon the lowliness of His servant.” It would be a mistake to simply believe that Mary is referring to humbleness, or modesty, or meekness when she is speaking of being lowly, for the Greek is fairly clear—she is talking about societal lowliness, about cultural lowliness. In other words—she knows. She knows that in carrying God’s only Son, she will, on the surface, at least for a time, fail to outwardly live up to the demands of respectability and honor that her world demands of her. She knows what is at stake, and she sings anyways. She sings of God’s promises and blessings for those as lowly as her, and in doing so, she gives words and voice to anyone and everyone who longs for a better world, for their deepest desires, their most heartfelt wants and needs, are being sung in the voice of a teenaged girl.

One of my favorite Christmas songs ever is the song “Mary Did You Know?” And at our last Saturday night jam session when I pipe up and start jabbering away about how much I love this song, and then Wendy’s wedding assistant Arminda just plucks up one of the guitars there and starts singing—“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water? Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?” It really is a beautiful song, but one that, over the course of writing this sermon, I realized was asking the wrong question. Because just as Mary knows the risks of what she is about to do, she also knows the great joys that will come from what she is called to. It’s right there, in her Magnificat—blessed be the Lord who has done mighty deeds, who lifts up the humble, who feeds the hungry. She knows! So…yes, Mary knows that her son will save all humanity, because she knows that there is no redemption without grace, no arrival without the journey, and no love, no true love, without risk. Because it is a simple matter to love your family, and your friends, and your neighbors. It is an entirely different calling to actually love the rest. But this song, when you think about it coming from a young, young girl, is a song not simply of tribute for past deeds, but of anticipation of even greater works to come. Even in the days of the Bible, God did His wonders through men and women, through Moses, and Elijah, and Mary. Now, God relies upon us to do His wonders, He calls upon us to love the rest, to love all.

And so loving all, then, is in some ways an offshoot of giving more, the theme of this series two weeks ago. As I preached then, only when we empty ourselves completely can we finally begin to give of ourselves fully. And only when we give of ourselves fully can we truly love all, everything and everyone, as God commands us to. I preached two weeks ago of giving more of your own resources, your time, your energy, your labor. But now…now it’s different. I’m asking you to do something that I ordinarily would have no right to ask you to do, to risk everything to try to love as Christ loved, even when we know we will fail at doing so. Loving that much, really, truly loving that much, it is not easy. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not call us to do what is easy, or convenient. It calls us to righteousness, to do what is right. And when you answer that calling, may it be with that same singing voice the mother of God offered as a prayer, written down by an ancient doctor named Luke and sung to this day by children her age around campfires across the world…my soul magnifies the Lord! By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 18, 2011

Sunday, December 11, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Worshiping Fully"

Isaiah 6:1-8

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (TNIV)

“The Advent Conspiracy: Spending Less, Giving More, Worshiping Fully, Loving All,” Week Three

Just before coming here to begin serving as your pastor this past September, I accepted the (unenviable?) task to guest preach at my home parish in Kansas City on Sunday, September 11, ten years after the attacks. I was 15 when the attacks took place, and while I remember where I was when I first heard, and while I remember the shock and awe that I felt, the sheer gravity of it did not truly sink in for me until I prepared for that sermon ten years later, immersing myself in the history of 9/11 in order to vainly try to do it justice. The text I chose was the closing words of the book of the prophet Habakkuk, which is a poem about trusting in the Lord in times of calamity, that even then, God will be our strength, that God will allow us to walk upon great heights. It’s one of my all-time favorite passages, but in looking around after the fact to see what other pastors had done for that Sunday, I saw that many, many of them had chosen this passage from Isaiah, this passage that begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.” And it made perfect sense—because for so many people, the new words were, “In the year that thousands of Americans died, I saw the Lord!” In the year your king dies, in the year your neighbors die, in the year when what you feel most is hurt and pain, you see the Lord. And Advent is nothing at all if not preparing ourselves to see the newborn Lord.

