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In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon

This is the sermon I preached this morning, Christmas Day 2016, at 10 am at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Merry Christmas to all!

NRS John 1:. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

My nephew Aaron is a college student, all grown up and mature now, but when he was seven years old my sister Amy and her two boys accompanied her husband Chris on a business trip.  On the way they incorporated a little vacation and stopped in Los Vegas.  They went to the Hilton Hotel, which houses the world famous STAR TREK: THE EXPERIENCE

STAR TREK: The Experience is an interactive adventure based on the voyages of the most exciting futuristic television series of all time — Star Trek. Visitors are immersed in a futuristic world where they see, feel, and live the 24th century!

They walked in and her little boys were absolutely overwhelmed.  They hadn’t been there long when a huge man dressed as a Klingon came walking up.  Now, I’m not a Star Trek fan, but many people star-trek-the-experience-castare.  Vickie never would permit us to watch anything on the television at our house involving mutants or creatures with things on their foreheads with our girls in the house, so I always waited until after bedtime to watch aliens and zombies and such.  Take my word for it, though, a Klingon is an alien who looks pretty weird.

So anyway, this guy comes walking up, he’s about seven feet tall with elevator platform boots on to make him taller and got that “rainy day mutant” look on his face, and he bends over to my terrified little nephews and says, “Where are YOU from, little boy?”  And Aaron’s trembling mouth drops open and he replies, “Earth!”

I sympathize.  I have the same reaction when I think about Jesus arriving here.  It’s such a strange concept.  Star Trek has created a whole universe out of our fascination with what’s “out there.”  The original series began with the phrase describing the Starship Read the rest of this entry

God’s Dream and Our Fear

Adapted from my newsletter column to the church this week at www.vhbc.com:

As I was looking over past writings and came upon this one, from 1994. It still seems useful for now.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

The problem of life is not faith, but fear.  Fear of failure can paralyze a talented person from ever trying.  The fear of success can explain why many equally-talented people seem to sabotage themselves just on the brink of success or achievement.  Psychologists tell us that fear is the root of much procrastination in the perfectionist who can never begin the task until she is a little better prepared.

Fear can keep us silent in the face of evil when we should have spoken.  It is the fear of change that paralyzes our wills and reduces life to discontented mumbling against fate rather than risking ourselves to move forward.  The fear of death can turn us hollow and brittle, fearful of a garymisstep and terrified of suffering.  Fear grants a thousand deaths to a cowering heart.

Change, all change, brings fear with it.  Transitions surpass our past copings and leave us exposed and vulnerable.  We are once again where we find ourselves continually in life: thrown back on our wits and facing the unknown.

Every day, every week, we are facing changes as individuals, as the church, as families.  The creative possibility is that in the face of change we will choose with courageous faith to trust God’s new life through us rather than fear.

Parker Palmer says that “the core message of all the great spiritual traditions is ‘Be not afraid’…the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the most precious of all our birthrights–the experience of aliveness itself.”[1]

As we look at the world around us, it is not a brilliant observation to see that we are in a time of suspicion, distrust and unkindness. The cheapness of life, the anger and fear of our culture, and the rampant selfishness of too many is easy to see. But what to do about Read the rest of this entry

Mary, Springsteen and Nietsche

 NRSV Luke 1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

The first signs of the incarnation in the Christmas story is the moving of a child in a womb, a blessing before a birth, a declaration of faith, and a pregnant mother singing.  This is, for Christianity, the hope of the world.

Perhaps the greatest critic of Christianity in the last century was not anyone that most average people know, but his arguments lasted until this day.  The philosopher Nietsche attacked Christianity because of its adoration of humility and weakness.  It was, he said, “the transvaluation of all values,” by which he meant that Christians adore all the virtues that lead to the collapse of humanity.

Perhaps our failings, along with our founding faith, Judaism, was a God who felled the mighty.

Christianity, declared Nietzsche, is the vengeance the slaves have taken upon their masters. Driven by resentment, “a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in imaginary revenge,” they have transvalued the morality of the aristocrats and have turned sweet into bitter and bitter into sweet.

"The Annunciation" by Carravagio 1609

Who is right?  Mary or Nietsche?  Is it power and will and human pride or humility and the song of the outcasts?  Nietsche’s song is the song of children in competition:  “I’m better than you-ou, I’m better than you-ou.”  “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.”

Mary’s song bears some study for us.  We sing things that come from the deepest places in us.  Some people are ashamed to let their songs be heard, so they only sing them in their cars alone, or in the shower, but they sing.  To sing is to release our rational minds and come from our hearts and center.

The question is, “Which song?”

