Dissing Christmas: The Church Fathers Pile On

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Starbucks. Target. City halls refusing to put up nativities. This relentless attack on Christmas must stop! Who is going to do battle with our cherished celebration next? The early church fathers? Say what? Listen to a “Justice League” of early fathers ruin Christmas by pointing out that, outside of the holy family, pretty much everything in your nativity crèche is based in fiction rather than biblical reality.

Assumptions v. Reality: The Church Fathers straighten us out on Christmas Night

Let’s contrast our modern version of the Christmas story with the perspective of the early Fathers who stood far closer, both chronologically and culturally, to Jesus’ birth than we do.Justice League Christmas Dis.002

  1. Not Announced by a star

We assume a star over the manger announced the King’s arrival. Like many of our beliefs about the Christmas story, we get that idea from Christmas carols. “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay…” Reality: The star came later (See assumption 3). The heralds were angels, who, as Cyril of Alexandria said in the 5th century, “never oppose the will of the one whose message they bear.”[1] God’s personal messenger service brought the news. For God, when it comes to salvation, it’s personal.

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  1. No Wise Men

Regardless of the school nativity play or the crèche on your mantel, the wise men were not even present at the birth. They arrived a year or so later. (Which explains Herod putting a hit on anyone under two years of age[2] and why the church celebrates the coming of the wise men as Epiphany on Jan 6.) In reality Shepherds were the first non-family to greet Jesus at his birthIn the 200’s Origen wrote, “the host of heaven brought the message of humanities’ good shepherd.” Bonus: There is also no indication from the text that it was the shepherd’s status on the peasant rung of the working-class ladder that amazed the public. What amazed was the message: “peace on earth.” From the divine perspective, “peace on earth” is only possible if there is peace with God – the enmity brought between humanity and God by sin removed. When the ones raising lambs for the temple system were sent to find a baby swaddled the way they swaddled their lambs to keep them spotless for the atonement sacrifices, everyone heard an implication: This baby would be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[3]

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  1. Not an Inn

In the pop culture version Mary and Joseph were rejected, turned away from a packed Inn In the Greek New Testament, the word for “Inn” is pandocheion, a place travelers paid for a common kitchen and dormitory, like a hostel. But that word isn’t in this text. Joseph and Mary instead went to a kataluma, “the spare or upper room in a private house…no payment was expected.”[4] A kataluma is where the disciples ate the Last Supper, not an “inn,” an “upper room.”[5] Joseph, seems to have done what Middle Easterners do to this day: showed up at a relative’s so that family could extend hospitality. Presumably, coming from a distance with a pregnant wife, other family perhaps already have the guest room for the census. Although despised and rejected by men[6] as an adult, Jesus was welcomed on his arrival. In the 3rd century Chrysostem wrote, he was “not in some small room but in the home before numerous people.”[7]

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  1. No Stable

Regardless of what your mom said, you probably weren’t born in a barn and Jesus probably wasn’t either, since animals were not kept in barns in 1st Century Palestine. They were kept in the lower level of the main house. The manger is on the main level so that the animals could put their faces in and eat.[8] Jesus was born in the main room and, as Gregory of Nazianzus said, “bound in swaddling bands at the manger to release humanity from the swaddling bands of the grave at the resurrection.”[9] No wonder his mother named him, Jesus, meaning, “God saves.”

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  1. Not on Christmas.

Jesus’ had a Christmas birthday, right? Wrong. Because the shepherds were in the field, scholars conclude Jesus’ birth was in Spring or Fall. How did we get Dec. 25? A common theory is that we co-opted the Roman feast of the Unconquerable Sun. However, the church, long before it gave a rip about the holidays of Rome’s pantheon of gods, believed Jesus was both conceived and crucified on March 25. They counted forward 9 months from conception, giving us, viola, Dec. 25. In reality, it is the era rather than the day of Jesus’ birth that is important. Jesus was born during the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, allowing the news of him to spread. 7th century historian Bede wrote, “Jesus was born at the time of utmost worldly peace to lead the world back to heavenly peace.”[10]

