Archive for December, 2011

The following sermon was preached on December 25, 2011 at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH, based on the passage John 1:1-14.

I have a friend in seminary who is on the quest of the perfect blend of flavors.

Elise knows food and understands taste probably better than anyone I have ever met.  Not only does she love to eat, she understands how to make food a full body experience.  Her pallet is amazing.  I’ve seen her go into a Mexican restaurant, taste one bite of the salsa on the table and then custom order a taco that will make you believe that your mind has imploded with deliciousness.

What makes her an even more reliable food critic is that her perfect blend of flavors doesn’t always have to come at a fancy restaurant or in a dish with some pretentious name that I can’t pronounce.  She’s someone who can add Fritos into an average pot of chili, transforming it into a recipe that would leave the contestants on Chopped jealous.  I trust her knowledge so much, in fact, that when my mother came up to Chicago to visit me a few weeks back, I only took her to restaurants that had the “Elise Scott” brand of approval.

Elise knows how flavors fit together.  She also can recognize when even the smallest spice is missing.

Today is Christmas morning, and when we look at our passage from John, it may seem like there is something missing.  When we think about the birth of our Savior, the birth of our Salvation, the birth of our Christian heritage – well, quite frankly we expect to hear something about a birth.

Lutherans follow a standardized pattern of sharing passages of the Bible in worship, something we refer to as the Revised Common Lectionary.  Over centuries, groups of theologians and Biblical scholars organized sections of scripture, or lectionary, to ensure that on definitive days of the year we will read particular passages and share specific stories.

For example, today is Christmas and one suggested lectionary reading is the Nativity story of Jesus’ birth as seen in the middle of Bethlehem.  This is the passage that speaks of Mary, Joseph, and angels.  But in addition to that familiar story, the lectionary also urges us to read the Christmas narrative found in John, a version which doesn’t speak of a baby but instead speaks of a light in the midst of darkness.  This morning, on this most holy of mornings, we have to ask ourselves, why read John’s message?

One of the perks of going to seminary is that you start to notice some patterns.  For instance, the Bible is a big fan of duality.  Take for instance the creation of the world told in Genesis – there are actually two stories.  We have the most commonly recognized Adam and Eve tale, the story where man came first, then animals, then woman being formed from the rib of the man.

While Adam and Eve tend to get the most buzz, there is still another creation story.  This version is drastically different from the story of the famous couple.  Appearing first in Genesis’ layout, this creation story tells us that the world was formed first, next came the animals, ending with the creation of man.

Similarly to the heritage of our creation, the onset of Jesus also has two stories.

For those of us who were here last night, we experienced the better known origin story from combined selections of Matthew and Luke.  This collective version speaks of an angel appearing to Mary, a vision to Joseph, a family on the run to Bethlehem, and then a birth in a stable.

It is a beautiful, very human story that we as people who feel and live and breathe can relate to.  When we read the Nativity version, we can visualize Mary and Joseph smiling down at baby Jesus.  We can smell the hay and see the star blazing in the night sky.  The story ignites all of our senses and aspects of God become anthropomorphic, meaning humanized.  If we listen with our minds close enough, we can hear his divinity speak through the voice of Gabriel.

This anthropomorphic style is often referred to as the Jahwist tradition.  This is the same tradition that wrote the Adam and Eve creation story.  This style is all about relationships, about connecting the reality of our human experience to an abstract concept of God.  The writers of the Nativity story understand that most people relate best to a good story, one where we can smell the hay and see the stars.  Furthermore, writers in early Christian times wanted to connect the Jewish community to the roots of their heritage.  Writing the nativity narrative in the style of the Adam and Eve creation story adds yet another layer on that bridge.

Recognizing that the Bible likes duality and that the writing style of Adam and Eve’s creation story is paralleled to the Nativity origin story, we can further see the style of the other creation story is paralleled to the birth origin seen in John.