I got an interesting CD several years back entitled, “The Seeger Sessions.”  It’s a real turn for Springsteen—no rock and roll, acoustic, folk songs, and simple.  It was a humbling experience for him to sing, because that rock-n-roll voice don’t sound the same without that wall of sound-a-round.    It’s real, vulnerable, human, even though Bruce has a lot of instruments around him.  It’s an interesting and wonderful experiment.

One of the haunting song there is an old Spiritual that revived in the Civil Rights days called “O, Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan.”  It sounds very New Orleans early jazz-ragtime on Springsteen.  If you want the old full mass choir gospel version, catch Aretha Franklin and choir in 1972 on “Amazing Grace.”

The Seeger Sessions

The “Mary” in that song is actually Miriam, the sister of Moses, who witnessed the miracle of the Exodus on the shores of the Sea when Pharoah’s armies were pursuing the fleeing band of former slaves to kill them.  In a miraculous moment, the waters crash in upon the chariots and soldiers, vanquishing them.  It is the birth of the nation of Israel, their saving event.

The lesson of that moment was, “It is not you who creates the nation, but only God.  Never forget that you, too, were powerless slaves in Egypt, but God, the merciful, delivered you.”  Miriam sang, according to the book of Exodus:

 NRS Exodus 15:20-21  Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.  And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

For over three thousand years, we’ve remembered that song, the pure joy of being saved when you thought it was all over.  They had no weapons, no strategy except their faith in a mysterious God who promised.

That song re-emerged in the sufferings of poor black people in slavery in this country, then in their Christian musical tradition.  One of my personal favorite versions is of blues singer Mississippi John Hurt singing in in his recordings in the 1920s.  Then it re-emnerged as a folk favorite in the 1960s, though Pete Seeger, but Mississippi John Hurt’s is my personal favorite.

That same song resonates with Hannah and with Mary.  It is the song of those who have nothing except God to count on.

Two women here—Elizabeth, who cannot have a child and God gives her one.  Mary isn’t ready for one, but God gives him to her anyway.  Mary is exultant not about something she wanted more than anything, but something she hadn’t even thought to wish for but God chose her to give the gift.

Mary’s song connects to the whole of scripture.  But deeply rooted here is a stirring truth—she sees the “turning upside down” of all values in the world.  The nobodies are somebodies to God.  The forgotten are remembered.  The lost are found.

Nietsche attacked Christianity for this very point as a “religion of weaklings.”  One might say that given the church’s track record, we haven’t always felt too strongly about it, either.  For we are constantly tempted to forsake the kingdom of Jesus for the seductions of Caesar.  If we remember to give to the poor we are mighty quick to put the rich on our budget committees and seat them at places of prominence.

Scholars increasingly have doubted that Mary composed this song.  Wouldn’t you know it?  One of the few women in the New Testament to author something and we’ve taken it away with scholarship!  One seminary professor has observed three profound truths about this song of Mary’s–

  1. We’ve “spiritualized” the Christian life, making it only about our feelings and emotions, but God is concerned for all of human life, including social justice and physical needs.
  2. We carry out his kingdom mission within a culture whose values are at odds with his values.  If the shadow people are God’s focus, how can we be Jesus in the world if they are not our focus?  Baptism is not a rite of passage but an initiation into discipleship and membership in a counter culture.
  3. True worship is a spiritual preparation and entry into the agenda of God for our lives and the priorities of God for our lives.

Of course, the question is, “Does this mean exchanging one group of people in control for another?”  And the answer is, “No.”  What we need is not the same game with different players, but something that is beyond what we currently know.  Walter Brueggemann has called it, “The Song of Impossibilty.”

But the beginning of any real change is in the imagination.  To believe that my life could be different, that I could live another way, that there is hope where I see none.

Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian ethicist of last century, sought to answer Nietsche.  He said, “Yes, you are right.  Christianity DOES turn the values of the world on its head.”  Niebuhr wrote:

The Christian faith is centred in one who was born in a manger and who died upon the cross. This is really the source of the Christian transvaluation of all values. The Christian knows that the cross is the truth. In that standard he sees the ultimate success of what the world calls failure and the failure of what the world calls success. If the Christian should be, himself, a person who has gained success in the world and should have gained it by excellent qualities which the world is bound to honour, he will know nevertheless that these very qualities are particularly hazardous. He will not point a finger of scorn at the mighty, the noble and the wise; but he will look at his own life and detect the corruption of pride to which he has been tempted by his might and eminence and wisdom. If thus he counts all his worldly riches but loss he may be among the few who are chosen. The wise, the mighty and the noble are not necessarily lost because of their eminence. St. Paul merely declares with precise restraint that “not many are called.” Perhaps, like the rich, they may enter into the Kingdom of God through the needle’s eye.

