2016 State of the Parish Address
Rev. Peter Faass
As most of you are aware, I am a Downton Abbey fan. Alas, this is the sixth and final season of that venerable Masterpiece Theater costume drama. A few more episodes left and then, ces’t fini. Overall, despite some critics’ panning the past few seasons, Downton is a wonderful series. From the grand setting of Highclere Castle, to the drama between the upstairs landed-gentry and the downstairs servants, from the fabulous costumes and the amazing dinner parties, to loves un-requited and sometimes a bit too requited, Downton Abbey is a mesmerizing, entertaining glimpse into a world gone by; a perfect way to end a Sunday.
More than anything else, I will miss the droll and priceless witticisms of Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess and Lord Grantham’s mother. No one portrays the snooty British aristocracy better than Dame Smith. The good news is that I can engage in eternal reruns of the show, for I will soon own the entire DVD series!
Of all the plots and sub-plots Downton creator Julian Fellowes has presented in six seasons, the over-arching one has been how change impacts humans both on the macro and the micro levels. Of all the changes portrayed, the biggest and most disturbing one was that of the status of the British aristocracy, a venerable institution that ruled Great Britain for many centuries and which, in the period between the two World Wars, saw its decline from being
Of all the changes portrayed, the British aristocracy, a venerable institution that ruled Great Britain for centuries, saw its status decline from being all-powerful movers and shakers in government and society (as well as being obscenely wealthy) to being marginalized and on the fringes of a rapidly-changing society.
Downton has notably shown us how those from the pinnacles of power have fallen from forces beyond their control, compelled to share their power with commoners – and at times to relinquish it altogether. More importantly, Downton shows that to survive, the aristocracy were compelled to either reinvent themselves (and their role in society) or become extinct.
This change of role and status in society and the ability to adapt is what Downtown Abbey has portrayed so vividly. For some characters like Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Tom Branson, this seismic change has been met with pragmatism and even with relish. For other characters like Mr. Carson, Lord Grantham and Mr. Barrow, well… not so much. As the old ways change and slip away like grains of sand between their fingers, they meet the future with reluctance, trepidation and fear of the unknown.
Why am I describing Downton Abbey’s plot and details to you at this Annual Meeting’s State of the Parish address? The sea of change that impacted early 20th Century Britain and her institutional life distinctly parallels what is happening in the 21st Century Church. Downton Abbey is an object lesson for us, offering valuable information and compelling us to decide how we can engage the rapidly-changing culture and society we encounter daily in 2106.
As George Santanyana famously observed, “Those who cannot remember [or ignore] the past are condemned to repeat it.”
What can the Downton Abbey saga teach us? Like the enormous changes in the culture and society that toppled the established institutions of Britain from their vaunted positions of power and authority 100 years ago, the institutional church (and all other institutions as well) is being toppled from our position of authority, power and respect – a position we’ve held in this country for over 200 years.
The Episcopal Church no longer sits at the pinnacle of American society. It is no longer the church of the wealthy and powerful. It is no longer the Republican Party at Prayer.
Christ Church is no longer a parish of 2,000 members. Those disaffected by the church see participation in institutional religion as unimportant and not the least bit rewarding toward nurturing a spiritual, moral or ethical life in any meaningful way.
Just as in the beginning of the 20th Century, there are myriad forces at play that have caused this shift in our status and perceived decline. Go do a Google search of the word none. You will discover that a none is not a woman religious in a black habit; it is someone who is a result of the current sea of change in religion’s (and the church’s) status in our culture. A none, by the way, is someone who, when asked what their religious affiliation is, replies “none.” This doesn’t mean they are not spiritual or desire a relationship with God; they just don’t see doing that in an institution as necessary or of value.
While it is critical to clearly understand WHAT is happening in the culture that has caused (and will continue to cause) all this change, HOW we respond to these changes is truly critical. HOW we respond to the forces at work will determine HOW we will move into the future and become the new creation God is calling us to be. That’s the crux of the Downton Abbey object lesson: HOW.
Will we look backwards, ruing the swift and unsettling changes, hoping against all odds that our vaunted positions of power and authority will somehow be magically restored?
If that’s the direction you’re looking at and the hopes you are holding, you may call yourself Mr. Carson.
We can be forward-looking, seeing future possibilities, even if we only dimly see what that is, relishing and embracing the future with a bit of fear (of the unknown). We might see that future as an opportunity for new life for us and for the Christian faith. If so, you may call yourself Lady Mary.
During these times of institutional decline and change – an era the recently-deceased theologian Phyllis Tickle calls “a once every 500-year rummage sale in the church,” I have this very important (but on the surface rather uninspired) comment to make about Christ Church, Shaker Heights: We are holding our own. This statement isn’t exactly a catchy slogan to inspire much of anything, never mind confidence in the future. This statement, in reality, is the envy of thousands of churches across the country that are not holding their own, rapidly losing ground in all areas critical to a healthy, sustainable parish life. Recent statistics show that approximately 5,000 churches close in the United States every year. Of that number, approximately 40 of them are Episcopal parishes. When I went to seminary in 1996, there were approximately 7,400 Episcopal parishes; today, there are about 6,700.
Christ Church is holding its own in three key areas, which all have plateaued:
I would say we are more than holding our own when we examine the markers of commitment level to the parish, sense of authentic community, welcoming all people, and our ethos of radical love rooted in on our understanding of the Gospel. In that light, holding our own becomes the lifeboat that gets us through the sea change from the shore of an old way of life to the shore of a new way of life.
Parishes struggling and failing because there are myriad of reasons. But I think they can best be explained by the fact that many church leaders and people in the pews refuse to acknowledge the changes around them, believing that by just holding tighter to their old way of life, they will somehow preserve it. This is not only sad – it is a falsehood. By doing so, these folks cling to something no longer viable (and clearly no longer useful) to how God is working on the world’s redemption.
These congregations stay hunkered inside the church, behind formidable doors and walls, as they deplete every last drop of their human and financial resources to keep the barricades up until they totally exhaust themselves, waving the white flag of defeat and closing the church down. In our Episcopal polity, it’s often not even the congregation’s leadership who face this hard truth, it’s some Diocesan official who makes the parish face the reality that it is finished.
My sisters and brothers, that’s not us and it’s not going to be us!
One of the reasons we hold our own is that we have not stuck our heads in the sand and entered the world of denial. We have been steadily turning from the past toward the future. We have identified our strengths and weaknesses, lifting up the former and mitigating the latter. We have reached out into the wider community.
