About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Naughty? Nice? Fruitcake? Or Casserole?

2013-12-08 Naughty? Nice? Fruitcake? Or Casserole?
Second Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

Last Sunday in Children's Sermon I explained that this tall, green fir over here is a "Chrismon" tree. Each of the "ornaments" is a MON-o-graph for Jesus. And all the children looked at me like I was speaking Swedish. One little guy was brave enough to say out loud what everyone was thinking. "No it's not! It's a Christmas tree!" (implied parentheses: "You big nut!"). He said it twice, louder and slower the second time because that's how you speak to people who are old.

I considered pointing out that only minutes before, he had taken part in a musical Christmas pageant with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and if he had learned anything about ancient Bethlehem, he'd know that a lighted fir tree beside the manger was a logical impossibility.

Instead, I handed him a stuffed-lamb chrismon. And he was gone.

It looks like a Christmas tree. It has ornaments like a Christmas tree. But it's *not* a Christmas tree. Riiiiight. What grown-up came up with that?

Kids are smart. Kids can hold onto to contradictory ideas at the same time, and be perfectly OK with it. Kids don't argue about "remembering the reason for the season." There's church Christmas with Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus. And then there's Santa Christmas, with Christ-MAS trees and presents and… presents. There's one. And there's the other. And that's OK. You can even have a Christmas tree in church. Kids know the difference.

But then we get old and we get confused. We get pushy over having one meaning, the RIGHT meaning for Christmas or religion or politics or the way people are supposed to behave. We say, "Well, when I was a boy…" But we forget that when we *were* boys or *were* girls, we didn't get obsessed with worries about how the young people are going to juggle the contradictions. I can say this as a parent because I do it too. We try really hard to save our kids from the burdens of contradictions. We forget that to the kids, they're not burdens.

Maybe they're not burdens to God, either. God doesn't save us from the burdens of conflicting, contradicting ideas. Maybe to God they're the way out from under our burdens.

Oh, you'd better watch out!
You'd better not cry!
You'd better not pout!
I'm telling you why.

He's making a list.
He's checking it twice.
Gonna find out who's naughty or nice.
(who's coming and where?)

He sees you when you're sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be (what?) for goodness sake!


I forget. Is this song good news? Or a threat? What are we teaching our kids?? There's an overweight bearded man in red pajamas outside the window. (That's not creepy at all.) He's watching you. He's keeping a list. He's double-checking your totals. At the end of the year, you might be nice. But if you've cried, or pouted, or transgressed in any way, well, you know what list you're on.

When I was a boy… actually slightly before that, naughty children got lumps of coal in their boots and switches in their stockings. All you need now's a match. It's the home starter-kit for flames of punishment licking at your feet. Santa might bring you a toy, if you're nice. But he might sit in all-seeing judgment over a misspent year and reward you in kind for all the evil you've done, or said, or thought. You naughty, naughty child. Ah, those were the days.

I'm not sure when Jolly Old Saint Nick got so omnipotent and judgmental.  Maybe grown-ups got confused. Maybe they mixed him up with another image of a bearded old man who watches everything you do, and say, and think, and pronounces judgment.

In the reading from Matthew 3, "In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.""

John said: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

"…one who is more powerful than I is coming…. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

They say the Bible is good news. But this doesn't sound so good. It makes Jesus sound - and it makes God sound - sound like the vindictive, number-crunching Santa who knows if you've been bad or good. Naughty or nice. Wheat or chaff. Free bird… or cooked goose.

So, if you were Santa. If you were Santa looking down at you, which list would you put you on? You know when you've been sleeping. You know when you've been lying awake. You know when you've been bad. You know when you've been good. For goodness' sake, how do your scores add up?

Are there items on one list that count three or four times as much as those on the other?

That's where the list concept breaks down. Things get blurry because you might have one side of the page filled with checkmarks but there's one on the other side that outweighs all the others. And that's true for bad or good. You did all these good things, but there's that one bad that ruined everything. Or, you did all these bad things, but there's that one good one that proves you can't be all naughty.

We like to pretend that we're all one or the other. Good or bad, naughty or nice. We like to pretend our inner contradictions don't burden us. We'd like to simply and be just this or just that.

There's one Christmas food that always gets made fun of. It's from the Island of Misfit Food. You know: The fruitcake. Does anyone even give fruitcakes anymore? I used to love them when I was a kid. I would not want to be in the fruitcake business. Fruitcakes are the butt of so many seasonal jokes. No one knows exactly what they are. But they seem to last forever. There's bits and pieces of all kinds of stuff held together by sugar and adhesives that don't occur in nature. It's all these different foods glommed into one. It's like a casserole that stands up on its own. I think we make fun of the humble fruitcake precisely because it's not one thing or the other. It's a bit of this, it's bite of that and by some miracle it all holds together.

I'm sure you know some people who appear to be 100% nice. Maybe you know one or two you'd swear are 100% naughty. But I'll bet you know a lot more who are fruitcakes. "He's nutty as a fruitcake." That's what we say about someone when we're telling the truth. "She's kind of naughty, she's kind of nice; it's just a mystery to me how she holds it together." Most of the time. A fruitcake.

Any kid will tell you: Jesus is not Santa. Jesus showed us on the cross that God would rather die than be turned into a scorekeeper by Pharisees and Sadducees and people who insist every contradicting thought be resolved. [Note: With grateful thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for the language of that previous sentence, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (p. 86)]. Jesus does not make a list and check it twice. He knows you're really not that naughty. He knows you're really not that nice. He knows we're all more like fruitcakes. Mixed up. Laughable. And held together by the grace of God.

The religious grown-ups of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, got it wrong. They thought John and Jesus were coming to divide people up and they wanted to make sure they were on the right list. They missed that people are already pretty well divided up on the inside.

John the Baptist appeared not in some well-manicured temple, but in the wilderness. He dressed in itchy clothes and he ate locusts dipped in honey. And we think Christmas sweaters and fruitcakes are are weird.

When John appeared in the wilderness, he called real people - real, mixed-up people. John called real people to do the true, hard work of honest soul-searching. He called people to look deep into their real hearts.

John's call comes to us. He calls us to see - to see with the eyes of God - to see in ourselves the good and the bad, the true and the false, the broken and the urge to break. He calls us to look for goodness' sake, for the sake of the good of our souls.

A long, long time before John, the Prophet Isaiah was given the gift of a vision from God. In this vision, Isaiah saw the contradictions of life. He saw the innocence and the danger that all of us have within us.

But Isaiah also saw that God did not, and God would not, lift away the conflicting truths. Because to God, the opposites aren't a burden; they're a wonder. Children see that wonder. They remind us that it's OK.

Isaiah says:

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Do you see that tall green fir over there? Is it a Chrismon tree? Or is it a Christmas tree? Maybe it's both. I know that's kind of nutty. And that's OK.