Blessings and Woes

Blessings and woes. Here in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke, we have Lukan beatitudes. Only Luke’s are a little bit different than Matthew’s (Matthew 5 for comparison). For one thing, Jesus is on “a level place,” not a mountain. Luke’s Jesus talks about the physical existence that people find themselves in (poor, hungry, grieving), instead of Matthew’s more spiritual conditions (poor in spirit, thirsting after righteousness). And Luke adds those woes to the blessings. What do we make of this? How do we define blessing? Let me know what you think about blessing in the comments!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As I walked into the small house, I couldn’t help but notice the buckets strategically placed to catch the water that slowly dripped from the roof. A good thing, too, because there was no floor, just packed dirt, and any water that fell would quickly become mud. Our host was excited to welcome us—students working on the local Episcopal church’s community center high in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.

She made us tea from a pot over an open stove and offered us cookies her daughter had made. The priest had sent us, with some local guides, into the small collections of houses that dotted the hills to tell people about what they could get at the community center: food, classes, childcare, clothing.

I don’t speak any Spanish, so it was only through my friend translating that I understood the woman’s responses, but one word stood out. “Bendecito.” That one I knew. Blessed. I am blessed, she was telling us. She loved her church, and would keep coming, but she had no need of charity from the community center, she said. She was already so blessed. What more did she need?

What does it mean to be blessed? By every measure I could think of, this woman was by no means blessed. She lived in a house that looked like it might fall with a strong wind, with a dirt floor and leaky roof. She lived over an hour away from any kind of doctor or any kind of school for her children. Why was she calling herself blessed? And yet, she said the words with such certainty, with such faith, that I could only believe her. This woman was blessed.

Jesus’ words about who is blessed might just shake us awake this morning. Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the excluded. It’s not softened at all, like in the better-known version of these verses found in the Gospel of Matthew. There Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” It’s easy to see why Matthew’s version of this sermon is more popular, because here in Luke there is no getting around it, no spiritualizing these conditions. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the grieving.

And not only are these seemingly un-enviable groups of people blessed, but those whom we usually think of as having good fortune and favor are given a list of woes: woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who are laughing, woe to you when all speak well of you.

This is where I start to get nervous, because I find myself fitting into all four of those groups—judged on a global scale, I am most certainly rich; if I ever find our fridge empty, which is rare, food is only a quick drive away; I have plenty of things in my life to make me happy; and I don’t think I’m being bad-mouthed behind my back.

And aren’t these things that we want to be? Shouldn’t we want to have enough money and food, to be happy instead of sad? Don’t we want people to speak well of us? This goes against everything that we understand blessing to be.

A few years ago, a hashtag became popular on Instagram. #Blessed. If you search it, you’ll find over 106 million examples of what people think being blessed looks like. Everything from a new pair of shoes, to a fancy brunch dish, to a bedazzled manicure. There are more serious ones, too, like a new baby, inspirational quotes, firefighters and surgeons, good friends. But I didn’t see anywhere that people choose to take a picture of someone in grief, or hungry, or poor, and tag it blessed.

Before we get any further in unpacking what it means to be blessed, I do want to keep in mind one thing. None of the blessings or woes that Jesus speaks of equals God’s ultimate salvation, grace, or forgiveness. Blessed does not equal saved. Woe does not equal damned. Regardless of whether we fall into the blessings or the woes, God loves us, forgives us, and saves us. The blessings and the woes are about how we live with each other now and about God’s vision for us. They are not about who is in or who is out. Throughout his ministry Jesus welcomes and includes both the rich and the poor, the full and the hungry.

So, what does it mean to be blessed? Clearly Jesus thinks it means something different than how we normally use the word. So, what can we learn about God and about ourselves from the way that Jesus uses this word?

Well, for starters, we learn that God has a very different value system than our culture does. The people that God sees, that God notes as worthy and important, and yes as blessed, are in many ways the opposite of those elevated in our world. And notice what Jesus does with these crowds: he comes down to a level place with them. He physically aligns himself with the poor, the hungry, and the reviled. When we are seeking God in this world, this gives us a good clue where to start looking: among those whom Jesus stood and among those he called blessed.

Another thing we learn is that God doesn’t make sense. Not in any way that we would define the word. God calls right left and left right. God calls terrible things blessed and wonderful things cursed. It doesn’t make sense. At least, not without the end of the story. As the Apostle Paul writes, if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.

Without the resurrection, the Christian life can be reduced to little more than a moral code to guide well-meaning people about how to live their lives. Only in light of the resurrection can we understand the paradox of saving one’s life by losing one’s life. Only in light of the resurrection does it make sense for us to join Jesus in standing with the poor, the outcasts, and the oppressed. Only in light of the resurrection does God’s vision of blessedness make sense.

The power of the resurrection is the power to transform our lives. Because it means that God is stronger than death. That God is stronger than evil and hatred. That our God is a God of new life, and that even when things seem darkest and despairing, the tomb does not get the final word in our story.

And God’s understanding of blessedness starts to become clearer. Blessed are those who know they need God. Blessed are those who do not rely only on themselves. Blessed are those who have been broken, because they understand the heart of God. And woe to those who think they’re great. Woe to those who do not come to stand on level ground with those whom God loves.

Despite my assumptions and prejudices, that welcoming woman in her tiny house in the mountains was every bit as blessed as she declared herself to be. As Jesus declares her to be. Not because she was poor—we should never use these words as an excuse to turn a blind eye towards poverty or injustice. She was blessed because her God saw her and stood with her. God stands with us, too. Jesus stands with us when we feel broken and despairing. When we have no hope for the future. God stands with us. And God pushes us, too, to turn and stand with those whom Jesus declares blessed.

Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who are grieving. Blessed are you who are reviled and excluded for Jesus’ sake. That might not always describe us. And when it doesn’t—when we find ourselves in a place of privilege relative to others—may we remember who Jesus called blessed. May we choose to stand with them and with Jesus. Amen.

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Whom Shall I Send?

