Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Your Pregnant Pastor: Ten Things You Should Know

  1. I am grateful that you’re happy for us. Far too many women still face on-the-job discrimination and hostility because of pregnancy. It wasn’t so long ago that it was legal to fire women because they were pregnant! I feel so blessed that this community is excited to welcome our baby. I’m excited too. 
  2. I don’t have morning sickness… any more. For most women, morning sickness is most intense in the first trimester. But the first trimester is the early, risky part of the pregnancy, when miscarriage is most likely, so most women wait until it’s over to tell people. By the time I told you I was expecting a baby, my morning sickness was over. I do have plenty of other pesky pregnancy-related ailments, though, so if that’s what you’re wondering you could ask “How are you feeling?” 
  3. I still love to talk about God. Remember when we used to talk about God a lot? And also about spirituality, the church, and Jesus? It was before I was pregnant. I miss that. Let’s keep talking about God, okay? 
  4. I can still do lots of things! Your pregnant pastor’s mileage may vary, but many pregnant pastors are just fine carrying chairs, setting up tables, taking the stairs, and standing in the pulpit to preach. I know you want me to take good care of myself, and I appreciate it. If you see me doing something that you worry about, please don’t scold me like a naughty child! You’re welcome to ask me “Pastor, would you like me to do that for you?” or "Pastor, do you need help with that?"
  5. But there are some things I can’t do. I might need to sit down if I’m tired, or slip out for a minute or two during a long worship service. I may need to put my feet up on a chair. I might need to eat more often than normal. It is a bit harder for me to keep track of details and dates. Again, your pregnant pastor’s mileage may vary. I really appreciate the grace and patience my congregation has extended to me! 
  6. I’m getting a lot of advice. Like, really, a LOT of advice. Some helpful, some conflicting, some medically unsafe. If you want to share advice with me, I’m more likely to listen if it’s just one or two really important things. The best advice I’ve gotten was from a congregant. She said, “Don’t worry about all the advice you’re getting. You’ll find your own way, and you’ll figure it out. You’ll be fine.” 
  7. I still want to know what’s going on in your life. I know that you’re excited about my pregnancy, but I’m still your pastor, and I want to hear about you! I’ll update you about my pregnancy (if you ask), but then I’m going to ask about your life, and I really want to hear how you’re doing. 
  8. If you want to touch my belly, I’d like you to ask me first. I know it’s sticking way out and it’s very tempting, but it’s still my abdomen. We don’t touch other people’s abdomens without asking. 
  9. I am excited for my baby to be part of the church. I love the church, and I love my congregants – that’s why I’m a pastor! I can’t wait for my baby to meet you, his church family. His life will be richer because you’re in it. 
  10. I will still be your pastor. Sometimes pastors can be parental figures, and a new baby can cause a bit of anxiety or sibling rivalry. So I hope you really hear this: when I am his mom, although things may need to change a bit, I will still be your pastor, and I will still love you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Presents of God

A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

On my long road to ordination, there were many requirements to meet and ordeals to pass through. There were degrees to earn and papers to write and certifications to attain. I had anticipated all of that. And I had anticipated challenges and frustrations and epiphanies and spiritual growth, and I experienced all of those as well. One thing I did not anticipate, though, was sitting in some strange office on the Upper East Side for four hours, filling in bubbles on test forms to answer questions like these: 
“I enjoy working with flowers: Yes, no, or I don’t know.”
“In a social situation like a party, I tend to a) Have one-on-one conversations b) Have conversations in a group of three or more people.”
“I am often able to persuade others of my point of view: Yes, no, or I don’t know.” 
I answered over a thousand such questions, on at least four different tests, as part of the psychological evaluation that is required of every candidate for ordination. Thankfully, when the evaluator analyzed the results, he said that the skills, aptitudes, and personality traits revealed by these tests were consistent with a career in pastoral ministry. 