We have been attentive to God’s call. When it hasn’t clear where God is calling us, we trust that God has more in store for us: more future, more music to sing, more prayers to pray, more people to minister to, more people to proclaim the Good News to, and more people to embrace with God’s love. As I stated at last year’s Annual Meeting, we continue listening to God because we have come to understand that with God the best is always yet to come – and we want the best!
Some of that “best is yet to come” is becoming reality now (a “not yet,” becoming a “now”). I am speaking of the Van Aken Redevelopment District and our ongoing discussions with RMS, the City, Shaker Heights Development Corporation (SHDC) and Cleveland Public Theatre to turn this building into a shared space between our church and a performing arts center.
In December, the two-year Van Aken-Warrensville-Chagrin intersection realignment project was finally completed and it is working beautifully! Can I get an Alleluia on that?
Last autumn, the developer, RMS, presented the penultimate plans for Phase I of the mixed-use redevelopment of residential, retail, entertainment and green space that will sit where the current Van Aken Plaza is. They announced a partial list of tenants for the new development, including Luna Bakery and Mitchell’s Ice Cream. How I am ever going to keep weight off with those two wonderful stores barely a three-minute walk from the office? This plaza is slated to be demolished this spring, with the first phase of construction completed by Fall 2017.
The derelict Qua Buick buildings to our north were recently demolished. The lot has been graded to prepare for the construction of a new, relocated Fresh Market and another smaller building on the Farnsleigh/Warrensville corner that will house a bank and D.O. Summers Cleaners. Construction on this lot should begin soon. A future Phase II construction on this lot will build more residential units on the Helen Road side.
The SHDC has engaged a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study to see if a capital campaign in the city can raise money to repurpose our building for the performing arts. A business plan is part of this market study, and both are currently in the works. All our current vestry members and newly-elected vestry members’ names have been submitted to be a part of that study. Please make every effort to participate and add your voice.
I want to express my deep appreciation to the Christ Church Foundation for a $5,000 grant to help fund the SHDC’s feasibility study endeavor. That contribution is a testimonial to our having proverbial skin in the game, as we work with our potential partners to make this project become a reality.
If this study goes as hoped, this year will see us engaging in real nuts and bolts conversations about what all the parties involved desire and need architecturally and mechanically to provide for a performing arts center and the congregation to successfully share space in new and innovative ways. This will involve work with all the principals involved, including Cleveland Public Theatre, RMS Development, the City of Shaker Heights, and of course, ourselves. This core group design group will also include an architectural firm and various contractors.
I have included the Diocesan Chancellor, Bill Powell, in some of our past meetings so he may advise us on how we can successfully negotiate an arrangement with our potential partners and not violate Canon Law, which does not allow for any encumbrances on the property. The Diocese of Ohio is the exclusive owner of all church property and assets – and this needs to be legally protected in any final agreement we make. Bill has been supportive of our efforts and believes a lease arrangement will meet these needs, protecting our investors’ financial interests while adhering to the Canons. As the Bishop’s representative and our primary legal counsel, Bill will be a critical partner in our upcoming negotiations.
We have not sat idle as all this work swirls around us! Phase I repairs of our own much-deferred maintenance is nearing completion. This work is being funded by the initial payments of our successful Capital Campaign in 2014. We will do approximately $350,000 of work in Phase I. Some of this work is mundane but necessary:
The sexiest thing we have done (or in more ecclesial terms, the item that stands out as iconic) is restoring the White Spire steeple. Using D. Nelson’s restricted bequest as our foundational funding (and adding an unexpected and generous bequest from Patricia McIlraith this past spring), we were finally able to complete the steeple renovation this year.
The White Spire had essential internal repairs to its main structure and surrounding roofs in 2008. In this second phase, external repairs roof and structural repairs were made and the steeple was then beautifully painted. New LED lighting was installed and the damaged ball and cross (removed in 2008) were restored and raised to their former pinnacle 120 feet above the ground in an exciting, impromptu ceremony in November. In December, an electronic carillon was installed that replicates the sound of a 37 bell English bronze carillon. Currently, it rings the Westminster chimes on the hour and plays ten minutes of season hymns at noon and 6:00 p.m.
In addition to the steeple, we also painted and repaired the portico and upgraded existing lighting, and then added LED lighting to the columns and in the piedmont. The column lights have been programmed to change color for Christian holidays, liturgical seasons and some secular holidays and events.
The overall result of the White Spire and portico work is nothing less than breathtaking. You can see the spire for hundreds of yards from the north, south and west. Together, the steeple and portico boldly proclaim the good news of Christ Church, and are beacons of light to all people, as we claim our role as the spiritual heart of the Van Aken district. If you have not been by the church after dark, make it a special point to drive by. You will not be disappointed.
This Phase I project did not happen by itself. The Property Committee accepted the Vestry’s invitation to oversee the bidding project and become our general contractors. This was no small task. Lynn Winkelman and Lisa Fletcher boldly dared go where no else would go and co-chaired Phase I. This involved hundreds of hours of labor, dealing with three various contractors whose performance ran the gamut from excellent to really awful. Lisa and Lynn are tenacious and faithful to their volunteer work for our parish in general and to this project in particular. They did and continue to do, an extraordinary job for us – and for free. We are all deeply indebted to them both and the Property Committee for all they do for this congregation.
How can we take all that we have done thus far (and will do this year) prayerfully – and grasp the abundant opportunity God has offered us in all of this? How we take these changes and turn them into a rich future for this congregation and our mission as followers of Jesus? This is the key question for us as we move into 2016. I have asked the staff and the Vestry leadership to pray and reflect on this very question. I ask you to do the same.
Which are the outmoded ways of being the church do we need to let go of? How can we proactively engage new ways of being the church, of letting the outside world know about what’s inside; of taking the inside, outside? How do we fully integrate ourselves into the Van Aken District and all that will unfold here? How can we capitalize on this opportunity God has given us to ensure our own viability into the future?
Think in terms of a revitalized Cookie Walk, a holiday fair, new additions to our music program like Christmas Lessons and Carols; a Handel’s Messiah sing-a-long; a children’s music and camp programming; opportunities for spiritual development that build on our current Christian formation; yoga offerings; and the twice-successful Beating the Bounds liturgy. How do we meet the needs of an increasingly spiritual, but not religious population of NONES? How do we honor people from other faiths and of no faith at all, reaching out to them with our programming, to enrich their spiritual lives?
