A Blog Post About Music #4

I got tired of making up dumb blog titles like “Yet Still Even More Another Again Blog Post About Music,” so I’ve moved to numbering the posts. Welcome to Episode IV: A New Blog. Or something. Featuring alt rock, alt R&B, baroque pop (whatever that means), hip hop, and pop. Music is the coolest.

1. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams (2014)

My knowledge of The Hold Steady has mostly been focused on their 2006 album Boys and Girls in America, but when I heard a review of their new release on NPR’s Sound Opinions, I decided to check it out. The production is slicker than in the past. The guys at Sound Opinions don’t dig it, and I had my reservations about a sound shaped by producer Nick Raskulinecz, who has worked with Foo Fighters, Evanescence, and Coheed and Cambria (all bands I listened to in high school…but not since), but the quasi-spoken word vocals of Craig Finn set it apart for me. I love the storytelling in their music.


2. Rhye – Woman (2013)

I love the opening track to this album, “Open.” But the whole album is…dreamy, chill, electronic, soulful. The duo’s sound is reminiscent of Sade and speaks to the sensual, the emotional, the human. Check out Rhye.


3. Jónsi – Go Do (2010)

This is an album I’ve pulled back out recently because it just embodies summer joy for me. Jónsi is the lead singer of Sigur Rós, in case this post needed some more hipster points. (I know, I said I was going to stop using that word.) The music on Go Do is danceable, pranceable, whimsical, and uplifting. To me, it sounds like the taste of Arnold Palmers by the pool with friends.


4. Homeboy Sandman – First of a Living Breed (2012)

The fact that Homeboy Sandman released an album called Actual Factual Pterodactyl (2008) is enough to pique my interest. But I didn’t actually know that when I was introduced to First of a Living Breed (2012). He speaks truth thoughtfully through great lyrics and beats. This track, “Illuminati,” hits on everything from technology to race to the War on Drugs to religion.


5. Sara Bareilles – The Blessed Unrest (2013)

Honestly, I haven’t really gotten into this album. I LOVE Sara Bareilles–girl can SING, and I have the words to the entirety of both Little Voice (2007) and Kaleidoscope Heart (2010) memorized. But even after a few listens, The Blessed Unrest just hasn’t grabbed me yet. The obvious exception is the opening track, everybody’s favorite, the totally danceable, perfect for running or a self-esteem boost, “Brave.” You can’t not smile watching the music video for this song (which, I recently learned, was directed by Rashida Jones).

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Untying My Shoes for Lent

When I was a kid, I never untied my shoes. I’d come in from running around outside, probably playing softball or traipsing through the woods or doing something equally tomboyish, and rather than bend over to undo the laces, I’d step one foot on the heel of the other and yank my foot out of my shoe.

My mom would warn me that this was going to make my shoes wear out faster, but I didn’t care. It’s not like I was having to pay for the shoes when they needed to be replaced.

You’d think that this habit would have changed once I reached adulthood and shoes became a budget line item. It didn’t. To this day I am still more likely to try and treat my sneakers like slippers, squeezing my feet in and out of them with that bow still double-knotted.

But this year, I am untying my shoes for Lent. Not because it’s probably better for the photoshoes or because it ensures I’ll have my laces tied properly for best support when I go running, though those are good enough reasons in themselves. I’m untying my shoes for Lent because the reason I usually don’t do it is that I don’t have time.

This, of course, is a lie. Untying my shoes takes less than 30 seconds. Unless there is a wild animal chasing me (in which case I’d probably want to leave my shoes on) or someone shooting at me (same idea) or I’m on my way to save someone’s life (really, why am I taking my shoes off at all?!), I have time to untie my shoes.

When I get stressed or anxious, I can get so panicked about how little time I have that I don’t use that time well, or I forget to take care of myself, or I am short with other people. To say, “Yes, I do have time to untie my shoes” is also to say, “Yes, I do have time to complete all the tasks before me (or to ask for help in doing so),” or, “Yes, I do have time to eat well, pray, do laundry, clean my room, and get enough sleep,” or, “Yes, I do have time to give this person my full attention and respect.”

