Such Great Heights

I have a confession to make. I really don’t like the Transfiguration all that much. Not the story itself, so much as the festival we remember it on. Even among the biblical miracles, the Transfiguration is a weird story. Were Moses and Elijah visions? Did everyone hear the voice or just Peter? Why did only three disciples get to go? My biggest struggle is that it sometimes feels if I don’t have a “mountaintop experience” my faith is somehow lacking. I know that’s not true, but I don’t like that feeling. So this year, I tried to make my peace with the Transfiguration. Instead of explaining or analyzing, theologizing or simplifying, I just went with experiencing. This sermon is pretty much an extended retelling of the story, with a little commentary thrown in for good measure.

Readings: Transfiguration Readings 

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

Things have not been going great recently for the disciples. Everywhere they turn, people are seeking them out looking for help or healing, and now the religious leaders are starting to question them, too. No where can they find a place for rest or retreat.

As if that weren’t enough, in the middle of this press of exhaustion and questions, Jesus asked them who they believed he was. Peter spoke up first, as he so often did. “You are the Messiah, the Lord,” he said. Those were the right words, but it turned out Peter didn’t fully understand what they meant. Because when Jesus started talking about a cross, Peter fell apart. The cornerstone became a stumbling block. “How can someone save God’s people if he gets killed?” Peter wondered. It didn’t make any sense.

And what’s more, Jesus told Peter and the others that their journey forward would be difficult. And that it would end in a cross. And that they, too, would have crosses to bear if they followed him. Jesus had been trying to tell them who he was, why he had come, what it meant to be the Messiah. But Peter just wanted Jesus to stop talking. With every word, it seemed the Jesus he knew and loved got farther away.

That was six days ago. Peter hasn’t known what to think since. Still, as Jesus began to climb the mountain in our text today, Peter, along with James and John, followed, up the winding paths to stand with him at the top. From such a great height, they could look back over everything that had happened. They can remember their call to follow. And now, at the top of this precipice, looking down and across the valleys ahead, they begin wondering where Jesus will lead them next.

And it was there, on that mountain, that everything changed for those three disciples. They might have been expecting a break, a respite, but instead got pulled into the middle of a terrifying, mystical experience they never expected. All throughout Scripture, God has appeared to leaders and prophets on the mountaintop. Enveloped in the clouds, Moses is given the tablets of the law. Elijah hears God in the still, small voice, powerful as a thundering silence on the mountain. And here today, Peter, James, and John encounter God as well. In the transfiguration, God knits together the law, the prophets, and the gospel, weaving them into one in the person of Jesus.

Peter’s wanting to stay on the mountaintop makes sense. On the mountaintop, he isn’t distracted by the needs of other people. He doesn’t have to worry about what Jesus meant when he talked about a cross and suffering and death. Here on the mountain, he has the glorified, victorious Jesus he wants, shining in splendor and majesty. It makes sense that he says, “It is good to be here. Let’s stay awhile.”

But then God’s glory pulls back the veil between heaven and earth even more fully and begins to speak: “Look, here is my son. My beloved. Listen to him.” And the disciples are terrified. Falling to their knees, they tremble in fear until the cloud melts away, the cracked door to heaven is again sealed, and they are left there, on the mountain, alone with Jesus. Even as they cower, Jesus reaches out his hand, touching their shoulders and saying, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” The cloud has dispersed. Jesus’ robe is back to its dusty brown. Moses and Elijah have disappeared. And it is almost as if everything is back to normal. But, of course, in reality, nothing will ever be the same.

In the Gospel of Matthew, this moment of transfiguration—this revealing of God’s glory—on the mountaintop serves as a turning point. Jesus now turns his face toward Jerusalem, ready to start down the road to the cross. And the disciples have a decision to make. Will they keep following him on this new leg of the journey?

The transfiguration is also a turning point for us. It is positioned between the season of Epiphany, a time characterized by light and revelation, and Lent, a season of repentance as we too journey to the cross. From this mountain, we too can look behind to see Jesus being baptized, Jesus beginning his ministry, Jesus teaching, preaching, and healing. We can also look forward, seeing the rocky and winding path to Jerusalem. We can see, from this place, the ways that Jesus will continue to open his arms up to the world, reaching out to each of us, until those arms are stretched out across the beams of a cross. And from this mountain, we are even given a glimpse of the end of the story, when Jesus will once again stand robed in glory as he is raised from the dead.

I think most of us have had turning points like this in our lives, too, not just in the church year. Perhaps we see them more clearly looking back, but we often have seasons where things are bright, going well, full of new discoveries and experiences, that turn to seasons which feel like that long trek to Jerusalem. Times when we don’t feel hopeful or can’t see God as clearly as we did on the mountaintop. Mountains and valleys are part of life. But from this reading, we can see one purpose of the mountaintop experience. It helps prepare us for the valleys of life. When the going is hard, we have that moment of revelation to hold on to.

I think God knew that, to endure the coming trials, the disciples, and perhaps even Jesus, needed this moment of clarity, of affirmation. We need those moments, too. Where we can clearly see how God is working in our lives. We can’t stay in them forever, but we need them to keep going.

Like any experience of the divine, the transfiguration is shrouded in mystery—a burning bush that is not consumed; a still small voice; a cloud and pillar of fire—these are all ultimately “you had to be there” type of events. Even for Peter, James, and John, part of the story, part of the meaning eludes them. And they come back down the mountain not quite sure they know what just occurred.

On this day, we, like the disciples, are invited to remember all that we have come to believe about Jesus. And at the same time, we are asked to allow Jesus to transform those beliefs and reshape them. For just like Peter, when we think we have made progress, when we think we have finally figured it out, we are often brought up short by God, reminded that our journey of faith is not yet over. There is still more to Jesus than we had allowed ourselves to imagine.

There’s a beautiful quote from C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia that speaks to this. Aslan, the great lion, Lewis’ stand-in for Christ, is speaking to the Pevensie children. It is just before he leaves them. He says, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Remember the signs–for Jesus is already on his way back down the trail. Back into the crush of people waiting for healing, for vision, and for hope. Back into the middle of all that need and all those questions. Moving forward to what lies ahead. Remember the signs. He has put his hand out to us. Told us to rise up. Told us not to be afraid. Remember the signs. He has invited us to come and follow him once more. We better be on our way. Amen.

Salt and Light

In this week’s selection from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares his disciples to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” But what does that mean? What are the purpose of salt and light anyway? Read on to see my thoughts–and a little baking advice!

Readings: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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

I think we’ve all heard stories about great baking mishaps around salt, right? People confuse salt for sugar in a recipe and end up with salt-licks instead of cookies. There was a memorable one on a cooking competition I was watching where the contestant was making chocolate mousse and got the salt and sugar mixed up. He did not make it to the next round.

