“a north pole theology,” December 13, 2015


Responsive Call to Worship
You’d better watch out!
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;
for one’s life does not consist in the abundance
of possessions”(Luke 12:15).
You’d better not cry!
“Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears …” (Jeremiah 31:16).
You’d better not pout!
And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
I’m telling you why.
And now I have told you this before it occurs,
so that when it does occur, you may believe (John 14:29).

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know
on what day your Lord is coming (Matthew 24:42).

He’s making a list.
The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance
was written before him of those who revered the Lord
and thought on his name (Malachi 3:16).
He’s checking it twice.
If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes,
and I will not blot your name out of the book of life;
I will confess your name before my Father
and before his angels (Revelation 3:5).
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life
was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).

For yet ‘in a very little while, the one who is coming
will come and will not delay … (Hebrews 10:37).

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record? (Psalm 56:8)
He knows when you’re awake.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good (Proverbs 15:3).
He knows if you’ve been bad or good.
May they have no acquittal from you.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous (Psalm 69:27-28).
So be good for goodness sake!
Rejoice that your names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20b).
Jesus answered them, “But you’d better watch out
that no one leads you astray.

For many will come in my name, saying,
“I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray (Matthew 4:4-5).

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Exodus 2:23-25
After a long time the king of Egypt died.
The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.
Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.
God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant
with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites,
and God took notice of them.

Proverbs 15:3
The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
We are, basically—
we are, fundamentally,
It’s how we make sense of things.

As followers of God in the way of Jesus,
we tell two stories. We always tell two stories—at least two stories.
We tell the story our culture teaches us,
and then, in a kind of counterpoint, we tell our faith story.
You have heard it said, but ….
It’s actually what incarnational means—that there are two stories.
And the word became flesh ….

It’s so not about claiming there’s just one story.
It’s not about pointing out what’s wrong about how anyone else is living.
It’s not about telling anyone else how to live.
Even less about getting all self-righteous about how we live …
or say we live.
It’s none of that.
It’s about telling two stories,
and letting the discrepancies—the obvious discrepancies—
and the wonders—the beauties—
the shortfalls—
lie there.
And then it’s about waiting—
patiently, faithfully waiting—
for the more compelling story—the best one—to take hold—
of us, as much as anyone else.
Waiting for the spirit, we believe, to work—
to guide us into the best story—
to teach us how to recognize it.

And Santa is such a good story—
good enough to have lots of movies made about it—
all a little different, right?
Good enough for lots of TV shows
(Rudolf’s been on the air since 1964)—
good enough to have been told year in and year out.
But we want to be sure and tell the absolute best possible Santa story.
The ho-ho-ho-iest of them all!

One goes back to a man born back in the third century to wealthy parents
in what would now be Turkey. His name was Nicholas.
According to some stories, he was of Moorish descent—a black man.
According to most stories, he gave away the wealth he inherited
taking care of the poor and sick.
He grew up in the faith and in the church
to become first, a priest and then, a bishop—
and one who became known for secret gift-giving.
The most famous story of his secret gift-giving
is about a poor man who had three daughters.
The night before the day each came of age, with no prospects—
spinsterhood and the reputation of prostitution awaiting them,
Nicholas threw a bag of gold through an open window for a dowry—
for a future of possibility—for hope manifest.
According to some stories, the bags fell into shoes.
According to some stories, when the youngest one came of age,
after the experience of the older two girls,
the father was waiting, hidden outside, to thank this benefactor.
So, according to some stories, that time,
Nicholas climbed up on the roof …
and threw the bag of gold down the chimney …
and according to some stories,
it fell in a stocking hung with care by the fire to dry.
Nicholas was eventually venerated as a saint—protector of children—
his feast day, the day of his death, December 6.

And the stories were told, and his fame spread.
Growing up in Germany, on the night of December 5,
we children would put one shoe outside our bedroom,
and the next morning, it would be full of fruit and nuts and candy.

In celebration of Sankt Nicklaus—
the German version of the saint’s name,
Norway and Russia and Lappland,
added images of the bishop in a black or red bishop’s robe,
with a bishop’s mitre in a one reindeer-drawn sleigh.
The far north also added images less bishop-like,
certainly less black!—images of the Norse god Odin—
an older man—an older white man with a long white beard—
he of the pagan Yule festival
who led the Wild Hunt through the midwinter skies
riding his eight legged horse, Sleipnir.
In the 16th century, as the Protestant Reformation undermined
the veneration of saints,
St. Nicholas remained beloved—
especially in central Europe …
especially in Holland.

