A New Year’s Resolution-Embracing the Universal(ism)

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I’ve been thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. You know, the kinds that aren’t abstract, are doable, relatable, and reflect changes I’ve considered making but never followed through with or dared to start in the first place. With three or four days left until the official start of the New Year, today is as good a day as any to take a whack at my list.

I believe 2023 will be the year I stop believing (or giving lip service to) in a place called “Hell.”

After much consideration, I’m not sure I’ve ever believed in a literal “Hell .” In high school I read Dante. After living in Russia for two years, I started to think that if there is a Hell, it is as he described: cold and frozen. It’s also somewhere east of the Urals. I saw the cartoons; Bugs Bunny ended up there regularly but always managed to make it back to this side of eternity. I never gave it much thought where bad people went they died. As a child, I suppose, I thought people simply disappeared. I had this image, shaped by the first Superman movie, of villains floating perpetually in space, separated from God and surrounded by total darkness. If there was a Hell, that’s what I pictured it to be. I didn’t know to call this idea “Hell” but that’s what I thought happened to bad people when they died.

I grew up middle class in the middle of North Carolina in the mid-1980 in a mainline United Methodist Church. I am as middle as they come. We were there every time the church door was open. For the life of me, I can’t remember (even in the one revival I recall being held in our congregation) anything said about Heaven or Hell, and if we didn’t change our ways or accept a Jesus on specific terms, we’d end up in Hell. I didn’t drink or party like some kids. So my memory is pretty good. The youth group was fun, and I can’t recollect any fundamentalist or evangelical-style brainwashing. We weren’t a cult or a cult trying to pass as a church. I grew up in what I thought was a typical United Methodist Church. I only met people with radically different religious experiences once I went to divinity school. I thought everyone must have grown up in a bland, centrist church like mine. One of the reasons I wanted to become a minister is that I thought Methodists could spice things up a bit. I didn’t want to bring tent meetings back to Methodism, but we could be much more engaging. I found the Bible thrilling. It was full of great stories, and we were doing a pretty dull job presenting the “greatest story ever told.” 

I remember one occasion when I was probably in middle school or had just started high school, and I asked our pastor about Judas. It was after a Maundy Thursday service.

I wanted to know, “If it was in the divine plan for Jesus to die and be betrayed by Jesus, why were we so hard on Judas?” He didn’t have an answer for me. I still have that question. That’s probably about as close as I came to questioning Heaven, hell, and universalism (a word I’d never hear until I went to college). I wanted to know about Judas’ role in the crucifixion. If Judas was integral to the plan, how could we damn him to Hell? Wouldn’t Jesus, who forgave everybody, forgive him too, especially if Jesus needed him at a cosmic level? His eyes glazed over.

He told me to go home and pray about it.

I’ve been praying about it for over thirty years now. And you know what; I think Judas was forgiven.

I can’t point to one single event, encounter, verse, book, or theologian which pushed me to the universal side. It’s probably rooted in my service as a pastor for over twenty years. I know I was well down the path toward universalism long before I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Reading Bell was like going to group therapy; I realized there were other people like me, and I’d found a safe space to share my feelings, even if it was only within the pages of a book. 

I keep coming back to scriptures, both from Paul: Romans 8:37-39 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4. When Paul says in Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things, to come, nor powers, no height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe him with every fiber of my being. Paul says nothing will separate us from God’s love. How that works, I am still determining. I cannot read that passage and think the God who wants to overcome anything and everything in all creation to be with those he created would let an idea, yes, an idea, like “Hell,” get in the way.

Paul opens his second letter to Timothy with a call to prayer, “I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people-for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This and good and pleases God our Savior who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”

God wants everyone to be saved. That’s Paul speaking, not Richard. Why would God create a system then set the rules in opposition? Why would God want something for everyone then prevent God from obtaining it? Why would God not get what God wants? I thought nothing separated us from God’s love, yet if “Hell” exists, God denies God’s own will for humanity. Is God God if God is constantly overruling his own will? Why should anyone be left behind if God is as powerful as we proclaim? I am no longer content with the idea that God cannot or will not accomplish God’s desires for the reconciliation of all creation.

While serving in Northern Ireland a few years ago, I preached during a Holy Week service in Londonderry. A couple of days after my sermon, the circuit superintendent invited me for tea. He’d heard concerns about my sermon; some in the congregation had picked up “universalist themes .” I am trying to remember what I was preaching, but it had nothing to do with universalism. It was one of the bread of life texts from John. Nowhere in my mind did the idea of universalism occur when preparing the sermon. Yet, here, publicly, for the first time, my superintendent questioned me about being a universalist. He didn’t ask if I was a universalist. Instead, he asked, was that what I intended to say, and I answered truthfully, “no, I didn’t.” Looking back on that sermon in 2014, I guess I accidently beamed universalism. To be honest, I was a little mad at myself. The only time I’ve been officially called out by anyone in the church hierarchy for being a universalist and I did it unintentionally. I wish I had known that’s what I was about to do. I’d have made a much bigger statement: Protestants and Catholics will all go to Heaven.

I believe God wills and desires the salvation of all. I guess that makes me a universalist.

