Let’s face it, these days many Christians are down on Santa Claus, associating him with the mind-numbing commercialization that threatens to engulf Christmas. As for me, I don’t mind when he shows up at church events. He showed up at our Advent workshop and was very well-behaved, much to the delight of our children.
One thing about Santa does creep me out a bit. Have you ever heard Santa do this riff on children where he lifts his eyebrows, peers over his glasses, and says, “Have you all been good boys and girls this year?” This gets oft repeated. Bruce Springsteen works this in his version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” In the modern, ubiquitous A Christmas Story, the Darren McGavin Dad pulls this shtick on Ralphie and Randy. “Santa knows….he knows everything….better watch out.”
I remember that very question posed to me as a child on Santa’s behalf. When an adult asked me if I had been good or bad, I thought that adult must be pretty slow. Of course, I hadn’t been good. I disappointed my mother. I fought with my brothers. I hadn’t nearly lived up to what my teacher expected of me. Was I good enough to stack up on Santa’s naughty and nice list? I harbored serious doubts.
Imagine, a Christmas where only the pure, noble and good children get presents. That pretty much drains the grace of God out of the equation, which is the whole point. When Jesus arrived, the earth languished. Israel was spiritually tone deaf. Jesus came because Israel was unequal to their many lofty promises back to the Lord God through Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. None of us deserved him.
What helps me with Santa is getting behind the one Thomas Nast invented as an illustrator in 1866 or the Coca Cola swilling Santa drawn to drive sales in the 30s. I saw Orthodox icons of Nicholas of Myra when in Greece and learned about him. When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra donated the entire fortune and gave his life over to the Church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for being generous to the poor. As he gave to the poor, he sought to preserve their dignity. At night he lowered gifts through holes in ceilings venting household smoke (no chimneys!) to surprise families rather than make these families feel like beggars. After Nicholas died on 6 Dec. 354, his fame spread beyond what is now Turkey.
But the truth is the kind, generous bishop was also a harsh, fierce bishop. Once jailed for his faith, he hit back after as hard as he was hit, persecuting pagans and repressing heretics. Life is never as simple as how we dream life should be. Like all of us, St Nicholas was a mix of utmost kindness and overzealous ferocity, passions sweet and severe. He was a flawed man in a flawed world, like all of us.
So if we were hoping for some squeaky pure version of Christmas in this season of high expectation–without defect, contradiction or disappointment–we might do better pondering a higher form of mercy and grace than you and I are capable of. Jesus entered a complicated world we want to smooth out and loved us to death.
“John the Baptist said, ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Isaiah the prophet said.” (John 1.23)
Our tall, stately Christmas tree went up yesterday in the sanctuary with no little effort. Things were already looking splendid in there thanks to Molly Watkins and Susan Wilson. The quiet crèche greets us at the main entrance and the unfussy Advent bunting with violet bows festoons the face of our gallery. And let’s not forget the Advent wreath bringing dawning light of revelation at the darkest time.
But people kept asking about the tree. Where was it? The truth is it almost didn’t get up because it’s a demanding, risky task. Were we to hire workers to engineer that multi-person, multi-hour undertaking? Alas, no funds for that in our budget.
But wait, Bob McGee feels about that tree going up like how mother bears feel about their cubs. And his sturdy Advent acolytes Tom Parnon and John Wilson carefully coordinated with Bob, working in tandem to get our tree tall and proud. I walked in there a few times as the work was in progress, worried for their safety. But I felt better as I noticed how these three acted as “spotters” for one another.
Perhaps we associate “spotters” with gymnastics or weightlifting. But John the Baptizer was a “spotter” in his own day. His was a steadying prophetic voice drawing straight, uncompromised lines as the masses curved everything toward themselves, toward their getting to the top of the heap, toward their self-interest.
Think of such a voice and witness as John the Baptizer’s in our own day, rife with degrading molestation and unblinking fabrications, with betrayal and intrigue that would fit right into Herod the Great eager to snuff out baby Jesus like a bad cigar.
