Thursday, December 26, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year A, Christmas I, 2013

The Preacher’s Study

First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
1st Sunday after Christmas

Juan Oliver

The presents are opened, the tree is starting to dry, the eggnog is gone, Now what?

Part of the challenge of preaching during the twelve days of Christmas is that most people assume Christmas is over and done with.  But the readings for the coming Sunday and the following give us many ways to unpack the gift of Christmas, to look at it, appreciate its magnitude, and taste its flavor. The prologue of John, if rather abstract sounding, puts it succinctly: the Word has become flesh.

Alexander Schmemann once wrote that, if the great feast of Orthodoxy is Easter, that of Anglicans is Christmas. He was not, I hope, making a theological point, but rather pointing to a difference in style. Theologically, Easter will always be the Great Feast. But Anglicanism, with its love of the tangible and "all things bright and beautiful," has a special place for Christmas. 

An example of this is Bill Countryman's perhaps startling claim that Anglican spirituality is fundamentally an aesthetic spirituality.   By aesthetic he did not only mean beautiful, or about beauty, but aesthetic in the original Greek meaning of the term: related to perception. Whether in painting, poetry, hymnody, architecture or worship as a mixture of all the arts, Anglican spirituality cares about how things are perceived. For that you need stuff, tangible stuff, and not only abstractions. Anglican spirituality could not exist without the Incarnation.

Years ago Bette Midler sang about God who watches Earth from very far away.  I remember thinking, that's so un-Christian!  Christmas makes exactly the opposite point: God is one with the earth, one with us (Emmanuel), one with nature, one with history. This a God who rolls up her sleeves and gets into what a British critic once referred to as "the reek of the human," the messy, conflict-ridden, injustice driven human tragedy, refusing to accept it as it is and insisting it can be much, much better.

The Word, the Torah (teaching) by which all things came to be, has become living flesh in action. God walks God's talk, lives the message for all to see and hear. In Jesus God pitches God's tent among us in Jesus the living temple, and in us, the living stones that make it up. For as Silesius said, "Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until he is born in me."

Isaiah could see it coming because he wanted it so badly: Justice and joy will eventually take over. We must believe it with all our heart precisely because it is not yet true.

Paul saw this event as God's decision to liberate those who were under the law (Torah) so they could be revealed as what they are: children of God, possessed by a Spirit who calls God "Daddy!" (or "Mommy" if you prefer), a Spirit that sees us as God's relatives, because the Totally Other has become a member of the family.

Thus, if the message of Christmas means anything, it means that we can no longer be "spiritual" without being "physical."  That dichotomy has been shown to be false. Instead, there is a physical-spiritual continuum.  This is of huge importance for those of us who strive to follow in the steps of the humanized God. It means not only that the positive aspects of physicality, such as the thrill of being alive, our physical connection to nature, and the rhythms and satisfactions of the body, are necessary aspects of our spirituality, but that hunger, illness, privation, and death itself, are no longer merely physical conditions, but every bit as spiritual as they are physical.

In sum, we cannot have a true Christianity that it is only "spiritual."  The early Christians stressed the physicality of God in Christ, his real death and equally real resurrection. 

This meant in practice, that human physicality could not be ignored in the name of God. It meant that the hunger of the hungry is a spiritual scandal; that the homelessness of those on the streets is an insult to God; that we must look into the structural causes of human suffering and do something about it and that a Christian "spirituality" unconcerned with real, tangible, suffering is not the real thing. To be the real thing, Christian spirituality must delve into human life and get its hands dirty to change social and economic structures that bring about unnecessary suffering to humans and to all creation.

That this process has already begun is Good News indeed.  News that the poor hear most clearly for they, as Luther might have put it, have to live by faith alone. Let us join them, willing to be led by the bastard child of a teen mom, son of an unknown father, lying in a dirty manger, adored by ignorant, unschooled shepherds.

Juan Oliver is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001.  He´s retired in Santa Fe, NM.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Preacher's Study - Christmas, 2013

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about Christmas sermons

Frank Logue

The difficulty of preaching Christmas, of course, is that the story is familiar and yet we do want to stick to the story. So as I look at the familiar story of the Incarnation as found in Luke 2, I notice anew how the announcement comes from unreliable sources.

