Friday, December 21, 2018

Of Candy Canes and Non-Resistance

     You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  
-Matthew 5:38-41 (NIV)

Bring back the candy canes.
     You might have seen the news that the principal of a school in Nebraska banned candy canes a couple of weeks ago. Actually, candy canes were just one item on a memo the principal compiled of holiday symbols that should be avoided by teachers, staff, and parents at the school. Other items on the list included Santa- or Christmas-themed clipart on worksheets, Christmas trees in classrooms, Elves on Shelves, Christmas carols or music, reindeer, Christmas movies or videos (or characters from those movies and videos), Christmas tree ornaments, and even the colors red and green. You can see that candy canes were by no means singled out, but probably gained the most attention because the principal explained the rationale for the ban in this way:
“Historically, the shape is a “J” for Jesus. The red is for the blood of Christ, and the white is a symbol of his resurrection.” 
     Obviously, this principal was trying to navigate the tricky path of serving a diverse community of students, families, and teachers, some of whom might not celebrate Christmas. “We have varied beliefs in our school,” she wrote, “and it [is] our job to be inclusive.” 
     It seems like every year around Christmas time there’s at least one story like this that makes national news and ignites a debate about whether or not our country’s “Christian heritage” (whatever you make of that) is being threatened. I don’t know a thing about this principal or her motives, and I won’t presume to accuse her of anything other than attempting to be sensitive to the children she’s responsible for educating and their families. 
     The school district her school is a part of almost immediately issued a statement that said the principal’s memo does not reflect district policy and suggested that candy canes are off the “naughty” list. They also placed the principal on leave: I really hope that she doesn’t lose her job over what seems to be nothing more sinister than excess enthusiasm. Candy canes do not represent Jesus, though I’m sure that at some point during the 200 years that candy canes have been in verifiable existence someone — probably several someones — has made the connections. But, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a candy cane is just a candy cane.
     I’m really not bothered by the principal’s actions. They were a bit misguided, but they seem to have come from good intentions.
     I’m a bit more bothered by the actions of Christians (apparently) who made her memo the latest morsel for those who want to see themselves as the victims of some kind of war against Christianity to salivate over.
     Let me be very clear here: Jesus has told those who want to follow him what we should do if (and when) the world at large turns against Christianity. If (and when) the world around us wants to take away our freedom to worship without being harassed, if (and when) it wants to take away our livelihood, if (and when) it wants to take away our rights, Jesus is unambiguous about what we ought to do then. It’s not hard to understand. It doesn’t require deep reflection on the text or fluency in biblical languages. The problem is not understanding; the problem is that what he tells us to do runs so counter to the ways we’re used to thinking that it seems wrong
     “Don’t resist,” he says. 
     “What!? But it’s un-American to let someone walk all over you that way!” Maybe. But it’s very Christian. “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” we argue — but Jesus literally says that’s exactly what should happen. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is in the Bible, yes, but it isn’t the way Jesus says we should deal with those who want to take from us. Want to follow Jesus? When someone strikes you, don’t strike back. On the contrary, treat them with the kind of gentleness that would allow them to strike you again if they chose. Want to follow Jesus? Give more than the one who takes from you expects. If someone takes your candy canes, give them your Christmas tree too.  
     I know, Jesus is exaggerating — a bit. Honestly, though, not by much. His point still stands: “Don’t resist.” It may be heroic to fight back, but it isn’t Jesus. Jesus defended the defenseless, absolutely. He stood up for the powerless and lent his strength to the weak. But when he was accused, misquoted, attacked, beaten…. 
He was oppressed  and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth; 
he was led like a lamb  to the slaughter, 
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
     What bothers me way more than the actions of one Nebraska school principal is that at least some believers attached Jesus’ name to their decision to go to war over those actions. What bothers me is that some might even be celebrating her suspension as some sort of victory in a “culture war” that Jesus would tell us is not worth fighting at all. What bothers me is that we still don’t understand why non-resistance is integral to the Gospel.
     Jesus tells us not to resist when people act to threaten our faith because we’ve already won. We don’t have to fight against human beings, none of whom are really our enemies anyway. The victory over evil, injustice, sin, and death was won when Jesus chose not to resist. In him, we see our own path to victory.
     We can’t resist because the gospel of God’s love in Jesus can’t be proclaimed by force, or election, or coercion, or legal decision. The only way we have a chance of credibly preaching the good news is by showing our world how it works: by taking seriously his command to love even those who oppose us.  
     No one will ever take away your right to love your enemies. No one will ever be able to force you to stop being generous to those who take from you. No one will ever be able to oppose you for giving more or going farther than you have to. So don’t you see? No one will ever be able to keep you from practicing your faith. For a Christian, practicing your faith is following the example of Jesus. The only way to stop that kind of faith is to not live up to his example. 
     This time of year, we’re reminded that his story starts with God giving.
     May we receive what he’s given us with joy, gratitude, and worship, and may we then engage our broken, divided world with hearts filled to overflowing, with words and actions infused with kindness, grace, mercy, and caring.

