I have decided to give up on robes, vestments, and the like. This isn’t because I’ve been thrust into an ultra-contemporary setting that doesn’t do liturgical-style worship where these are out of place. This is entirely my decision. I don’t feel comfortable wearing them any longer. I have a closet full of cassocks, robes, albs, beautiful stoles, and even a chasuble or two. As a Methodist, I have a well-stocked religious wardrobe that I wore during the four years I served in the British Isles. I lived among Anglicans and dressed similarly. Back home, I wore a cassock, stole, and collar tabs on most Sundays. I’ve always considered myself a High-Church kind of guy. However, my attitude toward vestments (and worship in general) began to change during the pandemic.
I wondered, is this what Jesus intended? If Jesus were to walk into my congregation (wherever I happen to be serving at the time) and see me standing up front in a fancy black cassock or white alb, a stole over my shoulders, and maybe a pectoral cross around my neck, what would he say? Given what I know of Jesus, I started to think he might say, “Dude, what are you wearing? This is not at all what I intended.” Of course, I worked hard to earn the right to wear a robe and stole on Sunday morning, wear a clerical collar, and dress like a Roman Catholic priest, but that doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.
I could hear Jesus saying, “I was hanging out with my friends in my simple robes, sandals, and such, teaching, eating, and learning about the kingdom of God. Where did you get the idea that I wanted you to dress like a late 18th Puritan cleric once a week? Be honest, did you make this up or did a friend tell you this was cool?”
I know where the idea came from; I took church history, theology, and liturgy. After serving for two years in Russia, I know the vestments unique to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and my own tradition. I also understand that my beliefs have evolved. The “uniform” no longer makes sense to me. If Jesus walked into our churches, so much of what we say and do would look foreign, out of whack, and contrary to his vision of the kingdom of God. I’m reasonably sure Jesus never intended me to dress like a wannabe Dumbledore once a week. If you think about it, it’s a little weird.
I’m not sure the people we need to reach in 2023 will come back to churches led by women and men who dress like they stepped out of the Middle Ages. We just survived the medieval style plague; why dress the part too? Instead of wasting valuable catechetical time on why we dress the way we do or expecting people to simply accept our historical eccentricities, we could be talking about loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I’m all for removing any surplus weirdness from our church services. Don’t get me wrong; I will not dress like a slob or preach with my shirt untucked. My shoes will be shined, my shirt pressed, my pants ironed, and my blazer will be dry cleaned. But, we can still be relatable and present the gospel without looking like a disheveled character on a 90’s sitcom.
Whatever clothes we’re issued in the afterlife, I sure hope it’s not the white robes described in the Book of Revelation. If I’m going to be there for eternity, I want to be comfortable. So count me out on the forever robe. I’m asking God for a hoodie, sweatpants, and crocs.
Besides, Sheriff Andy Taylor never wore a gun (or a necktie), yet everyone knew who he was. He was just Andy. From here on out, I’m just Richard, and I’m going to let my reputation speak for me.
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!
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.
Aloha, Namaste, Howdy, and Ho, Ho, Ho. I bid you glad tidings of great joy.
Let us begin in the beginning! Christmas makes as good a place to start as any. In a perfect world, if there were no guardrails and I could say whatever I wanted from the pulpit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, it might look like this:
I’m tired. I’ll say that from the start. I’m tired of saying things year after year that contradict long-held scholarly consensus, academic convention, and what I was taught in seminary. I do this because I fear offending people and making them angry if I challenge even the slightest aspect of something they’ve always believed to be true about Christmas. I do not want to alienate anyone. I only want to do the job I was trained to do and do it well.
In a world so rife with division, we could use more truth throughout our denomination and the church. I’m not attacking faith. Faith is what I preach, proclaim, and live. However, I believe we can be faithful people without asking each other to ignore history and science and unwittingly embrace the problematic aspects of the Christmas and Epiphany stories year after year.
I know virgin births were a common motif in divinity origin stories among the ancient Near East religions. Jesus’ and Mary’s account of a virgin birth is not unique. What matters is that Jesus is born. The how isn’t important. We’ve created a theological framework linking our salvation to Mary’s virginity. Who came up with that idea? A man. A human man, not a divine being. Men have a history of calling the shots over women, their bodies, religion, and sexuality. I’m a parent of three daughters. I’m a man and a feminist.