No one can prove Heaven exists. You also can’t empirically prove Hell exists, though I’d expect some Southwest airlines customers could make a good argument for the latter. Scholars like Bart Ehrman and James Tabor have described how both ideas developed over time through interpreting scripture, literature (Dante did more to shape our vision of Hell than anything in the Bible), and western history. It takes faith to believe in God. How much more faith does it take to believe in a God who wants to torture those who that same God created? (More faith than I’ve ever had in a God of love.) I don’t have faith in a God of cruelty and torture. I do not have enough faith to believe in a God that loves enough to create us and then, if we screw up bad enough, kills us because our God-given free will made us irredeemable. I’ve never had that faith. I don’t want it. You do you. It doesn’t work for me. I’ll keep my faith in the God of Love, and we’ll work it out in the end.

This began as a discussion of New Year’s Resolutions. I want to lose both theological and physical baggage. I think it’s time to bundle up and go for a walk. See you outside!

–Richard Bryant

Would We Let Three Foreign Monks Into Church Today? (Matthew 2:1-12)

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Would we let wise men (or women) inside our church or churches today? I’ve been considering this question over the past few days. Matthew’s gospel is the only account we have of these mysterious visitors from the east, often assumed to be Zoroastrian astrologers, who arrived in Nazareth sometime after the birth of Jesus. Christians don’t know that there were three kings, magi, dudes on camels, or whatever we want to call them. A “Subcommittee for the Determination of the Number of Wise Men” was formed at the United Methodist General Conference held in Nicaea in 372 CE. They duly reported back to the next General Conference (held in Damascus) in 376 CE that three gifts indicated one gift per person. As such, paragraph MMDLII of the 380 CE Book of Discipline would suggest that for all time and any subsequent United Methodist Christmas pageants and Epiphany sermons, three wise men, was the accurate, appropriate, and orthodox number. Twelve people may have shown up in Nazareth, eight men and four women carrying three gifts purchased under an agreed ten-dollar limit, but because the text said three, our Book of Discipline and we United Methodists settled on three men from out of town, representing ill-defined and mystical eastern religious practices, who wanted to show some respect to a wholly Wesleyan baby Jesus.

That’s how we got here. My question is this: would we do it today? Imagine we’re in church, doing our thing, singing “We Three Kings” and “Joy to The Word” sometime over the next few weeks. Things are rocking and rolling along. It’s a spirit-filled New Year’s Day service. The pastor preached about turning the page and making a new start with God or some other generic New Year’s Day nonsense. No sooner than the congregation has rattled off number 880 in the United Methodist Hymnal, the Nicene Creed, by heart, and you’re ready to start your community prayer concerns and celebrations, everybody notices some strangers have walked in the door.

It’s cold outside, just below freezing, and these three guys are wearing neither coats nor shoes. They are bald and clad in maroon, saffron, and orange robes. You hear some Captain Obvious observe using their outside voice, “I think they’re from out of town.” The gentle whiff of incense follows them as they process down the church’s center aisle.  What do you do? Does the usher who works the door, the one with the concealed carry permit, draw his gun? Does the mom in the back row pull out her phone and dial 911? Who are these strange men, and what do they want? Do they want anything? Are they a threat? Yes, brother and sisters, what would we United Methodists do if into our neat and tidy Epiphany services, as we sang “We Three Kings,” Tibetan Buddhist monks, Theravada Buddhist monks from Myanmar, or Jain monks from India walked into our services unannounced and asked to pay reverence to our God, the Christ child, the anointed one of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem?

How are we at letting others with different faith traditions and have no intention or desire to convert to Christianity, but respect our faith enough to be respectful to us and our God,  share our joy? Do we have the common decency to say, “thank you?” Or, will we find ourselves wanting to say, “Can I tell you about my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?” Here’s the thing: they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know about Jesus. They’ve traveled a long way to show Jesus homage. We could learn a thing or two from the Wise Persons and the different traditions they represent in our day and time. If other people are willing to go out of their way to show Christianity respect, we need to be more respectful of others and their faith traditions. The visitors from the east offered gifts (both tangible and spiritual), went home, and lived the rest of their lives according to their beliefs. Awareness and appreciation for someone else’s faith does not diminish our own. As Ted Lasso says, “be curious, not judgmental.” If we learn anything from Matthew’s story of the wise men, remember that. Allow the strangely dressed foreigners from other traditions to respect Christ, then show them the same respect. Invite them in. We’ll all be better for it.

–Richard Bryant

The Word Became Like You and Me: John 1:1-14

The prologue, the opening to the Gospel of John, contains some of the most poetic, beautiful, and memorable verses in the New Testament. Make no doubt about it; the fourteen verses we read this morning are verses in a literal sense. They are poetry, some of the finest ancient Greek verse ever written, on par with Homer and the great Stoic philosophers. Yet like Homer, John’s verse does double duty. It’s not poetry for the sake of poetry. These aren’t Shakespeare’s love sonnets. John also retells history, recalling the past with carefully chosen words and images. He is a storyteller who thinks in verse, words, and pictures instead of a linear narrative. When we read John’s opening verses, we should remember that we are encountering a work of art. We step into a museum, sit on a bench, and before us are Monet’s haystacks or Van Gogh’s sunflowers. And for as long as we want, we are drawn in by the beauty of what we see. We encounter something new every time we look, read, and listen. We see shading differently. The contrast between light and dark strikes in a manner we’ve never felt before. John 1 is always yielding fresh insights.