I tell you this:  it is not in our power that we are ever greatest, but in our kindness and compassion.  Without these, we are reduced to the law of the jungle and the survival of the strongest.  A society that worships only power is a society that will one day devour itself.  Greed without stewardship becomes only self-absorption.  Eventually, there is nothing sufficient to satisfy us.  Power without service to others ultimately becomes what we have witnessed since Nietsche’s day—mass extermination and continuous war without peace and security that we continually fight to find.

We find ourselves still mired in the values of the old world.  We seek security by power and it eludes us even more.  We just officially ended the Iraq war, ten years and, conservatively, $709 billion, not to mention 4287 dead and over 30,000 wounded.

We have created entire television shows about people who collapse morally under the weight of success into drugs, addictions of various sorts and self-disaster.  The way of power is not a way that will bring happiness.   The way of power is not all that great when we see the damage left in its wake.

The church is not exempt from this way, either.  We have worshiped the Mary who sang this revolutionary song, but we have more often preferred the methods of the world it undermines—power, influence, wealth and prosperity.

If I have to choose this Christmas, I choose Mary’s way.  I realize that as I do that I, a prosperous American pastor living a privileged lifestyle in a comfortable place, immediately affirm values that undermine my way of life.  It is to choose a way that will never let me be completely at ease.

But the alternative is worse.  If I cannot immediately become one of the poor and forgotten of the world, I can let them into my heart as an act of my love for Jesus.  I can be “poor in spirit,” as Luke put it, and pursue the way of humility and self-forgetting and generosity to others.  I can follow the journey of surrender of my stubborn will and seek to obey the agenda of God in what I buy and how I live.

Mary’s song and Miriam’s song and Hannah’s song and the songs of the early Christians live on.  When we sing them, we sing hope—that our lives can be different, that we can prevail with God’s help over all that is worst in us, that we can persevere in the struggle with our own failings.  We might change the patterns of the past.  We might find healing and health.  We might make a difference in the world.

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drowned

Mississippi John Hurt

O Mary, don’t you weep

Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

One of these days about twelve o clock,

This old world’s going to reel and rock

Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

When I get to heaven goin’ to sing and shout
Nobody there for turn me out

Pharaoh’s army got drowned

O Mary don’t you weep

Do we have any idea what we’re singing?

 SOURCES:

  •  Brown, Raymond E., “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat,” Worship, 1988.
  •  Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
  •  Lovette, Roger, “A Vision of Church,” The Living Pulpit, 2000.
  •  Martin, James P., “Luke 1:39-47, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 1982.
  •  Miller, Patrick D., “The Church’s First Theologian,” Theology Today, 1999.
  •   Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
  •  Trible, Phyllis, “Meeting Mary through Luke,” The Living Pulpit, 2001.
  •  Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni, “Blessed Are You,” Brethren Life and Thought, 2005. Poetry.

“One Night, One Life, One Song: The Peculiar History of ‘O Holy Night’”

History is an odd and wondrous field in which to run and play.  It’s quite serious but also is filled with miracles, surprises and the never-to-be fully resolved or explained.  Discoveries change the course of things.  Extraordinary lives, moments of courage, unanticipated choices and consequences.  It’s a messy, beautiful truth.

I have been dabbling a bit in my own genealogy.  I’ve been finding websites and people who share my name—Furr actors, writers, scientists, musicians, war veterans, and, yes, a whole list of Furr criminals.  Pictures of the existence, for a while, of a carbonated drink in New Mexico (not sure if it’s still around) called, “Dr. Furr’s Cola.”  Gotta get me some of that.

And I discovered an ancestor of mine that I quite like.  I believe him to be my great, great grandfather, Allen Furr, born Jul 1820, and died in 1873.  He was a man of immense physical strength, fought in the Civil War at age 42, and a recorded interview said this:

His son reported that “Once when his wagon busted a wheel crossing Rocky River he carried it on his back a great distance to have it repaired while his son … stayed with the mules. Allen once won a bet he could hold some huge timbers over his head while serving in the Civil War so he could get a 30 day leave.  [But this is the part I liked the best:] Wilson Mathias Furr that he in fact could drink from the bung hole of a 50 gal. keg of whiskey. [bunghole is the hole drilled in a barrel where a cork is placed]  Must have been quite a site, a grown man elevating a 50 gallon barrel to drink.  I have wondered how many gallons he downed before he’d made his point.  Who was going to criticize a man lifting 50 gallons over his head?

I have had so few opportunities to use the word “bunghole,” and since we don’t use barrels anymore the chances were disappearing.  Bunghole originally came from the word “bunge,” which meant cork.  I came across another man who knew about corks and barrels, a French cooper—a barrelmaker– and winemaker named Placide Cappeau (October 25, 1808 – August 8, 1877).  He was born into those two businesses, and made his living by them.

