Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for a Preacher

For years, I glibly joked that as a fan of both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals, I never bothered with New Year's resolutions because I already had enough endless cycles of failure in my life.  It was a humorous and effective way of deflecting any inquiries--whether genuine or half-assed--into my own aimless quest for self-improvement, because frankly, improving myself is an intensely private enterprise for me.

But now that the Royals have won the World Series (after losing to Madison freaking Bumgarner the first time around in 2014) and now that the Chiefs are back in the playoffs despite losing Jamaal Charles to a midseason ACL tear, well, I need a new excuse.

So for the sake of accountability, here are three different ways I will be striving to improve myself--and especially my public work-- in 2016:

1. Continue expanding my preaching versatility

Going into seminary, I tried being a lectionary preacher--that is, a preacher who follows the Revised Common Lectionary of Scripture readings.  That lasted a year, two at most, as I quickly realized that I am in fact terrible at preaching on more than one text in the same message.  I instead learned from Russ, my senior pastor at Concord FCC, the art of preaching in sermon series, which I have carried over into my work here at Longview FCC.

Those series, though, take a variety of forms: they can be based on the season of the year (like my recent sermon series on the nativity scene for the season of Advent), they can be based on a book outside the Bible (like my Tribal Church series from a few years back on Carol Howard Merritt's book of the same name), or, increasingly, they can be a verse-by-verse series, like 2016's upcoming Lenten sermon series, when I'll be going verse-by-verse through Habakkuk from the first to last Sunday of the season of Lent (so, actually, I guess it fits in that first one too, being based on a particular season).

I'm still not at my best when preaching verse-by-verse, though, I think, and I want to become as comfortable with expository preaching (another name for verse-by-verse) as I already am with thematic series preaching.

2. Be more deliberate in how I use this blog

Unlike my sermon series, which are crafted months in advance and thus are always ready to go Sundays at 11 because even when I'm having an awful writing week, I already have a foundation to springboard off of, my writing here is much more spur-of-the-moment and extemporaneous--thought-out, but still rather impromptu.

This year, though, I joined the Christian Century network of bloggers, and the Century, having been founded, in fact, as a Disciples of Christ publication all the way back in the 1880s, has a long and storied tradition that I would like to live up to.  Additionally, I have spoken with some of my doctoral professors about the role my blog plays in my public advocacy and prophetic work, especially since my project/thesis work will likely deal with public advocacy in the area of worker's rights here in Longview.

I'd like to be able to use my modest platform here to facilitate as many of these sorts of important conversations as possible around issues of economic justice and the role of the church, in addition to my usual array of sermons, newsletter columns, and the like.  Sometimes I still end up popping off at some ridiculous inanity committed by my more close-minded brethren, but even that I would like to be more polished and elegant in nature going forward.

3. Reflect on how I teach Scripture and theology

Outside of the pulpit (that I actually never use to preach in...) my teaching style tends to be very informal and conversational, simply because that is how I am by nature.  I am more than happy to take digressions and tangents in order to answer questions that may or may not have to actually do with the lesson I had originally planned, and to make that the focus of the class and shelve the actual prepared lesson for another time.

Personally, I think that works for me.  But as I consider what I can do to expand the scope and setting of my teaching, to try to reach as many people as possible, I also have to realize that my style is far from universal and does not work for everyone.  Similarly, I am an *extremely* verbal thinker--I write, write, write.  I'm not so much a visual thinker; in fact, my spatial reasoning has always lagged far behind the rest of me to the point that when I was first tested for gifted programs in elementary school, the psychologist basically said, "Yeah, he's smart, but he's so bad at this that we're not going to let him in."

The flip side of that coin, of course, is to still be accessible to people for whom my verbal processing is their spatial reasoning.  If you aren't a verbal person (and I recognize the hubris of working through all this in the form of a blog post), how do I reach you?  How do I offer you whatever understanding of God I may have?  And how can I be better at doing that?

These are just a few of the questions on my mind as 2015 turns to 2016 at midnight tonight.  It will mark over a decade of me devoting myself entirely to the study and practice of religion and ministry, from declaring my religious studies major to seminary to professional parish ministry.

And over decade later, I still wouldn't have it any other way.

Happy New Year, y'all.  May you and yours celebrate safely and joyously tonight.

Vancouver, Washington
December 31, 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: "Go Now to Bethlehem"

Luke 2:1-20

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


8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” 15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. (Common English Bible)

Christmas Eve 2015

Driving home on Tuesday, December 8, after our evening Bible study was honestly one of the more harrowing experiences of my adult life—preaching my Christmas Eve sermon last year on Vicodin notwithstanding—and I say this as someone who was out delivering pizzas as the remnants of Hurricane Dolly poured out their contents upon my hometown of Kansas City during the summer of 2008.

The rain was that strong.  And it caused the landslide that splayed out all the way across I-5 northbound, cutting me off from all of you for the remainder of the workweek, and cutting off hundreds of other people away from their homes, livelihoods, and loved ones.

Woodland High School opened its doors to one hundred or so people needing a place to sleep, grocery stores sent over bottled water, and local restaurants cooked food and had it delivered.  People ate and drank, shared stories, and played games together before falling asleep on blankets and wrestling floor mats.

Because, as you could have guessed, there was no room in any of the inns—all of the motels in Woodland were booked solid.

“Go now to Bethlehem,” the heavenly host says to the assembled shepherds, and sometimes, I wonder if we do not always have to go so far as halfway around the world to Bethlehem.  I think that week of the flood, Bethlehem was here, on the I-5 corridor in southwest Washington, when there was no room in the inn for the weary travelers passing through on this journey we call life.

That journey of life, though, is for us not simply a journey through life but towards life, towards eternal life alongside God in heaven, towards the source of our life.  Which means that the journey towards Bethlehem, towards the source of our life that is Jesus Christ, is a part of that.  And this journey, no matter how long or dangerous or arduous, is very much a necessary one for each of us to have to take.  No shortcut, no disregard for speed limits, no cutting in line will get us to where we want to be faster.

