Sunday, December 18, 2016

Violating Convention

Matthew 1:18-25


        We all love a good Christmas story and I suspect many of you have a personal Christmas experience you will never forget. My first paying gig in a church was not as a preacher but rather as a Director of Christian Educator. The church was Second Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina. The members took being Charlestonians very seriously. For more years than anyone could remember each Christmas Eve the Christmas story was depicted in a unique pageant. The distinctiveness was not in the story, for the script was the usual homogenization of Luke and Matthew where kings and shepherds mingle together with the livestock. What made the event unique was every part, from sheep to king, was played by an adult.  The costumes worn were far more expensive than any suit I had ever owned. Most of the cast had been playing their role for at least twenty years. It seemed the only way to retire from the play was to die. Unfortunately, the person playing the Innkeeper had passed away that summer. My job as Director of Christian Education was to recruit the new Innkeeper.  Acting ability hardly mattered but it was imperative that the new thespian could either fit into the costume or knew a good tailor.  After much searching I finally found my Innkeeper. Before signing up for this lifelong commitment   he asked if there was a script.

        “Well of course there is a script.”

        “Are you sure?”

        Well to tell the truth I wasn’t sure. I assumed any play had to have a script. On the other hand, since the same folks had played the same role for so many years the official script had probably found its way to the bottom of some discarded filing cabinet. So I turned to my new recruit and said, “Wing it.”

        He looked down his long but properly proportioned South of Broad nose and replied, “Sir, we don’t wing it in Charleston.”

        “You know what I mean. Ad-lib. Joseph will ask for a room and you say, ‘The Inn is full.’ He will say, ‘My wife is pregnant. Do you have anyplace we can I go’. You will reply, ‘I have a stable behind the Inn’.”

        He nodded, the contract was signed, in triplicate, and I told him rehearsal would be Christmas Eve morning at 11:00.

        Christmas Eve morning was a glorious day, in fact too glorious. At 7:30 I received a phone call from a cast member. The entire cast was headed to the golf course.

“Even Mary,” was all I could think to ask.  

“Are you kidding? Especially Mary. It was her idea. She has a 6 handicap and gets to play from the reds. She takes our money every year.”

“But what about the play?”

“Don’t worry. We haven’t rehearsed in years.”

Christmas Eve morning I went to the church to make sure all the prompts were in place for the production. At 11:00 I turned and spotted my newly recruited Innkeeper coming through the door. He sheepishly looked around and asked, “Am I early?”

I explained how I was not aware that rehearsal was solely dependent on the weather. He seemed to understand. I told him I was sorry no one contacted him but he reminded me in Charleston you have to be part of something for at least ten years before you are considered a member. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

Switching the subject I asked, “You want to run through your lines.”

“Nah, I’m good. The wife and I have been working on them.” I found that pretty remarkable since I still had not discovered a script. But if he was OK, so was I.

“Great, I’ll see you this evening.”

The place was packed. Folks I had never seen occupied seats in pews that had been bought by family members at least a century ago. There were even folks in the balcony. We began with the children’s choir. Forty kids, all dressed in perfectly pressed robes, thrilled us with their versions of Christmas classics. After Dr. Randle delivered the Christmas Eve Prayer, the adult choir performed selections from Handle’s Messiah. Then it was time for The Play. It was pretty obvious everyone watching knew each line by heart. I could have asked anyone to have played the Innkeeper.

In the third scene Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle toward the makeshift city of Bethlehem. As they approached the Inn, my star pupil made his appearance. There was an anxious rustle through the sanctuary as folks realized who had been given the honor of replacing their dearly departed friend. Joseph was the first to speak. “Friend, we are looking for a room.”

On cue, the Innkeeper replied. “We have no room. The entire town is filled with folks here to pay their taxes.”

Joseph responded, “You must find me a room. My wife Mary is with child.”

Somewhat baffled the Innkeeper asked, “Excuse me, she’s what?”

A buzz ran through the congregation.  Everyone in the city of Charleston not only knew the proper line but also realized knew for the first time in their lifetime the sacred words were about to be altered. I scrunched down in my pew fearful of what might happen next.

Joseph, realizing they were off script tried to recover with a most logical response, “She’s pregnant.”

The Innkeeper replied, “Well it’s not my fault.”

The revered play ended its miraculous run when Joseph, unable to contain himself, spoke these extraordinary words, “Well, it’s not my fault either.”


