Archive for December, 2009

Backseat Prayer

On our drive home today we hear Isaac pray to himself….

Dear God

Help us

We love Jesus

This prayer left us wondering…do we need help because we love Jesus?  Or do we just need help in general?  Both, of course, might be true.

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Sex and Religion

In ancient cultures, sex was integrated with religious life. Sex was celebrated within religion. Spring festivals included fertility rites. Temples were dedicated to the ‘love arts.’ Parading phalluses were not uncommon. Even the gods had their passions and trysts.

Christianity features an “ascetic ideal.”[1] We’ve created a gulf between body and soul. The soul is lofty, pure and eternal. The body is dirty, transient and gets us into trouble. Luther’s wedding made sex kind-of-OK, but we’re still scared and conflicted. This is hereditary.

The results aren’t good. Sex is suppressed and becomes a foul, even violent thing. Movies for example: Extremely graphic rape scenes are used to add a little dramatic tension, a little more character sympathy or just set up the great chase (saw one in a James Bond movie the other day). As long as no genitals are seen, there’s no problem; that’s just good entertainment. Rape gets a PG or maybe an R. But even the most loving and artful scene cannot feature certain body parts, especially if said parts are in an aroused state. Sex gets marked X; for eXplicit or Xed out – SeX-is-out? Sex = grotesque, guilt, shame, remorse…

No, I’m not suggesting we parade phalluses this Easter. But couldn’t we begin a conversation? Shouldn’t we find a way to sanction the body and celebrate the art of love? Maybe we can make some meaning of sex.

[1] See Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals

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Imaginary Ducks

The imagination of our 2 ½ year old son amazes me.  A few days ago we spent about half an hour (long time for those with short attention spans) feeding the imaginary ducks at the end of Mommy and Daddy’s bed.  Every night in the bathtub Isaac serves me up some “ice cream” from the soda fountain of tap water running out of the tub’s faucet.  The pillows on our couch are not really pillows, but bridges and ladders and blocks for tunnels.  Our beige Berber carpet is really sand on the beach.

Being around Isaac just makes me feel more creative.  Why do we adults let our imaginations go?  Why can’t I see ice cream flowing from my bath water and ducks swimming at the end of my bed?  Before Isaac was born into my life, I bought and read a book called, “Drawing on the Right Side of your Brain.”  The book was supposed to help me be more creative…help me draw on the right side of my brain.  It was a good book with lots of creative exercises.  But eventually I got tired of the exercises.  I think I prefer just hanging out with Isaac.  I get plenty of exercise with him.

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“This Day”

The Christmas Eve service was beautiful.  Although, it’d be hard to mess it up what with all that amazing candlelight and all those people come to worship Christ the King.  Dan sang “Oh Holy Night” and Leon rang our church’s bells just at the right moment at the end of my sermon.  This is the kind of worship service that gives me hope. Merry Christmas everyone!

“This Day”

Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 24th, 2009 – Christmas Eve

What was Luke thinking?  What was he thinking when he put pen to paper, or ink to papyrus, and began to record a story that undoubtedly challenged the reigning powers of Rome?  What was he thinking?  Why would he take such a risk?  The Romans were killing people left and right for challenging their authority.  In order to stamp out any sort of uprising, the Romans were slaughtering and enslaving the people in droves.  The social and political tension between the ruling Romans, their hand-picked client kings, and the people of Palestine was so thick that even a rumor of rebellion could get you publicly executed.[1] So what was Luke thinking when he sat down and began to write?  Why was it so important that this story be told?  And why is it so important that we give Luke our full attention tonight….even though his story is anything but new to us?

Well, apparently, Luke believes in the power of the word.  Apparently Luke believes that a story can make a difference, that a story can effect change, that a story can transform a bad situation….even as bad a situation as his.  So Luke took the risk and wrote the story.

In those days…this is how Luke, our master storyteller, chose to begin.  In those days…. of Emperor Augustus, of imperial census, of long trips home in order to be registered.  In those days….of taxes and tributes, of economic burdens too heavy for families to bear, and of a heavy-handed military ready to pounce on anyone who got out of line.  In those days….of forced peace, of oppression of the poor by the rich, and of expectations to worship the emperor as the people’s savior.  In those days… the story begins.

