Around Christmas time Christians start bashing Santa Claus and get apprehensive if not aggressive against the good old Saint because he is presumably not part of the “real reason for the season”.
In many ways Christians are called to be Saints. Like here by the Apostle Paul:
“May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:23 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 14 December 2014)
Santa is what Christmas is all about. Just keep in mind how we got him in the first place:
1. Santa Claus is named after St. Nicholas of Myra, the historic 4th-century Christian Saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, part of modern-day Turkey). He is the patron saint for children and the stockings we have on our mantles are derived from the boots that children in Europe get stuffed with little presents on St. Nick’s day, December 6th. Just they put them outside the front door so the original St. Nicholas does not have to invade homes. That’s what he looked like:
2. Father Frost is the Slavic personification of winter. He gave our current Santa his fluffy coat and heavy stature. He has all the warmth cold Russian winters lack and he brought presents to Russian children while Stalinism did not allow for St. Nicholas to make a religious appearance. Now the Russian church is having to wrestle with the fact that people have merged St. Nicholas and Father Frost in their hearts and minds. His coat for the most part was pictured green:
3. Even though there have been earlier attempts to bring a red version of this newly merged Turkish-Russian winter-spirit Saint to America, it took the marketing power of Coca Cola to ultimately give our modern day Saint his red coat and bring him fully into the center of American Christmas culture.
That’s what Christmas is all about:
1. A Saint helping poor little children
2. A resilient spirit keeping hope alive in hostile winters
3. A blending of different cultures and traditions that makes the holidays bright for everyone whether they call them Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanzaa or just Holidays.
When we have family and friends visiting we like taking them for a tour of George Ranch Historical Park. Going through the four different residences of this huge complex is a wonderful invitation and introduction to our local history. Right when you come into the welcome center there is a permanent exhibit that blew my mind challenging my perspective of cowboys. I grew up with those classic western movies where cowboys were gun-toting, boot-wearing, white men – like John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood. But here on this most Texan ranch I learned that most cowboys did not look the way I thought they did in the 1800s: It is thought that, on some Texas trails, a third of cowboys were Mexicans and about a quarter of cowboys were former slaves: They were black!
In the ancient Middle East the most prominent livestock was sheep. Now again: My perspective of what shepherding looks like is fundamentally challenged: Who hasn’t heard of the good shepherd and Psalm 23 and all that biblical imagery portraying God as a shepherd? Here is another one:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
(Isaiah 40:11 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 7 December 2014)
I always thought the shepherd’s crook was used to shove the sheep in the right direction. And I would have never thought that shepherds go around hugging the entire flock maybe exchanging a few friendly words like people whispering words of affection into their pets’ ears. We are talking livestock business after all, aren’t we? And “leading them gently”, really? Isn’t it more like unleashing the German Shepherd dogs that bark and bare their teeth in order to get the sheep in line?
Well, it seems like reality is always more complex than anticipated: Those rough tough cowboys were slaves once, just like the Word of God became a lowly human being and has come to us and shared our common lot. Or in biblical context: The shepherd put down his staff, abandoned his power and embraced the power of love because he knows what the whip feels like from own experience.
Oh yeah, FM 99.1 has been playing the most wonderful tunes for almost a week. Christmas baking is in full swing, the church and many homes are decorated. We’re fixin’ to have a jolly good time again. That’s what Advent is all about: Preparing for Christmas, right?
The first Sunday of Advent sets us straight:
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
(Mark 13:26 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 30 November 2014)
The first week of Advent is about the end of the world. While the whole season of Advent is about getting ready for Jesus’ first coming as a baby on Christmas, this first week is a reminder to also get ready for Jesus’ second coming at the end of all time. The people in Mark’s church fully expected Jesus to come back during their lifetime!
Imagine that: If I were to fully expect the world to end before I die, I wouldn’t worry about retirement planning. Also my holiday preparations would change: Do I really start the fermentation process for my home-brewed Christmas beer that takes from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve? And after the holidays: Do I bother boxing and labeling all the decorations? – I may not need them ever again! And what gifts should we give with the expectation they are our final act of love?
Christians have been wrestling with this tension for over 2000 years. 2000 times doing everything for maybe the last time. May this Word from God never get old but may the still-speaking God continue to challenge us when we get too comfortable.