Which is what Christmas is, I think, really supposed to remind us of.  God sees the hurt and trouble the world is, that the Israelites are in, having been handed over from one foreign empire to another for 600 out of the past 700-some years, and not only does the right thing, but does the MOST right thing possible: giving us his child, His son, His own substance made flesh.  God could not possibly have done more right by us in this gift of a newborn Savior who must, like us, take His own journey through life to death and then once more into life eternal.  Like I said--just like us!

So where are you on your life’s journey towards God?  Are you just starting out on this journey of faith?  Have you been going for a while and are wondering whether there is an end in sight?  Have you been traveling for a very, very long time?  No matter your answer, though, none of us have arrived all the way there yet.  We’re still muddling along, all of us, together.  That's what we humans do best, we muddle.

And muddling along together, all of us, we go now to Bethlehem.  And it’s appropriate that we do so: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus came to Bethlehem because it was, and is, the city of David.

You came here tonight, a half a world away from Bethlehem, but not at all that far away from the city of David after all, because even this week, now a couple of weeks removed from the massive floods of early December, we are still seeing our fellow travelers delayed, detoured, and put out by causes outside of their, and our, control—falling trees, windstorms, and an array of winter fury that we have not seen here for quite some time.

But it is in precisely those sorts of circumstances that Bethlehem beckons to us, for us to go now to the city of David, because it was in those circumstances that Mary and Joseph too arrived into town, full of hurt and humiliation and having been turned away for shelter, and with a baby on the way.

So, if you too fear being put out of a home in your life, you too are called to go now to Bethlehem!

If you fear being turned out because of your identity, because of who you are, go now to Bethlehem!

If you are terrified of finding a place to be and failing, and of being a refugee, go now to Bethlehem!

If you fear being sucked back into addiction or homelessness or destruction, go now to Bethlehem!

If you are striving to live for good and fear the evil coming back in, then go now to Bethlehem!

Because Bethlehem is no longer just the physical city of David, in Israel, it is something that lives in each city, each town because of what it has come to mean: a place to be, a refuge, an ancestral home.

Just as Jesus’ birth echoes out far and wide to all areas of the world, so too does this mean that the city of David is no longer limited to the town of Bethlehem.  With Christ’s birth, the city of David represents whatever it takes to bring God’s love into this world.  Even if it means saddling up a very pregnant Mary, her worried husband Joseph, and sending them off to be present for the coming of God’s own Son, made flesh and bone with a tongue and lips to speak our language, so that we might one day hear the Gospel, so that we too might one day, thousands of years after they did, go now to Bethlehem ourselves.

But for that to happen, they had to be called to their home in the city of David.  On the surface, it may well have been by accident, or simply to fulfill the bureaucratic demands of a census, or for other similarly shallow-on-the-face reasons.  But it is so much more than that.

Just as we, too, are called, called across mountain and valley alike, from up and down the highways.

You…me…all of us, we have been called here, to a home—God’s home.  On this night.  Called to the city of David.  For born unto us this night is a savior, which is Christ the Lord.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 24, 2015

Image courtesy of plr.org

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Letters from the Soul: Newsletter Column + Upcoming Sermon Series!

January 2016: "New Year, New Ministry"

Dear Church,

January is always a month of newness, whether it's the six-month gym membership that you'll cancel by President's Day, or the resolution to not eat dessert that falls by the wayside as soon as the first batch of Valentine's Day chocolates comes rolling in, or, in a far less cynical way, a new group to add to our burgeoning small group network here at FCC!

We currently have three small groups exclusively for women: the Lydia and Ana Gobledale circles who have been stalwarts since long before I arrived, and the Blessed New Beginnings circle that was founded a year ago and has already done lots of amazing work in and around the church with our first-ever Fall Festival in October plus many of our current missions like our just-wrapped Christmas gift drive for the Emergency Support Shelter, both of which were big successes!

To keep building on this amazing momentum, we are excited to announce new small group for men (official name to be determined!) to parallel the start of the Blessed New Beginnings group, and with a similar purpose of promoting prayer and fellowship for its members, combined with the potential for mission opportunities in the local community.

What all of that looks like, though, is up to you if you choose to attend! The first meeting of this new men's group will be at 12:30 pm (after worship) on Sunday, January 10th, in the upstairs pool table room in the main FCC building. It's open to any and all who identify as guys--if you feel like you're a chap, you're more than welcome here! Please feel free to invite friends as well if you know they would be interested in being a part of such a group.

The aim of this first meeting will be to try to establish some goals for what the group's meaning and purpose in our lives as well as a schedule for future meetings and possible activities. If you would like to attend but can't, no worries--just send me an e-mail at some point or come by the office so that I can catch you up!

One note I do wish to make in announcing this great news--while FCC is beginning to transition to a model of small groups as a means of providing fellowship and purposeful, religious enrichment outside of Sunday morning worship, that does not mean our commitment to our existing groups like our Bible studies and our lunches is any less! Many churches may be wedded to one model or the other, but I don't believe that we here at FCC Longview have to be! A major strength of our church's identity has always been a fabric of theological, inter-generational, and even political diversity, and I fully intend to keep fostering that identity going into the year 2016.

I wish you and yours a happy and blessed New Year!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Upcoming Sermon Series: January 2016

A new year, a new sermon series right? Almost! Before we begin our first sermon series of 2016, there is the matter of remembering the Epiphany--the day that the wise men (or magi) are traditionally said to have arrived to worship the newborn Jesus as recalled in by Matthew in the second chapter of his Gospel. That day on the calendar is January 6, so we'll be taking the Sunday before Epiphany to re-read and explore that story together as I give a rare one-off message, before taking that next Sunday, the 10th, to kick off a new sermon series that will take us through the rest of January.

About a decade ago, I got to go see Mount Rushmore on vacation with my family, and it is as iconic in person as it is in, say North by Northwest or the even the Family Guy episode parodying North by Northwest! The images of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt (Theodore) and Lincoln all gazing back out at you--and at America--is quite a humbling experience. Several months ago, recalling that experience in my memory made me wonder what a Mount Rushmore not of my country but of my church might look like...what four Christians have most influenced my own faith and my personal walk with God?