Therein, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub. The irony of John 1 is that the newness it radiates also reveals the reality that we are reading history. John 1 is written in the past tense. Shakespeare’s Sonnets about love are always in the present; for love has always been and will ever be. As Homer did of the Trojan War, John writes about events that had already occurred. This changes how we approach the first chapter of John’s gospel today. “The word was with, and the word was God.” “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in him, he gave power, to become children of God.” Did you hear all of those past tense verbs? If John was writing to specific people in a particular time and place about events that have already occurred, where do we fit in? John wrote about people two thousand years ago, some of whom rejected and others who accepted Jesus as God made flesh. As John said, those who accepted this claim received the right to become children of God.

What then is to become of us, who, in the present tense, seeking to accept and be accepted by God now? John never imagined, in his wildest dreams, that people of mostly Anglo-Saxon heritage from Northern Europe, a land he did not know existed, two millennia after these words were written, would gather, ponder, and ask: “what does it mean to accept this statement as true – the word became flesh.”

 Is this story over? Can we still participate in cosmic John’s dialogue or have time? The past tense and history left us sitting on the sidelines. By genetics, history, and tradition, we are not, as John describes, his (or Jesus’) “own” people. His people were persecuted 1st century Palestinian Jews desperately searching for a Messiah. We are middle-class Americans, primarily well-off, living off credit and statin drugs, and our idea of a savior looks more like Kevin Costner in a cowboy hat than Jesus Christ in sandals. In our past tense, literal reading of John, we neither accepted nor rejected Jesus. Other than observers, who are we?

Now we’re getting somewhere. Are we able to find ourselves within the text? Is there a place for us in John’s story? Beneath the Platonic philosophy, Greek poetry, and Trinitarian theology running through the heart of this passage, one verse stands out for its transcendent humanity: “He came to what was his own, and his people did not accept him.” Here’s where I plug in. I know that verse. I feel those words in the pit of my stomach each time I read them. Why? I know what it feels like not to be accepted. We’ve all had that experience. Whether it’s been being picked last for the kickball team, being turned down to go out on a date, or having a flat tire and calling AAA only to be told your membership expired yesterday, all of us know what it means to be rejected. That’s what John is saying in verse 11. The people you thought would have accepted Jesus left him instead. Some of their rejections were indifferent. People ignored him and went about their way. Others stayed with him and then abandoned him at the last minute. While he so threatened one group, it wasn’t enough to ignore him or walk away; they rejected him by trying to erase his presence from human history.

Verse 11 gives meaning to the cosmic grandeur of verse 14; it provides the context we desperately need. To become flesh, authentic, and substantial is to be alive, and when we are truly alive, we will know exhilaration, joy, love, and rejection. This is how we know that Jesus wasn’t wearing the façade of humanity, a God-man in human clothes, but fully human, so that he knew what it meant to be a person, like you and I, on our best days and our worst days. If God’s humanity, the humanity we celebrate today in the incarnation of the Christ child, isn’t real, then neither is our salvation. This is all one big joke. We’re wasting our time and money for nothing. We’re singing some great traditional carols and hymns, but that’s about it. Religiously speaking, we’ve done nothing unless the word becomes flesh, not superficially, not in theory, but as a real live honest to God human being like you and me.

The word became flesh. This child is God. God is this child. If this child doesn’t spit up, poop his diapers, cry, and do all the things that children do and you have trouble accepting that, well, maybe, you are one of those people John is writing to. Do you accept him, not just as an ideal, but as a real person?

If you like cheesy manger scenes and plastic Jesus you can stick to your dashboard, you probably don’t like John 1. Plastic Jesus doesn’t ask much of you. You can put him up for the year and drag him back out next November.

Real Jesus is right here, in flesh and blood, a baby, waiting to be accepted. This is where we come in. We enter the text here, at this altar. Are you ready?

–Richard Bryant

He Came In Like A Wrecking Ball: Luke 2:1-20

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What would you say if you’d run up on the manger, stable, backside of the inn, or wherever it was that Jesus was born that first Christmas? For a moment, put yourself in the shepherd’s sandals. Maybe you’re just some random person walking by on a moonlit night going home after getting off the second shift down at the bread factory. After all, that’s what Bethlehem means, “house of bread,” bread town. You know it was a one-company village with everybody pulling overtime shifts down at the plant to turn out kosher sugar cookies. It was a typical day. No one got off work for Christmas because Christmas wasn’t an official thing yet. December 24th was just December 24th and the next day was December 25th. Nothing happened; you got up, went to work, went home, and did it again the next day. It’s like that old joke people used to tell me in England, what do you call Independence Day in England? July 4th. It was just another day.