Isn’t it strange how much of our life path can be determined by these fill-in-the-bubble tests? From the aptitude and personality tests that I took on my path to ordination, to the skills inventories and SATs that guide so many high school students down the path toward a college or a job, to the tests that so many students in New York City take each year, trying to gain entry to the city’s specialized high schools, to the quizzes and assessments on internet dating websites that determine what kind of potential partner people will be matched with. Everywhere we turn, these assessments are used to label, categorize, and quantify. It would have been really interesting, I think to the Apostle Paul, the author of today’s epistle lesson from First Corinthians. 

I like to remember that when we read the epistles, we are “reading someone else’s mail” – epistles are letters from early Christian leaders to churches (or in some cases individuals). They can be sources of wisdom and advice for our contemporary lives and our contemporary church, but they are much easier to understand and interpret when we remember that they were written first to a particular church with particular strengths and weaknesses. This letter was written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. The Corinthian church was thriving, but it did have its struggles, and Paul wrote to them responding a letter he had received from them, offering advice to them based on questions they had asked and news he had heard. 

Today’s passage tackles the issue of spiritual gifts. It seems that Paul has heard that some members of the Corinthian church are able to “speak in tongues,” praising God in a kind of ecstatic prayer language, unknown to any human ear. This ability, the letter makes clear, has become a point of division: speaking in tongues is seen as a mark of superior faith, and those who can do it are seen as somehow better than those who can’t. Our reading today is Paul’s response to this situation. He advises them: 
There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 
Paul lists a number of different spiritual gifts, not a conclusive list, but a list of examples, and then he concludes, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” 

In the face of a community which is divided because some people speak in tongues and others do not, Paul affirms that speaking in tongues is one sign of the Spirit and a legitimate part of the practice of Christian faith. But at the same time, he asks the Corinthians to shift their whole way of thinking about abilities. Instead of seeing the ability to speak in tongues as a sign of superiority, he urges them to see it is a gift from God. It’s not a sign of the speaker’s spiritual prowess, but a sign of God’s goodness. Speaking in tongues isn’t a skill, it is a gift from God. Furthermore, this gift is given not so that people can show off, but so that they can deepen their own faith and build up the faith of the community around them. Paul also asserts that those who can speak in tongues are not the only ones with a gift from God: every person receives gifts from the Holy Spirit, and every person is called to use these gifts for the common good. 

This may sound like a simple and straightforward part of Christian doctrine to our ears two thousand years later, but it is a radical departure from the way the Corinthians would have understood the world. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes that the city of Corinth was a destination for rhetoricians, talented public speakers who would come to Corinth to show off their stuff. Their skills and abilities would have been seen as something for them to be proud of, markers of their superior intelligence. The Corinthians think of speaking in tongues in much the same way. But Paul turns popular wisdom on its head, asserting that gifts are not something to boast about, but something we have through the grace of God and the action of the Holy Spirit. Gifts are not for showing off our superiority, but for the glory of God and the good of the world. 

If we are honest with ourselves, this understanding of gifts is also pretty contrary to the worldview that is prevalent in contemporary American society, where the gifts that we tend to focus on may not be “spiritual gifts” exactly, but gifts from God nonetheless. There are certain talents and skills that our society regards as important and valuable, and others that don’t get the same recognition. We prize certain kinds of intellectual skills, the kinds that point students toward lives as doctors or lawyers or other prestigious careers. We value athletic excellence, and celebrate our sports stars. We esteem the traits that we associate with strong leaders: charisma, persuasive speaking, extroversion. None of these are bad things – there are varieties of gifts, indeed, and these are all very good gifts! But we forget, time and again, despite the monthly scandals involving politicians and professional athletes, that none of these gifts are inherently virtuous, that neither academic achievement nor athletic excellence nor strong leadership skills are the same thing as compassion, integrity, or good judgment. 

