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To You Is Born a Savior

I’m sorry it’s been a while since I have posted.  Dan and I hope to begin blogging more often once we settle into the routines of our new positions at Monmouth College.  Since the Monmouth College semester ends on December 14th, we celebrate Christmas on December 4th through our annual Christmas Convocation. The following sermon is from this year’s convocation.  May God bless you all during this sacred season.

“To You is Born a Savior”

Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 4th, 2012 – Monmouth College Christmas Convocation

One of the most often quoted movies in the Ott household is Will Ferrill’s classic comedy Talladega Nights.  I can’t recommend the whole movie to you, clearly Anchor Man is Ferrill’s best work, but there is one gem of a scene from Talladega Nights that is worth quoting.  In this scene Ricky Bobby, the NASCAR racing sensation played by Will Ferrill, sits down with his wife, Carly, and his family to say grace before enjoying a fine meal of Domino’s, KFC, and, in Ricky Bobby’s words, the always delicious Taco Bell.  Ricky Bobby begins to pray…

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, I just want to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, and of course my red hot smokin’ wife Carly.  Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip.  We hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. Dear tiny infant Jesus….

Carly interrupts… “Hey, um, Ricky, ya’ know—Jesus did grow up.  You don’t always have to call him baby.  It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”

Ricky Bobby responds, “Well I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace.  When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

Carly sighs and Ricky Bobby begins again. “Dear 8 pound 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly…but still omnipotent.  Dear tiny Jesus with your golden fleece diapers and tiny little fat balled up fists we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars that I have accrued (Whoot!) over this season.  Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.  Amen.”

Now, as silly as this movie is, there really is some truth to us liking the little baby Jesus, or the Christmas Jesus best.  The Easter Jesus doesn’t get nearly as much air time as the Christmas Jesus.  The allure of a newborn baby is inescapable as we oooh and ahhh over the colored lights, tinsel, and greenery strung up to celebrate his birth.  But as we tickle this newborn’s toes and delight ourselves over his gummy smiles, Luke breaks into our romanticizing, our commercializing, and our trivializing to remind us that Christmas is about something more.  In the words of Luke, Christmas is about good news of great joy for all the people…for to you is born a Savior.

Written at the beginning of the 2nd Century, the Gospel of Luke tells the story of a down-to-earth, country prophet named Jesus who became a sage of the people.  Through his masterful storytelling, Luke’s Jesus found broad appeal as the author sought to unify and universalize the Christian identity.  For Luke the birth of Jesus the Christ really was good news of great joy for all the people because Jesus transformed his society’s consciousness and offered real hope to the empire’s vast underclasses of hard-pressed and overworked children, women, and men.[1]  Jesus really was their Savior by highlighting the injustice of their social and economic circumstances and by proclaiming the Good News that their suffering was not of God.

What about those of us living in the 21st century?  How might this 1st century, country prophet, be our Savior?  What forces of oppression would Jesus highlight in our lives?  From what do we need to be saved?  I have long believed that we must acknowledge what is killing us, before we can know what will save us.

So ask yourself, “What is killing me today?”

Of course your first response will likely be “FINAL EXAMS!  That’s what’s killing me today!!”  Well, you’re on your own with those.  Jesus is not going to earn those grades for you.

But perhaps your anxiety is killing you, or your fear of failure.  Perhaps what’s killing you is the idea that “real life” and the “real world” come later, that today and today’s actions don’t really count.  Perhaps your dependency on alcohol is killing you, or a deep insecurity that tells you you’re no good.  Perhaps it’s your anger that you struggle to keep in check, or your failure to maintain a healthy relationship.  Or perhaps what’s killing you is the feeling that you are completely out of control, that the world is conspiring against you and that there is nothing you can do about it.

I imagine this was what was killing Mary and Joseph when they were told that the Emperor’s census would force them to travel all the way back to Bethlehem.  Traveling in your third trimester is painful enough.  Just imagine traveling by burro.  There are no ‘thought bubbles’ above Mary and Joseph’s heads, but their inner monologues could not have been pleasant.  Then they arrive in Bethlehem and what do they find?  There is no room for them in the inn.  All we have to do is imagine our connecting flight being cancelled leaving us to spend Christmas Eve at O’Hare, to understand how frustrated, and tired, and upset Mary and Joseph must have been.  I imagine they felt completely out of control and it was killing them.

