Hatchet Job: Take Down the Manger

What do you see when you encounter the Manger scene, a live nativity, or imagine Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth?   Despite the cultural differences and varying artistic influences; the characters never change.  One will always find a dutiful Joseph, a pensive Mary, submissive beasts, amazed shepherds, a cosmic beacon, regal eastern visitors, and a sleeping baby Jesus.  This is how we’ve come to picture Jesus’ birth.  Whether shoved to a stable by a overbooked inn keeper or placed in a guest room by overwhelmed members of his Joseph’s family; the Incarnation is recorded as something other than regal or divine.

Despite countless Sunday School lessons and Christmas Pageants (even a few sermons) on the counter-intuitive nature of a Messiah in a stable; each year we gladly look past the very contradictions God calls on us to embrace.  In truth, it makes us uncomfortable to worship a poor God born to an unwed teenage mother.  It’s awkward to discuss how she and Joseph will feed a child given the endemic poverty in which they live.  It’s painful to think about the world in which this baby will grow up; a world where no matter how hard you work, you’ll never be free or equal to the Romans.

To avoid engaging with the reality at center of the nativity scene, we usually ignore what we don’t want see. It is easier to eschew something making you uncomfortable if you can focus on cute shepherds, baby faced angels, sweet donkeys, and cuddly cows.  Again we invert the contradiction, nothing about the Nativity is supposed to be cute, cuddly, warm, meek, mild, or silent.   The world, the Romans, those who would seek to use the Christ Child to advance certain agendas need to overlook the child, the child’s message, and revise the context of the world in which he entered.  The world, like the manger, is dirty, nasty, smelly, full of shady characters, and people living on the edge of economic survival.  There’s nothing charming about that picture.  If we’re distracted by angels and shepherds, maybe we won’t pay attention to what the Christ Child is saying about injustice, inequality, debt, slavery, and the lack of human kindness so much so that babies are being born in stables.

Like avoiding an annoying relative at Christmas lunch, we hope by talking to the shepherds or hearing a fascinating tale of Persian adventures, the sleeping baby will stay quiet.  The last thing we want to do is engage with the Christ Child.  Far from the demands of child rearing, diaper changing and nighttime feeding; the child will make claims on our lives that we (as Nativity) observers are not prepared to make.  The Christ Child will want to us to stop looking at the manger and stand inside the world he has come to inhabit.

The incarnation is an invitation to join with Jesus in the Good News.  The Good News begins in the poorest of circumstances, a place where the poor are sheltered from a Roman Census.  The Good News begins in a place where people are treated like animals.  Where people are dehumanized, this is where the Good News goes first.  The uncomfortable truth about the Gospel is that it has very little do with the trappings what we call “Christmas”.  Our mission is to take people out of the dehumanizing mangers they call home and bring them to places of safety and security.  We are still called to do this.

A manger isn’t something to idolize.  It’s something to tear down and abandon.  It’s a symbol of a broken economic, social, and religious system.  Let’s not accept mangers scenes as the status quo for anyone.  Let’s stop building mangers scenes.

Richard Lowell Bryant


What Is the Reason for the Season?

What is the “reason” for the season?  I ask because I’m wary of simplistic answers to questions which easily rhyme.  Does the one word answer “Jesus” serve as an adequate response to a query fraught with theological, social, and emotional baggage?  I am not certain it does.  Simply stating “Jesus”, pointing at the manger, and expecting the contextual blanks to be filled in as one would complete a holiday Mad-Lib raises more questions. Jesus who? How does this event, captured in manger scenes, live nativities, and Christmas pageants define anything about daily life in post-truth, post-fact, 50% off at Wal-Mart, 21st century America?

In order to answer the question, “what is the reason for the season?” I return to John the Baptizer.  John’s dramatic calls for preparation give clear reasons why the Messiah is coming.  In his explication of these ideas, we also see John laying the groundwork for our engagement with “the one who is coming”.  In short, the Messiah’s reasons become our motivations.   If we listen to John carefully, we will hear that there’s never one reason which defines Jesus’ arrival, mission, or ministry. The Good News is more than just a headline.  It’s everything.  When you find the farthest star you can see, go back further.  The Good News and the God who brings this message is everything between you and the infinite.  The baby in the manger makes the vastness of God comprehensible to a species who only uses about ten percent of their brains.