I’ve never had such a terrible mix-up myself, but I will confess, when I first started baking, I wasn’t nearly as careful with salt as I should have been. If the recipe called for just a teaspoon, or even a half of a teaspoon, I would often leave it out entirely. I couldn’t be bothered to go the pantry and get one more ingredient. And how much difference could that little salt make? I didn’t want my cookies to taste like salt, anyway.

Now, I know better. You don’t add salt to baked goods, or any recipe really, so that you taste salt. You add salt so that you might taste all the other flavors better. I take salt very seriously now. We have around six or seven different kinds of salt in our house, from table salt to kosher salt to finishing salts.

But it’s also easy for me to take salt for granted. With the exception of our French sea salt, it was all readily available in the grocery store. And even that we could probably find at Whole Foods if we tried. Jesus telling the crowds gathered around him, and by extension telling us, his followers, that we are the salt of the earth is not terribly exciting. The phrase has even come to mean those without pretensions, the not special people.

But for most of history, salt was incredibly important. As Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history.”   The ancients believed that salt would ward off evil spirits.  Religious covenants were often sealed with salt.  Salt was used for medicinal purposes, to disinfect wounds, check bleeding, stimulate thirst, and treat skin diseases.  Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt — hence our English word, “salary.”  Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals.  And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation.

And Jesus says to the crowd, this is what you are. You are precious. You are needed. You are important. We have to remember who Jesus is talking to at this moment, too. This follows right on the heels of last week’s reading. You know, the Beatitudes. Jesus is talking to the poor in spirit, those in mourning, those who long to see justice given to them. Those who are reviled. “You,” Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth.” You are worthwhile and you have an important role to play.

This is completely descriptive language. Jesus isn’t telling the people that they need to become the salt of the earth, or the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. It’s not a command. It’s not a hope. It’s a declaration. You are salt, and you are light.

Imagine how this sounded to those gathered around him on the mountain. The poor, the lame, the bedraggled and forgotten. They probably couldn’t believe that Jesus was talking about them. You who are not cleaned up and shiny and well-fed and fashionable. You who’ve been rejected, wounded, unloved—you are essential. You are treasured. And I am commissioning you. Them—important and precious and needed! How does it sound to you today? To hear Jesus say to you, gathered here around his word: you are the salt of the earth? You are the light of the world? You, me, all of us. With our imperfect lives and flaws and struggles. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. You are crucial to God. You have an important role to play. You are needed.

It is just who you are. You haven’t earned it, because you can’t. By virtue of being God’s beloved children, you simply are salt and light. But even though we don’t have to earn it, even though Jesus simply declares that it is true, being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, it does have consequences for our lives. It’s a wonderful gift that God has given us, but it has implications for us. What does it look like to be salt? How exactly do we go about being light in this world?

An interesting thing about salt and light is that, as important as they are, they don’t exist for their own sakes. I don’t need to put salt in my cookies so that the cookies will taste like salt. The salt is there to make everything else better. To bring out all the other flavors. Eat salt alone, and all you get is a huge thirst. Stare directly into the light, and it damages your eyes. These two things that Jesus calls his followers, that Jesus calls us, exist, not for their themselves, not to be used for their own sakes, but for the difference they make to other things.

It’s not the light we want to look at—it’s the world that the light brings into vibrant focus and color. It’s not the salt we want to taste—it’s the variety and richness of the flavors already in our food that the salt brings out.  When Jesus says that we are salt and light, it’s not for our own sake that he names us these things. It’s for the sake of the world. To be the salt of the earth is to lift up those around us. To enhance the lives of others. To heal, to preserve. To be the light of the world means to shine so that others might be seen. That we might shed God’s light in dark places. That we might be light and signs of hope in the midst of despair.

The other thing about salt and light, and Jesus lifts this up, is that they need to be shared. Salt does its best work when it’s poured out. When it’s scattered. When it dissolves into what’s around it. We don’t do our cooking any favors if we keep the salt-shaker locked in the cabinet. Salt isn’t meant to cluster. It’s meant to give of itself. It’s meant to share its flavor. The same with light. A lamp can’t go under a bushel basket. It will not survive. Flames don’t survive unless they have room to breathe.

If we are salt and light—and Jesus says we are—if we want to enliven, enhance, deepen, and preserve the world we live in, we have to be poured out. We have to be shared.

So on this cold winter morning, hear the promise of God: you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. May we go forth from this place, pouring out our lives, our love, our actions as we might pour out salt on top of French fries. God has made us salt and light so that we might be shared. So that we might flavor and protect, enrich and enlighten. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Blessed are they…

As I think I’ve shared on this blog before, I find preaching on familiar passages to be a bit of a mixed bag. While people know them better and might be more engaged and interested, it’s also true that they can take on a life of their own. They get removed from context, put in cross stitches and wall prints, and can lose some of their power. This week, we had a couple very familiar passages from Micah and Matthew. While not everyone is as familiar with the reading from 1 Corinthians, it is one of my favorites. And this turned out to be one of those (rare) weeks where I touch on all the readings.

Readings can be found here: lectionary readings
Nadia Bolz-Weber’s sermon can be found in its entirety here: Patheos.com

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

It is rather appropriate that the day of our annual meeting, we hear these words from the prophet Micah: And what does the Lord require of you? What does the Lord require of us? What does God want from us, as individuals, as a congregation, as a people at large?

You might be familiar with the final verse of this passage from Micah, because it gets quoted a lot. It’s short and sweet, like any good mission statement: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. What we’re less familiar with is what leads up to this oft-quoted verse.

God is angry with the people. This is not earth-shattering news in the prophetic books. The people have wandered from God’s way for them, and God has chosen the prophet Micah to speak a word that will help bring them back. But the people are also frustrated with God. They claim that they’re doing their best, but really, what does God expect from them? What does God want?

What we read this morning is God’s frustration bubbling over, and God putting the people on trial. God calls on the mountains and the foundations of the earth to bear witness to the Lord’s complaint against the people. “Oh my people,” God cries, “what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”

God lists all the things that God has done for them throughout the generations and searches for a sign that the people are living into who God has called them to be. The people respond with a question of their own, “With what shall I come before the Lord? Shall I come with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn?” In other words: what do you want from us?

And God answers: none of that is what I want. I have shown you time and again what is good: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in my way.

What does the Lord require of us? Jesus offers his own vision of what God is interested in, his own mission statement of sorts in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. This is his inaugural sermon, the very first thing he chooses to teach in the gospel. And he starts with words of blessing. Blessing comes first. Blessing, not terms and conditions. Not judgment. Not even mission. But blessing.