        As Christmas has been transformed from mystery into doctrine Joseph has become a forgotten character. Mary gets all the accolades. Is any saint more revered than the mother of Jesus? Mary has become so famous even the Beetles sang about her. But Joseph has no song. Joseph barely has a spot in the story. Perhaps we should occasionally  skip beyond the romanticism of Luke and read the account recorded by Matthew.

        Matthew is seldom anyone’s favorite gospel. Luke has the best parables. John is the most polished. Mark is short and to the point. Matthew reads like a blueprint on how to build the kingdom of God here on earth, which is exactly what Matthew had in mind. Time after time in the book of Matthew Jesus says, “Put conventional wisdom aside, forget what you were taught as a child, and imagine something your parents could never quite visualize.”

        It began with Joseph. Imagine becoming engaged to the girl of your dreams and discovering she is pregnant. You know you are not the father. You know you should walk away. You know keeping her will destroy your reputation yet you cannot leave because you know the child is more important than anything in the whole world. Joseph should have left. Mary’s mess was not his fault. And yet he stayed. That’s what people building the kingdom of God do.

        This year Kemp, Barbara, Anne, Ralph, Sarah, Frankie and Iantha died. Each of these folks was serving or had served as an elder. Each played a huge role in the life of our congregation. It wasn’t our fault they died. Yet I have quietly watched as many of you have taken on the critical roles that our dearly beloved use to perform.   

        This year we discovered our old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be. Our Fellowship Hall and many of the rooms downstairs were beginning to show wear. The floor needed repaired, the heating/air system was nearly crippled, the roof was beginning to leak and that was just the beginning of the list. It wasn’t our fault. Jim Wright and his crew were constantly performing miracles with duct tape, bailing wire, and a whole lot of prayer. Then you, playing Joseph, stepped up in order that we might find new ways to be the light in our valley.

        That’s what the people of God do. We don’t offer excuses. We don’t worry with blame. We just step forward and do what is necessary to continue our holy covenant with each other and with God. We play Joseph, that solitary figure so often regulated to the back of the stable. We play Joseph, watching over the child, watching over the church. We play Joseph, always stepping forward at the most unusual moment to declare, “He shall be called Emmanuel.”

        While Mary will always be seen as the godliest character in the Christmas pageant, perhaps Joseph is the most God-like. From the back of the stable, God observes the tragedy and mayhem that is always part of the human adventure and must think, “It’s not my fault.” Thankfully what God thinks has never postponed what God does.

That is why the most important part of any Christmas celebration is declaring, “Emmanuel, God with us.”    Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Psalm 146:5-10; Isaiah 35:1-10


George Frederic Handel, born German but an English citizen was primarily known as a composer of Italian influenced operas. By the late 1730’s, with his star waning,   Handel took residence in Ireland where he was encouraged by Charles Jennens to consider Jesus as the inspiration for a new piece of music. Armed with a text written by Jennens, Handel composed his most famous work. Ironically Jennens was not pleased with Handel’s music, feeling it did not completely capture the magnificence of God’s most holy son.  Nonetheless, I suspect sometime during this Christmas holiday you will encounter part of Handel’s masterwork. For what is Christmas without at least one rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus?

Nearly 50 years later, an obscure Canadian poet sat down to grapple with the concept of Messiah in a way which would have been most unbecoming for Mr. Jennens. While the brilliant chorus by Handel reaches glorious heights, Leonard Cohen grasps the brokenness that must necessitate both the arrival and agony of any savior.  I fear in little more than a generation the name Leonard Cohen will be forgotten. Our grandchildren will once again join make-shift choirs on Christmas Eve trying to replicate Handel’s vision. So before Cohen is forgotten, let’s honor him for an amazing exegete of the concept of Messiah.

For those unfamiliar with Cohen’s song it begins,

I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, it pleased the Lord,

But you don’t really care for music do you?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,

The minor fall the major lift,

The baffled king composing hallelujah.

Listen as Marianne sings the first verse and the chorus.

While Handel celebrates the omnipotence of Jesus the Messiah, Cohen is quick to expose the frailty of those who would claim the messianic cape. Certainly the first super hero of the Old Testament would be Sampson. This man-child was a one man wrecking crew against his tribe’s nemesis the Philistines, until he met Delilah. Cohen writes, She cut your hair and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

Even the poet/king David could not escape the temptation that comes from absolute power. Cohen recreates the scene with Bathsheba,

Your faith was strong but you needed proof,

You saw her bathing on the roof,

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.