In Lent, we sanctify time and reclaim it. We enter into a period of waiting for something that has already happened but somehow has yet to be realized fully. And so I am sanctifying and reclaiming my time, slowly but surely, in 30-second chunks.

Every time I pause and bend down to untie my shoes, I hope to remember that the God of time is also the God of abundance and love, and that it is that God, and not time itself, that rules my life.

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This sermon was preached on February 23, 2014 at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, on Luke 4:14-21.

Simon says raise your right hand.

Simon says put your right hand down.

Simon says raise your left hand.

Simon says put your left hand down.

Simon says raise both hands.

Put both hands down.

If you just put your hands down, I hate to tell you—but you are out of the game.

To refresh everyone’s memory, “Simon Says” is a children’s game where one person is designated the leader, or “Simon.” Simon gives directions for the group to follow, but each instruction has to start with the phrase “Simon says.” If the leader gives an order without saying “Simon says,” the other players are not supposed to mimic the action. If they do, they are out.

Today, we kick off our study of Mike Slaughter’s book Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus. As we prepare for and enter into the season of Lent, small groups and Sunday School classes at Centenary will be reading and discussing this book. Each week for 6 weeks, a different word will guide our study: Follow. Welcome. Feed. Heal. Rescue. Go.

We start with “Follow.” I chose to begin by playing “Simon Says” because it is a game of following. But it’s about more than that. In “Simon Says,” if you follow directions without paying attention, you will make a mistake. “Simon Says” isn’t just about following; it’s about listening.

In the church, we talk a lot about following Jesus. And we should. That’s what we are called to do: follow Jesus.

But in order to follow Jesus, we first have to listen to him. Otherwise, we might look up one day and find ourselves following something other than Jesus—money, politics, ambition, career, you name it. We might end up following something that seems good—morality, religion, a pastor, even Christian values—but following any one of these things is not the same as following Jesus.

The passage we just heard from Luke 4 marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, and he comes to his hometown to begin preaching, teaching, and healing.

Mike Slaughter says that this passage defined Jesus’ mission, and it defines our mission, too. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. 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.”

Many passages of Scripture lend themselves to different interpretations, and so I am wary of any sentence that starts with the phrase “The Bible clearly says…” But the Bible is clear on a few things, and this is one of them. Mike Slaughter puts it this way: “The gospel is good news for the poor. If it is not working to benefit the poor and oppressed, then it is not the gospel!”

Jesus goes to bring good news to the poor. And then Jesus says, “Follow.”

If we are listening to Jesus, we will notice that here, he does not say, “Follow me to get into heaven.” Modern Christianity tends to be obsessed with personal salvation, with getting into heaven. Salvation is important, of course, but it is not all about getting fire insurance for your soul, so to speak.

While we are scrambling to make sure we know where we’re going when we die, Jesus is asking us to notice first where we’re going while we live. Jesus ascended into heaven only after he had descended to this world, after he had gone to bring good news to the poor.

In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell says this: “A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it.” If we focus only on heaven later, we miss our opportunity to taste and realize heaven now. Mike Slaughter says, “We have overemphasized getting people into heaven to the neglect of getting heaven into earth.”

Since last September, we as a congregation have held up a simple but profound question: “Are you hungry?” The answer has been a resounding yes. We—and our neighbors—are hungry—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally.

As we have explored the many dimensions of hunger, we have talked about prayers, presence, gifts, and love, and in the month of February, our theme has been reverence. What does it mean to be reverent, to be holy, before a God who is holy?

When we talk about holiness, we tend to focus on personal holiness—our own morality and piety. This is part of holiness, but it goes far beyond that. We cannot be holy on our own. We can only be holy together. This is why John Wesley said, “The gospel of Christ knows…no holiness but social holiness.”

There is a story of a man who had stopped going to church and was spending most of his time alone in his house. The pastor went to visit him and found him sitting by a fire. The man welcomed him, and the pastor came in and had a seat but said nothing. As they sat, the pastor moved to the fire, took a pairs of tongs and removed a single ember. He set it off to one side of the hearth.

