Thursday, December 24, 2015

Selling Christmas with Puppies and Babies

Christmas Eve 2015

Selling Christmas with Puppies and Babies
Elisha Minnette Photograpy
Many Christmas sermons, year after year, warn the listener to beware of trading in the eternal joy and holiness of welcoming the Christ child as the light of the world for all the rushing around, shopping, buying, maxing out and over-consuming that is all too familiar.  We make a valiant try to guard the sacred from the secular. Each year we make an implicit or explicit plea for “less is more.”   Wait don’t rush.  Slow down. Breathe.  Look up. Look around.

Yet, as much as we push back against and lament the over commercialization of the season, the church gathered is also, in all honesty, selling something at Christmas.  With our pageants, angels, shepherds, carols, and candles, we too are selling something that we assume will have universal appeal and an eternal shelf life.  We are selling this: that God came into this world as flesh and blood, sweat and tears, to reveal God’s true essence and nature: love.  Not judgment, rejection, exclusion, punishment, trial and testing, but divine love.  And that moment, what we call the Incarnation, changed everything. What Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah could not do, the child born in tiny Bethlehem of Judea had to do.  He had to be a savior like no other: saving the world, saving the nations, saving our soul, the present and future.  Nearly two thousand years later, you and I are here listening to how it all began.

So, yes, we are selling something at Christmas.  We have a durable, solid, road-tested product to sell to our war-weary, on-edge, fearful and complicated world.   And we can do better.  To whom might we turn to boost our sales forecast for the next year?

Could we learn a thing or two from Madison Avenue? How would Madmen’s Don Draper – the television fictional advertising guru who could literally sell ice to Eskimos – approach the Jesus born in Bethlehem account?  Where would they start?

We know from experience as consumers, that there are two things that sell products on television and print year in and year out. Those two things are puppies and babies.  So I contend that we need some puppies and babies to sell Christmas.

There is proof to back this up. 

There was a recent focus group that showed four images and asked which was most likely to tug on their heartstrings.  (Adweek Media/Harris Poll) Participants were shown images of “a puppy”, “a baby”, “a sweet old lady” and “a sweet old man.”  41% chose a puppy when they saw it in a commercial. One-third said a baby (34%) is most likely to do so.  Not such good news for sweet old lady (3%) or a sweet old man (2%).  Another study by the Marketing Bulletin showed that a cute baby increased the odds by 88% that people would respond to a survey.  A cute animal increased response rates by 42%.

 With this hard fought data research in our pockets, cue the animals and the baby. 

 Joseph went Bethlehem “to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” 

A manger is not the whole crèche but the feeding tough for animals that doubled as a crib for the Christ child.  We can imagine the animals being brought into the ground floor of houses in the cold winter with families sleeping above.  Shepherds too were keeping watch over their flock by night in the fields when an angel of the Lord stood before them with the joy-filled news.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Every Christmas pageant that I know has its core of shepherds and animals.  Outdoor live nativity scenes use any animals they can find to enrich the experiences by adding cows, and donkeys and sheep, chickens, lamas, goats, and rabbits. They remind us the humble beginning of the child born as the Son of God.

Selling Christmas with animals.  Check.

All stories have a beginning, a middle and end.  The Christian story begins with the birth of Jesus to Mary in Bethlehem.  Soon, the Wise Men arrive to worship the child and bring gifts from afar.  We know that the child would grow, learn, and live into this true identity as the fullest expression of God to ever walk on the face of this earth. We know that he would teach and heal, lead and inspire, challenge and provoke. We are reminded by the crosses that fill churches of how his life ended. And each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we are reminded of his resurrection and the promise of our own.    

Yet at the onset, Jesus was, as we all were once, an infant. A child. Vulnerable. Innocent. Needing love, warmth and protection, nurture and guidance.

The Christ child, at the center of this story, is a reminder that we have a unique message to the world that is ruled by might, ego, power and dominance and oppression.  

The apostle Paul puts it another way: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong. 1:27-29

Selling Christmas with a baby.  Check.

 In the run up to Christmas we here at Christ Church have been praying, discerning, educating and advocating for the plight of refugees around the world, and especially for the compassionate response to Syrian refugees.  During this holy season where children are at the center of our attention and hopes, it’s worth reminding ourselves why and when we began to pay attention. 

It began in September with a photo. A three-year old Syrian boy, wearing a red T-shirt, shorts, and Velcro sneakers (the kind that are the easiest for parents to manage). His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he drowned off he coast of Turkey along with his mother and brother.  It was one of those turning point iconic pictures, when the world took notice. And it was before it all became political and partisan.   

For those of us gathered here– for whom a holy child has led us to believe or at least a desire to have more faith – we can and should connect what we believe, how we pray, to what we care about and work for in our world and communities throughout our lives.  The spirit of giving, the desire for peace, the wonder that fills the air, and the hope that abides deep within us on this night, should and must last long past the gifts are opened and the decorations put away.