Meanwhile, people with less admired gifts often go unsung. But the world is full of gifted teachers or administrators, and I don’t know where we would be without them. We are deeply reliant upon the work of diligent and responsible construction crews and maintenance workers. At a Starbucks near a place I used to work, there was a barista who asked every customer how their day was going – and you could tell from his tone of voice and his body language that he really meant it. It was a gift, and a ministry to me, the kind that goes unrecognized and unrewarded so often in our world, and in the world of the early Corinthian church. But Paul calls upon the Corinthians, and upon us, to do things differently. 

Speaking in tongues is not a common practice in our congregation, but perhaps we have something to learn from Paul’s advice to the Corinthians. Are there certain gifts that we value above others in the church today? It certainly looks that way sometimes. After all, my colleague and I get to sit in the front of the church and wear special fancy outfits. We get to stand up in the pulpit and talk for about seventeen minutes every Sunday. It would be easy to think that the pastors are the most important, or most gifted, or most valuable people in the church. But Paul reminds us that that isn’t the way of the kingdom of God. Each of us, Paul reminds us, has gifts from God; every single one of us. Each of us, Paul reminds us, are called to use our gifts for the common good – for the good of the church and the world. The question is not who has the best gifts; the question is, how can we make the best use of our gifts? 

As I look out at the faces of my congregation, I am awe-struck at the many gifts God has blessed our community with, and at the ways we use our gifts for the common good. Did you know, for instance, that Dick volunteers in the church office several days a week? He works with our office administrator on financial record-keeping and proofreads every bulletin. Did you know that Rodda fixed our church website? Have you ever been here when Tina offered a song she wrote for this church’s worship? Have you received a birthday card sent by Joshua? And those are only a few examples of the many ways we use our variety of gifts for the common good. 

The wonderful thing is that gifts are not chores: if you are not quite sure what your gifts are, think about the things you do that fill your heart with joy – those are your gifts, and you are called and invited to use them joyfully for the good of the church and the world. So if Paul wrote the same message to this church today, what would he say? Maybe something like this: 
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the gift of nurturing the faith of children, and to another the gift of offering hospitality to visitors according to the same Spirit, to another the gift of song by the same Spirit, to another a deep and abiding passion for committee work by the one Spirit, to another the gift of comforting those who are sad or grieving, to another conflict resolution, to another the leadership of discussion groups, to another the ability to fix things that are broken, to another financial knowledge and wisdom. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 
For our many gifts, and for communities where we are invited to use them for the common good, thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What Not to Wear

A Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

Last week, my colleague told us about one of his guilty pleasures, and this week, I’m going to tell you about one of mine… reality television. It started innocently enough, when an acquaintance of mine was chosen to compete as a geek on Beauty and the Geek, but now I watch it all, from Top Chef to America's Next Top Model. Normally I think of it as a waste of time with no relevance to anything at all, but this week, I was reading the gospel text and I found myself thinking of the show What Not to Wear

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a show where people nominate their fashion-blind friends and family for makeovers. They video their friend’s fashion faux pas, and then the hosts, Stacy and Clinton get to go through the subject’s wardrobe, making fun of their clothes and throwing away whatever they want before sending the subject out on a shopping spree to buy clothes that Stacy and Clinton deem more appropriate. In one episode I particularly remember, the woman they were featuring was in her mid-twenties, but she hadn’t changed her style since her early teenage years. She wore lots of little baby-doll t-shirts with slogans on them, and low-riding jeans … but the biggest problem was her “tail.” She had a furry purple tail with a little bell on the end of it, something you might wear if you were dressing as the Cheshire Cat for Halloween, and she safety-pinned it to the back belt loop of her jeans – and she wore it all the time. She thought that without it, she would fade into the background, but once Stacy and Clinton finally persuaded her to part with her tail and teen-aged clothing and start wearing clothing that was more flattering and age-appropriate and less, um, feline, she found that she was taken more seriously. She felt prepared to interview for a real job, a job she certainly wouldn’t have gotten with a tail pinned to her jeans. The thing that had gone wrong in her closet, and the closets of so many other subjects of What Not to Wear, is that her life had changed – she had grown up – but her clothes had stayed the same, and that just wasn’t working for her. 