So there you are, amidst your regular day, you stumble upon a woman who has just given birth. Her husband is there. Maybe she’s surrounded by livestock. By that, I mean the scene is far from idyllic. It stinks and smells like the barn that it is. The woman is exhausted. The man is overwhelmed. The baby is crying. Perhaps a few shepherds from the surrounding countryside have recently arrived and are babbling incoherently about angels, peace, good tidings, and heavenly glory. What do you say? Do you say anything? Do you stop and stare? Or does this train wreck of an image, not the one we see in Renaissance art but the real one, cause you to think, maybe I better keep on moving; this looks a little too strange for me to get involved. Are you concerned they’re going to ask you for money? What do you do? What do you say? Do you speak to the mother, the husband, or the baby? Is it a halting hello? Do you offer help? Maybe you start with an introduction? My name is Richard, but my friends call me Richard.  No, you think, that sounds stupid. What do you do in such a strange, out-of-place situation?

Do you realize what’s happening? Jesus has only been alive and on the planet in flesh and blood form for five minutes (or less), and he’s turning our world upside down! We have our routines, lives, and ideas about how life, religion, society, and relationships should function and operate for all time. Within moments of encountering this baby, we don’t know what to do or say; everything we thought we knew gets tossed out the window, and we’re forced to rethink how we interact with other people and the world around us. His mere presence does this; before he speaks an intelligible word, he preaches a parable, calls a disciple, or dies on the cross. Jesus’ birth swings into human history like a wrecking ball.  Here is the truth of Christmas Eve: there is nothing we can say or should say. We marvel at the mess he’s made of our attempts to order our lives. We gaze upon the rubble of our personal and collective sins. We survey the destruction of, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, our “selfish ambition and conceit.” 

Tonight, we stand speechless and prepare for Christ to wreck everything we hold precious because this infant has come to teach us that our priorities and values are painfully distorted and that everything, we claim to be holy is not so. It is a powerful assertion for someone to say they speak in the name of God. The infant reminds we dare not make such claims without first dwelling in humility and silence and being willing to let this child wreck our carefully constructed ideas of who and what God is this Christmas, just as he did that first Christmas in Bethlehem.

–Richard Bryant

It May Be the Most Fearful Time of Year: Matthew 1:18-25

Have you ever noticed how much fear surrounds the events of the first Christmas? Last week, we heard the angel appear to Mary with the words, “Do not be afraid.” This week an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” On the night Jesus is born, we will be told the shepherds were afraid, and the angels tell them not to be afraid. What’s going on with all this fear at what’s supposed to be the happiest, most joyful time of the year?

After all, you don’t tell someone, “Do not be afraid,” as a conversation starter. Those words are a response to fear. When someone says, “do not be afraid,” the person you’re saying it to is already afraid, startled, freaked out, and in some shock. Fear seems to be the initial reaction of the main characters in the Christmas drama when they are brought up to speed on God’s plan for their lives and everything that comes next. Those who go into the story next, the shepherds and observers, are also initially fearful. Whether we like it or not, when we read the Christmas story, the first emotion that it evokes in the real people who experience it firsthand for the first time isn’t peace, joy, hope, or love; it’s fear. Then they must be told to “not be afraid.” That, my friends, maybe the greatest challenge of the entire Christmas season. Do we believe that there is nothing to be afraid of? Because the last time I checked, the world is still a scary place.

Christmas isn’t supposed to be motivated by fear. That’s usually how we think. Christmas may be stressful, funny, wacky, and exhausting, but we’re all brought up and conditioned not to associate Christmas with fear. If anything, we’re supposed to be in our comfort zones looking out for ways to be charitable, loving, hanging out with family and friends, enjoying good food, catching up with people we’ve lost touch with, and reprioritize our lives. Fear isn’t supposed to factor into Christmas. It’s supposed to be all happy, happy, joy, joy, and an endless supply of sausage balls. Yet every time we turn around in the Bible, someone related to the Christmas story is afraid of something about God’s plan for Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas. We’re always complaining about the true sense of Christmas being lost or watered down, and here in the Bible, it’s the true meaning of Christmas that’s scaring people and leading people to need to be told, “it’s okay, chill out, don’t be afraid.” So, one of the first things I notice is that Christmas can stand and fight for itself. The greatest threat to Christmas isn’t someone saying happy holidays; it’s ultimately our fear of the unknown, not knowing what God is doing. The only way Christmas can lose its meaning is if we refuse to listen to the words “do not be afraid.” It’s that moment we let our fears start to guide us, and we begin to believe we can’t survive without our protection. We stop listening to God and start listening to our fears.

Christmas, when it descends for the first time, is a polarizing affair. No one is in the middle with just mediocre, “I could love it or leave it” feelings about Christmas. People are either all in or all out, like King Herod, the Grinch, or the Nazareth branch of the Not Believing Our Teenagers When They Claim to Have Been Made Pregnant by the Holy Spirit Political Action Committee.

Because Christmas is a polarizing time, listening to hope, love, joy, and peace and tuning out our fears is hard. Just because the calendar turns to December and we start baking holiday goodies doesn’t mean that time freezes, wars end, or suffering stops. I need to hear the angel’s message (not so much in a dream), not to be afraid because I am afraid. There, I said it. I am afraid. Maybe it’s because all my other senses are heightened at this time of year. I know I should be joyful and grateful and have many different emotions. I’m afraid I won’t do them right. I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong and mess up Christmas for my family and those I love. I’m worried this will be the last Christmas I can spend with my father. I’m so scared I’ll stand up here and say something wrong that will offend someone’s religious sensibilities when all I’ve ever wanted to do is preach the Gospel. I’m worried I’ll get the wrong gift or no gift. I’m concerned about having enough gas in the tank. I am afraid of having enough money when I retire, especially when the church splits. If you’re anything like me, and I don’t think we’re all that different, the angel’s words of “do not be afraid” are precisely what you need to hear at Christmas.

