Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbelievers Search for the Truth About Everything
by Barbara Ehrenreich
(c) 2014 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve Books. 237 pgs.

2 ½ out of 5 stars.

I was disappointed in this book, and perhaps that had more to do with what I was hoping to find within its pages rather than what Barbara Ehrenreich has to present.  I have read and greatly enjoyed many of her books, with Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch being near the top. I have also tried to “read” another of her books, Dancing in the Streets, but had to stop.  I have read in quotes because I was actually listening to it and therefore assumed that one of the reasons I couldn’t get into it had nothing to do with the book but instead with the narrator. Perhaps after reading Living with a Wild God I need to reassess that situation.

Based on the title, which also includes the fact that she claims to be an atheist, I was expecting her to explain her struggles and wrestling with God (however she might define that term).  I was hoping that it might be similar to Nevada Barr’s excellent biography Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat: A Skeptics Path to Religion in which she too is a non-believer who comes to encounter God in a unique way. But that expectation on my part was never closely matched.

Ehrenreich is born into a family that not only has rejected the idea of God, but proudly has rejected that and seems to hold that as deeply as others hold onto God, and perhaps just as unquestioningly.  She begins by going into a long history of her family, close and extended, and their various dysfunctions, and then continues through her college and early adult years.  It was never really clear to me why this information was important, or where it was leading, nor is it clear why she stops telling us this information when she does.  A constant refrain I had throughout the book was “what does this have to do with the subject” which I thought was living with a wild God, and coming to terms with a mystical/spiritual event she has as a teenager.  I thought about putting the book down on several occasions but kept hoping it would get to the point and it would get better.

Ehrenreich’s experience is really more than just one event, but is centered around one significant experience in which it seems like her life became sort of like a Picasso painting in which everything lost shape and colors swirled while at the same time having a significant vitality that “glowed and pulsed with life.”  This left her unmoored, although it might be argued she was already unmoored by relying on solipsism, or the belief that the only thing she knows to be real is herself.  I say that it seems like this is what happened because Ehrenreich never really explains in a way that is understandable, at least to me, what actually happens.  Perhaps this is because, as William James says, one of the attributes of mystical experiences is that they are ineffable, or can’t be put into words.

Ehrenreich actually uses that term several times, although not ever really in reference to her own experience, and sadly doesn’t even make reference to James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature until some 200 pages into the work.  Since Ehrenreich is someone who is known as digging deeply into the history of ideas I was expecting much more wrestling with these experiences throughout history, which really doesn’t happen.  Nor does she ever really wrestle with the idea of God, or the Other as she begins to call it, until the very end, and then it’s still very superficial.

She concludes the book by saying “But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well, it’s designated function beyond all mundane calculations: to condense all the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not our of any intention to ‘worship’ it.  But because ultimately we may have no choice in this matter.  I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.”

Does that mean that she has shifted from an atheist to a troubled agnostic? It’s unknown.  Perhaps others will get a lot more out of this than I did, and perhaps my expectations of the work when I entered, in judging the book not so much by its cover but at least by its title, impacted my view of what Ehrenreich presents (and perhaps, like many authors, she had nothing to do with the title). It had great potential, but I think she should have left much of the “living” out an instead struggled with the experience and what it might mean to have a “wild God” or at the very least to have explored how an scientist and atheist ultimately comes to terms with the question of “why?” rather than leaving that to the last few pages.

Monday, February 1, 2016

All You Need Is Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Corinthians 13:1-13:

Perhaps no other subject has been written and sung about more than love.  I’m sure that almost all of us could name at least five songs dealing with love without even thinking about it, for Paul McCartney is probably right, “You'd Think That People Would Have Had Enough Of Silly Love Songs.  But I Look Around Me And I See It Isn't So.” Of course McCartney, as part of the Beatles, would probably have at least one song on any list of love songs that we created.  For me at least, I can’t think of love songs without several Beatles songs popping into my head, not counting Helter Skelter, and I think their focusing on this subject was directly related to what was going on at the time when they were writing.  The 60’s were a time of turmoil and crisis.  The nation was deeply divided over many issues; we were fighting a war with no clear end in sight that some said was absolutely important to protect America and to others it seemed meaningless and believed that we were led into the war by deceit if not outright lies.  People didn’t trust the president or congress, and things generally seemed to be getting worse rather than better.  Who says that history doesn’t repeat itself?