The church celebrates the birth of the Christian son of God on a co-opted pagan Roman holiday for worshiping the pagan son of God: myth becomes history then history becomes myth again. This cycle has repeated itself for two thousand years. Why can’t we keep things simple and tell the truth? Jesus was probably born in the spring. Christmas works for our market-driven 21st economy, but it’s not historically accurate. I should be able to say this from the pulpit without fear. What matters is that Jesus was born. I have faith in his birth. That, to me, means more than anything else.
Let’s talk about the Wise Men. Can we believe the Holy Family hung around in Nazareth for months (or years) after Jesus’ birth? No. At the same time, Zoroastrian astrologers chased a wandering comet to somehow end up right on his doorstep. It’s a great story, but it’s not true. It’s a beautiful and colorful invention on Matthew’s part to show Jesus’ appeal beyond the Jewish people, but after two thousand years of nativity plays, we’ve come to believe a falsehood; three guys (we assume three because of three gifts it could have been ten, the text doesn’t say an exact number) showed up to pay homage to Jesus. It’s a weird story and a little dark when you consider it. This low-income family from Galilee, unable to return to Nazareth, was being used as political pawns between these “unsuspecting” foreign dignitaries and King Herod’s machinations for genocide. How could the wise men not have sensed Herod’s evil intentions? If we take Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the innocents at face value, they were crucial to Herod’s plan to murder hundreds of innocent children. As the story stands, the Wise Men are accessories to genocide. Today, they would be tried as war criminals in an international criminal court. We regard them as side players and bathrobe-wearing extras in our nativity pageants. No, they do not belong.
Historians, for decades, have looked for evidence of a large-scale genocide of children in the region around Bethlehem during the years 4-6 BCE. None has ever been found. There is no historical or archaeological evidence of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. To fulfill the prophecy that Jesus needed to come “out” of Egypt like a new Moses, Jesus and his family needed a reason to be driven into Egypt. Matthew provided one. Do we need to hinge our faith in a manufactured genocide? The wise men never arrived in Bethlehem because the precipitating event which drove them home “by another route” never occurred.
What does this do to our image of Jesus as a refugee, fleeing Herod’s persecution to live in a foreign land (Egypt)? This, too, rests in the category of Matthew’s embellishments. Perhaps Christians should help refugees because it is the right and moral thing to do, not because Matthew claims that Jesus was a refugee. Do we not have an obligation to aid the poor because it is right to help them above and beyond the fact that Jesus was poor? If we’re only doing the right thing because our stories tell us to do so, then what on earth are we doing?
What’s wrong with letting Jesus, the redeemer of humanity, stand on his own two feet? Isn’t Jesus strong enough to warrant our attention span without these admittedly good yarns? Why do we believe our faith, to survive, needs to be woven through misrepresentations, outright distortions of the truth, and fantasy? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be telling you what I don’t dare preach on Christmas.
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?
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.
I do not believe in Santa Claus. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m uncomfortable with the traditional, metaphorical idea of Santa Claus that most adults hold once they’ve been let in on the lie. The idea of the strange, smelly man from the mall being allowed into our home (at one time by my parents, nonetheless) to leave Christmas presents around our tree, drink our milk, and eat a portion of our cookies, made me uneasy. To paraphrase the great country music singer Ronnie Milsap, I didn’t like the idea of a “stranger in my house.” I am an only child. I never felt more vulnerable and fearful than on the night of December 24th. Of course, I kept these feelings to myself for the most part. Everyone seemed oblivious to the realities of the impending break-ins that were about to occur.
We would eat dinner on Christmas Eve at my aunt’s home year. After eating a large meal and opening gifts from those on my mother’s side of the family, the conversation would start slowly shifting toward heading home. At about 8:30, someone would invariably say, “You need to hurry up and get home and get to bed, or Santa won’t come.” That was okay with me. I didn’t want him to come. I’d be OK with my parents shopping for me or buying my gifts. I didn’t want an unknown Scandinavian in my living room. I didn’t want to get home to stay up all night to encounter Santa to see him, the sleigh, and the eight tiny reindeer. I wanted to make sure the doors were locked. If he were going to leave anything for me and my house, he could leave it on the porch or by the front door.
