Epiphany 7

No less of a public philosopher than Sir Charles Barkley once said, “People always say turn the other cheek. If you turn the other cheek, I’m gonna hit you in the other cheek too.” Sir Charles’ take on this teaching of Jesus made him a better basketball player than philosopher or theologian, but his is not an uncommon take on that famous teaching. The ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘Turn the other cheek’ might be the least understood lesson Jesus taught us, and so some background.

“First, consider the eye-for-an-eye rule of the Hebrew Bible (Exod 21:24: But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.). That was a good law. In the Ancient Near East, a common way to settle perceived injustices was unmitigated vengeance (you injure my brother’s eye and I and my brothers will take out both of yours—maybe even kill you). So the Mosaic law of an eye-for-an-eye was meant to mitigate that instinct for unbridled retaliation. Moreover, Jewish legal procedure soon developed the practice of substituting financial recompense as the appropriate response to claims of personal injury—much like our practice today in the Western world.

“As reasonable as that approach was, Jesus called for an even further advance against the human zest for “getting even”—which is where the famous “turn the other cheek” saying comes in. A puzzlement to most Christians, this saying has been an occasion of mockery on the part of the enemies of Christianity, as in “Why follow someone who teaches you to be a bunch of wimps and doormats?”

“But that is to miss the point. We need a cultural context to catch the meaning of Jesus’ example. In a mainly right-handed world, a slap across the right cheek is back-handed, and in first-century Palestine a back-handed slap was meant not so much to inflict physical injury as to dishonor the person slapped. If someone dishonored you with the demeaning back-handed slap, you were expected to reclaim your honor by responding in kind. Thus Jesus’ suggestion would, in that context, be a surprising move, indicating that you simply refuse to be dishonored so easily.”1

My only encounters with such things run along the lines of Bugs Bunny slapping Elmer Fudd or duels in movies set in medieval times. These things we usually “initiated by one party in the dispute slapping the other with a glove, and then saying something derogatory regarding their opponents parentage. Often this would be followed up by a shout of “I challenge you to a duel!”, and then a fight to the death.”2

Much of this ended, at least in the Western world, when people stopped carrying swords in public. Getting slapped in real life is something altogether different; it involves a power dynamic, it establishes a relationship defined by physical and psychological dominance. Think domestic violence, sexual trafficking, gang hierarchy. That’s the top of the list. Now think any situation in which a person attempts to get bigger by making you small. That list is likely endless.

The answer Jesus gives us to this problematic power dynamic is to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile. Is He being literal? Yes, at the time, when those two examples meant something real in the day to day life of His listeners. For us, at least most of the time, they are meant to get us thinking of ways we can defy those who seek to exercise unjust power of us, ways of ending oppression without becoming oppressors ourselves. If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just sprang to mind, that’s because he all but perfected the method Jesus teaches us today.

Is Jesus ruling out the use of force when necessary? No, He is not. There are times when one must defend him or herself and defend others with physical force, and there’s nothing wrong with being really good at that. The Lord smiles upon those who step into the line of fire to defend life and liberty here and around the world, and I couldn’t be prouder of my family and friends who have and who still do. St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 “allows the state to bear the sword for the enforcement of law and the prevention of evil, still stands as part of the canon.”3 Rather, Jesus is ruling out revenge, violence for violence’s sake; He reminds us that His Father wants all people to turn from wickedness and live, even our enemies, and exhorts us to love our enemies, to pray for them, so that they may not stay enemies.

Easy, right? Nope. But in Christ nothing is impossible, and we become better, more godly, in the attempt.

 

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Epiphany 6

One Sunday morning a preacher was greeting folks at the door after the service. A woman took the preacher’s hand and said, “Father, that was a very good sermon.” The preacher, humble as always, said, “Oh, I have to give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” “It wasn’t THAT good!” she said.

The Sermon on the Mount was that good. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us not only a ton of basic teaching but also a glimpse of how God sees things, what we call the “economy of the Kingdom of God.” Today we get a bit of teaching about the Law, those 600 plus laws that we mention at each Mass when we reference “all the Law and the Prophets.”