And yet in the midst of this turmoil, musicians were singing about love and we were being told that all you need is love.  But could that really be true?  Could love solve all of our problems?  Is love really all we need?

Part of the problem of answering that question lies in the definition of love.  What is love?  What does it look like?  What does it feel like?  These are not easy questions because in our culture love is a lot of things.  We talk about falling in love, as if love is a hole or a pit, and for some maybe it is.  And we use the same word to describe our feelings about lots of different things.  So I can say I love my wife and I love my daughters.  But, I also love Italian food, I love to read, I love baseball and I love God.  Certainly, the meaning of love is not the same in all of these things, so what is love?  What does it mean?  What does it look like?  And what do we do with it?  Perhaps Eliza Doolittle is right.  In My Fair Lady, she cries out “Words, words, words!  I’m so sick of words!  Don’t talk to me of love, don’t talk to me of June, don’t talk to me of anything at all, just show me!”  I think that is what Paul is trying to do in this passage.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Spiritual Gifts

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Corinthians 12:1-11:

This week, my youngest daughter asked what I was preaching on this week, and then asked how it was that I came up with something different to say each week. I was a little surprised by the question because normally she is spending all her time at the back of the church in the Kid’s Korner, and certainly acting as if she is not paying any attention to what I have to say each week, although occasionally she will make some comment about the sermon, or ask me a question about it, so I know she’s at least occasionally paying attention. But I certainly never expected her to ask how I decided what to preach on, and it’s a question that few people have asked me over the years.  I told her there were lots of things that went into it, and one of the most important was what I thought that we needed to hear, and as a corollary of that what I was feeling called to preach on. 
Now they say that a normal preacher has only one sermon that they deliver every week, just in different ways.  Good preachers have two sermons they give over and over in different ways.  And great preachers have three sermons that they give in different ways.  Now whether I am a great preacher or not, I like to think that I have at least three different sermons that I preach, and yet for the past few months, it feels like I keep coming back to the same messages again and again.  Perhaps I’m like the new preacher who gave exactly the same sermon on loving our neighbor as ourselves for the first three weeks he was at the church.  When the leadership told him perhaps it would be a good idea for him to preach on something else, he said “Once you’ve got a hang of loving all, then we’ll move onto something else.”  Or, perhaps, I’ve simply become a little unoriginal in my messages.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why Do Fundamentalists Publish Books On The Bible?

"The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it."  That statement is one common amongst fundamentalists in America.  They feel they can say that because they also believe that the language of the Bible is plain and easily understood, and thus doesn't need to be interpreted by anyone.  If scripture is not easily understood then it runs into the problem of needing to be interpreted for people, which brings in personal bias, rather than hearing God's "unadulterated" word. (Well temporarily ignore the fact that reading brings in its own bias.)  Thus they can try and make the claim that the Bible clearly says it and they don't have to think about it and therefore it is settled.

One of the lectionary readings for this week is from Nehemiah, which says "They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard." (8:8 NRSV)  Now it could be that some of the people did not speak Hebrew and thus that is the reason it needed to be explained and interpreted.  But I think a better reading is that scripture is often hard to understand and needs to be explained and interpreted for people, which is what Ezra and others were doing.

Indeed, what I spend a large amount of my time doing as a pastor is interpreting and explaining scripture to people. Scripture is not usually explicit in what it means, and often there are different meanings and interpretations.  This is especially true when reading it in a language other than it's original language, where interpretation has already been done.  I often tell people that as soon as they think they have a passage figured out they should go back and read it again because they have probably missed something.

Which leads me back to the fundamentalist perspective, and something that occurred to me as I contemplated that passage, is that if scripture is plain and easily understood, then why do fundamentalists have preachers to tell them what they could clearly get for themselves if they simply read scripture.  And more importantly why do they ever publish any books on scripture which certainly not only seek to interpret scripture but also make sure that people interpret it in the correct way. If it's so clear shouldn't we be able to figure it out on our own?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Preach the Good News

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 4:14-21:

In a speech I saw by Bishop Will Willimon, he recalled the first time he went to visit a prisoner on death row.  He said he was a little nervous going in knowing that the person he was going to be meeting with had committed some atrocious crime.  After arriving at the prison he was searched and then given a long set of instructions about what he could and could not do and could and could not say, and when he entered the room he had no idea what was going to happen.  After the prisoner he was meeting with sat down, Bishop Willimon asked him what he wanted to talk about; he said “Do you think the United Methodist Church is doing enough to reach out to a new generation offering them Christ?”  That was not really the question he expected to start the conversation out with.  As they continued to talk, Bishop Willimon found out that the man had become a Christian while on death row.  When asked how he came to Christ, the man said “well I heard a lot about Jesus and he thought he and I had a lot in common.”  To which Bishop Willimon said, “are you Jewish too?”  “No,” the man said, “Jesus was on death row and was executed by the state, and I’m on death row waiting to be executed by the state, so I think we’ve faced the similar things.”
That comment came back to me this week as I was thinking about he radical claim that Jesus is making in this passage and what it actually means for us, and what it means for others as well.  We often sentimentalize Christianity, and it’s message, removing some of the teeth and the call, removing the fact that we worship a man who was arrested, tried and executed, not because he was a nice guy, the state tends not to kill nice guys, but because his message, his good news, was seen as a threat not just to the religious leaders of his day, but more importantly because he was seen as a threat to the Roman empire itself.  There are significant costs to being a prophet.  Tavist Smilley said, “You can have people like what you say, or you can offer a prophetic message, but you cannot do both.”

Monday, January 11, 2016

Splish Splash

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The scripture was Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:

I know that most of you are too young to remember the game show To Tell the Truth, so let me give you a quick summary.  Each week, there would be three people all pretending to be the same person, although one of them was the actual person, and then the panel of four celebrities would ask each of the contestants a series of questions to try and determine who was the real person and who were pretenders, at the end of the show, the host would say “would the real Joe Schmoe please stand up.”  At the beginning of today’s passage we have a short version of To Tell the Truth taking place.  John the Baptist is out at the Jordan River making a unique, or somewhat unique, proclamation about God and calling for people to come and repent and be baptized, hence his name.  Some of the people are beginning to wonder if John might be the Messiah, or the Christ in Greek, when Jesus shows up on the scene, and suddenly people are saying will the real Messiah please stand up, except that rather than the host making that call, it is John himself, at least in Luke’s gospel, that makes the call.
The Baptism of Jesus, which we remember today, and always the first Sunday after Epiphany, represents the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in many ways, but is also unique amongst the gospel stories.  It is unique because it is one of the few stories that is actually found in all four gospels.  That puts it right up there with the passion story.  We like to think that all the gospels tell the same story, or stories, but they don’t.  They have their own unique perspective and their own unique stories that only occur in their gospels, or perhaps in another.  So for example, only two gospels give us birth stories, and they are nowhere close in telling us the same story, other than the rough outline that Mary and Joseph had  a baby named Jesus and it happened in Bethlehem.

Monday, January 4, 2016

By A Different Road

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:1-12:

Most of us have particular roads on which we like to travel.  For the most part, we always go to and from work the same way, we go to the grocery store the same way, we go to church the same way.  We do this so much that there are times when we totally disengage while driving and we end up, usually at home, and we don’t remember doing the drive at all.  We know the route so well that we don’t even really have to be involved in doing it any more.  Now this does not mean that this route is necessarily the best route to take, the easiest or the quickest, although we would probably argue that it is, but it is the route that we are most used to and so it’s what we do.  And we stay on that route unless something pushes us off of it, construction, and accident or perhaps a major snow storm.  Normally, there are multiple ways to do something, multiple routes to take, but we don’t take them because it’s not how we normally go and we don’t really want to change anything.  We like our particular road just fine, thank you very much.  Even if it’s not really working for us anymore, we’re going to stick to it, because gosh darn it we’re not quitters.  Finding a different road isn’t really all that hard, most of the time, but it’s making the decision to go home by a different road that’s the tough part.
Of course the church is not necessarily the best place to be talking about trying new things, not just because new things tend to be resisted by many people, although I haven’t yet heard any complaints about the new seating arrangements, but even more because the church itself likes to keep things the same.  It’s part of that whole tradition thing, and we could sing right along with Tevye, and the fact that we celebrate the same things every year, and so we find ourselves today, just like this time last year, celebrating Epiphany which is the arrival of the wise men who come to see and worship Jesus.  The actual celebration of Epiphany is January 6, as today is only the tenth day of Christmas, and I hope to find my ten lords a leaping wrapped in my office after worship, but we celebrate epiphany today since I don’t figure most of you would be here for worship on the 6th, plus the fact that the 6th is the anniversary of Linda and my first date and so she wouldn’t be really happy with me if I was to be here.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 Books

This is a list of the books I read in 2015.  (This is more for my memory than for everyone else to know).