Unlike the Jahwist style that is all about the people, the John and first creation story is all about the royal authority of God.  Assumed to be written by spiritual authority figures of the time, this Priestly style emphasizes aspects of God’s nature that are not of this world.  Instead of hoping to appeal to an audience who wants a tangible relationship to God, Priestly writers address an audience who want to know that God is in control and that because of his authority, will be protected.  From a historical perspective, this audience would primarily be groups of people who are oppressed; people who crave that God will step in and intervene on their behalf.

Just as the Jawhists make literary connections between the Nativity and Adam and Eve, the gospel of John similarly pulls on threads of cultural history.  I invite you to look at your bulletin and skim over today’s gospel while I read a few lines Genesis 1.  See if you can notice any similarities between Jesus’ origin story and this first creation story:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Some people may look at the fact that there are different writers appealing to different audiences and think to themselves, “Wow, while our scripture contains the word of God, it also is about writers trying to market to target audiences.”  We obviously have one group of writers speaking to an audience who wants to see, touch, taste and feel Jesus in order to figure out how to live their faith, and we unmistakably have a separate set of writers whose audience wants to live out their faith solely through following God’s authority.

If we were to compare Jesus’ PR found in the gospels to a modern context, which television network would get the better prime time viewership?  Clearly both stations of the story are ultimately telling us the same thing – Jesus is a divine presence on earth – but which station would be accredited as the most accurate?  Which would win the Emmy for journalistic integrity?  Whose platform of communicating information is the one we should build our faith upon?

We celebrate the origin of Jesus’ presence on earth in two different ways because although we are one body in Christ, we are ultimately broken people.

There are some of us sitting here today that have felt the hand of God in a very tangible way within our lives.  When we remember our baptism and taste Christ’s body and blood through communion, we can literally see that the Lord is good.  This goodness helps to guide our choices, and is the gospel of truth helping us to live out our spiritual lives.

There are others of us sitting here today who need for God to step in, or have seen God’s authority directly play out in our lives.  Those of us who relate to divine authority instead of relating to divine humanity are people who believe that our successes and failures are ultimately a result of God’s perfect plan.  God’s ultimate authority is the gospel of truth which helps us live out our spiritual lives.

These two Christmas narratives show us that there are two ways that can experience a relationship with Christ.  While we can argue back and forth about which way of experiencing Jesus is right, which is basically the entire reason why we have denominations to begin with, ultimately our scripture shows us that both ways of experiencing Christ is the right way.  There is no right way or wrong way of knowing Jesus.  It is just important that we know Jesus.

More importantly, we need recognize that the number one reason why some writers appeal to human interest while other writers speak to divine authority is because the essence of Jesus Christ is both.  He is both fully human, and fully divine. He is both Jahwist intimacy and Priestly authority.  He is both cultural heritage and the future of our community.  He was both born in a stable and the light in the night sky.  He died and yet still lives.

He is the perfect blend of flavors, united together in one solitary dish to fulfill the hunger that comes from living in a world of sin and sorrow.  He is the sustenance we need to take the edge off of our cravings of loneliness, greed, lust, gossip and angst.

Because he is both full human and divine, he understands how forces in our human experience tempt us just as he understands the freedom that comes from walking away from our temptations.  What a gift that we have a God who loves us so much that he would come to live a human existence in order to equip us with the skills to travel toward a divine future.

Our mission this morning is to do more than point out that Jesus is the perfect blend of human and divine.  Our mission this morning is to do more than see the gift of Jesus’ birth before us.  Our mission is to open that gift, and allow its presence to transform our hearts and minds into dish worthy of being described as the “perfect blend of flavors.”

But how do we do that?  How do we take the ingredients of love, forgiveness and grace and make it into a meal that will sustain us?  Furthermore, what is the recipe that will nourish those who have never experienced the gospel in a transformative way within their lives, and better yet, fulfill those of us who haven’t experienced that gospel within our own lives?