What are your thoughts and ideas about these and other opportunities we should grasp? I would love to hear from you. I will ask Mary Lavigne-Butler to schedule an adult forum later this spring where we can gather and brainstorm these questions together.
Speaking of formation and spirituality. We of course are called to offer appropriate vehicles for others, but what about our own? How are we engaging in our own formation in the Christian faith? How are we nourishing our own spiritual lives?
We strive to offer a full spectrum of adult formation and spiritual growth formation at Christ Church. We work to make sure that we vary these offerings to meet the needs of very busy people and a wide diversity of interests. So while we continue to have the more traditional book study options, DVD presentations, and Sunday morning offerings, we also have moved toward more online and self-directed offerings.
This Lent, we are offering the highly traditional Wednesday evening book study with a soup and salad supper, using Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. We are also offering Growing a Rule of Life, which is a daily online video meditation with a self-directed workbook and private Facebook page for participants to share reflections and ask questions.
We have two Bible Study groups. We have a new Christ Church book group. Under Mary Lavigne-Butler, our adult forum offerings have expanded our offerings on a myriad of social justice issues as well as spiritual and Christian theology topics. The Rev. Rachel Hackenberg offered an extraordinary series on various prayer forms last Lent, and next month we have a unique ½ day retreat at the Cleveland Museum of Art. These are just a few of the programs the parish offers.
Response to all these varied programs is often, at best, tepid. As your priest, teacher and pastor, this seriously concerns me. Out of a congregation of approximately 350 people, we have a core group of 25 -30 people who consistently take advantage and participate in these programs. That’s 7% – a pretty paltry number. Bravo for them, but what about the rest of the congregation?
I recently read an article printed in the first half of the last century titled “How to Help Your Parish Priest.” It comes out of a series of tracts written by the Church of England, which clearly addressed a situation of people falling away from church activity and their own spiritual life and health. One of the most relevant statements the article made was “when people lose interest in their religion, it is because they have not been doing enough work [on] it.”
Examining the role of the priest-teacher it states,
“Next, there is the priest's work as teacher. Here you can be of real help, especially in these days when there is so much talk about . . . religion, and with it so much ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding. In all probability you constantly meet people who have prejudice against the faith, and whom your priest cannot teach, because they would not dream of entering a . . . church. It is never any good arguing with them – argument does not convert people. However, a courteous, simple, good-tempered explanation of some difficulty or misunderstanding may be the means of doing a great deal of good. Outsiders are often much more impressed by what laymen says about their religion than by what a priest says.”
There is, however, one essential condition for this kind of service. You must know the Faith. You can never satisfactorily explain to other people what you do not thoroughly understand yourself.
These insightful words are as applicable today as they were decades ago when they were written. We live in a time when many are prejudiced about the Christian faith, people who would never dream of coming to Church and engaging me in conversation. You – the laity – are the first and foremost line of defense in offering a different perspective and understanding to others about who we are as Christians and as a parish. But in order to do so you must know the faith. If you do not understand it yourself, how can you explain it to others? How else can you present the fullness of the gift of grace we have experienced as followers of Jesus in this congregation? How else will we be able to truly embrace the future if we do not know and tell others the gift we have in our faith as it is lived at Christ Church, Shaker Heights?
Ongoing formation and spiritual growth are the only way to do this. They are critical to your health as a child of God and they are critical to the vibrancy and life of this church. My prayer is that each and every person in this congregation will make it a priority to grow in the knowledge of the faith and nourish their spiritual lives.
As Jim Walton mentioned, the Vestry, Finance Committee and I will make a concerted effort this year to address our stewardship, financial health and security this year – and into the future. Teaching, praying and engaging in self-examination about stewardship must be an ongoing process and not just something we address once each autumn during our pledge drive.
While pledge giving has gone up in small increments each year at Christ Church, as a whole we still do not have a deep understanding of what it takes to fund our operation and what our appropriate giving out of our resources to the parish means for our long-term financial health. Our persistent reliance on the White Spire Fund to balance our operating budget is a downward spiral. A formula for financial health cannot be based solely on the generosity of deceased people.
Frankly, I see no reason why a parish of this size, with a membership that is solidly in the middle-class, cannot bring its pledge income to at least $300,000 a year. The fact that we struggled to raise $270,000 in pledge income for 2016 tells me that many people (who are able to do so) are not making an appropriate commitment to this parish’s sustenance. We need to work on that through education, reflection and prayer so to change that. We can do better.
We will also examine how best to revitalize the Christ Church Heritage Society, forming a committee to teach people about the importance of planned giving and providing for the parish in their legacies. One of our highest goals over the next five years is to ensure we have a healthy endowment though planned giving, with the goal of working toward drawing only interest (and not principle) from that fund to support our operating budget.
One source of revenue that has grown this past year is rental income. In 2015, we acquired three new tenants who are visual artists and rent studio space from us. This past summer, the Heights Fellowship Church, an East African congregation, began offering Bible study and worships in our chapel each Sunday. Pastor Abel and his congregation are the loveliest people you will want to meet. Please make an effort to meet them and make them feel welcome. We’d like them to stay with us for a long time.
We are also in discussions with one or two other potential tenants and are in the process of re-negotiating Verb Ballet’s lease, whose five- year term is up February 29th. This increased rental income helps us considerably with our budget. Of course, if a capital campaign for the performing arts center is successful and we agree on a lease arrangement to share our facilities, this too will bring increased rental income to the parish.
Let’s dream here by creating a big hairy audacious goal – a B.H.A.G. with:
That’s a worthy goal and will ensure our financial health well into the future, which in turn will ensure our ability to be a vibrant Episcopal congregation.
Let me turn to our out-going Vestry members of 2016. Valerie Channer, Kate Metyk and Brad Forward have served three years on Vestry and as parish leaders have seen this parish through some major changes. Also leaving the Vestry is Mischelle Lohr, our Senior Warden. Mischelle has served five years on Vestry with distinction. I want to thank all of them for their commitment and hope that after a brief respite they will continue to seek new ways of serving the church as we move into the future.
Callie Swaim-Fox is leaving the vestry after serving as the youth representative. Callie consistently brought a new and fresh perspective to our conversations and, while not a voting member, did through her thoughtful opinions, help clarify and guide the Vestry in its deliberations. Plus, being Callie, she was always upbeat and fun to have at the meetings. Thank you, Callie.
