Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2005

When I was a teenager, my grandfather arranged for the family, from him through my dad and his brothers, down to all the kids, to visit an unimproved part of the Carlsbad Caverns system in New Mexico. Unimproved means that there were no paved walkways, no lights to see the stalactites and stalagmites, to safety rails. It was just a cave. Once we got in far enough, I remember that the guide had us all turn our flashlights off, and when we did, it was a darkness I have never experienced again. It was the kind of darkness that would press in on you, the kind of darkness where you can’t see your hand waving in front of your own face. It is the definition of disorienting, because one whole sense is just taken away.

Darkness. The absence of light. The inability to see. Things go bump in it, we mismatch socks when we get dressed in it, and our imaginations run wild when we are immersed in it. Some of us become blind, and learn to compensate. But when it first happens, it is disorienting.

Darkness is something we know very little about today, because we have streetlights, flashlights, nightlights, headlights. Even as we douse the church lights, we cannot achieve full darkness, because of the flag lights outside, the streetlights, and the cars that go by. But we’ll have enough darkness to imagine.

There was a time, less than 150 years ago, when the world was still, as one author phrased it, lit only by fire. The stars were a bigger deal. It is not such a long ago time, either. This church was founded in a time when electricity had not yet come to every house and business.

We know little about what darkness was like to live in, but we do know a whole lot more about the darknesses we have within our souls. We all have things that we would like to be better at, to think differently about, and to be able to escape from. These are the things that keep us from being who God fully intended us to be—they are the things that are the thorns in our flesh.

We all have them.

But the people who walked in darkness, says the prophet Isaiah, have seen a great light.

The light that came when a star appeared in the sky.

The light that came when the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word came to live in our neighborhood.
The light that came into our lives, that Titus was told would “train us how to turn our backs on a godless, indulgent life, and to how to take on a God-filled, God-honoring life.

The light that came into our lives, that the old man in the temple, Simeon, said “mark(ed) the failure and the recovery of many, a figure misunderstood and contradicted.”

The light that came into our lives, the one more powerful that John the Baptist, the one whose sandals he was not fit to tie.

We all have our dark spots. We all have places that we don’t want the light to shine, but God, in the man that this babe became, searches our hearts, and knows us, both the light and the dark. And loves us, utterly, the whole of us. Both who we are and who we are destined to be.

There’s a moment that I long for, every Christmas eve. Sometimes, it would come in that eternal period between dinner and when we left for church, or later it would come after all the services were over. It’s the moment when I hear nothing but silence. It’s a moment, for me of communion, when I am aware of God’s presence in the world.

When I am aware of God’s presence in me. And it is not a moment of fear, but rather of connection, to him, to the world, to you. God did so love the world, because it was his creation. God does so love us that he would send his son. The birth of that son into human life, into life on earth, is what we celebrate tonight.

That isn’t a thought that should scare us. He isn’t here to frighten us. He’s here to encourage us to be our best, to overcome our dark spots to be His people in the world, at all times and in all places.

Let us be blessed by this thought tonight, as we go home, or get on the road to family, or do whatever it is that we will do when we leave here. God was born for us, the light has come, Alleluia!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Thinking about Jesus in the Philadelphia International Airport

John 1:1-18 (Lectionary’s Emphasis is on John the Baptist.)
Advent 3B

So, I’m sitting outside terminal E at the Philadelphia International Airport, waiting for my mom’s plane to arrive. They stopped the flight before take off in Minneapolis to check a mechanical problem, which was just fine with mom, and with me, but that means that now I had 2 hours to kill.

One of the irritating things about Homeland Security is that now almost all the restaurants at the airport are on the ticketed side of security. I walked through terminals D, E, and F looking for something moderately cheap. I had two choices- either a Krispy Kreme and coffee place with no tables, or Duggan’s Pub. Duggan’s Pub had tables, but it was one of those places unique to airports where there are three TV’s on, all silent and with the closed captioning on. The channels they have on are the Holy Trinity of airports-CNN, The Weather Channel, and ESPN. Also typical is that there is music playing from a 4th source. Those suitcases that have wheels on them seem to be pretty universal now, and sure enough, everywhere there were tables, there was a rolling case or two. (Wouldn’t I have loved to be the guy who invented those!) It was an airport bar, so of course there were a few beers on the tables, along with some sandwiches- lots of bread, two or three slices of meat, cheese extra. Sandwich and drink, with a bag of pretzels, $12. Ah, airport food. There was a big picture window, looking out into the harbor-shaped set of buildings that makes up D and E terminals. Beyond that were the refineries that separate the airport from the Delaware River, and beyond that you could just see New Jersey.