One of my favorite Christmas carols ever is “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  I used to sing this song over a decade ago when I was a student at Valley Forge High School as a part of our annual holiday concert.  Every time I got to the third verse, I would get goosebumps on my arms.  I have come to learn that when I get that type of goosebumps they are evidence that the gospel is working within my life.  Similar goosebumps were present when I had the transformative realization to head to seminary.

Those goosebumps came from the following words: “What can I give him, poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb.  If I were a wise man, I would do my part. But what I can, I give him – give, give my heart.”

One of the biggest blessings of Christ coming in human form is that we are reminded that Christ remains within our humanity.  That means every person sitting in this sanctuary today is holding a portion of the essence of Christ.  When we ask ourselves, what can I give to become that completed dish God calls me to be today, we should remember that the first ingredient is recognizing that Christ lives inside of our neighbors.

When we pass the peace of Christ to each other in a few moments, we are also passing the peace to Christ.  Allow yourself the ability to experience the goosebumps of God’s nourishment by taking the time to notice Christ within those gathered here today.

As we pass the peace, let us not rush back to our seats so we can get home to our holiday dinner.  Hold your neighbors hand, and in doing so you will be holding Christ’s hand.  Look your neighbor in the eye, and in doing so you will be looking Christ in the eye.

The perfect blend of flavors is not out of reach – it is as near as the person sitting closest to us.  The recipe of living our faith is merely at the end of our pews.  All we have to do is embrace the opportunity to give, give our heart.



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Embrace the Deception

“Embrace the deception, learn how to bend.” – Steve Frank

Last night I finished my last paper of my first semester of seminary.  It has been a long few months of some of the hardest work I have done in my entire life.  The only thing that really got me through finishing my papers this past week has been watching old episodes of “Psych” from the USA network.

It’s rather ironic that I like this show because basically the main character lies all of the time, and there’s nothing I dislike more than a liar.  Steve Frank, the creator, knows how to take a little deception that in other contexts would have you running to the door and transform it into entertainment that has you laughing on the couch while you finish typing up research papers on illuminated gospels, hagiography, and family system issues.

It is ironic that despite my best intentions and my utter distaste for deception, I am intrinsically drawn to people who run the border between lies and truth.

I’m a big fan of transparency.  I need to know what’s going on with others.  I like people to know what’s going on with me.  I think the testament to a trusting relationship is including another person into intimate moments of your life.  Let me be clear, when I say include, I don’t mean give the other person permission to decide how you should react or feel.  Including for me is sharing experiences with the knowledge and trust that the person who you are revealing information to will do nothing more than listen.

The thing is that we don’t really trust people to honor what it is we are revealing.  We think they will dismiss what we say, striking a blow to our humanity that many of us can’t bear to withstand.  This is why we tell half-truths, carefully selecting what will be shared.  This is why we tell little-white-lies, cleverly masking our true feelings with words and phrases that are diplomatically elusive.  This is why we keep secrets.

Some of our reservations are rightly earned.  Too often I have been transparent with people who have not gone that same distance with me.  I have traveled far on the limb thinking someone was walking by my side, only to realize that I was standing alone.  We all at one point or another have walked by ourselves on that limb, and once we realize the risk we have taken we vow never to take that risk again.

If lack of transparency is indeed deception, then we need to learn to embrace the fact that we will be deceived and bend our minds around the possibility that elusiveness may not seem like lies to the person who is eluding us.  To them, it just may be a mode of protection.  We also need to accept that perhaps such deception is formed to embrace the person who can’t be transparent, to shelter them from the fear of that unforseen risk.  As such, we need to bend ourselves around their fear, embracing the person who embraces deception.

This is what Christ’s forgiveness is for us.  It is the encompassing embrace around those of us who deceive because we are fearful to trust, believe, or become transparent.  As Christians we speak often of the single footprints in the sand, God carrying us through the hard times in our lives.  But maybe instead of carrying us, God is embracing us from above, allowing us the room to bend our hearts and minds towards a new way of intimacy with those who surround us.

