7th Day of Christmas: Show-Down – Matthew 25:31-46

I have heard of Messianic Jews who helped sneak supplies into Bethlehem during the second-Intifada siege. The only Messianic Jew I met was a shell-games tour-guide who was recruited as ‘balance’ for my boss’s speech in West Jerusalem. He kept insisting that my boss go first, who in-turn insisted that he go first until Zoughbi finally agreed to go first.

Z told my favorite story, about his daughter confronting the soldiers during the siege and how her older cousin yelled at her to stand-down and go inside. Later, as he apologized to the tearful little girl, she was heard to have said, “sorry is not enough: I need chocolate!” Z was making a point about gestures of restitution as part of the reconciliation process.

This gentleman began to talk about how his father came to be a Messianic Jew but gradually outlined an identity completely composed of persecutions, of being defined ‘other’, and claiming a salvation made of injuries. Our ‘balance’ decided to make a point of saying that life is about persevering through “suffering, not about chocolate”. Z glanced at me and smirked. I was sorry that I had doubted his suspicions earlier, when I wanted to believe this ‘balance’ would be gracious.

Like many, I have been so naive as to expect graciousness rather than being gratefully amazed when I do (at times) see it from these characters. “They usually want to go first,” said Z, “so that they can leave before they have to listen to me.” What our ‘counterpart’ got from Christ’s ministry was part of a greater narrative of masochism. If it isn’t about how much one can succeed it is about how much they can suffer: me, myself, I.

His Messiah was made of suffering, with the promise of redemption in proportion. There is the fore-taste of substitutional atonement but even that quickly fades to older notions, after-tastes, of particularism in suffering as much as in being chosen, so that I felt sorry for this man because it seems as if his belief in Christ was based on his ability to reject any grace or blessing. Even less, to give graces or blessings. Suffering is one part of The Way but it is not the end-goal of The Way.

During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience mentioned that they had visited a school and an orphanage earlier in the day and wondered what he thought they could do to benefit the children. Looking back, this was a perfect set-up. Our ‘balance’ offered that there was nothing to do but prepare them for the realities of a second-coming. I tapped Z on the elbow and asked him to let me rebut. I quoted the passage from Matthew, reminding them that they could
invest in ‘the least of these’, both financially and relationally, and continue their visits. For anyone who knows Christ as a teacher, not just a body bleeding on a piece of wood, it was obvious. If you have chocolate to give, share the chocolate together. Find Jesus in the way we heal and are healed.

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Paraphrased: I was pouty and you gave me chocolate. Grace.

If we look for our Messiah on a cross or in a manger, we will find only places he has been. He told us himself he would be in ‘the least of these’ whenever they were in need. As for those Jews who smuggled in supplies when my Palestinian friends needed them, I think they might find the same Lord I do. I wish the best chocolates upon them.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

6th Day of Christmas: Emmanuel

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Christmas is not just Mr. Pickwick dancing a reel with the old lady at Dingley Dell or Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of Peace on Earth that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm.

On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell. Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us.” That’s where the problem lies.

The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas is that at a particular time and place “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity” came to be with us himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts himself at our mercy. Year after year the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, holy and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. A dream as old as time. If it is true, it is the chief of all truths. If it is not true, it is of all truths the one that people would most have be true if they could make it so.

Maybe it is that longing to have it be true that is at the bottom even of the whole vast Christmas industry the tons of cards and presents and fancy food, the plastic figures kneeling on the floodlit lawns of poorly attended churches. The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.

Emmanuel. We all must decide for ourselves whether it is true. Certainly the grounds on which to dismiss it are not hard to find. Christmas is commercialism. It is a pain in the neck. It is sentimentality.

It is wishful thinking. The shepherds. The star. The three wise men. Make believe.

Yet it is never as easy to get rid of as all this makes it sound. To dismiss Christmas is for most of us to dismiss part of ourselves. It is to dismiss one of the most fragile yet enduring visions of our own childhood and of the child that continues to exist in all of us. The sense of mystery and wonderment. The sense that on this one day each year two plus two adds up not to four but to a million.

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.

Emmanuel. Emmanuel.