Often, people tell me that it’s so nice that I have a “calling.” That is, a vocation or career that they consider to be somehow special–more than an ordinary job. It’s usually applied to the helping professions–ministers, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, etc. But the truth is, we all have callings. We are all called by God to use our particular gifts in whatever field or situation we find ourselves. We can be called in our relationships: parent, spouse, child, sibling. We can be called to the things we do outside of work: volunteering, driving children to and from activities, cooking, caring for others. And we can be called in our careers, no matter what they are. God calls us in every moment to be disciples. Take a look at the readings for this week (Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, Luke), then read the sermon and let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Back when I got ordained I was given cards by most of my family. The thing is, though, that Hallmark actually doesn’t make all that many different choices for ordination cards. So I got like forty to fifty cards, but they were really the same five or six cards over and over again.

And as someone who tends to find greeting cards in general a little bit schmaltzy, some of the ordination cards were over the top sickeningly sweet. But there was a phrase on one of the cards—which I got four or five times—that stuck with me. “God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called.”

I thought that one was schmaltzy, too, but there was no denying it hit the nail on the head. Here I was, twenty-five-years-old, barely tall enough to see over the lectern, fresh out of school, making all kinds of promises and vows at my ordination. I meant them, sincerely, but I didn’t yet understand fully what they meant. And I know that my understanding of this call will continue to grow and deepen as the years go on.

God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called. In most call narratives that we have in the Bible, the first response to being called by God is to run the opposite direction, often because of some perceived deficiency on the part of the person being called. We see it in every single one of our readings this morning.

Isaiah receives a vision of the Lord of hosts, and his first response is to say that he is not worthy of such a thing. “Woe is me!” He says, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” In other words: I’m not good enough for this. I’ve spoken indecently in the past, I’m not the right person for this job.

Paul is sharing his own personal story with the Corinthians and he calls himself, “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle.” Why? Because before he received his call, he was a persecutor of the church. He oversaw the stoning of Stephen, he did everything he could to kill the early church. He doesn’t deserve to be an apostle, to be one sent by God to bring good news.

And in the gospel reading, in the response to this miraculous catch of fish, a sign of the abundance and grace that Jesus brings, Simon Peter falls to his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” He has seen the kind of new life and healing that Jesus brings, and thinks that he is not good enough to be a part of it.

God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called. Isaiah’s lips are cleansed with the burning coal, Paul’s eyes are opened to God’s love in Jesus, and Peter becomes the cornerstone of the early church. Without question God uses these flawed and fragile human beings to proclaim God’s mercy and love.

“Who will go for us?” “Whom shall I send?” asks the Lord. There are a million reasons for us to shake our heads and say, “Not I, Lord. Surely, I am not the one you are looking for.” After all, who am I to have such an important mission and task? Maybe we think we don’t have the right words to speak for God, like Isaiah. Maybe we have regrets over past mistakes, like Paul. Maybe, like Peter, we think we’re just generally not good enough. There are a million reasons to say no to God’s call in our lives.

But the fact is, God calls us not because God is looking for some perfect version of ourselves. God calls us precisely because of who we are. God’s not fooled by us: our brokenness, our doubts, our suffering, our struggles—they are all on full display long before God calls us. And yet, God chooses to call us.

Call us to what, exactly, is probably a good question at this point. What is God calling you and me to do? Surely, it’s not to be like Isaiah, or Peter, or Paul. Well, yes and no. We are all called, like those three men, to be messengers from God. We are called by God to share with a hungry and needy world the good news we have found in Christ Jesus. But we all do that in different ways. We do it when we share with others what God means in our lives. We do it when we share the love that we have known in God with others.

And you’re going to do that differently than I’m going to do that, which is going to be different still from how the next person does it. And we don’t have to end up being famous like Isaiah or Peter or Paul. We live out this call in our lives in so many simple ways—sometimes we might not even realize what we’re doing.

At our most recent new members’ class, I started as I always do, by asking the group what first brought them to St. Paul’s. Several people said it was their neighbors. Their neighbors had shared with them that they were part of a church that was meaningful to them. They didn’t say it to pressure or convince anyone of anything. They said it simply because they wanted to share the love and community and grace that they had found. Answering God’s call might be as simple as hugging a friend in need of comfort or patiently answering a small child’s unending questions. It’s not necessarily dramatic, but it is meaningful.

As we begin our congregational meeting just after this service, we will seek the ways that we answer this call as a whole community. We’re able to do bigger things when we come together than any of us could do individually, but still we are answering that same call of God. To know Christ and to make Christ known through word and deed.

And no one else can do it but us. Because we are all so different, unique in beautiful and wondrous ways. By the grace of God, we are who we are. And so each and every one of us is needed. Each person’s struggles, pains, joys, accomplishments, and dreams are stories of the gospel that can light the way for others. In a way that no one else’s could.

“Who shall I send,” asks the Lord. “Who will go for us?” Here we are, God. Send us. Send us in all of our imperfect beauty, with all of our grace-filled cracks and holes. Send us, God, that we might use our voices to share your voice of love. Amen.

 

Gritty

When I played sports growing up (field hockey and lacrosse), I was often told that I was “scrappy.” I think that meant I wasn’t always as skilled as the other players, but I refused to let that hold me back. I would usually come out with a few bumps and bruises, and during one memorable lacrosse season I received the superlative award “Most Likely to Be Carded.” Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved the Flyers. They’re scrappy, too. Or better yet, gritty. As is Jesus’ message: it takes heart, it takes determination, and it isn’t always pretty. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’ve been following along with our sports sermon series, you know that this week it’s all about Gritty, the newly unveiled mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. And you might be wondering just what exactly Gritty has to do with Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. Gritty is a seven-foot-tall, furry orange creature with googly eyes. Legend has it that Gritty emerged after construction work on the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers play, destroyed his natural habitat.

Really though, the Flyers realized they were one of only three teams without a mascot, and wanted to get in on the fun. In designing Gritty, they agonized over every detail. How tall should he be, how long should his hair be, how big should his eyes be. They even debated whether or not to give him a belly button. But one thing that was never in doubt was his name: Gritty.

Because if one word encapsulates Flyers’ hockey, it’s gritty. From their early days as the first expansion team in the NHL, through the golden years of the 70s, and to today, the Flyers have been proud of their reputation as a rough-playing crew. In the 70s, in the course of winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row, they earned the nickname, “Broad Street Bullies.”

They had a reputation around the league for their physical, rough style of play. Dave Shultz set a league record with 472 penalty minutes. Others teams criticized the Flyers, though, saying that they weren’t doing things the “right way.” They weren’t respecting the game.