How sorely we need prophetic voices willing to speak unvarnished truth without spin, agenda, or self-interest. We need “spotters” in such a time as this, brave people unafraid to survey wreckage on the landscape of our lives, and to sound the alarm, forcing us to notice how eagerly we all compromise ourselves. John’s message of baptism by repentance was not about the fury of self-hate or darkly reveling in how utterly lost people are. No, repentance means a 180 degree shift in the direction from where we are now headed. It is about leaving the circuitous paths of lies and getting on a straight path. Where are those brave voices today?
Last Sunday I said that Advent and Christmas are the answer to the question that implicitly rises within our breasts: why doesn’t somebody do something about the mess we are in? Why doesn’t God act to get us off the dreadful course we’re on?
It’s happening, friends. As we look and hear with eyes and ears of faith, we will see it. No matter how great the dark, God’s light shines and will not be quenched. God shall painfully deliver the way, the truth, and the life. Let us prepare his way!
When I was in college, being Christian was decidedly uncool. My generation saw Christianity as materialistic (in bed with capitalism), imperialistic (arrogantly and poisonously proselytizing), and anathema to human freedom (70’s dictators wrapped themselves in the flag and church.)
Back then, the cool religion was Buddhism. I could see the attraction as peace and non-violence (the principle of ahimsa, “no harm”) have been at the heart of Buddhism for centuries. Also, by minimizing our attachment to material things, Buddhism seeks to neutralize covetousness, and cut the ground underneath resentment, anger, and violence among people spoiling for a fight.
When I was in college, I roomed with four Jews as the sole goy or non-Jew. We often talked about religion in depth, mostly because we were friends and able to trust one another. Trust is important because when we’re ignorant about other faiths, we easily ask stupid questions. And if everyone gets all up in a huff as soon as someone lets one of those fly, little room remains to explore and learn. Safe space is important to grasp the mysterious intricacies of faith. Howard, Ed, Bob, Elliot, Stuart and I chose to laugh at our ignorance rather than shame each other for it.
Since then I have come to a conclusion. Do you know how we might have some rough idea of another couple’s marriage in the sparsest way, but don’t know what is in their heart of hearts? Guess what, the same is also true of those practicing faiths other than our own. And rather than fill the void in our knowledge by speculating with easy stereotypes, we best listen closely and respectfully, if we truly want to learn. Each faith has a logic and language all its own. I find more stereotypes from those who embrace no faith and fewer from those who practice a religion. Why is that? If someone lives their faith they can more easily sense deep mystery in all of them.
So many who thought I was crazy to go to a Christian divinity school after college now profess interest and curiosity in what I do and who I am. (People become more religious with age, as the dilemmas of life multiply and the days that we are allotted diminish.) Those who perceived me as unenlightened and retrograde for embracing my Christian faith by becoming a church leader are not so cynical toward me now. They even ask me questions about what it all means.
And look what has happened to Buddhism since then. The Christian Century reported a survey on materialism among various faiths of the world. What faith most approved of conspicuous consumption and put the fewest caps how many things we might acquire without feeling guilt? Surprisingly, Buddhism won that dubious sweepstakes. And then we look around the world at militant Buddhist groups in Myanmar (where the Pope was in recent days) creating the world’s largest group of refugees out of the Rowhingya people fleeing to Bangladesh and elsewhere. It’s not our standard view of the Dalai Lama and saffron robed monks in monasteries now, is it?
The Rowhingya people fleeing the Buddhists are themselves Muslims. But wait, aren’t Muslims supposedly violent and Buddhists the peaceniks? Down with our facile and profane religious stereotypes, and up with respecting faith in general and listening closely to religion’s adherents.
As his ordination approached, both Gary and I insisted it was not only about his life, but most especially about FCC, Darien. My charge to all churches present at his ordination reflected this. Some churches produce ministers and contribute to the church’s leadership pool for the future (like us right now). Other churches consume pastors and send clergy scrambling for career exits.