“By the time Jesus had begun to teach, the idea that keeping all of the 613 laws of the Torah was impossible had become widespread among Jews, and some speculated that the impossibility of keeping the Law perfectly was part of the point of the Law, for it showed that all people are completely dependent upon God. Knowing that should make one humble, and ready to forgive others, and themselves. However, some, like the Pharisees, took these ideas in the opposite direction, and devised an extensive code of behavior to make breaking one of the biblical laws less likely. For them, perfection was just around the corner, and the awed respect of many ordinary people encouraged them to pursue that perfection at any cost.

“Jesus, of course, was familiar with both of these schools of thought. In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out a vision that is informed by them, and responds to them, and transcends them. It sounds like Jesus is one-upping the most stringent of the Pharisees by condemning not just actions that could lead to breaking a law, but also the thoughts and the feelings that could lead to such an act. It sounds hopeless. Most people will make it through life without taking the life of another, but who among us will avoid getting angry, making an insult, or feeling disrespect for somebody else? We may accept that we shouldn’t do these things and comfort ourselves by saying “I didn’t really hurt them.” We may even congratulate ourselves for our self-control.

“But Jesus knew that evil actions don’t come out of the blue; they come out of human hearts. (If you remember, I’ve said several times that I don’t like the advice to “Follow your heart” – this is why; our hearts are not particularly trustworthy guides). And it’s an awful lot easier to harm another person if you already think or feel that they are less worthy of respect or consideration than you are. (Incidentally, that is why it’s not just “love your neighbor,” but “love your neighbor as yourself.”) But the one who made us all and the one through whom we were made know perfectly well that we are all equally, fully human. When we dehumanize another person, even if they are unaware of our feelings towards them, we not only injure our own souls, we also damage the fabric of Creation, creating a rift where God intended continuity.”1

And so Jesus, who so many look toward to make life easier, today makes life harder, or so it seems.

“Jesus sets out God’s vision for humanity, and of course it is quite above our ability to achieve. That’s why those lofty standards are presented interwoven with powerful words of forgiveness and reconciliation. The God whose respect for us allows us to make mistakes (He knows we are sinful) is the same God whose love for us brings us forgiveness and healing.”2 He offers us a way to wholeness and peace.

The way to wholeness and peace is not an easy road, because it is the road to the Cross. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and if we are to follow Him, that means that sometimes He will lead us to places we would rather not go. At Jesus’ feet we must admit to ourselves and to Him our sins and offensives; our unwillingness to forgive others and see everyone as being made in the image of God; at His feet we must confront our fear of being less-than, of being unworthy.

No, we can’t measure up to the 613 laws Jesus came to fulfill, nor can we trust our hearts to leads us in paths of righteousness. But we can trust in Jesus, who has measured up, who is our righteousness, and who’s grace and love will never fail us.

1Fr. Bret Hays, from a sermon given on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 2014.

2Ibid.

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Epiphany 5

Salt and light. I think salt and light are appropriate topics for today, given the amount of salt and spectacle I will be consuming later on today. That Lipton onion dip is one of my favorite things in the world, but it has enough salt to lure deer into the rectory, so I have it once a year now, on Super Bowl Sunday. The Super Bowl is the brightest spectacle in sports, perhaps even in all the media we consume, and hopefully will give many of us, at least, the respite we need from the real world.

I love salt – I prefer it to sugar – and I’ve talk about salt and its worth before, especially its worth to our ancient ancestors. Most commentators and preachers speak about how salt preserves and enlivens food, which easily translates to metaphors pertaining to the Christian life.

But everyone in the audience who heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount used salt in other ways as well. Just as we use the bulk of our salt, the low-quality bulk supply, on things like roads and water softeners, the ancient Israelites used their bulk salt for things like providing grip on roads and for cooking, but not in the way you might expect.

“Modern visitors to Israel who travel the road north from Jerusalem toward Shechem notice clay-ovens next to some houses along the roadside. Many prefer to cook in these outdoor ovens rather than on their electric or propane gas stoves.

