Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Dinner

When I was growing up, Christmas dinner was one of the three times in the year, along with Easter and Thanksgiving, when our family all sat together at the dinner table, instead of at our own individual avocado-green TV trays at the couch. We used the fancy silverware that had a monogrammed initial on each piece. Sometimes it was turkey, some years it was ham. Sometimes pumpkin pie, other times apple.

I imagine you have your own memories and traditions of Christmas dinner. Maybe it’s cooked lamb or duck, or even a turducken. Maybe it’s something Scandinavian like lutefisk and lefse or perhaps tamales with pico de gallo. Maybe it’s Chinese food, like Ralphie’s family has in the classic holiday movie, A Christmas Story.

I’ve been trying to think about what food most reminds us of Christmas. Frosted sugar cookies shaped like bells and trees with red and green frosting? Fruitcake or sweet potato pie? Maybe candy canes. A detailed story about the symbolism and meaning of the candy cane has been circulating on the Internet. Perhaps something more gourmet—roasted partridge with pear sauce?

How about bread and wine? Body and blood?

There are bumper stickers and signs out admonishing us to keep the Christ in Christmas. This is most certainly true.

Yet I haven’t seen very many stickers and signs saying, “Keep the Mass in Christmas.” What better way to celebrate God’s entry into the world than to share the meal where God is truly present.

I realize that there might be some apprehension among Lutherans toward calling the sacrament Mass, but that is what it is—a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We eat and remember what God has already done, but we also eat with hope of the great heavenly banquet, in this foretaste of the feast to come.

The story we remember this Christmas Eve, and keep telling—this old, old story, of the birth of Jesus brings us to Bethlehem. Luke’s Gospel takes great effort to bring the plot to this little village, because it makes a connection between Jesus and King David. Jesus shall rule over the people.

The word “Bethlehem” literally means, in Hebrew, “House of Bread.” I’ve heard it suggested that Bethlehem could be translated to be “grain elevator.” It evidently was an agricultural place, a place for storing food supplies.

Tonight you might go home and eat chips and salsa as a midnight snack. You might grab an breakfast taco in the morning. Tomorrow, you might have that roasted turducken with gravy and stuffing. You might even go to a Chinese buffet.

But tonight, we share this Christmas dinner—this bread and this wine—this body and this blood. As we eat, we remember. We remember what God can do. We remember the grain for the impoverished widow. We remember the child born in Bethlehem. We remember the good news the angels sang. We remember what the shepherds found when they went to Bethlehem. We remember the Bread of Life in that House of Bread.

So tonight, as we eat our Christmas Dinner at that table, we eat with hope of what God has promised. We live in a world where we don’t always know what happens next. We live in a world that knows all too well fear and anticipation. We long for that peace. We pray for the coming of Christ. We celebrate, knowing that God has come to us. We remember the Bread. We eat the Bread. We live the Bread. Amen.

A Pastor's Call

A few months ago, one of the children in our congregation asked me, “Pastor Paul, what is your job?” I responded, “Umm, I’m a pastor.” I fumbled with some answer about leading worship, teaching about the Bible, and visiting people who are sick, but I discover who hard it is to actually articulate what I do. My job (or more accurately, vocation) is very multifaceted.

There’s an old joke about pastors only working on Sunday. Of course, I work more than that. I love the variety of what I do. I think it is helpful for us to revisit the Letter of Call. This is the document that a congregation of the ELCA gives a pastor at the start of ministry together. The “we” is Amazing Grace, not a bishop, seminary, or committee. Mine is hanging on my office wall:

We call you to exercise among us the ministry of Word and Sacrament which God has established and which the Holy Spirit empowers: To preach and teach the Word of God in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; to administer Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead us in worship; to proclaim the forgiveness of sins; to provide pastoral care; to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed; to encourage persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel; to impart knowledge of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its wider ministry; to endeavor to increase support given by our congregation to the work of our whole church; to equip us for witness and service; and guide us in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed.

What a privilege it is for me get to do all of this with you here in San Antonio. Thank you for allowing me to be your pastor.

Happy New Year!