In those days….the words themselves sound tired and hopeless[2], not to mention the people living through them.  But it was in those days that Jesus was born.  And it was in those days that Jesus comes to us again tonight.

Tired and hopeless.  Maybe you know those days as well.  Maybe you have come here tonight with a foot in Luke’s world.  Maybe those days are today to you.

I’ve found myself waiting in a lot of lines lately.  It seems that this is how we spend a lot of our time during the busy holiday season.  I waited in line at the doctor’s office because they chose the week before Christmas to upgrade to a new (and apparently confusing) computer system.  I waited in line at Rite Aid to get my H1N1 vaccine along with about 150 other germ-a-phobic souls.  I’ve been waiting in a line of traffic for about two months now whenever I venture down highway 15-501.  And of course, I waited in line at Walmart.  There’s no place like Walmart during the holidays.  I waited in line and I did what I assume most everyone does while they wait…I studied the people around me.  And after studying the people for a while I determined that there are two kinds of waiters….people who wait in line quietly and solemnly, they are not happy to be there, but they are not going to make a fuss.  And people who wait in line loudly and indignantly, people who honk their horns in exasperation, or who try to strike up a conversation with you (the quiet, solemn type) in order to complain about the injustice of having to wait.  Regardless of whether you wait quietly and solemnly, or loudly and indignantly, no one is happy to wait.  No one is of especially good cheer.  And I’ve noticed this unhappiness more this year than in year’s past.  I’ve heard more complaining. I’ve witnessed more obscene gestures.  I’ve observed more general unhappiness than I can remember.  Maybe it’s just me.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe the depressed economy has stolen our Christmas spirit?  Maybe the political tensions of our country and the angry, in-your-face bumper stickers have gotten us all on edge?  Maybe we’re just tired of war and hate and prejudice?  Maybe we’re just dying for peace, but feel there is no peace to be found?

Maybe we’re tired and hopeless, hopeless and tired, and living in those days.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play.

And wild and sweet the words repeat

of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head,

“There is no peace on Earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”[3]

Maybe we’re tired and hopeless, hopeless and tired, and living in those days.

But, fortunately for us, this is just the beginning of Luke’s story.  Luke begins in those days, but then he carries us, on the wings of his narrative, to this day, to this day, when the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  Luke carries us to this day, to the day when the angel declares, “Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  Those days are gone.  This day has arrived.  And along with this day comes good news and great joy for all the people.  Along with this day comes a new hope and a renewed faith.  Along with this day comes a promise and a future because to you is born this day a Savior.

Luke wrote the story.  He wrote the story, even at great risk, because he knew the power of this day. Luke knew that the birth of the Christ-child meant that God had inaugurated the long-awaited deliverance of God’s people from their enemies.[4] Luke knew that the birth of the Christ-child brought the people hope in a hopeless time.  Luke knew that the birth of the Christ-child brought the people renewal in a time of desperate weariness.

So Luke sat down and wrote the story.  He wrote the story to keep it alive.  He wrote the story to proclaim God’s good news.  He wrote the story to change your life, and my life, and the life of all those living in those days.  He wrote the story so that our ending would not be like our beginning.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Church bells ring….

Now to our God, for whom we ring our bells this Christmas night, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Richard A. Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, pg. 33.  “The period from well before the birth of Jesus through the time of his birth and well beyond the point at which Luke was written was dominated by continuous tension and periodic outbreak of overt conflict between Roman imperial rule and the people in Palestine.”

[2] Charles L. Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, pg. 119.

[3] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

[4] Richard Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, pg. 155.

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Christmas Eve Sermon

It’s Monday at 3:00pm.  The kids come home at 4:30pm.  Thursday is Christmas Eve.  And daycare is closed on Wednesday.  Which means I have about an hour left today, plus daycare hours tomorrow to get ready for Christmas.  No pressure, though.

Seriously.  I try to take deep breaths and not put too much pressure on myself.  But this is Christmas Eve!  One of the church’s most beautiful nights!  And a night on which more people will be packed into our pews than on any other occasion, except, of course, maybe Easter.  As a pastor it’s easy to fall into feeling a little cynical about all those unfamiliar faces crossing the church’s threshold on Christmas and taking a spot in a pew.  But I try real hard to see it as more of an opportunity.  It’s a pretty amazing privilege to be given about 10 to 15 minutes to speak to the masses….to have people’s ear and hopefully their attention during worship.  So I want to do well.  No, honestly, I want to do great.  I want to create a worship moment full of beauty.  I want to say something meaningful, and truthful, and hope-filled.  I want to shed a little light into people’s darkness.  And, by the grace of God, I believe that this is possible.  I believe that it is possible for people to experience the Living Word through a pastor’s words….if that pastor has carefully and prayerfully prepared.  So, again, no pressure.  When are my kids coming home??

