Confessions of a Burned Out, Tripped Up, Fence Riding, People Pleasing, Generation X, Emotionally Challenged, Preacher from the Wrong Side of the Theological Tracks

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.

–Richard Bryant

Advent 2: It Was Never Easy Being Johnny – Matthew 3:1-12

The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.

The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.

It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?

Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.

What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.   

Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.

John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.

–Richard Bryant

Putting On Your Loudest Christmas Sweater – A Reflection on Romans 13:11-14

Underlying The Season of Advent is one central idea expressed in three ways:

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God’s Love for Humanity

1. The gulf between God and humanity is slightly more comprehensible than ever before in human history. Instead of:

GOD IN THE DISTANCE.

GOD ON A MOUNTAINTOP.

GOD HEARD IN THE ANGER OF THUNDER.

GOD IS HIDDEN AMONG CLOUDS.

We may interact with God directly as we interact with one another. Speak with God as you would speak to a loving parent or friend.

The gulf between humanity and God is permanently bridged. God is present and embodied incarnate in a family and the larger human community.

2. We love each other as we love ourselves. This is our framework for living and relating to other people. It’s how we fine-tune our corner of the universe every day. This is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to see why Jesus distilled 613 commandments into this single idea because it is full-time work.

If we can master this idea, our ability to love more, fight less, make peace, mend the broken fabric of society, feed hungry people, and be as Christlike as possible becomes easier. We have a chance at a kind of love we’ve never had before, making the prophetic ideal a reality.

3. We layer these habits and practices into our lives, one on top of another. (Think of putting on a loud, ugly, colorful Christmas sweater and then another on top of that and then another on top of that one.)

Paul calls this putting on “the armor of light” or putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

If we can put meat on the bone of commandment one by being in a community/relationship, incarnational living with Jesus (internalizing this moral vision), then loving God and loving each other is the natural byproduct.  If we put on and internalize outlandish love (spiritually), we will give away Christ’s love extravagantly (spiritually and physically).

Once you’ve put this one on, it’s never seasonal or out of style. You do not need to take it off. It becomes part of who you are – people see the Jesus in you if it’s on you, like a loud Christmas sweater, a Santa tie, or bright red shoes. It’s who you are all year long.

–Richard Bryant