Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Sermon: "In the Highest Heaven"

(This will be my last post here for 2013, as I take a long-anticipated vacation! =)  I'll be back after the New Year.  A safe and merry Christmas and holiday season to you and yours! -E.A.)

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before 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; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c] 15 

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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

“In the Highest Heaven,” Luke 2:1-20

I have a theory.  It is a time-tested theory, and by that, I mean that I concocted it late one night when I couldn’t sleep, and my REM-deprived brain decided that this was a fantastic idea.

The Christmas tune “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was originally written by Joseph.  That Joseph.

Think about it...Joseph is returning home, to the City of David, because he is of the house and royal line of David (though clearly, at some point along the line, his claim to the throne of Israel went way off the rails).  And it is the first Christmas, even though he may not fully realize it yet.  Yes, Gabriel pops up in a dream with a spoiler alert about Jesus, but really, Joseph is returning home because he has to, not because he necessarily wants to.  It is an obligation for him.

The first Christmas began as an obligation.  And ever since then, the obligations have only multiplied like proverbial rabbits. (“What is the pastor doing?!  It ain’t Easter, why is he talking about bunnies?  Silly pastor.”)  We have parties to throw and attend.  We have presents to buy and wrap.  We have credit card statements to subsequently receive and sweat bullets over.  Christmas is no longer a holiday, but like it was for Joseph, an exercise of obligations.

I distinctly remember a conversation with my college chaplain, when he told me about how each Christmas season, he is able to preach on a different aspect of Christmas—Christmas cards, Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, Christmas stockings—and part of me was impressed.  But I also realized that all of our obligations provide that abundance of material to us preachers, and so really, it is a mixed blessing—we can  talk about a lot because y’all have to do a lot.  And you do a lot because Christmas has become kind of like Darth Vader: more machine than man.

And it was then as well.  Joseph is going to Bethlehem for reasons that stretch far beyond his humble little household of himself, Mary, and Jesus-the-Miracle-Fetus.  Caesar Augustus decrees that there shall be a census, probably to expand his imperial reach by making sure every Israelite is accounted for and paying proper tribute to Rome.  Christmas takes place where it does essentially because of a huge imperial machine that pulls Joseph and Mary back to Bethlehem.

So they arrive at Bethlehem, and the one obligation they were probably counting on to make their journey easier completely lets them down: the obligation of hospitality from the “inn,” which I’m purposely putting in quotation marks; as New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe puts it:

The word “inn” is not a good translation of the underlying Greek word, which does not refer to a place of public accommodation such as one might find along the highway.  The word is not the same one as found in 10:34, for example, referring to the place to which the wounded man was brought by the (Good Samaritan).  Rather, it is the same word used to refer to the guest room or “upper room” in a private home in Jerusalem, where Jesus and the disciples would celebrate the Passover meal (22:11-12)…Joseph, having returned with his pregnant wife to his ancestral village, would have anticipated such accommodation.  The fact that none was available meant that others from a higher rung on the social ladder…had already claimed the space.  Not even Mary’s obvious need could dislodge such a firmly implanted order of rights and privileges.

In other words: Joseph (and Mary) are doing everything they can to fulfill their own obligations, but the one point in their journey where they expect to benefit from an obligation themselves—the obligation of hospitality to family—they are left high and dry because they did not constitute proper enough company to be kept in their family’s guest room.

And why the hell not?  Think about it: Mary is preggers out of wedlock, Joseph is a barely-getting-by carpenter, it isn’t like you’d be turning away the Queen of England.  We would probably do the same thing to Jesus’ earthly parents: two dirt poor young adults with an out-of-wedlock kid on the way?  We would be apt to slam the door in their faces as well.

But it’s not all bad, right?  I mean, they at least get a roof over their heads in the form of a stable…I guess the equivalent today would be being told that you could stay in the garage or the carport.  And what if you were?  Would you actually accept such an insulting offer of “shelter,” or would you tell your so-called family where to stick their manger, and sleep where you could?

And here is where the humility of Christ’s ministry begins—it doesn’t even begin with Him, at least in His earthly form.  It begins with His earthly parents: Joseph and Mary swallow their pride and stay in this stable because it is safer for a nine-months-pregnant girl than the streets.  The humble surroundings of Jesus’ birth are not limited to his physical surroundings, but to His familial surroundings as well: He is flanked by two parents humble enough—or maybe just desperate enough—to make a profoundly humiliating decision for the good of the child.

And that is the spiritual depth that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth fall to: a forced jaunt across the country (remember, Galilee is in northern Israel, Bethlehem is towards the south) that leads to being denied any real hospitality that leads to having to accept the crumbs from the banquet table that fall before you so that the Savior of the World could even enter it to begin with.

And yet, here is, as Luke says, the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.”  In the middle of this profoundly humiliating situation, angels decide to appear and to tell us that God, in His highest heaven, is glorified.

But God is now here.  God has finally, as John’s Gospel says, pitched His tent and now lives among us.  Which means that even in circumstances as dire and as desperate as those that Mary and Joseph find themselves presently in, if God is present, then we, too, are in the highest heaven right along with Him.  And that is the real Christmas miracle.  The real Christmas scandal, even.

In the lowest of embarrassing lows for a family, God decided that now would be the best time to make His grand entrance.  God comes for us, and for you, in those lowest of lows.  And He does not have to.  He absolutely does not have to.  But He wants to.  That is the great, wonderful, incredible thing about the Christmas story: God does not have to bring the highest heaven here.

And yet He does anyways.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 24, 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Fasting and Feasting"

Isaiah 26:16-19 

16 O Lord, in distress they sought you, they poured out a prayer[b] when your chastening was on them. 17 Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near her time, so were we because of you, O Lord; 18 we were with child, we writhed, but we gave birth only to wind. We have won no victories on earth, and no one is born to inhabit the world. 19 Your dead shall live, their corpses[c] shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (New Revised Standard Version)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity with the Poor,” Week Four

Sitting on a simple wooden bookcase in my apartment is a simple, spiral-bound book full of handwritten letters that my great-uncle Albert Mouradian wrote home during his service in the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the Second World War.  Knowing my family’s penchant for meticulously maintaining its history, I appreciated being handed down a copy of this collection of letters for myself.  After seeing the fake passports that my great-grandparents used to smuggle themselves into the United States as refugees during the First World War, after hearing the stories about their lives in the Ottoman Empire prior to their escape, I have known for many years that there is a wild and incredible story that led up to my being where I am today.  But it was not until Christmas seven years ago—when I was already an adult, that Albert’s letters were compiled, copied, and distributed to the family, including me.

The book contains all that I know about a man I have never met: what he looked like as a child, his handwriting style, and how he died—as a Marine, K.I.A. in the battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945.  The Japanese name for the battle of Okinawa was tetsu no ame: the rain of steel.  If there is a more poetically appropriate name for war, I have yet to find it.  And family legend has it that after the testsu no ame, for nearly a decade, Albert’s father, my great-grandfather, was unable to smile.  He would not smile again until nine years later, when my mother was born.

