Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Study In Contradictions

This sermon was preached at the Mount Pleasant Reformed United Church on December 24, 2016. The audio can be heard here.

Contradictions really confuse, and if I am honest, rather upset me. Telling me to do one thing, and then expecting the complete opposite, aggravates me. Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you – if you want to see Guy Johnson get riled up, give him contradictory instructions or tell him contradictory facts. This is, friends and family, why I am a little aggravated with myself this evening.

You see, I know that when we come to church on Christmas Eve, we want the service to be happy and celebratory. We want to ooh and ah over the birth of the Savior, Jesus. You know the story – wrapped in swaddling clothing, lying in a manger. Born in Bethlehem.

           However, let’s be honest for just a minute. The birth of Jesus was, for the people involved, I’m sure, less than a happy event. While it’s not in Luke’s birth narrative, we must remember that according to Matthew, had Joseph not gotten a visit from an angel telling him that it was ok for him to marry Mary, a very young, pregnant woman, a virgin she claims Had the angel not intervened, Mary would not have been his fiancĂ©, nor would she have been in Bethlehem that night.

Let’s stop there for a minute: how can one be a virgin and pregnant at the same time? How can that be? Yes, we believe that the Holy Spirit came over her and caused her to be pregnant, but we know that’s a contradiction in scientific and biological facts. I ask this question often: would you believe your very young daughter or sister if she came to you with the contradictory statement “I’m a pregnant virgin?” I wouldn’t!

And think about this: this possibly was not a happy birth, because, let’s be honest – who wants to travel during their 9th month of pregnancy? Who wants to travel with someone during the 9th month of pregnancy? I can speak from experience – my good friend, Charlotte Davis, was 9 months pregnant while we worked side by side, and I told her that if she went into labor while at work, I jokingly declared I would crawl under the desk, pee on myself, and cry. She told me she would kill me.

Who wants to have their first, or any, child in a barn? Remember that they were in a barn, because there was no room in the inn. Not only was there no room in the inn, but there were no clothes for this baby – Mary wrapped him in bands of cloth – not swaddling clothes, but rags. That’s not something to celebrate. That’s a contradiction!

Christmas itself is a contradiction. We claim that the holiday is about the birth of the Christ-child while pretty much relegating the baby to our manger scenes and carols. At the same time, while claiming that we are striving for "peace on earth, and good will to all men", we participate in rampant consumerism, and talk of wars and rumors of wars.

In this country, the one that we claim is a Christian nation, you know the one – America, the city shining on a hill, America, the one that God has shed his grace on, that crown’s its good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea – has leaders who act in ways contradictory to this whole “Christian nation” talk.

What are you talking about, Guy? I am so glad you asked.

You can’t talk about bombing the crap out of other nations for oil if you claim to be a follower of Christ and want to lead a Christian nation. You can’t talk about “outmatching” rivals in a nuclear arms race if you claim to be a follower of Christ and want to lead a Christian nation. You can’t cut health insurance to the sick, food benefits to the hungry, and propose policies that will push people, minorities in particular, into the “Primary School to Prison” pipeline and claim that this is a Christian nation. You can’t hate your neighbor, whether they are black or white, Baptist or Methodist, Muslim or Athiest, gay or straight, cis-gender or transgender, and claim to be a follower of Christ. Those are contradictions!

We go into debt for things we lose interest in three days after we get them, we eat too much and throw away an amazing amount of food, yet demean people who don't do the same. We claim to love this little baby, yet act in ways that are completely opposite of who and what he represents. Even worse, we perpetuate the very behaviors we tell people not to participate in!

The child’s identity is a contradictory in nature too. You have the prophet Isaiah's words that claim, "a child has been born for us, a son has been given to us". While those words are true – a son has been born, Isaiah's words tell us that he will be named "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace", but his birthplace was nothing wonderful, the people who showed up were not mighty in any way. Had Herod had his way, the baby's life would have never approached everlasting, and this same Herod had declared war on all the babies under the age of two, in an effort to cancel the "threat" this new prince represented.

Isaiah says that this baby, the one born in a barn, will have his authority grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “endless peace”, I anticipate there being some kind of peace, and honestly, there is no peace in the world, and there is definitely none in the region where David’s throne is based. They are an occupied people. Did you miss that? The reason Mary and Joseph are traveling while she is 9 months pregnant is because King Herod, a Roman king, has declared that all people must go back to their hometowns to be counted. That’s not peaceful, because if you don’t obey the royal order, there would be rather unpleasant consequences.