Now, I don’t mean to glorify What Not to Wear. It’s deeply materialistic, and totally uncritical of our habit of judging people by their appearances; it sends the message that in order to be a valuable person, you need to dress as if you had a lot of money; it buys into and glorifies some of the aspects of our culture that we as Christians are called to reject. But in some ways, that girl and her tail reminds me of blind Bartimaeus. 

Bartimaeus, the text tells us, was a blind beggar in Jericho. Blindness was a lot more common in that time and place than it is in ours – it’s a dry and dusty part of the world, and in the harsh conditions, people’s eyes would become irritated, and then infected, and in a world without antibiotics, their sight would often be permanently lost. So historians suggest that there were many more blind people at Jesus’ time than there are in ours. And in a world without the adaptive technologies that are available to visually impaired people today, there were not many ways for blind people to make a living, so they would often become beggars. 

Bartimaeus was one of these blind beggars, and in our text for today, he is sitting by the road in Jericho when Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd pass by. He hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth and cries out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” The surrounding crowd reprimands him for making a scene, but he shouts out until Jesus notices. Jesus tells the people to send Bartimaeus over, and as soon as he is called, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. Why in the world does he throw off his cloak? That seems like a very odd thing to do, but it turns out that the cloak had a special significance in this time: the beggars of Jesus’ time wore cloaks because they could spread them out on the ground to catch coins that people tossed their way – it was not just their outer garment and their sleeping surface, but also where they collected their money. And so in a very real way, Bartimaeus’ cloak was a marker of the kind of life that he lived, the life of a blind beggar. But when Jesus calls him, Bartimaeus throws off the cloak, stands up, and goes to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. “Let me see again,” Bartimaeus answers. “Go,” says Jesus, “Your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus’s sight is restored, but he doesn’t do what Jesus says.  He doesn’t go.  Instead, he begins to follow Jesus. 

I think that that is why he leaves the cloak behind him; because this is not only a story of healing, it is also a story of discipleship, a story of transformation. When Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, he is giving up the very thing he needs most for the kind of life that he has been living, a possession which is crucial for his life as a beggar. I think that what we see in this moment is Bartimaeus committing to a new life, a life of discipleship. He is ready to follow Jesus on the way, and in the new life he is called to, he isn’t going to be sitting by the road collecting coins.  There will be no time to sit by the road with his cloak spread out in front of him. In a way, he demonstrates more vision than a lot of the other would-be disciples we’ve heard about in the Gospel lessons of the last few weeks – unlike that wealthy young man who was told that he would have to give his money away and went away dejected, Bartimaeus sees that embracing a new life following Jesus means that some things have to change. He sees that the things that have been so necessary to his daily existence are not going to be important in the life he’s being called to. And so throws his cloak off, and he walks away.  He is about to be healed, but before he even regains his vision, he prepares himself for a life of discipleship – a life on the road – a life of following Jesus. 

It’s this kind of wisdom that is so lacking among those people on What Not to Wear. Unlike Bartimaeus, they insist on carrying their “cloaks” around with them – they don’t realize that the clothes that really worked for them before, the clothes that met their old needs, no longer fit into their new lives. Something has changed – they have grown up, they have changed jobs, they are heavier or lighter than they used to be – and unlike Bartimaeus, they have not noticed that the clothes that used to serve them well are now burdens and obstacles. A furry tail might be a fun accessory for a teenager, once in a while – it might communicate that she is quirky and funny and fun. It might help her to feel, in the difficult and judgmental world of high school, that she has something special about her.  It might help her to know that the judgments of the popular kids don’t need to mean anything to her, that she is not trying to please them. Maybe that tail helped that girl to have a sense of self in a time in her life where that was really difficult. But by the time Stacy and Clinton got to her, she was not a teenager any longer, that tail was no longer a cute accessory, and she had convinced herself that without the tail, she was nobody. And as critical as I am of the show’s obsession with external appearance, the tail that that woman wore every day needed to be thrown off, thrown away, left behind, in order for her to embrace her adult life. Like Bartimaeus’s cloak, it may have served a purpose in her past, but things had changed, and now it was no longer necessary, and because she hadn’t left it behind, it was standing in the way. 