But in 1976, the Soviet Red Army team was touring the US in exhibition games. They’d been cleaning up. No one could beat them. They played like a well-oiled machine, every move perfect. The final game of the exhibition series would be in Philadelphia. Suddenly, the Broad Street Bullies, instead of being the black sheep, were America’s last hope for victory.

Their play was so rough, that the Soviets left the ice, refusing to play. Only after they were threatened with the loss of their salaries did they return. The Flyers won easily, 4-1. The Bullies had proven that you could beat perfect precision with a lot of heart and some good old-fashioned grit.

You might still be wondering, “What does this have to do with Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah?” What is gritty about that wonderful promise that Jesus has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor? To bring good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free?

Jesus is, essentially, declaring his mission statement to the gathered crowds at the synagogue. Last week, I mentioned that turning water into wine was Jesus’ first public act of ministry in John. In Luke, it’s this reading. This is the very first thing Jesus does after being baptized and then tempted by Satan. He’s telling us what his ministry is going to be about and although it might not seem like it at first, it’s going to be gritty.

Jesus comes to bring good news, to announce God’s salvation. But good news isn’t always easy news, or comfortable news. Sometimes, it’s challenging news. Notice how specific this announcement is: good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Freedom for the oppressed. What if you’re not a captive? What if you’re not only not oppressed, but privileged? What if you’re not poor, but might in fact, have more than enough? This good news just got a little more complicated.

When Jesus mentions “the year of the Lord’s favor,” he’s talking about the Jubilee year. The time, every fifty years, when all debts are forgiven, all slaves are freed, all lands are returned to their original owners. Good news if you’re a slave, or in debt, or lost your land. Not so great if you own slaves, or own debts, or acquired land in the last fifty years. This good news is starting to seem a little offensive.

People are starting to question whether it’s good news at all. The very next thing that happens after our reading today—the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ friends and neighbors, people who have known him all his life—they run him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff, because they are very sure that this is NOT good news. They don’t succeed, but others will, later on, when they crucify Jesus for living out this very mission. They didn’t think it was good news, either.

So, what do we think? What do we think of this Jesus who has come to bring salvation, who has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor? Is it good news for us? Or is it troubling? Perhaps it’s both. Because the announcement of the year of the Lord’s favor might mean difficult things for us. It might mean giving up some of the things that make us privileged in the name of justice. God’s jubilee might mean that we have to adjust the way we do things.

But Jesus’ announcement—that he has come to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free—it is surely good news for us and for all people. It might be complicated, it might be messy, but it is most definitely good. Because it means that God comes to bring salvation, not for the perfect but for the imperfect. Not for the healthy, but for the ill. Not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. Not for the strong, but for the weak. God comes to bring salvation, that is, for us.

God comes to free us from what keeps us bound, to make whole what is broken, to bring hope where there is despair, forgiveness where there is pain and new life where there is emptiness. And not just to us, but to all society. In the Jubilee year, the land itself was restored and renewed. God’s salvation is for all the earth, that our world and society might be set free from hate, from evil, from greed.

And that salvation is now. Jesus gives possibly the shortest sermon ever after he reads from Isaiah. Just nine words: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today. God’s good news, with all its complexities, with all its grittiness—it isn’t waiting from some distant future day. Today, this day, God brings release. Today, God brings liberation. Today, God brings healing and renewal.

Because today, we receive the same one who declared his mission in Nazareth all those years ago. May we receive the healing, hope, and good news he brings. And may we make his mission our own. Amen.

We All We Got, We All We Need

Welcome to Week 2 of our Phanatics sermon series. This week, the Philadelphia Eagles. (Unfortunately, they didn’t give us a win last week, but the message is still a good one!) I have to say, the Wedding at Cana is probably one of my favorite stories from the Gospels. There’s so much interesting stuff packed into these verses. Why does Jesus respond so abruptly to his mother? What does it mean that his hour has not yet come? Is there any significance to the number of jars? What role do we most identify in this story? There’s so much here, it’s hard to choose one focus point. But this time around, I chose to focus on the abundance that Jesus provides. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I’m performing a wedding, I always tell couples that something is going to go wrong. I’m not trying to scare them, or to tempt fate, but simply to prepare them. And to manage expectations. Something is going to go wrong. There’s so many moving parts in a wedding, it’s almost inevitable.

For Tim and me, it was the shuttle that was supposed to get guests to and from the reception. It got them there, but it never came back at the end of the night. Luckily, that one was easily solved with a phone call to the hotel and an extra 15-minute wait. Sometimes, someone spills something. Or a groomsman forgets his cufflinks. Or someone’s running late.

It might not be disastrous, but usually something goes wrong. I tell couples that, and then I tell them not to worry about it, because they’re going to end up getting married anyway. Even with something going wrong, at the end of the day they will be married and that is the most important thing.

Sometimes, the things that go wrong are a bigger problem than a late shuttle, though. The problem our wedding couple at Cana is running into is actually a huge deal. They’ve run out of wine. This isn’t, of course, a situation where you can just go get some more.

Running out of wine is more than just embarrassing, as it would be today. In the ancient world, hospitality, how you treated guests, was hugely important. Weddings were weeklong affairs, where everyone would come to the groom’s house to celebrate the couple. Hosting this crowd was an honor and a way to display the importance of the family. This couple, and their families, risked not just embarrassment, but shame. Loss of their social standing and a negative reputation.

And Mary takes notice of this. It’s not clear really if anyone else has noticed, but Mary at least is paying attention. And, concerned for the couple, she brings this problem to Jesus, telling him, “they have no wine.” Jesus, almost reluctantly, eventually listens to his mother and solves the problem, turning water into wine.

It’s a miraculous solution to the problem, but it’s not just miraculous, it’s extravagantly so. There’s six jars, holding twenty or thirty gallons each. Someone better at math than me did all the conversions to realize that we’re talking about almost 1,000 bottles of wine. And not just any wine, the steward notes. He hasn’t seen the miracle but is amazed anyway. This is the good stuff. Once the guests are drunk, most people are serving Franzia straight from the box, but here, at the end, is the best wine of the celebration.

Jesus’ response to the problem of no wine is not a simple fix. This first miracle, his first public act of ministry in the Gospel of John, it isn’t a healing or an exorcism, or a teaching. But instead it’s an absolute abundance. An overflowing amount of joy. He provides so much more than is needed.