I want to acknowledge the incoming class of 2019: Kathleen Nitschke, Jack Shelley and Matt Wholey for three-year terms and filling the final year of Mischelle’s unexpired term for the class of 2017, Mary Lavigne-Butler. Kira Ruffin is coming on board as our new youth representative Ruffin. Kira has been a part of Christ Church for a long time and we have watched her grow into a lovely young woman. I know she will be a fine addition to the Vestry. This is a vibrant, talented and energetic group of people coming into lay leadership who will help lead us through the next three critical years. I look forward to working with all of you.
After a good long run, our treasurer Deb Schelling has stepped down from the position. She has been a wonderful shepherd of our finances, working with our excellent accountant, Shane Millette. They, along with the Finance Committee, have managed the parish finances with aplomb. Thank you Deb. Thank you Shane.
Jim Walton returns for a repeat performance as treasurer. Jim took over the reins from Deb in the past month. He knows the parish finances well, having served in this capacity about eight years ago. I look forward to working with him and his vast knowledge of our finances.
This parish could not operate and help build up God’s reign in the world without the dedication and generosity of so many people. As mentioned previously, the Property Committee continues to address this our aging facility. It can be overwhelming when many mechanical things go wrong at once. Recently, when our sexton, Harry Holliman, dealt with an extended illness, the Property Committee took on the on-going maintenance of our facility. They methodically handle each and every item with patience and grace. We are all indebted to this amazing group of people.
In the past few years, we have re-energized the Finance Committee, whom have become a critical part of our financial management. Among their tasks, they oversee the payment of our monthly Diocesan assessments; review monthly profit and loss statements; determine requested drawdowns from the White Spire Fund; arrange the annual audit; and develop our annual budget proposal. The members of this committee are Douglas Cates, Dana Biggerman, Frances Baker and Jim Walton. I can’t thank them enough for their commitment to the financial stability of this parish.
I would like to recognize our legal counsel, Mark Biggerman. Mark has been invaluable to me and the Vestry in offering legal advice on a host of issues. He has helped develop and review lease agreements with our tenants; reviewed legal documents relating to bequests; and helped me make good decisions on labor issues. He does all of this gratis, or I guess the appropriate term here is pro-bono. He is meticulous in his work, and generous and faithful to this parish.
I want to thank Martha and Ed Towns for their many loyal years as ushers at Christ Church. After a long run of greeting people, handing our bulletins, finding oblation bearers, collecting the alms and doing head counts, they are taking a well-deserved retirement.
I want to give a special shout-out to Nancy Morrow and her gifts to Christ Church. Nancy is one of those dedicated volunteers who flies under many people’s radar screens. She is co-chair of the Altar Guild (a big job unto itself) with Marge Stewart and a faithful 8 O’clocker. She also is an office volunteer who in many ways is Karen’s right hand. Nancy answers phones, assembles bulletins and is an all-round "Gal Friday." She also has a wonderful sense of humor and a lively spirit. We are blessed to have her and the gift of her many talents.
Speaking of the Altar Guild… Where would the rector and the liturgical life of the church be without them and their dedication to our worship life? They are a faithful and loving group of women AND men! Thank you!
Under the guidance of Anne McLain and Michelle Harris, Christ Church hosts continue to incarnate Christian hospitality for the congregation and all our events which include food. The hosts oversaw 19 events for in 2015, and they did so with grace. When we talk about how delicious life is at Christ Church, we understand that literally through the wonderful food and beverage they provide to enhance our common life.
In my experience, Christ Church has the best Outreach Committee of any parish I know. Ours is ably-led by the multi-talented Lynda Bernays. Lynda is a tireless advocate for the least among us and she witnesses to Christian compassion daily in her life. Our Outreach Committee puts the face of Christ on our mission and ministry, whether that be Beds4Kids, Family Promise, KIVA micro-loans, the Holy Coffee sale, or the Homeless Stand Down, I am grateful for their passion of the Gospel and all they do.
Lisa Fletcher and Christina Forward continue to oversee our successful St. Herman’s sandwich lunch ministry. Last year, we provided 2,600 brown-bagged lunches to this vital ministry, serving the hungry in greater Cleveland. I thank all the volunteers who faithfully give of their time and talent to make this possible. If you’re looking for a ministry, we are always looking for more folks to help. The sign-up sheet is on Great Hall table.
I want to thank the parish staff. They are a small but mighty group:
Leslie Swaim-Fox continues to serve as our amazing, talented Director of Religious Education. Leslie leads a loyal and dedicated group of catechists who are devoted to the Christian formation of our children and youth.
Harry Holliman our intrepid sexton. Harry does yeoman work as the solo staff person committed to our buildings maintenance. We are hopeful that Harry’s extended bout with shingles is coming to a healthy end.
Karen Rockwell, our parish administrator, has made a noteworthy improvement to our office and the smooth operation of this parish. I assure you, Karen’s knowledge and organizational skills have significantly brought down the rector’s stress levels this year. She has made the office a place of warmth and welcome, as well as a place of getting the parish’s work done. Plus, with Karen, we get a church mascot, her dog Hanna, a Whippet who is just a love.
Finally, I want to welcome our new Music Director, Jeanette Davis Ostrander. Jeanette has been with us a scant three weeks, but in that short time, has brought to bear her considerable talents as an organist, pianist, and choral conductor. The choir has reached a new level of singing under her direction, and our worship is enriched by her expertise with our Rieger Orgelbau organ. I know you all join me in welcoming her and her family to our parish family.
I want to thank our two adjunct clergy, Fr. Jim Greer and the Rev. Meghan Froehlich. They both bring their preaching, teaching and pastoral skills to our common life. I am grateful for all they do at Christ Church and for their companionship in priestly ministry.
As always, I can’t mention each and every person who contributes to the life of Christ Church. Please know that despite not being personally mentioned by name, that your gifts are appreciated and that you are loved. We could not do what we do without you!
After the recent Anglican Primates decision to discipline the Episcopal Church over our sanctioning same-sex marriage, I wrote you that this decision doesn’t matter where it really matters. The life of healing the sick, freeing the oppressed and proclaiming the year of God’s favor to all God’s children goes on here at Christ Church, regardless of what happened at Canterbury.
The real life of the Church happens here every day at the local level, and it will continue to unfold and thrive here in this congregation and this district. Our future is bright and hopeful because Christ is faithful, and we Christ Church Episcopalians are among Christ’s faithful followers in the unfolding Church of the future. In fact, we will help incarnate that Church for others. Never forget that God is with us in all we do, because as we are faithful to God, God is faithful to us in return.