Sometimes we have a Bartimaeus moment in our lives: God calls us to something new, and we have the chance to leap up and go, leaving the garments of our old lives behind us. Something has changed, and the things that were essential before are no longer what we want or need. Maybe taking an exciting new job means that we just can’t stay in the old apartment that we loved. Maybe there’s a change in our family – we start a new relationship, or have a child, and the routines and habits that used to structure our lives become inconvenient or impossible. Maybe changing careers or going back to school means having more happiness, but less money, and that calls us to re-examine our lifestyle and live more simply. Do you have a cloak that you might be called to throw off in order to follow a new call in your own life? Does this church? 

The history of our church tells us that we have done it before. In the 1960s, we saw the expense of maintaining a deteriorating building, and we threw off the cloak of our old building, following a call to become a “church without walls.” In the 1980s, we saw that our organizational structure was a giant bureaucracy with a multitude of committees and boards. This structure had worked well when we were a bigger church but it had become a burden for our small congregation of busy New Yorkers. We threw off our old by-laws to create a more streamlined system that would let us focus more on our mission and less on meetings. What cloak might we be called to throw off next? What part of our life as we know it might start to become a burden or a hindrance as we continue to discern God’s call for us in this time? 

Our commitment as Jesus followers leads us, as individuals and a community, to places we never would have expected, and sometimes calls us to leave behind the things that once seemed essential to us. I wonder, once Bartimaeus regained his vision, whether he looked back at his cloak before leaving it behind – I know that I would have – I would have been tempted to go back for it, to insist that I might need it, like that woman who was sure that she needed to keep her furry tail. But the wisdom of Bartimaeus reminds me that sometimes the things that seemed most important are the very things we’re called away from.  Bartimaeus reminds me that sometimes following Jesus means that we can’t take the trappings of our past with us.  And sometimes for us as for Bartimaeus, the story of our healing and the story of our discipleship are one and the same.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Team Grace

“Bless us oh Lord 
These our gifts 
Boutta receive
Christ our Lord 

This is the grace my stepson learned when he was four, and it’s the grace he’s been saying ever since. He’s since straightened out the phrase “thy bounty,” corrected some (but not all) of the missing or nonsensical conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns, and accelerated the pace by about three hundred percent. I’m always surprised that our picky eater is so eager to get the prayer over with! 

There’s nothing wrong with a memorized grace. Memorized table graces (often rhyming or sung) can be a nurturing shared ritual, and a wonderful way for children to participate in the family’s spiritual life. Family dinners in my childhood always included a grace from a small book of rhyming table graces with lovely illustrations. Leading the family in grace was a special privilege, and my middle sister learned to read, in large part, from that little pink book of prayers. 

However, as my stepson has grown older, I’ve struggled to help him engage in the meaning of the grace he says. “What does that mean?” I ask, “Why do we say it? What is 'bounty'? And are you sure that it’s supposed to be ‘these our gifts’?” This conversation has actually crossed developmental stages: where my questions once were met with a shrug and an “I don’t know, do I have to eat my vegetables?” they now receive an eyeroll and a “whatever.” 

I’ll admit that I have at least a tiny amount of ego in the game. I’m a minister. My kid should be able to say a grace that makes some degree of theological and grammatical sense, and know what he’s saying. We’ve tried this, and we’ve tried that. We’ve tried talking about table graces, teaching table graces, modeling extemporaneous table graces. And finally we tried something that worked. 

Now we say “team grace.” One of us starts with just a few words, maybe a phrase or a sentence, and then the next person adds a few more. It goes around and around the table until someone decides to say “Amen.” It goes something like this: "Dear God, thank you for this food... and for our time together... bless this meal and our family... and help us to do your will... Amen."  