These were the circumstances into which Jesus was born.  The Christian birth narrative tells of God entering human life precisely at that moment when we realize that we are not enough, that we cannot do it all, that we are not in control, and that we cannot save ourselves.  That’s when Jesus enters the picture–a beautiful, precious, newborn baby, his whole life ahead of him– is born into all of this mess.  Why?  Well, perhaps to let us know that the mess is not all there is.

The hope, inherent in the Gospel of Luke is that there is something or someone to turn to for salvation. In Luke this turning, or metanoia in Greek, is a turning away from the oppressive forces that kill and a turning toward the saving forces that offer the possibility of new life.[2]

For as long as I have been leading Christmas services such as this, I have always recognized someone sitting in the congregation who did not expect to be there.  Perhaps he was dragged there by a zealous mother-in-law, or perhaps he had just decided on a whim to check out why scores of people were pouring into the local church on a cold, dark Christmas Eve.  He usually sits somewhere in the back, or in a far corner of the balcony, with body language that conveys he feels completely out of place.  Unbeknownst to him, though, he can be clearly identified from the pulpit as he leans in to hear the Christmas story and as his eyes reveal a longing to be included in the good news of great joy. Sometimes those eyes even start to shine as his tears betray the reality that he is dying inside.

It is this person, this dying person, whom Luke desires to expose in a full spotlight of grace.  Luke’s spotlight sears the darkness of this person’s despair with messages of hope.  You are welcome here!  You are included in all of this!  Your suffering is not of God!  Your life means something!  You are worthy of love!  Luke invites him to reorient and transform his life around the saving hope that the darkness, the mess, and all that is killing him today, is not all there is.

Christmas reminds all of us that there is something more.  For to you is born a Savior.

When I finish we will sing O Come, All Ye Faithful.  I chose this hymn because I love it!  It is big and grand and beautiful.  I asked our organist to play it loud.  I asked the Chorale to sing it big!  Because this is a hymn that beckons to us, it calls us to Come!  Come!  Come and know the saving power of God breaking into the darkness, of God breaking into all of our mess.  Come and hear the saving message that your life means something, that you are worthy of love, and that grace abounds.  Come, let us adore him, because Christmas reminds us there is something more.  Christmas reminds us of the good news of great joy for all the people…for to you is born a Savior.

Now to this Savior, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

*Let us stand and sing together, O Come, All Ye Faithful.


[1] Richard A. Horsley, “The Message and the Kingdom,” (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001), pgs. 226-228.

[2] Joel B. Green, “Body, Soul, and Human Life,” (Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008), pgs. 106-139.

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What Religion Is and What It Is Not

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Daniel J. Ott

One of the things that I like about living in the South is that there are lots of little churches with big signs.  Sometimes these signs are used as bulletin boards that announce upcoming events.  Sometimes they let us know what the sermon title is for Sunday.  Often, though, they become the bearer of slogans – they are the church’s bumper and folks come up with some interesting stickers to slap on that bumper.  You’ve probably seen some of the funny ones on the internet.  They range from the quite clever,  “Walmart Is Not the Only Saving Place” to the rather unfortunate, “Don’t Let Worries Kill You – Let the Church Help,” to the down right outrageous “Staying in Bed / Shouting, Oh God / Does Not Constitute Going to Church.”

But the one that I’ve seen a lot that really haunts me is “It’s Not a Religion / It’s a Relationship.”  On the one hand, I guess I know what this motto is supposed to mean.  Christian faith is not about reporting to church, going through the motions, and saying empty prayers.  Christian faith entails some sort of encounter with Christ. OK – I get it.  But on the other hand, I wonder what the implications of such a statement really are.  Does this slogan imply that religion is a bad thing?  Is it possible to have the ‘relationship’ that this slogan recommends without ‘religion?’  Should we bother coming here and involving ourselves with this religion – these symbols and rites and songs and this building – or could we just stay at home and foster a relationship with God?  These are the kinds of things that Religious Studies professors waste their time thinking about.

I guess the important thing would be to figure out what Jesus thought about religion.  In fact, the Gospels depict Jesus contending with folks over the matter of religion quite a bit.  Jesus seems to have a clear vision about what religion is and what it is not.