  1. 1066 by Jennifer Paxton
  2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  3. A Disease Called Childhood: WHY ADHD Became an American Epidemic by Marilyn Wedge
  4. A Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games by Michael Weinreb
  5. A Spirituality of Fundraising by Henri Nouwen
  6. After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality and American Religion by Anthony M. Petro
  7. Against the Tide: Rickover's Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy by Rear Admiral Dave Oliver
  8. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, trans. by A.W. Wheen
  9. Allegiance by Timothy Zahn
  10. American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon
  11. Bellow Stairs by Margaret Powell
  12. Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey
  13. Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing by Joe Domanick
  14. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  15. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster
  16. Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell
  17. Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism by Bartow J. Elmore
  18. City of Dreams by William Martin
  19. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
  20. Coronado by Dennis Lehane
  21. Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader by James Luceno
  22. Darwin: Portrait of a Genius by Paul Johnson
  23. Death Star by Michael Reeves and Steve Perry
  24. Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  25. E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth's Core by William Joyce
  26. Entreleadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches by Dave Ramsey
  27. Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir D. Aczel
  28. Five Marks of a Methodist: The Fruit of a Living Faith by Steve Harper
  29. Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
  30. Free: Why Science hasn't Disproved Freewill by Albert R. Mele
  31. From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History by Kenneth Hammond
  32. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  33. God's Chosen Fast: A Spiritual and Practical Guide to Fasting by Arthur Wallis
  34. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Other's Don't by James C. Collins
  35. Grave Robber: How Jesus can make Your Impossible Possible by Mark Batterson
  36. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmblood by Suzanne Collins
  37. Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins
  38. Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane by Suzanne Collins
  39. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
  40. Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin
  41. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams by Michael D'Antonio
  42. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr
  43. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor
  44. How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins
  45. How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis through Revelation by John Dominic Crossan
  46. Humor Code: A Global Search for what Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner
  47. In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld
  48. Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World's Most Creative Corporate Playground by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson
  49. Intangiball: The Subtle Things that Win Baseball Games by Lonnie Wheeler
  50. Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment by Jon M. Sweeney
  51. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
  52. Kenobi by John Jackson Miller
  53. Knuckleball: The History of the Unhittable Pitch by Lew Freedman
  54. Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
  55. Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute
  56. Leading Change by John Kotter
  57. Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
  58. Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World by Carolyn Custis James
  59. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei
  60. Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson
  61. Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
  62. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by John Krakauer
  63. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  64. Multiplication is for White People: Raising the Standards for Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit
  65. My Father's Wives by Mike Greenberg
  66. Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King by William Joyce
  67. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  68. Our Great American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner
  69. Renovate or Die: 10 Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission by Bob Farr and Kay Kotan
  70. Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time by David Prerau
  71. Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
  72. Shift: Helping Congregations Back into the Game of Effective Ministry by Phil Maynard
  73. Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger
  74. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  75. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
  76. Surprise!: Embrace the Unpredictable, Engineer the Unexpected by Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger
  77. Sycamore Row by John Grisham
  78. Taking People with You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen by David Novak
  79. The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle by Joanne Huist Smith
  80. The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore
  81. The Big Moo: Stop Trying to be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable by The Group of 33
  82. The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett
  83. The Bookwoman's Last Fling by John Dunning
  84. The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander
  85. The Complete Stories of Truman Capote by Truman Capote
  86. The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell
  87. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
  88. The Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett
  89. The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that will Crash the American Church and How to Prepare by John S. Dickerson
  90. The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry
  91. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo
  92. The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage by Anthony Brandt
  93. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel
  94. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company by David A. Price
  95. The Power of Small: Why Little Things Make all the Difference by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval
  96. The Real Life of Mary Poppins: The Life and Times of P.L. Travers by Paul Brody
  97. The Sacred Art of Fasting: Preparing to Practice by Rev. Thomas Ryan, CSP
  98. The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead by Elsa Tamez
  99. The Thin Green Line: The Money Secrets of the Super Wealthy by Paul Sullivan
  100. The Titled Americans: Three American Sisters and the British Aristocratic World into which They Married by Elizabeth Kehoe
  101. The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science by Jill Price
  102. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
  103. Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephan D. Dubner
  104. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  105. Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies by William Joyce
  106. Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor by Warren Bennis, et all
  107. When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan
  108. Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale
  109. Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand
  110. World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