Miraculously, my stepson loves it. And so do I. I love watching him find a few words to say to God. I love seeing him figure out how a prayer is structured, and what he can add. I love that he doesn’t like to be the one to say “Amen,” and so he’ll add additional petitions rather than end the prayer, thanking God for ice skating, or praying for people at other tables or for people who are in need. We are learning to pray together. And it is grace indeed. 

Bless us, oh Lord, and these your gifts which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Christian Wardrobe

A sermon on Colossians 3:12-17

“What should I wear to your church?” That’s a question people ask me all the time when they consider coming to worship with my congregation. I usually make a joke in response: “I’d recommend that you definitely wear clothing,” I reply, “Probably not a swimsuit.” If that doesn’t set them at ease, I tell them that some people wear casual clothes like blue jeans and t-shirts, some wear dresses or suits, and that one particular child often comes in a superhero mask and cape. People are often surprised to hear of a church where you can come as you are; many churches have stricter expectations, written or unwritten. In Israel, I visited churches with posted signs, warning that men or women wearing shorts would be denied entry, and churches where security guards handed out shawls to cover exposed shoulders. In New York, you’re not likely to be asked to leave for dressing too casually in a house of worship, but stares and glares and whispers can make you feel just as unwelcome. Many of us, surely, have endured the embarrassment of showing up somewhere – whether it’s a church service or a party, only to realize that we’re wearing the wrong thing.

So where do contemporary churches get their ideas of what is appropriate clothing for a Sunday worship service? Surely not from Jesus, who spent so much time with poor people who wouldn’t have the means to purchase fine clothing. Jesus, who did not condemn the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, violating social norms of apparel and proper behavior. Jesus, who told his followers to consider the lilies and not to worry about what they would wear.

There are a few biblical verses that seem to touch on what we should wear, words that encourage women not to wear gold or pearls or braided hairstyles (that is, not to wear clothing that shows off their wealth and social status). There are verses that encourage women to cover their hair in worship, in accordance with the cultural norms of the time. There are verses in the Mosaic legal codes forbidding fabrics made of mixed fibers – no cotton-poly blends! And there are verses that encourage modesty, although the kind of modesty the authors were referring to probably had to do more with humble behavior than with appropriate dress. The opposite of modest, to the writers of the epistles, would more likely be “self-aggrandizing” or “vain,” rather than “scantily clad.”

In fact, there’s not a single word in scripture that dictates what we should wear to church: no “Thou shalt not wear blue jeans to worship,” no “Thou shalt not wear white after Labor Day,” not a single word about Easter bonnets or jackets and ties or close-toed shoes. Those norms, observed by so many worshiping communities, are based in our contemporary culture, not in scripture. So what is in the Christian wardrobe? There is an answer for us today in our reading from Colossians, an epistle written either by Paul himself or by someone emulating Paul and writing in his name, which would have been a common practice in that time. Writing to the newly-formed Christian church in Colossae, he urges them – and all Christians – to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” and to “above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything in perfect harmony.” In the section before today’s reading, the author reminds Christians that they have, in baptism, “stripped off” their old selves, and urges them therefore to rid themselves of all of the vices and harmful and hurtful behaviors that are not fitting for those made new in Christ.

These words come from a very different time, a time when it would have been unimaginable to have overflowing dresser drawers and bedroom closets full of clothes in different colors and styles. Most people would have had very few articles of clothing, perhaps one or two outfits in total. Indeed, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist urged his listeners, if they had two coats, to give one away to the poor! To strip off anger wrath, malice, and slander, and to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love, would be a powerful image for those who expected to wear the same garment every day until it gave out. To “clothe oneself” in Christian virtues would mean making a long-term commitment to put these traits on every day, to bear with the places where they might tug or itch, to live in and with them until they became as comfortable and natural as a well-worn pair of blue jeans. When we think of Christian virtues like compassion as garments to put on, we acknowledge that the life of faith may not always come naturally. Compassion, patience, and love are not like brown eyes, a trait which we either have or we don’t. Instead, they are presented as practices that we can “put on,” whether that comes easily or with great difficulty.