In a matter of minutes, the ember’s glow faded, and it grew cold while the fire blazed on. The man turned to the pastor and said, “Thank you for that sermon. I’ll see you on Sunday.”

We cannot be holy on our own. We can only be holy together—together not just with the people in our church but with all of God’s children. Jesus says, “Follow”—and he says it to all of us, together.

This is what I want you to think about when we get into our Lenten theme of service. We serve one another because we need each other, because we are called not to get into heaven but to get heaven into earth.

We are called to service, we should be careful not to forget who the real savior is. The real savior is not morality, religion, a pastor, or Christian values, and it is certainly not us. Slaughter’s book calls us to change the world, but we can only do that in the same way Jesus began his ministry—“by the power of the Spirit.”

We are called to service, but we are not the savior. Jesus is. All we do is follow and show the way. As D. T. Niles put it, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”

Lilla Watson is an indigenous Australian activist, and she said one of the most compelling and challenging things about service that I have ever heard. Here is what she said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Our liberation is bound up with the liberation of the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed, because we are all just beggars looking for bread. If we serve our neighbor because we think we have something to give, because we think we can help, because we want to make them more like us—we are wasting our time. But if we serve our neighbor because we believe that the only way we can be saved is to be saved together, then, perhaps, we have begun to follow Jesus.

Remember when we played “Simon Says” earlier? Have you ever wondered how that game got started? Apparently it goes back centuries, millennia even. It refers to a saying about Cicero, a Roman politician and orator from the 1st century BCE.

The saying went like this: Cicero dicit fac hoc, or “Cicero says do this.” Cicero was such a powerful person that if he said to do something, you just did it.

What if, when Jesus said to do something, we just did it?

One of my favorite saints is St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant, but when he became a Christian, he renounced his family’s wealth. He went down into the valley to meet Christ in the poor and the outcast, becoming poor and outcast himself.

When Francis heard Jesus say, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor,” he thought that Jesus actually meant it. Francis is my favorite Biblical literalist. Jesus said it, and Francis just did it.

Jesus goes to the poor in a city ranked the worst in the country for childhood food insecurity. Jesus goes to the captives in a country that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Jesus goes to the blind and the oppressed, to the disabled, the marginalized, the addicted, the vulnerable, the outcast.

Jesus goes to each one of us, and Jesus says, “Follow.”

Are we listening?

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Yet Another Blog Post About Music

Something I’ve known for a long time is that people judge other people based on their musical tastes. I totally do this. But I also think we (or maybe it’s just me?!) have way more anxiety about that than is necessary. Today, I am making a commitment to myself that I am going to stop apologizing for liking the music that I like, stop worrying about whether people are going to make assumptions about me based on what I listen to, and just sing and dance.

Here’s what I’ve been singing and dancing to lately. There are a lot, because I haven’t done a post like this in a while, AND I’ve been listening to more music lately:

1. Dessa - A Badly Broken Code (2010) and Parts of Speech (2013)

Dessa is a spoken word artist and singer out of Minneapolis. She is part of the indie hip-hop collective Doomtree but also does solo work. Her two albums I’ve been listening to are different in that A Badly Broken Code features more of her spoken word and rap, while Parts of Speech is more singing. But she’s excellent at both. I found her music through my boyfriend, who used to do hip hop production in Minneapolis, and he said when she was coming up, what struck people about her was that she didn’t try to play the tough guys’ game of hip hop and just was herself–femininity, emotions, and all. Favorite tracks are off the newer album–”Call Off Your Ghost” and “Skeleton Key.” The lyrics video for the latter is below, and pretty darn cool.

