So, ministers: how many of you, particularly in the free traditions, have your own “book” — often a three-ring binder — where you keep sermon and service texts, and perhaps a calendar and other flat items? (I keep Geneva bands in mine.)
I’ve written about this subject before and have bought several of these books myself but they tend to be utilitarian and covered in vinyl, and the best-looking of these are perversely the ones that fall apart the fastest.
Cloth-covered board and glazed paper covers are sometimes available. There’s one book I’ve had for years, with a textured surface looking more like leather, but made of paper; it’s falling apart, and no longer for public use.
I’d like to think Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back into the pulpit this morning.
Merry Christmas to you all.
The Christmas story, as accounted in the Gospel of Luke, is so familiar that we might not hear the words. Even if you were not brought up in a church and are, say, under 50 years of age, there’s a good chance you learned this passage from Luke off television, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, in Linus’s staggering but guileless spotlight speech.
Mary and Joseph on to Bethlehem. No room in the inn. The manger. The angels and the shepherds: these are familiar and friendly.
But this year, it’s hard not to hear the words with renewed meaning, starting at the beginning of the passage from Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
This was no simple census. It was a foreign intrusion and assertion of power from Rome. Resented, sparking the political movement of Zealots we would meet later, in Jesus’ ministry. Judea, his home, was then administered from Syria, the eastern reach of the Roman Empire, and later united with it. The holy family were vulnerable, and then threatened under Herod’s murderous rage.
The name Syria leaps up from this passage. Aleppo, an ancient city, existed then under another name, so with our new focus on Aleppo, it’s possible to imagine how it was for Jesus’ family in those days, or others like them. The terror and the dying. The wanderings and hunger. Living just beyond the reach of help, but shaped by powerful forces.
That was a time in Judea of religious and political radicalization which ultimately led within a matter of decades to the end of the temple, a radical transformation of Judaism and the end of an independent Israel until living memory. I need not tell you the state of the world today In this telling, the gospel crashes into today.
But, apart from a historical curiosity, what does that show us? That there is suffering always? Are we stuck with endless violence and suffering. If so, what joy is there in Christmas then? Or, put another way, apart from the celebrating, what gospel is there in Christmas.
First, it’s worth owning that we have a lot invested in Christmas, perhaps too much, which has little to do with that first Christmas. Christmas today is a magical, mysterious, otherworldly, amazing, terrifying, bewildering and perplexing time of the year. Its power is palpable and recognizable. I can’t think of another religious holiday in the United States that is so easily made emotionally and socially available to all whatever their religious beliefs. In some ways it is an all-purpose celebration of goodness and hope and that should be available to everybody.
This, on its own, has religious value. As Christians, we should look towards that time that in both now and not-yet, when will we be whole and God will be all-in-all. As with the Lord’s Supper, we share our feasting and happiness in thanksgiving and preparation for that Heavenly Feast before us.
But Christmas is the foundation of an even greater hope, if we can move past the conventions of the telling — the peppermint and snow-flecked trimmings — we see the world around us is not what it seems. The Gospel of Christmas is the direction, pointing us on the way we should go.
We already know in our hearts that the world is not as it should be, as it must be. The soul craves a world refreshed and transformed, and we must bear witness to it. This is the source of true and lasting gladness.
In the passage from Paul’s letter to Titus, we learn to grow in confidence, knowing that our relationship to God is not from what we can provide God, but because of the relationship that God has initiated with us and which is manifested through Jesus’s life which we celebrate today, “we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
We have to remember that the Christmas story is not about one child who managed to attract God’s love and attention but as one child who leads us all back to God’s care. It’s also important how this happens.
The story itself is a story of a “reversal of Fortune”: a reversal of what is important.
Did God’s approved leader appear with strength and might, from a position of power, in a center of power to conquer? None of these happened.
Jesus was born to the Jewish nation, itself very small, and not in Rome, but far from the centers of power. And the promised savior appeared not as a political or military leader but as a newborn infant.
The hope of the ages is knowing that in our smallness, and our powerlessness, and our short lives, and that we might live richly and fully and yet without hurting or dominating one another.
(If you wonder why we gather in prayer the rest of the year, it’s to learn how.)
And yet we are not left alone. God dwells with us, another girt of Christmas. And so we live in hope, and with promises from God reflected in scripture and confirmed buy an inner voice of Truth.
If we are sad or distressed or perplexed or harassed, if we are troubled or menaced or persecuted or embarrassed remember that you are a child of the Living God and that God came to Earth to lead us through a child. And so we grow as children to adulthood with earnestness curiosity joyfulness and loving kindness.
So we celebrate Christmas, even if not in the conventional way. It’s not a prize for being good, but an orientation to how life should be, particularly when everything is going wrong.
The future does not belong to us. But it is before us. Let us approach it with a Christmas spirit: with kindness, love and boldness.
I had the pleasure of preaching at Universalist National Memorial Church today, and by request am posting my notes. Be warned, these notes have as much in common with what I said today as grapes have with vinegar, but most of the points are there. The readings and benediction follow.