God knows that real-world practical fears, like the ones plaguing Joseph and Mary, are part and parcel of our daily lives. Two thousand years may separate us from the events in Nazareth and Bethlehem, but here’s the truth: people are still people. When taken in their totality, these fears impact our ability to experience love, joy, peace, and hope. (You’ll notice I keep coming back to those four ideas. That’s no accident. That’s what the Advent candles represent. Those are the way stations we pass on the way to Bethlehem each of these four weeks. Those are the ideals that define this season. If you’re not trying to experience love, joy, peace, hope, and ultimately Jesus, you’re not celebrating Christmas or Advent. I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s not Advent or Christmas.)

God knew this season of preparation would be a time when our initial reaction would be fear and uncertainty. As a computer programmer might put it, he wrote that into the code. It’s not only okay to be afraid it is expected. If we’re not afraid, maybe we’re doing it wrong; there’s some overconfidence, narcissism, and sin we might need to name. It’s also okay to talk about and voice your fears. The sin would be, as I think the angel identifies in his conversation with Joseph, would be to compartmentalize them, push them down, deep down in our souls, and never deal with our fears. I believe God wants us to be emotionally and physically healthy.

Here’s the thing about Joseph’s fears: they are driven by scarcity. Will I be enough? Will I have enough? Am I capable enough of being what God needs me to be? Do I have it within me to be the Dad I need to be? Do I have it within me to be the husband my fiancé deserves me to be? All of these questions are running through his mind. All of them are rooted in the notion of scarcity; he is afraid that he does not have what it takes to do what God or the world will need him to do. Who among is not afraid we don’t have what it takes? Who isn’t concerned at one level, our best isn’t or won’t be good enough?

The angel comes to Joseph (and us) and says: “Do not be afraid. You are about to step from a world of fear and doubt into a reality of abundance and love.” The angel doesn’t say your fears are irrational or stupid. The angel doesn’t say, “get over it.” By telling us to “not be afraid,” God acknowledges the reality and validity of our fears. By making that declaration, by meeting us where we are, without precondition, judgment, anger, or wrath, God is saying that I will walk with you, side by side, through your fears.  We will not be alone. If you’re afraid, God says, “I’ll be there.” If you’re overwhelmed, “I’ll be there.” If you’re courageous, “I’ll be there.” Just be yourself, God will meet you where you are.

–Richard Bryant

Talking, Doing, and Making a Difference

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It’s hard to go through life feeling like your hands are tied. You see global problems and significant issues and want to act. But you can’t do anything. Your hands and feet are bound. If you could, you’d run to aid those who are suffering. You’d shout at the top of your lungs to draw attention to the cause of those you’re trying to help. That doesn’t work, either. When you open your mouth, you have no voice. The voice you do have is shouted down. No one can hear you or pays attention to your words. This is what I experience and feel when I watch the news. I see reports from Ukraine or the US/Mexico border and want to do something tangible to end the war and alleviate the rampant human suffering on display.

My first inclination is to pray. I have to admit I don’t know what to pray for, so I pray for an open-ended end to suffering, pain, and violence. Almost a year into Europe’s most significant land war since 1945 and after watching thousands of impoverished migrants who’ve walked for months across jungles to come to the United States, this seems like a paltry response, given the gravity of the respective situations. Here I sit, in my warm and comfortable home (office, church, etc.), muttering a few words after observing the misery of others and expecting the God of the cosmos to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering strangers half a world away. I’m so tired of watching nothing happen, the evidence of war crimes becoming more apparent, and refugees not being welcomed into the United States of America. Recently, I’ve thought about my need to involve God in praying for the Ukrainian war or the migrants. I want the war to end and migrants to be welcomed not simply because I am a Christian or pastor but because it is the right and moral thing to do. People deserve to be treated well because of our shared humanity, not solely because a religious text instructs us to do so.

I guess, in some way, through my prayers, I’m trying to make myself feel better. At least I’ve done something, I’ll say to myself. I’m aware, I care, and I’m informed. I know God’s not unaware of the needs of the Ukrainians or the migrants, but somewhere deep down inside, I think my “seconding the motion” helps. Then again, who am I to tell God what God obviously already knows? Shouldn’t I be doing something rather than just talking about the problem?

Once I’ve said it, I feel like I’ve done something; I can check it off my list and then move on to the next item on my agenda. The thing is, here recently, I don’t feel better. I feel worse. I feel like I should be doing more. I feel like the more I pray, the worse the situation becomes. I see how overwhelmed the people trying to aid the migrants are with each passing day. I want to do something besides close my eyes and talk to God. I ask myself, “Where’s the middle ground between going to the Polish border or El Paso and sitting in Hillsborough and waiting for God to move on Vladimir Putin’s non-existent heart?” I don’t have an answer to that question. We’ve sent money to UMCOR. I’ve raised money and tried to help people on the border. If there is a blank, I’ve filled it in. All I know is this: our words aren’t cutting it.