      Even if someone wants to take away our candy canes.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Follow the Shepherds

     In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
     And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 
     When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 
-Luke 2:8-15 (NRSV)

      It could have been King Herod who got the news from the angels. "Messiah," the Anointed One, was a loaded term in his day. It implied royal power, kingly authority. If this child born in Bethlehem was going to be king, it meant that Herod's descendants would not be. You'd think, wouldn't you, that he would have been notified? But while shepherds are visited by angels, while the birth of the Savior is announced to simple herdsmen and their confused sheep, Herod sleeps in his comfortable bed. Unaware of the storm about to break.
      It might have been the high priest to whom the angels went. If anyone should welcome the Messiah with open arms, it should be the man who was in charge of the people's spiritual well-being. He who offered the sacrifices on behalf of worshippers should have recognized the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world. But while the high priest dozed, the birth that would make the entire system of sacrifice obsolete was announced to the victims of those sacrifices and their keepers.
     You might have expected the scribes and Pharisees to be notified. They were the faithful, the scrupulous, zealous for the Law and the teachings of their forefathers. They knew how far you could travel on a Sabbath, what constituted work and what did not, and the proper way to prepare food. Sure people who knew the Scriptures so well would have recognized the significance of the birth of a descendant of David in his city. They would have known the prophets' longing for the Messiah and joined in the angel chorus enthusiastically. But while the upright Bible scholars rested their pious heads and dreamed their righteous dreams, God sent angels to announce the birth of his Son to men who weren't trusted enough to be accepted as witnesses in court.
     Or you might think that God would have sent his angelic ambassadors to Governor Quirinius, the Roman authority in the territory. Or even to Rome, to Caesar himself. You might think that God would get in the face of the Emperor, that the angels would sing a song of the conquest of God's kingdom over the human race's mightiest empire. But while heads of state rested from the cares of their offices, the birth of a new King was announced only to common laborers caring for someone else's livestock as far from the corridors of power as they could be.
     Curious of God to announce the birth of his Son in this way. Curious that the One whom the church has believed for centuries to be God in flesh should come into the world in such an innocuous way. Wonder what the shepherds thought when the angels told them that the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord was wrapped in common cloth and lying in an animal's feed trough? Wonder what they thought when they arrived at the stable to find no one but a tired peasant couple trying to get a cranky newborn to nurse? 
     "Good news of great joy for all the people," the angel had told them. In a rich-get-richer-poor-get-poorer world, good news for everyone is hard to come by. But by announcing the birth of Jesus to simple people like these shepherds, God showed his commitment to creating joy for everyone. By going to the shepherds, God showed that average, everyday working stiffs matter to him. By believing and going to search for the One God told them had come, the shepherds showed their trust. Herod, we know, felt threatened and tried to exterminate the upstart king. The high priest, we know, eventually condemned him to death. The scribes and Pharisees were offended by him. A Roman governor passed off responsibility for him. And in his lifetime he was never important enough by human standards to attract Caesar's attention. All the important people of Jesus' time missed his coming, for one reason or another. But the shepherds were a different story. They heard and saw the angels, believed, and went to see.
     As Christmas rolls around again, should we perhaps stop and ask ourselves if we too believe and go to see? It's ironic that in the "Holiday Season" that Americans celebrate Jesus is almost nowhere to be found. He makes an appearance in our Christmas carols, sometimes adorns cards, maybe is the centerpiece of nativity scenes, and yet very often it feels as if he's little more than a decoration -- one that gets put away with all the others when the season ends. But according to what the angel said to those shepherds, his coming is not just a holiday to be celebrated once a year. To those who put their trust in him, he brings "good news of great joy." He is exhibit A that God looks upon the human race with favor. 
     Only too many of us miss his coming. We go about our busy lives, raise our kids, do our jobs, even meet our religious obligations, and never see what those shepherds saw. We never see God Himself sleeping in a manger or nursing at the breast of a human mother. We never notice that the Creator became creature, that he traded heaven for earth: for a stable, a manger, a cross. We don't notice because few of us take the time to listen.
     Hear that? A chorus of angels sings in heaven still, because one song won't contain the joy of the gospel. But this good news is not to be just heard. It is to be seen. Experienced. Lived. So follow the footprints of a scraggly bunch of shepherds. Go with them to the manger to see the Savior of the world, the Son of God who cares for shepherds and mechanics and admins and managers and accountants and students and wives and mothers and fathers and preachers just like me and you. Kneel beside them in the dirt and straw and dung to see the Savior who came into this world and took our sufferings on himself to save us. All the "important" stuff you have to do will wait. For now, let the song of the angels lead you to the Savior. To good news of great joy for all the people. Including you. 
     Including you.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Price of Christmas

     The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. 
     Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. 
-Matthew 13:44-46)