I think sometimes we all fall victim to the mentality of looking around us, and only seeing what we don’t have. Only seeing holes, only seeing what’s lacking. “We all we got, we all we need,” became the motto of the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly play out well for them last Sunday night.

But last year! Last year, after their star quarterback Carson Wentz had a season ending injury in December, team leader and safety Malcolm Jenkins gave an inspiring speech in the locker room after the game. He knew that many people would now be saying that the Eagles had no chance in the playoffs without Wentz. That they didn’t have what it took.

And he declared to his teammates, “We all we got, we all we need.” Believe that everything we need to succeed is right here. Look around this locker room and instead of seeing what’s missing, see what’s here. He used a little more colorful language than that, of course. But he was right. The Eagles did have all they needed. And they won the Super Bowl. It started with a mindset of seeing what they had as being enough.

God provides abundantly far more than we need. I’m not talking about points on a scoreboard or players in the starting lineup. Those things are fun for us sometimes, but they’re definitely not what God is most concerned with. God provides for so much more important needs: love, the ability to care for each other, gifts and talents and passions.

Only sometimes, we get so caught up in the idea that there isn’t enough, that we’re unable to see the abundance right in front of us. Instead of living with the mindset of abundance, we live with the myth of scarcity, believing that there isn’t enough. When we live our lives by the myth of scarcity, we are never satisfied but always wanting. When we live our lives by the myth of scarcity, we are always in competition with every other form of life on the planet. When we live our lives by this myth, other peoples’ successes, other peoples’ blessings, become bad news for us because we think we’re all fighting for the same small pool.

But in this story of water turned into wine, we have a powerful new narrative by which we can live new lives. We can be generous. We can take risks. We can act like guests at a wedding feast, filled with thanksgiving and joy. We can stop viewing fellow human beings as our competition and instead see them as our companions. Because we do in fact have enough. Sometimes, we might need to ask ourselves what “enough” really looks like. Because we have enough food on this planet to feed everyone, and yet people still starve. We have enough space to house everyone, and yet people are still homeless. We have enough, but we often don’t use it well enough to care for everyone.

But God has given us enough. God has given us more than enough, because God has given us God’s very self. We are called to be the stewards of what God has given. The steward in our story is amazed and overjoyed at what God has done (although he doesn’t know who did it). But he sees this miracle of abundance and simply delights in it. And then, because he is the steward, he would have shared it. He would have made sure that everyone had a taste of this marvelous abundance.

We are God’s stewards in this world. We have been tasked with caring for what God has given us. Like the steward in Cana, we can delight in how magnificent that is. How deeply satisfying, how nourishing, how fulfilling it is. And then we can take up the task of seeing that what God has given us—our lives, our ability to care, our resources, and God’s own love—is spread around. Is shared with all those in need.

“We all we got, we all we need.” The Eagles were on to something in the way they chose to view their situation. They saw abundance instead of lack. There’s a lesson there for all of us. We do in fact have all we need, but only because we have something much bigger than ourselves. We have God, who gives generously and abundantly, fulfilling our needs with overflowing grace. Amen.

Trust the Process

This past Sunday began a four-week sermon series called “Phanatics.” It’s focusing on the four major Philly sports teams, beginning with the 76ers and their motto, “Trust the Process.” The sports are just an entry point into the main focus of each sermon, though, so even if you’re not a phanatic, these are still for you! This first sermon is on the Baptism of Our Lord as told in Luke 3. Enjoy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Trust the process. It’s a phrase I heard a lot in seminary. Trust the process. When my classmates or I would worry about where in the country we’d be assigned, about whether there’d be a church for us, or jobs for our spouses, about what it meant to be answering this call in a changing church landscape, we’d hear the familiar refrain: trust the process. Trust that God is at work in this process and go where the Spirit takes you.

We said it again and again at our synod gathering last spring, as we elected a new bishop. Trust the process. As five hundred voting members from the hundred and fifty congregations of Southeastern Pennsylvania wrote down the name of a pastor—any Lutheran pastor—on a blank piece of paper: Trust the process. The Holy Spirit is at work and will raise up a new leader for us. And sure enough, after two days and five votes, we had a new bishop—the first black female bishop in our denomination’s history.

Trust the process. I’d heard it in church circles for a while, so when the Sixers took it up as their motto, I stopped to listen. This was not the normal sports process that they were talking about. In the years since Allen Iverson and Andre Iguodala had left the team, we’d gone from good, to middle of the road, to pretty bad.

When a new GM comes aboard, you expect them to talk about how we can be good again. How we can win. Instead, Sam Hinkie talked about a process. A process that started with absolutely destroying the team. Trading away our only All-Star player. Tanking. At one point in 2015, the Sixers lost a league record 28 games in a row.

And still Hinkie, the coaches, the players all said to trust the process. By being so terrible, we were able to get great draft picks. A new team started to emerge from this absolute mess. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz. Trust the process. Last season the sixers finished third in the conference and made it to the second round of the playoffs.

Sometimes death is the thing that leads to new life. What exists must die so that something new can be born in its place. Today is the day when we remember the Baptism of Our Lord. And what is baptism but a process of dying and rising again?

In baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Christ. We are drowned in the waters of baptism so that we might be reborn to a new life in Christ. Usually most of our focus goes on the second half of that process—the rebirth. But in order for that rebirth to happen, our old self must die.

We die to sin and are made alive in Christ. What does that mean? It means change, which is never easy, or comfortable, even if the end result is good. It means that God is seeking to wash away, to get rid of, to put to death the things that keep us from fully living as God intends. Maybe that’s a harmful mindset, where we’re constantly looking down on ourselves or others, or being judgmental. Maybe it’s prejudiced ways of thinking. Maybe it’s things that we do that are hurtful to ourselves or to other people in our lives. Dying to sin means self-examination, prayer, and change.

That’s not necessarily a fun process. It wasn’t fun when the Sixers were losing 28 games in a row. It’s not fun to get to that rock bottom place where change finally begins to happen. John the Baptist speaks of God coming with and baptizing with fire, which is a scary image, but fire both destroys and purifies. The wheat and the chaff? Those are two parts of the same head of grain. The chaff dies in order for the wheat to be able to be harvested. It’s not a fun process, but it’s one that leads to new beginnings and new life.