The holidays are fast approaching. You may already have started your Christmas baking. You certainly have started planning out the details of your Thanksgiving feast. One thing is certain: The most yummy dishes usually contain ridiculous amounts of fat plus either sugar or salt. So basically the worse they are for you the better they make you feel. Indulgence adds pounds to our waste-lines and obesity is one of the main causes for so many diseases that kill so many. According to the Calorie Control Council, during the state-sanctioned gorging event known as Thanksgiving, the average American can stuff down as much as 4,500 calories — nearly twice the recommended daily allowance. Don’t we bring doom on ourselves with all this overeating?Even God Almighty seems to be joining the health-conscious choir:
“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
(Ezekiel 34:16 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 23 November 2014)
To be honest I have a problem with texts that proclaim “God will destroy the fat” or whatever group of people. They are so easily abused by hate-groups that put their own spins on them. I would much rather learn what God wants as opposed to what people condemn. So, on a positive note let me put our Thanksgiving feast back on the menu: God’s vision for the culmination of world history is that of all the peoples of the earth gathering on Zion for an everlasting heavenly feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines (Isaiah 25:6-8). After all Jesus ate with sinners and his disciples all the time – so much so that they called him a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19).
So if food is not the problem, what is? Our watchword this week contrasts the haves and the have-nots, the ones that are starving and homeless and those that are out of control in looking only after themselves. That is a problem in every aspect of life: If all your resources be they food, finances, feelings are all focused on just yourself then you are not open for the love of God and the love you are supposed to share with the people around you. That does not only go for overabundance: People starve themselves, emotionally and physically and overindulge in the pain and the feeling of being lost. I want to read this edgy text to call for a well balanced diet for all aspects of our lives. And literally every diet plan has cheat points or days. So enjoy!
According to the latest numbers from the World Health Organization a girl born in the US in 2014 can expect to live an average of 82.2 years. For her twin brother it is 77.4 years. Those are some good numbers yet we all know that averages don’t mean a whole lot when you talk to a healthy 101-year-old or when you have a baby die in your arms. The truth of the matter is: Most people I have worked with didn’t grow older than 150. That means there is a Psalm in the Bible for every birthday. 150 songs that sing God’s praise and each single one has its own focus like this one:
“So teach us, O God, to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
(Psalm 90:12 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 16 November 2014)
Age 90 sounds like a good time to see how wise you are. Every age has its own challenges and questions. So a birthday is a good day to grab that old book and flip to the Psalm that matches you new number.
Is there really such a thing as a correlation of age and wisdom?
I asked y’all for brainy quotes on Facebook and here is what I got:
– Old age and experience will always overcome youth and enthusiasm.
– “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now” Bob Dylan
– The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitution for experience, while the error of age is to believe that experience is the substitute for intelligence
– There is nothing wrong with the younger generation that 20 years won’t cure!
– Growing old is not for sissies
– The older I get, the better I was!
– Stay young, stay foolish. -Steve jobs-
– “Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.” ― Albert Einstein
This is the day that you call us to cast our votes.
You don’t care whether we are Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, Independent, affiliated with another political party or no party at all.
You do care however that we engage in the process, that we remain faithful stewards of your creation and all your beloved people in the city of Rosenberg, in Fort Bend County, in the State of Texas, in the United States and all over your world. Help us elect faithful servants so that our communities can be shaped after your heavenly kingdom that we long for.
Tonight I pray for our city council that you may guide them in this meeting to work towards a city that may become more and more of a reflection of the heavenly Jerusalem where all your children are invited to the feast, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, where liberty and justice are upheld for all. Bless our council to make sure that the alien, the orphan and the widow are better off because of what the council does tonight and every day.
Tonight I pray for all the people that they may be worthy citizens of their communities and do their part of holding elected officials accountable or become involved themselves. As our city develops a new comprehensive plan give more and more people the courage to step forward and make their voices heard. You bless Rosenberg with an abundance of growth, now also bless these our council members with the vision and authority to guide and manage the future development of our city so that it may create more blessings for the least of these.
How dare we call ourselves Saints? No, not the New Orleans kind, but the kind of people that strive to be holy because God is holy. Well, the church has consistently done that ever since it started reciting the Apostles’ Creed some 1500 years ago:
“I believe […] in the Communion of Saints”
Yeah, from that crying baby in the church nursery to the 101 year-old lady and everybody in between, God considers us all Saints. Now God doesn’t do that in a Catholic kind of way:
“In Catholic terminology, the communion of saints is thus said to comprise the church militant (those alive on earth), the church penitent (those undergoing purification in purgatory in preparation for heaven), and the church triumphant (those already in heaven).”