Conclusion: When Jesus arrived and God dwelt among us[11] he didn’t just, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased, “move into the neighborhood,”[12] he moved into the front room. As Athanasius wrote in the 3rd century, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.”[13] That is the point of Jesus entering what pagan philosopher Celsus called, the ragtag and bobtail of humanity.[14]

What do we learn of Christmas from the Fathers? It would be good to learn our Bibles and our story and defend our faith against shallow thinking and ministers who lack the training to teach the scriptures rather than simply critiquing the culture. The truth of Christmas we learn from the scriptures is that angelic messengers let us know that, for God, “it’s personal.” He may have been a helpless baby, but more than a helpless baby, Jesus would be the spotless lamb of God to be sacrificed, shattering the separation of sin. Jesus was at home in the world he had made,[15] in the midst of the stuff of life. His name means “God saves” and his birth is an invitation to that salvation: God joined us “in the fullness of time” to bring peace to the world, that we might be united to him eternally.[16]

Your crèche might be bogus, but the incarnation most certainly is not. Christian, reclaim Christmas by worshipping the manger-born King, walking with God rather than expecting non-believers to, learning our scriptures in the context of historic teaching, and bear witness to the power of that babe to bring “peace on earth, goodwill to those in whom he is well-pleased.”  

*And yes, I do know Perpetua isn’t a “Father,” but someone had to be Gal Gadot.

[1] Commentary on Luke, Homily 2

[2] Matt 2:16

[3] John 1:29

[4] ISBE, 2004

[5] Luke 22:12

[6] Isaiah 53:3

[7] Against the Anomoeans, 7.49

[8] There are a plethora of references on this one. Google it.

[9] Oration 29.19

[10] Homilies on the Gospels, 1.6

[11] John 1:14

[12] The Message,

[13] On the Incarnation

[14] Contra Celsus,

[15] John 1:1

[16] Galatians 4:4

 

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Loving Houston from a distance

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Snark MeterrealMID.003A week ago, while boarding a plane to lead a retreat in Maryland, I naively commented that I was sad to be leaving Houston before my first hurricane. After all, one is not “Real Houston” until you have been there and done that.

That was ignorance speaking.

A week later Harvey has moved on. Behind is the devastation of 50” of rain pummeling one place for four days. Friends and colleagues left their homes with nothing but the drenched clothes on their backs. Friends floated their families out of their neighborhood on air mattresses and pool toys. A few, people with lives and loved ones and stories, didn’t make it out at all.

My wife and teams of our young adults have spent this week gutting homes that were knee deep in flood waters and backed up sewage in a race against the mold that will turn those homes toxic. And all the while, I remain in Baltimore due to airport closures and having booked with an airline that has a single daily flight to Houston. So, like most of you, I have had to love from a distance.

From a distance I worry about those who will spend months in shelters and hotels and friend’s spare bedrooms. I worry about those unable to work and pay bills and buy groceries and gasoline to get back to work when (or if ) their jobs reopen. For thousands, Harvey’s aftermath will mean a second move: the move into poverty.

Knowing that I am on staff at a Houston church that sends more than 1/3 of every dollar directly out our door to others, and that I have some experience serving “the least of these,” many have asked, “What can I do?”* Here is how you can provide helpful help right now:

  1. Pray. Really. (James 5:16) “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.” (Ps. 29:10) The storm is never the last word!
  2. Stop. Don’t load up a flatbed with blankets and bring 100 of your closest friends next week. That day will come. Right now, shelters, hotels and churches are filled. The last thing Harvey hit areas need right now is more bodies. Don’t send the flatbed with the blankets either. The list of what shelters needs changes daily. If you send it, chances are good your generosity will end up not being used.
  3. Give money. Money is flexible. Money can be used to buy kids groceries and clothes. We spent $1200 today on supplies like masks and gloves to help teams tear out carpet, drywall and cabinets. Thousands of workers will need Hep C and tetanus shots. People (church parishioners and church’s local mission partners with folk in dire financial positions) will need help because people on the bubble will not be able to work hourly jobs, but their expenses won’t stop.