(From my January newsletter article).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Soy guadalupano luterano.

Why I am a guadalupano luterano

As a straight, white, male Lutheran pastor, I admit that I really like the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I first got to learn about her in detail while on internship at Trinity, a congregation that was very intentional about the cultural heritage of all its members. Much of my appreciation of the Guadalupe traditions was shaped by the preaching and teaching of my supervisor, Pastor Heidi Neumark. (To the left is a fantastic mural at Trinity, showing Martin Luther, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Frederick Douglass standing together--a sign of so much beautiful unity).

The Guadalupe story has a reputation for being a significant part of the spiritual lives of many Roman Catholic people, but when you start to think about it, it is a very Lutheran story. Martin Luther pushed to have the Bible written in German—the language of the people—instead of the Latin that only highly educated folks could begin to understand. The Virgin appears to Juan Diego speaking his native language, not the Spanish of the conquistadors. It’s a sign of divine presence not just with the wealthy and the elite, but even among the poorest of the poor.

Juan Diego becomes an unlikely messenger when he brings a message to the bishop. The cleric dismisses Juan Diego as uneducated peasant until he returns with a tilma full of roses, and an image of the Virgin. He is as unlikely a messenger as the shepherds running to Bethlehem.

The Virgin that Juan Diego sees is pregnant—a sign of hope and expectation. It’s an Advent sign for us as we keep watching for Jesus.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

X-ing out Jesus?

This time of the year, we often see the abbreviation Xmas. Is this part of some vast conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas? Is it a sign of disrespect?

No, because it is not actually an X. Rather, it is the Greek letter chi (χ), the first letter in the Greek word Christos, meaning “anointed,” from where we get our word, Christ. Jesus is the anointed messiah. My seminary notebooks are filled with phrases like “Xian worship” and “Xianity.” The word for the holiday on December 25 originally meant Christ’s Mass. We can keep the mass in Christmas by gathering for Holy Communion as we celebrate Jesus’ coming.

At Amazing Grace, Christmas Eve worship with Holy Communion will be at 7 and 11 p.m. on December 24.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Future vision

Advent is a time of hope and expectation. We wait, watch, and hope as we prepare for the coming of Christ. It is a time of vision. In the parish pastor's role as theological guide, I’d like to share some of my vision for our own congregation; areas in which I want to push and challenge us as a communinity of faith in the coming year:

Justice: How can we become more glocal—globally mindful and locally engaged? I’d love to seen an intentional focus on addressing issues of poverty and injustice both across the globe and right here in San Antonio. How about a service trip? Marching together on Martin Luther King Day?

Using our Assets: An asset-based approach uses what we have instead of lamenting what we don’t. We have a closet full of hymnals we never sing from. We have a building that could more efficiently used by both the congregation and groups in the community. Space-use conflicts are good conflicts to be having. We also have fabulously talented members who rarely, if ever, get asked to show leadership. This means that the Council and I need to be better at actually using the Time and Talent forms we ask you to fill out.

Loving our Neighbors: On any given afternoon, there are often children from the neighborhood using swings, skating in the driveway, or running in the field. We need to reach out, but how? Afterschool programs? Skateboard ministry? Teen coffee house?

Welcome! ¡Bienvenidos! It’s easy to say “All are welcome here,” but it’s harder to put it into practice. Let’s have more intentional conversation on hospitality and welcome and ask ourselves the hard questions about who is really welcome here. Young families? Folks in wheelchairs? Transgender people? Aggie Fans? Longhorn Fans? Republicans?

Who are we? Whatever our identity is as a congregation is, it needs to be unapologetically Lutheran—rooted in Word and Sacrament. We are transformed by encountering the Gospel (through Bible reading, preaching, conversation) and gathering around God’s presence in the waters of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

What's your vision? Let's talk!

(Adapted from the December 2009 newsletter of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent video

Back by popular demand, here is another video posting. The adult Sunday school class on Advent traditions went well on Sunday. I enjoy talking about how and why we worship. Advent is one of my favorite times in the year. The waiting and watching seems so contrary to the "instant everything" drive-thru culture in which we live.