After much prayer and deliberation, I arrived at the quartet of St. Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela. Relegated to the second team were a great many amazing writers and theologians like C.S. Lewis and Paul Tillich, but these are the four who have produced some work of words that has affected my faith like few other words outside of Scripture have, and I'll be sharing my faith as it relates to each of them with you, one Sunday at a time, in a new sermon series that has been months in the making, and that I am delighted to at long last share with you!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

January 3 (Epiphany Sunday): “By Another Road,” Matthew 2:1-12

Post-Epiphany sermon series: “A Mount Rushmore of the Soul: Who Influences Your Faith?” 

January 10: “Christ Has No Hands but Yours,” St. Teresa of Avila, Mark 8:22-25
January 17: “Love is the Fundamental Revolution,” Soren Kierkegaard, Matthew 22:34-39
January 24: “Bound to Christ,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John 11:38-44
January 31: “A Sinner Who Keeps on Trying,” Nelson Mandela, Luke 18:9-14

Sunday, December 20, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Mary"

Luke 1:46-55

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. 48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored 49 because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. 50 He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. 51 He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. 52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. 54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, 55 just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”  (Common English Bible)

“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Comes Alive in Advent,” Week Four

The image is one that we might see fairly commonly—something you may well have seen yourself recently.  A young couple—he in work clothes, winter coat, and baseball hat, she in jeans, hoodie, and toboggan—are outside store trying to use a pay phone.  She is also pregnant.

But you begin to pick up on things—the inn across the street is called “Dave’s City Inn.”  The storefront has advertisements for “Star Beer” and “Good News” candy.  The aforementioned inn’s no vacancy light is on, and its movable type marquee is advertising its “new man ger,” as though it was supposed to say “new manager,” but the removal of that second “a” created an entirely different word altogether.  And the pregnant teenage girl?  Her hoodie says “Nazareth High School.”

As you may have surmised by now, this young couple are meant to be Joseph and Mary—“Jose y Maria” is in fact the title of the piece by artist EverettPatterson, which he drew last December but has gone viral this December as an image of what the Holy Family might look like today.

And in Mary—Maria’s—expression, there is a veneer of worry or apprehension, but there is also a steely determination that she will get through this…and that comes from a place of genuine courage that we will be talking about today as we wrap up our Advent sermon series.

This has been a sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, did this by going one by one through the figures in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth.  We began with the angels, then we moved on to the shepherds, in their role as the first human heralds of Christ’s birth, and we heard from the adult Jesus in John 10 on the role a good shepherd must embrace.

Last week we begin talking about Jesus’s earthly parents, beginning today with Joseph before wrapping up the series next week (already?!) with Mary.  While Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Joseph in telling the Christmas story, Luke’s Gospel focuses on Mary, and that is where we arrive today, and specifically, on the song that Mary sings after both the archangel Gabriel and her cousin Elizabeth have spoken to her to confirm that the child she is carrying in her womb is indeed the Messiah.

In response, Mary sings what we now know as the Magnificat, so named because of the song’s first line: My soul magnifies the Lord.  It is a song that echoes the song of the prophet Samuel’s mother Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, after she gives birth to the future prophet and judge over all of Israel.  I have to think that Mary chooses this song on purpose because she knows exactly what she is up against.

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 to praise God again and again.

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 used to be the song “Mary Did You Know?” Now, 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!

Which makes the whole song just come across like one big mansplain to the Mother of God about what it is she really has already knowingly and decisively signed up for:

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?”

“Yep.”

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?”

“Sure did.”

“Mary, did you know…”

“YES, I KNEW, AN ANGEL LITERALLY TOLD ME SO.”

It’s a perfectly nice song, but it really should have been shorter than a 15-second commercial:

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?”

“Yes.”

And scene.

It may sound unduly harsh of me, parsing a perfectly well-meaning, perfectly lovely Christmas song like this, but I think it diminishes the sheer courage with which Mary knowingly said “yes” to God.

It doesn’t really do justice to the person Mary was, and that who she was, well, it was why God had chosen her to begin with: because she was and would always be the woman to stare the hardships she faced dead-on with a courage that we ourselves may honestly scarcely know, because courage is not the absence of fear or apprehension, it is plunging forward in spite of, or acknowledging, that fear and apprehension.

That is why I love this portrait of Mary as a Maria by Everett Patterson—to me, it so masterfully and poignantly combines both, the fear and the bravery, the apprehension and the courage, and the steadfastness amid being forced to travel while eight or nine months pregnant to still see through that which she had been called to do by God. 

She knows what will happen, and she knows why it must happen.

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, no action by God without a reaction from the world, and no love, no true love, without any 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, to love a Joseph and a Mary who look like a Jose and a Maria, to love a Syrian refugee, to love a shelterless addict, to love, dare I say, the real versions of ourselves that we see in others, not the idealized versions of ourselves that we think we are.

In that same way, Mary is the real deal, the genuine article, not the varnished, marbleized lady we may make her.  She is still human, so her praise and her hope comes from a God who proffers a genuine reversal of circumstances—not just an uplifting of the humble like her, but also a humbling of the proud who would otherwise live to keep her down because she is a woman, because she is an Israelite, because she is who they could never hope to be—a genuinely radical vessel of God’s love.

This Magnificat, 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.  So let us go forth and do those wonders in God’s name.  Because we too know that we must.  We know, as Mary did.

Mary, did you know?  Yes, she did.  She absolutely, positively did.

We’re down to just five days left.  Stay devoted, friends.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 20, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why I Super, Mega, Effing Despise the Song "Christmas Shoes"

(because I try as much as possible not to use the word "hate" trivially...)

Consider this the cranky, grumpy, Oscar-the-Grouch sequel to Tuesday's "If Denominations Were Christmas Carols."

Because while I actually like a lot of different Christmas carols--mostly the religious ones, if I'm honest, because most of the secular songs are really creepy (Baby, It's Cold Outside), really long (Twelve Days of Christmas), or just plain suck (Santa Baby).

But no Christmas song receives as much of my grinchy ire as Christmas Shoes.