David was the image of any messiah to be and yet he failed to survive the twist and turns that the world places before us. The frailty of David and Sampson is critical to their messianic configuration. We are all flawed people. If our messiahs are beyond temptation and sin then perhaps they are only gods posing as humans. Cohen sings,

It doesn’t matter which you heard,

The holy or the broken Hallelujah,

I did my best, I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.

And even though it all went wrong,

I stand before the Lord of song,

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

Sometimes, no let me change that, most times when I want to understand the Christmas Story I need to submerge myself in the Psalms and Isaiah and poets like Leonard Cohen. David writes, Come Messiah. Set the prisoner free. Open the eyes of the blind. Lift up oppressed. Watch over the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Bring us joy.

Notice that Isaiah speaks the some language, Come Messiah. Strengthen the weak. Make our feeble knees firm.   Make our fearful hearts strong. Open the eyes of the blind. Unstop the ears of the deaf. Allow the lame to leap like a deer. Come Messiah. Teach us a song of joy.

David, Isaiah, and Leonard Cohen candidly speak to the brokenness of this world. We would like to think no one lives in poverty. We would like to believe are no homeless, no tyrants, no children without hope. But we know better. To believe this is to deny the sights and sounds that constantly bombard or eyes, our ears and our hearts. And so we sing, “Come Messiah”, ignorantly believing that the coming of the Lord will alleviate all pain and suffering. The messiah has come yet the children of Yemen still have nothing to eat.

When Jesus was born, the world was a dark place. When Jesus was a child he witnessed the hunger of an enslaved people. When Jesus was in his formative years he read the poems of David and Isaiah. When Jesus became a man he was determined not to fall prey to the entrapments of the messiahs before him. Surely God had designs on what Jesus could become. But the temptation to be less than human was very real. It was a man, not a God that walked in our midst. Only at the end could Jesus utter his broken, yet holy Hallelujah.

When I sing Handel’s Messiah, I sing of a glorious promise of the reign of God. But when I listen to Leonard Cohen, I am drawn to that lonely Galilean who dared to believe the only way to begin to change the world was through the hearts of twelve very ordinary people. He offered some very simple words. “If someone is without a coat, give them one of yours.” “Unless you are without sin, be careful when you condemn the rest of the world.” “Visit folks in jail, feed folks who are hungry, love one another, at least as much as you love yourself.” Then Jesus went about living the words he preached.   Hallelujah!

I think Jesus the man was telling anyone with ears to hear to stop looking for the messiah and become a messiah-like. Jesus was not suggesting we become a god, but he was confirming even as flawed as we may be, we have been blessed with the ability and the gifts to reach out to others. Perhaps it begins with helping a family down the road. Perhaps you might find that one hour a week to read to a child. Perhaps you might write to someone in prison or visit someone in a nursing home. Maybe you could become even more messianic by finding out how to keep our water and air clean. Maybe you might try discovering why you should even care about the people of Yemen. There are so many potholes in this world that need to be filled. Jesus gave us a pep talk and a shovel, but it is up to us to do the work.

Here is a news flash. Christmas is not about salvation. We have another holiday in April to celebrate God’s grace. Christmas is about God seeing the brokenness of this world and sending one of us to make a difference. In our attempts to follow that perfect example, we sometimes get in our own way. But if imperfection didn’t stop David or Sampson from getting up and trying again, it shouldn’t stop us. Remember,

For even though it all went wrong,

They stood before the Lord of song,

With nothing on their tongue,

But Hallelujah.

(Let’s listen as Marianne sings the whole song)