Two Sundays ago, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, began a new sermon series for us, as well as a new church year for us. This is the Third Sunday of Advent, the season the church traditionally dedicates to preparing the way for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. And…well, we do prepare for Christmas Day, but these days, it feels like it is more for the arrival of Santa Claus than the arrival of Jesus—the arrival of presents and stocking stuffers, rather than the arrival of our salvation. And so in response to this, three pastors across America started this project a few years ago called “The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?” as a means to preach preparing for Christ’s coming by giving differently. This project promoting charity revolves around four main themes—spending less, giving more, worshiping fully, and loving all Via the major prophets who preceded Christ—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—plus Jesus’s mother, Mary, we’ll explore a different theme in each of the 4 Sundays of Advent, and this Sunday’s theme is “Worshiping Fully,” coming on the heels of two earlier sermons that revolved around the themes of spending less and giving more.

Last week, a number of you joined us in this sanctuary well after our regular service to say farewell to Bess Ray, a longtime member of this parish who passed away on Halloween night. There was, of course, music—some of which we struggled with! There was Scripture. There was a sermon of middling quality. There were prayers, there were all the trappings of a regular funeral service. And then the rituals of church gave way to the eulogies. I heard about the memories of Bess found from cleaning out her purse, I heard from Buffe Antilla about Bess’s church life, but the most moving moment was a young man from Bess’s family saying he saw her in the orange juice he drinks, simply because she would pour a glass for him every morning at breakfast, and for whatever reason, that memory is what stuck. And in the year that Bess died, a sister of faith whom I had never met, I saw the Lord! I saw Him in something vastly different than the rites of church-as-usual.

I have to think that we see people in times of tragedy because, for lack of a better or more elegant term, that is when life gets real. Forget the mundane details of everyday life, if you want to see what a person is really like, to really pierce the façade that many people put up, be there when a person dies. But, hopefully, a person in our life doesn’t die just every day, or every week, or every month. And if it takes such a drastic, life-changing moment to see the Lord, then what does that say about the state about my spirituality, or your’s, or Isaiah’s? How can we bring ourselves to the point of worshiping even if we haven’t seen the Lord? Or, how can we teach ourselves to see the Lord in the mundane, in the everyday?

Isaiah’s vision of seeing the Lord is remarkable simply because it is a vision. Unlike Ezekiel, who we heard from two weeks ago, Isaiah does not deal much in visions. While the book of Isaiah begins with the words, “The vision of Isaiah,” the first five chapters are mostly poetry and song, not an actual, literal, vision. And that completely changes in chapter six, when the first king under whom Isaiah serves dies, and Isaiah’s world is turned upside down—in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah sees the Lord in such a completely different way, and that is what goes to the heart of this sermon series—the belief that Christmas, unshackled from the societal demands of credit cards and obligations and overshopping, that Christmas is all about us seeing the Lord in such a completely different way. Abraham saw God as an angel come to earth. Moses saw God in the burning bush. Isaiah saw God as this being who was so great that the entire Jerusalem temple could contain only the very tip of His robes. And far from the majesty and drama of any of those scenes, we are called to see God in a little baby boy.

But that little baby boy also got lost in the mess for some folks—we haven’t talked about him at all this Advent, but look at the innkeeper, occupied with running his business and did not know or could not realize who the child he was turning away was. Only if he were to get away from the business-as-usual movements of his life would he actually be free to worship Christ as God would have intended, surrounded by the wise men, the angels, the proud parents, all there to worship fully! While the innkeeper is the sort of example of what-not-to-do in the Christmas story, it is not because I think he is, or was, a bad man. Innkeepers did not exactly rake in the big bucks back then—we know from the story of the Good Samaritan that just one day’s wage was worth a month’s stay at an inn. Now, a day’s wage is worth much less than a month’s stay at a motel. So this is a blue-collar fellow concerned with keeping his business afloat rather than with actually stopping, pausing, and recognizing the divinity that is in his presence and tantalizingly within his grasp. He has an out, though—he hadn’t heard the Gospel story yet, because he was a part of the story! So for us, if we have been raised in church, hearing the same Christmas story year in and year out, what is our excuse?