I won't link you to the song, because I don't want to drive up its hits.  Instead, I'll link you to Patton Oswalt talking you through the song's lyrics (NSFW language because, well, it's Patton Oswalt).

Now, Patton Oswalt might be an outspoken atheist, but he is the very best kind of outspoken atheist.  His way of breaking down of religious wars as conflicts over sky-cake versus sky-pie is genius, and he is generally way too self-effacing to be the sort of pompous blowhard of an atheist that really grinds my gears (think Richard Dawkins or, when he was still among the living, Christopher Hitchens).

Oswalt's takedown of Christmas Shoes is similarly excellent, and if you haven't listened to it before, I highly suggest you do so now.  Go ahead, it's only several minutes, and I'm happy to wait here.

Okay.  While I'm down with Oswalt's R-rated rant about the song, he really could have gone so. much. further.

The poor kid, as he puts it, is a "Dickensian street urchin."  It's a pathetic image, and it's pathetic on purpose.  Those of us with any money are total control freaks with that money, and we want to be able to choose who is worthy of our help and who isn't.  This mentality pops up in the most innocuous of ways--every single Christmas season, without fail, I'm asked by some (thoroughly well-intentioned) do-gooder or another to pick a family in the community to help give Christmas to, as though my moral compass allows me the ability to divine that family's situation and thus evaluate if they are more worthy or in need of help than their next-door neighbors that I've met, like, once.

This mentality comes up outside of the holiday season, too.  You may have seen this shared on Facebook from time to time:


This kid in Christmas Shoes, by basically looking like Pig Pen from the Peanuts cartoons, is totally meant to appease those prejudices.  Except that if you actually talk to people who are poor, maybe not living-on-the-streets poor but still very much impoverished, you'll discover that they often will go to great lengths to try to keep up their appearance because it is one of the few things they can still control in their lives.  It lends them a sense of pride and dignity.  It helps them to feel human again.  Their appearance is a BFD to them, and understandably so.  But they still need food stamps to buy groceries, and yet because they don't look like this mangy kid in this song, we judge them for it.

Then this pipsqueak pays for the shoes for his mom in pennies.  I have never, ever seen someone do that, regardless of income level, unless it was purely out of spite (like, say, for an impound fee when your vehicle gets towed).  It's utterly absurd, in the purest sense of the term.  Poor people who live outside of the banking system (which is a surprisingly large number of households--as many as 1 in 13) don't pay for stuff in pennies, they pay for it either in greenbacks that they had to pay a high commission for through a check-cashing outlet, or with Visa/MasterCard gift cards that are almost universally accepted but that come with steep, unjustifiable activation fees.

It's a scenario that is not even remotely realistic, not by a long shot.  And I might be willing to forgive even all that if Christmas Shoes were simply another in the long aforementioned line of crappy secular Christmas carols.

But it isn't.  It's a Christian song, performed by a Christian band.  And it shows a complete, utter cluenessness bordering on outright prejudice, towards the poor whom we are supposed to be on the side of, because Christmas celebrates the birth of a Messiah born into poverty so grave, he was born in an effing feeding trough for barnyard animals.

And the song doesn't give a damn about any of that, and only cares about the cranky protagonist of the song (who I now fear I may in fact be even grumpier than now--I've been writing for a while now) deciding that he knew what Christmas is all about again.

EXCEPT HE DOESN'T.  He doesn't know what Christmas is all about.  Christmas is about God becoming flesh so that the poor could be set free from their poverty, so that the oppressed may be liberated from their oppression, so that the outcast may finally be let in from the cold and back into the warmth of the inn.

It's not about a pair of bloody shoes.  It never has been.  It never will be.

And that, friends, is why I super, mega, effing despise the song "Christmas Shoes."

Longview, Washington
December 17, 2015

Image of super-gaudy Christmas shoes courtesy of Pinterest

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Traditional Repost: If Denominations Were Christmas Carols

This post from a couple of years ago definitely falls into the oldie-but-a-goodie camp.  One of my most popular posts when it was first created, and popular again each time it gets reposted every December, here it is, once more, in all its glory, for this festive Christmas season.

I'll return to more substantive commentary in due time, but for now, please enjoy the humorous machinations of a slightly deranged pastor. (Hey, we all get like this when it's T-minus 10 days to the big day!)

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, any of them) 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, because drums represent all that is unholy and irreverent about my generation and its noise.

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...

Pentecostal: "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  That song goes on forever.  Just like every Pentecostal worship service I've ever attended.  I also remain firmly convinced that you have to be gifted in speaking in tongues to rattle off all twelve days worth of gifts in one go at the very end of the song.

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.  And the "naughty" list would be labeled the "completely depraved" 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: "What Child Is This?"  Because we don't do creeds, we just ask questions.  Annoyingly.  Incessantly.  And sometimes, as the writer of this one does, we do so while already knowing the answer.

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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Joseph"

Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.  (Common English Bible)

“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Comes Alive in Advent,” Week Three

The blackboards sat out at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan—world headquarters of NBC—waiting for people to write out on it what kindness meant to them.

A piece of Christmas kitsch if ever there was one, and to be sure, it did produce some heartwarming entries: selfless service to others, making everybody feel like somebody, and even simply, daughters.

But other entries were, well, a bit trite: doing something nice every day.  Paying it forward.  Compassion.  Refilling the toilet paper (that one was apparently Al Roker’sfavorite).

And it got me thinking: can we actually define kindness?  Is that something we are genuinely able and equipped to do?  I feel like we should be able to, I really do.  And I say that in part because of someone like Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, who does not try to define kindness with his words—if you read Matthew’s entire account, Joseph is actually never quoted at all—but with his actions, and specifically his actions towards his betrothed beloved, Mary.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, we’ll be doing so by going through the characters one by one in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth.  We began with the angels, and not just any angels, but the archangel Gabriel and His message to Mary that she is to bear a child who will one day bear the name Son of the Most High.  Last week, we moved on to the shepherds, in their role as the first human heralds of Christ’s birth, and we heard from the adult Jesus in John 10 on the role a good shepherd must embrace.