Monday, December 28, 2015

Temple Tossed

Here is the sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 2:41-52:

Today, and for the next few weeks we are going to find ourselves in a sort of time-warp.  We celebrated Jesus’ birth just two days ago, and yet we find him today at the age of twelve, then next week we jump back to when he was somewhere around the age of two, and then the week after that we jump ahead to the time when he is about 30 years old.  I don’t know if the group who puts together the lectionary readings really thought about the reality of today’s passage in regards to the holidays, but it’s totally appropriate because it starts with Jesus’ family going to Jerusalem for Passover, one of the high holies, when Jerusalem and the Temple would be packed with people and everything would be a little crazy, and then everyone went home and just three days later everything is calm and quiet again.  There is plenty of space for Jesus to be in the Temple wiling away the days.  The same is true for the church, on this Sunday which is traditionally one of the lowest attended worship services for the year, all the guests we had for Christmas Eve have gone home, or are close to going home, everything has turned back to normal, there’s plenty of seating available and it’s a little quiet again.

This is a passage that is very unusual for the gospels, especially for Luke’s gospel.  First because this story makes no sense in relation to Luke’s birth narrative which precedes it.  After all, it is in Luke’s narrative that Mary is visited by an angel and told that the child she will carry is special, and Mary responds by giving us the magnificat, her beautiful poetic response.  It is in Luke’s gospel that John the Baptist, who has his own miraculous conception story, is a cousin of Jesus who leaps in his mother’s womb when his mother Elizabeth and Mary meet.  It is in Luke’s narrative that the shepherds are sent to Bethlehem by an angel and come to pay homage to the child in a manger, and we are told “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”  And it is in Luke’s narrative that when Joseph and Mary present Jesus at the Temple shortly after his birth and make an offering for their first born son that Anna and Simeon both make claims about who Jesus is and what he means to Israel.  And yet if we just read today’s passage none of this seems to have taken place, or if they did then Mary and Joseph have totally forgotten about them after only twelve years, which seems very unlikely.  Mary even refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father.   This story just simply doesn’t match up with what has come before it.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Gabriel's Message

Here is my Christmas Eve sermon.  The text was Luke 2:1-20:

I had a really hard time coming up with what I was going to say for this message.  Normally I have something roughly planned out for Christmas Eve by the time we hit Halloween, but this year nothing was coming to me and as we got closer and closer I finally did the smart thing and asked my wife what she thought I should preach on.  She asked what I had covered the past two years, see she’s not paying attention either, and I said two years ago I had talked about Joseph and the importance that people play in each other’s lives, and last year I had talked about the shepherds and the fact that they didn’t come up with excuses about why they couldn’t go see the baby, but instead followed God’s commands.  She said that it seemed like I had a little theme going, even if I hadn’t planned it, of covering the characters in the Christmas story and so she thought I should preach on Mary.  So following her advice, I decided to preach on the angels.  I don’t think I’m going to get a very good present this year.
Angels are a familiar part of the Christmas story.  There is the archangel Gabriel who makes first makes the announcement to Zechariah and Elizabeth about the coming birth of John the Baptist, and then makes the announcement to Mary that she will bear a child.  There are the angels who make the announcement to the shepherds in the fields, and we cannot forget angel second class, Clarence Odbody, in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  I think my favorite portrayal of an angel is not in a Christmas story, but instead was done by John Travolta who portrayed that archangel Michael, in the movie of the same name.  A smoking, hard drinking, hard living, slob, with a rather colorful vocabulary.  Someone no one would ever believe was an angel if it weren’t for the two wings growing out of his back.  And you know that John Travolta is a really good actor when he, a scientologist, can play the leading messenger for God.

We actually don’t know very much about angels from the Bible.  Most of what people think about them, or think they know about them, comes from extra-biblical sources, some of them quite modern, and we could talk about them but then we’d have to end up talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pine.  But that is not to say that angels aren’t found in scripture because they are.  The first time we hear of an angel is after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the entrance is guarded by cherubim who has a flaming sword, think of it as the world’s first light saber.  The cherubim are winged creatures who act sort of as guardians, and if you remember Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark correctly, they are the images formed onto the top of the ark of the covenant.  Later we will also hear about seraphim, who are winged creatures said to be found guarding God’s seat inside the Temple in the Holy of Holies.  If I remember correctly, it’s the cherubim that hang from the ceiling and the seraphim that come up from the floor, or maybe it’s reversed, I often get it wrong.  But while they are angelic like creatures, outside of the wings, these are not really angels as we typically understand them or think of them, or as they are found in the rest of scripture.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Blue Christmas: Love Never Ends