And, it needs to be said, this is not a process that we’re in on our own. It’s God’s process. Notice when Jesus is baptized, in Luke’s account, it doesn’t actually say that John baptizes Jesus. We skipped some verses where we learn that John is actually imprisoned by Herod. So, who baptizes Jesus then?

God does. The Holy Spirit does. The same Spirit that baptizes us. Pastors are just here to say the words out loud. It’s God who does the baptizing. It’s God who washes away our sin; it’s God who reforms and reshapes us. It’s God who claims us forever, who says to us, just as the Spirit said to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved.”

We do not go through this process of dying and rising on our own. We do not go through the difficult times in our lives, the agonizing times alone. As God spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah: when you pass through waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. You are mine.

When we are baptized, we are marked with the cross of Christ. Marked as God’s forever. We do not do this alone. When Katelyn is baptized (at the second service/in a few minutes), it will mark the beginning of a process. A process of dying and rising. Of being washed and reborn.

It is only the beginning, because even though we are baptized once, it is an act that we live into for our whole lives. As Martin Luther explained in his Small Catechism, “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness.”

It’s a process. A process initiated by God because of God’s great love for us. A process that makes us see ourselves as God does: precious, favored, wanted, and beloved beyond all measure. Trust the process. Trust in God who brings new life out of death, who brings resurrection out of the darkness of the tomb. The God who creates in us new beginnings and new life. Amen.

 

Kindergarten According to John

Another Sunday of Advent, another lesson from John the Baptist. John dominates the scene in Advent, and it’s not always with things we want to hear. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, or Joy Sunday. This is why we light the pink candle on this day, as it is the color for joy. (If I owned a pink stole, I could wear it, but since I’d only use it twice a year that isn’t something I bought.)

Our readings from Zephaniah and Philippians reflect this joy. But then John joins us on this joyful occasion. And…it might seem like the joy stops. But the reading ends by saying, “with many other exhortations, he shared the good news.” Although John might seem wild, demanding, and intimidating to us, Luke tells us his message is good news. How is this good news? And for whom?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you heard of the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? It was written by Robert Fulghum about thirty years ago. It contains a wide-ranging list of things that Fulghum learned in kindergarten that might just be great ideas for adults, too. An incomplete list:

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Take a nap every afternoon. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Live a balanced life—learn some and snack some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.

Of course, kindergarten doesn’t teach us all we need to know, but it sure does teach us a lot. And when I listened to John the Baptist in our reading this morning, I honestly heard more the stuff of kindergarten than the stuff of apocalypse. It’s easy to miss because it’s in the middle of John calling the people who’ve come to be baptized a brood of vipers and the threat that they might be thrown into the unquenchable fire if they’re not careful.

John is this wild man out in the desert and he’s scary and rough around the edges. But the people are listening. According to Luke, the crowds are streaming out into the wilderness to get yelled at by John. They’re not just willing, but eager to hear this fiery message. They want to live differently than they have been. They know that the way things are isn’t working so well for them. And so, they ask him: “What should we do?”

You might expect John to have a wild answer to match his personality. After all, this is a man dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts. What do you think such a person might say? Give everything away! Quit your jobs, leave your families, and go live in the desert! Start a revolution!

But John’s answer is even more radical than all of that. What should we do? Share. Be fair. Don’t cheat. Don’t be a bully. It’s so simple, it’s easy to skip by it to get to the dramatic winnowing fork.

The crowds, eager for answers are told, “if you have more than enough, share with someone who needs it.” The tax-collectors, people hated for collaborating with Rome are told to be honest in their dealings. Not to quit their jobs, not to stop collecting taxes, but to do so fairly. The soldiers, members of an occupying, oppressive force, are told not to misuse their power. Not to take advantage of their positions.

And here’s what’s so radical about John’s message: faithfulness doesn’t always have to be dramatic. It doesn’t have to be heroic. John’s message of repentance, of re-examining our lives, doesn’t ask us to abandon our lives. But it does ask us to find ways to be faithful wherever we are, and whatever we do.

We’re having a baptism this morning. Fiamma is going to be brought up front and we are going to welcome her, knowing that God has loved her her whole life and that now she will be marked with Christ’s cross and sealed in the Spirit. We are going to celebrate with her the gift of baptism that we too share—the gift of forgiveness and grace and identity rooted in being God’s beloved child.

But first, we’re going to have an opportunity to do what John called the people to do. To repent. All of us, not just Fiamma’s parents or sponsors, but we will all be asked to renounce sin and evil and called to turn towards God in Christ. In her baptism, Fiamma will be joining us in our mission to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.

In baptism, God sets us free from our self-centered ways to live in love and faithfulness. Our old selves are drowned in these waters, and God raises us up as a new creation. That is a promise that we need to return to again and again. Today we hear once again that we are the Lord’s. Our past mistakes, where we’ve done wrong, the things we regret do not need to hold us back, because in Christ we receive forgiveness. We receive new beginnings. And we receive the call to live as faithful disciples.

And so we join the crowds gathered around John asking, “What should I do?” What does faithfulness look like in my life, in light of this promise of God’s grace? Because this is a promise that we are all invited into. Wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing.

In business? Conduct it fairly and with the community in mind. At home with children? Raise them to love God by loving their neighbors. Teaching? Do so with patience and hope. Looking for work or retired? Don’t underestimate the good you can do others even without a job. Studying at school? Learn everything you can and put it to work to make this world a better place. Caring for those with special needs? Remember that of such is the kingdom of heaven (and give yourself a break when it’s hard to remember). Driving a public transit bus? Do it safely and well. The list goes on and on.

Faith doesn’t have to be heroic. That mission we share at the end of the baptismal service, to share God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. Sometimes the most faithful and life-giving actions happen right in the midst of our daily lives. Treating others with respect. Sharing what we have. Taking pride in what we are called to do, knowing that even the most ordinary tasks are an opportunity to serve God. We find God, and we find opportunities to be faithful in the ordinary stuff of life.

And, in all things rejoicing. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul in Philippians, “and again I say rejoice.” I love that verse, but it so often gets removed from its context. Paul is writing this while he is in prison. And he’s writing to a community that is suffering persecution. And yet he says to rejoice always. He’s not talking about any kind of fake happiness or forced cheer.