He was a contemporary of my great-great-grandfather.  Allen was living in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Placide the French.  Cappeau’s life changed at age 9, when playing at a friend’s house.  They were horsing around with a gun that went off and cost little Placide his hand.  It changed the course of his life.  He began to cultivate the life of the mind, art, and literature.  He was good enough, and with the help of the guilt-ridden friend who paid half his tuition, to attend university and, even with only one hand, to win a prize in art.

After, of course, he went into the family business and made wine, barrels and corks.  But his love was literature, especially poetry.  Word people are always being called upon, of course, and so it was that age 39,   that his parish priest encouraged him to try his hand at writing a Christmas hymn.  He was pretty much a non-attender, a political socialist, and anti-clerical, so it must have been intriguing to get a request, and he accepted the challenge.

He later said the inspiration came to him on a stagecoach ride to Paris, but however it happened, he took inspiration from the nativity story in Luke and imagined it from the vantage point of the night.  What resulted was a beautiful poem called, “Cantique de Noelle.”   “O Holy Night.”

He was not a musician, so he called upon a dear musician friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to help him.  Ace Collins described the musician this way:

His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. [There was one small issue]  As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words …represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Isn’t it strange that one of the most beloved songs of Christmas was written by a man who rarely went to church and set to music by a non-Christian Jew?  But that is not the end of it.  The song became wildly popular, sung all over France, but soon the Catholic Church banned it from use when Capelle openly identified with socialism and left the church.  The Archbishop, whose name I think was Maurice de Glenn Beck, ordered it out of worship life because of anti-Catholic and Jewish connections.

Even so, the people loved it.  They kept singing it.  And eventually, a Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight, another contemporary of my great-great-grandfather, found it.  Dwight was a transcendentalist and America’s first influential classical music critic and an ardent  abolitionist.  So, in 1860, on the eve of Civil War, he translated it into English and brought it to American popularity.  He was especially taken by the third verse when it says, “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”

And so, there it was.  A hymn by a socialist barrelmaker became an anti-slavery Christmas hymn through a Unitarian liberal abolitionist, and it began to be sung shortly after Allen Furr was lifting barrels over his head and heading off to war on the wrong side of an American tragedy.

Then there was Reginald Fessenden, a professor.  It was on Christmas Eve 1906, that the former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, using a newly developed generator, was able to speak through a microphone and broadcast over the airwaves for the first time.   He chose to read the Christmas story in Luke.  Ace Collins says

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.  Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

It’s a strange little song, isn’t it?  There are legends that during World War I that one reckless Frenchman sauntered out of the trenches near the time of  Christmas Eve 1914 and began to sing “O Holy Night,” and soon others joined in and the scabbed countryside of blood and barbed wire transformed into a shepherd’s field.  When the singing ceased, the Germans answered, not with bombs and bullets, but with another carol.  And unofficial truces kept happening.  The two sides exchanged gifts, greetings and songs.  The commanders were disturbed.  How on earth would they be able to resume the extermination of the enemy if they kept talking about peace on earth, good will to men?  What kind of war could they have?  Commanders ordered Christmas eve shelling, but the tradition continued through the war.

Since the parish priest came to Placide Cappelle, long after the Catholic Church banned it as unfit to sing, and long after my Confederate uncle lifted a barrel, who knows, maybe one the Cappelle family had made, long after Yankees and Confederates killed one another trying to figure out what freedom means, long after the Germans and Frenchmen wept and sang and celebrated, that song keeps being sung around the world.

But isn’t that what Christmas keeps teaching us?  This story is not ours to control or suppress.  God can choose one life–a poor girl in Palestine and a carpenter husband and be manifested to them.  Honored by people the church cannot always abide or fit into its creaky human traditions.  Spread by miracles unexpected like wine flowing out of a barrel, out into our wars and our sins and the nights of the human soul.  One baby, one night, and then one life after another, going here and there, unstoppable, this radiant light of love and hope.  Out through the very air itself, sung around the very earth, so that on that night, it can be heard everywhere.

This simple story is one that touches hearts that even do not like our more generic pill called “religion.”  It is not mostly about principles or philosophies or power and might.  It is of a life, one life, one night, that comes and turns the course of history, again and again.  That’s why a baby, and not manly strength, is the most powerful and unstoppable force history has known, for there is no weapon great enough to defend us from love.

___________________________________________________________________________

I wrote this piece as a mediation given at the Christmas Banquet at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church.  The source material for the historical backgrounds came from Collins, Ace.  THE AMAZING STORY OF ‘O HOLY NIGHT’   posted on BeliefNet; “Placide Cappeau,” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and material on Allen Furr from http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=bfurr1&id=I1494