“Ovens like these have been around since ancient times. In the biblical period each village had a common oven. Since villagers were often members of a very large, extended family, these common ovens were family ovens.

“The common fuel for the oven was something that was more plentiful than wood: camel or donkey dung. One of the duties each young girl had to learn was to collect the dung, mix salt in it, and mould it into patties to be left in the sun to dry. In the Middle East and many Third World countries, such dung patties are still used as fuel today.

“A slab of salt was placed at the base of the oven and upon it the salted dung patty. Salt has catalytic properties which cause the dung to burn. Eventually the salt slab loses its catalytic ability and becomes useless. Or as Jesus says, “It is good for nothing but to be thrown outside where it can still provide a sure footing in a muddy road.””1

Mmmm, salted dung patties. Now I know why preachers stick to the preserving and enlivening side of salt. But I like the thought of salt as a catalyst, the thing that causes a reaction; in today’s case, salt causes the dung to heat up and burn away. Salt and light. Making it happen.

You all make stuff happen all the time. We’ve all heard the jokes about Episcopalians being the “frozen chosen” and how we’re not good at evangelism, but I find all that to be remarkably and demonstrably stupid, and thankfully not at all true. I meet an awful lot of people in many different contexts, and somehow they all seem to know one of you, and they know that you are a part of the Christ Church family. That means you’ve said something, you’ve told all these people either about Jesus or about where you find Jesus. You haven’t hidden your light under a bushel, and you’ve made your church a place of light that cannot be hidden.

At this point you should be glad that I’ve compared everyone to salt and not to camel dung. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world in our generation. At last week’s annual meeting, we elected several from amongst us to help guide us, to keep our salt salty and our lamps lit. Pray for them. We also laid out what we have been doing to show Jesus to our community and asked for new ways to advance His Kingdom. Let them know, let me know, your ideas, what has been laid on your heart, for us to do in our city and for our God, that all might see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

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Epiphany 4

Doan and I have been in California for a family wedding, and in keeping with personal tradition, one of the first things I did upon landing at LAX was listen to that old punk classic, California Uber Alles,(California Over All) the Dead Kennedy’s cry against Governor Jerry Brown in 1979. It must blow Jello Biafra’s mind that Jerry Brown is governor again, thirty-seven years later.

Anyway, that reminded me of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the Beyond Man, the Superman, which he posited in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “Nietzsche introduces the concept of the Übermensch in contrast to his understanding of the other-worldliness of Christianity: Zarathustra proclaims the Übermensch to be the meaning of the earth and admonishes his audience to ignore those who promise other-worldly hopes in order to draw them away from the earth. The turn away from the earth is prompted, he says, by a dissatisfaction with life—a dissatisfaction that causes one to create another world in which those who made one unhappy in this life are tormented.1

You can see the connection to today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, the Beatitudes. “Nietzsche scoffed at the Beatitudes as prescriptions for sheep and slaves. He knew what a devastating challenge Christ was to his visions of the “superman.” It was only fitting, then, that when old Nietzsche titled his last howl of power and aggression, he called it the Anti-Christ. Still, Nietzsche saw the revolutionary import of Christ’s teachings,”2 he saw through the veneer of niceness we tack onto the Beatitudes.

Nietzsche was quite the philosopher, and he was very wise in the ways of the world. We are reminded today by Jesus and St.Paul that such wisdom is not bad to have, but that it’s just incomplete at best, wrong-headed sometimes, and counter to the ways of God at worst. Jesus seems to seek out the opposite of what Nietzsche prized: those who are “not necessarily wise, as humans account wisdom, nor vastly influential, nor well born, but surely counter-cultural in the way they address the secular order. “God chose those whom the world considers absurd to shame the wise. He singled out the weak to shame the strong. He chose the low and despised, who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something; so that mankind can do no boasting before God.