He’s talking about the knowledge that in all things we do, there is the opportunity to love and serve God. We need not fear: God has claimed us as God’s own and nothing—including our own actions—will ever take that away. So what should we do? Rejoice. Give thanks to God and together bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world, in all you do. Amen.

Cleaning Up

I have a sermon this week! I saved this five different ways to make sure I didn’t lose it, and it worked! (Of course, the week I take all those precautions, nothing went wrong at all.) This is my sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9th. Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Lord. John was announcing the very first time that adult Jesus arrived on the scene, and called people to a baptism of repentance. This year, I focused on what those preparations look like for us, 2,000 years later. We aren’t expecting Jesus to come in the flesh, but we do watch for and anticipate the ways that God is active in our lives. Enjoy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you prepare for visitors at your house? Do you clean? Maybe cook a special food, or mix up a welcoming drink? Growing up, I honestly hated when we’d have people over, because my parents would insist that the whole house had to be extra clean. Including my bedroom, which no-one ever even went in. I didn’t understand why my room should be picked up and dusted and vacuumed, when the guests were never even going to get to the second floor of the house.

But my mother would go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. Literally. She would even comb out the fringe on the rug, so that it wasn’t tangled and laid smoothly. Growing up, I thought it was really stupid, when it was all going to be ruined the second the guests came in the door, anyway.

Now, though, I get it. When we’re having people over, apart from a few very close friends, we do our best to make the house look its best. We dust in corners and crevices that don’t normally get attention. We even use the fancy attachments on the vacuum.

But it’s not just a matter of straightening up, it’s fixing things that hadn’t bothered us before. A loose towel rack, a burned-out lightbulb, the creaky door that were deemed not a big deal before, need to be fixed for guests. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the uneven chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to-do” list. Things that we’d thought were fine no longer seem so in light of guests coming over.

When John the Baptist announces in our reading this morning, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s not talking about just doing some surface cleaning. John’s announcement of the coming kingdom of God demands preparation of a different kind. “Make every path straight,” he says, “every valley will be filled, every mountain made low, the rough ways made smooth.”

This is preparation that demands we look, not just at outward appearances, but truly examine ourselves and our world and see what needs to be changed, what needs to be fixed, as God’s kingdom draws closer. It is very similar to Malachi’s message, where he says that God’s coming will be like enduring refiner’s fire, and fullers’ soap. It means being changed.

John’s promise, Malachi’s promise, they are good news. We are going to be reformed, reshaped, made anew in God’s image. But these promises might also make us apprehensive. Actually, they should make us apprehensive, if we truly listen to them. Because, while the end result is good, the cleaning process might not be the most pleasant. Because it means change. It asks us to put the way things are, the way we are, under a microscope and consider what needs to be scrubbed away.

What in your life holds you back from fully being the person God created? What in our world doesn’t fully reflect the ways of God’s kingdom? When I look at my own life, there are things that I would love to have scrubbed away, and maybe it’s the same for you. Selfish thinking, pessimism, being overly critical of myself and others. But there are also things I know should change that are comfortable habits for me: perfectionism, self-righteousness, competitiveness. I’m not so eager to have all the things that hold me back scrubbed off. Because losing some of them means making myself very vulnerable.

It’s the same when we look around at our world. It’s easy to name the things that we know don’t reflect God’s ways: division, hatred, racism, hoarding of goods and resources. But for those things to be gone, it means passing through the refiner’s fire: a beautiful outcome on the other side, but not an easy or comfortable journey.

Because it requires of us change. It means that the landscape won’t look the same when we’re through. Mountains will be made low and valleys will be lifted up. That’s good news if you’re currently stuck in the valley, but for those on the mountains it sounds awfully like bad news.

But God’s kingdom isn’t going to wait for us to feel good about its arrival. And that is good news. God’s promise is sure—we will be reformed in God’s image, and it will be good. No matter how we feel about it now. No matter what we may be afraid of now. When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good.

John calls us to self-examination and repentance, because God’s kingdom is approaching. Jesus is approaching, and we are called to prepare the way. But it’s not up to us to make every path straight, and every mountain low. At the risk of overextending the metaphor, God is like the houseguest who comes and starts to clean and straighten up.

Have you ever had a guest like that? The one that straightens up all the magazines on the coffee table or rubs invisible smudges off your glasses? That’s God, but in the best way possible. God doesn’t wait for us to get everything in order, to get everything clean and tidy and fixed.

God bursts through our doors whether we’re ready for guests or not, and God gets to work. Your life isn’t perfect? Neither is mine. But thank goodness God isn’t waiting for that! God draws near to us, even when we’re not ready. Even in our messiest moments and ugliest situations. Because God is the guest who desires nothing so much as to help.

We haven’t solved the problems of this world yet? We haven’t healed hatred, and reconciled with one another? We haven’t made sure that all people have what they need to survive? God’s not going to wait for us to be ready. God is breaking through into this world anyway, in people and places that we might not expect—like a wild man in the wilderness. Through people on the margins. God is filling valleys and leveling mountains one shovel at a time, whether we’re ready or not.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Take a look at what needs to be cleaned. At what rough places need to be made smooth. And get ready for a houseguest who’s ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Because God is drawing near and God is at work to reform and refine us and our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

God’s Calendar

To all those who read my sermons on this blog, I must apologize, for I have lost not one, but two sermons to the computer gods this past week. I had written two different sermons for last Sunday, as I was preaching at St. Paul’s in the morning, and at our joint Advent worship at Zion Baptist in the evening. But that morning, my computer (several computers, actually) refused to open my morning sermon, telling me it was a “corrupted file.” Even the college student I asked for help told me there was no hope.

Thankfully, the computer was willing to open the sermon for Zion Baptist, so I simply used that one for both occasions. But on Monday morning, when it came time to put it up on the blog—another corrupted file. Which left me without a blog entry for this week! Which meant a great opportunity to return to a more topical blog post, instead of just my sermon for the week.

I’m going to try to be more regular about non-sermon posting. It’s a great creative outlet for me—I love to write, and it’s always fun to write when you don’t necessarily have to (like for sermons and newsletter articles). If you have a topic you’d like hear about, let me know! Now, on to the topic for today, the liturgical year:

At St. Paul’s, we recently tried a new service for Reign of Christ Sunday. Sometimes called Christ the King Sunday, this is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before we begin again on the First Sunday of Advent. So this year, we had a service of readings and hymns that walked us through the church year, starting in Advent and moving through each season until we reached Ordinary Time in the summer. Because of the time constraints of our service, we weren’t able to hit all of my favorite festivals, like Reformation and All Saints’, but we did cover a lot.