And the first thing that I think we can say is that Jesus concerned himself with religion.  He performed the rituals of the Jewish religion.  He observed the Sabbath, though he may have contended over what proper observance is.  He participated in the great feasts and festivals.  He made pilgrimage to the temple.  He knew the scriptures and the stories of the tradition.  He employed the symbols of the faith.  Jesus was religious.

And I should hurry to add that it seems that it was not necessary for Jesus to do these things.  He could have stayed in the countryside and preached and healed.  He did plenty of that to great effect.  He could have secluded himself in a garden and devoted himself to prayer.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  He could have avoided the matter of religion altogether and devoted himself completely to addressing the economic and political factors that caused the human suffering that he sought to relieve.

But Jesus was concerned with religion.  Jesus knew that if things were really going to change, then God would have to be involved in changing them.  And he knew that the way that we speak of God – the only way we can speak of the holy, the ultimate, the ineffable, the all-loving, most high, God is to engage in rituals, and symbols and traditions – the stuff of religion.  The only way to say anything true about God is to sing and dance, to light candles and whisper poems, to gather here and with stammering tongues and humble hearts try to name toward the un-namable together.  Yes – Christianity is about a relationship.  It is about an encounter with Christ, but the only way to encounter Christ, the only means we have to relate to God is religion.

So religion is what we use to have a relationship with God.  But we should hasten to add that while religion is a tool for our USE, we need to guard that religion does not become a tool for ABUSE.  Now we’re penetrating to the source of Jesus’ intense anger in our passage this morning.

The first half of this passage might seem at first blush to be a rather esoteric debate about keeping the Sabbath.  Those pesky Pharisees seem to be at it again, nitpicking about the ins and outs of Jewish law.  They find Jesus and his disciples making their way through some grain fields and picking some grain to eat as they go.  Now there are probably at least two violations of the prohibition against work on the Sabbath here.  The first problem is the traveling itself.  Jesus and his disciples should have been resting at home.  The second problem is the picking of grain.  While the implication of the passage only seems to be that the disciples are picking and eating a little as they go, the Pharisees could well interpret this as a violation of the injunction against harvesting and preparing food.

Now in order to understand what is really at stake here, we’ll need to shake off the well-worn caricatures that are too often passed on in Bible Studies and sermons.  They go as follows:  In this corner are the Pharisees – shallow hypocrites who prance about with their noses in the air pointing out various minor infractions of the Jewish holiness code.  In the other corner are Jesus and his disciples, heavenly minded, free spirited men who have no need of the trappings of religion because they always and everywhere penetrate beyond worldly concerns to the truly spiritual.  Unfortunately, armed with these caricatures we would be headed for a completely meaningless interpretation of the passage.

Let me recast the contenders:  In this corner are the Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite from Jerusalem.  The Pharisees together with the scribes and the priests have cornered the market on religion and are concerned with pressing their influence on the masses.  They do this not only because this elite status gives them prominence within the Jewish community, but also because the ability to control the masses is a valuable commodity to their Roman overlords.  In fact, this ability can and is sold to the Romans for cash.  The religious elite keep the masses in check and the Roman occupiers pay them for the service.

In the other corner is a band of poor Galileans.  They are fishermen and carpenters.  But they have given up even these humble professions in order to travel about and minister to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  They bring with them a message of hope and renewal.  They encourage the masses that if they renew their faith in God, God will deliver them from the evil powers – both spiritual and political – that bind them.  These itinerant ministers of God’s kingdom have no means.  They are always traveling from village to village, often through grain fields and they grow hungry.  So they are accustomed to employing the Jewish practice of gleaning – plucking a little grain to eat as they pass through the edges of a local farmer’s field.