As it turns out, the true advertising genius of Christmas is not the fictional Don Draper but the most beloved of saints, Francis, who in the year 1223 created the first outdoor nativity scene.   

It is the prayer of St. Francis that reminds us what you and I need to go out from tonight’s service and live, believe, and yes: sell. 

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.



Monday, December 21, 2015

Mary the Most Powerful Woman in the World

December 20, 2015
4 Advent, Year C
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton

Annunciation (1489-1490) Sandro Botticelli
Today I want to talk about what it means to be faithful.
I begin with the larger than life Biblical characters that take center stage in Advent – this condensed pre-Christmas season of waiting and light.   Zechariah, a member of the religious establishment, sings a song of thanksgiving and expectation that his son John would prepare the way for the Lord.  The images his paints for us are poetic and clear – “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” John the Baptist delivers on his promise to shake things up. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He held up a mirror to peoples’ lives and challenged them to consider if this was the best they could do for their own souls and for the lives of those around them. John’s mother Elizabeth makes an appearance on stage when she welcomes her relative Mary for a three-month stay. Two women, one older and well beyond normal child bearing years and the other young, vulnerable, engaged but not married and recently carrying a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Gabriel, the angel messenger from God, crashes almost every big scene of this Advent/Christmas pageant.  He is the God whisperer to Zechariah and Mary -- giving them a clear indication that big things are brewing and their lives would never be the same.

At the close of the year, Time magazine makes a big splash when they choose a person of the year and puts their face on the front cover. It is a practice going back to 1927 when aviator Charles Lindbergh was chosen.   This year they chose German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her leadership confronting one crisis after another in Europe.

National Geographic -- a treasured magazine from my childhood -- this month had a different cover. They too had a picture of a woman.   It was a picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the caption: The most powerful woman in the world.  The wide ranging article points out that “Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings. Her mantle offers both security and protection. And she is the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten.”

Her song, part of Luke’s gospel this morning, known as the Magnicat, is one that has been set to countless musical setting over the centuries.  Each evening it is sung by choirs in cathedral all over England.   She is known by many titles: The Virgin Mary, God bearer, The Blessed Mother, Mother of God, Saint Mary, Holy Mary, Our Lady, The Madonna.  Paula Gooder writes, “Mary is a character about whom we know a great deal and very little, all at the same time.” (In Meaning is in the Waiting, pg. 137).  Muslims as well as Christians consider her to be holy above all women, and her name Maryam appears more often in the Koran than ‘Mary’ does in the Bible.  She has an entire chapter of the Koran about her.  With today’s climate of growing mistrust and fear when some want to pit one religion against another, wouldn’t it be a good thing to remind ourselves what we hold in common.  For one: Mary. 

Yet even as Mary takes center stage each Christmas, she is to me an inkblot Rorschach test of our faith. The National Geographic article interviewed the New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine who commented,  “you can project on her whatever cultural values you have. She can be the grieving mother, the young virgin, and the goddess figure. Just as Jesus is the ideal man, Mary is the ideal woman.”

I referred to Mary as a kind of Rorschach test because how you think of Mary is often shaped by the religious tradition of your childhood and youth. The Episcopal Church is a church that is easy fit for many who were raised Roman Catholic and for many reasons found their way to our tradition of being the “via media” the middle way between Rome and many Protestant traditions.

Yet, whatever your heritage, Mary is still the dominant person of faith of the birth story. Other characters will fade and fall away over the years. Mary is there when Jesus as Jesus grows, she is present at the time of his ministry, and we read in John’s gospel that she is present at the foot of the cross. 

And Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

Mary’s God and ours scatters 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. 

Her words lay the groundwork for what her son Jesus would say later:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (5:6)
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (5:8)
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. (5:9)

Mary can matter even to those who did not grow up with a particular devotion to her, in that she can show us what it means to be faithful in our everyday lives.

Do we hear and see in Mary’s words humbleness or strength?  Is she a story of scandal or sacredness? Do you see her as submissive or strong?  Innocent or wise?  Lofty or grounded?   

The reason it matters is that all around us the world, culture, trends, voices, shadows hint to us that they know what is best. Best to make us loved, wealthy, happy, and strong, and safe and important.

It matters because we need to know how to filter and listen and sort through all of this and decide how to life a life of faith in a complicated and distracting world.

There are moments and days in our lives when we should be all about waiting – and there are times when the waiting is over and we need to act. Take a stand. Speak up and out. And Mary shows us how to do this. 

We see that in her life: in a moment everything changed.  So too, with us.  Our lives can be turned upside down, inside out, in an instant.

In truth, we should be more open then closed.  More generous than cynical. More trusting than guarded.  More forgiving than withholding forgiveness. And that is not easy.  It never is.  So, Mary, help us.  Show us. 

By December 20th, our pre-Christmas preparations should be well underway.   

If we have done well with Advent this year, we have set the stage for all of us to hear again a story of the birth of something new and life changing. Jesus, born to a woman in a far off, small forgotten town, brings the experience of the eternal God – maker of heaven and earth – to our life and experience. 

The waiting is almost over.