And what blessings they are. This is another set of frequently quoted verses, and because we’re familiar with them, we sometimes miss how very shocking they are. This is a list that shouldn’t make any sense to us. It certainly isn’t how the world works. The world says– those who are wealthy and successful are blessed, those in power are blessed, the famous, the popular, those who seem to “have it all together” are blessed, those who are beautiful or attractive or strong are blessed.

But Jesus flips that upside down. Instead, he says, THESE are the blessed ones –those who don’t have it all together, those who are bullied, dispirited, or fleeing their homes as refugees, those who are grieving, those who hunger and thirst for the common good, those who are merciful and compassionate, those who work for peace and reconciliation, those who have a single-minded devotion to God’s kingdom, those who don’t back down from working for justice, even when they are misunderstood and challenged. Jesus calls THESE people blessed.

In his very first chance to teach the disciples, Jesus lavishes blessing on the people around him on the hillside. People who his world—like ours—didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber imagines what it would be like if Jesus were standing among us, and what blessings he would give today, writing:

  • “Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised…
  • Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
  • Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion.
  • Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
  • Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean.
  • Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
  • Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.
  • Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
  • Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
  • Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”
  • Blessed are those who no one else notices.
  • Blessed are the kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables.
  • Blessed are the forgotten.
  • Blessed are the closeted.
  • Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.
  • Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.
  • Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.
  • Blessed are foster kids and special-ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.
  • Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.
  • Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers.
  • Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”

What does the Lord require of us? God invites us into a worldview, into a world, where these blessings are true. Where we see things from this upside-down perspective. But beyond seeing things that way, we are invited to live these blessings. Jesus starts his ministry by pronouncing blessing, but he doesn’t stop there. His life lives out these blessings. He empowers the meek, he feeds the hungry, he cares for the poor, and he demands justice for the oppressed.

Jesus invites us to live in this vision of God’s community, of communal wholeness. We are called to be hungry and thirsty for God’s justice when we see it is absent. We are called to show compassion instead of only looking out for ourselves. We are called to follow the voice and vision of Jesus above all the other desires of our hearts. We are called to be an active force for peace in the world. We are called to walk humbly with our God.

To the rest of the world, this looks like a completely foolish endeavor. But, as Paul wrote, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

What does the Lord require of us? Foolishness. God asks of us foolishness. God requires of us foolishness, for the sake of the world God loves. Our God is a foolish God. A God who sees people who don’t have it all together—the weak and powerless, the confused and doubting, the mourning and the lonely—people like you and me, and says, these people are blessed. These people are going to be the basis of my kingdom. Our God is a foolish God who came to us, not in power, but in weakness. Who offered love in the face of hate and rejection. Our God is a foolish God who loves us even when, perhaps especially when, we don’t deserve it. Our God is a foolish God who calls us to follow in that way. What does the Lord require of us? Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. Even if it might look foolish. Amen.

Presentation of Our Lord

Unlike some recent passages, the Presentation of Our Lord is one that only comes up once in a blue moon. Well, it comes up every year on February 2, but that doesn’t often fall on a Sunday. Sometimes I struggle to find something fresh to say about familiar passages, but this week I struggled not to try to pack everything I had to say about this often overlooked reading into one sermon.

As much as the reading is overlooked, sometimes I feel that Anna is overlooked within it. She doesn’t get a fancy song like Simeon, and we don’t have her words recorded. It just says that she “spoke about the child to all who would listen.” So I decided to focus on Anna and others like her who might get overlooked.

Lectionary Texts: Presentation of Our Lord

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sister Monica Joan was one of the first people to qualify as a nurse-midwife in Britain. In 1904, she joined the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus, the patron saint of expectant mothers and midwives, and was shunned by her wealthy family as a result. Sister Monica Joan helped found the order’s mission in the East End of London, taking care of the poorest of the poor. Helping women deliver babies and care for themselves when they had no access to doctors or hospitals.
She worked there, amongst these women through World War One, the Great Depression, and the Blitz of World War Two. The East End, housing most of London’s docks, was hit particularly hard during the bombings. Through it all, Sister Monica Joan was there, delivering babies and providing care.
Now, though, as the world moves into the 1960s, they tell her that she’s too old. She’s in her eighties, she knows she’s old. But they take her off the nursing rotation. They tell her that her body can’t do what it used to. They don’t have to tell her that. She feels that every morning when she gets up. They tell her that she shouldn’t answer the phone anymore, because she gets confused. She’s doesn’t think they’re right about that one, but maybe they are, she’s not sure. She does know that she desperately misses the times when she felt she had a purpose.
She still lives at the convent, she prays and goes to worship, she knits clothes and blankets for those in need. But all her life, she’s been busy, active, needed. And suddenly they say they don’t need her anymore. They tell her that she has earned her rest.
Anna has lived by the Temple for many, many years now. Close to sixty in fact. She was married for only seven, when her husband died too soon. And instead of going to live with her brother’s family, and being a burden, she decided to devote herself to the Lord. She worshipped at the Temple, day and night, with fasting and prayer. Some called her a prophet. Some took notice and were impressed by her dedication and devotion. Most just passed by at this point, though. She was just an old woman, and most people took no notice of her at all. The people in the Temple were busy, they were there for prayers and offerings, and had other things to get back to. Their lives moved on, but Anna’s stayed still. It had stayed still for quite some time.
The Presentation of Our Lord is kind of an odd festival. We don’t really celebrate it, unless it falls on a Sunday, like it does this year. It’s the fortieth day after Christmas, and in some ways marks the end of the Christmas season. It’s sometimes called Candlemas, because this is when all the candles to be used in church for the year would be blessed. That’s because Simeon sings about Jesus being a “light to the nations.” And it’s come to be associated with all kinds of folk traditions that don’t have much actual foundation in the biblical story: in Mexico it’s good luck to eat tamales, in France it’s crepes, and the Germans (and German immigrants to Pennsylvania) had a theory that if it was sunny on Candlemas, it meant a longer winter.
But amid all of the traditions and folklore, we get introduced to these two elders in the temple, Anna and Simeon, who are present for Jesus’ presentation. The presentation included a sacrifice, because all firstborn sons belonged to God, and the sacrifice was a way of redeeming them from the Lord. So Mary and Joseph, being observant Jews, have gone to the Temple to present their son.
This would all be rather routine, forgettable even, if Simeon hadn’t swooped in and taken the baby Jesus in his arms. We don’t know much about Simeon, just that he is very old, and had been promised by God that before he died, he would see God’s salvation. He takes Jesus, and he declares: Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, your word has been fulfilled. Mine own eyes have seen your salvation, a light to reveal you to the nations.
It’s couched in fancy, poetic words, but Simeon is declaring that he is ready to die now that he has seen, has held, the fulfillment of God’s promises in his hands. Since at least 1531, Lutherans have sung Simeon’s song, called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin, after receiving communion. For in communion, we too hold the very promises of God in our hands. We are reviving that practice at St. Paul’s today, so don’t be surprised when there’s an extra song after communion.
And Anna follows Simeon, seeing the child and prophesying about him to all in the Temple who would listen. I’m sure the Temple was crowded that day, there were probably a lot of young people with young children. But Anna and Simeon realize that Mary and Joseph, and especially Jesus, are the ones that they’ve been waiting for. These two elders see something that the others are missing—they see the fulfillment of God’s promises in their midst. They see God making real mercy, and love, and justice, right here in this tiny human. It’s just a start, but they see it happening right in front of them. Something small, something insignificant, not fully formed in the grand scheme of things can be life-fulfilling and transformative to people who are dying for good news.
I wonder what the other people in the Temple that day thought. If they even noticed at all. Did they stop and consider these words of Simeon, the prophecy of Anna? Or did they dismiss it as merely a couple of eccentric old people and a poor young family?
Sister Monica Joan isn’t a real person, although she is based on one. She’s a character in Call the Midwife, a series of books and a TV show. She is constantly dismissed as merely an eccentric old woman, losing touch with reality. In some ways it’s true: she is eccentric, and she does seem to be forgetting things more and more. But she has a way of seeing what others miss. The same way Simeon and Anna did. Perhaps she, too, is guided by the Holy Spirit to see God active in ordinary things. She is able to remind the other nuns and midwives, so caught up in the busy-ness of their work, that small moments are meaningful, too. Small things are beautiful and holy.
What about you? If you were in the Temple that day, would you have noticed Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus? Would you have stopped to revel in the presence of God in your midst? Do you do it now?
I think that sometimes the very old and the very young have a special gift at seeing the holy in our world. It’s a gift that all of us can cultivate, but it does seem to come naturally to small children, amazed and wondering at every new thing they encounter. It does seem to come more naturally to our elders, shaped by experience and understanding where true meaning is found.
God is present in our lives every day, often in tiny, unexpected ways. Moments that we sometimes miss because we’re not paying attention. But God is there. God is there in waking up each morning, in a friend reaching out in a time of need. God is there in acts of love and kindness, no matter how small. God is there shepherding us, reminding us of God’s promises. Guided by the Spirit like Simeon and Anna, may we be awakened to the ways that God is present in our lives. And may we also not hesitate to share those moments, with our thanks and praise. Amen.