What happens when Christmas is over and the willingness to be charitable fades? To borrow a phrase that’s popular at the moment, none of our altruism seems effective. The good we (collectively as Christians and as a denomination) do is all short-term, motivated by the emotions brought up by the Christmas holiday. We’ll keep praying and waiting on Vladimir Putin to do what Dr. Seuss allowed the Grinch to do-experience a change of heart. That’s the only way this stupid, vicious war will ever end.

–Richard Bryant

Truth Telling on Advent 4

Do you remember when you were born? I don’t mean, “Do you know your birthday?” I mean, “Do you remember the moment when you were born?” I mean the lights, the labor and delivery room, the nurses, the OB-GYN, your mama pushing you out, and so on. If you do, then we need to talk. Someone at PBS, NOVA or the Discovery Channel will want to do a documentary on you. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. We don’t have any memories of the moment we entered planet Earth. So, if Matthew were to write a story of our lives, he’d have to begin it this way, “Now the birth of (Insert your name here) took place in this way,” and then he’d have to talk to people who were there at our birth. Let’s say our mother, father, the doctor, and maybe a nurse. Matthew would have to chat with some first-person eyewitnesses to record how our births took place. Provided they were still alive, he could talk to people who witnessed the event. There might even be video footage of your birth for people born after a specific date. It sounds like an easy thing to do.

Now go with me on this, if Matthew wanted to tell the story of your birth, but he waited until you were dead, your mother was dead, your father was dead, the doctor was dead, the nurses were dead, and not one of the first or even second-hand witnesses remained. On top of waiting until all the witnesses had passed on, he waited sixty years after your birth (30 after your death) to begin his birthday retelling project. Where would he get his details? Would his details be anywhere near accurate? Remember, Matthew is very definite in what he writes, sixty years after Jesus’ birth, thirty years after Jesus’ death, after both Jesus’ parents have died, he knows that the “birth of the Messiah took place in this way.” My parents can’t remember what they had for lunch yesterday. They will reflect a little bit about the day I was born almost 49 years ago yet Matthew has access to a transcript of a conversation between an angel and the now deceased Joseph. You can see where I’m going this this: can we trust Matthew, who wasn’t in Bethlehem, looking back over sixty years, trying to piece together the recollections of people who are long dead? There is no Ancestry.com. What about his story makes sense if we use our common sense? Given what we know of the vagaries of time and memories, what rings true, and what sounds like he’s weaving a yarn?

Let’s do this one more time. There’s another writer. We’ll call him Luke. He tells the story of Jesus’ birth some five to ten years after Matthew tells his story. If you’re keeping track, that would be 65-70 years after the birth of Jesus.  All the same vital people are dead. Even more crucial characters are dead by this time. Peter and Paul have long been executed in Rome. Jesus’ brother James is dead. The original tenuous connections you had to the birth story are not there. Luke writes his versions. Joseph’s role is nearly nonexistent. There are no wise men. There is no King Herod or the massacre of the innocents. Yes, we’ve got shepherds and angels, but they are two different stories. That’s because they are. We like to smash them together every Christmas, but it only makes a liturgical, theological, and Biblical mess. It may be the worst thing the church does at Christmas. After the church Christmas pageant, we’re left with fragments of the truth lying on the floor, and everyone goes home bathing in the warmth of the same old misunderstandings. Could we try telling the truth this year before the Wise Men and the Little Drummer Boy show just after Mary’s birth?

Suppose you were to ask your parents or the people at your birth what happened. In that case, I guarantee you wouldn’t get two vastly different stories with different characters, a different doctor, or a non-existent drummer boy. Time might be compressed, and you might remember the color of the delivery room walls differently than your partner, but your parents would tell the same story because they were both there and witnessed it. It is a shared historical event. No one would tell two drastically different stories. To do so would raise multiple red flags about the health and well-being of one of the two people. Matthew and Luke aren’t crazy. It upsets me that they never intended to tell the same story. Accuracy wasn’t important to them. This bothers me. Why do accuracy, authority, and faith need to be mutually exclusive?

Matthew and Luke were not first-hand witnesses to the birth of Jesus. It is doubtful they knew anyone who was. Most of those persons who knew Jesus personally had died before they began to write their gospels. The differences between the two stories, which illustrate us the different priorities within Matthew’s community and among Luke’s readers, show us that they were telling stories for their audience, not accurately relating history as they knew it. Don’t get me wrong; I like good yarn. I also like the truth. If I’m telling the Good News, the Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I want to get it right, especially today. Our congregations are tired of lies, subterfuge, and alternative facts. If we don’t proclaim the truth at Advent, when can we? I find it harder and harder to live with the contradictions in scripture, to either ignore them or reason them away with the logic I was taught in seminary. We’ve got to be better than the pious platitudes we were given to deal with these silly contradictions.

So what can we say with any historical certainty and not feel like we’re lying to the people in the pews this 4th Sunday of Advent 2022:

Jesus was born.

Jesus had a mother.

She was called Mary

Jesus had a father.