2. Becca Stevens Band - Weightless (2011)

I started listening to Becca Stevens maybe a year or so ago when some musician friends, including her cousin, pointed me to her album Weightless. Becca is a Winston-Salem native now living in New York. I was immediately captivated by her voice and the unexpected intricacy, beauty, and musical complexity of her compositions and arrangements. Becca’s training is primarily in jazz, and it shows in her unique vocal, instrumental, and compositional style. I had the pleasure of seeing her band play at the Triad Music Festival last weekend, and it was mind-blowing. Becca’s voice is angelic, and she plays ukulele, guitar, and another stringed instrument whose name I don’t know. Besides her startling originals, Becca and her band (which includes at times accordion, keyboard, bass, cajon, and percussion) do some incredible cover songs from artists like Joni Mitchell, Frank Ocean, The Smiths, Usher, and more. She’s got a new album coming out soon, and I cannot wait.

3. The Amigos - Diner in the Sky (2014)

At my church, I help lead Roots Revival, a worship service grounded in Americana/roots-based music. Part of what we do is host a free community concert series (blog forthcoming on the rationale behind that and why it’s awesome). We’ve brought in national-level artists like Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jonathan Byrd, and Dar Williams. Our first concert of 2014 featured The Amigos (“Hot American Folk Music”), whose guitarist is from the area, and folk legend David Holt. The Amigos were days away from releasing their latest album, Diner in the Sky, and they put on an incredibly fun and energetic show featuring a number of the tracks. Their style blends country, zydeco/cajun, and jazz for a broader representation of Americana than we often achieve. Favorite tracks include the upbeat “Katie” and the thoughtful “More Than Friends.”

4. Wye Oak – If Children (2008) and Civilian (2011)

Wye Oak is an indie folk rock duo out of Baltimore. I was drawn to them because of the female vocals (a common theme in my musical selections of late as I try to broaden my own songwriting horizons and influences) and the broad, sweeping, almost ambient quality to their sound. Favorite tracks include “Civilian” and “Holy Holy.”

5. Chris Velan - Solidago (2009) and Fables for Fighters (2011)

Since I don’t pay attention, I didn’t realize until just now that Chris Velan has a new album out, The Long Goodbye–so I’ll have to check in out. In the meantime, I can vouch for Solidago and Fables for Fighters. Since Roots Revival (mentioned in #3) is a primary vehicle for me learning new music lately, it is unsurprising that 5 of the next 4 artists I’m sharing came to me through that. We’ve used several of Chris’s songs in worship–”Same Clothes” and “May Your Soul Get to Heaven.” We’re working on bringing him in for our concert series, but the point is, his music is fun and thoughtful, and you should check it out. Other favorites besides the songs I just named are “Pauper in a Palace” and, unsurprisingly, “Sara.”

6. Dar Williams - The Honesty Room (1994), Mortal City (1996), and In the Times of Gods (2012)

Dar Williams is not new to me–I grew up on The Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, etc. But when we had her come to perform at our Roots Revival concert series, I gained a whole new appreciation for her as an artist and a person. We did a brief Advent service around her wonderful song “The Christians and the Pagans,” which is a favorite. She came out for a drink with us afterward, which was amazing, and we got to have conversation with her about religion, gender, society, politics, the environment, and more. I started listening to her old album Mortal City for the NOT guilty pleasure of how delightfully 90s it sounds, particularly the opening track, “As Cool As I Am,” which I love. But that album also has the gut-wrenching “February,” which we’re using in worship in a few weeks. Another favorite track (from The Honesty Room, which is worth several listens on its own) is “When I Was a Boy,” and her latest album, In the Time of Gods, includes “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything,” which is a beautiful portrait of the god Zeus as a mother (and a song we’re also using in worship soon). Enjoy this album, which oozes 90s (which I love).

7. Kelley McRae - Brighter Than the Blues (2013)

I warned you that Roots Revival features as an influence on my music…in any case, we used Kelley McRae’s beautiful and heartbreaking song “Johnny Cash” in worship one week, and several months later I saw that she was playing at a local venue, actually opening up for some friends of mine. I showed up and got to talk to her for a bit–the conversation started with the awkward “So, this is really random, but the reason I know your music is that I’m a pastor and we have this weird worship service and…”. She gave me the best response to my vocation I’ve ever gotten: “You’re a pastor? That’s rad!” Kelley’s performance was beautiful and soulful, and her album Brighter Than the Blues is country/folk/Americana to the core.