Albert’s letters home in the weeks and months home were—are—an emotional reminder of the nature of fasting: fasting from the presence of a loved one, fasting from the knowledge of their safety, and, ultimately, fasting from their being alive altogether.  A nine-year fast on being able to feel joy?  I could not do it.  But that is what I want to talk about with you today: the nature of fasting, and of what it is you have been forced to fast and abstain from yourselves: something as trivial as a drink, or as profound and wanting as the love a friend—or God Himself—provides.

This liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?). and almost over by now!  Even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  This week, we finish up and to the chapter of Pastor Chris’s book entitled “Fasting and Feasting,” in which he writes in part:

I have observed that frenetic people dine in a way that is hurried, distracted, and apathetic about the things that matter most.  I have also observed that people who eat intentionally, taking time to savor flavors, and engage the people around them, realize they are nourishing both their bodies and souls.  This posture overflows into other areas of their lives, and they seem to live from a spring of wisdom and peace.

Which came first, you wonder: the frenetic life, or the unfortunate table manners?  Thankfulness for the meal at the table is more than just an indicator that something in our life has gone awry, it is an all-out warning that we need to make some changes, to check our priorities.  That’s where we are headed.  We are taking time to dial back our internal metronome.  As we slow things down, we will begin to see things we never have before…

My problem, and possibly yours as well, is not that I spend too much time fasting or too much time feasting.  My problem is that often I do neither.  I simply consume my food.

I would take Pastor Chris’s observation about his food and extrapolate it to almost the entirety of our lives: in other words, that our problem is that we simply consume our lives.  And we consume without thinking, which in mine eyes is a way of fasting.  After all, if fasting is the denial of something for yourself, then if you are not getting the most out of something, you are by definition fasting.  You are in distress, or even in mourning, like a bereaved parent.

Isaiah compares this to a woman in an especially painful pang of labor as she strives to give birth to her child: when we are in distress, we are like a new mother, and we writhe and twist and contort in pain, only to see that what we have created is not a child, but the wind—pure air, nothing at all.  In turns out that all that pain and labor was for naught.  It is a tremendous loss.

And seriously, is that not something you could relate to?  Doesn’t everyone have something in their life that has turned out for nothing after so much time, so much sweat, so much heart, that gets poured into it?  Even in the midst of wartime—if you’re down in the trenches, if you’re in a battlefield where only inches are being gained and lost, where victory and defeat are measured not over the course of months but over many years, and where seeing the God’s-eye view of anything is damn near impossible—it can feel like all your are doing is running on the most diabolical treadmill ever made.  You are getting nowhere and giving up so much to get there.

And that is another form of fasting.  You are giving something up: your very reason for being.

There is a reason, though, that Christmas is officially labeled a “Feast Day” on the Christian liturgical calendar, and not just because of that ever-elusive, permeating thing that we call “tradition.”  It is because the greatest fast of all time, our fasting from right relationship with God, is about to end in the most unpredictable, wonderful, awe-inspiring way possible.

God is going to become one of us.  God is going to become a crying, screaming, kicking baby.

God is going to become one of what Isaiah calls the “dwellers in the dust.”  God is going to become dusty and dirty and mortal and…human.  Solely because He loves us that much.

And that God-as-a-crying-baby thing?  Yes, Jesus starts out that way.  But his cries evolve over time.  In the beginning, he will cry as any other baby.  But as the years progress, as He matures and grows into His calling as the Messiah, He will be the one to cry out the refrain of Isaiah 26:19, “Your dead shall live, and their bodies shall rise!  O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy, for your dew is radiant, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.”

To those long dead.   To those who feel so beaten down, so used up, who have fasted from everything joyful for so long that they felt as the dead, to those who have died to their own radiance, to those who have died to the world and to everything in it, the Christ child comes.

At the time of His crucifixion, for three days the world went without the presence of Jesus.  For three days, His friends, His family, those closest to Him, lamented His absence.  But in three days, He returned, resurrected and whole.  It only took three days.  Three long, watchful days.

Today is the 22nd.  In three days time, Jesus comes, though not as an apparition, or as a resurrected being, but as one of you.  As one of us.  In three days, our fasting shall be over.  Our days of simply consuming our lives will be over.  And finally, at long last, the feast can begin.

In three days time, whatever starvation diet that you have put yourself through in your life can—and should—cease.  The fasts necessitated by financial insecurity, by outright poverty, by homelessness, by abuse and violence, these are the fasts that God calls us away from, that God calls us to help lift others out of, because every one of those fasts represents somebody else being made poor, somebody else being told that there is not enough to go around, somebody else being told, like Joseph and Mary were on that fateful night, that there is not enough room at the inn.

What a colossal lie.  What a huge, unbelievable falsehood that Jesus’s earthly parents were fed.

Because in their son, there is always a spare room at the inn.  In Christ, there is always an extra seat at the table.  And in Christ, there is always a feast, even when our physical lives feel naught.

In three days time, our ways of simply consuming, or of fasting outright, will come to an end.  Those ways must come to an end.  It can happen no other way.  It can be no other way.

For as the angels will soon say to the shepherds, born unto you on this day, in the city of David, is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

In three days time, born unto YOU is a Savior, who Scripture says shall be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

In three days time, God shall come to be with us.  God shall come to be with you.

Are you ready?  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 22, 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ten Thoughts on Phil Robertson 'n' Stuff

Edit: Since I received a link from a friend on Facebook to a video of Phil Robertson preaching a really hateful sermon about gays and lesbians in 2010, I have a hard time believing him when he says he doesn't judge them.  I invoke the words of Jesus Christ: "You judge by human standards, I judge no person." -John 8:15

Since I am already celebrating the Christmas season by pushing peoples' buttons (see my immediately previous post on same-sex marriage versus polygamy), I'm just going to go for broke and leave this here for y'all: ten thoughts on the whole Phil Robertson-getting-suspended-from-A&E kerkuffle:

1. Getting sanctimoniously offended and subsequently sacking people is something that neither side has a monopoly on.  See also: Martin Bashir earlier this year or Phil Donahue in 2003, both of whom were forced out by the left-of-center MSNBC for offending conservatives.

2. That being said, if I were a gay man, I imagine that I would feel personally very offended at being mentioned in the same breath as terrorists, drunks, and the 'lovers' (if you get my drift) of animals (and as a self-identified ally, I still am offended).

3. What if Robertson had compared Christianity to terrorism, drunkenness, and bestiality instead?  Would you still be so offended at his suspension?

4. The very same amendment that gives Phil Robertson the freedom to say whatever he wants also gives A&E the freedom to associate with whomever they want.  It also does not protect either of them from the social or financial consequences of exercising those rights to expression and association.

5. Similarly, one day after Robertson's suspension was announced, the United Methodist Church officially defrocked Rev. Frank Schaefer for officiating the same-sex wedding of his son.  Considering that both stories are instances of people getting sacked by their employers for their contrary views on homosexuality, if you believe Phil Robertson has been persecuted, then logically, Frank Schaefer has been persecuted as well.

6. Reality television includes a lot of unsavory things that I really wish it didn't.  I still cannot believe that shows like "16 and Pregnant" or "Teen Mom" exist, but A&E's current lineup of reality television tends to skew away from programming like that.  Asking why we tolerate those shows but not his comments is not A&E's problem.

7. The way Robertson partially describes his perspective ("...That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”) is correct in that sexual orientation is not necessarily logical either, but sexual orientation is emphatically not the same thing as sin.  Sexual orientation simply is not condemned in Scripture.

