Saturday, December 26, 2015

This is why we fail

This is my Christmas Eve sermon for Presbury United Methodist Church.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, on this most holy night, or perhaps better, this most impossible night, we glorify you and praise you for all we have heard and seen, as the shepherds did. But may we all continue to ponder this story in our hearts so that it can continue to change us, so that we live as though we know you are Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Amen.

Every year, we come back to this story. We read the same scriptures, we sing the same songs, and we light the same candles. And yet, we are not the same. We come to this story differently every year, hopefully a little older and wiser and healthier and happier, but maybe just a little older and a little poorer or a little more lonely or a little more sad. And so, while the story doesn't change, we can read it differently, ponder it in our hearts differently, see ourselves positioned within it differently than before. Understand who God is in a new and different way.

Except that's not usually what happens. What usually happens is that we have heard the story of Jesus' birth so many times that it takes on this nice, sweet, fairy-tale like feel to it. Rather than remembering the intense awe and fear Mary and Joseph experienced in the presence of the angels, or the ostracism that they must have experienced at the hands of family and neighbors, we see them only as happy new parents. Rather than smelling the musk of the animals, and worrying about their unpredictability around a baby, we smell only pine trees and see animals like the ones in Snow White or Cinderella who help clean the house. Rather than recognizing parallels between the shepherd in Jesus' story and the working poor in our own world, we clean them up in our minds, make them more respectable.

We are left with a story that comforts us in its familiarity, and maybe even one that inspires us in its simple beauty. And we need that--- we need comfort and inspiration. But we have limited the story if that is all it is for us, we have tamed it. When we hear the angels in the story say, “Do not be afraid,” we do not hear them speaking to us. When we see the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, we do not see our children. We may treasure the story the way we treasure an ornament that was our grandmother's, but we do not ponder it in our heart. We do not put ourselves beside the manger year after year, and let the story change us.

The past month, I have been using Star Wars to illustrate and inspire us as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child. I was going to try and be a little less geeky for Christmas Eve, but I can't. Because what Yoda says to Luke seems to tap into the trouble we have with limiting the story of Jesus' birth. Yoda is this little green alien who is a powerful Jedi master, and he is teaching Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original trilogy, how to become a Jedi himself. Yoda tells him that he must unlearn what he has learned, explaining to him that with the power of the Force, nothing is too heavy or too big to lift. Luke isn't really getting it, and sulks off, saying “You want the impossible.” And then Yoda lifts a giant x-wing out of the swamp with the Force. Luke rushes over too see for himself before stuttering, “I don't believe it!” To which Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.”

We read the scriptures, sing the songs, and light the candles, but sometimes we don't believe it. We find comfort in it, usually, maybe we even enjoy it, but sometimes we don't believe it. We don't believe that God has done the impossible, broken all those impossible barriers of time and space--- no, I'm not talking about outer space this time--- and come to us. God, the Creator of the Universe for whom we use such authoritative names as King and Lord, God chose to become a human just like us. And God did not choose to be born a king or a jedi master or even just a nice middle-class boy, God chose to become a poor, brown peasant born to unwed parents in a town under occupation by the Roman Empire. We forget these parts of the story when we let the familiarity of the words lull us to a sense of comfort. When we read the story more closely, when we ponder it in our hearts, we find ourselves declaring, “That's impossible!”

Sometimes, we don't believe God would become incarnate, that God would put on flesh and dwell among us. And that is why we fail. According to scripture, we were made in the image of God, but there was a break, and that image has been corrupted. If we need to wonder about that corruption, we can look to the news from this year alone from the rampant terrorism of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram massacring innocents in Nigeria and Lebanon and France to the terrorism of racists that claimed lives at Emanuel church in Charleston, from the horrifying rhetoric of politicians particularly concerning refugees and Muslims to greedy men raising the price of important HIV/AIDS medications. And the list goes on. The list goes on in our own lives as well, as we count broken relationships and missed opportunities. Our failures stemming from our incredulity at God's presence in ourselves and our neighbors are apparent. But Christ's birth is the reconciliation of that image, the act of taking us back, making us at-one-with-God (atonement) again. In Christ's birth, God shows us that nothing is impossible. That God can be incarnated in our neighbors, in ourselves. And that we are not too far gone for reconciliation.

So tonight, as we read scripture, as we sing, as we light candles, and as we come to the table for communion, I pray that we believe in this impossible story. And that we allow our belief in our incarnated God to change us so that we may see possibility everywhere. The possibility of the transforming love of God.

