I built a time machine,
Late one afternoon,
To go back to the present,
But arrived too soon,
My relationship with the cassette,
Was already broken,
The sound, distorted,
The future, dystopian.
I built a time machine,
Late one afternoon,
To go back to the present,
But arrived too soon,
My relationship with the cassette,
Was already broken,
The sound, distorted,
The future, dystopian.
This year for Christmas,
I think I want,
An Advent tree,
Something green and growing,
With expectations of receiving,
Less than ill defined stuff,
A tented logos,
Jammed between the trunk,
Hidden below the rough,
Among fallen needles,
Waiting for water,
In corners forsook.
An adaptation of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”
A Visit from Saint John of Wesley
Twas the Night before Christmas, When all through the church
Not a Heretic was stirring, gone from their perch;
The stockings were hung, the fireplace was bare;
In the hope that Saint John would soon be there;
The Puritans were nestled all snug in their beliefs,
With visions of Asbury singing so sweet;
And Mama in her gender role and I in my miter,
Had just settled an argument to see who was righter.
When I said Whitfield, not Calvin, there came loud clatter;
I sprang from my knees, to see what was the matter;
Away to the window, not wanting to seem rash;
For dignified Methodists are rarely ones to dash;
The moon shone bright on the convoy below;
It looked like moving day, except in the snow.
What to my laser corrected eyes appeared;
But a horse riding preacher with a goatee beard;
A little old rider, so short and testy;
I knew in a moment it was Saint John of Wesley;
More rapid than angels his praise band came;
And as he whistled, he introduced their names;
“Now Perfection! Now, Sanctification! Now Traditional Marriage!
On Discipline! On Covenant and on Inerrant!
To the top of the Conference, please heed my call;
If you disagree, dash away, dash away, all;
As I drew in my head and turned around;
Down the chimney, St. Wesley fell without a sound.
He was dressed in black, from his head to his feet;
And his face was a clean as a chimney sweep’s;
Books of Discipline were bundled on his back;
And he looked like a salesman, opening his pack,
His eyes, how they stared, like they could not care;
I already owned a Discipline and didn’t need a spare;
Nor did I need St. John of Wesley to pray for my soul;
My feet and head were already cold;
And I laughed when I saw him, despite myself;
For this reforming Englishman was no jolly elf,
With a wink of his eye and a page from his Bible,
He offered me a Covenant that promised revival;
I looked, thought, and ran words through my head;
No, I wouldn’t sign, this gave me too much dread;
He spoke not a word and left me for other work;
“I can’t do this Saint John, I see no real perks;”
And with no adieu, he gave the band a whistle;
And away they flew like an evangelical missile.
But I heard him exclaim, as he rode out sight;
Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!
I’ve heard people are worried about talking politics over the Thanksgiving table. Apparently, supposedly happy families are ready to tear themselves apart. Ditch the rehash of Trump and Hilary. If you really want to make people uncomfortable, throw a Jesus themed Thanksgiving Party.
1. Throw a party with a few friends. A party, I said. Jesus is not a 17th century Puritan Pilgrim.
2. Invite some prostitutes, an IRS agent, and a religious fundamentalist who hates you.
3. Make the seating arrangements awkward; force the guests into a moral and ethical quandary when choosing their seat. Then illustrate the spiritual dilemma created by your guests with a parable about our religious priorities.
4. Invite yourself to a Thanksgiving Party with a vertically challenged, yet charitable tax collector.
5. While eating your meal; tell politically charged, religiously themed stories designed to make your host extremely uncomfortable.
6. Anoint everyone’s feet with Chanel Grand Extrait (the fourth most expensive perfume in the world). Yes, this means eating barefoot. Take note of the people who get angry at this action. They may not be able to be trusted.
7. Make sure the men, women, and children sit together. There are no children’s tables in Judaism.
8. Do something good with your leftovers. Feed a hungry person. Don’t put it in the refrigerator.
9. Don’t forget to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Best prayer ever!
10. Have Fun. You can’t go wrong!
Amidst the cultural rot and doctrinal rubble of American Protestantism, Christianity has gone missing. The once great traditions of the past are difficult to find behind Franklin Graham’s Twitter feed and among those opposed to the results of the recent election. Many Christians, imbued with unwavering sincerity, believe God (the American Protestant version of God) chose our next president to save America. Others, with equal measures of devotion, believe God has called them to resist the new president’s proposed policies. Both groups identify as Christian. Yet with such a divergence of opinions, Christianity appears as fractured and divided as the country where many believe real Christianity to have been born: the United States of America.