8. Lorde - Pure Heroine (2013)

No, we haven’t used Lorde at Roots Revival…yet. I first heard the now ubiquitous “Royals” because my girlfriends back in Durham defaulted to Kate Nash Pandora for gatherings and housecleaning (because we’re grownups), and that track would pop up every now and then. Once it exploded, I looked into the teenager behind it and discovered that I liked it. Lorde’s style is hip-hop/pop in a way that pushes me out of my defaults, and I love the minimalist instrumentation that stands back to let her layered vocals take the lead. Favorite tracks besides the obvious include “Glory and Gore” and “Tennis Court.” To prove that creepy and beautiful can (uncomfortably) coexist, here is a video of a giant, sad clown singing “Royals.”

9. Mipso - Dark Holler Pop (2013)

One last Roots Revival reference. We brought NC natives Mipso in as our musical guests back in November, primarily because the bass player is nephew to one of our regulars. We vetted their music ahead of time, of course, but I’ll admit I didn’t listen to them much–which meant I was in for an awesome surprise when they got there. These guys bring talent, energy, and great songwriting together for a pop/folk/newgrass sound that is as fun to watch live as it is to listen to, if not more. Their album Dark Holler Pop is good front to back, and my favorite track is “Couple Acres Greener,” and a funny one is “Sorry All the Time” from their previous release, Long, Long Gone.

10. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels (2012)

On a completely different note, I put this one last in part because LANGUAGE WARNING. Run the Jewels is a collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike. I got to see them live, and it was amazing. The energy in the room was incredible. I actually had a spiritual moment at one point in the show, which I even talked about in a sermon that I submitted with my ordination papers (we’ll see how that goes over). No favorite tracks, just the whole album.

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Where Is the Child?

This sermon was preached on January 5, 2014 (Epiphany Sunday) at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.

The movie begins with the sounds of choir and strings. The music soars as the first scene starts: three men in elaborate dress are riding camels down a road. The men reach their destination, and the majestic music fades away as they step into a stable where a mother sits beside a sleeping baby.

What begins as a familiar scene to anyone who has ever heard the Christmas story quickly becomes…something else entirely.

First, they startle the mother so badly that she falls over. When she picks herself up, she asks sharply, “Who are you?”

The men reply, “We are three wise men.”

“What?” says the mother.

“We are three wise men.”

“Well,” she snaps, “what are you doing creeping around a cow shed at two o’clock in the morning? That doesn’t sound very wise to me.”

Even before this scene descends into total absurdity, it quickly becomes clear that the wise men have come to the wrong place. This baby is not Jesus; this is Brian. Brian, in the irreverent comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is mistaken for the Messiah throughout his life, with hilarious consequences.

As soon as the wise men realize their mistake, they take their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and go a few stables over, where angelic halos illuminate a much more obviously holy family.

Although this scene is intended as nothing more than a comical spoof on part of the Scripture passage we just heard, it gets one thing right: the wise men originally went to the wrong place. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but the wise men go to Jerusalem.

To be fair, they’re only off by a few miles, but still. Was the star having technical difficulties? Did their astrological GPS lose signal and have to recalculate?

I wonder if they wound up in Jerusalem based more on an assumption. They were looking for the King of the Jews, after all—where else would they go but to the City of David?

They arrive at the seat of political and religious power, but they do not find the Messiah.

Now, history tells us that the wise men probably arrived when Jesus was about 2 years old and actually went to Nazareth, but for the moment, we may still remember that if the wise men tried to make the trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, they would hit a wall—literally—where the Israel West Bank Barrier divides Israel from Palestine.

Bethlehem is not the royal city. But the Gospel of Matthew paraphrases the prophet Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). The Messiah comes out of the little clan—not out of the seat of political and religious power.

We can forgive the wise men’s confusion. They were looking for a king, so they went to the capital. When you are seeking a child, a manger is probably not the first place you would look.

The wise men do get one thing right, though: their gifts. They give Jesus gold, fit for a king; frankincense, an incense offered to a God; and then—myrrh. This gift is a little more awkward but no less appropriate. Myrrh is an embalming oil. What a morbid gift to give to a child.