It’s an either/or because one way is life and the other spells spiritual death. And it’s impossible to be coming alive and also simultaneously an instrument of death. The difference is subtle, even invisible, but it is real. My charge meant to support the visiting clergy. One described me as, “drawing a protective circle around them.” And that was my intention, to articulate a word needing to be spoken that normally goes unspoken. So here are a few highlights of that charge:
Churches that consume ministers treat us as enabling leaders. That is, we are only here to help the church do what it would have done without us anyway already. These churches act like they know our jobs better than we do; as though what ministry is about is covered elsewhere, like in their daytime jobs. Needing to control us will bring zero discovery and no adventure to ministry.
Churches that produce clergy look to us as initiating leaders. You give us leeway to move and to let God’s Spirit roam. You trust and invite our gifts, training and life experiences for dreaming dreams and seeing visions. You see the church as unique, giving its ministry oxygen to breathe deeply and become Christ’s living body. So instead of conforming to the world, we transform it.
Churches that consume ministers act like customers and treat clergy as providers of religious services. Our job is to please you and meet your family’s perceived needs. It fails to notice how living in today’s intense consumer environment bleakly distorts our wants and needs. Here the church takes on the soul of the world as consumer frenzy swallows God’s overarching purposes.
Churches that produce pastors realize our calling is to proclaim the true and living God in Christ. We don’t please you; we please God and serve you. We find our bearings in God’s idea of what it means to be human, not the world’s. You create a higher ceiling by letting us be stewards of sacred mysteries new to each generation, much more than merely scratching your spiritual itch.
Churches that consume ministers act like ministry is easy. They don’t realize that if it looks easy, it’s because we’ve worked very hard. Such churches teem with trifling little pointers for our benefit without seeing the big picture. Churches that produce ministers respect how hard our work is. Another mass shooting this week? Everyone looks to us for solace and comfort while also expecting a socially prophetic word that offends no one. You try that on for size sometime. Imagine if we showed up at your hedge fund office and started second-guessing your strategies.
Churches that consume pastors chat in hallways or parking lots about us in disagreeing with us. Or as you do address us, you insert “people are saying,” about as brave as unsigned crank mail. Churches that produce ministers have members willing to look us straight in the eye as you disagree and speak for yourself. You don’t impute anonymous support that often doesn’t exist. Let’s just ban the phrase, “people are saying.” We are not fragile hothouse flowers. Just say it. As we stand every Sunday in a pulpit, vulnerable in our convictions, we expect the same of you.
As we bring something new, churches that consume ministers respond with, “Well, that was ok, I guess. But why didn’t you..?” In this church, whatever we venture is never good enough. They forget that building up (creativity) is hard and tearing down (acidic criticism) is easy. Churches that produce ministers come alongside us to fan the spark of the flame of creation, as we bring forward our imperfect, flawed ideas. Together we feed the fire of God’s burning Spirit. Such churches reward extra mile effort, taking the church to the next place and bringing fresh angles.
Our homes are joyless this week as we absorb the Baptist church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Grieving these losses within our numbed selves gets harder and harder. Three of the worst massacres in US history have happened in the last two years. We just hold our breath waiting for the next shooting to occur. The 2015 South Carolina Sunday School massacre still digs hard within my ribs.
The Scriptures enjoin us, “weeping may endure for the night, but in the morning cometh joy.” But what comfort can these families find? Time heals all wounds? It sounds pretty cold right now, doesn’t it? We weep, we pray, and then taste the tears running down our cheeks. And they are bitter tears as they recur and recur.
My sadness gives rise to indignation. As of 1 January 2016, Texas churches can ban openly carried guns in church only if they post large signs in two languages. Did you know that? Texas churches must minister in an environment where the presumed and preferred path to peace, safety and security is the barrel of a gun.
We forget that for Christianity’s first 313 years, the church was wholly non-violent in the way of Christ’s cross. It was only as Constantine co-opted our faith as his Empire’s preferred religion that Christ’s church employed violence. I defy anyone to find a recorded episode where the early church sanctioned violence to achieve peace and security. Refusal of violence was an essential part of our Christian way. It still is. Christians suffer and die for what we believe in; we do not kill for it.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a proud Texan, says that if the church prefers the way of violence over Jesus’ non-violence, he’ll have to accept it. But at least the Texas churches might have the decency and respect to remove the crosses from their chancels and hang weaponry there to own where they truly place their trust.