I am privileged to serve as your rector and to walk this awe-inspiring journey of faith with you. God beckons us into a bright future. And as I stated last year, always remember: With God the best is always yet to come.
I Think We’re Really, Really Good Here
Rev. Peter Faass
Here we are on the third Sunday of Epiphany, in a very short Epiphany season. After having heard the big epiphany stories of The Adoration of the Magi, The Baptism of Jesus and The Wedding Feast at Cana, we now hear this story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. This story, though, seems out of sync with the seasonal theme of the epiphanies of Jesus being revealed as the Messiah and Son of God. After hearing about those enormous stone jars filled with water being turned into fine Bordeaux wine; after the drama of the heavens opening and a dove descending on the newly baptized Jesus with God’s booming voice proclaiming him “my Son;” and after the exotic visit by those three Persian kings presenting opulent gifts at the manger, why do we now get this rather unassuming story? Why is it important to hear about Jesus worshipping at his home synagogue, the one where he probably had his Bar Mitzvah?
Part of this bafflement was created when the lectionary’s editors decided to split one story into two. Yet the integrity of keeping them as one story is essential to understand the scripture’s profound message and to understand it as another big epiphany story.
So, what are the full story and backstory?
The newly-baptized Jesus is recently back from his 40-day wilderness experience (and those three temptations by the devil to deny God and honor him). He’s begun his ministry, preaching and teaching and to great acclaim in synagogues throughout Galilee. He’s come home – to show the hometown folks just how much he’s grown into a successful prophet.
He goes to the local synagogue to worship. Recognizing him as “the local boy made good,” the verger gives him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolls the scroll, intent to find a specific passage – because it will reveal something important about him (an epiphany) to the gathered congregation. Finding the passage he reads,
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
19 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Everyone who had known Jesus since he was knee-high to a grasshopper (and working with Joseph in the local carpentry shop) had their eyes riveted on him, waiting for the words of wisdom that this “local boy made good” would preach about this sacred text. “Boy, the reviews about Jesus have been good all over Galilee,” they are thinking, “…surely he has saved his best message for us, his local kith and kin.”
Jesus sits down to deliver what has to be the shortest sermon ever. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.” Its brevity is the envy of every Episcopalian who ever sat in a pew. “Oh, that my priest would be so pithy when they preach,” they think.
But the Nazareth congregation’s response to his sermon is not so positive, because Jesus proclaimed that Isaiah’s prophecy about the long-awaited Messiah had now been fulfilled in him. He claimed title to that sacred position.
… Say what?!?
To the people, this is a preposterous claim. Looking around at each other, some are initially amazed – but others start to question him.
What did he just say?
He’s the Messiah?
Isn’t this Joseph’s son – that little kid who used to play with our kids and run around the village?
Now look at him, he’s calling himself the Messiah. Oy, can you believe it! What a little Lord Fauntleroy he’s become.
Sensing their growing doubt, Jesus looks at them and says, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum. Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.”
Jesus resists the temptation to perform some miracle, despite the crowd’s demands for a sign. His powers of healing are for those truly in need, and to witness God’s glory. They are not for entertainment or to be done on demand as proof that he is the Messiah.
Jesus is disappointed by their disbelief. To call them up short, he cites two stories involving Elijah and Elisha, two of Israel’s greatest prophets, to prove a point about himself. In other words, he uses good Biblical scholarship to make the point.
The first example refers to a time when a great famine struck the land during a drought. Jesus notes that God did not send the prophet Elijah to the Hebrews to deal with the hunger that arose from the drought because they dishonored and disbelieved God. He instead sent Elijah to the widow of Zarapeth in Sidon, who shared her meager rations with Elijah. Her reward for believing God would help her was that her food store would not run out until the rains returned and crops were harvested.
The second example involved Elisha and the Syrian general Namaan, who was afflicted with leprosy. Jesus said that God sent Elisha not to Hebrews who were suffering with leprosy to cure them, because they had not believed and obeyed God, but rather he sent Elisha to Namaan, to cure him and make him whole, because Namaan believed that Elisha was a man of God and had the power to make him whole.
When Jesus told these two stories about whom God favored when they believed in him (to prove his own claim of being God’s Son), “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They are steaming!
Why? Well, the widow at Zarapeth in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian general were Gentiles. To the Jewish congregation, these stories to are an outrage, because they believe that the Messiah is to come to liberate them, and them only. They believe (scripture not withstanding) that God’s salvation is exclusive to the Jewish people, and not to other nations. In their rage they rise (a riotous crowd) and drive Jesus out of town, pushing him toward the brow of a hill, in order to hurl him off a cliff and kill him for his perceived blasphemy.
Since Jesus was of God, he had a message of hope to deliver to all people. At this most dire moment, the text notes that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
A commentary I read on this passage states: “the basis of [the congregation’s] hostility toward Jesus was a difference in the way they read the Scriptures. The people of his hometown read them as a promise of God’s exclusive covenant with them, a covenant that involved promises of deliverance from their oppressors. Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance but God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race. When the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ announcement became clear to those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, their commitment to their own community boundaries took precedence over their joy that God had sent a prophet among them. In the end, because they were not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves were unable to receive it.” 
Two weeks ago, the primates leading the national churches of the Anglican Communion met at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral. These meetings occur every three years and are one of the so-called “instruments of unity” that loosely hold together the national churches of the Anglican Communion (who each find common roots in the mother Church of England). The primates discuss numerous topics concerning our faith at these triennial meetings, but this year’s had a pressing agenda item that many of the Archbishops wanted to see addressed. That item was last year’s approval by the Episcopal Church at our General Convention of a resolution allowing clergy to perform and bless marriages between same-sex couples.
Because of our perceived blasphemy and lack of adherence to Biblical orthodoxy, the primates wanted some punitive action to be taken by them against the Episcopal Church: They wanted to teach us a lesson about our proclamation that all God’s children are included in God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ and are worthy of the Church’s blessing on their marriages. Many of the primates feel this understanding deviates from Christian teaching – or at least their interpretation of it. Actually, some of those gathered wanted to throw us off a cliff entirely at this recent meeting by removing us from the Communion altogether, and make the schismatic, conservative Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) the official representative church for the geographic area the Episcopal Church now represents.
In the end that did not happen, but it was held out as the stick that would beat us if in three years’ time we did not repent and repeal that resolution allowing same-sex marriage. In the meantime, we the Episcopal Church have been disciplined. We have not been suspended as much of the popular media reported, but rather disciplined. We have been given a slap on the fanny and told to go have a time out in our room, with no supper until we see the error of our ways and repent.