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“Your words always cut when they’re cliché.  But here’s my knife because I came for the buffet.” – Emery, “Studying Politics”

It is 3am, I have a Greek final in a mere few hours, and yet here I am writing.  There is something really liberating about being called to write all the time, but every once in a while I wish I could get a full nights sleep without words sitting like lead in the pit of my stomach with no end in sight until I get to a keyboard.

Tonight the words all center around ego.  It has dawned on me lately that in many ways we live in a very ego-centric world where we are practically tripping over someones sense of self.  It’s ego that turns a dinner conversation with a friend who is grieving the loss of her grandmother into a conversation all about you.  It is ego when someone writes a poem, posts it on Facebook, and proceeds to say that it only took them a minute to write.  It’s ego for me to publish my thoughts on a blog on the web.  It’s ego that your friend can be poring their heart out to you about something personal in their life and you ask if they are really talking about you.  It is unquestionably ego that a certain Republican presidential candidate mades a YouTube video on “behalf of all Christians” condemning the lives of people whose sexual orientations are outside the stereotypical normative.

In many ways Freud had it right – our relationships are developed by our sense of ego and it is healthy to have a strong sense of one.  But I can’t help but wonder why we accept this part of his philosophy but overlook his more important statement that we need to find balance between both sides of our ego.  We need to own the fact that we are all a bunch of ego maniacs so we can go about being in healthy relationship with one another.

There’s no doubt in my mind that my sense of ego is a driving force in my life.  I would even go so far as to say that my sense of ego is most often healthy.  That being said, ego can be dangerous as soon as we forget that we are constantly in relationship with other people.  Furthermore, our ideas of relationships need to not exist as solitary entities, but rather in communion with other people.  Our ego is worth nothing more than our own self-congratulation if we do not have the intellect to realize that how another see us is usually a bit different then how we see ourselves.

I was reminded of this guy I used to date a million years ago.  He was a person who thought he was wise.  Actually, he was rather wise, but his self-righteousness was so strong that he often seemed foolish.  He had no sense of awareness that his behaviors were overpowering.  He would think a discussion would end because he had won, when actually the discussion would end because his counterpart realized he was too stubborn to approach the conversation objectively.  He constantly was trying to “school” me, offering tokens of wisdom not because he genuinely cared, but more because he wanted me to be aware of how smart he was.  There was one moment when I mentioned that I liked a song that was playing on the radio and he proceeded to tell me that the only reason why I liked that song is because I had low self-esteem.  Ironically, that song was “Self Esteem” by Offspring, not that he was able to step outside of himself long enough to notice that irony.

It’s been at least eight years since I’ve seen him, and now we occasionally share pleasantries on Facebook. If FB is at all a beacon of truth, not much has appeared to change in his life.  A philosophy major, there is rarely any comment or update that isn’t directly related to his PhD.  He’s in a relationship with the same person he’s been with since we broke up, but they’ve never moved things to the next level.  He seems exactly the same, and that makes me sad for him because he always seemed a bit lonely.

I worry a lot about being lonely and am constantly trying to figure out how I can be in deeper relationship with other people.  Maybe that’s because I know the clergy-hood is notorious for being a lonely profession, maybe it’s because of failed relationships in my past, maybe I worry about how to connect with people because I am just a natural worrier.  Who knows?  But I know I cannot be in deep relationships with people if I’m only willing to see a situation from my perspective.

Seeing that YouTube video tonight, seeing that one man speak on behalf of the Gospel in a way I do not subscribe, I was reminded how dangerous an unchecked ego can be.  As baptized children of God we are called to be authority figures, to share our wisdom with others in our lives and community, but we really need to be sure to check ourselves and make sure what our intentions are.  In addition to not assuming that our way is the only way (or more importantly our way is God’s way) we also need to be cognizant that clichéd statements and overused sentimentality are just another expression of our ego.  We drop lines of pleasantry that mean nothing because we can’t stomach the thought that sometimes we are not the primary source of healing.