“It is Christ who is our justice, our redemption, our sanctification, our wisdom. This confounds any mentality which seeks self-justification or pursues fulfillment through earthly goods. To such a mind-set, Christ’s wisdom is unrealistic, even foolhardy. It certainly contradicts our way of imagining human happiness. Just look at the Sermon on the Mount to get a sense of Jesus’ radical reversal of our common sense. We want abundance, control, and authority to conquer the kingdoms of the earth. His wisdom affirms that only the poor in spirit can achieve the reign of God.

“We want more than all else to avoid pain and suffering. In fact most of our operating ethical systems rest upon the principle of maximizing pleasure. Yet Jesus says that those who open themselves to sorrow will find ultimate consolation. We scavenge to inflate ourselves with things, projects, people; but the Sermon on the Mount counsels us to abide in our hunger for holiness, to live with a thirst for justice. And peacemakers? Those do-gooders, those bleeding hearts? See how far that will get them in this “real” world. Most often they are held in contempt, even by Christians. Perhaps that is why Jesus thinks his followers will be persecuted for holiness’ sake. His wisdom is such an insult to natural cleverness, the Sermon on the Mount will be ridiculed as “wimpdom,” not wisdom.”3

Not long ago Doan and I attended a funeral at a Ukrainian Orthodox church, which is a truly transportive experience. The entire service is chanted; the important parts are repeated time and again. One of the best things they do in the liturgy, though, is before any part of Scripture is read, they pause, and then the celebrant chants “Wisdom. Let us be attentive.” Today (this weekend) is an especially good time to look for wisdom and be attentive to it. Our annual Parish Meeting sets out what we have done, what we are doing, and what we hope to accomplish for Christ in little part of His Kingdom He has entrusted to us. The wisdom we seek comes from Holy Scripture, from the teachings of the Church, and from you. How will we seek to become a community that looks more like the Beatitudes than the Superman? Come hear how we’ve tried, and come share your wisdom.

1Wikipedia: Ubermensch

3Ibid.

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Epiphany 2

A couple of weeks ago, the son of friends of ours turned one, and instead of gifts, we were all asked to write him a letter that he would open when he turns seventeen. Because my handwriting is horrendous, I sat down at my computer and typed out this letter, and I opened it the way I open all my letters: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

That might not be the typical way of beginning a letter to a seventeen year old, but it’s fairly typical for a priest to open that way, at least I hope it is. We get that line from St. Paul, who used the line fairly consistently in his letters. Paul wrote his letters like they might someday end up in Holy Scripture, or maybe it just feels like that since what we have of Paul did end up in Holy Scripture.

Two things stand out in the first little paragraph that we get today from Paul, and they’re worth talking about. The first thing for me is the inclusion of a second sender, Sosthenes, about whom we know very little. There are few clues in the Bible, and although a person named Sosthenes is mentioned twice, we’re not even sure if they’re the same Sosthenes. One Sosthenes “was the chief ruler of the synagogue at Corinth, who, according to the New Testament, was seized and beaten by the mob in the presence of Gallio, the Roman governor, when he refused to proceed against Paul at the instigation of the Jews.”1 The other Sosthenes, if it is another one, is the aforementioned co-author of First Corinthians, and it would make sense that they are one in the same. If Sosthenes not only defended Paul but also converted to Christianity, we see some good evidence that even some of the big-time players in Jewish circles were converting early on.

“The most striking feature in this heading, however, is Paul’s emphasis on the universality of the Church. He reminds the Corinthians that they are the Church of God “which is at Corinth.” They are not the Corinthian Church, but rather THE CHURCH which happens to be at Corinth.

“They are the local embodiment of the universal Ecclesia (the Catholic Church). There can be only one people of God, and each congregation is nothing by itself but is only a manifestation of that one people.” That makes sense from a theological standpoint, but why is that important to Paul and Sosthenes as they write the letter?

“Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are not alone—they are called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that that Lord is the Lord of those other churches as well as their own. The Corinthians were engrossed in their own spiritual progress and their own problems. They were acting like a Congregational Church, a separate body, dependent only on itself. “They were congregational in a bad sense, in that they thought they were the whole people of God, living on their own.”2

Doan and I traveled to Phoenix this past week – we attended the wedding of Mother Holly Davis, our friend from seminary, and Darren Herring, a bass in Holly’s choir. We flew to Phoenix and eventually made our way to All Saint’s Church for the service, and as these clergy weddings go, it was filthy with churchy people from all over: Phoenix, Gloucester, Erie, Franklin, Georgetown KY, Seattle, San Diego, Bethlehem, Bordentown (yay!). It was immediately evident that THE CHURCH had gathered at A CHURCH; we were all in this together.

St. Paul wrote this letter to the Church at Corinth for several reasons. For discipline, yes, to set them straight on any number of issues, and to remind them that they were not somehow special because they were in that great city. But along with the reprimands came this great comfort: you are not alone, nor are you defenseless or without counsel.

Nor are we alone, tossed to and fro by winds of doctrine or waves of politics. Not only do we have each other just here in this parish, but we have our ancestors in the Faith leaving us letters; we have the support and prayers of our brothers and sisters in Phoenix, Gloucester, Erie, Franklin, Georgetown, Seattle, San Diego, Bethlehem, and indeed, around the world, and they have ours. May our greeting to them always be “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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Holy Name

A happy New Year, everybody, and a blessed feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church year begins on Advent 1, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the end of 2016. The turbulent presidential campaign, way too many terrorist attacks here and abroad, all the celebrity deaths, and of course the loss of many of our own have made 2016 a year of mourning, a year when our faith was both tested and relied upon, a year in which we called out our Lord’s holy name for comfort and courage.

“On January 1st, we celebrate the Circumcision of Christ. Since we are more squeamish than our ancestors, modern calendars often list it as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, but the other emphasis is the older. Every Jewish boy was circumcised (and formally named) on the eighth day of his life, and so, one week after Christmas, we celebrate the occasion when Our Lord first shed His blood for us.”1

The name He was given was, of course, Jesus, or at least kinda. When asked at the Temple on that eighth day what the Child’s name was, Joseph and Mary would have said Yeshua, Joshua, a fairly common name for Jewish boys, a name which means “God saves”. We get from Yeshua to Jesus by way of the Koine Greek translation of the name filtered through the Latin way of writing it out. The name was common, yes, but lest we think that naming the boy Josh was uninspired, it’s good for us to remember that it was actually inspired, given to the Child by God through the Archangel Gabriel.

It’s good to remember that God doesn’t mess around with names. “Throughout Sacred Scripture, God Himself names those who have a great role to play in our salvation. As recorded in… Genesis, He named the first man Adam, which means “Man of the Earth”, and He changed the name of our spiritual Father from Abram to “Abraham,” which means “Father of Many Nations,” and changed that of Abraham’s wife, Sarai, to “Sarah,” which means “Princess” and foretells that she would be the spiritual mother to kings. (Even St. Peter) had been named “Simon” before he became “Peter” to signify his status as the earthly rock of the Church as Christ is the Foundation and Head.”2 The Gospel lesson for this Friday before Christmas was the story of the naming of John the Baptist, a name which was also given to his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah by way of Gabriel. God Himself dared to let mankind know His name through Moses, which we have received as “I AM”. But no one really knows how to pronounce the Hebrew of the proper Name itself, because the Name was considered so holy they locked it away in code and essentially threw away the key, which might just be better for all of us.

“The early preachers of the Gospel (laid) stress on the name as showing that Jesus was a man of flesh and blood, though also the Son of God.”3 We hear about the two natures of Jesus, His human nature and His divine nature, how those two natures were present in Him and yet not confused, neither dominating the other, and if we’re honest, we admit that we can’t or don’t really understand that on a concrete level, but we have the luxury of not having to fight over it the way the Fathers of the Church had to. The point of the fight was to establish the truth about Jesus, that He was not just some sort of spirit which didn’t have to live with the trials and temptations that we have to, but fully one of us, capable of knowing a mother’s touch and the joys of friendship but also subject to suffering and death. The Word becoming flesh, the Son of God giving up His throne in Heaven and volunteering, as it were, to become mortal, is the primary sacrifice of God. What Christ did on the Cross is the culmination, not the beginning of that sacrifice.