In the late eighteenth century, December of 1773 and 1774,
to be specific, a New York newspaper reported Dutch families gathering
to celebrate on December 6.
Now the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas is Sinter Klass,
you see where this is going?!

The poem we know as “The Night Before Christmas”
was written in 1822 by an Episcopal minister—
Clement Clarke Moore for his daughters.
Or it’s said that he wrote it—
a poem he actually called: “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.”

The song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was written in 1934.

“Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820,
and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections
for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of … Santa Claus”—
very different images of Santa—not ones we would necessarily recognize.
Not always a big man—not always bearded—
not always in a red suit—not always in a cap.
What’s the best story of Santa?
Who can tell the best story?

In 1841, J.W. Parkinson’s store in Philadelphia
hired someone to pose as Kris Kringle—
Kris Kringle a derivative of Christkind or the diminutive Christkindel—
the Christchild—Martin Luther’s protestant attempt
to shift the focus from December 6 to December 25—
from a catholic saint to Jesus.
A focus that then shifted again from the grace of Jesus
to the generosity of Santa—
from the story of someone who gives gifts
to a marketing ploy used by those who sell gifts.
Who tells the best story of Santa?

Cartoonist Thomas Nast, drew on Moore’s poem
and his own German Bavarian mountain heritage
as he drew 33 Christmas drawings from 1863-1886
for Harper’s Weekly with Santa in all but one of the 33.
It was Nast who added some of the beloved details:
the white trimmed red suit, the North Pole workshop
with its full complement of elves—Mrs. Claus

It was forty years after Kris Kingle appeared in Philadelphia
that the Boston Store in Brockton, Mass,
would become “the father of department [store] Santas
when it hired Edgar, a Scottish immigrant, who was tall, roly-poly,
with a white beard, a warm voice and a hearty laugh,
to be Santa Claus (http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/386264.html).

Interesting, by the way, don’t you think, given our times,
to think that, completely integrated into our culture,
is the story of a descendant of a dark-skinned Turk from the middle east
who emigrated from Turkey to Europe
who then made his way from Europe to New York City—
now secretly sliding down all our chimneys
into the sacred privacy of our homes in the dead of night!
Haven’t heard anyone suggesting we ban Santa Claus yet …
but hey, we do have another full ten months of nonsense!

Stephen Nissenbaum in a meticulously researched,
Pulitzer Prize Finalist book called The Battle for Christmas:
A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday,
suggests an even more complex intertwining of stories
in which Christmas and Santa Claus
were invented by the New York upper class
to take Christmas misrule from the streets—
to locate it not in the public square but in the privacy of the home—
to change the focus from the city’s angry poor and their needs
to the household’s polite children and their wants
(Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas
[New York: Vintage Books, 1996]).
Who tells the best story?

Now you may well know that the stories that get told
over and over again, in both direct and subtle ways,
shape our theology—our understanding of God.
In this case with what I’m calling
a north pole theology—
a theology that’s all about rewards and punishments—
about an externally driven rationale for behavior
and about a commercial, material emphasis
to those rewards and punishments—
a dangerous flirtation with that prosperity heresy.
It’s a theology of a God who’s always evaluating—assessing.
And then there’s the part that’s just creepy—
the God who’s always watching.
“God’s going to see you!”
When you’re asleep—awake—whatever you do—
even if no one else sees you, God will.
It’s the stalker, watch-dog God.

And so you do good because someone with power over you
is watching.
You do good because you want good things as reward,
and you live with fear—
the fear of being seen—known—judged—punished.

We took the God-shaped St. Niklaus—a secret gift-giver,
and made of him a Santa-shaped God—a watchful evaluator.
We don’t want a Santa-shaped God.
We want a God-shaped Santa,
because we want the absolute best possible Santa story.

But here’s the thing:
there’s Scripture to back up such a Santa-shaped God,
Think back to our call to worship—
to the witness of the closed canon.
The fact of the matter is
we can find Scripture to create a God in whatever image we want.
That’s a mouthful,
That’s a handful—
awful but true.
The theology and the God of the faithful
have more to say about what those faithful
understand faithful to mean
than they necessarily do about God.