And believe me…I am pointing the finger at myself here—after 18 years in church, I only had what
I would consider a God experience on the morning after an old childhood friend was killed in a car wreck three weeks before I was going to graduate high school. It is the same thing all over again—only instead of the year that King Uzziah died, it was in the year that my childhood friend died that I saw the Lord! I wish, and I hope, and I pray, that this is no longer the case, that instead of the year when we see hurt and pain and death that we will see the Lord, but in the year when we are finally able to escape—even if only for one Advent season—from the financial and social and economic and work and family obligations that keep us running to and fro without rest and that keep us spending our limited resources without end, in the year when we can escape from that, I promise you, with every fiber of my faith in God, that you can indeed see the Lord. Not just in the year that our neighbors of 9/11 were killed, not just in the year that our longtime friends and fellow church members pass away, not just in the year that King Uzziah died, but that in each and every year, you can say to one another, “In the year that I celebrated Christ’s coming, I saw the Lord!” By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 11, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Business of Ministry: Criticisms and Solutions

(Author's note: What you are about to read is a criticism of seminary education as it currently exists. This should not be read as a criticism specific to my alma maters, the Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union. In regard what I learned from them regarding Biblical studies, theology, and other typical seminary subjects, I believe I received an excellent education. -E.A.)

I hinted at this reality in my profile written by the local newspaper, The Daily News, where I was quoted as saying that seminary can only prepare you for about 30% of actual ministry. I was not misquoted. And I was not referring to the little peccadilloes like self-care, boundaries, and ministerial ethics that I think my seminary actually did a pretty good job of pounding into my head over the course of three years.

I'm talking about actually being able to crunch a few numbers and read a QuickBooks sheet.

I began thinking about this when a buddy of mine posted on Facebook a mini-reflection on the status of standardized testing in American high schools--there was a link to an article by a well-educated journalist who, for poops and giggles, took a state's 10th grade standardized proficiency exams and crashed and burned during the math section, despite his education.

Personally, I understand why, and it has nothing to do with the ridiculousness of teaching 16-year-olds calculus (even if I had the raw mental horsepower to do so, I very clearly lacked the maturity and work ethic to actually buckle down and learn calculus--and I feel sorry for the entire math department at good old Shawnee Mission South High for trying to get me to). It has everything to do with the fact that I have a master's degree, a solidly middle class job, and a reasonably sharp intellect, but since the age of 19, I have not had to do any math, for any reason, beyond basic computation. I couldn't write out a basic geometric proof if you paid me.

The elephant in the room, though, is this: in my line of work, especially as a solo pastor, I am already seeing an area where that needs to change. And that's oversight of the church finances.

The model for many churches these days--whether optimal or not--is that of a corporate model--there is a board of directors (maybe called a leadership council, or an executive body, or what have you) who the pastor reports to, and the pastor then de facto assumes the role of CEO, overseeing the entire operation. Which is fine for some matters, but every year at around this time, churches across the country are struggling to make budget. And I guarantee you that many of them are ill-equipped to work at doing so.

I say this from personal experience. I took at least one class from eight of the nine seminaries in the Graduate Theological Union, and I can honestly say that outside of some sessions about encouraging stewardship and tithing, the amount of education I received on budget, finances, marketing, and other such business-related aspects of ministry was absolutely zero. In fact, the only education I received about church finances came from the church that I did my fieldwork at, and even then it was only because I asked to be there--there currently is not any expectation whatsoever for a pastor to graduate and be ordained while knowing the least bit about how to make a church be financially self-sufficient.

How far we have come from the adherence to the Benedictine rule that demanded monasteries be financially self-sustaining!

I honestly don't know why this is the case, though I have ideas--namely that money is still such a taboo in church circles that teaching about it is likewise still considered a sticky wicket. Now, this is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive Christian saying this, but money need not be evil--it is in how we treat it and what we do with it that it becomes evil. Yet I get the impression that many, if not most, churches treat their budget writing processes and stewardship campaigns the same way many of us treat a visit to our doctor or dentist--we know it is good for us, but we really just want to get it over with first and foremost. But since our seminaries are (generally) run by churches and denominations, that attitude inevitably filters over.

I definitely saw this at PSR. Money was the flash point for some serious campus division during my final year there, where the brass decided to save money through faculty retirements and staff layoffs and pay cuts. Some folks were willing and able to engage this discussion, but I was worried that there may have been others who simply wanted to avoid it as much as possible.