8. Getting a bit lost in all of this is the reality that this is not just a "gay issue."  The letter to A&E was jointly written by the Human Rights Campaign AND the NAACP.  In addition to his comments about homosexuality, Robertson also made comments about the pre-Jim Crow south that were rose-colored at best.

9. Similarly, while Isalmist sects like al-Qaeda are culpable of mass atrocities against humanity, so too are numerous Christian terrorists.  Timothy McVeigh took last rites before his execution.  Eric Rudolph (the 1996 Summer Olympics bomber) is a Christian fundamentalist.  I would no sooner judge the entirety of Christianity by those devils than I would judge the entirety of Islam by violent Isalmists.

10. And finally, on a lighter note: apparently, there is such a thing as gay ducks. (hat tip to Donald Miller for this one!)

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How I Support Both Marriage Equality and Monogamy: A Response to Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio

(Trigger word warning: rape.)

If you know me and my work (admittedly unlikely, I'm hardly a big deal!), you probably know that I have been frequently vocal about my support for same-sex marriage equality (especially so during the last election cycle, when it was on the ballot in my home state of Washington and successfully passed).

One of the arguments I frequently am faced with by folks who disagree with me is the "slippery slope" argument, which goes something like this: "If you let gays and lesbians marry, what's next?  Polygamy?  Bestiality?  Pederasty?   The zombie apocalypse?"  And I was always able to simply say, "No.  Monogamy between two consenting adults is where I draw the line."  It was simple, concise, and pure in describing what I believe God's design for marriage to be.

So I mentally screamed a just a little bit when I headed over to one of my regular sources for religious news--CNN's Belief Blog--and saw this column entitled "How I Learned to Love Polygamy" by an Episcopal Priest  and writer, the Reverend Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio.

More specifically, I guess, I internally cried great wet tears of sadness at this paragraph in particular:

I also believe there are theoretical reasons why, as a Christian, it makes sense to support healthy polygamous practices. It’s a natural extension for those Christians who support same-sex marriage on theological grounds. But even for those opposed to same-sex marriage, polygamy is documented in the Bible, thereby giving its existence warrant.

Let's start at the end of the paragraph and work our way backwards.

First, documentation in Scripture is hardly justification to do something.  Slavery is documented at great length in Scripture.  Genocide is documented in Scripture.  So are numerous instances of rape and murder.  As one of my colleagues said to me once, if the Bible really were made into a movie, it would receive a strong R, if not an NC-17, rating.  So let's nip that line of reasoning right in the bud: just because the Bible depicts it doesn't mean we should endorse it.

In other words: yes, polygamy existed in Biblical times,  but that is not warrant enough to endorse it today.

Why?  Because one of the biggest arguments in favor of marriage equality puts to lie the notion that if it is Scriptural, it is warranted, and that is the acknowledgement of what marriage truly was in Old Testament Israel: a commercial transaction.  Here are a couple of different passages by way of example (I am using the TNIV translation here):

"If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.  If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins." (Exodus 22:16-17)

"If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver.  He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her.  He can never divorce her as long as he lives." (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

Simply put: by separating the institution of marriage from the bestowal of a bride-price, we in modernity have already begun to redefine Biblical marriage.  We have also begun to redefine marriage when we do not require rape victims to marry their rapists, or when we do not require people to marry whoever took their v-card.  The "redefining marriage" ship has sailed, and clearly for the better.

And in a sentence, that is why I had (and have) no problem at all reconciling my support for same-sex marriage equality with my belief in Scripture as the inspired Word of God.  The institution of marriage today is not the same institution of marriage in Scripture, and so I do not believe that I am violating God's Word by insisting that my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters be treated as equals.  In fact, I see it as fulfilling God's Word in so many ways (treating others the way I want to be treated, the last being first, and much, much more), so I view my identity as an ally as not just political but theological as well.

Here's the rub, then: when talking about marriage, endorsing polygamy by saying that it is Scriptural is cognitively dissonant with the argument that marriage as it exists today is not the institution of marriage that existed in Biblical Israel, and so I cannot believe that it is a natural extension of my theological and political support of same-sex marriage equality.

And yes, in a vacuum, I do get the logic behind the argument: "If you don't care what two men or two women do together, why should you care about what one man + X-number of women do together?"  I get that.  But we don't live in a vacuum.  Unlike same-sex marriage, which is very much in its infancy on the stage of world history, polygamy comes with so much patriarchal and objectifying baggage in its history that I am far more skeptical of it than I am of same-sex marriage.  And when you consider the Biblical verses cited here, I ultimately think that such skepticism is warranted.

What do you think about marriage today compared to marriage in the Bible?  What do you think will happen with the recent federal court decision to strike down part of Utah's polygamy law?  Do you think a Christian argument can be made for polygamy?  Considering the subject matter, please keep your comments civil and respectful!

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

If Christian Denominations Were Christmas Carols

(As the run-up to Christmas is a rather busy time for we pastors, I hope you'll forgive me a re-post today from the 2012 Christmas season, albeit a funny one.  This was one of the most popular posts here at the Project last year, and I offer it to you with the same question as before: any suggestions you have to add to this list?  Any changes you'd make to this one?  Get creative, folks! -E.A.)

The title is mostly self-explanatory. =) In the spirit of the season, I'm having a little fun with our favorite carols. Please do not be offended if your denomination was not included, as there are limits to my creativity, even when it comes to poking fun at the institution I lovingly serve. And in case it needs to be said...this entry definitely falls into the "tongue-in-cheek" category.

 Baptist: "The Friendly Beasts." I don't think I've ever been to a Baptist church of any stripe (American, Southern, etc) without getting mobbed by extraordinarily well-meaning churchgoers who want to know EVERYTHING about me. Over a casserole.

Churches of Christ: "Little Drummer Boy." Part of their split with the Disciples concerned instrumental music in worship--they weren't so keen on it. Hence, the drum! I suppose bell-type carols could have worked too, but drums are probably a bigger flash point with congregations these days.

Episcopalian/Anglican: "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Lets be honest, this song is more about one's love for figgy pudding than it is about Christmas. And the only thing more English than Anglicanism is figgy pudding (losing to Germany in soccer is pretty close, though).

Lutheran: "Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful." Why Martin Luther would like this carol: it's based on the theme of Heaven's triumph. Why he wouldn't like this carol: It's originally in Latin. Worth it?

Methodist: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It's probably the best-known carol written by Charles Wesley, younger brother of the Methodist forefather John Wesley, and it's got four verses, like the four sides to a certain quadrilateral...

Presbyterian: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Remember John Calvin and his notion of predestination? Well..."He's making a list, and checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty or nice." Except if Calvin were Santa Claus, we'd all end up on the "naughty" list.

Quaker: "Silent Night." If you've ever been to an unprogrammed Quaker service, silence is the ticket unless someone feels moved to speak. Which may not may not happen. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any carols about oatmeal.

Roman Catholic: "Sleigh Ride." This one is for the smells-and-bells crowd. You hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too? And the chestnuts going pop, pop, pop? Done and done.

United Church of Christ: "I Wonder as I Wander." Since the running gag is that "UCC" really stands for, "Unitarians Considering Christ," what better carol than one that begins with the question, "I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come here to die?"

