The War on Christmas

Image by Silvio Tanaka.  Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image by Silvio Tanaka. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Reblog from Huffington Post

Article by Mark Sandlin

War on Christmas? A war on what Christmas has become? A war on worshiping consumerism in the sacred halls of Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy while the world is swallowed up in the darkness of not having enough food to eat, a place to live, clean water to drink, access to reasonable health care? Sign me up, because I refuse to let the story of my faith be co-opted by corporations who only wish to convince us that we are privileged and we do deserve what we have more than others and we should revel in our abundance even as we celebrate the birth of the child who laid in a feeding trough, who lived his life with no place to lay his head, who told us that “just as you do it unto the least of these so to you do it unto me”, a child who gave up his very life that we might understand what true love looks like.

War on Christmas? Indeed. Where do I sign up?

Click here to read the full article

12 Days of Christmas in Utica

In spite of the indisputable fact that we are currently in the season of Advent (NOT Christmas), I couldn’t resist the urge to share with you this silly song about the city where I began and continue much of my work on the street.

In it, you will find much local cuisine, including turkey joints, which are much more appetizing (and expensive) than they sound.  It would be a merry Christmas indeed if someone were to give me 7 jars of turkey joints.

Also, honorable mention is made of Rainbow, a colorful local character who is known and loved by all.  Friends from Boone, NC and Vancouver, BC will understand what I mean when I compare him to Joshua (Boone) and Ross (Vancouver).  You can’t have a sunny day in Utica without a Rainbow.

Have Yourself A Messy Little Christmas

A little late.

This was the sermon from the fourth week of Advent at First Pres, Boonville.

The text is Luke 1:26-38.

Click here to listen to this sermon at

Did you ever notice that every time you’re going through some major transition in life, especially if you’re getting married, suddenly everyone you meet somehow magically turns into an expert on the subject?  Suddenly, everyone has that one piece of wisdom that’s going to make the whole situation clear.  Suddenly, everyone’s got a PhD in wedding planning, right?  They think they’re so wise and insightful but they almost always end up being obvious and inane: “Make sure the flowers don’t clash with the bridesmaid’s dresses!”  And they all start the same: “One word of advice…”

“One word of advice: don’t pick a DJ who will play ‘Bootylicious’ while your Grandma is still in the room.”

“One word of advice: Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ is not an appropriate song for your first dance.”

Really?  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.

Nobody likes it when people do that, yet everybody still does it.  I’m no exception.  I get to work with a lot of couples as they plan their big wedding day.  And, like everyone else, I’ve got my “one word of advice” for every couple that comes through my office.  I like to think it’s brilliant, but maybe it’s just as annoying as everyone else’s.  It goes like this: “The key to the perfect wedding day is imperfection.”

When I see these shows like ‘Bridezillas’ and ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, it strikes me that a lot of people out there are obsessed with having “the perfect wedding day”.  But here’s the thing: it doesn’t exist.  Something will go wrong.  Count on it.

On the day that Sarah and I got married, we used recorded music and thought we had it timed and coordinated perfectly.  Unfortunately, there was a miscalculation and the music stopped while Sarah was still halfway down the aisle.  What do you do then?  Start over?  “OK everybody, take two!  Back to the beginning.  We didn’t get it right.  Cue bridesmaids!”  No, not really.  You just roll with it.  As long as everybody gets there in one piece and says, “I do,” it counts as a successful wedding.  Everything else is just icing on the cake (no pun intended).

You’ll have to excuse me.  I’ve got weddings on the brain today because today is my anniversary.  Sarah and I got married seven years ago today.  But this idea of imperfection being the key to perfection doesn’t just apply to weddings.  As it turns out, there’s also no such thing as the perfect car, house, job, family, or holiday (especially Christmas).

People tend to get especially funny about this idea of ‘perfection’ around the holidays.  As a society, we’re so doped up on nostalgia during the holidays that we can’t see the forest for the (Christmas) trees.  We sing silent night by candlelight around the sweet little Nativity Scene at church.  Perfect, right?  Actually, no.

Wondrous?  Yes.  Beautiful?  Absolutely.  But not perfect.  This is an important fact to remember whenever we get down on ourselves because our Christmas, our families, or our lives don’t look like what we see in that warm, candlelit manger.  Here’s the thing: those people around the manger didn’t have the perfect Christmas either.  In fact, a close evaluation of the Christmas story itself will show us just how ‘imperfect’ this whole experience really was.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, where God comes to meet us in the middle of the blood, sweat, and tears of our messy and imperfect lives.  When we come to the point of being open to the presence of that mystery in our mess, then we can say that we’ve truly understood the meaning of Christmas.