And here's the rub--the students my alma maters are educating now will be the ones who are running them 30 years from now. If we weren't taught good church business models now, what makes our denominations think we would run their schools solvently in the future? It is a cycle that, ferociously and destructively, begets itself.

Please note that I am not saying that we should be in the work of running our churches like businesses--that is completely the wrong mindset. But I am saying there is overlap in how a church (or any non-profit organization, really) is run and how a business is run, and that seminaries as they currently exist do not teach to this reality.

And the thing is, this really does not need to happen, especially with seminaries connected to a university or consortium, as PSR and the GTU both are. It can begin as simply as borrowing a professor from the university's business school to teach a required class on economics for non-profits and community organizations and grow from there. Our field education seminars should have church business as a required component of our seminar material. Even if a seminary is stand-alone, the market for professors is so inundated that I imagine you could hire an adjunct to teach a class like this once a year or once a semester for minimal cost.

As my beloved parish here in Longview and I go forward into the new year--with the knowledge when we look at our spreadsheets that we are very much living on faith right now--I can already look back on my seminary education, only a bare seven months in the rearview mirror, and wish I had been better prepared. Most pastors, I imagine, feel this about a variety of issues. But of all those issues, this one can be such an easy fix if we are willing to cast aside that long-held verboten of actually talking about money in church and what role it really has in ministry, for both better and worse.

...after all, Jesus talked about money all. the. freaking. time. Just sayin'.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, December 5, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Giving More"

Jeremiah 22:13-16

13 “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
his upper rooms by injustice,
making his subjects work for nothing,
not paying them for their labor.
14 He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace
with spacious upper rooms.’
So he makes large windows in it,
panels it with cedar
and decorates it in red.

15 “Does it make you a king
to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
He did what was right and just,
so all went well with him.
16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD. (TNIV)

“The Advent Conspiracy: Spending Less, Giving More, Worshiping Fully, Loving All,” Week Two

A Christmas tree stood in the family’s living room, when one day underneath it appeared a water bottle filled to the brim with loose change and bills, just like we do for the emergency support shelter. The father, noticing the bottle and not knowing where it came from, sat his six-year-old son down and asked him about it. His son told him that he had saved up money and, as well, had taken the water bottle to school and told his classmates and teachers about the clean water shortage in the world. Sublimely, neither of the boy’s parents knew that he had done this.

Elsewhere, another six-year-old asked her parents not to spend any money on Christmas gifts for her that year, asking instead that the money they would have spent on her be given to a charity that digs wells so that other kids could have clean water to drink. And still another child, a five-year-old, wrote a letter to Santa Claus, explaining his wish for the other children in the world to receive food and water from Santa, and that he, this little boy, had his own bucket of money to give to Santa if it would help. I could follow this up with the clichéd sermon of how children really know more than we adults do. But that oversimplifies the Biblical importance of these types of stories—children are not simply the most humble, they are the most vulnerable among us as well—like the widow in Mark’s Gospel who gives the only two coins she has, despite the vulnerability that a widow unattached to a family would have in ancient Israel. That kind of charity in the midst of vulnerability is what makes stories like those remarkable.

Last Sunday began a new sermon series for us, as well as a new church year for us. This is the Second Sunday of Advent, the season the church traditionally dedicates to preparing the way for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. And…well, we do prepare for Christmas Day, but these days, it feels like it is more for the arrival of Santa Claus than the arrival of Jesus—the arrival of presents and stocking stuffers, rather than the arrival of our salvation. And so in response to this, three pastors across America started this project a few years ago called “The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?” as a means to preach preparing for Christ’s coming by giving differently. This project promoting charity revolves around four main themes—spending less, giving more, worshiping fully, and loving all Via the major prophets who preceded Christ—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—plus Jesus’s mother, Mary, we’ll explore a different theme in each of the 4 Sundays of Advent, and this Sunday’s theme is “Giving More.”