The wise men could not have known what was coming, but we do today. We know that this child grew to become a man. And we know how that man died.

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, wonders if the wise men had gotten some of what was in store for the child. He imagines how uncomfortable that would have been for them. He says this, writing from the point of view of one of the wise men:

“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest. And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?”

The wise men asked, “Where is the child?” But when they found him, much more was demanded of them than what they expected. So it is with all of us when we seek God.

Have you seen these bumper stickers that say, “Wise men still seek him”? It’s a play on words, but the idea is that just as the wise men sought Jesus, so too are we called to seek him today.

But seeking God is not something we accomplish. It is something that God accomplishes in us. When we say “Wise men still seek him,” we need to remember first and foremost, “God still seeks us.”

The Bible calls us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), to seek the Lord while he may be found (Is. 55:6), to draw near to God (Jas. 4:8), to ask, “Where is the child?”

But there is an older question than “Where is the child?” It is one that God has been asking us since Adam hid from him in the garden of Eden. The question God asks us is this: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).

That beloved hymn doesn’t say, “God once was lost, but now I’ve found him”—it says, “I once was lost, but now am found.” We are found. We seek God, but even our seeking is part of God seeking us.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed in what he called prevenient grace, the grace that goes before us. He said that grace works in us before we even know it, and it is grace alone that allows us to follow Christ. We talk about searching for God, but when Abraham Joshua Herschel wrote his Philosophy of Judaism, he called it God in Search of Man.

Saint Augustine of Hippo said this: “The Lord who had created all things is himself now created, so that he who was lost would be found.” God’s seeking went so far as to come down to earth and dwell among us, to be born and live and die and rise again, so that the lost would be found.

Whenever we reach out for God, we can be sure that it is because God has already reached out to us. Wise men still seek him, but more importantly, God still seeks us. I once was lost, but now am found. Amen.

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This sermon was preached at a Roots Revival Wednesday evening service at Centenary United Methodist Church (Winston-Salem, NC) on December 11, 2013. Roots Revival is a worship service grounded in Americana/roots-based music featuring Martha Bassett and friends. We used Patti Griffin’s “Mary” and the Advent carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” to talk about Luke 1:46-55.

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:46-55

One Christmas, Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz was on a busy street in Toronto. The city was bursting with holiday spirit, everyone bustling around in their shopping and partygoing.

Something caught Timothy’s eye, and it wasn’t a Christmas display. It was a homeless person wrapped in a sleeping bag, lying asleep on the corner of the street.

Timothy said he couldn’t tell if it were a man or a woman, and yet he had a moment of instant recognition. Surrounded by a swirl of people caught up in the season of celebrating Christ’s birth, Timothy saw this huddled mass and thought—“That is Jesus.”

This experience inspired him to create several bronze sculptures of Jesus, but not in the traditional representations we see of Christ in glory. One of Timothy’s works depicts Jesus asleep on a park bench, wrapped in a blanket, identifiable only by the scars on his exposed, bare feet. Another shows a similar figure sitting, hunched over, one hand extended, a hole in the palm.


Just this past week, one of the statues was stolen—and then returned a week later with a sorry note. Only in Canada.

Timothy knows that his work is provocative, and some even find it offensive. Critics say that only more traditional images of Jesus should be acceptable. They say it is disrespectful to represent Jesus this way.

This is pretty offensive to homeless people, but I’m sure many of us would have a visceral reaction to Timothy’s work, and we might not like it.

There is a disconnect between our usual image of Jesus and the message of Advent and Christmas. At Christmas, we like to see the fresh-faced baby Jesus in the manger, haloed and cooing while Mary and Joseph glow with parental joy.

It is right to see the profound beauty of the nativity scene, but let’s not forget the real story. Mary and Joseph were far from home. They had been turned away from an inn where there was no room for them. They were sleeping in a barn—can you imagine what it smelled like?

Mary, you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stains

Remember that Mary was young—14 at the most. She was barefoot and pregnant, staring down the risks of childbirth in the ancient near east, supported by a man who stayed with her only because an angel had told him to.

