The Heart of Christmas is Love

AdventWeek4-2013
Drawing by Linda Noblin.

The heart of the Gospel is love.
The heart of the Christmas season is love.

Love is the final driver, the final goal –the first, last, and middle command– for all of us who follow Christ. In the Christmas season, we celebrate this love of God for us, as made manifest in the birth of Jesus.

Yes, the Advent/Christmas season celebrates Hope, and Peace, and Joy. But the heart of the season is Incarnational Love.

It’s a spirituality that affirms that at heart of all physical reality, God is there. God is born incarnate not because the world is hopelessly depraved and beyond all saving; but precisely the opposite. God is born into the world to remind us that all of God’s creation is God-touched…God-graced….God blessed….

(Listen to the Audio/Sermon version of this blog.)

The miracle of Christmas proclaims that is no person, place or thing in this world that is truly “God forsaken.” In fact, as I am fond of saying, the words “God-forsaken” are perhaps the most meaningless words in the English language.

Because God does not forsake the world. God comes to the world, and is born into world. God appears in human form not for God’s benefit, but for our’s, so that we might come to see God in all things, people, places and times.
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There are many views for how God “works” in the world. To use the theological words, there are many views for how God “saves” the world.

During Lent/Easter, the Church traditionally is infatuated with the idea of “substitutionary atonement,” or the idea that Jesus’ bloody, horrible death is the event that “saves” the world from its sin.

I’ve never been a fan of this theology, and usually speak against it around Lent. But Christmas is an equally good time to speak against this view. So, let me do that here…

As I always like to ask:
If the cross was all that is important, then why to we have the rest of the story?
Why do we have Gospels that are dozens of chapters long?
Why do we have stories of teaching, and preaching and healing?
Why do we have amazing parables and carefully crafted narratives.

And most important to us this time of year, if the cross is all that matters, why do we even bother with the Christmas story?

A two-chapter Gospel that tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection would certainly be much easier to preach from!!

Look. The answer is self-evidently clear, yes?

The answer is that we tell these stories —we tell this Christmas story— because they do matter. The Gospels are not just prologue to the real-thing of Good Friday/Easter. The Gospels stories are “salvific,” in and of their own right. Jesus was “saving” people in every story he told, in every healing he performed, in every life changed all throughout his life and ministry.

Christmas is about this very same incarnational way that God’s “saves” the world.

Frederick Buechner once said it this way:

“We preach Christ crucified,” the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”.… He could as well have written, “We preach Christ born” or “We preach Christmas…”

(This is part of a  longer essay that the New York Times commissioned Buecher to write, and then later rejected for being “too theological.” The whole thing is worth your time here.)

At Northaven this Advent season, our theme was, Emmanuel: God With Us. God come to earth as a human being. A powerful, crazy, lovely story we tell each Christmas season.

About a year and a half ago, I stumbled on a picture online that really struck me. It was from an online group called “We Occupy Jesus

saved_lovedworld

You save the world, by loving it first, not the other way around.

Before the election last Fall I saw these yard signs all over my North Dallas neighborhood.

e7783-voteyardsign

They’re apparently from the Dallas Tea Party. For the record, I don’t believe I personally know anybody in the Dallas Tea Party. Nor am I attempting to malign them, or draw them into discussion. (Really, I’m not. No desire, whatsoever…)

I merely post the sign for illustrative reasons: That in our culture, there are political folks who believe America needs to be “rescued.”

Alongside of this political rhetoric is one kind of Christian theology. Just after Obama’s re-elecion, about this time last year, the head of Heritage Action America, a fundamentalist Christian action group, proclaimed that Christians are, and I quote, “In a war to save America.

Rescue America, politically.
Save America, for Jesus.

The same message, in its political and theological forms.

But that’s not what God said in that most famous scripture. You know, the one you always see at football games:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”

The two key words here are loved and gave.

God LOVED…not rejected…not criticized…not marginalized…the world.

God GAVE God’s son….not “gave to be killed”…not “gave to be crucified”… Just gave.

Gave as a witness to love. Gave so that he would teach, preach, and heal and love the least and the lost. And by living that kind of incarnational life, calling us to do the same.

Any saving of the world begins with acts of love. Loving the world is what God does. Loving the world is what God calls us to do.

That means meeting the world where the world is, instead of trying to change the world to fit our view. This last sentence is a mistake that people who claim to follow Jesus have made, time and time again, through history. Christians have used the boogey-man of “cultural accommodation” to justify standing against the marginalized in generation after generation.

The Pharisees used it, when they criticized Jesus for eating with “sinners” and “tax collectors.”
Christians used it over slavery, defending slavery as justified in the name of God and holy scripture.
Christians used it over suffrage, defending the subjugation of women in God’s name.