Often people have questions about the church year: who created it? Is it in the Bible? Isn’t it just co-opting pagan festivals? Isn’t it Catholic? The short answers are: lots of people, sort of, sort of, and yes in the “little c” sense!

The cycle of the church year is shaped by the life of Jesus, so in a lot of ways it is biblical. It marks Jesus’ birth, ministry, trial, death, and resurrection, and teaching. It has also grown over thousands of years and has been influenced by things like the natural seasons (at least for the Northern hemisphere), the festivals of pre-Christian traditions, and the holy days of the Jewish calendar. It is used by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so many more. It is something that can tie us together across denominational lines.

To me the church year is like inhaling and exhaling. It is a rhythm so deep that we often don’t notice it’s happening. We begin in darkness and hope-filled longing in Advent, then rejoicing as one, then two and three and four, and suddenly a multitude of lights fills our existence. We begin Lent in winter barrenness, watching for signs of life that overflow at Easter. Through the long summers’ green seasons, we too grow and learn about being Jesus’ disciples.

Advent in particular has always captured my imagination. It is filled with ritual: lighting the candles, singing the ancient song of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Hearing John the Baptist call upon us to prepare the way of the Lord. Longing for God’s presence to be made more real in my life and in the life of the world.

We often speak of our longing as longing for light. This makes sense in the brief, sometimes dim, winter daylight in the Northern hemisphere. Romans celebrated the Feast of the Unconquered Sun during this season, and the Celts the winter solstice bonfires. The Jewish people light he menorah during this time to celebrate the continuing light of their faith. And Christians light the four Advent candles, increasing in radiance over the dark weeks. To long for light is to long for illumination, for our true selves to be made visible. To long for light is to long for transformation, to be renewed in the refiner’s fire.

Over the centuries, Christians have celebrated three Advents: the past coming of Christ born in Bethlehem, the present coming of Christ in the sacramental meal, and the future coming of Christ at the completion of all things. As a child, I longed for the baby Jesus and for my own delight in Christmas morning. As we grow, we long for different things: God’s presence in the here and now, God’s light to illumine all creation and to lead our hearts in justice and peace.

We never enter the church’s year of grace as the same person we were twelve months ago. It is always new, and yet it is always the same. Breathe in, breath out. Let the year flow around you. Let its patterns center you as your life moves and flows. And know God rules over all our days.

Give us faith to be steadfast…

Sometimes the assigned lessons for the day don’t seem readily connected to current events. And sometimes they do. This week happens to be one of the latter. We have readings from Daniel and Mark of apocalypse. Often we think of apocalypse as horror movie stuff. But actually, apocalypses were often written by and for people living through horror movie stuff. The apocalypse (or literally, revelation), was an attempt to reveal where God was still acting in spite of the trauma and grief all around them. So, may God give us faith to be steadfast…

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” That is the plea from the Prayer of the Day. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world. The prayers of the day are meant to, for lack of a better word, summarize the main themes of our readings for the day. Their main purpose of course is prayer, us thanking and asking God for guidance, for help, for faith and reassurance. But the prayer of the day especially also helps us to center ourselves for worship, gives us hints about what is to come in our lessons.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Our readings today deal with tumultuous times and events. Especially Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple. It’s Holy Week in our story, and Jesus and his disciples have just exited the Temple, right after last week’s reading where they watched the scribes at their prayers, and the widow giving her offering.

And as they’re leaving the Temple, this unnamed disciple just can’t help sharing his awe and wonder at how impressive it all is. “What large stones and what large buildings!” he exclaims! I always get a little bit of a laugh out of this disciple, who sounds like such a country bumpkin. Also, hasn’t he been paying attention? Jesus has just been pointing out the ways that this impressive structure has been utterly failing to live up to its ideals and intentions. And here he is, distracted by its grandeur and size.

Jesus offers a swift rebuke: Don’t be distracted by things that have the mere appearance of greatness. But not only don’t be distracted, but be prepared, because the things that seem great, that seem eternal and unchangeable, they won’t always be that way. This temple will fall.

And the community that is first hearing Mark’s Gospel knows that only too well. By the time Mark written story is being spread around, the Temple has fallen. There has been a failed insurrection. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish rebels have been crucified by the Romans. And the Temple has been burned to its foundation stones. There is war, and there is great unrest. In the midst of all of this, hearing Jesus say, “Do not be alarmed at these things” must have seemed crazy.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Those first-century hearers of this word are not the only ones living in tumultuous times. We can claim our fair share of that ourselves. Things that once seemed to be stable no longer feel that way. Sometimes it feels like the world is tearing apart at the seams. The wildfires in California are just the most recent, devastating example. Jesus’ words saying that these buildings, which we built to be long-lasting and secure will all be thrown down have an eerie and troubling ring. And on top of societal upheaval and unrest, we have our personal tumults. Events in our lives that turn everything upside down, that make it seem as if nothing will be right again.

And in the midst of all this, Jesus says: “Don’t be alarmed.” Don’t be alarmed, he says to his disciples on the precipice of cataclysmic change. Don’t be alarmed, he says to those first hearers of the gospel, living through war and destruction. Don’t be alarmed, he says to us, feeling adrift in the midst of large scale natural disasters, in the midst of hatred and violence feeling more present and threatening than ever. Don’t be alarmed in the midst of dealing with personal tragedy and grief.

Do not be alarmed. Put your trust, not in buildings that will crumble, not in humanmade structures that will fail, but put your trust in God. “Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Is a Christian to sit peaceful and calm while the whole world falls apart around them? By no means!

Jesus’ words are not meant to keep us from caring about the tumults we face, nor are they meant to prevent us from acting in response to them. They are a reminder that our hope is in something greater than this world’s struggles and tumults. That we live in joy and confidence, trusting the promise that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us, and will continuously bring new life out of death and destruction.