I love that our lectionary calendar of readings designates this passage to be read during the Christmas season – the twelve days that follow Christmas, when we reflect on Christ’s incarnation, when we hear stories of his birth and childhood. Much of the world around us celebrates Christmas for the month before Christmas Day (or two months or three months); much of the culture around us has packed up the holly and the ivy, turned off the Christmas carols, and is now getting ready to throw out the eggnog and cookies as we make our New Year’s resolutions and wait to watch the ball drop. But in church, the tree is still up, the Advent wreath is still lit, and the baby Jesus sits in the manger in front of the pulpit; we are still taking some time to reflect on the miracle and the mystery, to sit for a bit longer with this beautiful and paradoxical story of God made flesh.

We hear this passage, urging us to “put on,” like clothing, the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love, in the same season that we contemplate the stunning claim that God came to us in human flesh as a baby – the baby of an unwed mother, in a relatively poor family, in an occupied nation. We are urged to put on Christ-likeness because in Christ, God has put on humanity; God has put on vulnerability and mortality. God has put on human emotions and human experiences and human development. In Christmastide, we contemplate the mystery of God putting on humanity, and that through God’s incarnation, God has drawn near to us so that we might draw nearer to God. Christ has put on humanity so that we might, as Paul urges the church in other letters, "put on Christ."

The Good News invites us to be made new, to strip off everything that is not of God and to put on the garments of God’s reign. I wonder whether, perhaps, C.S. Lewis was thinking of passages like this one when he wrote The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – that story of four children entering the land of Narnia through the back of an enchanted wardrobe and meeting there a savior who was familiar in many ways, but had taken on another kind of flesh entirely, a savior who was, as they said, “not a tame lion.” As the Pevensie children make their way to and from Narnia, they go through a wardrobe, clothing themselves in fur coats as they enter the perpetual winter of Narnia. Perhaps C.S. Lewis thought of scriptures like this one when he chose the metaphor of the wardrobe as the passage to another world. It echoes scriptures like this one which invites us to clothe ourselves for the Reign of God rather than the empires of this world.

There’s another reason, too, that I love reflecting on this reading at Christmas-time. Because in our contemporary world, we tend to think of the Christmas story with a sense of warm nostalgia. We see it in a soft-focus, casting everything in a warm golden light. You can see it in the ways we illustrate the Christmas story – my own childhood memories include many Precious Moments nativities, for instance, but I’m sure you can come up with your own images of a clean, peaceful, idyllic manger scene. But the fact is, the Christmas story as it has come to us is the story of a God who comes into a world which is difficult and dreary, sometimes dark and frightening.

Much like the Christmas story itself, this passage from Colossians is one which sounds lovely and rosy, which sounds peaceful and idyllic, but which is actually much more breath-taking and fierce, wild and wonderful. This passage challenges us to do the hard, hard work of building community that reflects the Reign of God in a world where that is not always welcome. It sounds warm and fuzzy, but it is actually asking us to do a hard and counter-cultural thing. We are invited to take off the garments of this world: self-centeredness, competition, materialism, skepticism, apathy, hierarchy, and to put on the garments of the Reign of God: compassion, kindness, humility, patience, love. These are garments that will sometimes attract scorn and judgment; these are garments which are probably not in line with the latest fashion trends. These garments mean seeking peace in a world where violence is the norm. These garments mean seeking transformation in a world more comfortable with the status quo. These garments mean seeing all people as children of God, each uniquely beloved and precious in God’s eyes, in a world that values some people far more than others. The Good News of God’s love is far more than nice people and a nice baby in a nice stable, and the life of faith is far more than nice, polite people in a nice, polite church. The Good News is this: God’s perfect love for us has taken shape in the Word made flesh. Christ has clothed himself in humanity so that we might clothe ourselves in Christ. Or, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it,
I am all at once what Christ is, ' since He was what I am and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Thanks be to God.