One in Christ

If you’ve been following along with my sermons, you might have noticed I generally preach on the Gospel passage, sometimes drawing in the other readings to its theme. When I preach on the Hebrew Bible passage or the Epistle, you know it’s either because it’s a really good reading or I really had something to say. This week was a little bit of both. I love First Corinthians (although my favorite passage comes just after we stopped this week), and the topic of division was just so timely that I couldn’t not preach on it.

If you’re taking a look at the readings (Found here: Lectionary Readings), I spend most of my time focusing on the First Corinthians.

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

Tim and I can’t watch professional football together. We’ve tried, and we’ve found that it’s very bad for our marriage. You see, Tim grew up in Connecticut, and, I suppose through no fault of his own, is a fan of the New England Patriots. He is also a much more rational person than I am where sports are concerned, and is perfectly happy to root for the Eagles, as long as they’re not playing the Patriots. He doesn’t understand why, no matter who New England is playing, I want to see them collapse in on themselves in a giant, fiery ball of incompetence. So, we don’t watch much professional football together. Our loyalties are too ingrained and too divergent.

We have happily, though, found the higher, shared loyalty of being Penn State fans. UConn not really being known for their football meant that Tim had no previous team loyalty, and we did not have to be divided on that front.

This is a fairly silly example, obviously, because hopefully sports teams are not a real source of division in our society. But real divisions are anything but silly. Real divisions cause pain, fracture communities and families, and leave lasting scars.

The Apostle Paul gets wind that this is what’s happening in the Christian community in Corinth, and writes this letter to them, seeking to address these divisions. Unusually for Paul, he gets right to the heart of the matter in the very first chapter. He often opens his letters with more lengthy introductions, but here, after a brief salutation, he jumps in: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

He’s heard, through people that he trusts, that this church is quarreling amongst themselves. People are separating themselves into groups—some saying they belong to Paul, some to Apollos, some to Cephas. Some are apparently above all of this and say only that they belong to Christ. While that is, in fact, the right answer, you can imagine their sanctimonious attitudes when giving it didn’t help the situation.

Paul is, rightly, really worked up over this. He’s angry. He says he thanks God that he didn’t baptize many of them, so that they can’t use that as a source of division. I started with a silly example of division, but this issue of division isn’t silly at all—it’s very serious. And it’s certainly not one that only the ancient Corinthians struggled with.

Although technology and globalization mean we’re tied closer than ever before, sometimes it feels as if our world is only getting more and more divided. We don’t claim to belong to Paul or Apollos, but what things do we define ourselves by? What loyalties do we give more importance than we give to Christ? Certainly the first ones that come to mind are political. A study out of Stanford a few years ago found parents would be more upset if their children married someone from a different political party, than if they married someone from a different religion. Unfortunately, I think that says more about our feelings towards opposing political parties than it does our growing tolerance of religious pluralism.

While it’s definitely the biggest one, political affiliation isn’t the only thing that divides us. Or the only way that we define ourselves. What about our national identity? Which one matters more to you—to say you are an American? Or to say you are a Christian? There are divides among the generations, distrust between urban and rural communities, frustration and resentment between social classes.

Division hurts us. Division is painful; it drives wedges between us and causes lasting harm to communities. No wonder Paul sought to address first in his letter to the Corinthians. No wonder he was so agitated he couldn’t even remember who he baptized. Our reading from First Corinthians today ends with this verse that gets at the heart of what is wrong: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The individual points of division in Corinth are symptoms of a larger problem. These Corinthian Christians have fundamentally misunderstood what God has done through the cross of Christ. They don’t see that the cross was God’s way of upending how they defined and valued themselves and one another. They claim Christianity but are still operating under old assumptions and old ways of doing things. They are still competing. They are still trying to prove their own worth. They are still defining themselves by who they leave out instead of who they include.

Christ calls us to leave behind old ways of thinking—about ourselves and about others, about the way God operates in the world. When he calls the first disciples, he asks them, quite literally, to leave their old ways of doing things—leave their jobs, leave their families, leave their homes—and come and be part of something new. He completely disrupts these men’s lives and calls them to a different loyalty, creates a new community.