Disciples of Christ: "Jingle Bell Rock." Because we rock. Duh.

Any suggestions to add? Any changes you'd make to my selections?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 15, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Tools"

Isaiah 2:1-5

This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. 3 Many nations will go and say, “Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion; the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. 4 God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. 5 Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light. (Common English Bible)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity With the Poor,” Week Three

Because for the past few years I have been dedicated to purchasing at least some of my family’s Christmas presents from humanitarian vendors, I now am blessed with an abundance of catalogs every holiday season—seriously…buy a (in Elmer Fudd voice) wascally wabbit for one family, and you get mail for years afterwards.  And, like clockwork, the catalogs arrived this year from WorldVision, Heifer International, and other amazing organizations that do incredible work.

And they recently fine-tuned their sales pitch to know exactly what would get my attention: my ancestral homeland of Armenia, because right there on page five was the headline “Heifers Help Families in Armenia Escape Hunger.”

You know the pictures your family takes of you on Christmas day?  The ones of you sitting next to the tree, surrounded by presents, and grinning toothily like a maniac?  Imagine instead of getting to pose next to your new DVD player or pair of sneakers, you are posing next to…well, a cow.  A cow is your gift for Christmas this year, and it isn’t because you wanted one, it is because you needed one for your livelihood because you live on $2 a day.

And I began to realize something, flipping through those pages after pausing, and looking at the picture of this young man with the same skin complexion, the same facial structure, as me…that what I was being asked to give here were not gifts, but tools.  Tools for life, tools for provision, tools that had nothing to do with the luxury of being able to ask for what you want for Christmas, and everything to do with the necessity of having to ask for what you so desperately need.  And as we focus so much on buying gifts everybody else wants, we lose sight of the reality that we are giving gifts to celebrate the arrival of that which we so desperately need: a Savior.

This liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, only four weeks long, and unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?).  Even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  This week, we turn to the chapter of Pastor Chris’s book entitled “Tools,” in which he writes in part:

Christianity is filled with truths that seem so paradoxical on the surface: the last will be first, we must die in order to live, in weakness we are made strong, the poor and the persecuted will be blessed.  How can these things be?

I enjoy the feeling of strength, power, and security—not insecurity, vulnerability, and frailty.  I like having enough money in my account to cover my bills and groceries for months to come.  But the truth is, when I am satisfied with my life and provisions each day, when I am not striving for a Ferrari or any version of my own personal extravagance, I am better off…

The world’s economy drives people by fear.  God’s way is to bring people comfort in grace and love.  May we lay down our desires and seek the heart of God.  When we begin to panic, when discomfort surfaces, may we turn to our Savior… (from the book’s conclusion) at the end of the day, our greatest calling is to love God and to love our neighbor.  My greatest struggle is to take myself and my selfish desires and ambitions out of the way and to replace those selfish desires with the desires of God.

If I am honest with myself—and with all of you—I have come to think that selfishness and selfish desires are the root of most kinds of evil in the world.  I have to think it is why Jesus tells us that the entirety of the law and the prophets hangs upon loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  We are more than happy to look out for number one, and woe be to the person who suggests otherwise: after all, Jesus did precisely that and we wound up killing Him for it.

And there are so, so many ways that we have come up with to tell ourselves that being selfish is okay.  We say that the world is best served by everyone pursuing their own best interests, or that wanting more for ourselves is what produces excellence.  And Isaiah tells us that cannot be true.

It cannot be true because Isaiah tells us that God is calling us to change the tools we equip ourselves with—and not just change them out for new tools, but to take the old, inadequate, and destructive tools and make them into something new.  In other words, we cannot just get new plows and new pruning hooks, no, we are supposed to beat our existing swords and spears into those plows and pruning hooks.

How inefficient of God to expect us to do that.  Doesn’t God know that we can just go out to Home Depot and buy new tools, right off the shelf?  Hell, we can even buy those new tools, wrap them up with a bow, and stick them under the Christmas tree if that will make God happy.  But the thing is…I am not so sure that it will.

Think of yourselves—and I do not, do not, do not mean in the selfish sense.  Consider yourselves.  Consider humanity.  We are flawed.  Broken.  Fragile.  Imperfect.  Do you think that maybe, just maybe, God the creator of all things, maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen, would not want to do the exact same thing with us, to look at our own limitations and decide that He wanted a new people and could just pick a new people off the shelf, fashion them with brand-new, state-of-the-art materials, and be more satisfied with them than with us?

Sometimes, I do.  I wonder why God hasn’t yet.  Because sometimes, we just plain suck.

And here is the whole point of the Christmas story, the entire reason for the season, that I can boil down into a single sentence: God does create something new, but that something new isn’t just us, it’s also Him.  God sends us something new, a baby boy who is to be called Jesus.

God sees our problems and our screw-ups and our messes, God sees the terrible things that we are capable of doing to each other, but compared to way back in the primeval past, when He might be content with sending a flood or a curse, God instead sends His Son, the Prince of Peace, to make us into new creations.

We are the swords and spears that God is trying to beat into plowshares and pruning hooks.  We are God’s own tools; battered and broken we might be, but God still is finding new uses for us. God accomplishes this by making Himself into something new, that’s the miracle of it all.  By making something new Himself, He in turn can make us into new tools and creations as well.

Like any tool, though, the making of us as God’s vessels and instruments takes time.  Forged in fire, cooled in water, shaped and molded by metal, we live our lives with our faces in the fire and our bodies in the cold.  We live exposed and vulnerable to so much that the world puts in front of us, from financial insecurity and homelessness to malnourishment and indebtedness, but in the midst of all these poverties, God is still hard at work, fashioning us again and again and again.

And it isn’t just us.  It isn’t just what we would think of as the “elect,” whatever that means.  It’s all of us.  Isaiah is prophesying of a world in which “all the nations shall stream” to the Lord’s house…or the Lord’s forge, as it were, to be made and remade again and again and again.

Yet, as with all pilgrim journeys, we cannot make it into the Lord’s House merely by staying inside our comfort zones.  The pilgrims of old risked life and livelihood to make it to whichever holy site they were journeying.  That dimension is lost for me today, at least in a physical sense. I do not fear being beaten by highwaymen on my daily commute.  Like Pastor Chris, I do not fear, as those receiving the tools of life from humanitarian Christmas catalogs do, living on that edge.

But what I do fear is a world that cannot, will not, shall not take this vision of Isaiah seriously.  I fear a world in which the reverse happens, where people decide to run from  God, to shut their ears to his words, to decide to beat their plowshares and pruning hooks into swords and spears, to lift up those ill-gotten weapons once more, to learn how to make war, to walk not in the light of the Lord but in the darkness of the evils of this world that we inhabit.