Shepherds were regarded, along with tax collectors and some other occupations, as little better than thieves. Due to the dry conditions of the land, shepherds had to range widely with the flocks entrusted to them. Well away from the owners of the herd, who could know how many lambs were born in a given year? It was not uncommon for shepherds to sell off some lambs and pocket the money. 

The ancient Jewish rabbis considered shepherding a thieving occupation and deprived shepherds of some civil rights. For example, shepherds were not permitted to appear in court as a witness as they were considered so unreliable. Shepherds were assumed to be such liars that their testimony would not hold up in court no matter how many shepherds told the story. Later, Jesus great witness to the resurrection will be Mary Magdalene, and while she will be an apostle to the apostles, her testimony would likewise not be accepted in court due to her gender. This seems wrapped up to me in what God is doing through the Incarnation to turn the way of the world upside down.

It was pure foolishness to give the good news to end all good news to groups that everyone would consider suspect. As Paul would later write to the Corinthians, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). The very commonness, lowliness really, of Jesus’ birth is confirmed when the angels appear neither at the stable with Mary, Joseph and Jesus, nor in the palace of Caesar or even Herod. The very people no one would believe were given the news everyone should hear. 

Then there is the sign that the shepherds are given. They will know the angels' message is true when they find "a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." Basically, the message is that when you find a parent so down on their luck as to use a feed box for a bassinet, you will have found the Messiah.

Yet this comes as good news of great joy for all people, for how much more could God turn the world upside down in a single night than coming to the world not in power, but in weakness; not in wealth, but in poverty; and not to the esteemed, but to those no one else would notice. As I journey toward Christmas, I wonder how I can help show anew just how revolutionary the Incarnation was and is. For whatever else would follow that night, it could no longer be the status quo.

Frank Logue is a member of the APLM Council having served previously as its secretary. He is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and blogs on congregational development at

The photo shows steps in Capernaum Israel that may miss the point of the Incarnation as any place can and be made holy.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year A, Advent 4, 2013

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
Advent IV (or Advent VII, expanded season)

Frank Logue

Our Gospel reading for today is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, up until the birth itself. In this reading, we are introduced to Joseph, the earthly stepfather of God’s son Jesus. Joseph is kept so busy following God’s dreams in Matthew’s Gospel that he has been called the errand boy of the Incarnation.

A betrothal in first century Judaism was a formal contract. Girls were betrothed typically at the age of twelve to twelve and a half years old. They would not go live with their husband, but they would be committed to them at that point. 

Breaking the engagement took a divorce decree. Divorce could be written by either party and witnessed by three others to be legal. Adultery was also grounds for divorce. Adultery during the engagement, just as in marriage, was punishable by death according to the Jewish law. While public humiliation was often the only punishment meted out, Jesus will later defend a woman caught in adultery, saving her life from a crowd intent on stoning her. Jesus own mother, Mary, could have likewise been killed for the crime of adultery had Joseph pursued justice.

I notice three sets of plans. Plan A for Joseph was to marry Mary. During the engagement, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant and he knows that he is not the child’s father. Now comes Plan B, which is for Joseph is to quietly make some arrangements to break off the engagement without Mary facing an angry mob. Then God intervenes with Plan C. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream to assure Joseph that this was God’s plan all along.

In God’s plan, Joseph will take on the minor public dishonor of having everyone assume the child that would otherwise be born out of wedlock is his own. Joseph marries Mary. She has a child who Joseph names Jesus, which means “God saves.”

God will save and God will do it through Jesus. But Joseph and Mary were essential to the plan. Mary had to consent to the pregnancy and Joseph to the marriage. It wasn’t their Plan A or Plan B. But it was God’s plan all along.

I think there is a reason this pattern repeats itself. We have our own desires, our own plans and dreams. Then life throws things at us we never planned, a pregnancy, a sickness. Who knows what it has been or will be for you? But somewhere along the line, you start looking for another option. Like Joseph who decides God’s will must be to put Mary away quietly, you don’t always ask God’s opinion in making plans for life. But God is still there. For me in a small and unimportant way and for Joseph in history changing way, getting our own plans out of the way can help God to lead us to the life he had for us all along.