Some claim if that Texas church were more heavily armed, the massacre would have been prevented. I don’t believe that makes a lick of sense with everyone’s back turned to the entry of the shooter. Let’s face it, we are vulnerable during worship certainly in every way. Our vulnerability is a holy space that God enters. And without that vulnerability we will never hear God’s still small voice leading us.
My sadness turns to anger. But anger leads to blaming confrontations and more violence, right? So to be faithful, my anger must turn back to sorrow and grief. The Rev Paul Smith, our guest preacher in 2016, touches my heart as he writes:
“I share with you the agony of your grief, the anguish of your heart finds echo in my own. I know I cannot enter all you feel nor bear with you the burden of your pain. I can but offer what my love does give: the strength of caring, the warmth of one who seeks to understand the silent storm-swept barrenness of so great a loss. This I do in quiet ways, that on your lonely path you may not walk alone.”
Last Sunday we recalled the Protestant Reformation. A tenet from back then was simul justus et peccator, which means at the same time we are yet sinners, we are also justified, or made alright by God. So every Christian is simultaneously sinner and saint, which likely squares with even the best people you have known.
Human beings, even the best, are messily imperfect, prone toward selfishness, or sometimes just unheeding and hapless in the hurt that we cause to other folks. Yet that doesn’t change our belovedness in God’s eyes, much as we still love our children when they disobey us. Saints are far from some club of righteousness, posing for marble statues of unapproachably noble ideals, and absent of doubts.
Saints are those for whom God’s generously gracious intent and loyalty has the final word. All of our hope rests in dying and rising in Christ’s gracious love for us. One of my favorite passages from the Bible will be read on Sunday: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb…will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” It is God’s greatest promise. The day will come when it will mean the world to you.
For now we’re saints-in-training and will often get things wrong, unable to perfect ourselves. But God is up to the task, as we yield ourselves to God’s purposes, when no one else can help us. That means that one day we can become saints.
A day will come when every tear this life brings will be wiped away, and fear will be no more. On that day sainthood will be less joyless perfection and more a celebration of God’s grace and generosity. Maybe while we are on this side of sainthood, that means that today is a great day to make ourselves ready for joy.
This All Saints Sunday we will…
We haven’t observed Reformation Sunday since I became your pastor, but we’ll so this Sunday. This day is not as often observed anymore, quite frankly, because the numbers of Christians and churches in America is slipping so precipitously, that we can no longer afford old divisions. Catholic Christian, Orthodox Christian, Protestant Christian, we’re all in it together. It’s not easy.
We’ll commemorate the Reformation this Sunday, however, because it is the 500th anniversary.
A motto of the reformation was “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” meaning, “Reformed and ever reforming.” Our need to Reform is not once and for all, it remains ongoing with each new generation. I was reminded of this truth last week upon meeting a lifelong personal hero.
We’ve heard of Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, but Laszlo Tokes, a Hungarian Reformed pastor in Transylvania, Romania fired the spark that overthrew Communism. As he became a pastor in Timisoara in 1987, he mourned for his land because of how deeply the secular atheism of the regime had bitten into the people’s hearts. Still Tokes believed in the church to reignite passion.
He helped them grasp worship as more than Sunday ritual and trained them as a community to infiltrate the world with transforming good. Former members came back; new members joined. The Lord’s Table became the body and blood of Christ rising into their world. Within two years, the membership of his church swelled to 5,000 members being trained in Christian discipleship.
The Securitate of Nikolai Ceausescu found this intolerable, and they weren’t subtle, frisking members before Sunday morning worship. As worship began, agents cradled machine guns or dangled handcuffs with a clear message. Attending worship had become a silent act of protest.