And I know that fear is in many ways the opposite of faith, and that I am supposed to be faithful and to call you to faith as well.  I know that.  But my hope is that by confessing to you my own fear, by showing you the poverty that exists within my own soul, you might feel a little bit more ready and willing to examine yourselves, to see where in your life you are poor, and to pray to God to meet you there.   Because God has already shown a willingness to meet you where you are, for He already did it once, over 2,000 years ago, in a tiny town called Bethlehem.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 15, 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nativity Sets: Jesus As We Want Him To Be

I didn't plan on writing this post at all as recently as two hours ago.  My thinking about this all started with this post from The Theophilus Project's unofficial (since I kinda just made up the position) patron saint Rachel Held Evans, humorously detailing her and her husband's difficulty in finding a satisfactory "handmade, fair-trade, biblically-accurate, ethnically-realistic, reasonably-priced, child-safe nativity scene."  I could empathize, because I actually have a soft spot for nativity sets: I've got one sitting on my desk right now as I type away here in my office (in case you're wondering how that jibes with my apathy for all things decorating: the stable is carved out of a single block of wood and all of the figures are glued on.  It's all one piece.  I just set it down on my desk and I'm done.  I love it so much for that...plus, it's a fair trade craft from Ten Thousand Villages and made in the West Bank, which is pretty cool, too.  But I digress.)

Anyways, in a comment to Rachel's post, I simply wrote:

I just have my chess pieces re-enact the Nativity scene, whether they like it or not. The role of Baby Jesus is being played this year by my black queenside bishop's pawn.

And I thought, as every twentysomething with an internet connection does, "I should totally take a photo of it and post it to Facebook!"

So I did (see photographic evidence above).

And for something that really was just a tongue-in-cheek thing I did because I was bored coming home from work earlier this week, I got some very thoughtful feedback from a few of my friends about the nature of me making a biracial (as it were) nativity set out of my chess pieces.

I wasn't trying to be politically correct (otherwise, I probably would have mixed and matched the kings and queens as well, but then again, I'm not sure chess-adultery would do, even for the sake of an irreverent nativity scene), but looking back on most of the nativity sets I see, they are fairly...well, monochromatic.

And as we all know, the world is anything but.  The world we live in is bursting with color in every possible form.

And this is one of the most colorful holidays of the year--the reds and the greens are obvious, but there are also the purples and blues of the church liturgical colors, the whites of the snow and of the Christ candle, and the colors of all the people who portray live nativities in our churches and neighborhoods all over.

But when it comes to "the reason for the season," (aka Jesus), it seems we still want that reason to be white.

Why?  It couldn't possibly be, as Megyn Kelly claims in the above link, to be about historical  veracity: we simply have no way of conclusively knowing what exactly Jesus looked like, but considering the climate and surroundings of Biblical Israel, it's rather unlikely that He was the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Ken doll that traditionally He is depicted as.

And when we cannot know entirely what Jesus looked like, that unlikely traditional depiction, as it was begun by white Europeans, comes across as a form of idolatry: of us trying to make God (or God's Son, in this case) in OUR image, rather than the other way around.

I suppose the same could be said of any visual depiction of Jesus, ever: that whatever image we make Jesus in, it is in our's and not His.

But that does not mean that we have to hold tenaciously to one particular visual depiction over another simply because in that one, Jesus looks especially Nordic or whatever.

And really, I could be just as guilty of continuing the stereotypes: sure, I made the holy family out of black chess pieces, but the angels were white pieces.  (I could have mixed and matched, but as I said, I wasn't willing to make my pieces commit chess adultery.)

All of which is to say: thinking about this random bit of silliness for me has caused a lot of reflection, particularly about our need to recast Jesus as we want Him to be, rather than how He actually was and is.  Maybe we smooth over His rough edges.  Maybe we ignore some of the things He said.

And maybe we make Him look like someone He wasn't.

When asked for His name, God said to Moses at the burning bush, "I am what I am."

God is what God is.

This Christmas, let's let Jesus be who He is as well.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Bar in Johannesburg

(This post is an expansion of the largely off-the-cuff communion sermon I gave at worship yesterday.  To my fellow FCC-'ers, you will recognize parts of this! -E.A.)

During the summer of 2006, I had the blessing and privilege of traveling to the sub-Saharan African countries of South Africa, Angola, and Kenya on mission in conjunction with Global Ministries, the international mission arm of my denomination.  We spent the most time in South Africa, primarily in the cities of Johannesburg and Durban.  And after the passing of Nelson Mandela last week, several of my fellow missionaries on that trip took to Facebook to re-post photos and images from our trip.

It stirred a lot of memories for me.

I remembered playing soccer with a gaggle of children outside of a soup kitchen in Soweto.

I remembered praying and posing for pictures with the children of Bridgman's, a community center in one of the other Johannesburg slums.

I remembered the AIDS clinics we visited to deliver medical supplies, and I remember being told that as many as 90% of the patients who would come to these clinics would test positive for HIV.

I remembered visiting the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson memorial, and museums to both Mandela and Gandhi.

I remembered more mundane things as well, like the bandanas I used to tie my (then shoulder-length) hair in.

I remembered watching the 2006 World Cup--the first World Cup I watched in a truly soccer-crazed setting.

And I remembered a long conversation I had in a bar in Johannesburg after a long day of site visits with an affable Brit who had made his living in Johannesburg for many, many years as a mining engineer.

I don't remember how we got to talking.  I do remember that he resembled my paternal grandfather George, with his thick white beard and taciturn manner.

Over the course of an hour and a half--and several whiskies--he told me all about his life in South Africa, and about how much everything around him had changed and progressed, especially since 1994, when Mandela became President of South Africa and apartheid was officially abolished.  He told me it amazed him--in a good way.

And from him, I learned something tremendous: despite how some of the media reports depict some of the white South Africans as concerned more about retaliation with Mandela gone, plenty of South African whites were--and are--tremendously proud of Mandela and of what he accomplished.  Many of them mourn Mandela as a hero and an inspiration to them.  Like any other population, it is impossible to paint them with such broad brushstrokes.  For me, that is a good reminder.

Listening to this British-born engineer expound upon his adopted nation with such pride and obvious patriotism, I realized that I was directly benefiting from Mandela's legacy.  He--a white South African--was sharing his life's story with a multiethnic American missionary in a bar surrounded by people of color.

That simply would not have been possible when I was born.

But Nelson Mandela--among others--made it so.

The strength of the human will is staggering...when we want it to be.  When we allow it to be unleashed.

It is not often that we do.  But the names of the people who have managed to do it--and subsequently shape the world for the better--are rightly immortalized.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mahatma Gandhi.

Mother Teresa.

Nelson Mandela.

In the smallest and most mundane of ways--a barroom conversation--I was presented with a spiritual experience of the highest order: to hear the voice of one who had gone before me and was sharing his story with me now because his country had changed so much that such conversations were now possible.

It is the joy from that conversation that I remember along with the joy of the children I played soccer with (and the laughter at having to tell the kids that no, I was not friends with 50 Cent) and the joy of the many other people I met in my short time in South Africa.

That I even got to experience and share in such joy at all in a country that was all but closed off to the world when I was born is nothing short of a miracle.  And for that, I remain forever indebted to Nelson Mandela.