The Isaiah text tells us that He will establish this throne  and uphold it with justice and with righteousness form this time forevermore. We know that there is injustice in the world and righteousness no longer exists in places of power.

You would think that the “Prince of Peace” would have royal visitors. I mean, he is the son of the KING, the ultimate King, yet the only people who come to the barn to visit are shepherds who have the worst job in the pasture – living out in the fields and watching their flocks overnight, and in some other accounts, some wise men who are wise enough not to tell Herod where the baby is. This is not how a king is supposed to be born. This is not how this is supposed to happen.

Or is it?

What if, what if…the birth of this baby happened exactly the way it was supposed to? What if the birth was supposed to upend everything we believe or expect? I mean, Isaiah tells us that this baby will be called Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace! What if these circumstances are to show us that God can use less than perfect circumstances to show us that God can make something amazing happen, in spite of, and maybe even because of, contradictions. What we are supposed to realize and learn that, in spite of the contradictions, we have one duty: worship the newborn king.

Yes, there are contradictions in the story. This baby is born in less than perfect circumstances, born to a teenaged mother and an unknown father, and a stepfather who steps in. This baby is born in poverty in a barn, with animals as attendants. This baby only had strangers to come welcome him to the world. This baby had a bounty on his head from the day he was born. This baby was not supposed to make it.

And that’s what makes the birth so amazing – that one born with all of these factors against him – one born in the midst of all of these contradictions - becomes a king.

So my friends: come, let us worship Christ the newborn king.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Wasted Lie

One of the things I love most about this calling is the chance to help people discover their better selves. One of the things I like least about this calling is when my own words are used against me. Dang it!

I have an amazing village, and one of the most important members of the village is a man named Ray. He is the father of my retirement plan, and if I am truly honest, he is the big brother I always wanted. When I have questions about employment, or computers, or good bourbon, I call him. He's the photographer who took the profile picture for this blog. Knowledgeable about jazz, passionate about football, and an overall good dude and great dad, he is almost perfect. 

Until this.

See, he is helping work on my resume, and he told me to change the way it was done. I deferred to him, because, well, he has a job and his resume obviously got his foot in the door. He told me to change a couple of other things, and I was cool. Then I got this email:

I’m going to challenge you here…

Is your resume and LinkedIn to get you a clergy position? Or a “normal” job?

So I responded:

It’s to get a normal job. The clergy job is taken care of through the UCC Profile System (Linked In for the denomination). But I’m in a bit of a bind - I haven’t stayed anywhere long enough to really make an impact. 

That sounds whiny.

I’m just tired, cranky, and frustrated with this whole “looking for a job” process. When I was a secretary, it was not an issue. Now, people have told….still sounding whiny.

I’m going to Trader Joe’s.

Remember I said he’s almost fits the bill as the perfect big brother? Here’s why:

I assumed. But I have to ask as right now your materials read like your looking for a clergy job. That’s why telling your story of planning and getting things done is important.  So some things to expand on that:
                Change the default headline on LinkedIn. By default it lists your current position.
                Draft a personal mission statement that highlights what you want to achieve, give back and your values. Use that as the first thing people see.
                Write your job descriptions in terms of things you can do for employers and what you can solve for them.
We can talk through this more over break or I can work comments and such into the next round of your resume.

Dang. He caught me. I realized after I sent my response that I was not quite truthful about who I was and what I really wanted.

So, me being me, I responded:

I just realized I lied. 

My desired job is pastoring. That's what makes me get up in the morning. That's what makes my heart beat. The secondary external job is a necessity. I am a pastor. Changing the world through social justice is done through my church work, not in lieu of it. 

So let me apologize for lying to you and myself. That's a wasted lie, I might need it on my deathbed. 

I realized that by telling the lie that I really want an external job, I was selling myself short, and once again, sabotaging my own success. Yeah, I NEED an external job, but do I really WANT one?

Absolutely not.

My calling is to serve God’s people. I know that, and like I said, that’s what gets me up in the morning. I love doing the work of the church, and thinking about doing anything else full time fills me with dread. The pay sucks (like teaching, who goes into ministry to make a boatload of money?), the hours are crappy, but the rewards are immeasurable.

So, today, I encourage you to tell yourself the truth and do the thing that makes you wake up in the morning. Do the thing that makes your blood flow and your heart beat. Stop wasting lies.

Do the thing that makes you YOU.

So, he really IS almost perfect. Except for that Pittsburgh Steelers thing…

Be blessed, but more importantly, be a blessing!