Let’s look at the biblical text.  Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is usually referred to as ‘The Annunciation’ because this is where the angel Gabriel makes an ‘announcement’ to the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant and will soon have a baby.  Mary is from Nazareth, a little hick town way out in the middle of nowhere that was probably less than half the size of Boonville.  As we’ve mentioned before, the country she lived in was at that time occupied by the Roman Empire.

Living in a society that was hardly ‘empowering’ to women, Mary’s only hope for a secure future lay in finding a good husband and having lots and lots of male children to care for her when she got old.  The price she had to pay in exchange for this security was her body.  She was considered to be the property of her husband.  Her value as a human being was defined by her virginity.  If any man was to make a lifetime investment in her, he would want assurances that he would have exclusive access to her.  Any evidence to the contrary (i.e. getting pregnant before the wedding by someone other than her fiancé) would be grounds for calling off the whole thing.  The next step would probably be a public execution.  Some might even view that as merciful, because it would save her family from shame and spare her from a life on the streets as a beggar or prostitute.

By the way, I should mention that Mary was probably somewhere around 13 or 14 years old while all of this was happening.  I’ll let that sink in for those of you who have ever had young teenagers.  Mary was an unwed teenage mother with no conceivable future from a backward hick town in an occupied country.  Does this still sound like the perfect Christmas to you?

Nevertheless, the angel Gabriel begins their conversation by saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  What kind of opening line is that?  In the midst of all this mess, knowing the scandal she was about to face, how could this angel have the audacity to call her “favored” and say, “The Lord is with you?”  It doesn’t make sense.

We’re not the only ones to notice the absurdity of the situation either.  The text tells us that Mary herself was “perplexed” and asking questions like, “How can this be?”  Her faith was not blind and unquestioning.  She didn’t walk around like some mystical saint with a halo over her head.  Mary was a realist.  She was just as confused as you or I would be in her shoes.

Nothing about her situation made any sense.  The angel’s message went against everything she believed in, morally and theologically.  The angel was asking the impossible.  Yet, as a voice told Mary in verse 37, “nothing will be impossible with God.”  Through the presence of that great divine mystery (which we call “God”) in the messiness her life, Mary encountered infinite possibility and creativity.  “Nothing is impossible.”

Her risky response, “Let it be,” opened her up to actualizing this potential in her own life.  This openness, more than religious dogma or morality, is what real faith is all about.  Are you open to the divine mystery being present in the messiness of your life?  To take the risk of disaster and damnation is to make a leap of faith.  “Let it be” is a statement so bold and so brave that the Beatles even wrote a song about it: “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’”  “Let it be” was her response to the angel’s invitation.  I think John Lennon perhaps understood something of the power in those words.

After Mary had spoken these words, everything was the same yet everything was different.  New life had begun to grow inside of her.  When the time was right, this new life was born into the world: Jesus (Yeshua, salvation, deliverance, liberation).

Celebrating Christmas is about looking for the mystery in the mess.  It’s not about perfection in holiday nostalgia, moral uprightness, or religious dogma.  It’s about saying “Yes” and “Let it be” to the limitless possibilities in front of you.  It’s about staying open to the new life that is waiting to be born in you.

Be open to the angel’s invitation when it comes to you in your messy life.  It might not look like a winged messenger from heaven, but it might show itself in a sudden opportunity to help someone, welcome someone, trust someone, forgive someone, or love someone.  When it happens, you’ll know.  In that moment, say in your heart, “Let it be” and watch new life grow in and be born through you.

Be open to the mystery in the mess.  Embrace the divine possibility in the earthly imperfection and take that leap of faith, saying, “Let it be.”

And have yourself a messy little Christmas.

Internet Heretic Superstar Makes Headlines Again

I’m in the news again (and not in the Most Wanted section).  I had a lovely conversation with Cassaundra Baber from the Utica Observer-Dispatch the other day.  We talked about Christmas and secularization.  The article comes out today.  The only problem is that she told everybody my first name.  Only my mother gets to call me that…

Here’s the link:

Christmas and Reincarnation

Christmas Eve sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

Have you ever met a word nerd?  You know who I’m talking about.  I’m talking about those annoying people who almost always manage to find the most complicated way of saying the simplest thing.  They would rather say, “I would like to annunciate my most sincere benevolent aspirations for your fecundity and longevity in this season of the remembrance of the birth of Christ” when a simple “Merry Christmas” would do just fine.