— Frederick Buechner

3rd Day of Christmas: Reflection on Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

One of the many debates I had with professors in seminary was focused on this passage. The question was built around how we understood God’s redemptive acts: is salvation FOR all people or did God appear TO all people. The question has continued with me as I never found peace with any conclusion. Yet peace is what is found when we’re willing to live with that ambiguity, and this scripture gets right to the point of why that is.

“While we wait.”

“While we wait” is a term that we’ve all heard in some form: “While we wait for permission to take off, please listen to your flight attendants as they review the safety instructions of this aircraft,” or maybe when we were young, “While we wait for dinner why don’t you go wash your hands.”

Waiting is a hard thing for us in this culture. We want to get to the point, get to a conclusion, get to a destination. A couple of days ago we GOT there as Christians! Christ is Born! Christmas happened! WOOOO! Okay, but now again, we wait. We wait, and we’re told to do things we know we should do, but don’t always (I know I don’t listen to safety instructions nor did I often wash my hands) while we wait. We wait for “Thy Kingdom Come.” A Kingdom that Jesus always referred to in the present tense. Well if we’re here, and it’s here, then what are we waiting for?

We’re waiting on us. Waiting for us to do the beautiful things that need to be done. That’s what good deeds are, they are the beautiful things that need to be done. Beautiful things like justice, mercy, and humbleness. Beautiful things like love. Beautiful things like peace. Beautiful things like joy. Beautiful things like hope. Beautiful things that make us all live into that image in which we are created.

Beautiful things were done on Christmas, beautiful things need to be done today.

A reflection by Adj Williams.

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Adj is the Director of Educational Ministries at Harbor View Presbyterian Church. Adj tweets at @keepsetting and blogs at http://keepsetting.blogspot.com

Christmas Eve: Christmas is funny

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When I was a kid, my parents had an illuminated, blow-mold, plastic plug-in nativity set. Perhaps you recognize Mary’s shell-shocked expression (which I always though apt for a virgin who had just given birth), or Joseph’s daringly pink sash, or the baby Jesus’ odd, mid-ab-workout posture from the 90’s neighborhood you called home. They are truly a testament to the indescribable love of God showing up in our midst, don’t you think?

We would tuck ours in the rose garden, where they were visible from the street, but also capable of being secured by chains lest anyone consider stealing our joy. After a streak of vandalism in the neighborhood, my parents decided the best place to display the glory of the electric Emmanuel was on the roof, well beyond the reach of any who would cause harm to the Holy Family.

(That’s right – we had an electric nativity on the roof. Because we’re classy.)

My father had a system: he would tie a rope around a figurine’s waist, then take the end with him up the ladder to the roof, and raise them up, hand-over-hand. This worked okay for Mary and Joseph, but the unfortunate thing about the baby Jesus was that there weren’t a lot of places to tie the rope. One year, having gained a reprieve from dusting glass ornaments inside with my mother, I walked out of the house to help my father.

Unfortunately, my timing was poor, and I came face to face with Jesus’ somewhat bemused expression as he was hung by the neck from the eves of our home! I was so shocked I gasped, accidentally startling my father, who dropped Jesus’ noose. The precious infant crashed to the ground amid the bellows from the roof and my helpless laughter. We were relieved when we plugged him in and found his light had not been damaged in his tumble…

Christmas is funny.

Think about it: it involves all of the most colorful characters in your life gathering together, sometimes bellowing and sometimes laughing. If we could step back, it might make a good sitcom, but when you’re in the middle of it, it can range from painful to perfect and back again in a blink. You put out the decorations, you string the lights, you clean up and dress up and cook up a feast, but it’s still just people. We, the people God loves: loving and lovable, and also flawed, insulting, intolerant, cranky, anal retentive, lazy, passive, aggressive, passive aggressive, ignorant, idealistic, neurotic, superior, meddlesome, stubborn, self-righteous, and simply stressed. The ones who lock him into whatever box seems safest, and those who string him up in the process of their well-meaning worship.

Us.

This is the world Jesus was born into, and we are the people for whom God showed up. This Christmas we may be tempted to prettify that message and dress it up in all the best trappings we can think of, but I hope we are willing to simply tell the story and let Christ speak for himself. I would hate it if we locked down or strung up Jesus in the process of sharing the good news, like my well-meaning family with their synthetic stable scene.