How to give cash? Find a charity you trust. Give some to small local charities…local charities do good work with real people. Give some to church-based national charities. National charities have broad experience. Lots of large secular charities pay huge salaries and have large advertising budgets that church-based charities usually do not have. (For example Episcopal Relief and Development sends 84% directly to programs rather than admin or fundraising).

Here is one place I trust: http://www.sjd.org/harvey/

Thank you for loving from a distance. The Gulf Coast needs you!

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Tuesday clothing collections at St. John the Divine

*If you count the staff necessary to accomplish that, it is more like 50% of the budget of the Church of St. John the Divine goes outside our doors.

What should Christians do the day after an election?

(Originally posted four years ago today. Still appropriate.)

Imagine my surprise to wake up today and be informed by my Facebook feed that for slightly less than 1/2 of America the apocalypse is upon us. While, at the same time, for ever so slightly more than 50% of America, we have just insured our temporal salvation…at least for four more years.

My 2300 Facebook friends are mostly Christians. How did we, the followers of a messiah who repeatedly refused to be a political deliverer, decide to look for salvation through the vote? How does a group, whose original identity was the anti-empire exclamation: “Jesus is Lord!” end up equating our political system with religious truth? Our original creed was a stark rebuttal to the “Caesar is Lord” mandated to be shouted as the emperor was carried through Roman cities. And yet today we look to the empire for our salvation.

We would do well to remember the message that Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no other name under heaven.” (Acts 4:12)

We have a missio-dei, a mission of God that transcends any secular mission. It is a mission of thought, and mouth, and hands and feet. Imagine this: What if every Christian invested the dollars we spent on campaigns and candidates on the poor, the downtrodden, the alien and sojourner…the unborn and the young single girl carrying them?

What if we borrowed a page from the playbook of the early Christians? In 362 C.E. the commitment to society by Christians was so obvious that when Emperor Julian launched a campaign to revive paganism he realized the enormous challenge he faced in trying to win people’s affections back from the devotion of Christians. “When the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by our priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” [1] The church nursed the sick, cared for widows, orphans and elderly. We even buried the dead, both Christian and non-Christian alike.

Even the beneficiary of yesterday’s vote, the President himself, realizes that we are placing too much either on him or opposed to him when he pointed out that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” I would say that actually is another. A Nazarene carpenter.

But what should we Christians do the day after an election? Go back to being his hands and his feet. Live, serve, preach, pray, give, go and grow.


[1] Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. New York: HarperOne Publishers. (2006), 31.

Distorted Mirrors: What Our Candidates Tell Us About Ourselves

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Photo credit: cnbc.com – Getty Images

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I’m doing it. I am adding to the word count on the two people Americans are most tired of talking about. Fret not, though. I won’t bore you with my opining on their political positions, policies, or personal lives. I just want to ponder for a moment what our candidates’ very public moral and ethical question marks might say about where we are as a nation.

Consider a few previous presidents…

  • After a historic religious revival[1], a revolution, and inventing government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we picked a leader of self-restraint. One who stood for virtue and honesty. George Washington reflected our values.
  • In 1860 a single injustice cast a pall over America. We elected a single issue President with the resolve to oppose that injustice. Abraham Lincoln reflected our values.
  • In the 1930’s, with the economy crippled by the Depression. America chose a president who was crippled, yet courageous. Franklin Roosevelt reflected our values.
  • In the 1950’s, wanting to stand up against the spread of communism, we elected the general who won WWII. Ike reflected our values.

Many have fretted about what so and so’s beliefs and leadership will do to our future. But it seems our leaders don’t shape our beliefs as much as reflect them back to us.  If so, do you like what you see when you look into our collective mirror? While this may be cringe provoking, especially considering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings, is it possible that our candidates are simply our values and our behaviors staring back at us?

Perhaps we need to ask some hard questions about our ethics…how morally upright is our thought life and media usage? What about our conspicuous consumption…and fears…or the effects of millions of us cutting corners and winking away little dishonesties. What about the anger? Moses told the people, “Your sins will find you out.”[2]

Perhaps our candidates are just the public face of our private selves being found out?

We are fooling ourselves to think our candidates are “them.” The cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Surely our candidates moral peccadillos are, at some level, a reflection of our own weak moral knees and the fact that we no longer seem to spend much time on them.