Today we say hello to a new year, and if you’re anything like me, to dating your correspondence wrong for about a month. And though we know that there’s nothing magical about it, that our resolutions will most likely be dropped by the 17th (that’s science, btw!), we can begin this new year with the best of intentions, and I mean that seriously; let’s together make our intentions and prayers for the freedom and peace that is found only in the powerful and holy Name of Jesus.

3Lesser Feasts & Fasts, 116.

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Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody. Priests are expected to have Easter as their favorite holiday, but I love Christmas. The warm church, the creche, Santas on firetrucks, presents given and received. The window above our high altar depicts the Nativity, and thankfully it’s about as beautiful as these things get. We’re supposed to ponder the Christ Child, of course, but for whatever reason I always end up staring at the cow to the left over by Joseph – she seems like an excellent cow, a cow worthy of being present at the birth of Jesus.

Over the last couple of Christmas seasons, Doan and I have been getting together with friends to watch Hallmark Christmas movies. You can’t help but love them, even in all their awfulness. This might be secular heresy, but I dislike the old classic claymation Christmas movies like Rudolph, but I make up for it with my love of the Grinch, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch, of course, is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling green monster with a heart two sizes too small. He lived high above Whoville on Mount Crumpit, with his poor dog Max.

But THE Grinch was not the first grinch who tried to steal Christmas. Celebrating the birth of Jesus was a big deal for a long time. “By the year 500, the church made Christmas a special feast. Commemorating the birth of Jesus spread throughout Europe; and by 600, Augustine of Canterbury baptized ten thousand converts on that holy day. By the sixteenth century, however, with its political, national, and ecclesiastical wars, Christmas was disappearing from many places. The Puritans condemned and abolished Christmas as something pagan and idolatrous. They even tried to make observing it a sin. In 1642 services were banned. No decorations were allowed. Two years later Christmas was declared a time of fast and penance. In 1647 Parliament, that corporate Grinch, totally banned Christmas. Markets were ordered to stay open. Longer work hours were enforced. The little people did not like this at all. There were riots. Ten thousand people demonstrated in Kent.”1

England was not alone in all this grinchiness. Christmas was outlawed in New England until 1850; children were forced to go to school and work hours were enforced.

What was the result of all this? “Folklore defied the Grinches: there were (Christmas morning) reports of cattle and deer on their knees, birds singing in the snow, bees humming in harmony, animals talking. Trees, decked with fruit, promised a new Eden. Breaded wafers and glowing candles hung from branches.”2

It seems that Christmas is a flower which blooms even in the dark. As the prophet said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” The birth of Jesus will not go unnoticed nor can it be suppressed; the people Jesus came to save won’t stand for it.

The birth of our Lord still resonates, still moves us. I think that’s because in the turbulent and majestic and sad and powerful life of Jesus, the thing we can most relate to is His birth. Perhaps not the angels singing and the shepherds visiting, but to the birth of a child, to 8 pound 6 ounce baby Jesus, staring up at us out of His crib.

God so loved the world that He entered our world, despite every reason not to. As my friend Fr. Bret said, “God revealed His face as the boy in the food trough.” Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. The world got to see the glory of the Lord in the face of a newborn. Surely many hearts grew three sizes that day. Surely there was a Roast Beast carved right there, hopefully not from my excellent cow.

I’ve seen what the love of God can do; I’ve seen it because you have shown it to me. You’ve shown me that when there is need, be it a neighbor or a stranger, in situations both suddenly tragic and tragically ongoing, our church family steps up, giving more than anyone could have asked or prayed for. What the grinchy Puritans missed is that God did not give us Jesus to bottle us up, to make sure that no fun was had by anyone at any time, but to make it possible for us to love as He loves, to risk the kind of love that He risks, to be to others what He is to us. That kind of light, the light of Christmas, cannot go unnoticed nor can it be suppressed; the people Jesus came to save won’t stand for it.

2Ibid.

 

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