Today we begin talking about Jesus’s earthly parents, beginning today with Joseph before wrapping up the series next week (already?!) with Mary.  While Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Joseph in telling the Christmas story, Luke’s Gospel focuses on Mary, so they provide an interesting contrast of sorts as we go from one to the other, starting with Joseph.

Joseph is, like the shepherds we talked about last week, something of a blue-collar nobody.  He’s a carpenter, presumably a competent one, otherwise you’d find it difficult to imagine Mary’s family allowing her betrothal to him if he didn’t have enough business to be able to provide for her (“No, Mary, you cannot marry him, he’s like a Cub Scout on the first day of whittling class!”).  And even though he is, as Luke will point out, of the house and line of David, he is nobody famous or rich.

Joseph, then, is not so different from you or me.  He’s average, ordinary, the Israelite John Smith.  But he is equipped with at least something of a moral compass, and he is required to use it when he discovers that his fiancĂ©e Mary is pregnant (although, not for nothing, but couldn’t Gabriel have just shown up *before* the Holy Spirit impregnates Mary, so that she and Joseph don’t have to go through the uncertainty that follows?).

Betrothal in ancient Israel wasn’t quite like engagement today—our current understanding of engagement is of something that can be broken off for any number of reasons, like incompatibility, disagreement over whether to have children, or discovering that your beloved still collects Beanie Babies.

Betrothal, by contrast, could only be broken off as a result of infidelity, which is what Joseph naturally expects has occurred when Mary shows up ready to be the next star of Teen Mom.  Joseph is then left with, to simplify things a bit, three choices: he can pretend the child is his and raise it as his own, he can divorce Mary and have her stoned as an adulteress, or he can divorce her quietly.

If Joseph does the noble thing and takes the child as his own, he is potentially sacrificing his family’s entire estate—assets, net worth, everything—because of the Israelite laws concerning double inheritances for firstborn male heirs.  If Joseph and Mary do not produce a male heir themselves, then all of Joseph’s family property—his home, his business, his tools, all of it—passes on to someone not of his bloodline.  While it may seem selfish to us today to take something like this into account when a baby and mother’s lives are at stake, Joseph has to consider being able to provide for his extended family in a time when there was no such thing as Social Security or a safety net.

If Joseph divorces Mary and makes it public—keep in mind that, as I said, the only reason a betrothal was typically broken off was because of infidelity, so it wouldn’t be like Joseph would have to spell it out for people—then Mary and her unborn child are stoned to death, something terribly cruel and barbaric on face, and something that said unborn child would actually go on to prevent as an adult when, in John 8, he is presented with a woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned.

So Joseph fashions for himself a compromise: he will divorce Mary, but he will do so quietly, almost in secret, so that while legally, he is free to remarry to someone with whom he can have a legitimate heir, Mary is at least given a chance at survival.  It will be a hard life for her—she may not ever be able to marry and to enjoy the financial security that comes from marriage (and back in ancient Israel, lacking that stability would decrease your expected life span on its own), but at least she won’t be killed on spec.  While we may have wanted to see Joseph be prepared to accept this child as his own, this is for him—with the morality of his time—the most palatable of three distinct evils.

Of course, then an angel does in fact swoop in to tell Joseph that everything is copacetic, and Joseph remains betrothed to Mary after all.  So this story is a testament not just to Joseph’s morality—which may have its limits…he is human after all—but also to Joseph’s faith, which is not so limited, because he is prepared to risk his family’s whole estate on what an angel says to him in a dream.

In the parlance, that takes some cojones.

Of course, Joseph’s faith in what angels reveal to him in dreams is not limited solely to something as soul-sized as taking Mary for his wife—he also guides his family in and out of Egypt on that same divine guidance in order to save his wife and newborn son whilst King Herod is busy ordering the slaughter of the infant boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem in a vain attempt to kill off the Messiah whom the Magi have told him will be his ultimate successor as king of the Jews.

But before we get to any of that, we are first given the great gift of bearing witness to one of the most profound acts of human kindness in history.  Faced with an impossible dilemma, Joseph strives to do the right thing before any such angelic advice is ever proffered.  His kindness, though we may try to do so, could not, cannot be encapsulated simply in a word to scrawl in chalk on a blackboard.  Even if he does not share Mary’s overt courage, he is likely a fitting earthly father for a divine son.

Because think about it--there may well be a reptilian part of your brain or mine that would want to see someone whom we trusted in that much to suffer as a result of betraying that trust.  But Joseph does not reach for that.

So if you were to ask me to scrawl on a blackboard what kindness means to me, I would probably scrawl the words "Matthew 1:18-26."  I would point you to this story, of a man who chose dignity over vengeance, and life over death by execution.

And like the shepherds we talked about last week, he, too was and is a complete nobody, someone you wouldn’t know from Adam, someone who could have and almost certainly would have lived and died in complete and total anonymity.

But for his kindness, he has not.  And for that kindness, a grateful world is forever in his debt.

Thanks be to God for Joseph.  Thanks be to God for the nobodies.

13 days left.  Remain devoted, brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 13, 2015

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Armenia's New Parliamentary Constitution

While here in the United States we have been remembering Pearl Harbor and going off on Donald Trump's blatant bigotry, something very important has been taking place in my ancestral country of Armenia.

A constitutional referendum took place on Sunday which would move Armenia from a presidential system of governance to a parliamentary system of governance--there would still be a president, but the president would no longer be directly elected by the people, military power would shift to the office of the prime minister, and there would be fewer seats in the Armenian congress.

The referendum passed by a 2-1 (66-33) margin.  However, if you look at the pair of opinion polls in the Wiki entry linked to above, you see somewhat less support for a "no" vote but *far* less support for a "yes" vote.

And okay, opinion polls can be wrong.  But they're usually not off by 30+ points, and Armenia has a history of...how do I put this...voting early and voting often.  Ten years ago, in 2005, Armenia had another constitutional referendum (itself necessitated after a 2003 constitutional referendum failed due to the number of "yes" votes not totaling more than 33% of all registered voters), which resulted in nearly a 95% "yes" vote--that's "Is chocolate yummy?" numbers.  That's "Is the sky blue?" numbers, and the other 5% reply, "Well, it's really more of a cerulean to me."