There Has Been an Awakening: A Star Wars Themed Christmas Pageant

I am such a huge nerd, I subjected Presbury United Methodist Church to a Christmas pageant written using scripture and dialogue from the Star Wars franchise. Enjoy!


(PASTOR SHANNON putting on jacket like she’s going to leave.)

NARRATOR: Hey Pastor Shannon, where are you going?  
PS: I'm going to see the new Star Wars movie!

NARRATOR: Oh yeah. I almost forgot how big a geek you are.

PS: Whatever NARRATOR. It is a classic battle of good and evil! Plus it takes place in space!

NARRATOR: Well, you should stick around here because number one, it's your job. And number two, we are talking about the ultimate battle of good over evil today in worship.

PS: Wait--- do you mean Easter, when God defeats death and Jesus rises from the dead? I thought that was the ultimate battle of good over evil. But we celebrate that in the spring, and it is cold outside now, and plus I don't see any chocolate Easter eggs anywhere.

NARRATOR: Ok, Easter is the ultimate battle of good over evil. But so is Christmas! God became human! Listen to this passage from the Gospel of John:


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us...

PS: Oh, yes, that is one of my favorite scriptures!

NARRATOR: Of course it is. But what it is saying is that in Jesus, God put on flesh and lived among us! This mighty, powerful God, who brought all things into being just by speaking; this God of light who cannot be overcome by darkness--- this God became a weak, suffering human, to live in solidarity with us.

PS: Yes, God didn't just reconcile us to God's self through sacrificing Jesus, but by becoming Jesus. God came to walk with us, and showed us a new way to live. And that Love God showed by becoming human is a lot like how Obi Wan Kenobi explains the Force: “it surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” It is a pretty cool story. But it doesn't take place in space.

NARRATOR: No it doesn't, but I think you'll like our re-imagining of the story. (to church) Pastor Shannon and Presbury United Methodist Church, sit back and enjoy our Christmas Pageant!


NARRATOR: A long time ago in the days of King Herod of Judea, in a galaxy not so far away...

(Star Wars theme song plays.)

NARRATOR: Turmoil engulfed Palestine at that time, much like turmoil still engulfs us today. So God sent angels to bring a message of peace and justice, or good news of great joy, to settle the conflict, and prepare the way of the Lord.

(ANGEL and MARY are standing in front of the wreath.)

ANGEL: Be not afraid! The Lord is with you!

MARY: Aren't you a little short for an angel?

ANGEL: Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you? Well you should not. For my ally is the God, and a powerful ally God is. God is your ally as well! And now you will conceive and bear and child, and you will name him Jesus. The Force will be strong with him, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

MARY: How can this be since I am a virgin?

ANGEL: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.

MARY: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

(MARY steps to the center of the stage. ANGEL steps back into the background.)

MARY: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For I am a poor young woman from Nazareth, the town furthest from the bright center of the universe, but God chose me! Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. Help us today, God! You are our only hope!

(MARY exits.)

NARRATOR: There was unrest at home, however, specifically in Joseph's home. Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but here she is, found pregnant. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to declare his intentions to leave her, he receives a visitor.

ANGEL: Joseph! I find your lack of faith disturbing!
JOSEPH: What? Who are you?! What are you doing here?

ANGEL: No, I'm just kidding about the lack of faith thing--- don't be afraid! You are actually a righteous man. So do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.

(ANGEL and Joseph shake hands.)


NARRATOR: A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away...

(Star Wars theme song plays.)

NARRATOR: A decree went out from Emperor Palpatine...I mean, Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. Pursued by the Roman Empire's sinister agents, well, kinda anyway, Joseph and Mary journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Mary would give birth to a baby who can save all people and restore freedom to the galaxy and bring balance to the Force.

(MARY and JOSEPH appear with DONKEY. They walk back and forth.)

MARY: Joseph, we need to find a place to stay now.

JOSEPH: Cool it, your worshipfulness, but no one seems to have any extra room for us anywhere.

MARY: Well, someone has to save our skins. Into the barn, flyboy.

(All the ANIMALS come onstage. C-3PO brings in the manger.)

JOSEPH: (holding his nose) What an incredible smell you've discovered!

MARY: Well we will make it work. I'll have the baby here and we'll wrap him in swaddling clothes and lay him in the manger.

(C3PO brings a baby out to MARY.)

NARRATOR: Now, in that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

(SHEPHERDS and SHEEP enter. ANGEL appears. All SHEPHERDS cover their faces.)

ANGEL: Do not be afraid! Fear is the path to the Dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering! What I am here to share with you today is good news of great joy for all people!