Do not be alarmed does not mean “do nothing.” As to how to live in the midst of tumult and uncertainty, we can turn to our reading from Hebrews. We’ve been reading from Hebrews for several weeks, and we’ve finally reached the crux of the argument. The “therefore.” Because we believe these things about God and about Jesus, “therefore.” Because we trust that God is always with us, because we believe that God is more powerful than hatred, than evil, than even death itself, therefore…

“Therefore,” Hebrews says, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Provoke is usually a word we use to describe bad things. If we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we might say that we were provoked. But here, we’re asked to provoke one another to love. To provoke one another to care. To provoke one another to good deeds.

In the face of uncertainty, sometimes we don’t know how best to help. Sometimes we can feel powerless to actually accomplish anything, or feel like what we might offer is too small or too insignificant to make a difference.

But it’s not. Small things done with great love are not small things at all. Our stewardship theme this year is “Faith in Action.” When we put our faith in action, sometimes in small acts of love and kindness and generosity, we not only make a difference with that one act, but we provoke love and good deeds in others.

What do we do as Christians in the face of unrest and tumult? We don’t seek to ignore or escape, but rather we seek to provoke. Provoke this world and each other in the best way possible: to love and good deeds. Provoke one another to care for each other. Provoke one another to comfort each other in times of trial. Provoke one another to be passionate in seeking the best for our neighbors. Provoke one another to confront hatred and bigotry. Provoke one another care for God’s creation. Provoke one another to love like Jesus.

Almighty God, give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done, and always provoking each other to love and good deeds. Amen.

Resurrection Right Now

All Saints’ has to be one of my favorite days in the church calendar. I’ve heard it described as “a little Easter in the middle of fall.” It is like a little Easter–but without all the extra tiredness that accompanies Holy Week. It is a chance to celebrate the resurrection and what that means in our lives and in the lives of those who have died. Often, we talk of God’s promises for “after we die.” But those promises ought to affect our lives right now, too.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many of you know, from conversations in Bible Study and other places, that I’m not a huge fan of the King James Version of the Bible. It was written back in the seventeenth century, and, well, it sounds like it. I appreciate its beauty and its poetry, but sometimes I feel like that very beauty often obscures what the words are trying to get across.

But with this week’s gospel from John, I have to say the King James gets it right. When Jesus tells them to take away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, instead of his sister Martha replying “already there is a stench,” in the King James, she simply blurts out, “But Lord, he stinketh!”

He stinketh! Truer words were never spoken. Death really stinks. It literally stinks, as bodies decompose. Martha would know this better than most, as she and her sister Mary were probably the ones who prepared Lazarus’ body for burial. They washed him, they wrapped him in his burial shroud. They knew what state his body was in. These are tasks we no longer do ourselves, leaving them to professionals.

But no matter how far we distance ourselves from the literal stench of death, we cannot escape the reality that death still stinks. Even if we don’t have to smell the body, death stinks. Losing ones that we love is painful and heartrending. Even if it’s what we call a “good death,” someone who lived a long life and died peacefully. It still stinks because they’re still gone. And when the death seems to just be wrong—sudden, unexpected, gone much too soon—well, then it really stinketh.

All Saints’ Day, a day when we remember all of the faithful departed, and especially remember those we loved who have died this past year, this a day to acknowledge the reality that death stinks. That death hurts. That in death we lose something very dear to us.

It’s okay for us to weep with Jesus. It’s okay for us to wish that it had been prevented, like Mary and Martha. It’s okay for us to feel blame, to feel anger, to feel resentment. It’s okay to grieve. There’s so many emotions in this story of the raising of Lazarus. Because grief brings out our most honest, most visceral feelings. And that is a part of what All Saints’ Day is about.

But All Saints’ is also about something more than grief. It is about more than just the reality of death. It is about the promise that right there in the midst of death, God is at work bringing new life. We mourn those who are lost to us, but we also celebrate that in God we have the final victory. That death does not get the last word.

All Saints’ Day is a day to be honest about the reality of death, but it is also a day to be honest about the reality of God’s promises. And those promises come right in the midst of the reality and pain of death. In these beautiful passages that we heard from Isaiah and Revelation, where they say that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over the people, that God will swallow up death forever, that tears will be wiped away, that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and that God will live in our very midst.

Both of these passages, with beautiful words of hope and reassurance and comfort, both of them were written in the middle of death and grief and tragedy. Isaiah was speaking to a people who had just been conquered, whose holy temple had been destroyed, whose loved ones were scattered to the winds or lying dead in the ground. And yet he speaks words of hope of the day when all peoples and nations shall come together.

The church that Revelation was written to was being persecuted by the Roman Empire. Everyday more of their companions were being killed for being Christian. It was not safe to be a member of the church. But John still writes of a day when all creation, all peoples, will be renewed, will be restored. John writes of God entering into this world of persecution, and brokenness, and pain to bring new life.

Our world is full of death. Some of it, we experience on a personal level, those people whose lives have touched ours, that we now no longer have. But death hangs over us all, as we live in a world that seems guided more by hate and by fear than by love. Every day people seek to use fear and hate to divide us, to demonize other human beings, and to justify inconceivable acts. We do not have to look far or hard to find the stench of death.

But Jesus interrupts death with a word of life. He says to Lazarus, “Come out.” Come out of the tomb, and he says to the community to release him from the very shroud of death. Isaiah and Revelation they interrupt the death and destruction all around them to say that there is something more than this. That God is stronger than even this.

God’s promise of resurrection does not mean that we can deny the reality of death. But it does grant us the power to defy it. To defy death’s ability to overshadow and distort our lives. To defy death’s threat there is nothing else, no other way of being. Death does not get the last word. And we do not have to wait to live as resurrected people. God’s promises of life, of comfort, of all creation being renewed, they are for the here and now.

Isaiah and Revelation and even Jesus offer us visions of what will be. But they are visions that we cling to as God’s promise for us, right now, not someday. Right now God calls us from our tombs of darkness and fear to be renewed people. In Christ we see the God who is victor over death, and we are able to live as though the eternal were right now. Because in life and in death, we belong to God. We live as resurrected people right now. We live as people who hold to God’s promises of life, right now. We live as gift to a world that desperately needs to hear that death doesn’t get the last word, that death does not win.

I will leave you on this All Saints’ Sunday with a poem by theologian Jan Richardson:

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day–
here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us:

hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,

hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,

hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,
hope that raises us
from the dead–

not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and
again.