Go with God, Madiba.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 8, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Miracle Bread"

Isaiah 25:6-10

6 On this mountain, the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined. 7 He will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples, the shroud enshrouding all nations. 8 He will swallow up death[b] forever. The Lord God will wipe tears from every face; he will remove his people’s disgrace from off the whole earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 They will say on that day, “Look! This is our God, for whom we have waited— and he has saved us! This is the Lord, for whom we have waited; let’s be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” 10 The Lord’s hand will indeed rest on this mountain. Moab will be trampled down as straw is trampled into manure. (Common English Bible)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity with the Poor,” Week Two

I cannot possibly paint my usual word-picture at the beginning of these things to tell you about what it might be like to live in the country of North Korea—not simply because I have never been there, but because so few outsiders ever have.  But imagine a wholly evil, brutally totalitarian government, replete with concentration camps, secret police, and a real short temper.  Now compound that with a relative lack of arable land and you get a perfect recipe for perpetual famine…something that the North Korean people have been facing perennially since the mid-1990’s when the late Kim Jong-il ascended to the office of his father, Kim il-Sung.  But a birthday present of mine from Carrie—a subscription to the food magazine Lucky Peach—gave me an incredibly powerful, moving, and dare I say emotional look into what it is like to eat in North Korea when they sent a journalist there to do just that.  And this is what he wrote, in part:

A quick glance at any statistic about health and nutrition in the country will tell you that each of our individual meals would have easily dwarfed the average daily caloric intake of an ordinary North Korean.  Protein of any kind is rare in the countryside, and fruit is a real delicacy; even the browning apple slices (we received) were a relative luxury.  By local standards, the amount of food we were served was obscene.  Which only makes our rejection of it all the more ugly…

In the moment it feels strange, like playing the fiddle while Rome is burning.  The feeling is vaguely horrible and acutely hypocritical.  But you eat anyway—because the food is there, and you’re hungry.  You share your food as much as possible, of course, and make other small gestures to allay the moral dilemma.  But you eat.  And if the food is good, you savor.  There’s some cognitive dissonance at play: you understand that people all around you may be starving, but you enjoy your meal.

In North Korea, we committed something of a double hypocrisy: we knew people around us were starving, and that we were being served feasts, but we didn’t enjoy them.

And honestly, truly, I think the same can be said of us here, today, in the United States.  So often at our kitchen tables, we serve ourselves feasts relative to the food insecurity of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and we do not enjoy them.  We do not appreciate them as we ought.  And it is something that this next installment of our Advent series is going to tackle.

Another new liturgical season, another sermon series, right?  Well, pretty much, but this liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, only four weeks long, and unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?).  But even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  This week, we turn to the chapter of Pastor Chris’s book entitled “Miracle Bread,” in which he writes in part:

Many days I wake up, and the first thought to enter my mind is, “What do I want to eat today?”  I really like food, and here in Houston I have a lot of good choices.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but many mornings (even before the sun is completely up) I wonder whether to have Tex-Mex or Korean tacos.  Or what about Thai cuisine, or Indian?  It is not just the time I spend answering the question that makes me feel so self-absorbed, but also the way my cravings have the power to shape my day…

(But) a very simple realization broke my will, pride, and eventually my heart.  I realized that the joy that food and material possessions bring to me is often substantial, but that far too often I lack any sense of gratitude for it.  The fact that God sustains our lives by a gift from His hand should cause us to stop everything and offer sincere thanks, but so often we do not.  The same is true for the air we breathe, our health and well-being, and sadly even the grace and forgiveness offered to us through Jesus the Liberating King.

This passage from Isaiah 25 should ring familiar, then, to all of us who are just like Pastor Chris—and like me, for that matter—in our Falstaff-esque love for food.  Rich food is one thing, and well-aged wine another, but the bone marrow that verse 6 mentions is something else entirely—marrow, to this day, is a delicacy and a luxury.  A little bit of it goes an awfully long way.  But Isaiah is prophesying foods “filled” with the stuff—it’s over-the-top food porn, it’s the Food Network on steroids.  This verse is obscene in how decadent it is.

And it is probably supposed to be that way, because those sorts of visions and, if you will, daydreams are the stuff that people who eat minimally sometimes indulge in.  I know that during my student days, I would order off the dollar menu and think about a fabulous nine-course meal at the French Laundry instead of thinking about the six-inch BLT on honey oat that I was actually eating. (I’m sorry, Subway…our entire relationship was built on lies and fantasies…)

The difference is that Isaiah probably knew what the stuff tasted like.  Unlike the other Old Testament prophets with books to their names, Isaiah was a prophet of the royal court, and so he probably wasn’t out on a street corner wearing a pickle barrel and shouting that the world is going to end.  Isaiah instead is promising this sort of life—the life that he enjoys—for everyone.

And the thing is Isaiah doesn’t stop there.  He builds on this to talk about how God will swallow up death forever (we get to consume marrow and wine, God has to consume death…I think He may have gotten the short end of that stick), how God will wipe away all of our tears, and how God will take away all of our shames and our disgraces.  It is incredibly hopeful, incredibly powerful stuff.  But it is also potentially very dangerous stuff to the way our world works.

Because the way our world works, the poor are not supposed to enjoy these sorts of privileges.  Much less the taste of good food, the poor are not supposed to have their shame and disgrace taken away from them.  We do things that are meant to shame and disgrace them every day.  Letters to the editor suggesting that the names and addresses of welfare recipients be publicized.  Hateful comments about the poor being leeches on society, even if they work full-time.  Even something as subtle as handing a WIC check over to the supermarket clerk to endorse, in full view of everybody else in the checkout line, can carry with it its own form of humiliation, since now everybody knows exactly how you are paying for your bread and baby formula.

Bread that does not have to be bought and paid for in this way, that is true miracle bread.  It is the bread that Jesus multiplies thousandsfold in order to feed the five thousand men, plus their women and children, after John the Baptist is executed.  It is the bread that Jesus consecrates as His body at the Passover, giving new meaning to the liberation of sin that God’s children experience.  And it is the bread that would be included in the feast that Isaiah prophesies.

It is the bread that enables us to offer a place at the table to all comers, all takers.  It is the bread that entire faith testimonies, entire spiritual journeys, entire God experiences are made from.

What is the miracle bread in your life?  What is the spiritual food that motivates your hungry spiritual body the second you wake up in the morning, like how Tex-Mex or Korean food motivates the hungry physical body?  Maybe you even have to ask yourself, “Is there any miracle bread in my life?”  In other words, am I spiritually starving right now?

Of course I hope that isn’t the case: if I’m completely honest—and completely selfish—that doesn’t reflect well on my own work as your preacher and teacher.  But perhaps if you are spiritually poor, it can give you a small window into the life of someone who is materially poor.  I know that I have looked at some incredibly spiritually rich pastors, colleagues, and friends, and envied them, thinking, “I want what they have,” just like we would want our neighbor’s  big-screen plasma television or spanking-brand-new Audi.  It’s still jealousy.  It’s still envy, whether we are envying a spiritual wealth or a material wealth.  In other words, like I said at the beginning, we still are being served feasts in our lives, but so often we do not enjoy them.

And why is that?  Honestly, I think that we use what power we have as a weapon to tear down, rather than as a tool to build, because really, it is far easier and far quicker to tear someone else down than to build them up.  Building someone else up—in any capacity, material, spiritual, emotional, anything—is laborious, time-intensive, and sometimes, well, frustrating.