This is the sermon I preached for our Blue Christmas Service.  The scripture readings were Isaiah 9:2-7 and 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8, 13:

Mourning at Christmas is difficult.  18 years ago I attended the funeral for my uncle on Christmas Eve.  Mourning at Christmas is different than mourning at other times of the year, whether it’s mourning the loss of a loved one, the loss of health, the loss of a job, whatever it might be, it’s hard because we are told that’s it the most wonderful time of the year.  We’re supposed to be holy and jolly and merry, and many of us aren’t. Then people wonder where our Christmas spirit is, wonder why we can’t just get past it, and wonder why we can’t just try to be happy at least for this season.  They ask those questions because unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve been mourning at Christmas, it’s hard to understand.  But it’s also because they don’t understand Christmas that they ask these things of us, because they think that Christmas is supposed to be about the bright and happy things, rather than about the dark and mournful things.  But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of Christmas.  If we want to truly seek to keep Christ in Christmas, if Jesus is the reason for the season, then we need to understand that God did not send Jesus because everything was great.  If everything was great we wouldn’t need Christ.  The themes of Advent, which is the season leading up to Christmas, are peace, hope, joy and love.  Again things you don’t need when things are great, but things we need when things are looking dark and bleak.
The first passage we heard from tonight was from the prophet Isaiah, who makes his prophetic statement that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.”  Isaiah says this because he is prophesying at a time of deep turmoil and conflict for Israel, which leads, eventually, to the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrian Empire.  And so Isaiah tells the people, tells us that a light will come which will shatter the darkness, a child will be born from the line of David who will bring endless peace, not because there is peace, but because we need peace, and we need hope, and we need joy, and we need love, and we need light in our darkness.

We don’t actually know when Jesus was born, and there are lots of reasons why December 25, was chosen, but one of them was because under the Julian calendar, it was the winter solstice, which meant that every night from the celebration of the coming of Christ, the light of the world, would start getting shorter, and every day there would be a little more light, another indication that the darkness could not overcome the light.  That is why we hold this service today, on the longest night of the year, because from here until the middle of June the light will get more and more.  We might go to sleep tonight covered in darkness, maybe even in the dark night of the soul, but the light cannot overcome the darkness, for those who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light.  And here is what those of us who have been in the darkness know, which is something all of us, and that is that light is most necessary in the darkness, and that it only takes a little bit of light to overcome the darkness.  Later when we sing silent night, and light our candles, our light will overcome the darkness that surrounds us.  It might not feel like the darkness will ever dissipate, or that anything can overcome it, but the promise given to us is that we are never alone, that God is always with us, that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whatever that shadow may represent, that the light of Christ shines for us and God is with us because God loves us.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Jesus' Wish List

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Hebrews 10:5-10:

Several years ago, Jimmy Kimmel asked the viewers of his late night show to prank their children and to tell them they could open one present they had gotten for Christmas a few weeks early, but rather than giving them something they wanted, to instead give them something they wouldn’t want.  People did and posted it on YouTube with the message “hey Jimmy Kimmel, I gave my kids a terrible present.”  Take a look at some of these gifts…   I can’t decide whether Jimmy Kimmel is a genius in exposing some of our thoughts about Christmas or if instead he is going straight to hell.  I think the kids subjected to this, especially the little boy who thinks it’s the worst Christmas ever, definitely are going with the second of the options.  We find it funny not only because of the reactions from the kids, but the sort of uncomfortableness we feel that this is what Christmas is, and what it seems to be about, getting presents.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, concludes our sermon series which has actually been entitled Christmas is Not Your Birthday.  We act like it’s our birthday, and I’m not obviously talking about if December 25th is your actual birthday.  Be we think it’s about giving gifts and getting gifts, especially for kids, and especially for stores.  When people talk about rethinking Christmas and perhaps shopping less, one of the things that comes up is that we are told that stores are dependent upon Christmas sales for their very existence.  That’s one of the reasons black Friday is named what it is, because it’s the first time that many of them have gone into the black.  But is that really our duty and obligation as Christians, to make sure that we shop enough, go into debt enough, as they say to buy presents we don’t need with money we don’t have, in order to keep the economy going?