And yet, she sings: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Mary is vulnerable. When she sings to God about her lowliness, she is not spiritualizing this category. Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says this: “‘Lowliness’ is not simply a mental attitude (‘humility’) but an objective condition: like those enumerated in her song, Mary occupied a position of poverty and powerlessness in her society.”

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Last week, a remarkable rumor came out of Rome. A Vatican official hinted that Pope Francis has been sneaking out at night. Now, before you imagine His Holiness as a teenager climbing out of the window of his parents’ house, we aren’t talking about him going off to drink with his buddies or crash a party. The speculation is that the Pope has been sneaking out at night to give alms to the poor.

Here at Centenary, as at many churches, there has been a debate going on about how to observe Advent—or really, whether to observe it. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas, and it is a season of expectation. In the church calendar, the Christmas season actually starts on December 25, not on December 1 or November 1 or whatever ungodly date the mall has decided on this year.

Sometimes us pastors can come off as Scrooges when we invite our churches to observe Advent, because we ask people to save “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” until Christmas Eve. It’s a difficult tension to navigate—this is the time of year when people who have been away come back to church. People want to sing the carols of the season, and we should do so—Mary sang to the Lord before Jesus was born, after all.

But for me personally—for me spiritually—it has been painful to feel like we have lost Advent. Because in Advent, I believe, we find the true meaning of Christmas. The lords can leap and the ladies can dance and the maids can milk and those swans can keep right on swimming, but there are still people walking in darkness who need to see a great light. Israel is still captive and in need of ransom. Jesus is still very much long-expected. The powerful are getting Christmas bonuses while lowly are asleep on park benches, the hungry are emptier than ever and the rich are very, very full. And right in the middle of the mess, a child is born.

When Mary sings the Magnificat, she identifies herself with the lowly, the oppressed, the poor. There was no room for her and Joseph. There was no room for Jesus. Is there room for him today?

Thomas Merton, a great Catholic mystic and writer—who, by the way, died 45 years ago yesterday—said this about the birth of Jesus:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst… It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.”

In the lowly, the hungry, the ones for whom there is no room—this is where we find Christ at Christmas. If Pope Francis is really sneaking out at night to give to the poor, I would argue that he is not doing so in order to be Christ—he is doing so in order to meet Christ.

Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest School of Divinity, said in a recent article that the Blessed Virgin Mary scares him. She makes him think twice about going to the mall to do his Christmas shopping, because she makes him aware of the injustices in our world and of all the ways his life does not align with the vision of God’s kingdom.

And yet, Leonard is grateful for this fear he experiences when confronted with a teenage girl. He says this: “In a country where one of five children goes hungry every day, we’ve got our work cut out for us ‘filling the hungry with good things.’ If Mother Mary is right, we won’t have peaceful hearts until we do. Scary, thank God.”

The last hymn we’ll sing tonight is an Advent hymn that I love. The first verse goes like this:

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

I am very excited that this is the first year I have a full-sized Christmas tree. It has lights and ornaments and everything. There are stockings above my fireplace, a Moravian star in the window, and various other seasonal decorations popping up around my house.

But I like to sing that verse of “People, Look East” metaphorically as well as literally. When we decorate our homes, we are usually preparing for guests—for holiday parties, for family coming to town, for Santa.

But Advent isn’t just for preparing our homes—it’s for preparing our hearts. Heck, there’s even a Christmas hymn about that—“Let every heart prepare him room.

How are you making room for Jesus in your homes and in your hearts this year?

On the first Sunday of Advent, I joined dozens of pastors and church members from many different congregations across the street at the Loaves and Fishes community ministries building. There, we sang, read Scripture, reflected, and shared. We walking down Fifth Street to First Baptist Church, then back around to Augsburg Lutheran Church, doing the same at each spot. We ended our circuit of prayer and blessing back at Loaves and Fishes, where we broke bread together—turkey sandwiches in paper lunch sacks, to be exact.