John’s loved Isaiah.  You can hear him quoting Isaiah in the passages quoted in the Gospel readings which form our Advent lectionary.  Isaiah was John’s lectionary.  He lived and breathed Isaiah’s words of liberation.  While Mark tells us John preached from Isaiah 40, I’m sure John was also reading Isaiah 58.  In fact, I can’t read through Isaiah 58-60 without hearing (what I imagine to be) John’s voice preaching these words.

It’s here, in Isaiah 58, that I find in John the Baptizer’s lectionary, the reasons for the season.  Isaiah puts it this way:

9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah’s message, which I’m certain John preached, and then became the core of Jesus’ teachings is this:  stop pointing fingers, speaking evil, be light, reject darkness, be a repairer of broken things, give food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.  Help remove suffering from others.  Do these things as a way of life, not one month or six weeks out of the year (when TV stations or charities hold coat/toy drives), but every day.

Mark says the “beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” began in the Judean wilderness with John the Baptizer preaching the gospel from Isaiah when Jesus came to be baptized.  Jesus allowed the two dimensional reasons of Isaiah to take life and become a three dimensional incarnate reality.

Are we content with single word explanations and quaint depictions of a sleeping child? Or, do we want to know the reasons God became human?  Oh, and notice this, neither Isaiah, John, or Jesus asks anyone why they are naked, hungry, thirsty, or needy.  God takes care of them.  No questions asked. God doesn’t need a reason.  That’s our thing.    We’re the “reason” people.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Forget the Inn, Is there Room at the Table?

“Is there a seat for me at this table?” Perhaps no other question defines the essence of Christian hospitality.  We are a people whose worship services are defined by the remembrance and reenactment of a Jewish Passover meal.  This meal, according to tradition and custom, was celebrated around a table.  The parameters of the Eucharist, while cosmic and ultimately indefinable, are shaped by the idea of the table.  Whether the altar rail functions as our table or we gather around a physical table, we want to know that when the bread is broken and the cup is shared there will be enough space for everyone.  No one, even the Judas’ among us, should be excluded from this unique, all-encompassing communal experience.  This is what we learn from Jesus.

What is the sound you hear on this first Wednesday in Advent?  It is the blacksmith’s anvil forging swords into plowshares?  Yes, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  I also pray it is the sound of your neighbor scooting over and making a little room at a table that isn’t theirs.  Christmas isn’t our party.  We are all like John McClain (Bruce Willis) in the Die Hard movies.  Barefoot and unprepared for anything; we arrive ready to serve others.  We’re all working guests, halfwit bridesmaids, hedgerow dwellers, and someone’s last minute choice pulled in from the darkness and ushered into the Kingdom.  Welcome to Bethlehem, pal!

There are no saved seats in the kingdom of God.  We cannot reserve that which is not ours to claim. This baby we’re all waiting on, the one we call “Emmanuel”, is the place saver.  Our world, which thrives on the daily cycles of scarcity and abundance, demands we know what is ours, places to be reserved, deposits made, and the future secured.  The baby, the infant, the child, the one we call “God with us”, saves a single place for each of us, our family,  our friends, and the world.  This place is insecure and puts us far beyond our comfort zones, conversational norms, familial bonds, and how we define love.  The Good News is this: despite these insecurities and challenges, God is with us.  Spoiler alert: That’s the meaning of Christmas.

My question is this: are we with God?  Are we “Emmanuel” people? Are we prepared to have God challenge who we love, how we love, who we talk to, how we relate to friends and families, and who gets a seat at the table?  If not prepared for the baby’s challenge, you’re not ready for Christmas.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Don’t Just Stand There, Take Your Drum and Go Tell Someone About Jesus

The Nativity scene isn’t a worship service. It’s a temporary staging ground for bringing love into the world.

Put your drum down or take it with you, I don’t care.  What matters is what you do when you leave the Nativity Scene.

Nobody wants to be the last person standing at the manger. Take the love, the message, the joy and go tell someone else.

Society alienates. Advents re-orientates our lives so we might see how alienated we’ve become.

Advent is about the message preceding the moment. Moments fade. The Message endures.

What are we preparing for? Is it the image of a baby in a manger? Or the absolutely cosmos shifting idea that God becomes frail, vulnerable and human?

Preparing for Jesus’ return is a multi-sensory experience. Are we watching? Are we listening? Do we see the people we try to imitate by wearing bathrobes who are walking among us? Are we listening to their needs? Mary and Joseph are on our doorstep.