What should one do when looking into a mirror and not liking what is looking back? Surely the answer is not to try to alter the mirror, but to fix what the mirror is reflecting. Perhaps the place to start is in the privacy of the voting booth. When you go into that booth Tuesday, I encourage you to see the candidates for what they are: Flawed humans who are a little too much like you and I for comfort. Say a prayer for each of them. Say a prayer for your nation. Then cast yourself upon the mercy of God. And when you leave that booth, go and love and serve, nurture and nourish each and every person you meet. That way, when we look into the voting booth shaped mirror four years from now, we might feel a little better about what we see looking back.

*“Where are we?” Link to Sermon containing this idea. Text: Hebrews 11:1-11

[1] The Great Awakening

[2] Numbers 32:23

 

Watching our Culture Die: Where the secular culture went wrong and what Christians can do to help. 

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We have all become spectators of our culture. It is fascinating and disturbing – like the accident you cannot avert your gaze from.

Are things as bleak as they appear?

One way to get perspective on a culture is to look at the stories that society tells its’ young adults…

  • In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the story we told was the Western. The Western featured a universe in which one moral man in a white hat stood strong against evil.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the world became more complex. Our best-selling story was The Chronicles of Narnia, featuring a magical alternate universe where children escape evil, and goodness wins out.
  • In the 90’s, Harry Potter flew in with his magical parallel universe. In Harry Potter’s world, evil may be around us, but we are being defended against the dark arts.
  • In the 2000s a new tale was in vogue: Vampires. In the vampire narrative the evil is us, and we live by sucking life from others.
  • And, just when you thought it could not get worse, today’s popular narrative is zombies. There were 8 zombie movies in 2015. 11 will be released this year. In the cratered civilization of the zombie, The Walking Dead pursue us in order to violently compel us to join them.

Consider the dystopian psychological projection of our culture and ourselves that we are buying and feeding to our young when our national narrative is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Cultures survive on shared narratives: common language and worldviews, well-established purposes. In America at this moment our “shared narrative” has been lost. One evidence we have lost our story is our social outrage. Everyone is angry. Consider the catchphrases of the summer: “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.” The reason we shout, “lives matter” is because they don’t. Our shared narrative is so broken we can’t even agree on so fundamental an issue as who “matters.”

The Story we Used to Share

Western civilization was once undergirded by a single coherent and widely accepted story – the Christian story. The narrative is that God, sovereign over all, created the world and everyone in it as a special and unique creation – The Christian narrative is that each of us, by definition, matters. Humans, in the Christian story, have the freedom to walk in the revealed truth of God’s providence, or reject the truth and live in a false-self of our own creation. It is a profound story: A God so good and wise and strong, that he dared give humans the gift of freedom…even if that gift would need to be redeemed at the cost of his own son. That son would then offer himself, as the Prayer Book says, “a full, perfect, and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Our Story has Become Nonsense

Unfortunately, as we have systemically and legally purged God from our narrative, our story makes less and less sense – without the foundation our house crumbles in the storm. Our vacuum of narrative leaves us with two options: We may substitute the story of our place in God’s kingdom for another world-view. Unfortunately, most competing world religions simply do not place the same value on the dignity of the human person. Or, following current fashion, we may construct a narrative of our own invention. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen label the picking and choosing of religious bits and pieces to manufacture a world-view, “Sheila-ism” after Sheila Larson, a woman they interviewed who followed “her own little voice.” The only problem is that being the captain of our own destiny didn’t work for Adam and Eve. Eventually it didn’t work for Sheila either. And, as we can’t help but notice, it is not working for our friends and neighbors.

Why not create our own narrative?

First of all, my right to fashion my own story presumes a responsibility on your part to approve of my invention. And, when we remove the authority of God, we have no place to appeal for what is good except majority rule. Morality then becomes the tyrannical bullying of whomever has the votes – making the individually constructed stories inherently coercive. Second, our rage screams that narratives of our own invention simply do not provide lasting satisfaction for the human heart. We were not designed as discrete moral agents. The one who is perfect love, and made us for himself, woos and wins our hearts to union with Him. Once captivated, we look back to find God has made straight the paths of our lives as we have entrusted ourselves to his mercy.