Christianity and the churches which represent these various brands of religious expression are today little more than organized supporters clubs for rival teams. I am vaguely reminded of the Iron Dukes of Duke University and the Ram’s Club of the University of North Carolina. These are donors clubs for wealthy supporters to spend money while watching their respective team battle one another on the athletic field. While both may take the same field, neither side has little respect for the style of play the other team plays. The groups despise each others supporters. However, in football or basketball, there remains agreement as to the basic elements of the game. The standards and rules rarely change.
Of late, it seems the goal posts have shifted. Do we know what it means to be “church”? No, we do not. New edicts, plans, and directives reset our focus each year. In my recent appointment, I’ve heard it said there’s nothing “Christian” about what I do. “Evangelical” is now a hollow word; robbed of any Biblical meaning by a thirty-year culture war and the most recent election. An “evangelical” can be anyone who prefers pumpkin spiced lattes while they worship to being for or against a series of social issues. Litmus tests on abortion, your preference for drums in worship, and your feelings about coffee in the sanctuary have nothing to do with the “Good News”.
There are no more “Christians”. Christianity, it appears, in Advent 2016 can only be defined by these contested adjectives. A Christian is characterized by the way she or he modifies or describes their Christianity. This perpetual delineation of adjectives borders on idolatry. We give the adjective more meaning than the word we’re modifying. One is either an evangelical Christian or progressive Christian. Denominational labels only confuse matters further. In United Methodism, we are Wesleyan Covenant Methodist Christians, Progressive Methodists, and Methodist Christians. There might even be “Full, Free-Will, Snake Handling, First, Sanctified, Holiness, Brethren” Methodists for all I know. Yes, these terms describe who we are. They also make it harder to recognize the Christianity they are intended to modify.
There are no more Christians. We are the holier than thou adjective people, unable to practice our faith unless it’s diluted through special filters which give us power. The person modifying the noun gets to set the rules, make the budget, and decide who’s in and who’s out. Our Christianity is constantly modified by words (i.e. beliefs) bearing little resemblance to the Scripture, witness, and testimony constituting this most simple definition: a Christian is someone who confesses Jesus as Lord. It is not about doing a seven part sermon series on money management or being for gay marriage. A Christian is someone who sees the world through the prism of the Cross. If we’re looking at the cross and Jesus’ massive redemptive action, I believe our adjective problem will resolve itself. What you’re for and against become much clearer in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For example, I think it’s hard to support capital punishment when the innocent man we worship as God was executed by the state. Call that whatever political position you want, I call it seeing the world through the Cross.
Is it possible not to be an evangelical or so wrapped up in our Methodism that we remember more about who Jesus is? Yes, I think it is. Are we able to live with our filtered identities while not diluting Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God? I hope so. If not, we’ll stay worshiping our predominately American Methodist Wesleyan God (or you fill in the blank), call ourselves Christians, and wait for the world to keep asking: how can you call yourself Christian?
© Rev. Richard Bryant, 2016
A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday/ The Sunday Prior to Thanksgiving
Let me tell you the story of the first Thanksgiving. Whatever you’ve been told about the Pilgrims, Squanto, and Plymouth rock is out of date and wrong. The first Thanksgiving isn’t what you think it is. Instead, it is a much older story, often overlooked, especially as you’re passing the turkey and dressing.
Here’s how it goes. A long time ago, in a country far, far away, there were a group of people living under the oppressive rule of a mighty king. They were slaves. Existing in bondage to a ruler they never saw and building monuments to Gods that weren’t theirs; they lived and died over many generations. The king and his children were brutal; showing no kindness or love to these slaves. In famine, they starved. In flood, they drowned. In heat, they withered. Their God, whose name they only dared to whisper, was silent to their pain. Or so they believed.
Many years passed and a new king adopted a young son. The baby, found abandoned by the river, was brought to the palace by the king’s daughter. The king did not know the boy was intentionally hidden by his birth mother. Why was the boy left, floating by the water’s edge? The king was as wicked as his father. On becoming king, he decided to murder every first-born male slave child. There were simply too many slaves to feed. The baby’s mother wanted to save his life. She placed him in a spot where he might be found.