What do you call that? “Syllable envy?”  If one is good, then six is better.

I readily confess that I am one of those people.  My name is Barrett, and I am a word nerd.  I use this on my students at Utica College all the time.  I get a kick out of talking about “inductive teleological arguments for classical theism” and “epistemic circularity in the evaluation of sense perception.”  Yes, I am a word nerd.  But, as bad as I am, I don’t hold a candle to my wife, who was an English major in college.  Whenever we play games like Boggle or Scrabble as a family, Sarah and I have a house rule that I win whenever I manage to get half her score.

It’s no coincidence that word nerds like Sarah and me also happen to be ministers.  There’s something about this job that attracts word nerds.  Going almost all the way back to the very beginning of Christianity, we ministers have had a knack for taking something very simple and attaching some kind of multi-syllabic monstrosity to it.  Being a word nerd is lots of fun and it makes us sound smart, but it can also cause problems.  We’ve started arguments, split churches, and even fought wars over words.

If you look at tonight’s sermon title, you’ll notice one of those big nerdy words: Christmas and Reincarnation.  “Now, wait a minute,” you might say, “’Reincarnation’?  Isn’t that something that Buddhists and Hindus believe in?  So, why would we be talking about that in church at Christmas?”  Well, you would be right.  Reincarnation, as it’s typically understood, is not a Christian idea.  It typically refers to the belief (often held by most Buddhists and Hindus) that human beings are born over and over again in different bodies throughout human history.  It’s part of their beliefs about the afterlife.  It’s not a belief that has typically been part of the Jewish and Christian religions.  In case you’re still confused, let me put your mind at ease: I’m not using the word “reincarnation” in the Buddhist or Hindu sense of the term.  I’m not talking about the afterlife; I’m talking about this life.

Let me unpack this word in order to explain what I mean:

We start with the prefix Re-.  We all know what this means.  When you “redo” something, you do it again.  TV networks show “reruns” when there are no new episodes to broadcast.  You “repeat” yourself whenever you have to say something for the second time (or third, fourth, or fifth time… for those of us with toddlers or teenagers).  Re- means “again”.

Next, we come to the really meaty part: Incarnation.  Now this is a very Christian term.  It’s one of those nerdy words that ministers came up with in the early days of the Christian church.  The prefix In- is just like our English word “in”.  It means “into” or “inside”.  The next part, Carne, literally means “flesh” or “meat”.  Have you ever had chili con carne for dinner?  It’s chili with meat, right?  So, Incarnation literally means “in the flesh” or “in meat”.

Tonight, as we gather to celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the Mystery of the Incarnation.  Incarnation is the nerdy word that Christians use to describe how special we think Jesus is.  When we look at him, we something special.  To us, he’s more than just a philosopher or a hero.  He’s not just another person.  He’s not even our favorite person.  Christians believe that, somehow, in a way that we will never understand, the great divine and eternal mystery that we call “God” was present in this flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s what we mean when we talk about the Incarnation: God “in the flesh”.  Christians have this two thousand year old hunch that something about the mystery and meaning of life itself was making itself known through this Jesus guy.  We can’t quite put our finger on it, but we can sense it in the things he said and did.  For us, he’s like that missing puzzle piece that makes all the other pieces of life’s puzzle fit together.  When we look at and listen to Jesus, we feel like we can finally see things clearly and make sense of the universe.  That’s why we like to call him “The Light of the World”.

Light is an amazing thing.  Without it, life would be impossible.  The light of the sun warms our planet to the point where organic life can exist.  Plants feed on sunlight through the process of photosynthesis.  Animals eat those plants.  Further up the food chain, humans are nourished by both animals and plants.  So, in an indirect way, we eat light.  Obviously, light also helps us to see clearly and make sense of our surroundings.  We are dependent on light as a basic natural resource.  From Christians, Jesus makes life possible, he nourishes our life, and he helps us to make sense of life and see things more clearly.

There’s a lot of talk about light in the passages from the Bible that we read tonight.  In the beginning, God is present in the darkness and says, “Let there be light.”  In the second reading, Jesus was described as “The true light, which enlightens everyone” that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  In the third reading, we see Jesus in action as “the light of the world.”  What is he doing?  He’s healing somebody!  That should give us a big clue about what it means to be “the light of the world.”