Tokes was denied his ration book for bread, fuel, or meat. His people supplied them from their meager resources. Tokes was attacked. Four men wearing ski masks burst into his apartment while Laszlo and Edith had guests. They beat the intruders with chairs, leaving Tokes bleeding with a facial knife wound. The secret police knew killing Tokes would make only martyr him, so they transferred him to a remote village on 15 December 1989. On Sunday, December 10, Laszlo Tokes looked over the upturned faces of his congregation. “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I have been issued a summons of eviction. I will not accept it, so I will be taken from you by force next Friday. They want to do this in secret because they have no right to do it. Please, come next Friday and be witnesses of what will happen. Come, be peaceful, but be witnesses.”
Five days later, on December 15, 1989, the secret police came to take Laszlo and Edith. They brought a moving van for the Tokes family’s belongings, but they never got to load the truck. For massed protectively around the entrance to the church building stood a human shield. Heeding their pastor’s call, members of the congregation had come to protest his removal. The brick-and-concrete home of their church sat directly across from a tram stop. Each time the crowded cars unloaded, passengers could see the people gathered outside the church building.
When commuters learned what was happening, many joined the group. Some were from other churches; some just curious or supportive. It was past one am as Tokes opened his apartment window one final time. Light from hundreds of candles pierced the dark. The demonstration continued the next day. Later that afternoon, the people began to shout: “Liberty! Freedom!”
Before dawn of December 17, the secret police broke through the non-violent resistance. As they did so, Laszlo and Edith took refuge in the sanctuary near the Communion table. Tokes wrapped himself in his clerical robe and picked up a Bible, brandishing it like a weapon. The secret police splintered the bolted church door. The police swarmed into the church building. They beat Tokes until his face was bloody. Then they took him and Edith away into the night.
With Tokes gone, the crowds moved from the Church to the central square of Timisoara. By now armed troops, shields, dogs, and tanks filled the streets. But even with the army in place, the people refused to retreat. The Communists responded with the brute force, their usual way meeting opposition. Security soldiers rained out a barrage of bullets. Explosions blew off limbs.
Savage gunfire claimed hundreds, but the people stood strong. No middle ground was possible.
By Christmas 1989, the world couldn’t believe what it saw: Romania was free. Ceausescu was gone. Churches filled with worshipers praising God. This revolution spread throughout the East.
When I met Laszlo Tokes last week, I told him how deeply honored I was to meet him. And I thanked for giving meaning and content to the Gospel as revolutionary power. He took my arms and embraced me…Friends, we have our own demons being loosed in our own land and in our own time. We’re given the same powers of resistance. It’s not about liberal or conservative. It’s about the Gospel as a radical force in the original meaning of radical, all the way to the root.
Where the world brings corruption, we bring transformation. We are Reformed and reforming. Amen.
Last Sunday was remarkable in so many different ways. Attendance was robust. Our Show Up and Sing galvanized our praise from the first note of the first hymn. Ten new members joined, sharing their stories. And another ten are in the wings.
Most remarkable was Gary Morello’s convincing and riveting presentation of his Ordination Paper. You could have heard a pin drop. A layman serving with me on the Committee on Ministry (who oversees this process) had never met Gary. He could hardly believe it. He described Gary as a force of nature. He asked why aren’t we doing everything we can to attract and retain such leaders as our Gary. The Wilton pastor wrote, “what occurred yesterday gives me hope for the future.”
Did you see how seamlessly fluent Gary was, never even glancing at his paper? I was tempted to ask Gary’s examiners in attendance, “Could any of you do that?” We now look ahead to his ordination on 12 November 2017 at 3 pm here at FCC.
But something else remarkable happened. I preached on attending worship as a spiritual building block for our faith and character and to strengthen FCC. I invited your greater commitment by pledging, “if we’re in town and everyone is well, we’ll do our level best to be in worship and to bring our children.” Remarkably, no less than 83 households of individuals, couples, families signed on to this covenant. Do you know what deeper commitment does to build the dynamism of a church?
Let’s break that down and interpret what that means in our daily lives. I liken it to my battle to get to the gym, ice rink or pool to work out. It’s not easy! I know what my most cherished and protected excuses are. So what are yours for worship?