This story explains the way things actually are: That God is for us not against us. That we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. That, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are always restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Occasionally those sharing the story of God become confused and mistake the enemy of the story to be those who would silence the story. But if you notice in the New Testament, the enemy is not other humans, even those who persecuting and killing God-followers. The enemies to human thriving, the Scriptures tell us, are the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three war against humanity by creating alternative false narratives.

The Struggle is Real

The key is to put down the binoculars and get involved. The secular culture will ask for more of what you are already doing. They will ask for reparations and labor. The church is already giving money and effort far in excess of any other group in the culture. And we will continue to do so in gratitude for the grace we have been shown by God. But when they ask for “more” you have permission to remind them of the old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing but hoping for different results.” However, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, though, I would encourage you to build relationships with those outside of our bleacher seats and find those you can share the story with. As the relationship grows you will hear them say, “The sky is falling.” Look them in the eye with confidence, and with great mercy say, “No, it is not, but your story is – You are watching the death of the story of the self-made life. There is another story, friend. A more sensible one. A story that has transformed everyone who has ever received it.”

Friends, if we change the narrative, we will change our culture. But we have a much more pressing matter: eternity itself hangs in the balance. When we share the Good News of Jesus, when we bring friends to church to be immersed into Christ and learn to feast at the table of Thanksgiving, we change more than our culture, we change eternity itself. And that is the task the followers of Christ can least afford to leave unfinished.

Story Bearers

The call to the bearers of the story, the Church, was summed up nicely several years ago in the movie trailer to the first Lord of the Rings. Over exciting footage appear the words, “Fate has chosen him.” More exciting action, then the words, “A fellowship will protect them.” Yet more footage and the words, “Evil will oppose them.” All three are true of the church: Fate has chosen us. A fellowship will protect us. And evil will oppose us.

…But then the trailer closes with the spoken voice of the princess Galadriel, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

The cultural collapse shouts the dire need of the great narrative of God in Christ. Our unique contribution is to be a band of merry Gospel proclaimers, joyfully singing the story of the goodness of God to our friends and neighbors. As Galadriel said, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

 

 

Unraveling racism – Naming our Samaritans and traveling our Jericho road

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(A sermon. 7/10/16)

What a week.

You may be wondering: Will the church address the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas? Will we go there? Spoiler alert: Yes.

Although I successfully resisted the urge to engage in Facebook activism, I cannot avoid last week’s events from the pulpit – we have to “go there” because at this moment in America our problems are simply outside of the realm of mere secular solutions. We have a spiritual sickness, so the church has to talk about it.

Everyone has a perspective. Here’s mine: First, I have strong admiration for the police. Police officers risk their lives every time they put on the shield. I played high school basketball with the Phoenix Chief of Police. Even as a kid he was smart, tough, level headed and fair. I have friends who work difficult beats. I have friends in vice and friends on SWAT. A friend renting our home in Phoenix starts the police academy next month. I love, respect, and appreciate every officer I know personally. And I respect and appreciate the job police officers do to protect us all every day.

And…I also did urban ministry in Phoenix’s I-17 corridor. As “the white guy” on our church staff, I know a dozen people who have been “sweat” – stopped for things like tail lights being out when they weren’t. I have friends who spent the night in jail for non-offenses that would raise your eyebrows. Our preacher, Dijuahn, in an incident eerily similar to Philando Castille’s, was shot multiple times by an officer who panicked when Dijuahn told him he was carrying a gun. Dijuahn lived, though. He did nine years in prison for the officer’s mistake. So I have experienced both sides of this tension. If there were easy answers we’d have found them already.

How do we begin to unravel this mess we are in? Luke 10:25-37 is a good place to start.

Look at how a well-meaning religious person can be part of the problem…

v25 And behold, a lawyer (an expert in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – “the law”) stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” “Eternal life” in the first century was not a ticket to heaven, but was rather viewed as a quality of life here and now that would simply never end. This lawyer starts with the right question: “How do I have the life I was meant to have? How do I have that quality of life that only comes from God?” He starts in the right place:

1) He has the right question.

v26 Jesus says to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ Jesus asks.” v27 The lawyer quotes the summary of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Not only does this lawyer know the right question,

2) He has the right source of authority: the scriptures-God’s revealed truth. And,

3) He has the right answer: love.

