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

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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.