The 2005 referendum was noted by international observers from the Council of Europe to suffer from problems of ballot stuffing and other voting "irregularities" (as though undemocratic practices can be solved for by the liberal use of laxatives), and the 2015 referendum has received much of the same criticism from the very same international election observers for the very same crimes: fraud, ballot stuffing, etc., although, interestingly enough, no such criticism came from Russian election observers.

(And this is not even getting into the violent reaction to the 2008 election that brought current Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan into power that resulted in the deaths of 8 protesters, a police officer, and a soldier.)

A word of context here: Armenia has a very close relationship with Russia both because of history (Armenia is one of the former Soviet Socialist States that made up the USSR) and because of necessity (Armenia's eastern and western borders are entirely blockaded by Azerbaijan and Turkey, leaving Armenia dependent on other nations around it for trade).

This is saddening from an Armenian-American perspective for a variety of reasons: the Armenian diaspora is especially large in the western countries of the United States and France, and Russia under Vladimir Putin has become increasingly belligerent.

The new Armenian constitution has elicited from its opponents charges that it would enable a very similar setup that Putin now enjoys in Russia where he simply gets to rule into perpetuity, trading off between the offices of president and prime minister.  Serzh Sargsyan is approaching the end of his second term as president, and this new constitution creates a new office--prime minister--for him to move into while still retaining his status as commander-in-chief while a figurehead gets elected president not by the people, but by the congress.

That's simply no way for a democracy--especially one as young and as unstable as Armenia's--to grow and to flourish.

While this post remains outside the usual realm of my blog posts about American Christianity, I still believe it worthy of our attention--not just because of Armenia's relationship with Putin's Russia, and not just because of the large Armenian diaspora here in the States, but simply because democracy and the rule of law are what define us as a civilization of humanity, not simply of humans.

And while I love the country my family was forced to leave a century ago, this manner of "democracy" demands my criticism and condemnation.

Vancouver, Washington
December 10, 2015

Image of Armenia in the colors of the Armenian flag courtesy of Blogspot.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Thought About "A Day Which Will Live In Infamy"

On this day seventy-four years ago, military forces deployed by the Empire of Japan unilaterally attacked the United States Navy's Pacific Fleet at their new headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The attack killed over 2,400 Americans and united a previously divided and isolationist country into declaring war on Japan the following day, December 8, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously referring to the previous day as "A day which will live in infamy" in his address to Congress seeking said declaration of war.

Three days later, on December 11, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the United States, and we were fully embroiled in the Second World War.

My family on both sides was shaped forever and profoundly by the Great War: my paternal grandfather and maternal great-uncle both served in the Pacific theater, with my uncle not returning home after being KIA on Okinawa in 1945, mere months before the end of hostilities.

Seventy-four years ago, decisions made by men halfway around the world would drag my family's adopted country into a war that changed life--or ended it--for all of us.  And I know we are but one of millions of families for whom that is the case.

All of this took place, though, on a day seventy-four years ago, in 1941.  We rightly tell ourselves that we must not forget--and indeed, we must not, because the sacrifices that the democracies of the world underwent in order to secure a complete and total defeat over fascism were immense, severe, and extreme.

But I also want us to lend an ear to this need to remember something a whole lifetime ago the next time we would dare to utter, say, that African-Americans ought to get over their enslavement and disenfranchisement at our hands, or that First Nation Persons ought to get over their slaughter and inhumane treatment at our hands.

A country's sins are many, and this true of almost any nation: Japan for attacking us at Pearl Harbor, Germany for the Holocaust and its gauntlet of anti-Semitic policies, Stalinist Russia for its total purges and use of gulags, and even us for our internment of Japanese-American citizens and our poor treatment of African-American soldiers who fought Nazism and fascism only to come home to a racist welcome.

Days of reflection such as these ought to be days in which we are more able to reach for a bit of humility, of humbleness, that allows us to affirm our identity and revere the people who died to keep that identity alive, but to also respect that there are indeed those things that we have done to which other people will likewise say, "Never forget!"

I see such steadfast resoluteness to refuse to acknowledge such violent harm done very single year from the government of Turkey--and from their enablers in the United States--as they refuse to acknowledge the Armenian Holocaust of the First World War as a genocide.  The pain those refusals inflict on me is not a pain I would wish upon any other person.

Let us, then, be honest--so far as the evidence allows us to be--of our own history, all of it.  And may that honesty likewise serve as a right and moral tribute to those who gave their lives so that more of the world might live in freedom.

Longview, Washington
December 7, 2015

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Shepherds"

John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.  (Common English Bible)



“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Coming Alive in Advent,” Week Two

In the year 1476, forty-some years before Martin Luther would nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at Wuttenburg and set the world alight under a reformation that Christianity had not ever seen before or since, a young boy named Hans in the German town of Niklashausen had a vision of Mary, the mother Jesus, began to preach a life of extreme poverty and devotion to God, and eventually incited the oppressed peasantry living in and around the town—as well as the masses of pilgrims who came to hear his sermons—to rise up against the nobility who kept them down and the clergy who enabled the nobility at the expense of following what Jesus actually said, that the last would be first and the first would be last.

Hans was originally known as the drummer of Niklashausen, and today, we may think the drums to be a pretty cool instrument, whether when playing Rock Band, or watching Drumline, or even just watching our own praise band in action.

But that was not the case back in the time of Hans, in the 1400s.  I’ll let historian Richard Wunderli explain, in his book Peasant Fires:

Medieval Europe knew many musical instruments, but the lowliest instrument was the drum…Anybody could play a drum, which was a despised instrument in polite society.  It was usually associated with mimes and minstrels who performed racy songs in taverns.  Hans’s enemies indeed claimed that he had performed in taverns—that is, until he had his vision.

Drummers were looked down upon, despised, and Hans himself was associated with his instrument of choice by his enemies as a way of trying to discredit him—but it was to no avail, as he became an increasingly popular preacher, and eventually, the only way his enemies within the church and the nobility could do away with him was to execute him by burning him at the stake as a heretic.