And (Jesus) said to him, v28 “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Jesus confirms that Loving God and loving your neighbor as a result of your first love, love for God, is life-giving.

And here it gets interesting: v29 But he…desiring to justify himself… (The human default is the desire to justify ourselves, to try to prove to God how lucky he is to have us on his team.) V29 he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (It is difficult to even read the question without an attitude. The man is trying to figure out how little he can do. He is trying to lower the bar on love.)

So our man has the right question, the right source of truth, and the right answer. Unfortunately, he also gets a few things wrong… He has:

1) The wrong motive (v25) “to put Jesus to the test.” And now,

2) The wrong method (v29)“to justify himself,” and,

3) The wrong attitude (v29) “Who exactly is my neighbor?”

Unfortunately, half-right in the Christian life usually leaves us with a life that is all-wrong.

And have you noticed that when we are half-wrong we are usually 100% convinced we are all-right?

Breaking through our self-deception

When someone was self-deceived in the bible, Jesus would often sneak around their internal defenses with a story. He does that in Luke 11:

v30 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… I have been on the road to Jericho. I was nervous. It’s a rocky downhill descending 3500 feet in elevation, an 18-mile ambush opportunity. If this were a Western movie, the road to Jericho is where the stagecoach would get held up.

“A man fell among robbers, who strip and beat him, leaving him half dead.” (all quite predictable) v31 A priest comes along. He saw him and passed by on the other side.” v32 Likewise a Levite,” (who assisted priests, ie. A person active at the church.) “when he came to the place and saw him, he too passed by on the other side.” That is what smart people do. The bleeding guy is probably a set up. Be safe: walk by on the other side. And now, just when you would expect a nice Jewish layperson, Jesus throws the curveball…

v33 But a Samaritan…” A SAMARITAN! Jews and Samaritans helping one another? Simply unthinkable. Samaritans were the remnants of lower class Jews not considered important enough for the Assyrians to exile when they had conquered Israel eight centuries earlier. Then they intermarried with the invading Assyrians and Babylonians. The Samaritan/Jewish thing was a racial, cultural, tribal, religious, and class conflict beyond our experience.

Yet it is the Samaritan who… “came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. v34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine” (oil speeds healing. alcohol is antiseptic.) “he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. v35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ v36 And then Jesus asks the obvious: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

Don’t be the well-meaning religious person who inadvertently becomes part of the problem. Ask yourself: #whoismyneighbor? #whatisyourjerichoroad?

It is on the road to Jericho where fear, security, and realism butt up against faith, hope, and love.

It is on the road to Jericho where we confront our fears and our prejudices – where I decide if I will do what is smart and safe or what someone else needs me to do.

It is on the Road to Jericho where love is put to the test.

I wonder…at what point did the lawyer who had it half-right realize that his motives, methods, and attitude where all-wrong?

I wonder…at what point on our Jericho road you and I will confront our Samaritans?

What should we do when we, like the lawyer, begin to realize, that for all we have right in life, we still lack that quality of overwhelming, overflowing joy that Jesus spoke of?

What you should do depends on where you are. First, do you know Jesus Christ? Have you allowed him to be your justifier, or are you still looking for life on your own? If so, the hard to hear truth is this: There is only one source of eternal life, only one who justifies – Jesus. There is only one truly Good Samaritan. Only one, who, having compassion, crossed out of his way, all the way from heaven in fact, to us. One Great Samaritan, who, as unlikely as it sounds, binds up our broken hearts, who takes us, battered and bruised by life and pours the wine of his presence and the oil of his calling upon us…who takes us to his own home, at great personal cost, and keeps returning by placing his Spirit permanently within us when we place our trust in him. So, if you do not yet know Jesus Christ, come to him this morning by faith. Surrender your life to his healing, uplifting, love-giving presence. Because otherwise you will, ultimately, serve the world from pain.