SHEPHERD 1: Well if there's nothing to fear, why give me a heart attack like that. Sheesh!

SHEPHERD 2: Seriously, me and this stuck up, scruffy looking, half-witted nerfherder here are just trying to mind our own business!

SHEPHERD 1: Who's scruffy looking?

ANGEL: Hey cut it out guys. I'm trying to give you good news, ok? Anyway, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

SHEPHERD 2: A Savior! Sounds like somebody's having delusions of grandeur.

ANGEL: Not at all, actually. This shall be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger.

SHEPHERD 1: A manger? Like where animals eat?

SHEPHERD 2: Doesn't the poor guy have a crib?

SHEPHERD 1: That can' be comfortable. But speaking of mangers--- hey, are you hungry?

ANGEL: Ok, it seems I'm dealing with some real laserbrains here.

SHEEP: (laugh)

SHEPHERD 2: Laugh it up, fuzzballs!

ANGEL: Enough, enough. God has chosen you, humble shepherds though you are, to witness God's own self in human form. God didn't choose Herod, or the Emperor, or some rich dude. God chose you! You are important to God.

SHEPHERD 2: Wow, that does sound pretty awesome.

SHEPHERD 1: Yeah, I feel kinda special now!

SHEPHERD 2: Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place!

(SHEPHERDS and SHEEP move to the side, and MARY and JOSEPH and Jesus set up. SHEPHERDS kneel around the altar.)

(ANGEL moves to the center.)

ANGEL: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, may the Force be with us all!


NARRATOR: A long time ago in a galaxy not so far, far away...

(Star Wars theme song plays.)

NARRATOR: Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, seeking a child they learned of in their studies of the night sky. The evil puppet king Herod, obsessed with maintaining power, invited these wise people into his palace for a secret meeting...

(Imperial Death March plays.)

HEROD: Hello wise men from the East. I hear you are searching for something very interesting.

MAGI 1: Oh yes, we have been reading the work of prophets around the world because we have noticed changes in the night sky. A star rising over Judea.

MAGI 2: It has been written: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rules of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.

MAGI 3: We understand this prophecy and the star to be connected. That the shepherd ruler of Israel was born at the star's rising.

HEROD: WHAT?! A king to replace me? A Messiah to be anointed over me? I must find the child!

MAGI 1: (to MAGI 2) I've got a bad feeling about this.

HEROD: Oh, sorry for my outburst. I am only excited because I, too, have been searching for this Messiah. To pay my respects, of course.

MAGI 2: (waves hand) Um, I'm sure he's not the Messiah you are looking for.

MAGI 3: (waves hand) You don't need to see where he was born. We can go about our business. Move along.

HEROD: Those Jedi mind tricks don't work on me! Now go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word.

(HEROD exits.)

MAGI 1: I've got a bad feeling about this.

MAGI 2: Me too.

MAGI 3: When it is time to go home again, let us leave for our country by another road.

(MAGI walk down the aisle and back up. Meanwhile MARY, JOSEPH, and JESUS set up.)

MAGI 1: (pointing) Look! The star has stopped.

MAGI 2: We did it! We made it! Let us go see this child that makes kings quake and stars rise.

MAGI 3: Let us worship the newborn king!

(MAGI kneel at the manger.)
(ANGEL steps back into center stage.)

ANGEL: And so the people who sat in great darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and the shadow of death, light has dawned. There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?


PS: Wow, you were right! That story really is an epic battle where good triumphs over evil. I feel like we should celebrate with a party the way they do at the end of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi when the Death Star is destroyed---

NARRATOR: Ok, Pastor Shannon, I think we've indulged your geekiness enough for one day. Remember, we need to be preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ child all over again. The Gospel of Mark, which does not have a story about Jesus' birth, still leaves us with an important message as we celebrate Christmas this week.


The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

NARRATOR: We aren't just talking about a nice sweet little baby we can hand back to his mom and dad when he gets fussy when we are talking about baby Jesus. We are talking about power, the power of the presence of God within a human being. This power may have been most complete in Jesus, but it is in each of us as well. Like the angel said at the end of the last act--- we are talking about an awakening. So let us leave from this place preparing our hearts for the power of the Holy Spirit to wake us up!

PS: That's a pretty good message to end on. And remember, no matter how sleepy you may end up feeling, the Force will be with you always.