But Christ doesn’t just issue that call to the first disciples. He calls us, too. He calls us to leave behind our old ways of thinking, our old prejudices, our one-upmanship. He calls us instead to be formed as people of the cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and martyr to the Nazis, once said: When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.

When we talk about baptism, we talk about it as participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a death to everything in our lives and in our world that is not of God, and a birth into the new community shaped by the cross.

It would be naïve for me to stand here and say that because we have joined this new community in Christ, that all of our divisions suddenly melt away. Paul writes of what it looks like beautifully in his letter to the Galatians, saying that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. But we don’t suddenly cease to be male or female or genderqueer or nonbinary when we are baptized. We are still defined by our economic realities, we still have religious and political affiliations. To brush over them too quickly only creates a false unity, found in ignoring rather than reconciling with one another.

But we are also given a new identity—one that supersedes all of these others. We are one in Christ Jesus. We belong to Christ. And Christ bids us to come and follow him. To be formed as disciples, as people of the cross. It’s a foolish message, but it is, as Paul says, the power of God. The power of God to cross our divides and boundaries, the power of God to cross the walls we build within our own hearts. The power of God to make a new thing—a new person—out of something old. So come, Jesus says, follow me. Amen.

 

 

What are you looking for?

This year, in the time after Epiphany, we get two stories of the calling of the first disciples. This week, from the Gospel of John, and next week, from the Gospel of Matthew. To preach back-to-back weeks on very similar texts meant I needed to find some unique detail to this call story. I decided to focus on Jesus’ question: “What are you looking for?” Did the disciples know? Do we?

Readings for Second Sunday after Epiphany: Lectionary Readings

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

Have you found what you’re looking for?

There’s a song by the Irish rock band U2 that begins with these words: “I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields…I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls…but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” What about me? We might ask. Have I found what I’m looking for?

The people and relationships I’m looking for? The job or career? Is this it? Is this all there is? Or should I keep looking? We’re searching for fulfillment, for purpose, for peace. And we’re not always sure where to find those things. Is it in our careers, in our families, in our hobbies? Through the newest self-help craze, whether it’s diet or exercise or organization. Will this be the things that makes me happy? Have I found what I’m looking for? I started with that question, but honestly it’s the wrong starting point. We’re better off starting with Jesus’ question in the gospel. What are you looking for?

This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John. In fact, it’s the very first time Jesus appears in this gospel at all. John the Baptist, who has been waiting for him, watching for this chosen one of God, points to him and declares: Here is the Lamb of God! He’s speaking to two of his disciples, who then leave John and follow Jesus.

Jesus sees them following, and I always imagine this as kind of a comic scene. Jesus is walking down the road, and these two are creeping along behind. Curious, but unwilling to step up. Jesus finally turns around and asks them: What are you looking for?

What were they looking for? They don’t really answer the question. Maybe they don’t know, or maybe they can’t articulate the feelings and longings they are having. They just know that they are looking for something. And John has seemed to say that they will find it with Jesus. Instead of answering him, they ask a question of their own: Teacher, where are you staying?

Where are you staying? That word used for stay also means abide. It’s the word Jesus uses when he says, “Abide in me, and I will abide in you.” Teacher, where are you abiding? How can we find you again if we need you? Where are your roots? Just like the disciples didn’t answer Jesus’ question, he doesn’t answer theirs. He doesn’t tell them where he’s staying, instead he issues an invitation: Come and see.

What are you looking for? In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what hunger drives you forward? What are you seeking in life? When I come to God, to scripture, to church, when I pray, what am I looking for? Am I looking for anything at all? Or am I just going through the motions?

If I am following Jesus like these two disciples, what am I seeking? What am I looking for? Consolation? Affirmation? Certainty? Healing? Belonging? Am I looking to gain power and influence or to surrender it? When we follow Jesus, when we are part of this thing called Christianity, what are we looking for?

Are we looking for someone who will confirm our assumptions and judgments or someone who will challenge them? Someone who will conform to our understanding of the world, or someone who will help us to reshape it? Someone who will make us feel safe, or someone who will make us feel passionate? Perhaps it doesn’t always have to be either/or, but Jesus’ question is an important one for us to consider. What do we want, what do we seek from following God?

Sometimes, we can answer that with surety. I seek purpose. I seek belonging. I seek love. But other times, like those first two disciples, we might not have an answer. We might not be able to put into words the longing that we have. We just know that something is missing. Something is incomplete. And we know that the answer lies somehow in this person of Jesus.

Come and see, Jesus says. Abide with me, rest with me, and you will see. You will see a new way of life where you are not defined by your past actions, or your bank account, or your grades, or the neighborhood you live in. Come and see a new community that is built on mutuality and compassion, patience and love. Come and see a new call, a new purpose to share this news with others.

We come to Jesus with questions, with longing, with hopes and doubts and wonders. We might be looking for answers to difficult questions: why is my loved one sick? Why is there so much suffering in the world? What am I meant to do with my life? We come to Jesus looking for any number of things.

Like those first disciples, Jesus might not give us answers, but he does give us an invitation. Come and see. The invitation is the answer. Jesus invites us to follow him. Invites us to become disciples. To be part of making real God’s kingdom on earth. Part of his ministry of healing, of wholeness, of bringing good news to the poor and outcast. Come and see. See what God is doing in the world, see what God can do through you and your life. Come and be a part of something bigger than yourself.

There are no requirements to be a part of it. Jesus doesn’t ask these first disciples for anything other than to follow him. They don’t have to pass a test or prove their worthiness. In fact, they’re going to fail numerous times along the journey. But always the invitation is there. Come and see. No matter your past, no matter your doubts, no matter your reservations. Come and see.

The life of discipleship is one of constant longing. Longing to see the promises of God come to life in our world. Longing to be part of that. Longing to share it with others. And along the way, we just might find what we’re looking for. Amen.

No such thing as impsoters

Baptism of our Lord is one of those festivals that comes up each year with very similar texts. Sometimes it’s hard to find a new way to talk about things that we hear year after year. But this year, I was inspired by the first part of our text from Matthew: not the baptism itself, but Jesus’ conversation with John. Perhaps I’d recently been reading something about imposter syndrome, I don’t remember, but that idea just stuck in my mind. Have you ever felt imposter syndrome? What helps you with self-doubt when it comes?

Readings for Baptism of Our Lord: Lectionary Readings

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

Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? It’s gotten a lot of press in the past few years after some TED Talks about it, but it was first researched in the 70s. Syndrome is sort of a misleading term for it, because it is not a psychological or physical diagnosis. Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you haven’t earned the success, recognition, or accolades that you’ve received, no matter how much outside validation people give you.

