Dead Presidents, Details, and the Bethlehem Baby Gap

This homily was given on December 22, 2013 at The Vine Church, and was originally entitled, “Details.”


I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about dead presidents. It’s not because it’s Christmas time and I’ve been handing dead presidents to retailers like Toys-R-Us and Amazon.

I’ve been thinking about dead presidents because a few weeks ago I started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s newest book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. By “reading” what I really mean is listening to the audiobook, because the text of the book is over 750 pages long. I’m not reading 750 pages unless I absolutely have to?

Fool me once, shame on you, Doris, fool me twice shame on me.

A few years ago I read Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, “Team of Rivals” and I learned my lesson. When it comes to her books, listening is the better way to go. Doris Kearns Goodwin spent over 7 years writing “The Bully Pulpit.” While reading, you can’t help but realize the superabundance of newspaper articles, editorials, interviews, journals, calendars, and dairies she combed through to master the material.

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The Secret We Can No Longer Keep

There’s one secret we can no longer keep secret. It’s mental illness.

Perhaps, like me, you were saddened for Rick and Kay Warren when you learned of their son, Matthew’s suicide this past weekend. In a letter to his church, Rick acknowledged Matthew’s long struggle with mental disease and how it affected their family through the years. Matthew’s story, to the tragic horror of Rick and Kay, ended in suicide.

I don’t know the Warrens and have only been in the same room with Rick Warren twice, but their experience is the greatest fear of all of us. No, not all of us who have children – though I’m sure that’s true – but all of us who have mentally ill family members.

Without much detail, I confess that Rochelle and I have mental illness on both sides of our family. What makes that last sentence a “confession” is that people don’t talk about mental illness out loud, in public. Sadly, mental illness is rarely spoken of in churches and among Christians.

And that’s a shame, because I want it to be.

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The Most Dangerous Thing About Advent

A re-post and update of one of my favs from a few years back.


A lot of ministers love preaching during Advent…but it’s also dangerous!

For those of us in free church traditions, this is a time of year we can unapologetically turn to the lectionary and no one will give us grief about it. People also like preaching Advent sermons because words like peace and hope are easy to grab hold of. Plus, folks in the pew are typically glad to be worshipping together, congregations are filled with visitors, and sanctuaries are decorated in red and green. There are lots of good feelings around Christmas, and there should be.

At the same time, though, I fear some of the preaching during Advent is selective in it’s approach – a temptation even when it’s not Christmas. This year as I’ve re-read the birth narratives within the gospels, I’m shocked again by the scandal of the story; a story that is truly unbelievable without the asset of faith.

The story doesn’t stop at the scandal though. Just think about all those mothers clutching their little boys as King Herod’s minions draw knife and sword. And then, there’s John the Baptist, this wild man of the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, while looking like the last person on Earth you’d want to be around.

John’s preaching also reminds us that life in the service of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending.

Christmas is a scary holiday.

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Christmas at St. Francis’ House

A friend of mine was walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Living in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place; shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumerism of America’s most gluttonous season.

It requires us to ask: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before a renaissance in my own thinking over the last 10 years, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree.  A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was tasty.  It had nothing to do with Jesus.  In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar.  No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing!  Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible.  That’s true, I suppose.  However, I also knew that my grandmother, as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi, had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledged her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught me that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

That teaching has been hard to shake!

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing alluring – no iPhones or new cars.  I tell myself that I don’t need anything, don’t want anything, and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans.  Suddenly newer things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement.  Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately.  So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Cyber Monday!

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season, in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world and the healing of our broken relationships with each other, and our broken relationship with God has somehow become a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience?

Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously).  Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After an illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings.  He would go off by himself to pray, wore ragged clothes and gave away money from the family business to the poor.  As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated!  His father took Francis to court and asked that the Bishop force him to give back all the money Francis had given to the poor.  Equally as irritated as his father, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out of the court proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

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The War on Christmas

The “War On Christmas” is bogus…except that it’s not.

The trouble with the War On Christmas is that there really is a war. And it really is about Christmas. It’s just not the war we hear about this time of year. It’s not the war being sold on cable television and being highlighted by purveyors of outrage — those who comb and dig for the least little offense attempting to magnify them in the hopes of riling up folks who are otherwise just trying to get on with life.

But there is a war. And it is about Christmas.

You see, there’s a mad man ruling over Jerusalem. He has power. He has an army. He has comfort and control and he wants to keep them both. His name is Herod, and like all people of privilege, his most pressing concern is keeping it. He’s the King and there’s nothing kings like less than the arrival of another king.

Over in Bethlehem, though, Christmas is going on – baby, manger, Joseph, angels, Mary, the star, the whole boat. This is the Christmas we like to sing about. This is the Christmas of pageants and preschool plays; it’s the Christmas we think about as we hang our stockings by the chimney and decorate the tree. It’s this Christmas that feels so wonderful in department stores as the muzak of “Silent Night” seeps through the rattle of blown-out speakers. This is the Christmas of City Hall tree-lightings and candy canes.

We love this Christmas. Who wouldn’t?

Some of us love this Christmas so much we’re offended when people appear to want to dismiss it, minimize it and boil the thickness of its traditions into a bowl of flavorless mush.

But the truth is, what we love most is only a part of the story. A small part.

Christmas is also a young couple living under suspicion of scandal. It’s Mary skipping town during the night to spend time with distant relatives while her tummy grew larger. Christmas is Herod ordering a genocide. It’s young mothers from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and all parts in-between clutching their baby boys as the soldiers draw knives. Christmas is fathers feeling feckless and weak with no way to stop the murder of their sons. Christmas is Mary and Joseph charting the route for a kind of Jewish Underground Railroad as they escape from Bethlehem to Egypt, not knowing if they would ever be able to come home.

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