Young Hans Behem managed to speak out for his neighbors and people despite his lowly calling and station in life, and believe it or not, shepherds in ancient Israel were hardly any more highly regarded than drummers were in medieval Europe.  So what does it say about a Messiah who not only refers to Himself as a good shepherd, but whose birth was heralded—in human form—first by shepherds?

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, we’ll be doing so by going through the characters one by one in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth.  Last Sunday, we began with the angels, and not just any angels, but the archangel Gabriel and His message to Mary that she is to bear a child who will one day bear the name Son of the Most High.  This week, we move on to the shepherds, in their role as the first human heralds of Christ’s birth, and we hear from the adult Jesus here in John 10 on the role a good shepherd must embrace.

That label, though, of a “good shepherd” is a bit of an oxymoron, because shepherds back in those days were not really seen as good—as useful, yes, as necessary, sure, but not especially as good.  Israel is not a country blessed with a great deal of arable land; in fact, a significant part of the land is the Negev desert which is, well, a desert.  So of the limited arable land, a shepherd’s flocks can consume an awful lot—if you’ve ever seen sheep eat, you know they can eat a great deal.  It isn’t even unheard of in parts of the world for sheep to be used for mowing down swaths of grass.

So shepherds were not really liked because of the wholesale way their flocks would consume land.  My New Testament professor in undergrad would say that for Jesus to refer to Himself as “the Good Shepherd” would be like, if Jesus had come today, referring to Himself as “the Good Used Car Salesman,” or “the Good IRS Auditor.”  The same sorts of professions that are commonplace and accepted for us, but not really liked, not necessarily possessing of good reputations—that’s what we’re talking about here.

Which means that it is extremely important not only that Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd and does so in such a public manner, but that the very first human witnesses and heralds to the birth of Jesus (after His earthly parents, of course) are in fact a group of shepherds.  We all know the words from Luke 2:8: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” (KJV)

So these guys aren’t only shepherds, they’re shepherds who drew the graveyard shift—they’re not even the highest guys on the totem pole in their own profession!  But they are the ones to whom the heavenly host of angels is sent to be told of Christ’s coming.  And surely this had to do with more than just convenience—there were other people geographically closer to the stable where Mary and Joseph and Jesus were: the inn was full, remember?  So the shepherds were chosen for a reason.

These shepherds were nobodies.  God relies on nobodies to be vessels of love and grace to a broken and bleeding world, a world made even more broken and even more bleeding in San Bernadino.

Jesus was born a nobody, to a couple of nobodies, and was first witnessed to by a group of nobodies.  Yet still, He ends up saving the entire world.  You.  Me.  All of us who choose His love.

Imagine what a nobody like one of us could do.  Admittedly, lacking the divine mantle of Jesus ups the degree of difficulty, but not so much that you remain unable to make a difference.  Indeed, if we were so unable, the angels would never have bothered appearing to the shepherds to begin with, because the shepherds were dramatically affected by what had happened—as Luke says, they returned home rejoicing and praising God for what they had seen.

So what does it mean, then, for us, for one of us to be a good shepherd, a good nobody?  It is to do not only what our shepherds in the fields did, rejoicing and praising God—although that is certainly part of it—it is also to, as Jesus says here, in John 10, to be completely devoted to your flock: to each other, even to the point of giving up your life for one another, should it come to that.

We must be completely devoted to one another just as we are completely devoted to God.

And you don’t need to be a somebody to do that.  Yes, as Bible scholar Raymond E. Brown pointed out, for John, Jesus is *the* Good Shepherd.  But as far as all of us, we all are capable of being good (albeit less good) shepherds.

Hans Behem, the young Drummer of Niklashausen, probably fits into the nativity scene too somewhere…after all, the Carol of the Drum (aka “Little Drummer Boy”) is all about a youth with a drum who cannot afford anything else to give to Jesus but his time, energy, and, well, his drumming.

The truth is, you don’t need to be Jesus to be good, you need to listen to Him.  You don’t need a famous name, or vast reserves of wealth, or to be born on third base in order to be devoted to other people.  In fact, all of those things can act as hindrances to such great devotion if we let them—and many do in fact let them.

In your anonymity, in your humbleness, in whatever point of life you are in, you remain entirely capable of devotion, and not just during this one month of Advent, but for all twelve months of the year.

That is our collective charge and responsibility as Christians, as followers of *the* Good Shepherd.  And through such complete, pure, unyielding devotion, may the world continue to be forever changed for the better, a world as oppressive and violent and hurtful as the world then, and a world that remains as oppressive and violent and hurtful today, that world can still yet be changed.

It was so over 2,000 years ago in a little town in Israel called Bethlehem.

May it also be so today.  We need it to be so today.

19 days to go, my brothers and sisters.  Remain devoted.

Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 6, 2015

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Jerry Falwell Jr. is Wrong on Scripture and San Bernadino. Here's Why.

Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, is one of the biggest and most famous Christian universities in the world.  Founded by the Moral Majority bigwig and televangelist Jerry Falwell, the school is now run by Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., after Jerry Falwell, Sr. passed away in the spring of 2007.

And while there are tons of horrible stories coming out from San Bernadino right now in the wake of a terrorist shooting by radicalized American Muslim residents/citizens, one that personally pains me is this story from the Washington Post on Falwell Jr.'s convocation address to Liberty after the San Bernadino attack, that was less a sermon and more a rally for more guns in America.  Here are, from the WP story, a few of Falwell Jr.'s quotes:

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.” 

 Some theologians believe that Jesus would call on Christians to put down their weapons in the face of violence. In response, Falwell referenced the story from the gospels of Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple with a whip. 

“Jesus said ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ and part of that was to go to war, protecting whatever nation was under control of the king,” Falwell said. “I wouldn’t agree with any interpretation of Scripture that was used to say that a man or a woman shouldn’t protect their families.”

Setting aside the fact that typically, people who ask for more sensible restrictions on assault weaponry are charged with "politicizing" mass shootings--not people who ask for more guns--there are a lot of things wrong with each of these statements.