Have you already experienced the touch of the master’s hand? If that is you, I implore you, courageously seek, name, and turn from your fears. Acknowledge your Jericho Road and name your “Samaritans,” the “other” in your heart. Our nation’s hope is not to be found in justice but in love. And love and fear never occupy the same space. Why is this so important? Because,

when 13% of America is convinced that it is open season on them, it is a fail for 100% of us.

Only those filled and led by love, freed from the grip fear, can hope to overcome four centuries of earned distrust. So I ask you, who are your Samaritans?

I’ve had my share of “Samaritans” – people I have feared over my life. Since my dad was the realtor for the Phoenix Suns, I grew up in a uniquely multi-ethnic environment for a middle class kid. But I had lots of other “Samaritans.” Lots of roads I avoided. Mine were communists, illegal aliens, and gang members.God has stripped those one by one as I watched people from those groups experience the mercy of God and the same life-change that I experienced. They became friends. It is amazing the way “perfect love casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18)

This week we had Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Not morally equivalent acts, yet acts that will always be connected in our consciousness. In the wake of the horror you may be tempted to retreat to slogans or party lines. Or, alternately, to take a silent detour through “nice,” and avoid traveling the Jericho Road altogether.

Church, refuse the easy way. Don’t allow the dangers of the Jericho Road to cause you to question, “Who is my neighbor?” What Jesus taught is simple: If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor.

Here are a few small simple neighborly things you can do: 1) Smile and say, “hi.” 2)  Build friendships outside of your ethnic and social group. 3) Ask people outside of your group to tell you how their experiences. Listen (without judging or attempting to correct their impressions).

Because If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor. So, Christian, don’t lower the bar on love. Or, as Jesus told the lawyer, “You go, and do likewise.”

And as you go remember, “love” is still the right answer.

You will be tempted to go driven by the heart breaking needs you see around you. As counterintuitive as it seems, resist that urge. Because if you allow the world’s need and your desire for justice to drive you, you will end up bitter and broken. Anger is a parasite that cares not on whom it feasts.

So go. But go centered in the deep and wise love of God. Go loving God’s world with the overflow of God’s love in your life. G0 with the hope that the one whose love is redeeming you can redeem them. Go in the majesty and power of the one described by an anonymous second century disciple of John who explained the transforming love of Jesus to Marcus Aurelius’ tutor Diognetus like this….and I quote:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us…the one love of God…took on Him the burden of our iniquities, and gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those ones which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desires to lead us to trust in His kindness, (and) to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life.

                                                                                     (Chapter 9, Epistle from Mathetes to Diognetus)

Amen.

(If you would like to listen to the version preached it is here: http://www.sjd.org/sermon/07-10-16-contemporary-sermon-by-the-rev-matt-marino/

No. You don’t want your uncle Jimmy to get ordained online to do your wedding.

white-wedding-1

Snark MeterrealMID.003

It is trendy to have someone you know buy an online ordination and do your wedding ceremony. Every year I have multiple (otherwise solid) Christians contact me to ask where and how to find the “least weird” way to be ordained. Here is my response:

It is an honor to be asked, and good on you for wanting to make it as right as possible. Unfortunatelywhat you are asking just isn’t. Would you ask a teacher help you get a “less weird” online teaching certificate? Or a doctor to help you get a “less weird” online medical license? Getting ordained through Billy Bob’s Online Church of the Twenty-Buck Blessing may seem like a good idea, but it overlooks the training and experience needed to do a wedding well. A teacher does more than pull off classroom management as a one-time substitute, and a doctor more than demonstrate mastery of the tongue depressor in a routine visit. In the same way, a pastor does much more than simply read a wedding service.

Your friend will be putting someone who has never done a wedding in charge of the single most expensive and important party of their life. Will they also be asking a friend who takes nice Instagram pics to be photographer? A minister is air-traffic control. They make all of the many parts and people move in coordination. Brides are under a lot of stress. They do not need a rookie at the helm.