It’s okay that we don’t have all the answers. It’s also okay that sometimes our egos need to be stroked in order to help reignite the fire that centers us in presenting a true and honest gospel to the world.  Our challenge is to be self-differentiated enough to know when that ego tips the scale to the maniac side, so we can truly be in honest relationship with one another.

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“Rusted wheel, planted still.  Rusted wheel, can’t move on.” – Silversun Pickups, “Rusted Wheel”

My sister Tricia, her two children, Phoebe and Alex, and my mother came up to Chicago this weekend to visit.  Their trip really couldn’t have come at a better time.  Last week had been tough for a long list of reasons – changes as a result of the end of the semester, some changes to my medications, some changes to my tactics on mouse hunting.  I was feeling a bit unsettled.  I love my life here and am so grateful for the friendships and routines I have established here, but it is really hard for a person who needs grounding to feel grounded when everything has a tiny tremor to it.  So to have four of the five most important people in my life come and visit me right when I needed something familiar was the greatest blessing a person could ask for.

I love those kids so much.  Alex, who generally has more than a few trepidations towards me, actually wanted me to carry him instead of his mom.  That is huge.  I don’t think he has every opted for me, ever, and when I picked him up he laughed and laughed, smushing baby kisses into my neck.  Phoebe, who is probably the most observant little girl ever created, is learning the master of small talk.  She’s been asking a lot of questions like, “Are you comfortable?”  “Where do you play at your school’s recess?” (because of course if I’m in school I have recess) and “Do you like chocolate milk, too?”

I also got to have some quality time with my sister.  My mom graciously watched the kids each night so Tricia and I could go out and have grown-up time.  When I was a teenager, I was not the most together person.  At the time when I was ready to get my head on straight there weren’t many ties available for me in my immediate peer group.  It’s not as if the bridges had been burned, per say, but they definitely couldn’t have withstood the weight.  At that time in my life my sister invited me along with her friends, which resulted in me forming  some of the best long-term relationships I have had in my entire life.  It was really special to bring her to meet my new friendships with colleagues who I have no doubt will continue to support me for the rest of my life.  It’s such a great feeling to see a part of your life come to a full circle.

But today as I watched my sister’s car pull away, after telling Phoebe for the trillionth time that I would not be able to make it to her first Christmas concert on Wednesday because I would still be here in Chicago, my heart tore a bit.  I went into my eerily silent apartment, looked at the Play Dough smudges still on my kitchen table, and began to cry.

It’s hard for me to move forward when I know that there is a part of my soul that is moving on in a different direction.  I know growing separately is healthy.  I know it’s important.  There is also a large part of me which longs for that movement.  Even still, it is not a natural feeling for me.  I feel at times a bit like the rusted wheel that is planted into the earth, trying to find the right leverage to lift it from its transfixed place.

Tonight, after I came home from a beautiful lessons and carols holiday celebration at the seminary, I looked on my bookshelf and noticed two books were out-of-place.  When I pulled one book off the shelf, I saw something jammed inside the pages –  a yellow leaf.  My niece had been picking up leaves all over the city, pretending they were little golden flowers.  She must have tried to press them in the pages of my books.  The book I had pulled was a book on symbolism and she had tucked the leaf on the page about Sophia, the personification of wisdom.

In this season of Advent, we speak of Wisdom almost as a person.  We speak about the wisdom of knowing that our transfixed place will become unstuck with the welcoming of Christ into our lives.  We look forward to Christmas not solely to remember that God came into human form, but will come again to free us from the bondage of which we are held captive.  Without even knowing it, my niece reminded me that the nature of this season is feeling a bit stuck, looking forward to the thing that will help us to propel forward in our relationships with God and with each other.  She reminded me of why I’m here in this place at this time, feeling planted still but actually moving forward, and in that recognition, helped me to feel more stable.

Through the innocence of a child pretending that a decaying leaf is a beautiful flower, I got the leverage I needed to rejoice in change.  A rusted wheel can’t move on, but one doesn’t always need a wheel to move forward.  Sometimes, all you need is to open a book and to remember that God places our future before us.

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