He was called Joseph.

God works in mystery.

Don’t feel you have to make stuff up to sell the story.

Life is a miracle.

The mystery is the miracle.

–Richard Bryant

Reading the Magnificat From Scratch

I’m going to ask you to do something difficult. It will only be for a moment. I want you to imagine that you don’t know who Jesus is, that you’ve never heard the Christmas story, and that you don’t know anything about (as comic book and superhero fans would say) his origin story. It’s the year 2022, and you’ve lived your life as you’ve lived it, all things as they are; nothing else has changed; the world is as it is, except that you know nothing about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the angel, shepherd, wise men, Bethlehem, King Herod, or all the stuff that comes after it. You are you; your life is as it is, we are who we are, and you’ve never been exposed in one way or another to the material in this book. Specifically, in this hypothetical, to the information in the 1st and 2nd chapters of the 2nd book of the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke. Why Luke? This is where we find a complete account of Jesus’ birth that is etched in our brains, though most of the versions of the Christmas story (as told in pageants and the like) end up being a mishmash of Matthew and Luke. As much as possible, I want you to imagine you’ve never heard this story or are about to listen to parts of it for the first time. You have no idea who “God” is, what the incarnation means, what role Mary plays, that she is engaged, the trouble she might be in, who Joseph is, or how it all turns out. As much as possible, we are all blank slates. Let us begin.  

I’m going to read you some words now. Remember, you’re a blank slate; you don’t know who said these, the context, history, or background, at least not yet. All we have are the words themselves to go on. Listen to them deeply. Allow them to sink in as if you’ve never heard them before. How do they strike you? Are they comforting and soothing? Or are they jarring and disconcerting? When you listen to them, do you feel like the speaker is speaking for you, with you, or to you? Think about each of these questions as I read:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Indeed, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

What is your first impression of having never heard those words? Are they religious or political words? Perhaps they are both. Who speaks this way? Where would one expect to find such eloquence about the unequal distribution of power, wealth, and hunger? Given our nation’s current situation and biases, what would you determine to be the political persuasion of the person who made such a strong statement? If you turned on the television, didn’t know the network, and heard a voice (either male or female) emphasizing these words, “lowliness,” “servant,” “scattered,” “proud,” “brought down the powerful from their thrones,” “filled the hungry,” and sent the rich away empty,” would you think them to be conservative or liberal? Would you think you’d heard a democrat or a republican? Would you believe yourself to be listening to someone you considered a Christian or a godless secularist? Would you think someone had changed your channel from Fox News to MSNBC?

I know the answer. I know the answer because we live in a polarized world, and even the Bible can’t get a fair hearing in 2022. I know the answer because I listen to church conversations, radio, and television call-in programs, and stand in line at Bojangles. Ideas like the ones I’ve just read to you are regularly dismissed as evil, treasonous, dangerous, deadly, and un-American. Except for being evil, at points throughout history, Mary’s Magnificat has been regarded as all those things. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, speaks dangerous, world-up-ending words. Words that, if you didn’t know better, many people would swear were written by critical race theorists, Marxists, or socialists in sheep’s clothing. When we understand these words originate from the Bible, most of us back off, ignore them, or treat them as a young girl’s poetic aspirations for a better world. Then we move on. We ignore her. This is the wrong way to read the Magnificat. This is a manifesto. We read what God is doing in the present (through Mary) and will continue to do through Jesus.

People have been killed for reciting those words because repressive governments have feared what might happen if ordinary people, poor people, and the marginalized realize God is on their side. What happens when we know that in the days and weeks leading up to the birth of Christ, Jesus’ mother starts talking like a prophetically inspired socialist instead of an enraged parent bent on banning books? How does this change impact how we see the quaint nativity scenes and Mary’s son, who grows up to eat with prostitutes, and tax collectors and probably (given his mother’s bent on scattering the proud people who seem to have religion all figured out) would have eaten with drag queens too? It should make us rethink how we read everything that comes after Christmas and how to see the world through Christian eyes and less partisan lenses. If being a Christian makes you sound like a socialist, that’s the world’s fault. That’s your problem. Mary got there long before Karl Marx. I’m just following her and her son.

–Richard Bryant

The Unmistakable Message of John the Baptizer

A Sermon/Homily on Matthew 3:1-12

John leads to Jesus in much the same way Yoda leads to Darth Vader. (Go with me on this analogy. Jesus is not Darth Vader.)

Luke Skywalker wants to be a Jedi like his father but he can’t get there unless he goes through both Yoda and Darth Vader. Yoda is a rite of passage that points him to the one person he must confront to be truly considered a Jedi in his own right, Darth Vader (who also happens to be his father). But you get my point, all roads to your own light saber lead through Yoda.

It’s a little like that at Advent/Christmas. We can’t get to Jesus, at Bethlehem, without going to meet and spend time with the wild man Yoda of the Jordan River, John the Baptizer. When you encounter John, you’ll also encounter your Father (e.g. “this is my son, I’m pleased with him, listen to him…)

There are several roads to Jesus at Advent/Christmas.

They all begin in Galilee (the North/Nazareth) and lead to Bethlehem (in the South).