Now perhaps we see what’s at stake.  Perhaps Jesus’ ire is raised because it is rather easy for these Pharisees to point out the speck in the disciples eyes.  After all, the Pharisees are probably right to say that the disciples have violated the rules about the Sabbath.  But is it just for a rich religious elite on a mission of self-aggrandizement to critique these poor, hungry traveling ministers on a mission to ease human suffering?  Now we can see just how incisive Jesus’ memorable saying is, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We might say, “Religion was made for humankind, and not humankind for Religion.”  All too often in our history religion has ceased to be a liberating tool used by the masses and become an abusive tool used by the elite.  Even in the brief history of our own nation we can give a humiliating litany.  Religion became a tool of the elite to prop up the practice of chattel slavery.  Millions of Africans were stripped of their humanity, while the elite perverted religion to justify the unjustifiable.  Religion was and is used to abuse women.  Elite and not-so-elite men have used religion to say that women are less than fully human, that they are rightly a subservient class, that they should keep their mouths shut and that they are too weak and unpredictable to be trusted with any power – in politics and even more in religion.  Today gay and lesbian men and women are abused by religion.  Even if we grant that monogamously devoted persons of the same sex commit a sin by any sex act they might share – a conviction that I think is wrongheaded and not scripturally justifiable – but even if we grant that gay and lesbian men and women sin, does this justify the use of religion to deny a person benefits and healthcare?  Can we justify the continued use of religion to relegate gay and lesbian men and women to an inferior class?  Can we stand by while religion is used to prop up a culture of intolerance that leads directly to gross and senseless violence against gay and lesbian men and women?   Will we continue to allow religion to be used for abuse?  When will we realize that true religion is for the flourishing of all humankind, not for stripping some of their humanity?

In the second story, Jesus really begins to press his case. Jesus goes to a public meeting that he knows the Pharisees will attend.  The Pharisees are strangely silent, but Jesus does enough talking for everybody.  Obviously planning to heal him, Jesus calls a man with a withered hand forward and he asks a direct and penetrating question of his opponents.  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  With these words Jesus has raised the stakes and acknowledged the harsh truth that religion is a matter of life and death.  There is a decision to be made – is religion to be used to do good or harm, to save life or to kill?

This is a pressing question for us today as it was for Jesus in his time and as it has been throughout history.  In Jesus’ time his peaceful stand against abusive religion led to his own cruel torture and execution.  Jesus knew well that religion was a matter of life and death.  In the time that the Gospel According to Mark was written, Jewish revolutionaries were taking up arms to defend their homeland and their religious freedoms only to be put down viciously by the Roman general Titus – their homeland scorched – their Temple razed.  Soon the Christian religion would need to decide whether to follow in Jesus’ peaceful wake or to marry herself to the power politics of Rome and the violence that Empire necessarily entails.  Unfortunately, she chose power over peace.  This set the course for a Christian history riddled with power brokering, crusading, empire building and all the killing that these require.

Today, we, too, know that religion is a matter of life and death.  We have a choice to use religion to do good or to do harm – to save life or to kill.  All you need to do is to take a look at the news to know that many are choosing to do harm.  The Taliban and al-Qaeda are still wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are stuck in a cycle of violence as they vie for control of the country.  Of course, Israel continues to struggle with its neighbors and the Palestinian people – a struggle with a long and complex history that is often exacerbated by religion.  In each of these cases and many more around the globe, religion has become a source of and tool for power and violence.  Religion does harm and kills.  I can only imagine how hot Jesus’ anger might burn if he were witness to these perversions of religion.

I believe or text for today speaks to us about what religion is and what it is not.  Religion was made for humankind, not humankind for religion. Religion is about engaging deep mystery, not holding tight to cold doctrine.  Religion is for our use, not for abuse.  Religion is to do good, not to do harm.  Religion is a soft thing, not hard.  Religion is for peace; it is not for violence.  Religion is about beauty, not malice.  Religion is creativity, not destruction.  Religion is hope, not despair.  Religion mediates God, not evil.  Religion strives to save life, not to kill.

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What Religion Is and What It Is Not

I’ll be preaching on Mark 2:23 – 3:6 at a couple of different churches over the next couple of weeks.  It might be a little cheesy, but I’m thinking of starting with a couple funny church signs.  This one’s probably my favorite.  But the one that I want to take exception to is “It’s Not a Religion / It’s a Relationship.”  While Jesus’ “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” may at first blush have some relation to the relationship /  religion dichotomy.  I want to talk about how you can’t have the relationship without the religion.  The religion piece is only there to be used as a tool with which we strive to encounter Christ and have a relationship with God.  But without religion we can not have the relationship.

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