What was this all about? This was a service of blessing for the downtown overflow homeless shelter. On December 1, the first Sunday of Advent, First Baptist and Augsburg Lutheran opened their doors to men and women for whom there is no room on these cold nights. Every night from now until March 31, a little room will be made for Jesus in the form of the lowly and the hungry of Winston-Salem.

You can be a part of that. We need volunteers to help with check-in, to provide meals, to stay overnight, and more. You can meet Jesus in the gym at First Baptist as surely as you can meet him at the manger.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.

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The Christians and the Pagans

This sermon was preached at a Roots Revival Wednesday evening service at Centenary United Methodist Church (Winston-Salem, NC) on December 4, 2013. Roots Revival is a worship service grounded in Americana/roots-based music featuring Martha Bassett and friends. We welcomed pop/folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams as a special musical guest in our Roots Revival Stage concert series and built an abbreviated service around her song “The Christians and the Pagans.”

It’s December, and you know what that means: time to talk about the War on Christmas. Time for Christians to wring our hands over the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays!” Time to raise the alarm about creeping secularization.


Since we live in a visual culture, the popular evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans posted a handy-dandy flowchart to help us navigate this perennial problem. It starts with one question: “Did someone threaten your life, safety, civil liberties, or right to worship?” If the answer is “Yes,” you are being persecuted. If the answer is “No,” you can proceed to the next question: “Did someone wish you ‘Happy Holidays’?” If the answer is “Yes,” you are not being persecuted. If the answer is “No,” you are still not being persecuted.

I know that’s snarky, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a waste of energy to get worked up about someone saying “Happy Holidays!” That energy would be far better spent combating childhood hunger or economic inequality or our consumer culture—if there is a war on Christmas, I think it has more to do with consumerism and economic injustice than anything else.

Part of what bothers me about the “War on Christmas” conversation is that it shows that we feel afraid and threatened. But—of what? Why do we feel like “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christianity instead of an attempt at being inclusive?

Our society is more and more pluralistic and diverse, and that troubles some people. We want to make sure our faith isn’t being swayed by society or tainted by secular influences.

But we forget that the celebration of Christmas as we know it today is full of secular influences. That Christmas tree in your living room is not Christian, it’s pagan. The date of Christmas was not determined by the exact day Jesus was born; it was established to coincide with the Roman holiday of the winter solstice.

Even in the Bible, pagans are an integral part of the nativity story. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ genealogy includes 4 women—which is scandalous enough on its own, but to make matters worse, none of them are of Jewish descent. And then the wise men, the magi—they probably came from what we know today as Iraq, and they certainly were not Jewish. The first people to acknowledge and respond to Jesus as king were pagans.

Reflecting on the story of the magi Jennifer Hockenbery reminds us that Christianity itself has roots in different traditions. The Gospels have Greek, Roman, and Jewish influences. Christianity is the product of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

This might make some people nervous. We are talking about truth, after all. Truth, this thing that seems so absolute, is suddenly called into question when we encounter people with different truths. We are tempted to fight back and protect our truth.

But truth is not a weapon. Truth is a gift.

A gift is to be received and shared and accepted—or not. Some people worry that learning about other faiths will distort or destroy their own, but that has not been my experience. In any genuine interfaith encounter, I come away feeling more rooted in my own faith, not less. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.”

Now mind you, I’m not saying that we should focus only on what we have in common and ignore our differences. That does no one any good and is, in fact, dishonest. True interfaith dialogue occurs when people start by speaking their own truth—remembering that it is a gift to be shared and not a weapon to be wielded. Martin Luther King Jr.said, “Unity has never meant uniformity.” We can find common ground and acknowledge our differences at the same time.

I am a stronger Christian for the Jews who have taught me about my religion’s ancestry, for the Muslims who have challenged my spiritual practices, for the Buddhists who have modeled stillness for me, and sometimes most of all for the pagans and atheists who have questioned the most basic assumptions of my faith.

The celebration of Christmas is not about saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays!” It is about remembering that God came into this world and became one of us, in all our complexity and diversity and messiness and beauty.

So what do we do with all of this?

Well, we sing. We sit together at a table. We find faith and common ground.

And only pumpkin pies are burning.

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