This discipline states we can no longer participate in the main Anglican Communion instruments of unity, which are:
I will not get into the details of how the Communion is organized (or what Canon law says about all this), other than to say that the primates have no authority to engage in such a discipline, never mind remove a national church from participation in any of these bodies and replace it with some schismatic group. That is not how we are organized. We are not an Anglican version of the Roman Catholic model of how ecclesial authority operates, despite some of our primates’ clear desires to become so.
I want to point out the parallels between what has happened with the primates’ action in disciplining our Church, and the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
The Episcopal Church, echoing Isaiah and Jesus, proclaims to the Anglican Communion in the marriage resolution, a universal salvation for all people: For all the poor, the poor in spirit, the disenfranchised and all who are oppressed. It does so based on the witness of a great prophet of God and more importantly, on the witness of God’s Son, who, I would remind all of us, is our Savior.
The majority of the gathered Anglican primates gathered as a congregation, react adversely to hearing this interpretation of scripture – because like the Jews of first century Palestine, the radical inclusivity of the Episcopal Church’s actions flies in the face of their interpretation of the scripture. Their commitment to their own community boundaries have taken precedence over what should be joy that God had sent a prophet to proclaim the good news of the Gospel among them.
In the end, because they are not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves are unable to receive it. This is very sad. I know that there are numerous factors that play into why the primates voted as they did, and this is a situation with many complexities and a whole lot of behind-the-scenes politics. But nonetheless, it is very sad.
As the hymn proclaims, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” The message of the story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth holds out the light of hope – of God’s truth – for us Episcopalians during these times. It also reminds us that when we strive to be authentic followers of Jesus, God is with us in all we do – but maybe, most especially – when we are compelled to make difficult decisions that are often not popular with others.
Deciding to follow Jesus isn’t easy. But when we commit to doing so with all our heart, mind, soul and strength to be members of the Jesus movement, God allows us to pass safely through the murderous crowd so we may continue to bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of God’s favor. For followers of Jesus, there is no more Godly work than that. And you know what? I think we are really, really good here.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX, Luke, John. Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995, p.108.
What Would Martin Do?
Isaiah 62:1-5;Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
As we celebrate the life and witness of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s easy to talk about “King the dreamer” or “King the drum major for peace and justice,” but there was another side to King. As Randall Kennedy wrote in a forum article in the Plain Dealer some years ago, King was a boat rocker with a “. . . discomforting willingness to challenge Americans’ accepted ways of life. …” Making them “…profoundly uncomfortable… “
As I read snippets from his speeches and other reflections on his life, I was struck by the fact (and more tellingly that more than 50 years since his death) that we are still a deeply divided nation and a world that needs to be challenged – that needs to be reminded about who we are and what we are called to do.
2016 is vastly different and yet so unchanged from the world Martin walked. Poverty, inequality, hatred and fear still stalk our streets and the death of all hope in the extinguished lives of children is a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. Like me, I think he would be at a loss to find God (or at least a God recognizable to him in what passes for legitimate sociopolitical debate). In all the noise, the one thing I hear clearly (and which I think would sadden and perhaps frighten him deeply) is this sense of a world still badly divided in which there is not enough:
It’s easy in such a world for some to believe they must get theirs first and leave the dregs for the rest and they willingly use their gifts and talents, power and politics to get their way. In such a world, what would Martin say and most importantly what would Martin do?
First he’d cry and then he’d raise his eyes to God for his marching orders. Martin would likely make us uncomfortable as he’d challenge us to find and be our better selves. Toward the end of his life, many saw the Prophet Martin’s powerful oratory and even more powerful witness as way too political. Which begs the question - what’s this thing about the Church and being too political anyway? And yes, I know about the separation of Church and State. But let’s get real, at every turn, Christ spoke truth to power, challenged the status quo, turned the money changers out and taught that the last and the least of us would be first. He was a rabble-rouser and boat rocker and if that ain’t political, I don’t know what is.
King’s witness to and engagement in the world reflected his belief in a gospel grounded in the life of an activist Christ. Shaped by such faith, Martin didn’t mince words. One of King’s most controversial speeches was his eulogy for the four young African American girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963. King in essence called out faith communities everywhere for their silence and inactivity in the face of such martyrdom stating that:
“…these girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and spoiled meat of racism … they have something to say to each of us black and while alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”
Our fear of being seen as too political makes it too easy to allow caution to silence our prophetic voices, leaving us with, as Dr. King said, “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” The Prophet Martin would challenge us by asking what is political about the cry for justice and the yearning for peace. He’d want to know what’s wrong with wanting to earn the same wages for the same work or being treated with dignity and respect.
Dr. King would affirm that the achievement of all of these things are a reflection of the beloved community, of what God’s kingdom in the here and now would and should look like. Just as he spoke such heartfelt truth in that eulogy, he would bluntly tell us that prayer, while needed, is not enough. If we can’t, don’t or won’t advocate for such things, we cannot assert that we are a faith community professing Christ as Lord. If we walk with Christ, we must be Christ’s voice and Christ’s hands in the world. As such, we must not be afraid to speak truth to power and set our hands to work for peace.
Thankfully I don’t think that “…an uncertain sound” is a problem in this place, given the diversity of voices reflecting on the intersection of scripture and our journey in the world. I am sure, given some of the topics God has laid on my heart, that some might say that I am sometimes too political or too focused on African American themes in my sermons. All I can do is own both of those things – as I am an African American women raised during the last half of the 20th century (and all that means). As a deeply faithful woman, I see the African American journey as a reflection of the journeys all of us share on this planet.
Clearly, the African American journey, deeply-rooted in issues of faith and power, is the well from which Martin drew his prophetic vision and voice. I also see the strong link between scriptures’ call for us to bear witness – and what I believe was the call to speak truth to power that Martin heard and acted upon. He didn’t stop there, as his vision led him to give voice to issues many saw as beyond the scope of a black preacher from Georgia. He saw that amidst the challenges that shape our various lives, our concerns are no different as we seek to live in peace; make a living wage; be accorded dignity and respect in our engagements with others; and finally, to leave the world a better place than we found it for our children and our children’s children.
What would Martin do? He would say “cry if you must, pray because you must and then lift your eyes to God for your marching orders.”