NARRATOR: And also with you!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Iman Means Faith

This is the answer I gave to our Board of Ordained Ministry about an experience with peace with justice ministries I've had as a pastor. I wanted to write about my experience of Islam to counter the hate-speech that seems to be acceptable today, but, without the time during Advent, I thought I would recycle this:

A group of women from a church were sitting in a restaurant during Advent, and talking about how Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother, has been represented across cultures, including an Arabic representation. Mary is revered in some Muslim communities and is mentioned more in the Qu'ran than she is in the Bible. Except in the middle of this conversation,  one of the women said, “Well, if that's true, then it's too bad they [Muslims] all are still so violent.” 

Comments like this, willfully ignorant, incorrect, and even hateful, about Islam are too common in our churches. I have served congregations in Harford County, a largely white county, overwhelmingly Christian, and also woefully illiterate on other faiths. Some Christians do not see why such illiteracy is a problem, but the reality is that illiteracy breeds violence and intolerance. In his book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world, Brian McLaren writes, “Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our identities strong--- and whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious.”1 If I wanted to interrupt the hostility, I would need to engage in peace and justice ministries that fostered interfaith relationships.

My own faith became stronger through my friendship with Muslims who I met through a mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004 (and have returned to visit at least eight times). I have always felt called to interfaith youth work, believing in the South African concept of ubuntu, that we become who we are through relationship with others. I never expected to be about to do interfaith work in homogenous Harford County, but when preparing to teach confirmation, I sought non-Christian congregations to visit, and somehow came into contact with Tasniya Sultana, an organizer for Project Iman, a Muslim Girls youth group. We met, had a great time, and began to plan ways for our youth to get together.

The first year, we met twice, starting by meeting with Project Iman during Ramadan. Their group was much bigger than our own, particularly because only my girls in youth group were invited the first time. I also ended up bringing a few younger girls with my youth (whose pictures ended up in the paper).2 Some of the youth went to the same school! We began with a craft where we learned to write our names in Arabic and talked about our favorite holidays. We shared stories, explaining in very basic terms how we walk in the footsteps of many of the same giants of faith, Abraham who they call Ibrahim, or Jesus who they call Isa, for instance. They spoke of Ramadan and the sacrifice of Ishmael (Isaac in the Bible). When our craft was finished, we stood up and got in a circle for a game. One of the leaders of Project Iman read a series of statements and we were supposed to take steps into the circle if the statement was true for us. She deftly included theological and scriptural statements along with statements about our families and favorite foods. And then they prayed. We sat at the tables in our own attitude of prayer while they prayed before breaking their fast. The girls from Presbury were quiet. I didn't see suspicion or self-righteousness or anything our culture teaches us about how Christians should see Muslims; instead, I only saw wonder and openness.

The second time we met was at Presbury. We ate together and painted birdhouses as a craft to go with the scripture I shared, Luke 12:22-29, about how we should not worry for God is with us. Then I had questions about how our faith teaches us to deal with worry and fear. One of the leaders from Project Iman said she loved the scripture! But the most powerful experience of the night was when we moved to the sanctuary and shared about our worship experiences. I told the kids they could ask each other whatever they wanted, but I also asked them questions. It was fascinating to see what kinds of questions they had for us, how they noticed the colors in the sanctuary and asked about their meaning, as well as to see how excited they were when I asked them to tell me about how they worship. It was a safe space where the Muslim girls were asked questions not to put them on the defensive but just out of wonder. And we as Christians were able to model Christ's hospitality.

Rev. Emily Scott, a Lutheran pastor of a dinner church called St. Lydia's in New York, said recently: “Sometimes you are seated next to someone so different, that you don't know how to start a conversation. And then something happens. In that moment, heaven and earth overlap, and God builds a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be.”3 The interfaith relationships between Project Iman and Presbury are fostering those moments where God builds a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be, a world of peace and justice where Muslims and Christians are more interested in eating, laughing, and sharing together than fighting or using hostility to shore up our identities. Our plans for this ministry are to expand it to all our youth, as there is now a Muslim youth group for boys that Project Iman works with, and to have not just dialogue together, but to work together for justice too. For Ramadan in 2016, we are planning a 30 Hour Famine-type event to raise money and awareness about world hunger. We want to continue to create that overlap between heaven and earth, that glimpse of earth as it should be, in our little corner of Harford County.

1Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), 63

2See Nimra Nadeem, “Muslim, Christian girls join for interfaith iftar,” The Baltimore Sun, 28 July 2014, accessed 14 July 2015,

3Emily Scott, from a talk at the ELCA's national youth gathering posted by Nadia Boltz-Weber on Facebook, 18 July 2015,