The good news is that, as many times as we mess up Christmas, Jesus keeps showing up. As many times as we drop the ball (or baby, in this case), that light still keeps shining. Maybe he is still hoping we’ll get a glimpse of the kin-dom in the middle of the chaos, despite the chains we put around it to hold it down, or the ropes we use to heave it to whatever height we think it deserves. Maybe he is still hoping that just maybe, we’ll give him what he actually cares about for his birthday. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll love the world in all its messy brokenness, too. Maybe we’ll forgive the someone who knows all the right buttons to push to get a rise out of us, and maybe we’ll care more for someone else’s need than our own wants, and maybe we’ll find a way to speak a word of truth and grace to someone who desperately needs it. Because the irony of Christmas is that you have the opportunity to be the very presence of Christ we have been waiting for so long. The way you love may be how someone else experiences this beloved baby’s birth.

Christmas is funny like that.

A reflection by Kris Marshall

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Kris is the Associate Pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, California. Kris tweets at @revkris. You can also subscribe to her weekly sermon podcast.

20th Day of Advent: Pasted-on Smiles and Half-Hearted Merry Christmases – A Reflection on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
I will remove from you
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the LORD.
— Zephaniah 3:14-20

For some, Christmas is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The time spent with family and friends singing carols, giving gifts, baking cookies, trimming trees, and celebrating the birth of a tiny baby thousands of years ago. For others the pressure of the season, the expectation of joy is a burden too heavy to bear. Too heavy to muster up that illusion of happiness. For some, the year prior had produced too much brokenness, so feigning happiness during Christmas becomes an exercise of pasted-on smiles and half-hearted Merry Christmases.

Wednesday saw a report of a suicide/homicide in New Jersey, where a mother set her home on fire and closed herself and her three year old son in her bedroom while the house burned around them. There are stories like this all around the country.

Something in people snaps during this season and the pressure to be happy and filled with Christmas cheer becomes too much. And unfortunately we are too busy or too intimated to help these people who are hurting and to walk beside them when they need us most.

I’ve been thinking about this woman today. What was going on in her life where she thought suicide was her only way out? Did she lose her job and feel hopeless in our down-turned economy? Had her husband left her or passed away months earlier? Had she been battling depression for years and this year was the last straw? I have no idea. But for many, the Christmas season is not a time of joy, and we often do not know how to sit with others in the midst of their struggles. This is especially true when we may be caught up in the joy of the season.

However, as Christians, we have good news to share. Perhaps more now than ever, people need to hear this good news that God has come among us to bring about restoration to the world. To bring us love, hope, peace, and joy. The world is a dark and broken place, but God dwells with us in the midst of a broken and hurting world. And as Christ’s followers we should be this same presence to others.

There are people all around us who are hurting. They have pasted-on smiles and are half-heartedly wishing us a Merry Christmas. Will we look beyond the veneer of holiday cheer? Will we be bold and patient enough to sit with others in the midst of dark times? Will we be there to guide them to the true advent light–Jesus, the light of the world. Will we show them that there is a Comforter and Restorer who walks with them, who is offering them joy this Christmas?

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com

19th Day of Advent: Advent and the Holocaust – Reflections on Luke 3

Female prisoners at forced labor digging trenches at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. This photograph is from the SS-Propaganda-Album des Frauen-KZ-Ravensbrueck 1940-1941. USHMM (18344), courtesy of Lydia Chagoll.

Advent and the Holocaust don’t normally get put together. However, I figured writing on the eve of the winter solstice (aka the longest night) and the Mayan apocalypse (aka the end of the world), Holocaust imagery might just be appropriate.

Advent and the Holocaust overlap more that you first might think. The story of Jews waiting, longing, hoping, traveling, being housed in deplorable conditions. Will a savior come? It doesn’t seem so as Herod and Hitler massacre innocent children. Murder. Hopelessness. Hate. Fear. A far cry from the peace, hope, love, and joy candles we light on our advent wreath in worship.

Every generation thinks they have it worse than the one before, but the unrest the Christ was born into was a world headed for a spiritual cliff just as much, if not more, than our world today. Those in power are neglecting and causing harm, and so John the Baptist holds a press conference to tell it like it is:

John said to the crowds… …bear fruits worthy of repentance… …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… …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.  – Luke 3

When we read this text, and think about the massacre last week or the one long ago in Germany, it seems as though John got it all wrong. He said the bad fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire, not innocent children. Where in the hell is God in all of this? Why is evil still winning?