You can’t get to Jesus without going through this encounter first and then seeing Jesus:

Gabriel delivered the message

Jesus’ mother, Mary (an unwed, teenage mother)

Joseph (Jesus’ stepdad, a man doing the right thing)

Mary’s family, specifically Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother)

Shepherds outside Bethlehem

And ultimately:

John the Baptist

You must go through all these people, at some point, in one way or another, to get to Jesus.

Not like obstacles on a quest, but people whose purpose is to help you stay on course.

They play a crucial role in the essential story.

Unless we meet them, hear them, and understand them, when we finally meet Jesus, it’s not the most complete, total, joyous experience it is intended to be.

We may not even make it to Jesus on our own. When we meet these people, they keep us on the right path toward Jesus; they say, “No, you need to go that way; he’s just down there.” Will we listen?

John is the main guy pointing the way to Christ. He is a sign and a symbol. He points to something else and gives directions.

He unmistakably grabs your attention. (e.g., Beethoven’s 5th four opening notes. You know him anywhere.)

When you hear John and John’s message, it can be only John.

He takes the themes and ideas of the ancient prophets, particularly someone like Isaiah, and weaves and into something new and unforgettable. It holds you. Pay attention to what John is saying. Don’t read along with the old scriptures, this is something new. He’s not your grandfather’s prophet. If you want someone to do it “the way we’ve always done it before” John is not your guy.

However, he does have this in common with his prophetic ancestors: he’s not afraid of poking the bear and being controversial.

He purposely offends the religious professionals who trek to the Jordan River to hear him preach.

Self-righteous holy rollers who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.

John attracted people from all parts of society; rich, poor, dirty, clean, women, and men.

What connected them was that the traditional religious establishment rejected them.

You can’t look away from John. You are familiar with his message, but it sounds completely new. You wonder, is it this guy? No, he says, someone else is coming.   

(He wants you to pay complete attention to him.)

So, to review: To get to Jesus, we go through John (and others). John’s message is unique and definable.

Specifically, what’s his message? Repentance. John is all about repentance.

Repentance isn’t just saying sorry or a fancy word for a New Year’s resolution (e.g., a new habit.)

Repentance is a systemic life change. John is talking about altering the entire direction of your life, fully turning from one way or path, and going down a new approach.

Stop what you’re doing, change your behavior, and then start something else in the opposite direction: this is the essence of repentance. Sure, many small factors might lead to such a significant change, but that’s not what John meant.

John asked people to change the totality of their lives and then announce that change before the whole community through an act of ritual purification, what we call Baptism.  

Repentance is not supposed to be easy. It is a living, ongoing, organic process. If we step back and look at the world and think about repentance, it’s overwhelming to consider our collective and corporate sins. So much so that it’s easy to stop and utter a few flowery religious cliches about addressing “global poverty,” “climate justice,” “and racism” and think we’ve done our part to repent for our collective sins. We’ve done nothing at all. That’s the “Brood of Vipers” style religion John is railing against.

If we’re doing it right, repentance should begin with serious self-reflection. “If I’m going this new way, I can no longer be this way or carry these things with me that tie me to this old direction. I need to get certain things off my chest and undo anything that keeps me from turning.”

What do I want to repent of this week (and beyond)?

  1. Some things we need to repent of are personal. Who have we hurt, offended, or wronged? Is there something we need to make right in our personal lives to set us on a course to intersect with Jesus at Bethlehem today, tomorrow, and Christmas eve? Suppose we don’t repent of these minor (or even significant) personal issues. Are we going to be off course, like Magi (didn’t they miss him by nine miles or so?), with gifts intended to be given to the Christ child but constantly wandering around in circles and off course? Kind of like Smoky Bear, only you know what you need to repent from. I can’t tell you what to repent for.
  2. Sometimes, we need to repent of collective sins. Churches and church communities need to repent. We needed to be pointed back toward Jesus. Can you imagine a swimming pool or a river wide enough to fit all of us? Yes, that’s a funny image, but institutions also need to repent. What do we need to repent from? You tell me. I’ve got a few ideas. Nobody’s perfect. We can always be better neighbors and more loving to each other as Christians and our community.
  3. Once we repent, we want to stay repented. That’s the real challenge. You’ve changed course now. What do you have to do to immediately not go back off course? Repentance is not the uttering of “magic words” and expecting our lives to change without work or effort.
  4. Adjust your declination (Magnetic north and true north). If you’re backpacking, that could put you off anywhere from 100 feet to 1 mile off course. Adjust for being on the right spiritual path so you don’t start going further and further off course.
  5. Orient your map.
  6. Find a bearing, take a bearing, and move toward your new destination.
  7. Regularly check your bearings along the way. Make sure you’re still on the right path toward repentance.
  8. Repentance is about checking your bearings and being aware of your surroundings.

That’s how you’ll end up in the place where Jesus is waiting for you to arrive.

If we listen to cousin John and follow his path and instructions, this is how we’ll get to Jesus.

John is our unmistakable compass. He grabs your attention. You know you are listening to John. No one else sounds like John He’ll give us our bearings. He tells us how to repent. What we repent of, the thing we change, that’s up to us. You make that call. The hard work is up to us and will lead us to Jesus. Will we listen? Will we change?