First, "those Muslims?"  Really?  Falwell Jr. later said that he only meant the Muslims who had carried out the San Bernadino and Paris attacks, but think of the hue and cry that would (understandably and rightfully) arise from the Christian community if prominent American Muslim leaders referred to "ending those Christians" in reference to, say, Robert Dear or Dylann Storm Roof.

But you don't need me to tell you that.  I want to focus on the second and third paragraphs, because there is so much wrong with Falwell Jr.'s interpretation of these two New Testament stories that it is difficult to know where to begin.

However, let's start here: there's a specific reason Jesus chases the moneychangers (and merchants) out of the Jerusalem temple with a whip.  Moneychangers were necessary because the temple economy only allowed shekels to be used as currency, and since Israel was a vassal state of the Roman Empire, overseen by a Roman governor (at the time, Pontius Pilate), the vast majority of Israelites did business not with shekels, but with Roman denarii.  Thus, for Israelites coming to the temple, they would need to change their currency, and the moneychangers--with at least the tacit, if not overt, approval of the temple leadership of Pharisees and Sadducees--would charge exorbitant commissions in order to change the denarii of faithful pilgrims into shekels.

What would these faithful pilgrims use their new shekels on?  Enter the merchants, whom Mark and Matthew both refer to as "those who sold doves" (Common English Bible translation).  Why would people sell doves at the temple, and why were the dove-sellers driven out alongside the moneychangers?  Remember, ancient Judaism practiced animal sacrifice.  But in truth, it was either too expensive or too impractical for pilgrims to bring an animal from home, so the merchants at the temple made available sacrificial animals for purchase.  Doves (and possibly pigeons) were among the cheapest of these sacrificial animals, the animals for people who simply could not afford to make a bigger, more substantial sacrifice.  These sellers, like the moneychangers, likely charged exorbitant prices because they could.

So Jesus is driving out people who are criminally fleecing the faithful flock for their own personal gain.  The story has nothing to do with "put(ting) down their weapons in the face of violence," and in point of fact, that is precisely what Jesus commands His apostles to do when He is apprehended days later at Gethsemane, saying, "Put the sword back in its place.  All who live by the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26:52, CEB)

But what about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's?  This might be the most egregious dose of Falwell Jr.'s Biblical snake oil, because he is extrapolating gobs of conclusions from a story that is about something entirely different--a story whose moral, in fact, likely undercuts the point Falwell Jr. is trying to make.

Jesus is in the temple complex, and His opponents try to trick Him by asking whether people should pay taxes to the Roman emperor not.  It is a trick because if Jesus says yes, taxes should be paid, it would expose Him as not the Messiah many Israelites had hoped for, a Messiah who would lead them to glorious victory against the Romans and eventual independence as a nation.  If Jesus says no, taxes should not be paid, it could be interpreted by Pilate as inciting insurrection against Rome by undermining its imperial authority.

Jesus's rejoinder, then, is absolutely brilliant.  He first asks for a denarius--which by itself discredits His accusers on spec.  Remember what I said about shekels being the only legal tender in the temple?  By being in possession of Roman coins, Jesus's opponents are revealing themselves to not follow the laws they claim to be the rightful custodians of.

But second, the denarius acts as a helpful prop for what Jesus is about to say: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God."  Jesus is juxtaposing a tiny, dime-sized coin with the entire massive, sprawling Jerusalem temple complex.  So give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, indeed--for those things which belong to Caesar are dwarfed by the things that belong to God.

In other words, Jesus is trying to make a point--without falling into His questioners' trap--about the limited scope of empire's true powers.  What the emperor owned of the Israelites was tiny compared to what God owned of the Israelites.  The Israelites were and are God's people.  The emperor, by contrast, was simply a man.

Which means that this story has nothing to do with "go(ing) to war, protecting whatever nation was under control of the king."  The story conveys the exact opposite meaning: rather than the emperor controlling even more of you, Jesus was saying the emperor controlled even less.

But wait, Eric, doesn't that mean that Jesus wants more of us to own guns, because the government should control less of us than God?

Not really.  Firstly, Jesus's aforementioned quote about how all who live by the sword will die by the sword puts that theory to pasture.  But secondly, Jesus demands radical self-sacrifice from His followers.  The void that is left by liberating oneself from the oppression and domination of empire is meant to be filled by the governance of God, not of self-governance.

This, more than anything, is why Falwell Jr. cannot possibly say "I wouldn’t agree with any interpretation of Scripture that was used to say that a man or a woman shouldn’t protect their families" with any truth to the statement.  Jesus's core apostles were defined by their willingness to follow Jesus, to submit to God's governance, even to the point of leaving their families vulnerable.

When Jesus encounters the brothers James and John fishing with their father Zebedee in Matthew 4 and Luke 5, the brothers leave their father behind.  In so doing, they are knowingly sentencing their father to a quickly impending financial insecurity.

Parents in Biblical times would teach their trade to their children so that their children could not only carry on the family trade, but so that the parents would have someone to provide for them in their own old age once they became too weak to make a living in the variety of back-breaking occupations that defined ancient civilizations--and fishing was no exception.  By abandoning Zebedee, James and John are--again, knowingly--dramatically increasing the risk of death prematurely felling their father should anything happen to him.  And Jesus permits this.

And we frankly should not be so surprised that Jesus does--after all, this is the same Jesus who says this:

Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.” He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

(Luke 9:57-62, CEB)

While I have my own opinions on our plague of gun violence and what public policies ought to be enacted to stem it, this post has not been about that.  Part of my job as a seminary-trained and ordained pastor is to be able to differentiate good Biblical interpretation from bad Biblical interpretation, and it worries me that someone like Jerry Falwell Jr. has such a huge platform with which to spread misinformation about what the Bible does and does not say and teach.  Because of that platform, he has a moral obligation to not be so fast and loose with Scripture, and to be not so quick to force it into his worldview.

On the contrary, we ought all to be placing ourselves into Christ's worldview.  Especially after a tragedy like what has just taken place in San Bernadino.

It is something that I too struggle mightily with at times.  But it will neither exhaust or expend us to continue trying, and I firmly believe that we will all end up better for having done so.

Vancouver, Washington
December 5, 2015

Image courtesy of nomadicpolitics.blogspot.com