Thanks for returning to the pulpit
My thanks to UNMC pastors Crystal Lewis and Dave Gatton for having me return to the pulpit this morning, and thanks to you as we mark this third Sunday in Advent.
As we heard a few minutes ago, Isaiah said:
"Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst, is the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 12:5-6)
Let this be known in all the earth…
But how, friends, shall we sing praises, among ourselves, much less all the earth?
Since the last time I was in this pulpit, the world — if anything — seems dimmer. Not only are there more people desperate to flee violence in the Middle East, South Asia, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, but the violence in Paris and San Bernardino makes it seem that the most vulnerable people are the first to be blamed. Indeed, we have one presidential candidate who has gone farther to stir up viscousness that I thought possible — so far that xenophobic politicians can use him for cover.
And this says nothing about the older wounds fading from the news cycle, or the private hurts. The losses, the slights, the could-have-beens and what-never-will-bes at home, at work and in the wider world.
In short, there doesn’t seem to be very much to be happy about. And yet I feel a lot of expectation to be happy, with Christmas coming, and everything.
How can we look at our world and and hope that joy will follow?
We tend to chose the wrong frame
But I’m not ready for Christmas
I’ve not bought a single present for Christmas. I’ve not decided on what cards to send, or if we’re even sending cards from home. I’ve not even bought stamps.
Perhaps it’s the warm weather. It doesn’t feel like Christmas yet. And that’s not even taking into account how sad and miserable Christmas can be. Like when someone you love has died and won’t be here this Christmas. Or when you have to disappoint someone because the girt is wrong or the travel is too difficult. In those cases, it doesn’t feel like it’s time for joy.
But it’s not just Christmas. We are fixed to our calendars
We mark our whole lives with calendars. Even before we are born, our development is marked and measured in weeks. As children, our lives our tied to school calendars, and often, as adults, to quarterly reports and fiscal years.
This time of the year, we are particularly aware of our calendars. So much ends with December, and if you work in a nonprofit, for instance, you know that this is the time to bring donations in. And time to buy a new calendar for 2016. The predictability of calendars is part of the appeal, I suppose.
Calendars aren’t appropriate
But I think calendars, by simply existing can mislead us — mislead us into thinking that God’s desire for us can also be measured and scheduled.
If you can measure or schedule something — like joy — you risk acting like you have more control over than you really do. And I don’t mean a pink candle, a cross-country flight or a doctor’s appointment, as much as compartmentalizing our lives. Deferring everyday pleasures in hope of really enjoying something, somehow, sometime in the future.
But life is too short and too uncertain to be compartmentalized.
And I believe that we were made for happiness. And that we can and we should live our lives accordingly.
Joy, in particular, cannot be scheduled. It can be found or cultivated, but it cannot be scheduled.
So how can we find or cultivate it? We have some unlikely resources. Consider John the Baptist.
John the Baptist
According to the passage we heard this morning,
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
This is not what I associate with joy, you? But then again, John’s an unlikely character. But he’s certainly not someone who was likely to compartmentalize his life. What you see is what you get.
Usually depicted as a liminal, almost wild figure. He was probably acetic, certainly an apocalyptic, and given his diet of locusts and wild honey — he was definitely Paleo.
His camel hair suit sounds scratchy (Matthew 3:4) and I suspect he smelled less than fresh.
But John was the forerunner, anticipating Jesus. When Mary spoke to Elizabeth, John — still in utero — John lept for joy. We’re supposed to see him as a part of God’s greater purpose, and that’s not a tragic role.
Joy is more than getting what you want and when you want it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that John wasjolly, but he know what he was, know what he had to do, and saw it faithfully to the end.
How many of us can say that of our own lives? And what we do to know ourselves so deeply, to know what we must to fully, and saw it through completely? And if the outcome was goodness, in what was would that not be joy?
The Winchester Profession
Each week we recite the freewill declaration of faith that this church adopted in 2008. Before that, we recited the officially adopted declaration of faith that Universalists adopted in 1899.
But that was itself an interpretation — and not a replacement — for the cornerstone document of Universalist faith. It was adopted in 1803 in Winchester, New Hampshire, and so is commonly called the Winchester Profession. Its three articles are short enough to be printed on an index card. Here’s the whole thing:
We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
There’s a lot going on there.
The Winchester Profession isn’t just focused on the nature of God or human destiny, but on how we should live our faith, and not simply think about it.
First, while we as Universalists speak about a lot about "the final destination" of the human family, our heritage puts equal weight on discerning our "duty" from scripture. A duty that isn’t spelled out.
Second, that this final destination has a character derived not from chance or fortune or luck, but from God’s own nature, and that this nature is love. Universalists would quibble that it’s wrong to say we will be restored, as there was no factual Garden of Eden. Our common past might be mythic, but they agreed on the source of our hope for a common future.
Third, and this is the kicker…
Say, do you have a phrase that you go back to in times of stress. A quiet mantra that helps you frame difficult problem?
After the Lord’s Prayer, my go-to phrase comes from the Winchester Profession.
"Holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected."
This little phrase reminds me of something early Universalists wanted to remind themselves and others. Just because God is loving, and will save all — it doesn’t mean that you can do just what you want.
What is holiness?
For one thing, we have to face the idea of holiness, and that’s going to be hard. For many of us, holiness is tied up from childhood with an expectation that God has prepared a list of dos and don’ts. If that was the case, correct living is a simple as doing certain things and not doing others. Mostly the don’ts.
We saw this dynamic vividly this year in Kentucky. We remember Rowan County clerk Kim Davis, who famously defied federal court orders to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. News coverage focused on the how, and less on the why.
But when I heard that she was a member of a Oneness Pentecostal church, it all made sense. Those churches practice what’s called outward holiness. Some unkind commentators pointed out her unfashionable clothes, unmade-up face and uncoiffed hair. But looking plain is as much as part of her Christian witness as her refusal to issue the marriage licenses. Presumably, she also avoids movie theaters and doesn’t wear jewelry, possibly not even a wedding ring. It’s a kind of rule-based separation from the world that at the same time identifies the believer with God and — here’s the problem — sets the believer over other people.
Kim Davis may not think so, but it’s not hard to see her setting herself over other people. Wearing her faith on her sleeve and lording her authority over others.
I can respect her response to discipleship, but not its form or its effect.
At its heart, it seems based in fear, and taking it beyond Kim Davis — because she’s hardly alone in this — that this kind of holiness is holiness in name only.
So, what should she — or we — do?
Our Universalist tradition offers hints to a mode of holiness that is at the same time more life-affirming and more resonant with the Gospel.
The implication is that holiness is a way of life where we grow into closeness with God. Thus, there’s no checklist.
The result of this closeness is not fear, but joy.
This closeness opens us up to be new people, unafraid of the moment’s hardships.
This closeness slowly transforms us to see other people and the world around us a God would see it.
To grow closer to God is to hope that joy may follow.
Joy may, but not necessarily, follow
I don’t want to mislead you. A life of increasing holiness and happiness takes work, and some people never know it in this life.
This isn’t the kind of thing you receive in a flash, or that gets better over a fifteen minute sermon.
Not just personal holiness
And it’s not limited to personal self-cultivation.
There is not one mode of happiness
You will never be happy — truly happy — living through someone else’s dream. Just as a you are a particular person with likes and dislikes, your vocation in God — one that will lead you to happiness and holiness — cannot be copied in full from one person to another.
Tools for finding happiness
John, for all his wild manners, did not focus on doom and punishment, but in repentance; that is, for people to find to change their lives and to live in harmony with God.
This church is a school and hospital for people who want to grow into something new.
And here Joy may follow.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?
The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that
In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.
We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.
In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.
But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.
So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.
This is a blog-beg for preachers and ministers of any denomination who preach or have preached in churches that meet less than weekly, and who use a lectionary or observe a traditional church calendar. I appreciate your sharing this with anyone who has experience.
In short, how do you make it work? Do you use the lessons or propers of the day however it may fall? Do you pick from one of the Sunday lessons since the last worship service? Or before the next? And what about major holidays?
For a church that meets once a month or so, do you transfer Easter and Christmas (and Pentecost, today) to the nearest service, or rely on members worshipping with another congregation at the proper time? And if you do transfer the holiday, is it a kind of Lent-Easter/Advent-Christmas service? And how does that work?
Churches that meet infrequently probably aren’t high on anyone’s list, so it would be a great help to share ideas and resources. I’d appreciate details in the comments.
So, tomorrow is Mother’s Day. And I’m glad I’m not preaching. It’s an impossible gig. I’m really glad I’m not preaching.
You need to talk about Mother’s Day, as if it were traditional for churches and not a civil and cultural observance, so lacking many of the liturgical hooks that makes worship manageable.
You need to show how important motherhood is, particularly for those who have dedicated large parts of their lives to it, without minimizing those who did not or could not have children, or suggesting that this is the main end of womanhood.
You need to extol maternal love, but also recognize that some mothers are or were hurtful, abusive, or otherwise harmful.
You need to acknowledge the deathlessness of the love that often did exist without hurting those still mourning their mothers.
You may need to talk about the fact that we are all someone’s child, without harming those who lost their children.
You may recognize that some people grow up with no mother, but perhaps not without one or more fathers, at the risk of making motherhood a vague concept.
You can point out that Mother’s Day began as a peace action, but not without addressing the other points.
And you need to balance all these conflicts, and pray that this careful act isn’t undercut by some well meaning custom, like rose corsages. A custom that may be very well-loved by some.
Internet Archive has a tool that searches news broadcasts back to 2009, but since it’s fairly new, you may not have heard about it. Lots of uses, but I’m thinking particularly of those preachers who heard of, or were told of, a news segment but then don’t have access to it.
I thought a demonstration was in order, but so many of the searches were old or sad (funerals, vigils) that when I came across this 2014 Fox News segment with a Unitarian Universalist named John “Mac” McNichol, who is a living kidney donor, I knew I had to share it.