Now imagine having to build the entire world up, starting with a small circle of twelve disciples, then a larger circle of seventy, then the church entire.  That is why the birth we are about to celebrate is so special: what we struggle to do sometimes with just one person—to build them up instead of tear them down—is what Jesus managed to do in the course of His birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  It is why we call Him Savior.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longiew, Washington
December 8, 2013

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What I Wait For

As I noted in my material introducing the new sermon series in this past Sunday's sermon, Advent was originally (and, I hope still kinda is for people) a season of preparation and waiting for the coming of the Christ Child.  It is also meant to be a season of penitence as we heed the exhortation of John the Baptist to repent and prepare the way for the Lord, and I hope to make that an underpinning of all three of my remaining Advent sermons before we arrive at Christmas.

I realize that I may sound like a regular ol' Christmas crank to you, but I promise you that I am not out to ruin Christmas...or at least certainly not anymore so than what the song Christmas Shoes has already done (if you haven't heard it, I'm sorry, I won't even post a link to the song here.  I'm too protective of y'all).

But if we forget WHY Jesus had to come to earth in the first place, I worry that Christmas loses its meaning.  Instead of celebrating the coming of the Savior we need, we end up just celebrating some other kid's birthday.

So I wait, as I have for the past 27 years, for Jesus's coming.  Because His arrival offers me hope for so many other things that I wait for.

I wait for a church that stops preaching that God wants you to be wealthy, or that God hates you for who you are, and instead preaches that God loves you and calls you to be a new, far better version of yourself, a person and a Christian called to the causes of justice and  mercy.

I wait for a church that cares less about your sexual orientation and more about your passion for the Gospel.

I wait for a church that cares less about the rules it makes up for itself and more about creating relationships and making disciples.

I wait for a church in which women are treated as my theological, pastoral, and Biblical peers, not as complements to my masculinity.

I wait for a church that stands up for the poor instead of scolding them.

I wait for a church that cares less for legalism and more for grace.

And beyond the church, I wait for a world where, as Isaiah says, swords are beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

I wait for a world in which 22,000 children no longer die preventable deaths  every day due to starvation and malnourishment.

I wait for a world in which the exploitation of women and children for slavery, domestic abuse, and sexual ownership is justly punished and swiftly eradicated.

I wait for a world in which protection of the unborn and the preservation of women's health are not mutually exclusive.

I wait for a world that judges value not through currency, but through charity.

I simply wait for a church--and a world--of goodwill.

I wait for all of these things.  Where I am able, I try to bring them about myself.

But as I so often admit here, I am just a man, and a weak man at that.

And so I cast my faith upon God and His justice and grace instead.

And so I pray to God to give me the strength to make this world better.

And so I hope for others to hear, and react, to the Good News that the soon-arriving Jesus offers.

And so, in the end, I wait.

I wait for Him.  Humble, fragile Him.  Born into nothing, yet worth everything.

And I promise you, His birth is worth waiting for.

And so I wait.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On Pope Francis, "Marxism," and the Loss of Privilege

If you hadn't noticed from my intro for this past Sunday's sermon, I have thus far turned out to be quite a big fan of Pope Francis.  His pro-life appeals are couched in compassion, not simply doctrine, and his modesty and overwhelming concern for the poor has caused a lot of lapsed Catholic Christians to return to Mass.  I'm not Roman Catholic myself, but I'm all for more people coming on Sunday mornings to hear the Gospel proclaimed.

But Francis's papacy has thus far not been simply a bundle of sunshine and rose petals.  He has withstood withering criticism for throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water with his relational approach to religious leadership, and that trend culminated yesterday with everybody's favorite washed-up blowhard Rush Limbaugh accusing Francis of advocating "pure Marxism."

Now, far be it for me to actually dignify Limbaugh with a response, but I'm just a guy with a modest little blog, so it's hardly like me writing about this will keep it in the news cycle or anything.

But I really want to cut this myth off at its roots: the Bible is not capitalist.  Capitalism simply was not an economic system in Biblical times.  There is nothing Scriptural at all about the notion that capitalism is a divinely ordained economy.

That does not mean that there are not arguments to be made in favor of capitalism, but pretty clearly, unrestrained capitalism is an evil--as evinced by our need for child labor laws, a minimum wage, and many other workplace regulations (because you usually don't need to outlaw something that isn't happening to begin with).

And by the same logic, Scripture is not Marxist, either--Marxism likewise was not an economic system in Scripture or in Biblical Israel.

However: the "to anyone according to their need" maxim that often gets attributed to Marx is, in fact, a quote from the New Testament--Acts 4:35 to be precise.  The early New Testament church completely rejected the idea of private property in their earliest community-planting efforts, and their reasoning is abundantly clear in Acts 5; the story of Ananias and Sapphira demonstrated the potential for defrauding the church with private property transactions.

In other words, the early church was what we would think of today as...well, a commune.  Minus--one would hope--the didgeridoos and massive amounts of weed.

And that is to say nothing of institutions like the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25 in which all debts were cancelled and all land returned to their original owners.  It was a rule designed to prevent the rise of a landed oligarchy, as were the term limits set on an Israelite slave's enslavement in Exodus 21.

And so on.  The Bible is no macroeconomics textbook, but it frowns upon economic exploitation at every turn, and Pope Francis has certainly carried out that concern in his ministry thus far.

That being said, because Scripture isn't an economics treatise, I can empathize with another critique of Francis, this one from Fox News's Stuart Varney, who said in part, "I go to church to save my soul.  It's got nothing to do with my vote.  Pope Francis has linked the two."

I can empathize with this because I believe that when the chips are down, church really does have nothing to do with how someone votes.  I have both Tea Party Republicans and Prius-driving Democrats in my congregation and I am called by God to love them and minister to them equally.

But Pope Francis is not the first Roman Catholic or Christian leader to make church about someone's vote.  Priests are routinely told to deny Holy Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, a practice that to me borders on heresy because of my belief that Communion should be offered to all people who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  But you didn't hear those objections from folks like Varney because the church was enforcing a view he would have agreed with.

Which is what brings me to my final thought here for this post: that what is really happening here is a loss of privilege.  People who, ever since the ascendancy of Pope John Paul II in 1978, have had the ear of the papacy when it came to matters of social issues and religion in politics, are suddenly feeling cut out because this new Pope is not like the two who preceded him.

This quote from a New York Times article last month ecapsulates this perfectly: "It seems he is focused on bringing back the left that has fallen away, but what about the conservatives?"

What about the conservatives, indeed.  I'll simply say that a lot of progressive Christians know exactly how that phenomenon feels like, of feeling shut out by your own religious leadership.

Which isn't to say I think Pope Francis is trying to do that here.  He hasn't made any substantial changes to Catholic doctrine; what he has tried to do is make the church more open and inclusive, which I can only applaud.

But part of welcoming more people in means risking the privilege you previously had--a privilege like, say, having a pope you are in lockstep with.  More people means more worldviews and experiences, and more work to bring them around the common cause of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That work is not easy, and we should never pretend it is.  But it is far preferable to the alternative, in which the church continues to shrink and its influence upon peoples' souls and consciences continues to wane.