Sunday, December 4, 2016


Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-3
        In 1968 the career of Elvis Presley had pretty much left the building.  Hoping for a miracle a TV special was planned and Mac Davis was given a day to come up with a new song. Davis penned the words, “Memories, pressed against the pages of my mind, Memories, sweetened through the ages just like wine.” I have often wondered if Mac Davis had Advent in mind when he penned those lyrics. This is a time of the year when memories jump to the forefront of our minds. During the holidays, as families gather, we do more than eat.  Dishes are set to the side, chairs are pushed back and we tell stories.  None of the stories are new, few of the stories are accurate, but all of the stories form an important component of our holiday season.  Last month I spoke with Roger Elliott and asked if he would resurrect his telling of the Joseph story. This was more than just me trying to make my work load easier or an excuse to have someone else read my poetry. I remember three years ago when Roger became Joseph. Many of us were given a different and perhaps more human understanding of the Christmas story. Through the telling of a story our emotions got turned all the way up as memories were pressed against the pages of our mind.
        That is why it is so essential that the season of Advent be placed just before Christmas.  As much as we would rather drink in the sweet memories of yesterday, Advent pushes us toward another form of dreaming, where tomorrow’s possibilities are as vibrant as yesterday’s memories.  Advent reminds us that God was only getting started when the babe was born.  A new model for humanity was given; a different lamb was offered; a savior was lifted up in a way never imagined. Advent revives memories, cultivates imaginations and produces hope.
        John the Baptist had a very vivid memory of the past.  He remembered a time when his family would sit around the table and reminisce of a day when God created light out of darkness, life out of chaos, a God had the audacity to call it good.  They would tell stories of the time God split the waters of the Red Sea allowing folks to walk to freedom, a time when God leveled the mountains and lifted up the valley creating a path to Zion, a time when God promised one day God would do a new thing by creating a new heaven and a new earth.  John took those memories and forged them into a dream  declaring for everyone who could hear that the God who creates, the God who rescues, the God who saves, was about to enter their lives once more.
        John spoke to a people filled with memories but void of vision.  John said to them, “If God did all those things we remember, imagine what God will do next.”  Taking the very words spoken to a people in exile, John preached, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make the pathway straight. God is about to do a new thing.” 
        David Bartlett claims, “Nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion.  Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude and expectation.”
        When John the Baptist looked back on what God had done, he understood the possibility of what God was capable of doing.   Advent helps us see beyond a babe and recognize a man who would not be limited by conventional thought. The very idea of Jesus should excite us enough to ask, “What else is God in the process of doing?”
        This is where our children and grandchildren can help us in our understanding of Christmas. They are getting real serious about checking their Christmas wish list.  They have learned if you don’t ask you rarely receive.  Once they complete the list, they drop casual hints, hoping someone is listening. 
What casual hints are we dropping in God’s direction?  If we are silent, does it mean we doubt God is capable of doing something new?         The truth is a lot of folks inside and outside the church have given up on the church as an agent of transformation.  I read a disturbing article that said more and more of our young folks are moving away from churches because churches seem to be stuck in neutral, going no where fast.  We are existing on memories and our youth are looking for signs of new life.  They believe in God.  They yearn to live spiritual lives.  But the church seems happy only celebrating who they were.
        As a kid I used to make my spending money selling firewood.  My dad and I would go to places designated for new houses, pick out the straightest oak tree we could find, drop it to the ground, strip the tree and cut it into lengths to be split for fire wood.  All we left behind was a stump, a memory of what had been. 
        Our Isaiah passage is about a stump called Judah.  Once, under the reign of David, Judah had been a powerful kingdom.  But by the time of Isaiah there was little left but memories.   The amazing thing about this passage is where the people of Judah saw something dead and decaying, Isaiah witnessed a sprig, a small branch growing from that old stump.  It gave Isaiah hope.  Isaiah no longer wanted to hear about what had been.  He decided to hope in what could be. 
The church should be about the task of sending a powerful signal to anyone, young and old who might wonder if there is still life left in this old stump.  The realm of God shines through the witness, hopes, and dreams of a people who still believe God can convert us to a higher vision.   The challenge is not to be stuck in the traditions of the past but to be open to a new realm of Godly possibilities.
This Sunday we light the Candle of Peace. For those who like to reminisce this might bring recollections of a kinder, gentler time when we nestled in the arms of one who made us feel warm and safe. It becomes a beautiful dream limited to a specific moment and probably a very limited space. God wants us to expand both our vision and expectations. God proclaims to light the Candle of Peace is to dare to imagine life in a relationship we assumed impossible. Perhaps it is a soiled relationship with someone we once admired. Perhaps it is relationship which never had a chance because conventional wisdom has warned us against imagining such a friendship.
There is a new commercial on TV where an old Episcopal priest and an older Muslim Imam engage in a discussion about how kneeling is taking a toll on their knees. In a scene right out of O. Henry they send each other a gift for the holidays, and ironically it is the same set of knee pads. Cute commercial, until especially when I was told the actors were actually a priest and Imam who been friends for the last decade. This commercial reminds us of something far more important than the exchange of gifts. I can’t save the children of Aleppo if I am not willing to have a relationship with a stranger. I can’t change foreign policy if I am not willing to learn a stranger’s name. Lighting the Candle of Peace dares us to make new memories. Lighting the Candle of Peace entreats us to hear different stories. Lighting the Candle of Peace challenges us to not only sing God’s song justice and reconciliation but listen to the songs of others. We might be surprised to discover they are singing the same words with a different tune.
This Advent let’s not be satisfied to just revel in old memories. Let’s be about the task of creating new ones. That is what Advent is all about because that is what God is all about.