Now this year I haven’t really talked about practicing Christmas differently as I have in years past, and perhaps that is the reason that this year no one has accused me of not liking Christmas, of wanting to suck all the fun out of Christmas as people have done in year’s past.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas, and I believe we can love Christmas, and everything that goes along with it, including giving and getting gifts, and still think that perhaps we are missing something, that maybe there could be something which could connect us to the season just a little bit more.  Or, as the Grinch comes to realize, “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas, perhaps, means just a little bit more.” And so today we conclude our Advent sermon series by looking at Jesus’ wish list.  Which might be part of what we can get out of Jimmy Kimmel torturing young children for our amusement, is that we ask children and each other what they want for Christmas.  But even when we claim that we want to keep Christ in Christmas and that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that rhymes so it has to be true, have we ever actually asked the question “What does Jesus want for his birthday?”

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015 Doublespeak

One of the things we love to do is to make up words and phrases that cover up harsh realities.  So, for example, people don't die, they pass away, no one is laid off or fired, they are downsized, phased out or we "eliminate redundancies in the human services area."

This week Ted Cruz was talking about the need for the military, and what would happen if he were commander in chief, to carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion. The first part of the problem is the fact that the military doesn't carpet bomb. It is not US policy, nor is it needed with "strategic" and "smart" bombs.

But it is what Ted Cruz said about the results of carpet bombing that make it worse, and that is, in his words, that there is "inadvertent collateral casualties."  What he means by that is that when we indiscriminately bomb people, and even when it is targeted, that we kill innocent bystanders, not just those we seek to kill.  But that is not what he said, because he doesn't want people to hear that he is calling for widespread death and destruction of non-combatants (and yes I know these could be doublespeak too).

Ted Cruz calls himself a Christian and is also "pro-life" and so maybe that's why he can't just come out and talk about the fact that bombs kill people, but talking about "inadvertent collateral casualties" doesn't make it better. It just makes him dishonest.

And as we move closer to Christmas and the birth of Christ, whom we proclaim as the prince of peace, do we think that Christ's answer would be carpet bombing as long as we try and limit "inadvertent collateral casualties"?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pete Rose, Gambling and MLB Hypocrisy

Yesterday Pete Rose’s bid for reinstatement to Major League Baseball was denied by new commissioner Rob Manfred.  For those unfamiliar with the issue, Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, was banned in 1989 for gambling on baseball, which is said to be the cardinal sin of baseball.  The first problem with this is that Rose was totally worked over by then commission Bart Giamatti.  According to Rose, and some investigative reporters, Rose agreed to sign a statement accepting a one-year ban from baseball, with no finding of fault, and then he would be reinstated at the end of the year.

But, during his press conference, Giamatti said Rose gambled on baseball and there was no agreement in place to limit the length of the suspension.  Giamatti then died 8 days later, and so Rose has been in perpetual limbo since then. As the ban went on Rose continued to deny that he had gambled on baseball, even though it’s pretty clear that he did, but he finally admitted it because he was told by numerous sources that if he did admit it, all would be forgiven and he would be allowed back into the game that he loved.  So he did, and the immediate response was “see we told you so, that’s why he can’t be allowed back in.”  MLB has given special permission for Rose to appear at official MLB activities, but only when it was useful to them (ie makes them money).

I honestly have no problem with Rose being banned, although I think it’s hugely hypocritical, which I’ll get to in a minute, my problem is that he is not allowed into the Hall of Fame.  The Hall has a rule which says that no one on the “permanently ineligible list” can be voted into the Hall.  That rule is not established by MLB but by the Hall itself.

What they need to decide is if they are going to be a shrine or a museum.  If they are going to be a shrine, and keep out all the “undesirables” then there are lots of current members that need to go. That includes Adrian “Cap” Anson who is largely responsible for creating the “gentleman’s agreement” which kept African-American players out of the game, or Ty Cobb, who was a rabid racist.  Those are just two of many that don’t belong in a “shrine.”

But if it’s a museum then they belong and Pete Rose also belongs, and how can you have one of the greatest players ever to play the game not included with the list of the greats.  Everyone knows how great he was and so it lowers everyone else included not having him there.  I think the easy solution is to leave him banned from MLB but have the Hall change their rules and put him in (getting the committee to actual vote for him is a whole other topic).