You feel that people overestimate your abilities, that you’ve just gotten lucky. That you don’t deserve the praise or accomplishments you’ve actually earned. If you’ve ever felt this way, know that you’re in good company. Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she hadn’t really earned her accomplishments. She was quoted as saying, “I’m running a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Albert Einstein experienced something similar. He described himself as “an involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it received.

Imposter syndrome isn’t something that only the Einsteins and Angelous experience, though. We all can experience those feelings of self-doubt. How did I wind up in this job? Am I actually qualified enough to be doing this? We can worry that we might be exposed, that others will find out we actually have no idea what we’re doing. Studies have shown that most of us experience self-doubt about our abilities. But because we don’t voice these doubts, we think we’re the only ones that have them. The only ones who feel unworthy or unprepared. Unqualified, or like an imposter.

John the Baptist is definitely suffering from something like impostor syndrome in our gospel reading of the baptism of Jesus. John’s whole story has been amazing up to this point. His own miraculous birth, to a couple of old age, was heralded by angels. He was so advanced, that he was preparing the way for Jesus even in utero. He leaped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when a pregnant Mary came to visit. He has been a successful prophet, baptized hundreds of people, made quite the name for himself. Scripture tells us that huge crowds of people were coming from all over to hear John preach and to be baptized.

Yet, when Jesus comes to the river, John doesn’t feel like he’s good enough. He doesn’t want to baptize Jesus because he feels unworthy. Of course, we need to remember that it is Jesus. Even the most qualified person would probably feel unworthy in this situation, but John feels it acutely.

This conundrum of John baptizing Jesus is something that the early Christians struggled with, too. And all of the Gospel writers handled it differently. In Mark, the earliest gospel written, John objects, saying he is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, then does it anyway. Matthew, which we read today, has this back and forth with Jesus, where Jesus seems to say that it’s okay because the situation is temporary. In Luke, John doesn’t baptize Jesus. Jesus is baptized, but John is already in prison when it happens. And in John, if Jesus is baptized, it happens off stage, it’s not part of what John writes down.

But, even with all of these explanations and back and forths, at the end of today’s Gospel, John baptizes Jesus. Even though he feels unworthy. Jesus tells him, this is what you should do. This is what you are here for, this is your calling. Despite your doubts, despite feeling as though you’re not good enough, you are. You are good enough, and you are meant to do this.

We can all suffer from imposter syndrome sometimes. We feel like we have been thrust into situations that we aren’t prepared for. We feel like others don’t realize just how little we know. It might be your job, it might be marriage or parenthood, buying a house, you name it, if you’ve ever felt like you’re the only one completely out of your depth, that’s imposter syndrome.

I feel it. I feel it a lot, and most often these days, it’s brought on by the complicated, turbulent times in which we live. I’m not sure I was properly prepared for this. To be a pastor in the midst of an opioid epidemic, climate change, political polarization, possible war. Like Maya Angelou, I feel like I’m going to be exposed for the fraud that I am. Maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation you feel unprepared for. Unqualified for. And maybe you wonder what in the world God expects you to do with it.

Sometimes, God calls us to big challenges and seemingly impossible situations. But God calls us to them, not because we don’t know what we’re doing, but precisely because God knows we have the power and the ability to make a difference.

Today is the Baptism of our Lord, but it is also a chance to think about our own baptisms. That moment, whether you were a tiny baby or a teenager or an adult, when you were sealed with the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus was in the River Jordan. That moment when God declared you to be a beloved child. When God said, “This is my son, this is my daughter.”

We all have received God’s Holy Spirit, and we all have received God’s call to mission and ministry in this world. In the baptismal rite, which we will affirm in just a few minutes, we say that we will—to the best of our ability—“live among God’s faithful people, hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

It’s a big calling. It’s a huge calling, there’s no denying that. God asks a lot of us. And this big, challenging call might mean we sometimes feel like imposters. We sometimes feel like we’re making it up as we go along, like we’re not qualified to do it. God asks a lot of us, but God gives a lot to us. God gives us everything we need. We have received God’s Holy Spirit in baptism, and we have everything we need to answer God’s call. To be God’s voice of good news, to serve all people, to follow Jesus’ example. Because we do not do it alone. We do it with the power of Spirit, and with the love of Jesus flowing through us.

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, know this: God doesn’t make imposters. God makes beloved children. And God equips us with everything we need to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world. So as we remember our baptisms, remember: you are beloved. And you have received God’s spirit of power and truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

And the Word became flesh…

Depending on how the calendar falls, we don’t always get to celebrate a Second Sunday after Christmas. This year, we got one on the very last day possible: the twelfth day of Christmas. The readings for the day help us to consider the ongoing implications of the Christmas story–what does it mean that the word became flesh, beyond just a baby in a manger?

Readings for Christmas 2

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

Merry Christmas! That’s right, it’s still Christmas. The last day of Christmas, but we’ll savor it for as long as we can. For all that we’re excited, as a society, about Christmas, with Christmas songs starting at Thanksgiving and decorations in the malls even before that, we’re sure willing to cut the celebration short once it starts. Tree collection in Lower Merion started this past Thursday, on January 2. Christmas in our culture lasts two, maybe three days. Then it’s on to other things. New Year’s, then it’s back to school, back to work.

But Christmas in the church still lasts for twelve days, because one is just not enough. One day is not enough to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One day is not enough to spend on this earth-changing event. But I have a feeling that the writer of the Gospel of John would feel that even twelve days are not really enough.

Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning, is, essentially, John’s Christmas story. Only there’s no angels and shepherds. There’s no Mary and Joseph. No inn and stable and manger. Bethlehem isn’t even mentioned. There’s no baby at all! Instead, John speaks of the beginning of time and the creation of all things. John speaks of light breaking into the darkness of our world and of our lives. John speaks of cosmic matters.

John’s Christmas isn’t really about the birth of Jesus. You can’t have a Christmas pageant based on John. You’d have to have kids dressed as planets and stars; you’d have to figure out how to portray light and darkness. But just because John’s version is different from the Christmas story that we’re used to, doesn’t mean this is all detached from the world as we know it. Because John’s cosmic narrative all leads to this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” John writes about the wonder of the Word-made-flesh. About the incarnation—God becoming human, and what that means.

These first eighteen verses of John are called the prologue to John. They’re written in verse, as poetry, instead of prose. And much like an overture does for a work of music, John’s prologue sets the stage for what is to come. In the prologue we hear snippets, pieces and themes, that will be picked up later in the Gospel.