Instead the Reformation has stressed the Priesthood of all believers, which basically means that there are no Saints that are more saintly than any other Saint.
That’s why Martin Luther on the occasion of All Hallows Eve (Halloween is the evening before All Saints Day) in the year 1517 made the point that was spelled out in Scripture before:
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and the Lamb!”
(Revelation 7:10 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 1 November 2014)
That was revolutionary news back then: In order to graduate from purgatory to heaven your deceased relatives needed your help. Namely the church wanted you to pay cold hard cash for a letter of indulgence to shorten their time of suffering. It was like the church owned a treasure chest of salvation and you had to buy in, for yourself and everyone you cared for. Luther spoke out against the practice of indulgences because: Salvation does not belong to the church but Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and the Lamb! God gives salvation for free to everybody!
That still is revolutionary news today: There are churches out there that will tell their people that they have to believe or act or love or be a certain way or they will not get saved. They put pressure on you for not giving enough money, for not following their moral code. They tell you they know how to “get saved”.
The Good News of Reformation Day / Halloween / All Saints Day is this:
You are a Saint! You are saved no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey!
Dost Thou Speak King James? And if ye offer a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the Lord, dost thou offer it at your own will? No, really, on a scale of 1-10 with ten being God-like: How Holy Art Thou? How do you rate your own Holiness? That is the challenge that the Holiness Code offers with its motto:
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
(Leviticus 19:2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 26 October 2014)
God is a 10. That’s easy, nobody and nothing could possibly be holier than the Holy One! But God does not just rest there in all God’s Holiness. God picks, elects, drafts, calls up God’s chosen people: first Israel and eventually all the peoples in Christ Jesus. That includes you and me. And the charge to God’s people remains in effect: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” If you did not rate yourself to be a 10 on the Holiness scale you got your work cut out for you!
How do I do that – become more holy? Forget most of the religious knowledge and practice you have learned over the years! Yes, the Holiness Code has some religious and cultural stuff listed but that is mostly common-sense or general moral practice. At its core the Hebrew word for “holiness,” “kedushah” (Hebrew: קדושה) has the connotation of “separateness”. So since God is separate from the world so God’s people are supposed to be special. That is in our everyday dealings and not a flashy worship kind of way.
Holiness does not show when you are in Sunday best but working towards a farmer’s tan. Here is an example from Leviticus 19:10
“You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
The way you go about to your day job shows how much you are attuned to the Divine and the people around you. When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment all he could think of was the summary of the Holiness Code from Leviticus 19:18
“love your neighbors as you love yourself.”
Learning to speak King James and saying the most beautiful prayers and thinking the most pious and righteous thoughts is so easy but are you willing to work on your Holiness the hard way? Do you dare being separate, special, holy?
Every old song used to be a new song. Karl Vaters wonders who the first worship director was who said “hey, I like that new song John Newton wrote,” before introducing Amazing Grace to the church. Whoever it was, he probably had to deal with complaints from church members who didn’t think it was as good as the hymns they were used to singing. “In six verses the name of Jesus isn’t mentioned once, but it says ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘I’ thirteen times! Today’s songs are so self-centered and shallow!”
The 1941 hymnal that we use at St. John’s United Church of Christ is kinda like that: It has countless numbers of hymns from 1930s and 1940 because they were the most popular songs back then. The church has a long tradition of hiring the greatest musicians of the time and commissioning the most extravagant compositions. And every time the “new hymnal” is introduced the generations who grew loving the previous ones get up in arms. Remember what that was like when the 1941 Hymnal was new? It was a radically new approach! Nobody could have ever imagined that Evangelical Christians and Reformed Christians could ever merge into the one Evangelical and Reformed Church. Well, they did and they even came up with this new 1941 hymnal celebrating their unity combining favorites of both traditions for a new era. After all that’s what the Psalmist charges God’s people to do:
“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.”
(Psalm 96:1-2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 19 October 2014)
St. John’s United Church of Christ has been working toward getting a new hymnal for quite some time. A group of musical experts has been assembled and charged with giving the congregation a feel for what is out their until we come closer to a phase of deliberation and a process of decision making. Stay tuned.
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