No, I don’t hear or see what you hear or see.  Our experiences are different.  You be you.  I’ll be me.  We’ve made Advent a Norman Rockwell print and called it Christmas.  Conformity is killing Advent in the name of Christmas.  We bring different gifts to discipleship.  Use your gifts when you leave the Nativity.

“Speak, voice is crying out, comfort O my people, call out!” Isaiah wants someone to listen.  I have a feeling he’s not talking about Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, or any other beloved Christmas songs.  Isaiah listening is Advent listening.  Advent listening is hard.

All I Really Need To Know About Advent I Learned from John the Baptist

Most of what I really need to know about Advent (and Christmas for that matter), I didn’t learn from gazing at Nativity scenes. The Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the three wise men taught me very little about how to live, what to do, and how to be the best Christmas version of me. No, any Advent wisdom I learned didn’t come from Bethlehem or Nazareth. The truth is you don’t stand a chance to learn about Christmas by standing in an overcrowded stable. All I really needed to know about Advent I learned from a homeless man living by the Jordan River. His name was John.

• Everyone is on the naughty list
• Christmas is never the clean, antiseptic, well-mannered holiday you expect
• Jesus’ arrival ought to make everyone uncomfortable
• Holy People and Nativity Scene Aficionados should be the most nervous
• If the baby in the manger doesn’t challenge you, you’re in the wrong stable
• Water can only make you so clean
• If you’re constantly listening to Andy Williams or Mariah Carey you’re not hearing the Holy Spirit
• The system is rigged
• Truth telling will get you killed
• Advent and Christmas aren’t about conveying some magic formula of words
• It’s ok to wander around in the wilderness. Everything starts in the middle of nowhere.
• The Jesus story starts with crying out in the wilderness and ends with crying on the cross
• As such, happiness is overrated

Hatchet Job: Mark 13

I am astonished by the presumption of the creators of the lectionary.  The shortsighted conspiracy of hype leading those who select Biblical texts to decide the 13th chapter of Mark holds any redeeming spiritual value as text to be read in Christian churches on the first Sunday of Advent is beyond comprehension.  Using Mark’s gospel as an Advent text may be the worst religious decision since Franklin Graham was invited to pray at the most recent Presidential inauguration.  Like Graham’s prayer; it pretends to be timely, it is tone deaf, and it alienates more people in the long run.

By now, United Methodists are well into the “Christmas” spirit, Advent is an afterthought (even for most Christians), and the church is about to begin the four Sunday layup announcing the arrival of the Son of God. We do this by giving one week to Mark’s apocalyptic vision of black holes, lunar chaos, a cloud surfing Jesus, and a withered fig tree.  Is it any wonder people think churches are out of touch?  Through our expert homiletic skill and Emersonian like word play, preachers will attempt to tie Mark’s clear references to the end of the world back to the non-threatening, life affirming coming of the Christ child which, as we know, isn’t intended to scare the hell out of anyone.

Mark’s story of a withered fig tree has nothing to do with Jesus coming as an infant.  There is no connection.   It’s a weird, off the wall point with no larger meaning or value.  It, along with Mark’s celestial references, is the round peg we try to make fit the square hole called “Christmas”.  We manufacture the connection and call it Advent 1.

There is no relationship between the events Mark’s Jesus understood to be imminent signs of the apocalypse and the birth of Jesus.  While Mark 13 can be read to indicate the second coming of Jesus, an event which largely lacks the friendly undertones of Hallmark movies, shopping trips, and large family gatherings; Mark’s words do not point to a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  If anything, they orient us toward the certainty of death, the absurdity of pinning Jesus’ return to a particular date and time, and the impossibility of being fully prepared for Jesus’ actual arrival.

We can never be ready.  It is a lie to pretend otherwise.  We fall for the hype of Mark’s unreal expectations.  “Yeah, we’re going to be awake, we’re going to get Christmas right and never miss a thing this year.”  (Remember the Aerosmith song, “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”.  Even they missed things.)  In an hour, with full stomachs and self-satisfied egos, we’re asleep around our new flat screen televisions.  We will fall asleep, down on the job, and miss the critical moment.  This is who we are and it is unavoidable.  Mark misses the mark.  He leaves out the possibility that we don’t need to stay awake because grace, in the form of angels, shepherds, or a homeless man named John the Baptizer will wake us up.  The smell of the rotting fig tree is pretty powerful.