Jeremiah prophesies to a wide array of audiences throughout the 51 chapters of his book, but in this chapter, chapter 22, he is speaking directly to King Jehoiakim, whose name is heavily laced with irony—his name literally means “the one who YHWH has set up,” which makes sense when you remember that his father was King Josiah, who is credited with re-discovering the law of Moses in the Temple, many centuries after Moses’s life and death, many centuries after which Israelite and Judean kings from Rehoboam and Jeroboam to Omri and Ahab had all strayed from the path of the Lord. But Jehoiakim does not live up to his father’s expectations, and Jeremiah’s prophecy today makes that abundantly clear. Contrast King Jehoiakim with the children I told you of at the beginning of my message—out of vulnerability, our children give of themselves. And out of a place where he is likely the least vulnerable of all, the richest, the most well-guarded, the king of Judah seeks only to take and to take to make himself even less vulnerable than he already was—stronger, tougher, greater palaces, built on the backs of injustice and slavery, whatever it took to make this king invulnerable and comfortable in his invulnerability. And in making himself even more invulnerable, by building his upper rooms of cedar, by raising even higher walls to protect those upper rooms, Jehoiakim was further separating himself from his people—he was creating more impediments to being able to give more to them as their king.

This is the part of the Bible’s central message that is almost Zen-like in its paradoxical nature—in order to give more of ourselves, we have to empty ourselves first of whatever it is we have left to give. In order to give fully, we must have so little to give to begin with. This was not the case for Jehoiakim, because as Jeremiah points out to him, and to us, this was not simply a matter of national security—Israelite and Lebanese cedar was highly valued, and red paint was greatly prized. This was a matter of giving yourself more and more, of Caesar rendering unto Caesar, and rather than emptying himself, Jehoiakim is content to fill himself to the brim.

But this was the case for the Messiah whose birth we are preparing to celebrate—as the Gospel of John writes, what was truly extraordinary about the Word of God was that it became flesh, that it dwelled among us, made its home with our homes, spoke our language, and died as one of us. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians that Jesus, for all his power and splendor in heaven, decided instead to empty Himself and take the most humble of forms, the form of a human servant, and then, only then, could He die upon the cross. Fundamentally, Jesus was incapable of being our Messiah and Savior until He emptied himself of everything He had left—only then could He, in ways only He can, give more. Only then could He give fully of himself.

Meanwhile, those with much, our latter-day King Jehoiakims, still also continue to hoard. But when our kings and men of power are incapable of giving from the depths of their souls—to give out of their own vulnerability, let us step up in their place, in the place of the kings of Israel and Judah who did not have it in themselves to give out of their abundance, in the place of the churches of old that chose to sell indulgences rather than clothe the naked and feed the hungry, and in the place of the churches of today that choose to install Jumbotrons in their sanctuaries-turned-auditoriums rather than to use those sums of money to heed the fundamental command of Christ in the Gospels, to give away all that we have and follow Him without condition.

How to do that, though? When presented with Christ’s command, with Jeremiah’s prophecy against the tiny bit of King Jehoiakim that we know deep down resides in us all, what on earth are we to do? This is the how-to of the entire Advent Conspiracy project, and it boils down, in its most pure and simple form, into two straightforward steps: to engage in alternate gift giving, and to use the funds you save from alternate gift giving to turn into charity and mission. Alternate gift giving is not giving gifts on the cheap—it is finding value in gifts that are not monetary in nature, the gifts that convey sentimental and emotional value, the gifts whose worth is not wrapped up in their price tags, but in their symbolization of love, of including as much of that person, of their relationship with you, in the essence of the gift. It can be the giving of a gift that was made with your time and energy rather than with your money, it can be the giving of a gift to a charity in the name of the person you love, it could be making a gift to be shared between the two of you in a uniquely meaningful way. But in any case, its message is meant to be very different than the plasma flatscreen HD TV or the Starbucks-replica espresso machine that says, “I love you this many dollars much.” And when you turn from expressing love in terms of monetary expense, and instead in terms of emotional expense, it surprisingly can free you to give on behalf of a better world—the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ was born for, preached for, and died for. The kingdom in which our kings and men of power do not content themselves with their vast palaces of cedar, expensive paint, and lavish décor, but who instead are courageous enough to give of themselves until there is nothing left to give. Even if others won’t, may we do likewise, in the name of the child whose birth we await. By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 4, 2011