Because we’re going to be reading from John a lot during the coming year, I wanted to take some time this morning to look at just a couple of those themes and what they mean on this last day of Christmas. The first is the theme of incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Incarnation, God becoming human, is truly at the heart of Christmas and why Christmas can never be contained to one or even twelve days. The incarnation changes everything—it changes who we are, how we relate to God, and to each other.

By taking on our human form, God identifies with us. God redeems us in this act of salvation. We often think of the cross and resurrection as the salvific part of Jesus’ ministry. But in the creed, we proclaim each week, we say, “For us and for our salvation, he came down…” The incarnation is an act that saves. It is God saying: you—humans—are important. You matter so much to me, that I will become one of you, so that you might experience my love more fully.

But it doesn’t all go according to plan. Jesus comes into the world, the world that he helped to create, and it says: but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. This is the second theme that I want to look at this morning. That the incarnation is rejected.

These verses are dangerous because these verses and others like them in the Bible have been used to fuel and defend antisemitism. It always needs to be said, but especially now as attacks against Jewish people are on the rise, it needs to be said that antisemitism is not Christian. And it has no place in our church or in our society.

Jesus was Jewish. He lived in a Jewish society, among Jewish people. So yes, Jesus’ earliest detractors were Jewish. Much like all of his earliest followers were also Jewish. But instead of using the Bible to scapegoat others, turning these verses against others, we need to hear these verses as a challenge to ourselves. When do we fail to recognize Jesus in our world? When do we not accept him? When confronted with the true light of God’s love, what makes us sometimes turn away?

We reject God’s light and truth, the love that Jesus came to bring, when we cannot or will not love ourselves and others the way that God does. When we do not see each of our bodies as a dwelling place of the divine. When we value some people, some lives, more highly than others. When we do not care for the world that God lovingly brought into being.

And yet, even facing our rejection, Jesus does not reject the world. Instead, Jesus enters the world of fear and anxiety, depression and longing, hopes and love. Despite rejection, this will be God’s chosen way to bring grace into the world.  From his fullness, John writes, we all have received grace upon grace, and he gives us the power to become the children of God. The power to become children of God. The power to be like Jesus. To be forces for light and hope, love and truth, in a world that needs them oh so badly. The power to love like Jesus loved, the power to give of ourselves for others, the power to know that we are loved.

John’s Christmas story is not about sentimentality. It is about life and light and love, breaking into a world full of division and grief and despair. It is the Christmas the story we need, not just once a year, not just twelve days a year, but every day.

We spent New Year’s with friends of ours, and their four-year-old had all these Hallmark snowmen. Maybe you’ve seen them—you press a button and they sing and dance. They’re very, very annoying, especially when eight of them are signing eight different songs at one time. One of them sang: “We Need a Little Christmas.” You know, “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute, need a little singing, ringing in the rafters…”

Well that song has been stuck in my head since New Year’s Eve. I only know like two lines of it, but they’ve been going over and over. They’re not wrong. Even though Christmas is over, we do need a little Christmas. We need a little incarnation. We need a little light shining in the darkness. We need a little grace upon grace. Alright, maybe we need a lot of that. Thankfully, Christmas is not just a season. Christmas is God’s love come to us, come past our rejections and barriers, come to reshape us as children of God. Made in love for the sake of the world. It’s something we need every day. And thankfully, it’s something we get every day. Amen.

 

Discovering Joy in Hope

The third week of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Or, in English: Joy Sunday. If your church has them, they might use rose colored paraments and vestments instead of blue. At St. Paul’s, we have an Advent wreath with three blue candles and one pink–this is the week we light the pink. The tradition comes from Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. It says that John the Baptist (in Elizabeth’s womb) leaped for joy when Mary arrived. And so we read of this visit in our psalm for the day. My sermon is based somewhat on the psalm, and mostly on our first lesson from Isaiah.

Readings can be found here: Advent 3 readings

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

Have you ever seen a crocus breaking through the snow? Those tiny, resilient little purple flowers? I always want to tell the poor little thing, “It’s too early! It’s not time for you yet; you need to wait until the snow goes away or you’ll never last.” But crocuses don’t wait. They don’t bide their time until it’s warmer and more welcoming. They burst out, a shock of color against fields of white, regardless of whether the world is ready for them or not.

They are a flower out of place, bringing joy and new life to a desolate winter landscape. In much the same way, our first reading from Isaiah is a word out of place. This beautiful prophecy of what it will be like when the exiled refugees finally return home. Springs rushing up in the desert, crocuses in bloom, deer leaping, people dancing. A road so easy to follow that even the directionally challenged cannot get lost. Can you imagine what this must have sounded like to a weary and war-torn people? To people who had given up on hope?

Only, it’s in the wrong spot. Isaiah is a very long book, one of the longer prophetic books, and it covers lots of years and many things. From before the Babylonians come and take over the land of Israel and exile its people, through the exile itself, and all the way to this joyous return.

And to find this marvelous description of what the return will be like at chapter thirty-five doesn’t make sense. It’s surrounded by prophecies of war, by depictions of desolation and anger and bloodshed. It makes so little sense that some biblical scholars believe our Bibles have it in the wrong spot. Something went wrong thousands of years ago in the copying of this text, they guess, and this prophecy wasn’t mean to be here. It belongs later in the book, after we’ve finished with pain and anguish. It’s a word out of place.

I don’t know when this word was first spoken, but I do think it’s where it is for a reason. Maybe it came later originally, but as this long, long book was being compiled, the Spirit had something to say. The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes. “Put it here,” she breathed, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.” And so here we have it. A word of joy and hope that just can’t wait until it might make more sense.

Isaiah dares to burst into joy with a word that refuses to wait until things have improved. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann has put it this way: “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.” They look at a land that has been scorched by the enemy in war, and instead of seeing the facts of dead and barren places, instead they see the possibilities of new life. Of streams of water and a land renewed and restored. It can’t wait until things are better to be heard; it needs to be said now.

I think the same is true of our psalm for the day, which, did you happen to notice, isn’t from the Book of Psalms at all? It’s from Luke and is actually Mary’s words. She has been told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear and son. Mary, unsure, but trusting the angel’s words, sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the country. At Elizabeth’s greeting, Mary breaks out into this song that today we call the Magnificat. She declares the wondrous things that God has done and will do in the future. She declares that she, Mary, is blessed, and that so are the poor, and the hungry, and the lowly.

It’s a word out of place. Mary was a young girl—although not unusually young to have a child in those days—but she was unmarried. She faces social disgrace and life as an outcast. Everything she was sure of is now up in the air. She doesn’t appear to have any close relatives to go to for help, so she must travel, by herself, to the country to see Elizabeth. Surely, she’s scared. Surely, she’s worried and anxious. Surely, there had to be a better way to go about this Messiah thing than a young girl on her own. But when she speaks, she doesn’t speak a word of fear or confusion. She speaks a word of blessing. A word of hope. A word of justice and deliverance.