If Plan A is my plan and Plan B is my quick knee-jerk reaction to my plan not working out, then how do I get to God's plan, Plan C? For me, I see God's plan only when I begin the harder work of spiritual discernment. This week as I journey toward Sunday, I am wondering about how I am holding on to my own dreams, and what must I set aside to get to neither my plans nor reactions, but God's will.

Frank Logue is a member of the APLM Council having served previously as its secretary. He is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and blogs on congregational development at

The photo of three Camels ranging free in Mahktesh Hagadol Israel illustrates plans A through C lined up.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year A, Advent 3, 2013

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
Advent III (or Advent VI, expanded season)

Frank Logue

John the Baptist flip-flopped. Jesus' ministry didn’t exactly get off to the incendiary start and by the time he has landed in Herod's dungeon, the wild and wooly baptizer is wondering if he saw things rightly on Jordan's banks. Jesus sends back John's messengers with the evidence of the Kingdom of God in "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them."

In the 16th century, Thomas of Villanova  (1486-1555) connected each of Jesus statements to prophecy found in Isaiah. Isaiah wrote, “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unsealed and the lame man will leap like a hart.” 

Jesus said, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.”

Isaiah also wrote, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . he has sent me to announce good tidings to the poor.” 

Jesus said, “the poor have good news brought to them.” 

Finally, Isaiah wrote, “He will be a stone for stumbling over, and a rock of scandal as well, for both houses of Israel.” 

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Isaiah’s prophecies in Isaiah 35, 29, and 61 in Forty Gospel Homilies: PL 76, 1077)

Jesus connects his own ministry to the prophecies about the one who is to come. Jesus offered his miracles as a sign that God was working through him in the way that had been prophesied.

The point for Matthew in putting this story in his Gospel probably had nothing to do with John the Baptist and everything to do with you. For by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, John the Baptist had been dead for decades. It no longer mattered what John knew and when he knew it. What mattered most is you, the reader.

Matthew begs the question, “Is Jesus the One who was to come or are we to wait for another?” We know that Matthew wrote for Jewish readers and so he gives the reader pause to consider whether what they read about Jesus is what the Old Testament told us to expect of the Messiah. But Jew or Gentile, the question for any of us is, “Is Jesus the One or do we go searching for another?”

God may never come into your life exactly as you expect. That’s what happened to John the Baptist. John knew Jesus was the Messiah the day of Jesus’ baptism because of the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit did not control John’s every waking thought and John came to doubt. John had a box labeled “Messiah” and the real Messiah didn’t measure up to John’s expectations. 

As I journey toward Sunday, I note that we have the same problem as John. Jesus still doesn’t meet our expectations. John preached straighten up right now because the Messiah is coming to bring the smack down. Then Jesus came and did far less than John anticipated. Our problem is more likely the opposite of John the Baptist’s problem. John expected much more of the Messiah. We often expect little or nothing.

I pray for miracles and then make up excuses for God in advance. After all, God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing answers to prayer on demand. That’s OK as long as what I am really seeking is God’s will, and know that my prayers might not be God’s will. But it’s not OK to make excuses for why God won’t come through if all I am doing is playing it safe, hedging my bets, because I don’t have the faith that God will act on my prayers. I continually remind myself to be open to the real miracles, and when I can keep my heart and mind open, wonderful things can and do happen. 

The problem is boxing in God. Jesus’ ministry was so much more than John the Baptist appreciated from his prison cell. Jesus was patiently, lovingly, turning the world upside down one life at a time. 

Jesus is so much more than our preconceived notions too. Whatever box you or I have put him in, it’s too small, because Jesus is still transforming the world in unexpected ways. I am wondering how I can help hearers this Sunday to smash the box into which they have placed our Trinitarian God. How might we let go of our too strict notions and our too little hopes of Jesus? This is what I am pondering as I journey toward Sunday.

Frank Logue is a member of the APLM Council, having served previously as its secretary. He is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and blogs on congregational development at

The image of bulrushes near Banias (Caesarea Philippi) was taken by Frank Logue. These are the reeds shaken by the wind Jesus asked if people went out to see.