The once hidden child was taken by the king’s daughter to the royal palace. From that day forward, no one knew this baby was born a slave. The mother came secretly to work at the palace and watch over her son. The king’s daughter made sure this boy would be raised to royal manhood. He would be a prince, perhaps even a king. The boy’s life was one of privilege and prestige. He learned the gods and language of his land. In a few years, he was a great warrior and leader of the King’s soldiers. Life was good for the boy found by the river.
One day, when he was among the slaves and doing the king’s business, he saw a royal soldier savagely beat a slave. The boy, now a young man, wasn’t used to feeling fear but for some reason, this frightened him. He was scared because of how it made him feel inside. He was angry, hurt, and wanted to do something to stop this cruelty. What he was witnessing was wrong and he knew it, deep down inside.
In a fit of rage, he attacked the soldier and saved the slave’s life. Though the slave lived, the soldier did not. The boy killed the soldier. Though he was a prince, royalty, and secure his life was about to change forever. Safety was only a temporary feeling. His position could be taken away. In the eyes of the world, he lost everything.
He knew he was different, he just didn’t know how. And it was only after he killed the soldier and everything slipped away that he began to understand. He too was a slave. The people living in the mud and building bricks all day long were his people.
Like the pilgrims, the young man found in the river decided to leave his homeland. He needed to go somewhere and become anonymous. America was that kind of place for the pilgrims. The new land was called Midian. Here, he could work hard and build a new life. And so he did, until his God called him.
His God came in the strangest of ways. He spoke and yet remained silent. This God was present and somehow absent. Despite these contradiction, the young man knew this was his God.
When he was alone, in a far and distant place from all he knew, God came to him. This seemed right. Companionship was never easy to the young man found by the river. God came in the dark and spoke through fire. The fire burned but did not consume. It warmed but did not burn. God was in the fire.
God’s words to the young man were beyond belief. Go to the King who makes your people be slaves and demand their freedom.
How? A message to be ignored, delivered by a man the King will surely kill?
Go to the king who makes your people be slaves and demand your freedom. We will speak together.
A promise was made. This God makes promises to people. In the traditions he learned as a child, the gods were silent. People made offerings and promises to the gods, not the other way around. God promised him companionship and presence. No bull was sacrificed, no blood was shed, and nothing died. God promised, The young man believed God’s “yes”.
So he went, ready to say that God’s silence was broken. God was not deaf. God shared in their misery. When they bled, he bled. When they cried, he cried. God is with us, the young man would later say, he is our Immanuel.
Evil does not release its grasp on reality lightly. It was hard for the king to let go and admit defeat. He needed to slaves to make him rich and build his monuments. A king isn’t used to being told no. Nor was he accustomed to saying yes. This is what the young man was beginning to learn, each time we say no, God finds a way to say yes. God’s yes is more powerful than our strongest no and ambivalent maybes.
When the slaves were eventually liberated, the young man was once again heading to a new home. None of them knew the place, the land, or the life ahead of them. Above all, they were going to a place defined not by slavery but by freedom.
How would they handle such unimaginable freedom? After hundreds of years of bondage, beatings, and slavery where would they begin? What should they remember about the past or discard forever?
As the former slaves were asking these questions, the young man realized he needed to help provide answers. This was how the first Thanksgiving dinner came together.
The light always came after the twilight before sunset. The young man went to the mountain to be with the light. Words are sometimes hard to understand when people talk to each other. Nuance, tone, and inflection mean everything when you’re alone with the light. The young man listened, hard, to God’s silence.
When the day was over, he returned to the former slaves. He wanted them to gather, so they might answer their questions. Freedom would begin with taking stock. Before they traveled further, they must give thanks for where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going. Gathering and acknowledging who made their reality real was the first step toward God’s grand promise. Remember, God was still making promises.
How did they acknowledge who made their reality real? The young man, now aging rapidly, shared with a conversation-an ongoing dialogue between he and God about what matters most.
The first thing (and this is what called the first thanksgiving together) God and I talked about, said the man, was remember and giving thanks to God. If we don’t do this, it’s all been for nothing.
Our relationship, God says, should be the most important thing in your life.
In that day and age, in the old kingdom, people worshipped something called idols. Everyone knew about idols. Idols were religious statues and trinkets which people used in place of worshipping a God. Some idols might represent certain God; others may have been more random. Idols were a big thing. People loved their idols. Here’s the thing: the people who were devoted to idols believed in them. They thought they worked.
