Articles By Norm Barr

January 13, 2019 – Epiphany 1

Update By: Norm Barr
Date: January 15, 2019

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 13, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays

It’s not easy having high standards. My parents had very high expectations of me all through school, where anything less than an A was a crisis and anything that might distract me from getting those A’s was discouraged, postponed, or forbidden. And while I have no fondness for those years, I also can’t deny they have paid off in some ways. I hold myself to high standards of priestcraft, and I try to keep learning, keep bettering myself, and I also have special empathy for those who are pushed, or who push themselves, hard. Maybe some of you can relate.
But there are certainly lingering downsides. I still acutely regret mistakes I made years ago, in some cases, mistakes that others have forgotten or didn’t care about in the first place. Like when one of my seminary classmates was making a humorous video about campus life. One of our professors was notoriously soporific and my classmate caught me on video nodding off in his class. I had no idea until he screened it for the whole seminary. Everyone else loved that moment, because they all had felt the same way, and even the prof didn’t mind, but obviously, it still bothers me.
One of the reasons Scripture is so powerful is that the stories tend to both reward close study and to spark the reader’s imagination. These stories draw us in, and while they absolutely preserve epic events and colorful personalities, almost paradoxically, these stories also lead us to imagine ourselves in the story, or consider the story in light of our own experiences, and so teach us not only about our forebears, but also about ourselves.
Take John the Baptist. While I wouldn’t last an hour in the Judean desert without an air-conditioned tour bus, I can identify with his deep sense of call, his determination to proclaim God’s message to a world that doesn’t necessarily want to hear it, his zeal to reach and welcome and heal all souls, and the expectations to which he answered. I know that whenever a relatively young priest is called to serve a parish, the hope is always that he or she will spark growth and single-handedly restore the place to its glory days. John the Baptist was lucky; people only expected him to be the Messiah.
But I’m not, and neither was John, which he was also only too ready to confirm. Jesus appears in today’s story with perhaps the greatest introduction in history. John the Baptist, who was so great that faithful people thought he could be the Messiah, and a tyrannical king considered him an imminent threat to his regime, said that Jesus would be far, far greater than himself. “One who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” But hey, no pressure.
Jesus faced wildly high expectations even before you remember that his parent is literally God. I thought I had a lot to live up to. And like a lot of people brought up under high expectations, he begins his public life with a gesture of inadequacy. He undergoes what we call the “baptism of John,” that is, not the Christian rite of baptism which is all about God’s unconditional love for us, but rather, a ritual of public contrition, repentance, and cleansing. John’s baptism was a ritual of public penitence associated with the most notorious sinners of the day, oppressors and traitors.
Lots of mediocre sermons have focused on why Jesus “had to” be baptized; I might have even written one or two. (Of course, they weren’t good enough.) But another way of looking at this event is to say that in a sense, Jesus didn’t have to be baptized. Earlier Christians placed much more weight on the baptism of Jesus because of the way it complements or reflects his crucifixion. These events are the beginning and the end of Jesus’s public ministry. Just as Jesus was both sinless and had no capital case against him, and was therefore the person who least deserved to be crucified, so too does his sinlessness render him the least appropriate candidate for public contrition. Not only was he without sin, he was also unknown to the world. Both rituals would have been considered humiliating by the general public, yet to those who know Jesus they reveal his deep humility. And both revealed just how profoundly loving God is.
Dr. Sheila Klassan-Wiebe notes that St. “Luke is not concerned about why Jesus was baptized, however, nor is it important who baptized him.” She points out that Luke doesn’t explicitly say that it was John who baptized Jesus. Our lectionary skips over three verses between John’s proclamation and Jesus’s baptism, and in those verses, Herod throws John into prison. So it could be that Luke is telling the story out of chronological order for narrative effect, or it could be that Luke just doesn’t care about the mechanics of Jesus’s baptism. And why would he, when the outcome is so important?
First, Jesus prays — just as he prayed in his Passion. Then, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and St. Luke goes out of his way to emphasize that the Spirit came “in bodily form,” that is, for real, tangibly, and visible to the public. And then, the culmination, the climax, the revelation. A voice comes directly from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Remember, God is saying this, and is saying it before Jesus even begins his ministry. So God is not like the the voices of this world which burden us with impossible expectations. God is not just satisfied, and not just pleased, but well pleased with Jesus, and not for accomplishing anything, but merely for being there.
Great for Jesus, but what about us? Is this just God playing favorites? Is this any different from God’s favoring Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s, or plucking Enoch into heaven, or letting David get away with all kinds of outrageous behavior? Maybe in the moment. But it’s just a moment. Jesus’s whole life, and especially his death, revealed how much God loves all of us, and his death and resurrection are the means and assurance of God loving all of us like daughters and sons. So while God certainly wants us to live holy lives and do great things, from our very beginnings, God is well pleased with us, merely for being us. God favors us with tremendous love, and God loves us for us, inherently, regardless of how competent or pious we might be.
Yet God’s approach has not left Christians unmotivated. God’s unconditional love sets us free from sin, free from the tyranny of fear, guilt, and regret, free to be our best selves, as God created us to be. Christians in every age have found God’s love to be more than sufficient inspiration to great works of faith, justice, and charity. May we all follow Jesus’s examples of personal humility and public prayer, that we may likewise reveal God’s profound love to a world that expects very different things from God.