I gave up and decided to not waste the time, ordered a sandwich and a Diet Coke and began to think about Jesus. Odd place, I know, but Jesus goes everywhere we do. Since this is Advent, I thought about the birth of Jesus, who he was, and why he came. I had with me a book that friends had highly recommended, called Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren. It is indeed a fascinating book, a book whose purpose is to try to feel the way to be Christian in a way that isn’t rigid and mean-spirited, but neither is it reflexively open-minded and colorless. It seems that the modern church has polarized into one or the other of these extremes, and McLaren, with others, are finding both ways unsatisfactory when compared with the Bible and the greatest parts of the Christian tradition.

So, there I sat, small Peterson’s “Message” translation of the New Testament, journal, and McLaren’s book out on the table, at Duggan’s Pub. I’m sure it was a sight. Anyway, McLaren had an interesting thing to say about the purpose of Jesus. As he grew up, he was told again and again, that Jesus was born to die. The purpose of Jesus, the Word of God and the word that was with God, was to come to earth to die. A simple sacrifice, similar to the doves and sheep and bulls that were sacrificed on the altar in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. A sacrifice that exercised no free will, and was therefore less that human. McLaren said that he no longer believed this, and it resonated with me, because I have always had difficulty with that belief, myself.

Let me explain what that rub is for me. The mainstream of Christian tradition states that Jesus was fully human, and fully divine. And for me, there is no way that he could have been fully human unless he had the exercise of free will. What makes sense to me is that Jesus had to choose to go up on that cross, he had to choose to stay there, and he had to choose to die. If there was no free will, Jesus would not have needed to be baptized. He would not have chosen to disobey his parents and stay behind in the temple with the religious leaders. And if he didn’t have free will, there would have been no need for him to say “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done” in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yes, there are plenty of places, especially in Matthew where Jesus does this or say that in order to fulfill this or that prophecy. But there is more to Jesus than the coming to earth to fulfill prophecy, even in Matthew.

And when I read back through the Gospels, I can see time after time that Jesus made choices. And I start to see a pattern. When Jesus made those choices, he always made them in favor of the people. He chose to feed the five thousand rather than make them go into the villages to buy food. He had pity on the people who had followed him around the sea, and healed them, cutting short his own prayer time. He chose to heal the Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter after the woman argued with him. He says I am thirsty, John says, so that a prophecy will be fulfilled. He does it because the definition of Messiah he is requires it of him. He chooses to do it.

For Jesus to truly have saved us on the cross, he needed to have chosen us. If he didn’t, it is God sending a sacrifice that cannot choose for itself, much like a ram or a dove. And to me, that is rather less.

So, here at Advent, the announcement John makes in today’s Scripture passage is the announcement of a fully divine being choosing to become human. John points the way to the one who makes God plain as day. And this fully divine being chooses to live the full life of a human from a natural birth, through puberty, to adulthood, and all the pain and joy that that entails. And his pain is increased because time and time again, he chooses not to exercise his divinity to protect himself, but to love the people he was sent to save.

The people he was sent to save include the disciples, the crowds, everyone throughout history, and down through the ages to you and me. It means that he was sent to save everyone in Duggan’s Bar, too.

We know that Jesus came before us all. John tells us that the Word was in the beginning, with God. What came into being with him was life. And he chose to be born into our lives, into human life. Paul says that Jesus emptied himself. The only way I understand this is to say that he put his divinity into some cosmic double blind trust, and healed only through the faith of others. When the people had no faith, he had no power. What he didn’t put into trust, though, was the memory that he loved us, the same way God did, because he was God, and he was with God. He chose to show us God in a way we could grasp because he hadn’t forgotten that love. He chose to be baptized by John because the people needed some sign of his belonging. Can you imagine someone coming to us and telling us about God when they hadn’t been baptized, themselves? How much would we trust them? John knew who he was, and resisted the responsibility of baptizing God. Jesus said to him, “let it be so for now”. That was a choice, and it was a choice for us.

Jesus chose to accept the cup given to him by God. He chose to accept the cross, and I believe that he was given the choice, by God, again and again. Because Jesus’ ultimate choice for, us, to die on the cross, would be less, I think, if it wasn’t done purely out of his love for us, otherwise.
Today is the Christ Sunday of Advent. The pink candle on the advent wreath is the Christ candle. We light it for the choice God made, for me, for you, for everyone down at Duggan’s pub. Jesus, I believe, was not born to die. He chose to. He chose us. That baby came, grew up, became fully human, and chose us. So we light the candle to remember that.