You could probably have guessed that Christmas was going to cost you more this year than last. You just didn’t know how much more. PNC Wealth Management can help you with that.
     The financial organization has released, for the 35th year in a row, their Christmas Price Index. The index is a tongue-in-cheek (but accurate) look at the escalating price of Christmas, as seen through the classic Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
     According to PNC, this year it will cost you $170,609.46 to surprise your true love with the items in the song if you repeat the gifts each day as the song suggests (a total of 364 gifts). That’s up only one half of a percentage point from last year. On a budget? Then just buy each item in the song once for the low, low price of $25,969.43 – an increase of 1.7%. 
     Prefer to shop online? Shipping is going to add a considerable amount. Ever try to ship seven swans a-swimming? (I’m pretty sure they aren't available on Amazon Prime.)
     Higher food costs pushed the cost of six geese a-laying (laying eggs, as opposed to geese a-laying in the freezer of your grocery store) to $390, better than an 8% jump over last year - by far the largest increase in the index. The going rate for musicians has apparently increased as well: it’ll cost you $2,804.40 to hire eleven pipers piping and $3,038.10 for drummers drumming. (No word on whether you get a break if the pipers drum and the drummers pipe.)
     Strangely, while lords a-leaping will cost you $1,000 each (up $300 from last year), ladies dancing are a bargain at $7,552.89 for nine ($839.21 each for the sixth year in a row). Someone should take note of inequities in the salaries of men and women in the entertainment industry.  
     There is good news in the index: the prices of a partridge (just over $20), two turtle doves ($375), three French hens ($60.50 each), and calling birds (about $150 a piece) remained flat. Seven swans, a-swimming or not, are the most expensive items on the list ($13,125 for the set), but they haven’t gone up in the last couple of years.
     But for the biggest bargain in the index, look right in the middle of the song. For $750, you can get your true love a fist full of gold rings. That’s down over 9% from last year.
     I’m imagining one of those MasterCard commercials: “Five gold rings: $750. Seven swans a-swimming: $$13,125. A Christmas she’ll never forget: priceless.”
     Priceless. Lest we forget, that word describes what Christmas is really about better than it describes anything else. In all our rushing around, internet browsing, and catalog-perusing (“Does Harry and David even carry partridges or pear trees?”) for the perfect gifts, we can easily overlook the reason for the gifts we give. What we should be recalling as we make final preparations for another Christmas is that we give Christmas gifts because God gave a gift first. Our gifts seem to get more and more expensive every year, as our credit-card bills will attest in January. But maybe “pricey” and “priceless” are more different than the words themselves suggest. And maybe, if you’re like me, before you spend another dime on the one kind of gift, you need to take a minute or two to reflect on the other.
     A treasure hidden in a field. A pearl of great value. When Jesus wanted to talk about what it’s like to live in God’s world and pursue his agenda, he described it as a treasure so priceless that when you get a glimpse of it, you wouldn’t hesitate to give up everything you have to possess it. There isn’t much you could say that about, probably – something so valuable to you that you’d consider it a bargain to live on the street if only you could have that one thing. But that’s the very definition of “priceless,” isn’t it: so beyond our standard methods of measuring value that we can’t even place a price tag that would make sense on it? Something is really only priceless when it has value far beyond what human beings can attribute to it.
     Christmas, of course, is about the event and ultimately the person who was the focal point for this new reality God created for us. When Jesus talked about God’s kingdom as a pearl or a hidden treasure, he was also talking about himself as the one through whom that kingdom has come, and through whom it will come in its culmination. Let’s not forget that the gifts we give to one another should call our attention to the Gift he gives to us in Jesus. Let’s not forget that the gifts we receive from one another should remind us to receive graciously the Gift God gave to us graciously.
     Jesus comes to us first, even before we know enough to look for him or recognize him. Like the hidden treasure in the field, we uncover the gift unexpectedly, often while we’re all about other things. It has nothing to do with our goodness, or ingenuity, or perseverance. Jesus is God’s gift to give, and he offers it to us on his own initiative, out of his own goodness and grace, and in his own way and time. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” How and why the treasure got into the field, we can’t say. How and why we were blessed to find it is not necessarily for us to know. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work…It’s God’s gift from start to finish!” (Ephesians 2:8, The Message) It’s left for us only to celebrate.
     And then again, the gift God gives us in Christ is like that valuable pearl; he fulfills our wildest dreams more completely than we could ever hope. By his grace, we find one day that he is everything we’re looking for, and more than we could ever expect. By his grace, we recognize that the greatest catastrophe to ever befall us would be to lose what we’ve been given, to have it in our grasp and let it slip away. By his grace, we come to know that all of the other trinkets we’ve spent our lives pursuing together don’t come close to matching the value of God’s single perfect gift.
     So that’s why the only response that makes sense is the response of the fortunate people in the parables: you let everything else go. The Lord who put aside equality with God and took on the limits and pains of humanity and our fallen world asks that we live his life after him. He asks that we rise above our preoccupation with self, loosen our grip on the false treasures that leave us unable to receive his gift, and be alert for the ways in which God will offer the gift of Christ to others through our lives. He asks us to follow him in giving to others: our time, our resources, our energy, and our lives
     There’s no Christmas Price Index to help us put a number on the gift God gave to us. There’s no way to value it. It costs much more than we could ever repay. It’s offered in grace, love, and compassion. But when you receive it – well, there’s no room for anything else, and no reason to want anything more. 
     As we give this Christmas, let’s think about how we have received God’s gift of Jesus Christ.

     There’s a limit on your credit cards. But God’s gift to you? Priceless.