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December 25, 2018 – Christmas

Update By: Norm Barr
Date: December 28, 2018

Sermon for Christmas
December 25, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
If you’ve invested in a nativity set, I’ve got some bad news for you. Even if the figures are historically and ethnically accurate, which is far from guaranteed, the scene itself bears no resemblance to the setting of Jesus’s actual birth. First of all, the translators did us a great disservice by using the word “inn.” The Greek word St. Luke used is katalumati, and it means, “the spare or upper room in a private house… where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected.”* When St. Luke talks about a commercial lodging establishment, where the Good Samaritan took the man who’d been beaten and left for dead, he uses a different word, but interestingly, he tells us that the Last Supper took place in a katalumati.
Chances are, in Bethlehem Ss. Mary and Joseph simply followed well-established Middle Eastern practice and stayed with extended family, which makes perfect sense, given that St. Luke tells us Bethlehem was St. Joseph’s ancestral home. And as if their journey wasn’t hard enough, they couldn’t even have the semi-privacy of the guest room. Perhaps other relatives had gotten there first, or perhaps someone who ranked higher in the social hierarchy took priority, or perhaps rumors about Mary’s pregnancy had diminished the family’s sense of hospitality. Perhaps Ss. Mary and Joseph had been offered the katalumati but graciously gave it up for others, and took the other room, the main room of the house, an all-purpose, no-privacy space.
So if there’s no inn, there’s no stable, because families would bring the livestock in at night, and part of the house would be set up for this. That area might actually have been more pleasant than the main room, which must have been terribly cramped, cluttered, and crowded. If you use a little imagination with your cultural and architectural knowledge, you realize that of course Mary would have laid Jesus on top of the animals’ food — which, incidentally, sat not in a freestanding trough, but in pits dug into the dirt floor. That was probably the only soft space, and indeed the only open space, in the home. You can imagine her wrapping him in whatever cloth was on hand, sighing, remembering that the livestock are all herbivores, setting him down, hoping for the best, and falling asleep exhausted.
So as soon as you explain all this to the person who sold you your crèche set, I’m sure they’ll apologize and give you a full refund. Seriously though, crèches are great and if you want to hold on to yours, I’m perfectly fine with that. But for myself, as much as I love the traditions of the Church, I’m willing to let this one go, because of the symbolism. We need as much to be reminded of who Jesus is not, as of who he is, since our misconceptions about him threaten to weaken our relationship with him and cheat us out of the love and reconciliation he came into the world to give us.
Jesus was not born in a peaceful stable, removed from crowds and chaos and politics and complexity, just as he did not, as an adult, live as a guru in some remote wilderness sanctuary, where a few dedicated students might seek him out. And he was pretty much the opposite of the “Elf on the Shelf.” I didn’t know what that was all about until this year.
This is a successful commercial product, and a theological abomination. Parents of young children buy this little elf doll with a big creepy smile. They tell the kids that the elf is keeping track of whether they’re naughty or nice and reporting back to Santa. So it’s hard to imagine celebrating the elf’s arrival, but some parents try to make it “fun” by moving the elf around the house when the children are asleep and even stage scenes where it looks like the elf has been frozen in the middle of doing something.
A friend of a friend wrote how the elf basically crystallizes all of the world’s worst misconceptions about Jesus, where we tell each other he’s “a personal entity that is always there, watching you, judging you, but with a sort of clownish rictus smile that is supposed to reassure you that this entity is, in fact, somehow your personal friend as well as your moral jailer, entering your venalities into a ledger. He has no soteriological role, just this uneasy friend/jailer dichotomy.”**
Why bother with elf on the shelf when you can welcome God in a bod, or rather, the Word made flesh, and really mean it. We can celebrate that Jesus is truly and fully God with us, for he actively came into the world, and spent his ministry going from place to place in order to reach as many people as he could. We celebrate his birth because that moment is the beginning of our hope that God, in Jesus, is taking action to save us, to reveal the depth of God’s love for us. Jesus also shows us a better way of living, one founded on love, and especially by loving those least able to repay our kindness. From God’s point of view, none of us can repay God for these gifts, but that’s the whole point. Jesus is the savior of a world that needs divine salvation.
So we may take great comfort in knowing that Jesus came into the thick of things, into the world as it is, into a busy, crowded house. The circumstances were not ideal; you could even call them… un-stable. But terrible puns aside, this is a Christmas story we can relate to. In a way, the Holy Family is just like our families, for clearly they were improvising and doing the best they could with what they had. So now I’ve got some good news for you. Jesus and his gifts of love, mercy, grace, and everlasting life are not just for the pious few: he, and they, are God’s gift to all of us, especially those who need them the most. I pray that we may accept these gifts gratefully, and share the Good News of them faithfully, and in do doing, become more like the Giver, full of grace and truth.