We will be dragged kicking and screaming to the manger.  Mark, the moody end of the world obsessed teenager, sitting at the back of the manger needs to be ignored.  We’re going to get there and no one will be asleep.  Mark should get over his dark obsessions and find some conspiracy website to post his musings.  I’m sure he’ll find plenty of takers who’ll love his end of the world nonsense.  Get over yourself Mark!  If we’re asleep, we will wake up!  We always do.  The stuff about the moon going dark and the black hole you’re predicting; it is just weird.  Your data is rooted in first century astrology and has no basis in science. On top of everything else, your depressing end of the world crap turns people off.  Please shut up.  The joy train is coming to town.  The shepherds, angels, and John the Baptist are rolling up on Bethlehem in due course.  Check your weirdness, your emotional baggage, and the stupid fig tree at the door.

Peace Out,

Hatchet Man

Stepping Out of Your Section and Praying for Hope (Ephesians 1:15-23)

What do we pray for?  Think for a moment about our prayer requests.  I’m not making a judgment of any kind.  This is simply an observation.   Consider the types of prayer requests we offer on any given Sunday morning, whether they are joys or concerns.  What do they consist of?

If it’s the list I’ve included in the bulletin or names I’ve solicited from you; we are usually praying for nouns.  We pray for people, places, or things.  Nouns dominate our prayer list.  We pray for people who are sick, in the hospital, or undergoing medical treatment. We pray for those who’ve reached milestones like birthdays and anniversaries.  This year, our prayers have been for people and places; Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, California, and Las Vegas.  We also pray for the events associated with those places.  When specific things are occurring, we mention and lift them up because that’s what we do.

There’s nothing wrong with being “noun prayers”.  This is how people have prayed throughout most of human history.

Occasionally, we’ll pray for something other than a “tangible” noun.  I might throw something in, though still a noun, that’s a bit harder to define.  I did this after the events in Charlottesville last August, when I said, “We pray for peace.”

Consider some of the things we normally pray for; healing from disease or rebuilding after a natural disaster. Those are concrete requests.  In essence, we’re asking, “God, heal my relative.  Do this specific, measurable thing in our life or in the lives of whom we’ve become aware.”

Peace is a nebulous prayer request.  You might say it’s downright elusive.  In a sense, we’ve self-edited our prayers down to something we believe to be manageable and doable.  Big-ticket concerns, like peace, seem so out of the realm of human possibility I wonder if we have stopped believing God cares about what (to us) sounds elusive and impossible?    I’m not sure.  I know that for some reason I am erring on the side of the “tangible” noun.  Perhaps as we get ready to head into the Advent season of big expectations, we need to consider praying for things a little less tangible.

This idea came home to me as I reread Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  It’s there, hiding in plain sight, in the first chapter, where Paul is talking about all the things he prays for.  Ephesians 1 is a behind the scenes look at Paul’s notes, what’s on the papers jammed in his Bible, scribbled on his iPad, and a window into his personal devotional life.  We get a one on one with the man most responsible for the development and spread of early Christianity as he tells us what his devotional life looks like.

Here’s the broad overview: “I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers.”  From the beginning, Paul says his prayers are framed in a spirit of thanksgiving.  Gratitude shapes and guides his prayer life.  Shouldn’t that be a clue for our own prayer life?  Are our prayers framed in gratitude?

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you.”  Will the church engage with the wisdom and knowledge God has given them?  Paul’s prayer is for the Ephesians to become active disciples.

It’s the third prayer, verse 18, that drew my attention.  Here’s what Paul says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”

Did you catch that?  When was the last time we prayed for hope?  I’m not talking about hope for something in particular, just hope?

Paul prays for the Ephesians to have hope; talk about a word fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity!

What is hope?  Hope could be a basic pie-in-the-sky optimism for one person.  For another, it’s a Pollyannaish outlook that no matter what life throws at you, it’s all going to work out.  Maybe you’re a glass half-full person.  That’s how our world, reared on Oprah and self-help books, has come to think about hope.

For 1st century Christians, their idea of hope wasn’t like our 21st century meme driven culture.

We confuse optimism with hope.  Optimism isn’t hope.  Optimism is finite.  Hope keeps you going when you’re in a Roman prison.  Paul was never optimistic.  He was sometimes pessimistic.  However, he had hope in spades.