Now back to the hypocrisy.  The reason why gambling is the cardinal sin is because of the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which 8 players were accused of throwing the World Series, thus impacting the “integrity of the game.”  We’ll ignore the fact that no African-American players were allowed to play in the game at the time, and so how much integrity could they really have?  But, MLB also quickly overlooks the case of collusion in which the owners and managers of the league made an agreement not to sign free agents in order to keep salaries down.  The courts found that this took place from 1985-1987, although some speculate it was longer than that.

But what this meant is that teams did not go out and get players that could make their teams better, get players that might be able to get them into the playoffs and perhaps even to the World Series.  Which means, in fact, that the owners of the teams worked to fix the World Series for at least 3 years.  They didn’t throw it the way the White Sox allegedly did, but it worked out to the same because some teams were clearly kept from becoming better and thus becoming contenders (including my Yankees).  Many of those who were responsible for this will end up in the Hall.  Why are they not being permanently banned in order to protect the “integrity of the game”?

And finally, MLB is in deep in the online daily fantasy games, including being a part owner of DraftKings.  But at the same time they have forbidden any MLB players from participating in DraftKings, you know, “for the integrity of the game.”  So it’s okay for the owners and league to make money from gambling but not the players, and there is no integrity issues for the league on this because “it’s good for the game and drives up interest.”  Of course what they also say is that it’s not truly gambling, even though many states have now forbidden it because they consider it gambling, and they have forbidden the players to do because it’s gambling.

And to me fantasy gambling is an even greater threat to the game, because it’s not about who wins or loses, but about how players did.  So far there has been no proof that Rose ever bet against his team, but there is evidence he bet for his team.  The problem with the White Sox is that they bet against themselves.  But when everything comes down to the individual, it’s much easier to get one player to do something that can affect stats, to bet against themselves.  It might or might not hurt their team, depending on what it is they are doing, but could make gamblers lots and lots of money.

But don’t worry because MLB says this is okay, and they are making money off it, and we just have to overlook the hypocrisy of it all and take our animosity out on the person who truly deserves it, Pete Rose.

(And just to mix a little religion into the matter, thinking that Manfred would overturn it was like believing that Pope Clement VII was going to overturn the ruling of Pope Julius II that had allowed Henry VIII to marry Catherine of Aragon in the first place by giving him an annulment.  Popes don't like to overrule other popes because it makes them look like they were wrong, and so Manfred was not going to essentially overrule the decisions of three other commissioners.)

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Scandalous Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Zephaniah 3:14-20:

Scandalous is defined as causing scandal or shocking.  Most of us could probably tell a story of a scandalous love, of a love that wasn’t supposed to be, or wasn’t allowed to be.  We might start with the ill-fated Romeo and Juliet, perhaps of King Edward the VIII who abdicated the English throne to marry the American Wallis Simpson, or perhaps its Richard Loving, a white man, who married Mildred Jeter, a black woman, whose arrest for getting married made it to the Supreme Court which struck down anti-miscegenation laws.  Or maybe Elizabeth Taylor and all of her husbands.  Or maybe it’s Tinni, a domesticated dog, and Sniffer, wild fox, who are the best of friends.  It’s Disney’s Fox and the Hound being played out in real life.  Even with centuries of breeding working against them, Tinni and sniffer are now inseparable when they are in the woods together.  A truly scandalous love.
Of course scripture too is full of scandalous loves.  There is David and Bathsheba, an affair which gets Bathsheba’s husband killed.  There is Ruth and Boaz, a marriage between an Israelite and Canaanite, something that just isn’t supposed to happen.  Then there is the story, probably not as well-known of Hosea and Gomer.  Hosea is one of the twelve Minor Prophets, minor in this case having nothing to do with importance but instead about the length of the collections of their prophecies.  Hosea is seeking to be faithful to God, and God tells him to go and marry Gomer, who is a prostitute.  In fact, God says to Hosea “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress.”  There is something more than just scandalous about the relationship of Hosea and Gomer, because Gomer is the excluded one, the one people like down upon, the one no one wants to know, and certainly not the person people talk about in polite company, definitely not in church.

But why does God tell Hosea to marry that woman?  Because Gomer, Hosea’s unfaithful wife, represents the Israelites who are unfaithful to the things they are called to do, and yet in spite of all of that God loves them and wants to be in relationship with them.  Hosea is God in the relationship, faithful and true, and Gomer represents the Israelites, always being unfaithful and straying from the relationship.  Hosea says “the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”  I don’t really understand that last part, but I think it’s about liking fruit cake.  God is faithful, but the people stray.  A scandalous love.