*https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/
**Text from Jesse Tumblin to Shannon Rose McAuliffe, December 19, 2018

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December 23, 2018 – Advent 4

Update By: Norm Barr
Date: December 23, 2018

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays

There’s no good time to admit something like this, but recently, I let myself down. I crossed a line I promised myself I would not cross. And in my defense, it was a moment of emotional intensity, it was dark, and everyone else was doing it, and it all happened so fast. Before I could stop myself, I joined in. Not that any of that is an excuse. Thursday night, at a service at another church… I sang Christmas carols in Advent.
While I’ve never been the kind of person who was impressed by the self-appointed Advent Police, I do believe that the season and its themes, intriguingly both provocative and mundane, are valuable. We shouldn’t get down on ourselves, and certainly not on other people, who can’t resist jumping ahead to Christmas. After all, even Mary herself “went with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
But we need Advent. We need time to prepare for Christmas. We need to consider what the world was like before Jesus, how Israel remained faithful in a time of great suffering. We need to be reminded, vigorously, that Christ will come again, and that his return is cause for hope, not fear. And we need to remember that waiting can be holy, for while God can intervene abruptly in the world, more often, God works deliberately, patiently, and often just beyond our awareness. Rather than obstacles, times of waiting can be gifts and opportunities, especially opportunities to know God better.
My friend Laura Shatzer is ordained in the United Church of Christ but works at Common Cathedral. She took on the discipline of writing a poem every day of Advent and one of them I found especially touching. So although it kind of talks about the birth of Christ, for me at least, that train’s already left the station, and more importantly, its imagery and themes are well suited to the season. She wrote,

The Light of the World
came first from the darkness,
the protective cave of Mary’s belly.
Isn’t this how all good things begin?
 
In the earth, the roots bending and stretching
until the first shoot breaks forth.
In the womb, the feeding and flourishing of
flesh and bone until the first gasp of air.
In the night, the knowledge born of restlessness
and the restoration of deep sleep and a dream
pregnant with meaning.
 
In the light we can see things as they are
but in the darkness,
we really get to know them.

I think her poem is not just beautiful, but insightful. When we don’t have all the answers, we can attain real spiritual growth because we are forced to think, feel, imagine, and engage with God. So let’s savor the moment and try that with the Gospel reading today.
Why did Mary visit Elizabeth? St. Luke doesn’t say. He does tell us that at the time Gabriel asked Mary if she would be Jesus’s mother, Gabriel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also miraculously conceiving a child — that’s John the Baptist, remember. Elizabeth’s conception of John was miraculous not because she was a virgin like Mary, but because Elizabeth was well into old age at that point. She had been waiting so very long, and she stayed faithful. So while maybe Mary just figured Elizabeth needed some extra help, I think there’s more going on.
While Mary is certainly the sort of person who would want to help out in what must have been a challenging situation, I think Mary was moved to visit Elizabeth much more because God was acting in both their lives, and because literally no one else on Earth could understand what they were going through. So then, why did their meeting take such an ecstatic turn? Why does Mary abruptly burst into song? Luke’s Gospel is all about redemption, but it’s not a musical. Outside the nativity story, St. Luke doesn’t tell us of anyone breaking into song, and there are no dance numbers at all.
The answer, again, is that God was acting in their lives, and when that happens, people tend to act a little weird. Way weirder than singing Christmas carols in Advent, just saying. Mary and Elizabeth had every reason to respond to their reality with fear, despair, or panic, but because they took a moment to consider what God might be doing, their strong faith was rewarded. They realized that God was doing something enormous and truly wonderful, and so ecstatic praise was the only sensible reaction.
Mother Mary and Mother Church teach us to cultivate our own strong faith by their words and examples. As our faith grows, we become more aware of what God is doing in our lives, and how God is doing those things. When our faith grows, we grow in wisdom, and even when we are in the dark, wisdom helps us to know when to act, when to wait, and how to make the most of every moment, whether urgent or tranquil. And we learn that hopeful, faithful, productive waiting not only glorifies God, but also works to our… Advent-age.
Praising God, both in our waiting and in our activity, is both a cause and an effect of growing faith, even when what we’re doing, or not doing, seems out of step with the times. Mary and Elizabeth were completely out of step with their dark time, but closely in sync with God, and we remember them, not their contemporaries. Their praise of God engaged them with what God was doing, and therefore their faithfulness has endured through every season, no matter what anyone else thought. By the grace of God, I pray that the same might be said of us, for God is still doing enormous and wonderful things.

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