The Biggest Sin in the Church

I was reading a book recently written by John Dominic Crossan, writing about his early life. He writes about how Mary, the mother of Jesus, might have been subject to rumors when she was single and pregnant. There were some who would surely have said that Joseph might have been unable to restrain himself, or that she had surely “gone out” on him before they were married. At the very least, her claim that she had been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit was surely met with a fair amount of disbelief. “Yeah, right”, would seem to be the prevalent attitude, if the people of first century were anything like us in the 21st.

John Bell, the leader of the retreat I attended in September, mentioned offhand that there are over 50 Psalms that lament malicious gossip. There are passages that speak against it throughout the New Testament, and it should be noted that in our scorekeeping world, there are more passages against gossip than against homosexuality, or divorce, or abortion, or any other culturally current hot button issue.

By far the biggest problem with gossip is its flexible definition. First and foremost: Spreading false or dubious information about a person isn't gossip. It's slander. Gossip is ethically ambiguous, where slander is not.

True, we might think we're gossiping when the object of our discussion would say we're slandering. And that's why gossip is intimate, why it's best done with only those closest to you. Gossip is one of those activities in which if you have to state the rules, you don't want to be doing it with that person in the first place.
-Laurie Winer “Is Gossip Good”? on

I will admit that sometimes passing along a story is irresistible, or unavoidable. And sometimes, things need to be spoken about in criminal matters such as embezzlement or abuse. It is also vital that those who believe that a friend may be in danger because of depression, addiction, or abuse speak about it.

But let’s not kid ourselves—most of what we pass on isn’t of that magnitude. What is true is that supposing or guessing about someone’s private life, especially when they have suffered a life-changing event, is damaging and hurtful. When it isn’t true, but is pure conjecture, it is even worse.

A nineteenth-century folktale tells about a man who went about town slandering the town's wise man. One day, he went to the wise man's home and asked for forgiveness. The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he would forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, and scatter the feathers to the wind. After he had done so, he should then return to the wise man's house Go now and gather up all the feathers."
"But that's impossible. The wind has already scattered them."
"Precisely," he answered. "And though you may truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak."
-By Lori Palatnik with Bob Burg, from “Speak No Evil: Why Gossip is Bad for your Soul”, on

There is a reason why gossip is more important to the writers of Scripture than any of our culturally current hot-button issues. That’s because unlike them, we all participate in it, and it is a temptation for us all. That’s why I think it is the biggest sin in the church.

I admit that it can be difficult to discern when the need to speak of someone else is appropriate, or when it isn’t. But I think it is OK to say that if you don’t have the facts, or haven’t talked to the person themselves about something they have said, then it isn’t OK to pass it on. Another guideline would be to discern how much enjoyment you are getting out of telling someone. Be true to yourself, and really search your heart. Do you enjoy someone else’s pain or trouble, and tell the story because you want others to enjoy it, too? That’s gossip, and it probably is slander as well.

As we go into Advent, the time when we anticipate the birth of Christ, and Epiphany, the time of the Wise men, let us receive the grace of God’s wisdom. An ancient Chinese proverb says:

It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought of as a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

Dia Duit,

Pastor Drew

Why I entered the Blog world

Dear anyone who comes to visit this space:

For a long time, I resisted the urge to create a blog, mainly because I could not justify it for any reason other than an exercise of ego. Please understand- I do not think that this is true of all other blogs, though undoubtedly there are some. there are plenty of blogs that serve great ends, such as giving conditions in war-torn areas that aren't being covered by news media, and blogs that portray struggles of missionaries (like my friend Wes Magruder at

Undoubtedly, as my blogging grows, maybe there will be times when I do tip over the cliff and fall into an egoistic exercise. But for the most part, all this will be is the sermons and other thoughts of one young pastor in the Northeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, as the church travels a rough patch of ground theologically and socially. Maybe this will be a steady and stable place for me to post stuff as I move from church to church in the United Methodist itinerant system.

Why the name Fryer Drew? Well, I want to reflect that I stand within the main current of Western Christian tradition, that I find value in the small "c" catholic tradition of the church. It also reflects that I like to cook and eat! The wit may be meager, but I hope that this blogging journey I am embarking on will be of value both to me and to whomever may find it!

dia duit,
Rev. Drew Cottle