More than that, a non-ordained friend doing the ceremony is a bad setup for the marriage. Marriage is a sacred act originating in the mind of God. Marriage is tough. It needs God’s participation to have more than a Powerball player’s chance of making it after you scratch the ink off and see what resides below the surface of each of us. There are important roles in a wedding a friend can handle, but when it comes to making the vows, you want to have every bit of oomph possible behind those promises. You want a couple, even ones without faith involvement, to say, “I promised God and God’s representative in front of all of my friends and family in that church that I will love this girl/boy no matter how bad a time I am having of it. I’d better make good on this!”

Do them a favor, ask them to find someone duly ordained. Probably not what you wanted to hear. 🙂

Matt

Usually my friends then respond with: That’s a lot to think about, but my niece/friend/neighbor is really important to me. I’m the only Christian they know and being connected to a church isn’t a priority for them. I think this is a great opportunity for me to ask some good, tough questions to her and her fiancé. Don’t you? 

I love your heart. You don’t want an online ordination.

You are wise to see your friends’ need for preparation. Marriage preparation from someone who is in a good marriage, like yours, is a good thing. But why not also connect them with someone who has helped lots of marriages? Good churches typically do a 4-6 session pre-marital course. Your friendship gives you traction to say, “Trust us, you want one more person involved: a real pastor…with their experience, preparation program, and the encouragement of other couples who will also be making new marriages work. All of that will be really helpful!”

On top of that, encourage them to try a church. You and I have both experienced the support and perspective that faith and a multi-generational church community has been in keeping the wheels from coming off our marriages when they might have otherwise.

Matt

The friend then generally responds with some version of: “Matt, you really don’t get the situation here. Our friend doesn’t going to church and they aren’t going to. She wants ME to do it and I want to do it because I love them.”
I have learned to have this part of the conversation in person because it looks so snarky in writing:

I have been at this a long time. I actually do know what is going on. 99 couples out of 100 come to clergy and ask for a “great wedding.” The fact that you think you are their best option for that, friend, reveals their need for an actual pastor. It feels good to be asked, and it feels good to give someone what they want. But that doesn’t really help them. Pastors do not to acquiesce to people’s whims and wants, but move naive couples off of the dime of “great wedding” to “great marriage.” The first is a one-off. The second is a lifetime.

I am not saying, “Let a friend down.” I am saying be a great friend: Give them a third party – one who can say things important for their life together, but hard for them to hear. Then you and your wife are free to take the role of wise old married friend confirming the ancient wisdom offered by that pastor.

Many have been burned by the church and ministers, or, not knowing or distrusting the church, have failed to engage. But, to bring this full circle, bad ministers and bad churches do not invalidate the help provided by good ones any more than being harmed by bad public school teachers or bad doctors invalidates teaching or medicine. Don’t fall into the trap of reinforcing the perception of irrelevance of some of the most potentially helpful relationships in their marriage: a church and qualified, called, experienced clergy. Make their circle larger: Include a real church and a real pastor.

Matt

Ordination is not a piece of paper. 

Ordination is a long process that begins when the community sees someone’s calling. A person confirms that call through a period of prayer and community discernment. Then the person endure rigorous preparation that typically culminates in a 3-year Masters of Divinity degree program. After seeing the faithfulness of the person in their faith journey, service, and spiritual preparation, then the church ordains them, setting them apart and asking God to make them, by His grace, up to the task of leading God’s people.

In ordination, the community of faith, below, around, and above invests in a person’s training, and then asks them to, as Eugene Peterson said, “Lash themselves to the mast of Word and Sacrament” on that communities’ behalf. Ordained people pledge to be the one whom, when the storms of life come, the community can count on. They pledge to be there when we are married, when our children are born, when they own their faith, and when we are ill and when we go and meet our maker…and every week in between. It is a sacred covenant between God, the ordained, and a community. Because of our relationship with our clergy: we have an awareness of the sacrifices they have made, and knowing that they literally risk their supper if they offend us, we trust that the occasional hard things they say and we don’t want to hear deserve a listen.

Googling an ordination makes a mockery of that process, real pastors, and the communities that call them. And it doesn’t help the people getting married.

Buying an ordination does two things well: It gives pastors lots of complements from people whose last wedding was officiated at by a bogusly ordained friend, and it feeds a side of the one buying it that really doesn’t need feeding. 

Photo from: wedding photo