Finally, in the last reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gets really interesting.  He takes this idea of the eternal mystery and the light of the world and turns it back on us.  He says, “You are the light of the world.”  And then he tells people, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

The really neat thing about the Incarnation is that it’s not just something that happened with one guy two thousand years ago.  It happens again and again and again.  God didn’t just happen to pop on down for a visit during Jesus’ lifetime.  God is still here with us.  The light of the world continues to shine.  In the midst of the brutality, chaos, and darkness of this world, the words of John’s gospel still ring true: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

There is still darkness in this world, yet the light of the world continues to shine.  Where?  We don’t see Jesus physically hanging around anymore.  Where is the light of the world?  It’s you.  The light of the world shines in you.  That’s what Jesus said.  “You are the light of the world… [so] let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

When we live as people of love, committing “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”, the light of the world “takes on flesh again” in us.  Did you hear that?  “Takes on flesh again”: Re-in-carnate.

I’m not talking about reincarnation because I believe that people come back to earth again and again after death.  It’s not about life after death; it’s about life before death.  And you don’t get reincarnated at all.  It’s Christ who gets reincarnated in you whenever you love.  Jesus is the light of the world.  You are the light of the world.  That’s what reincarnation has to do with Christmas.

Here’s a cheesy song, but what the hey: It’s Christmas.

Abundance at Christmas

I was in Price Chopper last week and noticed teeny little shopping carts with “Customer in Training” written on the side.  It occurred to me that training was a very appropriate word to use in that situation.  Our entire culture trains us to be good consumers from the time when we are young enough to walk and talk.  We are trained to believe in the power of scarcity.  We are trained to believe that security lies in our ability to take all we can for ourselves in this dog-eat-dog world.  Most of us have been so well-trained that we cannot even imagine society being other than it is.

The radical message of Advent and Christmas is that the way things are is not the way things have to be.  With Christ’s entrance into history, a new world becomes possible.  The life of Jesus demonstrated a deep and personal trust in the sheer abundance of providence.  He dressed like the lilies of the field and feasted like the birds of the air.  In the upside-down economy of heaven, one’s supply of love increases as it is given away.  In the new world that Christ ushers in, power is obtained through service, security through sacrifice, and justice through mercy.  The presence of Immanuel (‘God with us’) is meant to inspire our imaginations into visualizing and actualizing this new reality here and now.  Faith is the measure of our ability to trust the word of Christ over and against the way of the world.  Will we give ourselves over to this faith in the coming holiday season?

As I walked back out to my car after seeing the “Customer in Training” cart at Price Chopper, an SUV pulled into the parking lot with music so loud I could hear the lyrics as I put my groceries into my trunk: “I barely get by!  I barely get by!”

This is the heart-song of our society.  Its message of scarcity, competition, and consumerism trains us to believe that we’re always only “barely getting by”.  So, after a single Thursday of giving thanks, we charge out into the deep darkness of Black Friday, intent to grab all we can before someone else gets it.  Last year, a store employee was trampled to death.  This year, customers used pepper spray on each other.  So desperate are we to fulfill our perceived wants and needs!  So convinced are we that we’re only ever “barely getting by”!

During this Advent and Christmas season, let’s trust in the word of Christ, who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”, according to John 10:10.  We are not “barely getting by”.  We are blessed.  Let’s give thanks by giving back, in whatever way we can, out of the abundance that has been heaped upon us.

The following prayer, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, speaks to me as the prayer of a heart soaked in abundance.  Let this be our prayer as we journey from Thanksgiving, through Advent, to Christmas:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

On Angels

Scene from 'Wings of Desire' (1987). Directed by Wim Wenders.

Here is my first Christmas Eve sermon at my new congregation in Boonville, NY.  The text is Luke 2:1-20.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

What is the first thing you say when you meet an angel?

(Screams loudly)

Most of us are used to what I call the “Hallmark” version of angels: chubby babies with little wings.  These “angels” can be found all over cartoons and greeting cards during this time of year.  Most people are probably also familiar with the lithe and glowing figures that float on clouds and play harps.  This is where we probably get our idea of the word “angelic” from.