The following prayer was found at Ravensbruck death camp where 92,000 women and children died.  It was scrawled on a piece of paper near a dead girl. (It is also the text used in a single by Jennifer Knapp for the Martyr Project.)

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will also those of ill will.  But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.

Just like Advent again, in the midst of all these questions and feelings of abandonment by God, a child shall lead us. This child’s prayer are Word made flesh:

In our suffering, remember all of your children, even those who turn on the gas chamber or trigger a semi automatic rifle. May the fruits we have borne in this suffering—may they be their forgiveness.

Sounds a lot like something Jesus would say. Fruit borne in suffering for the forgiveness of sins. Wine poured out for the forgiveness of all. The Christ becoming flesh in the words of that little Jewish girl.

Where the hell is God in all this evil? God is right there in the thick of hell; love conquering death. John tells us, God’s answer to unimaginable evil is Immanuel—God with us. God’s plan is incarnation—taking on flesh and suffering. And fiery furnaces, intended as evil, are transformed into baptism by fire—God claiming all as God’s children and calling us to bear fruit… that is how the evil in this world is destroyed.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver

14th Day of Advent: In the Middle of Our Mess

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You may not think this post is very Christmassy.

I woke up Friday morning, as many of you did, to news of a shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut. It was joined later in the day by reports of a mass stabbing at an elementary school in China.

The Twitterverse raged with visceral grief for the families, anger at the shooter, shock and horror at a kind of tragedy that is becoming all too familiar, conspiracy theories about whichever particular political party or organization is to blame, opinions about how to fix it all, outrage at the media’s tactics, fear for the soul of our society, and gratitude for the safety of their own families. Some urged prayer; others, judgment; others, action; others, legislation. I confess to running in all of these directions at once.

No, not very Christmassy.

I had planned to tell you a story from my childhood that illustrated in a humorous way the central point of Advent. The story I’ll keep, but the point is still appropriate: Advent is trusting Christ to show up in the middle of our mess. Today, when we see violence up close and personal committed against the vulnerable in our society, we don’t need to be reminded just how messy humanity can be.

This most recent shooting is the 31st school shooting since Columbine. There have been more victims of violence in other mass shootings in workplaces, public centers and houses of worship. Every year in the US alone, there are over 100,000 victims of gun violence; nearly a third of these shootings are fatal. That’s about 266 people shot every day, and 86 fatalities (according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Not to mention victims of other kinds of weapon-related violence. We could pile it on: domestic abuse, psychological abuse, hunger, poverty, sexual assault, and oh, so much more.

What a mess. But it’s Advent. And Advent is trusting Christ to show up in the middle of our mess. So where is Christ?

The Apostle Paul compared the church, the followers of Jesus, to the body of Christ. In other words, people experience Christ through the ones who claim to follow his teachings. When we follow Jesus into the mess, Christmas happens. When we trust that God’s kin-dom offers a better reality for all, and we choose to live into that reality now despite truly terrible circumstances, Christmas happens. When there is no theological easy answer, when the only thing that works is love and presence, Christmas happens.

It’s the only reason Christmas ever did.

It may not have the shine of tinsel or the cheer of a lustily sung carol, but Christmas happens when we follow Jesus into the mess and offer what hope, comfort, peace, grace, and joy we can. If you want to find Jesus this Christmas, just look for the nearest mess, and see who is quietly sweeping up the shattered lives and piecing them together again.

Pray for the people of Newtown and Chenpeng. Pray for the shattered families in their confusion and grief. Pray for the teachers, administrators, and students who survived as they cope with the trauma in the months to come. Pray for the first responders who are branded with these horrible images as they seek security and justice. Pray for the therapists, counselors, and pastors who will help people pick up the pieces of their lives and community. Pray for the shooter and all those so broken and damaged that violence becomes the only answer they see. Pray for our society, that through the lens of our broken hearts we may come to observe and confront the painful systemic injustices–and pray for the strength, courage, and wisdom to change them. Pray for the people of Newtown and Chenpeng.

Then, if you really want to experience Christmas, look for the nearest mess… and
grab a broom.

A reflection by Kris Marshall

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Kris is the Associate Pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, California. Kris tweets at @revkris. You can also subscribe to her weekly sermon podcast.