So, another thing:
we come back to something we’ve said before.
There is something that guides us to pick and choose Scripture—
to prioritize Scripture—because it’s not all the same,
and it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) all be treated the same—
honored the same—respected and believed the same—
receive the same priority.
Some might suggest it’s the theology of your community of faith
that shapes your own.
Some might suggest it’s the leaning of your heart and spirit.
Some, more cynically, what you want—what you feel like
in the moment—in any given moment.
I’d like to suggest it’s the Spirit ever guiding us into truth.
We regularly underestimate that ongoing work of God.
Remember the faithful waiting for the work of the Spirit?

I tell you, it’s those stories
with enough of the truth in them to ring true,
but enough lies in them to make them wrong,
that are the most dangerous of all stories.
And there are Scripture-based God stories
that have more lies in them than truth.

So we take all we know of Santa—and of God—
and we ask ourselves not how does it all fit together?
But amidst all this, what’s the best story to tell?
Who tells the best story?

And it’s a matter of …
there’s this forgotten word these days …
Do you know it?
difference. Distinction. Variation.
Not absolutely this or that.
We don’t have many nuanced conversations in our public square.
We don’t have much nuanced ideology …
or theology.
And that goes for those whose faith is based
on hope of reward and fear of punishment,
as it does for those who invest in a less externally motivated ethical life—
for those who claim the ever watching God,
and those who find such an idea creepy
and so dismiss it out of hand.

And yet, how many of you parents
have tiptoed into the room of your sleeping child
and watched them—
watched the rise and fall of the blankets over their torso—
watched the sweet face on the pillow?
How many of you, thus watching, have found yourself praying?
And it’s not a bit creepy.
And it’s the love that makes all the difference.

How many of you want to know what’s going on
in the lives of your loved ones—
ask questions about how they feel about what’s going on?
Not because you can change anything—do anything—fix anything,
but so you’ll know—
because love can make a difference.

And if love is allowed to do its work—
if the Spirit is trusted through our fears and traditions,
then we begin to ask too,
how to bring joy to more than just those we love.

And there is an element of God watching us
that is encouraging—that is comforting.
We want God to know when things suck.
We want to know it matters to God.
We want a God who watches not to catch us doing wrong,
but who does yearn for us to do right—
who wants us to make good choices
that make the world a better place—
and who grieves our poor choices
more than rages at them.

We want a Santa who wants all girls and boys
to know the joy of receiving gifts—
tangible signs of affection—of blessing.
We want a God who wants all girls and boys
to grow up loved and cared for.
We want a God who wants us to wake up in anticipation and expectation—
who gifts us with each new day and gifts us each new day
and asks us to gift others—
telling the absolute best story—
not of someone watching us—evaluating us,
but of someone who loves us—
who wants to bless us—
who wants us to live in joy—with hope—
who wants us to bless others.
We want the absolute best stories of hope and healing.

And there’s so much that doesn’t matter.
So much that we make matter that doesn’t.
In parts of the Southern Hemisphere
where December is the middle of the summer,
they might sing, “Oh the weather outside’s delightful,
and my sunburn turned quite frightful!”
And what would be wrong with that?
In some of those warmer climates,
there are stories of Santa in beach clothes.
In Hawaii, there are stories of Santa
pulled in an outrigger canoe by dolphins!
In Australia, it’s a sleigh pulled by kangaroos!
It doesn’t matter, does it?

Most people don’t know it’s Advent.
Most probably don’t know what Advent is.
Most people don’t care.
And I’m okay with that.
I’m glad to be entering Advent with less a focus on Advent—
on telling the story
than telling two stories—
the ones of our times and the one of all time—
telling them, and then, patiently, faithfully waiting.

Because we are, basically, fundamentally—remember?
But not just storytellers—
And the stories we tell—over and over again
become a part of who and how we are—
and so a part of who and how the world is.
We might all protest, “Don’t put that on me!
I’m not that good a storyteller.
I’m certainly not a good story-liver—
not of that story.
I fail.
I doubt.
I fall short.
I allow God to look like me
instead of disciplining myself to look ever more like God.”
Yes, I am only a boy. I am only a girl …
a man, a woman,
but I can still choose the better story.
I can recognize choices,
and I can choose the better story—
the absolute best story
of grace—
to tell at the darkest and coldest (supposedly) time of the year—
a story of giving to those who need
as well as those who want—
and remaining aware of the importance of the difference—
of giving to loved ones—
and to the neighbor you don’t know … yet.
It’s the absolute best possible story—
the ho-ho-holiest of them all.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Jeremiah 1:4-12
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak,
for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth;
and the Lord said to me,‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’ The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said,
‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’
Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have seen well,
for I am watching over my word to perform it.’


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