Hope is what sends Paul to a place like Ephesus in the first place.  A city where a tiny Jewish community and a struggling group of Gentile Christians is heavily outnumbered in an eastern Roman Imperial commercial and religious metropolis.  Hope calls a Christian community together in a place where none should ever thrive or possibly exist.  Paul is praying the Ephesians see the hope unfolding right before their very eyes.  Hope is where the kingdom of God comes together; usually at a table, with singing, sharing, laughter, and prayer.  The universe is reconciled over dinner.  Songs are sung, stories are told, bread is broken, and hope becomes more tangible than anyone ever imagined.  Hope made the kingdom of God a reality in Ephesus.  Hope makes the kingdom of God a reality here as well.  Cosmic stuff happens when people, despite their differences, ask each other to “pass the salt and pepper”.  That’s hope.

Hope is what it is.  For Methodists like us, hope might be simply singing, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.  Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” 

Hope, like peace, is fragile.  We are prone to wander and leave the God we love.  This is why Paul prays so fervently for the ongoing hope being realized in the church at Ephesus.  Living into intangible nouns takes work.  Engaging with our prayers, becoming active participants with God’s ongoing revelation in the here and now, isn’t easy.

Our inclination, as Paul well knows, is to go back and do our own thing.   From the comfort of our pews, homes, cars, and other insulated bubbles we once again trade hope for optimism and get back to our list of concrete, tangible prayers and once again feel like we’re doing something religious.  We passively pray, God acts (or not), and the divine status quo is never disturbed.  We stop meeting in friendship at the table.  God’s story is never told. We’re too busy talking about each other to listen or respond to God.

Should hope or “hopeful awareness” be on our prayer list?  Yes. How do we heed Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians?  How do we keep hope alive without fracturing like a bunch of ill mannered Corinthians or infighting Galatians?  Can we keep our Ephesians hope alive and stirred up, like Thursday’s gravy?

I think the first step toward hopeful awareness is recognition of the different gifts we bring to our common table.  Hope, while an intangible tangible, isn’t a uniform emotion.  We all give voice to the chorus which will eventually produce harmony.  Hope is formed by a simultaneous progression of parts to produce a pleasing, unified sound.  We all have a part to sing or play.  In isolation, it sounds strange.  When you put the parts together, we can see where the music is going, where the melody is heading, and how we’re going to get there together.

How do you get better at your part?  In a larger choir (orchestra or band) they’re called section rehearsals.  Here, we just say, “altos over here” or “sopranos only”.  Each section works on their part.  The altos work on their part, tenors rehearse their line, and so on.  The sections spend concentrated time on the music written exclusively for them to sing or play.  So what happens?  When you come back together, everybody sounds great because you know your part.  The harmony, the hope, is perfect.

What I’m afraid has happened, both in the church and in society at large, is that we’ve gotten too comfortable in our sections.  This sectionalism (or tribalism) is killing our ability to have “enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call”.  Staying in our sections, singing our parts, talking to ourselves about how great it is to be an alto, has led to us hating the tenors, demonizing the bases, and ignoring the sopranos altogether.  We do this in church and we do it the world.  It’s impossible to be hopeful if we never come out of our section, sit down together, and sing around the table.  It’s also inconceivable for a Christian community to pray for hope when our differences define us more than our commonalities.

There’s something bigger than our section.  It’s choir, the symphony, or the orchestra.  The section doesn’t exist as a means to an end. Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to realize that we’re part of something larger than we can realize.  That’s why he uses words like “light” and “see”.  We need to hope so we’ll have the light to see the bigger picture of what our section has been called to join.

Hope isn’t something we possess.  Hope comes alive in community as a shared reality among believers.  I challenge you to hear hope in the voices, stories, lives, and songs of others.  Listen for the harmony that comes when you leave your section and join in the chorus of the Saints.  What do hear?  What are you able to do with that sound?  Does the sound of hope made real move you beyond the mealy mouth pessimism of the crowd? When it all comes together, does hope move you in ways you can’t quite put into words?    It’s supposed to.  Paul says God’s power is a kinetic force, an animating energy.  What made the resurrection possible keeps us going too.

“God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now and in the future.”   That’s hope at work.

Do not be afraid to hope.  Leave your sections.  The section rehearsals must end.  Come together and sing with the church around the table which Jesus has prepared. Others are waiting to share with you.  Hear the Good News:  Paul is not only praying for the Ephesians.  He is praying for us.  We can answer this prayer.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*I am grateful to the work of Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colon-Emeric and Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton for the ideas and inspiration for this sermon.