My primary preaching text for Christmas Eve will be the traditional birth narrative from Luke, Chapter 2: 1-20.  I focused on Isaiah 9:2-7 last year and had fun playing with the dark / light image of “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  The year before last, I preached a sermon called “What Mary Knew” and focused on Mary’s Magnificat.  Dan followed the sermon by singing, “Mary, Did you Know?”   I can always count on Dan to do something beautiful musically.   So this year I felt it was time to go back to Luke’s familiar story.

My challenge with Luke, though, is how to find a new angle on an old, familiar story.  I’ve found that in order to get my creative juices flowing, I have to find some new angle on the passage, or a new phrase that pops out at me, or a new image.  This year, Charles L. Campbell in his “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word gave me my angle.  He directed me to two phrases in the Luke passage that I hadn’t noticed before.  In his article he discusses the significance of the passage that begins with the phrase, “In those days…”  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”   Then, halfway through the passage, and the story, when Jesus is born the angel announces to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  It’s an interesting turn in the passage when Luke takes us from “In those days” to “this day” of Jesus’ birth.

In those days” clearly marks the days of Roman imperialism and Roman oppression of the people.  In those days all the world was to be registered.  All the world was to pack up their bags, head home to the place of their birth and be registered so they could then be properly (or exorbitantly) taxed.  How inconvenient.  How rude.  How oppressive it must have felt to make such a trip….especially if you were expecting a baby real soon.  The story begins “in those days.” In those days of forced marches back to your hometown and of heavy, burdensome taxes.  “In those days…” “Even the words sound tired and hopeless,” writes Charles Campbell.

Yet, after Jesus has been born, “this day” has arrived.  “This day,” is full of hope, and promise, and new beginnings.  “This day” has the energy of the present, rather than the weariness of the past.  “This day” marks the turning point in the Christmas story, in our Christian history, and in the lives of all those gathered for worship on Christmas Eve.  From here on out it is all about “this day” and how we respond to the promise that “this day” brings.

Using the contrasting phrases, “In those days” and “this day” I am hoping to write a sermon that somewhat poetically can go back and forth between the two, contrasting the hopelessness of “in those days” with the hope of “this day.”

I am also thinking of using Longfellow’s poem / carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” that begins pretty hopeless.  “And in despair I bowed my head ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’ But it ends pretty hope-filled, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.”  And maybe…just maybe we’ll hear some bells pealing at the end?  I need something.  Something creative.  Something beautiful.  Because it is, after all, Christmas Eve.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Spirits and Bodies

1.            I am my body.  When my body hurts, I hurt.  When my body thrills, I thrill.  When my body dies I die.  I am body.

2.             I am spirit. Spirit is never separate from body.  Somehow my spirit emerges from body, but I have no knowledge of spirit without body.  While I cannot touch, smell or see spirit (can I hear it in music?), I am aware of spirit.  But where does this awareness come from?  Of course, this awareness must have something to do with my brain.  Does it transcend my brain?  In some way it seems to, but it also seems clear that with no brain there would be no spirit.

Funerals came up the other day at lunch with friends.  One friend was telling us that she had attended the funeral of a Lumbee Indian.  “I could hardly take it.  The family was howling and falling on the ground.  The preacher went on and on about hell and salvation.  We were there for at least two hours.”  A pretentious man lectured about Irish funerals.  Evidently, there is a particular table that was once used.  The body would be laid down the middle of the table.  Hors devours would be spread around the edges.  Alcohol would be served in plenty.  The man said that good wakes might even involve dancing with the body.  The body, the body, the body.  The spirit had gone the body remained.  But why then should we howl and fall down?

3.            Spirit/bodies are precious.  Bodies must be defended, cherished, preserved, not as spirit vessels, but in their own right. Spirits perceive, value, imagine.  Spirits defend, cherish and preserve.

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