Yours in Christ,

Edit: I'd like to see what this fellow has to say about the Bible verses I cite here.  Jesus wasn't a capitalist.  He wasn't a socialist, either, but He certainly wasn't a capitalist.  Maybe He is crying big wet tears in heaven over us calling Him one, not over Pope Francis's theology.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "From Consuming to Sharing"

Isaiah 58:6-12

6 Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? 7 Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? 8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.” If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; 10 if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon. 11 The Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. He will rescue your bones. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry. 12 They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account; the foundations of generations past you will restore. You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets. (Common English Bible)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity with the Poor,” Week One

The pope’s image was broadcast out from Rome over his home country of Argentina: the simple white cassock, the white skullcap, and the one piece of ostentatiousness this current pope had—his signet ring on his right fourth finger.  It was his first exclusive interview for Argentinian media since he had stopped being Father Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and had become Pope Francis.  And in this interview, he made one of the most eloquent calls for dignity through employment I have ever heard because he linked my generation with my precedecessors:

Today we are living in (an) unjust international system in which “King Money” is at the center.  It’s a throwaway culture that discards young people as well as its older people.  In some European countries, without mentioning names, there is youth unemployment of 40% and higher.  A whole generation of young people does not have the dignity that is brought on by work.  A people that cares neither for its youth nor for its old people has no future.  Young people take society into the future, while the older generation gives society its memory, its wisdom.

It meant a lot to me personally to hear Francis say this, because honestly, I think this is what we have in a lot of ways here—a lot of folks either very young or old, who live day-to-day, getting by on not a lot of money, and so often, whether by our political leaders or by uncaring businesses or even by each other, we are treated like a means instead of an end, and we have been replaced as the ‘end’ by money itself—money is seen as more valuable than we are.  And that is sinful.

Another new liturgical season, another sermon series, right?  Well, pretty much, but this liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, only four weeks long, and unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?).  But even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  So, we begin this four-week series with its first installment, duly named after the first chapter of Pastor Chris’s book, the chapter entitled “From Consuming to Sharing,” in which he writes in part:

Freedom.  It is a beautiful gift.  As Christians, we know that Jesus came to free us from the law and the oppression that comes with religious regulations…(and) as Americans, we unapologetically make a spectacle of our freedom.

I have come to believe, however, that our Western understanding of freedom is not at all what Jesus came to bring us.  We have allowed our love of freedom to become an excuse to live a life marked by self-absorbed consumerism…as we obsess over the newest technology and the latest fashions, we find the majority of our income is spent on what we love most—ourselves—while the world is hurting:

-One billion people lack access to clean water, at 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation.
-According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die due to extreme poverty…every day.
-Out of 2.2 billion children in the world, 1 billion live in poverty.
-The wealthiest nation on earth has the widest gap between the rich and poor of any industrialized nation.

As Christians who are called to love the least of these, we need to realize that poverty is not just a problem, it is our problem.

Pastor Chris goes on to cite part of the passage from Isaiah 58 that we just read—and I have to think that he did it for close the same reasons that Pope Francis had when he spoke out in that inaugural interview in Argentina: our spirituality must always have a worthy ends, not merely a means.  And just as money cannot be an end in and of itself, neither too can any given spiritual discipline.  In other words, what matters isn’t the discipline itself, but how it brings you closer to God and to Jesus Christ.  Even fasting—the discipline Pastor Chris is extolling here—must have an ends, and that ends is to amplify our Christian calling to be concerned about the welfare of the poor, something that, like I said, we are called to do especially during the holiday season and the climate of year-end charitable giving, but also something that, judging by the news reports of that MMA cagefight at Wal-Mart that made the national news, something that we also, frankly, kinda suck at (can I say “suck at” in a sermon?  Oh well.  The gauntlet has been laid down.).

But I want to ask all of you this question, and I beg you to answer yourselves honestly: how often do you view other people as a ‘means’ for you instead of an end?  How often do you size someone up, even someone you just met (or especially someone you just met), and think to yourself, “what can they do for me?” or “how are they useful to me?”  And if you deem them useless to whatever goals you have set out for yourself, how does that affect your treatment of that person, either for better or for (what I suspect may be more frequently) for worse?

Now—and full disclosure, here’s the part where I lay the pastoral guilt trip on ya, and thick—how would you size up a baby boy born to impoverished parents in what is basically a barn?  And I’m being brutally honest here, would you think that the birth of this baby boy is cause for unrestrained celebration, or would you be more concerned with exactly how much of your tax money is going to that kid’s WIC aid because his teenaged mom got knocked up and her carpenter boyfriend can’t even obtain shelter for the two of them when they travel?

In other words, how would you view the birth of Jesus, knowing nothing about Him that you now know—about Him being the Son of God, the Messiah, our Lord and Savior and all of that—how would you react in what is basically a blind taste test?

And yes, you can say, “Well, jeez, Pastor Eric, of course I wouldn’t view the Prince of Peace as a burden on society, after all, He freaking saves society,” but one, that’s a pretty impossible standard to hold to any other child who has been born before or since, but two, are we really about to say that we’ll be fine with God incarnate being born into poverty as long as we get something out of this?  Are we really okay with being that selfish in our relationship with God?

So let’s step back from this mentality.  Let’s try fasting from the mentality of treating people in accordance with their perceived usefulness to us, that would be a good fast to start with this Advent.  Let’s try to adhere to the fast the Lord tells Isaiah that He wants for a change!

And the fast that Isaiah says the Lord wants is pretty straightforward, no biggie: setting free the enslaved, released wicked oppression, sharing our food, offering our shelter, giving away our clothes, that’s simple enough, no?  Totally something you can put on tomorrow’s to-do list and have it knocked out by lunchtime, in between having coffee and dropping off the dry cleaning.

Of course it isn’t, though.  And it was never meant to be.  But Isaiah also says that God gives us the tools to do so: as verse 11 says, the Lord will guide us and provide for you, even rescue you as we go about this amazing, incredible, soul-sized work of fashioning a spirituality that actually makes a difference in peoples’ lives.  God has got your back in all of this!

And more than anything else, the holiday season of Advent is about trusting in God’s providence, because God is basically saying to us, “I know, it’s not good.  There’s evil and hurt and pain and sinfulness all around you, but if you hang on just a few more weeks, I’m going to send to you my Son, and He can and will deliver you from all of this mess around you.”

So for this Advent, I would ask you to remove, as much as is possible, your trust from your holiday consumer needs and put that trust back into your relationship with God.  We have let the holiday season become about our love of money—we are no different from ol’ Ebenezer himself when Jacob/Bob Marley comes to pay him a visit (I told y’all about my mom mixing up the two when she read A Christmas Carol to me as a kid, right?  That joke never gets old.).  So let’s work on fasting from our love and trust in our money as well, as an act of empathy and solidarity with the people who never had or have much money to begin with, which I know includes many of us here today.  It’s like what John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” except this time, it’s “Ask not what some rando can do for you, ask what you can do for that rando.”  It’s the season of giving after all, right?

And, in mine eyes, one of the greatest lessons of Jesus’ birth to that unwed teenage mother and her blue-collar boyfriend/husband-to-be is that the rando you’re asked to do something for could easily be Jesus Christ Himself.  It is why He says in the Gospels, “What you do to the least of these, you do to me.”  And it is why we must take seriously the nature of Christian charity in the face of holiday consumerism: it is radical, it is countercultural, and in a way, it is profoundly untraditional.  But it is right that we should do so.  Let that be enough.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 1, 2013