Even as a young person, the math and physics of Santa Claus didn’t jive with reality. On Christmas Eve, the local television station would pick up radar transmissions from NORAD (a branch of the US Air Force charged with detecting incoming Soviet nuclear missiles) depicting Santa crossing Canada southward toward the United States. If I had been a Wiley Coyote-like godless Communist sometime in the mid-1980s, Christmas Eve would have been an ideal time to launch a sneak attack on the United States. America would have been unable to differentiate from all those Santa Clauses heading to North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, or Minnesota, and Soviet ICBM’s being launched toward major military bases.
But the biggest question of all was never answered. How did Santa go to every child’s house in one night? This out-of-shape old man performed an inexplicable feat, which was attributed to the magic of Christmas. He broke into locked homes, over dozens of time zones, delivered gifts, ate the regional equivalents of cookies and milk, wasn’t spotted, and we were expected to never question this preposterous lie. My parents, who’d worked hard to buy my gifts, stood around and watched me say “thank you” for a new X-Wing fighter to a man who didn’t exist. That’s what the tag said, “To Richard, From Santa.” Who was I to question the tag? How did they feel that an imaginary man was getting all the credit for their hard work?
I could never get it out of my mind that something was wrong with “the Santa Claus system” on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There was something off about the whole process. You can’t build meaningful stories on bits and pieces of mythology and lies. Eventually, the entire story falls apart, especially when anyone starts to ask simple, common-sense questions. Christmas Eve is good. Christmas is even better. It’s when we start telling (and adding) these unnecessary lies about Santa Claus that mess up one of the greatest stories ever told.
We should stop lying to our children about Santa Claus. It’s messed up on so many levels. We should also stop putting so much emphasis on the unnecessary parts of Luke 2. We’ve retold these parts for so long that we don’t listen to them anymore. We’ve become numb and tuned them out. We pretend to listen. Thanks to Linus and the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, our hearts are warmed by the simplicity and beauty of Luke’s narrative. We know to expect this soliloquy. Yet, when it happens, it’s like hearing Charlie Brown’s teacher on the phone, “wawawawa.” Some parts of what Luke tells us are beautiful and essential. Others, like the yearly rituals of Santa’s break-ins and cookie consumption, challenge common sense and historical evidence, need to be questioned, and undermine the critical message Luke conveys.
I don’t like lying to my congregation; I don’t like doing it year after year. But pastors do it with abandon, especially at Christmas. Luke got the date of Quirinus’ reign wrong. The census of Quirinus, the great administrative reason for putting Joseph and Mary on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, never occurred. It did not happen. If you, as I did, used Raymond Brown’s New Testament textbook in seminary, you learned there wasn’t an empire-wide census during the reign of Caesar Augustus, nor did Romans have systems for directly taxing client states. We know this from multiple attested ancient sources. Unless we’re preaching from Biblical footnotes, most clergy are repeating a comfortable, well-worn lie. A tyrannical imperial bureaucracy didn’t force Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. Why do we put so many unnecessary preconditions on Jesus’ birth? The truth is this: Jesus was born. More likely than not, he was born in Nazareth, at home. That’s what matters. Jesus was born.
Here’s another commonsense smell test. What husband in his right mind would put his wife in her last few months of pregnancy on a weeks-long donkey trip across open country for a census that only he needed to complete? Women couldn’t own property in 1st century Palestine; her presence was entirely superfluous and would pose a danger to her and the unborn child’s health. The census story, like Santa’s Christmas Eve trip around the world, is one we repeat without caring that it is false and doesn’t make sense. It is fiction, one that can be spun in any number of directions depending on our theological proclivities. Why prevaricate?
What makes the story unique? The truth that Jesus was born at home into a supportive and loving family may not make a good copy for a Christmas Eve sermon, but at least it’s true. If we need anything now, we need the truth.
We hear a good deal these days about “scriptural authority.” Members of my congregation have told me that the problem with the United Methodist Church isn’t our position on human sexuality but our stance on “scriptural authority.” I don’t think they know what those words mean. Here’s what I mean: I’m tired of prioritizing specific passages over others and giving some texts a factual basis in history, year after year, Sunday after Sunday, that doesn’t exist. It’s exasperating to be told that I have no respect for scripture when I have tremendous respect for scripture. What’s burning me out is the weekly recycling of the same old lies, both large and small, when there are better truths to be told about God, whose love for humanity I believe knows no bounds.
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.
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.