And today, Christians used this with homosexuality, and assume Jesus is calling them to condemn homosexuals. (BTW, for a complete list of everything Jesus said about homosexuality, click here).

Progressive Christians, like those of us at Northaven, are continually seeking ways to love the world and love our LGBT brothers and sisters. We have found a deep grace and passionate calling to advocate for, and be in ministry with, them. Millions of other Christians see it the same.

So, what would it mean for ALL Christians, to stop trying to save America, and just start loving it?

To do this, we would have to see our brothers and sisters around us incarnationally, as God sees them. (A blog on this is here)

Speaking of the continued movement of God’s Spirit and LGBT rights, the march of Civil Same Sex Marriage continues across our nation. This week, we all found ourselves exclaiming….UTAH?!!!
(If you’re listening to the audio recording, don’t miss the joyous joyous laughter and applause by the people of Northaven at 11:14 for the Great State of Utah…)

Meanwhile, Rev. Frank Schafer’s home Annual Conference stripped him of his Elder’s Orders in the United Methodist Church this week, for performing a same-sex marriage for his son and son-in-law.

And elsewhere in the news, the “Duck Dynasty” controversy rages. Here in Dallas, Fox 4 News asked me to go on their Thursday night show to debate the pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas on Duck Dynasty. But I had to tell them, I didn’t know anything about Duck Dynasty. So, I demurred. (But, I’d love to debate him at some point…)

With all these things swirling around in the news, theologian/historian Diana Butler Bass said it best this week in social media:

“Hmmm. The United Methodist Church wants to get rid of a guy for being nice to gay people; while A&E is getting rid of a guy for being mean to gay folks. This is very confusing.”

And that may strike some as ironically funny. But it’s not confusing at all.

Let me be clear about what it means…

It means the UMC continues to embrace theology and polity similar to the Duck Dynasty guy while rejecting a minister who, unconditionally and incarnationally, loves LGBT people.

When we United Methodists read the headlines about the Frank Schaefer trial, it can cause real pain and concern. As I noted a few weeks ago, Northaven has lost members. In fact, the way I found out about the final Schaefer decision last Thursday was that yet another person wrote me a note via social media, withdrawing their membership from Northaven.

I got the note, having yet to turn on any news that day, and said to myself,

Oh, they must have just kicked out Frank Shaefer…
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We must remember this about Jesus’ incarnational life and ministry: Jesus was crucified for it. When Jesus loved the world, it brought about dissension and strife, and ultimately led to his death on the cross.

Loving the world is not without cost.
Loving the world is not without loss.
Loving the world is never assured to be something that doesn’t also hurt.

We just don’t expect that cost, loss, and hurt to be at the hands of the church itself.

Despite the headlines of the Frank Shaefer trial, I believe God is still calling us to be people of love…
To not react in hate, or in anger.
But to double-down, once again, on what it means to love our neighbor.

Frank Shaefer was at Foundry UMC in Washington DC as the preacher yesterday. And in his sermon, he exhorted Reconciling United Methodists to not give up, but instead to “double down” on their efforts to bring about the fully inclusive Methodist Church God wants. To those who might consider leaving, he said:

“I am a United Methodist and I am not giving up on this church. We need you. We need you in our fight. We have veered away from the message of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who loves us all.”

There’s a powerful video of him leading the congregation in “We Shall Overcome” here:

And a video of the whole service here.

Finally, if Frank Shaefer had been allowed to quote scripture in his church trial….and he was not

By the way, don’t rush by that insanity too quickly… Frank Schaefer was allowed to quote the Methodist Discipline in his defense…but not Holy Scripture. That alone tells you just how insane things are right now…

Anyway, if  Frank Schaefer been able to quote scripture, he was prepared to talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Schaefer was going to remind the good people of his church trial court of God’s calling to love the outcast and the marginalized.

He was going to remind the trial court that the Priest and the Levite are the ones who pass the injured man by.

And! That they do so FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS!!! They do so not because the Priest and the Levite were callous and uncaring people, but because they felt bound by a religious code of their day that said it was “unclean” to touch the injured and the dying while on their way to religious services.

Honest to God, the Priest and Levite were simply following the “Book of Discipline” of their day. They fail to love the Samaritan, right in front of them, because of their obsessive devotion to religious rules. (Let those with ears, hear!)

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable of about love. It’s about who, how, and when we are called to love others. And the the short answer God gives us in this story is that God calls us us to love whomever it is that God places in front of us. We are called to love without judgment…to love without precondition…to love incarnationally, the whole person.

The world doesn’t want to be saved, it wants to be loved.
(That’s how you save it.)

When we love somebody, it changes not only how we see them, but also how we see ourselves. It’s not just that they are saved. We are saved/changed too. And while that can be scary, it can also be a God-thing.

So, don’t seek the save the world.
Just love it.
Then, wait to see what happens to the world.
What happens to you.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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