He would push us to move beyond our red doors and embrace the message at the heart of our scriptures today, which run counter to that narrative of a glass-half-empty, telling us that there is abundance in God’s kingdom and economy. As Paul tells us, God has chosen and equipped us with the gifts necessary to be his voice and hands in the world. We are witnesses to Christ and the good news revealed at the wedding feast of what the world would and should be like when God is among us - none will go without and the best is yet to come.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Peter Faass
Are you ever just a little curious about scripture readings that omit some verses? I mean, what is that about? Are the redactors of the lectionary trying to hide something and engaging in some selective editing? Conventional wisdom offers a few reasons why verses are omitted.
Sometimes, the editors simplify the story line to clarify the theme. Other times, they edit it because they are discomforted by the verse. For instance, our lectionary does not use some of the writings from the pseudo Pauline epistles where women are admonished to be subservient to men, or the Levitical passages about condemning homosexual behavior, or the passage from Deuteronomy requiring that parents take a rebellious teenager to the town square to be stoned to death.
The editors may play the overbearing parent, assuming that the verses are too challenging for people to understand – or for the clergy to interpret. I think this last reason is insulting to the intelligence of the people in the pews and the clergy, as well.
I believe it is a combination of the first and final reason that is at play in the omission of verses 18-20 in the heart of Luke’s story of the Baptism of Jesus today. These missing verses record the account of the arrest of John the Baptist:
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Tucked in where they are between the description of John’s ministry in the wilderness and Jesus’ baptism may be curious chronologically, but they are critical theologically.
In the other gospel accounts, John's arrest comes after Jesus' baptism, which makes sense – if John was in prison, how could he baptize Jesus? By arranging the story this way (and not mentioning John specifically in the verses about Jesus' baptism), Luke turns this passage into a hinge in the story’s plot. These three verses are a theological hinge that undergirds the message of Luke’s entire understanding about the Good News of Jesus.
John’s arrest signifies the end of the era of how God's promise to the people of Israel was understood – that the Hebrew people were the exclusive chosen people, beloved by God over and above all others. This doesn’t mean God loved the Hebrews any less after this hinge swung open – it means that God’s embrace grew wider to include all people when Jesus’ ministry commenced.
Jesus’ baptism signifies a new era of who God loves and saves. This theology is clarified immediately after this passage, when Luke launches into Jesus’ genealogy. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham and David (a distinctly Jewish genealogy), Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the first human.
Luke was a Gentile and his is the "Gospel to the Gentiles." The fact that his genealogy goes to the beginning puts what God is doing in Jesus in a universal – and not just a Jewish – context. His gospel’s laser-focused intent demonstrates that God has become human in Jesus to bring the good news of salvation to all people. As the angel proclaimed to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the night Jesus was born, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
When Luke places John’s arrest smack in the middle of Jesus’ baptism, he is saying something critical: Our baptism literally takes us from an old way of life to a new one. Jesus’ baptism ended one way of thinking and inaugurated a new one to understand that God’s love is all embracing: Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female. That’s why omitting those three seemingly incongruous verses in this passage is a mistake – it undermines Luke’s message, which is as vital to us today as it was at the time of Jesus.
Today's reading opens with “the people were filled with expectation.” Expectation means they were looking for a new way of life. Under the brutal heel of Rome, the decadent yoke of Herod and the hypocritical behavior of their religious leaders, people were sick and tired of the way the institutions of government and religion treated them as either second-class citizens or chattel. They were tired of being abused and misused. They expected and longed for God to send the long-awaited Messiah who would lead them to a better way of life.
People were so eager that they thought John the Baptist was the Messiah. But he abjured, saying no, that someone even more worthy than he was coming. John is the hinge; Jesus is the door, leading people into God’s realm, where all God’s beloved are equitably treated with dignity and respect.
We currently need the message of who God’s salvation is for. The world is a broken place, fractured by the belief that one tribe is better than another. That belief invariably leads to bigotry, violence, deprivation and genocide. As Christians, we need to own the fact that we have fallen short of apprehending and living the good news of Jesus in Luke. Our Baptismal Covenant commits us to proclaim to the world towards values and practices that reflect the characteristics of God’s realm, which are justice, compassion, inclusion, respecting the dignity of every human being and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In those words, we repent to complicity with evil that lures us to the broken belief that one faith or people is superior to another. In that repentance, we follow Jesus and join in harmonious community with one another – Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist and all others – to build a better world with God.
No religious leader in our time has expressed this deep wisdom of building a harmonious interconnected community better than His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In his New York Times article, “The Last Dalai Lama,” Pankaj Mishrac revealed the Dalai Lama’s profound understanding of how the current exclusivist religious beliefs need to change to restore the harmony of humanity that God desires.
The article is premised on the growing realization that while the leader in exile is an international icon, the future of his office and the Tibetan people are in serious jeopardy. Communist China has been dismantling traditionalist Tibetan culture in many ways, and has specifically sought to marginalize the Dalai’s Lama’s spiritual and political role in the world.
Sensing that the Dalai Lama may never return to Tibet, Mishrac writes that the Dalai Lama “speaks beyond religion and embrac[es] ‘secular ethics’ which he defines as ‘principles of selflessness and compassion rooted in the fundamental Buddhist notion of interconnectedness.’”
“Increasingly the Dalai Lama addresses himself to a non-denominational audience and seems . . . determined to undermine the authority of his own tradition . . . he has asserted that certain Buddhist scriptures disproved by science should be abandoned. He has suggested that the institution of the Dalai Lama has outlived its purpose . . . he chuckled when [the interviewer] told him his younger brother thought his office was past its sell-by date. Then quickly becoming serious, he added that all religious institutions . . . [were] developed in feudal circumstances. Corrupted by hierarchical systems, they began to discriminate between men and women; they came to be compromised by such cultural spinoffs as Sharia law and the caste system. But he said, ‘time[s] change: they have to change.’”
The world picture as he saw it was bleak. People all over the world were killing in the name of religions. Even Buddhists in Burma were tormenting Rohingya Muslims. This is why . . . he has started to emphasis the . . . values of compassion. It is no longer feasible, he said, to construct an ethical existence on the basis of traditional religion in multi-cultural societies.” 
The Dalai Lama recognizes that an old way of life needs to end – a way of life based on the entitlement of one people at the expense of another. He understands that a new way of life is imperative, one that emphasizes selflessness, compassion and our interconnectedness in order for us to harmoniously coexist as the beloved of God, regardless of who we are, or which faith we adhere to.