God doesn’t wait until the right time to bring a word of rejoicing. God characteristically goes against the data. We know the data. We know the data. We see it every night on the news and every morning on the front page of the paper. And we can add to it the data of our lives: waiting for test results from the doctor, grieving the death of a loved one, wondering if we’ll make it through the next round of lay-offs, hoping the money will stretch to the next paycheck. Maybe this Christmas season isn’t a time of joy for you, but a time of sadness, of remembering loss, of hurt.

But God goes against the data and brings us a word out of place. God shows up even in the desert, in the barren places of life, to await us in renewal, restoration, and salvation. God is not waiting for us to get past our grief or pain, our confusion and doubt. God is there in the midst of all of it with words of hope and promise: I am here, you are not alone, there is a way through the desert. God doesn’t wait until we are ready, but comes in the middle of despair and fear to bring hope and joy. I could think of no better way to close than the Madeline L’Engle poem, “He did not Wait.”

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Amen.

Clear the Way for Hope

John the Baptist is one of those characters that you remember. He eats bugs, and wears ridiculous things. He’s also one of those characters that, as a pastor, you get to preach on every single year. Every Second Sunday of Advent, we have John preaching in the wilderness. John is such a rich character with a deep and nuanced message, there are many ways you take a sermon on him. I choose to do something a little unusual for me this year, and focus in on just a couple words: repentance and judgment.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent can be found here: Advent 2 readings

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

John the Baptist is kind of like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Advent. Just when we’re getting into the spirit of things, lighting candles, singing Advent hymns, here comes John with a bah humbug and a horrifying announcement about burning in an unquenchable fire. John is definitely not the guy you want to invite to the Christmas party. He makes everyone uncomfortable, not just with the way he dresses and what he eats, but with the way he just says things. He tells it like it is and he doesn’t care if it offends people. Don’t ask John if he likes your new haircut or outfit. He’s not going to be nice just to spare your feelings—he’ll tell you if he thinks you look terrible.

Unwelcome guest though he may be, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene every year on the Second Sunday of Advent to give us some difficult truths that we need to hear. To tell it like it is. Jesus’ cousin, John is a prophet who understands his purpose: to prepare the way of the Lord. To prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. He does not use his platform to promote himself, but rather to point to Jesus, to get the people ready for God’s chosen one.

And so here John is, in the wilderness, that great testing ground of God’s people, getting people ready by preaching judgment and repentance. I want to really dig in to both of those words, because they both carry a lot of baggage and assumptions. And the two are very much tied together for John. Jesus is coming to judge the world, says John, and so we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Often, we think repentance means feeling sorry, or feeling guilty, or feeling ashamed.  And sometimes church, religion, has been used to make us feel that way, to make us feel like we’re not worthy, or we’re broken, that we need to be ashamed. And then, once we feel repentance, we confess, we ask for forgiveness, and we move on.

But repentance actually has very little to do with what our feelings are, and much more to do with what our actions are. Repentance doesn’t mean to feel sorry or to feel guilty. The word that John the Baptist uses for repentance is metanoia, which means to turn around. To turn around. To reorient ourselves. Repentance is not feelings of regret or guilt, repentance is making changes, doing things differently moving forward. Confession is a part of that, but it is just the first part. Confession is acknowledging the ways we haven’t been living as God wants. Repentance is honestly trying to do something different in the future.

Think about, for a silly example, if you’ve stepped on someone’s foot. You can apologize for that, but unless you pick your foot up, that apology doesn’t mean very much. Repentance isn’t just saying sorry. It’s picking up your foot and trying not to step on that person again.

And John the Baptist calls all people to repentance. No one is exempt. What do we need to repent from? What things in our lives, in our world, are not life-giving? What things are not aligned with Christ? What stops us from being the people God created us to be? The people God so wants us to be?

Perhaps sometimes the things we need to repent from are our feelings of guilt and shame that keep us from living life fully. Our own self-doubt, that nagging voice that tells us we’re not good enough: that keeps us from being the wonderful, beloved person that God created. Our fears and our anxieties that keep us from fully embracing life.

Our prejudices, our self-righteousness that keep us from fully experiencing the community God intends for us. Our greed. Our self-centeredness. Our apathy. These are things that we need to repent from, not only because they hurt others in our lives and in our community—and they do—but also because they hurt us. They keep us from experiencing life the way that God intends.

John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by repenting of all the things that get in God’s way. To prepare for Christ’s reign among us by turning away from all these things that impede God’s love and justice and hope in our lives.

But then there’s that scary, disconcerting piece about judgment. The bad trees will be cut down and the chaff will burn in the unquenchable fire. Judgment, just like repentance, is another loaded word. We hear it, and we think: condemnation, wrath, punishment. Words we don’t like to think about when we think of God.

To judge something, though, in its most basic sense, is to see it clearly. To discern the truth about it. What if John the Baptist is promising us that Jesus is a Messiah who will really see us? Who will know us clearly? What if being judged is a good thing?

Jesus sees us, God sees us, and sees the truth about ourselves. Truth that we sometimes like to hide, even from ourselves. God sees the wonderful fruit that we bear, the lives we touch, the love we share, the justice we work for in the world. And God also sees the ways we sometimes bear bad fruit, through words we shouldn’t have said, times when we didn’t speak up when we needed to, things we wish we could do over.

We are none of us all wheat or all chaff. We bear within ourselves a mix of beauty and brokenness. Can we imagine that Jesus’ winnowing fork is an instrument of love? That Jesus sees, and wants to free us from, the things that keep us from being God’s people? The parts of ourselves that we know are hurtful, that only give pain? That, in separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus is seeking to burn away the parts of ourselves that hurt us? That hurt the world.

Repentance isn’t something we do alone. Repentance is trusting in God’s power to see us, to love us, and to reshape us. To guide us to new ways of being. To bring us from hatred to love. From prejudice to inclusion. From fear to trust. From despair to hope. No wonder John preaches in the wilderness. That place where God’s people first learned how to be God’s people.

God rescues the Israelites from Egypt, but even after that, after God has claimed them and saved them, they still need to learn how to be God’s people. In the wilderness, the people are changed. They learn God’s ways and God’s hopes and dreams for them. They didn’t do it so that God might love them—that was already evident—but because God loved them. And they didn’t do it alone. God guided them all their way.

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying: Prepare the way of the Lord. God is calling us to be shaped and molded by the love of Christ. To be reformed and renewed as God’s people, bearing good fruit to a weary world. Prepare the way of the Lord, that God’s love and justice may enter in. Amen.