The God of the former slaves knew that idols didn’t work. If people were putting their hope in idols, they wouldn’t be grateful to God and appreciate how far they’ve come or where they’re going. It’s much less about this God saying don’t worship a religious thing than God saying, don’t let things short circuit your ability to be thankful for the here and now.
Idols rob us of our ability to love God. It’s tough for us to love anything outside ourselves. Humans are narcissistic creatures by design. We love things on top of everything else. We put value, almost divine like value on the craziest things. We prioritize some awfully weird junk, both physically and emotionally speaking. Yes, we all have idol baggage. But it’s very easy to allow and begin to justify innocuous seeming good things as they become idols. They take the place of God, they get in the way of us appreciating what God has done for us, where we’ve been and we’re going. That’s an idol.
Idols also cause us to set unreasonable standards for gratitude and happiness. The shoes have to become fancier. The phone display clearer. The car is faster. We won’t be happy and grateful unless it is. We want more and more from our ideals before we’ll be pleased, click, yes, download the newer version, or write a good review. Idols have more features, updates, and are “the best”. Idols demand our time and attention.
At the first Thanksgiving, there in the wilderness, what does the man found by the river say God wants us to do? Moses says remember. Remembering is the key to moving past idolatry and being thankful. Remember who and whose you are. It’s no accident those are Moses’ successors last words to the Israelites. Thanksgiving starts with remembering, like Moses, where you came from and listening to God (even in the places you think God would never be) about where you’re going.
A Fragment of a New Testament Parable
(A recovered fragment of a undiscovered NT Gospel. It was found in between the Cotton Patch just by the swamp next to my Duck Blind on the North End of the Dead Sea.)
Jesus and disciples were travelling between Jericho and Swan Quarter. Judas, the fastidious one of the group, had booked reservations on the last ferry of the afternoon. They hoped to reach Ocracoke by dark. Somewhere near Engelhard, James and John asked Jesus a question.
“Teacher, we heard from some travelers the other day that a new Caesar had been elected by the Senate in Rome.” This was true. Two days before when they passed through Greenville, they ate lunch in a Greek restaurant. Socrates Aristotle Davis, the man running the place, said Caesar Augustus was dead and his son Tiberius was the new Caesar. This has caused no small amount of consternation within the Jesus Movement. (Jesus wasn’t sure whether the disciples honestly thought his last name was ‘movement, Christ, or of Nazareth’. He prefered to be called ‘Jesus’.)
What would Caesar’s death mean for them or Jesus’ ministry? Would they have to stop what they’re doing? New Caesars could be strange and unpredictable. Nobody liked it much when a new Caesar was chosen.
“So what are we going to do, Jesus?” asked Thomas. “About what,” Jesus wondered, “be late for the boat?”
“This new Caesar,” said Matthew. Jesus knew exactly what they meant. He enjoyed the repartee. Their contextual befuddlement made the best fodder for theological growth.
“Oh,” Jesus said. “You’re wondering what this new Caesar will have to do with you being a member of our movement.” There was head nodding all around.
Jesus kept walking. “Oh, that’s an easy one. It doesn’t matter who Caesar is, who’s on Caesar’s coins, who’s in Rome, or who they appoint as Governors.”
This blew Peter’s fragile mind. “What? You mean to tell me that it doesn’t matter to your followers who Caesar is; who sits in the Senate on the Capitoline Hill in downtown Rome, in charge of the most powerful army in the world, and has money with his face on it that proclaims himself to be the ‘Son of God’?”
“Where were you Peter when I talked about my kingdom not being of this world?” asked Jesus. “Did you miss the whole idea that I’m the son of God? Maybe you were just nodding and pretended to understand or said you believed it but found it all hard to stomach.” Jesus was serious. The Rabbi was starting to think most people were acting like they understood what he said. To the other 11, it seemed like he was asking them to take his ideas at face value, not just pleasant thoughts for an evolving cosmos.
Jesus wasn’t through speaking. “Our self-identity isn’t rooted in the symbols, ideas, and trappings of power which define the world; i.e. Rome. We’re defined by our story, the story of God’s story being retold time and time again in the lives of the people God created. God is working and doing miracles and bringing new life; despite the revolving door of Pharaohs, Babylonian Emperors, Jewish Kings, or Roman Caesars. We’ll keep telling God’s story, no matter who sits on the Emperor’s throne in Rome.”
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