With a bevy of new members this Sunday, let’s lift up what Christian community is and is not. As Americans, we are so highly individualistic that we wander somewhere between jaded about community (“Nobody will tell me what to do!”) and sentimental (“These people will never disappoint me!) Community, with its norms, needn’t be authoritarian, but neither is it a utopia.
A certain pastor tells his new members if they haven’t yet met someone in church they don’t like, it means they’re too much on the periphery. They need to get more involved. I like that funny, realistic way of finding our way forward together. When I came here, we could still trace divisions among us. Those rifts have healed. Now we can talk openly about conflict and its uses. Love in the abstract is tidy and perfect, like villages look as we fly over them, without problems. Love in the concrete is messy. Our relations must ever remain well-lubricated with forgiveness. While God is more good and beautiful than we can dream, humans are a disappointing species.
K. Chesterton helpfully observed, the real work of loving begins as soon as we fall out of love. I tell couples that during their pre-marital counseling sessions. Another thing I say is conflict is a normal part of healthy relationships. This is worth saying because the church is in the business of transforming people and society. But transformation means change, which most of us resist.
Friction, we could say, will result. Some feel any friction or tension among us is a sign of failure. I don’t believe that. As your leader, as preacher and teacher, using the Bible’s texts and stories, I want to throw you into creative dilemmas for which faith in God becomes the only answer. That’s what Jesus did with his parables, which seem like cute stories until they make their point.
Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author, believes that those who create social change (let’s add personal transformation also) are disagreeable and even snarky sometimes. Maybe because my best hockey coaches got in my face, not to hurt me, but to get me to play better, I do not fear this. I do not seek togetherness at any cost. I want to stifle my need to be “liked” by everyone.
As a pastor in Colorado, my associate minister kicked me under the table whenever I did this, whenever we were experiencing pangs of birth in boards and committees, and I let it play out. Sometimes we struggle to recognize that pangs of birth can feel much like the pangs of death. A good leader knows the difference, and doesn’t spare us stresses and tensions that spur us on.
I am on the learning end of this as well. When we had the congregational meeting to approve a $2.4 million renovation to our church of 400 members on Cape Cod, one difficult woman stood up and said, “Adding air conditioning and more space means we will use more power. Are we being good stewards of God’s creation? Or just getting bigger and piggier like everybody else?” My first reaction was, “Why doesn’t she sit down and be quiet. She’ll ruin everything.” But the leader in charge of our rebuild, an MIT graduate, did an exhaustive cost-benefit ratio on adding photovoltaic cells. We expanded our footprint, reduced usage, and sold power back to the grid. May the church stay open to the power of the Spirit’s creative brewing of our disagreements!
Upon awakening Monday morning, of this week, my heart was smashed into pieces yet again at the news of more violence and death in our world. This time, Las Vegas, CA in which 50+ lost their lives and 400+ injured.
I couldn’t believe it: another mass shooting, another human life taken, and another nightmare. After coming to my senses, I sat down with my Bible in hand and tears running down my face asking questions such as this: Why? How come? What is happening in our world? Unfortunately, answers of clarity did NOT rush through my mind. However, the sermon our Senior Minister, Rev. Rosenberger preached on Sunday did. He talked about the “systematic evil” that exists in our world and the need for a Savior, Jesus Christ.
Do you remember the words of Jesus’ first sermon?
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free.”
Jesus has such a counter message for these acts of evil that take place in our world. Why is it that I often feel we have come SO far from his message? The uncertainty of this question is what drives Pastor Dale and me. What Pastor Dale said on Sunday is true: “The church doesn’t need more ministers who are underwhelmed. What the church needs are more ministers who are overwhelmed.” The reason for our passion is because we can’t rest when we see what is happening to our human family globally, nationally and locally.
Friends, as followers of Jesus we MUST do our micro-part in bringing forth the Prince of Peace. This Sunday, at our Youth Mission Service, we have the chance to witness some of the beauty that is happening around us.
All week long the faces, hearts and minds of our youth at FCC have kept me whole. They are a remarkable group of young people and I pray that you will come witness their stories this Sunday.
We look forward to being with you…