But did you notice the first words out of the angel’s mouth in tonight’s gospel reading?  “Do not be afraid”!  In fact, this is the third time an angel shows up in Luke’s gospel and each time, the angel says to a human, “Do not be afraid”.  Why is that?

I think it would make more sense if we understood what an “angel” was to ancient Jews.  When angels appear in the Bible, they’re anything but cute.  In fact, they’re quite fearsome.  They’re described as huge creatures with multiple sets of wings.  They have faces like lions and eagles and oxen and humans.  Lightning flashes around them.  Sometimes they carry massive swords.  Some of them are on fire.  When you think about it like that, it’s easier to understand why the shepherds in tonight’s reading felt more than a little intimidated!

But these angels haven’t come to dole out wrath and judgment.  They have a message to deliver.  In fact, that’s what the word “angel” literally means: “Messenger”.  In verse 10, we read that this particular messenger has come to announce “good news of great joy for all the people”.  And, of course, the angel is talking about the birth of the baby Jesus, who, for Christians, is more than just our favorite philosopher/action hero.  For us, Jesus is “Immanuel”, which means, “God with us”.

Christians believe that God became present to us through Jesus in a unique way.  We don’t claim to know how this happened.  We can’t explain it logically.  All we can do is experience the mystery and try our best to share our experience with others.

That’s what faith is.  Faith is not a dogmatic arrogance that claims to have the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  Faith simply means keeping an open mind toward our experience of the mystery of God’s presence with us.  As a messenger, the angel in tonight’s reading is pointing the shepherds (and us) toward that mystery.

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an actual angel for certain.  I’ve never seen those fearsome, flaming creatures lighting up the heavens with the brilliance of their song: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!  Glory to God in the highest!”  I believe they exist, but I’ve never seen one.  However, I have seen other “messengers” that point me toward the mystery of the divine presence in my life.

I think of creation itself as a kind of messenger (“angel”) that points us toward faith.  Over our heads every night is another kind of “heavenly host” (I’m thinking of the stars themselves).  If we listen with the ears of our hearts, we can hear their song just as clearly as the shepherds heard the angels’ song on the first Christmas Eve.  Psalm 19 tells us:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament* proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice* goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”

One of the Jewish prophets tells us that, not only the stars, but the Earth itself sings a hymn of praise.  This prophet wrote, “the mountains and the hills… shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  When we look at the splendor of creation around us, we can choose to see it as a random collection of atoms and electrochemical reactions or we can choose to see it as the holy handiwork of a loving being who has given it depth and meaning.  Then, I think, we will begin to hear the song of the Earth and the cosmos, singing us back toward the divine mystery that we call God.

Another place where I sometimes think I see messengers (“angels”) is in the people I meet.  God seems to take special delight at getting humans involved in the process of making this world a better place.  I can’t even think of how many times, when I’ve felt down, some friend came along with a word or gesture of affection and support that gave me the strength to keep going through a difficult time.  That’s an experience that most of us have had at some point or another.  In that moment, I think those people can be messengers (“angels”) to us, pointing us back toward faith, hope, and love.  The author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament  advises us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

I remember one such encounter that happened when I was in college.  I was on my way to class one morning when I crossed paths with a young woman on the sidewalk.  We both looked up at the same time and I said, “Good morning”, intending to walk on.  But to my surprise, she stopped and began talking to me!  She told me all about how excited she was to get a letter from a child she sponsored in Latin America.  She was so nice, our short conversation made my day.  A little while later, I remembered that verse from Hebrews, “some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  I had never seen her around campus before.  Could that have been…?  Maybe!

As it turns out, I bumped into her again a few months later and we became friends.  Her name is Cathy and she is very much a human being.  However, our brief meeting on the sidewalk that morning left my mind just a little bit more open to the ways in which God might surprise me in the midst of my everyday life.  To this day, I jokingly refer to Cathy as my “guardian angel”.

As we gather together in this church tonight, we are celebrating the mystery of the divine presence in song, in story, and in candlelight.  These rituals are good because they can help us to sense the presence of this mystery in a concentrated form.  But the real power of Christmas lies in what we take with us into the rest of our year.  As you go out into this Christmas season, I want to invite you to keep an open mind about God.  Pay attention to the love of the people in your life and the beauty of the world around you.  Try to see these things as messengers, angels leading you to embrace the presence of that divine mystery in your life.  As you do so, I pray that you will be able to hear and join in the song of the angels, the saints, the heavens, and the earth: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!  Glory to God in the highest!”