The Dalai Lama is a hinge, transitioning us from one way of life to another. He is also a door, as he incarnates the reality of truth and a holy way of life.
Epiphany season has begun. An epiphany is a revelation of God’s truth in unexpected and life-changing ways. Jesus’ life was one of many epiphanies, as is the life of the Dalai Lama. We can heal this broken world by going through the door to the way of life they both espouse. This Epiphany, let’s be alert to seeing this revelation of God’s truth in the one we don’t think is beloved by God. Doing so will be to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.
We’ll realize that God’s favor is for all, especially those whom we reject, overlook, regard as undeserving of justice, or worthy of God’s love. Because in God’s realm there is no such person.
Let’s walk through that door.
 “The Last Dalai Lama?” Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015, pages 43, 82
Incarnation: God Values Us
Rev. Peter Faass
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
A recent meme on Facebook showed a picture of two older women having coffee. One looks at the other and states, “A virgin birth I can believe in. But three wise men? Not so much!”
The Gospel of Matthew, where this passage comes from, has no birth story per se. Instead, it gives us the story of the world’s response to Jesus’ birth. First, we have the three Magi: Zoroastrian, astrology-believing wise men from Persia who traveled almost two years to see and pay homage to the newborn Jesus. Enter King Herod, who in fear, envy and great malice orders the slaughter of every male child under the age of two when the Magi do not return to give him the exact GPS location of this newborn king and perceived threat to his throne.
Despite his being born in remote place quite unlike Jerusalem, Jesus' birth does not happen under the radar. In fact, from the moment it occurs, it has seismic repercussions that reach the pinnacles of power and beyond the nation’s boundaries. To Herod, a pretty insecure leader, the newborn Jesus is immediately perceived as a threat to his power. Even before Jesus can speak, people are jockeying to get close and destroy him.
Even though the wise men mistakenly look for Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus' eventual entry into Jerusalem is presaged with "the powers of death doing their worst" in the slaughter of the innocents that follows later in the story. But God has a plan for this unstoppable Messiah: a message of salvation to deliver humankind in word and deed that will change the world forever. Matthew is clear; there is a new power on earth to be reckoned with in all the cosmos and heralded by a star. Nothing will ever be the same again.
We are about to wrap up another Christmas season. The secular Christmas started right after Halloween and ended once all the presents were opened on Christmas Day. The sacred one will conclude January 6 (Epiphany), when we commemorate the wise men’s arrival at the stable in Bethlehem, delivering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Every Christmas season, we hear of some new battlefront in the alleged “War on Christmas.” This year, that battle took the form of the accusation that Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups were threatening the sacredness of Christmas by not having bells and evergreen trees on them. Mind you, the cups were bright Christmas red and had the deep green and white Starbucks’ logo on them, making them look pretty “Christmasy” to me. Starbucks also carried Christmas tree Advent calendars and sold their usual special blend Christmas coffee beans, so it’s not as if Starbucks had somehow pressed the delete button on all things Christmas.
A more familiar battlefront in this “War on Christmas” frequently takes place in city halls, where city leaders debate the relevancy of nativity scenes in public squares. These battle lines are generally drawn around traditional Constitutional separation of church and state concerns. This then leads those who advocate for nativity scenes on public property to assert that we are a “Christian nation,” arguing that an overt Christian religious symbol is in fact appropriate on public property.
Well, if that assertion was once true, it certainly no longer is. Our nation is a multicultural, multireligious and multiracial place. In fact, America looks more like the heterogeneous place that Jesus came to promote as a place called God’s kingdom rather than a homogeneous one. So in fact the exclusive Christian Nativity scene is not a symbol that secular government should be placing on property held in trust for all people.
In the eyes of Matthew's Gospel, these arguments about the war on Christmas must not only seem ridiculous, but an indictment of what the church – or certainly many of her adherents - has become.
Matthew tells of the incarnation of God in Jesus that moved people to radical, life-altering acts. Jesus’ birth struck terror into the heart of Herod, who responded by using his power to seek out and destroy this babe’s power, God made man. This birth also inspired three foreigners to risk arduous and dangerous travel to come and pay him homage, presenting the child with the world’s most precious gifts at his feet.
Whether or not the Nativity scene is allowed on the town green, or Starbucks uses images of bells, evergreens or its own logo on its cups, Christmas hardly strikes us with fear or acts of true homage anymore – except those folks waiting for their January credit card statements. In fact, just the opposite has occurred with Christmas. We have, by and large, made its meaning benign, if not downright insipid.
There are some recent examples of the Church striking fear or great awe in the hearts of the world’s Herod. Archbishop Romero, Archbishop Tutu and Pope Francis have certainly stirred things up and given people pause to think about the power of Jesus. For the most part, Christianity has lost the power that the Incarnation of God brings to earth.
In his Christmas Day New York Times op-ed piece, “The Christmas Revolution,” writer Paul Wehner states:
“The incarnation . . . reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image.
But just as basic is the notion that we have value because God values us. Steve Hayner, a theologian who died earlier this year, illustrated this point to me when he observed that gold is valuable not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of great worth but because someone values it. Similarly, human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears. For Christians, God is not distant or detached; he is a God of wounds. All of this elevated the human experience and laid the groundwork for the ideas of individual dignity and inalienable rights.”
It is this radical and life-transforming understanding of Christmas that each and every human being has intrinsic value. The gift God has given us in Jesus is that God valued us so much he became one of us, and that reality strikes true fear in the world’s Herods, because if we are all equal, we no longer need them.
Jesus' threat to the powers of his day (and the present) brought an alternative to those powers – the Realm of God. It’s a place where all humans are intrinsically valuable because God loves us all.
Think about this truth in light of some of the issues we face today. If all human beings are intrinsically valued, how can we not love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves?
If all human beings are valued by God and we are all made in God’s image, how can we not honor and support the Black Lives Matter movement? Not because Black lives are worth more than other lives, but because so many people do not see them as being of much value at all. That inequality results in injustice and hatred and death for many.
The Realm of God plays by different rules and does not recognize the powers of this world. The Realm of God invites us to participate in it by inviting the powers of the world to take even our own lives from us as a way of showing that the world has no power over us.
Our churches are supposed to be alternative communities to the world’s ways. We are supposed to do things differently; we are supposed to be different. God’s incarnation proclaims it. We should proclaim and witness this as faith communities. Only in so doing will we will grasp the true meaning of Christmas. When we do so, Jesus is born once again.
 “The Christmas Revolution,” Peter Wehner, The New York Times, December 25, 2015