My Sheep Know My Voice

Well, this is officially my last blog post before maternity leave (which starts on Friday, whether or not a baby has appeared by then). It’s certainly not how I imagined my time away from St. Paul’s would be beginning. I had no idea that March 8 was the last time I’d see most of you in person. But maybe that’s why I heard these words of Jesus a little differently this year. Every year, we read from John 10 on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, so this is a familiar passage to preach on. It’s Jesus–pre-crucifixion, pre-resurrection–comparing himself a shepherd who cares for the flock. Often, I focus on what this shows us about who Jesus is. This year, I was more drawn to what this shows us about who we are–God’s sheep–and what that means for us.

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

So I know I’ve told this story before, probably on this particular Sunday, actually, but I feel like if we repeat Good Shepherd Sunday every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, I get to repeat my one really good sheep story at least occasionally.

I went to William and Mary for college, which is right next to Colonial Williamsburg. And in Colonial Williamsburg, there are a large number of sheep. They add to the ambiance and smell of a fake colonial town. And there was a challenge amongst the college students when I was there to “ride a sheep.” I won’t share whether I did this or not, but I have to say, I do not recommend this. The sheep do not care for it; it is not a good idea.

But you would sneak into the town at night, and there are no streetlights, no anything. You climb into a sheep pasture, and basically try to catch one. Take a quick picture and be on your way. Except the sheep didn’t like to be caught.

Sheep are often portrayed as kind of dumb animals. Animals that would follow one another off a cliff without much thought. To call someone a sheep is used as an insult; you’re implying the person isn’t capable of thinking for themselves and just follows the crowd.

But sheep aren’t really that dumb. At the very least, they knew they didn’t want to be caught by a bunch of college students. They knew these students shouldn’t have been there. They sensed a threat and reacted accordingly.

“My sheep know my voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him, because they do not know his voice.” My sheep know my voice. There’s a two-fold promise in this lesson where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd and the Gate. We often focus on one half of it. That Jesus is our shepherd who comes to give us life, and abundant life. That’s an incredibly important promise.

But the other half matters, too. It’s a promise, a trust, about how the sheep will behave and respond. The shepherd comes to protect, to give life, to walk the sheep through the darkest valleys. And the shepherd knows that the sheep will trust, and follow, and listen.

Jesus doesn’t just say that he is the Good Shepherd. He also reminds the sheep that they know him. That they’ve trusted him. That they’ll continue to trust him. That they know the difference between false hope and real hope. That they can tell the difference between a genuine offer of abundant life and all the counterfeits that are peddled at them constantly. Jesus promises to lead. But he also promises that the sheep will follow.

He says to us: I’ve got you. I will be there, protecting you, guiding you, caring for you, sacrificing for you, giving you life. But that’s not all Jesus says. Jesus also says: you’ve got this. You will trust, and listen, and embrace what I offer, and you will live abundantly.

Perhaps that feels like a lot of pressure for the sheep. But I hear it more as a pep-talk from Jesus. It all hinges on what Jesus has done, and what he continues to do for us. It’s not that we’re tasked with doing this alone, because the Shepherd will always be there to lead the sheep. To love the sheep. To guide the sheep towards abundant life.

And our shepherd promises us: you know how to do this. You know my voice. You know the way. Trust in me, and trust in who you are. I’ve got you, Jesus says, and you can do this. When we’re in challenging situations, when we’re unsure of what the best decision is, when we wonder if we have the reserves of compassion and patience, and spiritual strength to see us through, we go back to the voice of our shepherd, who is always with us, leading us through dark valleys, guiding us to abundant life. And we go back to what we know how to do: to listen, to follow, to trust.

We can go back to that early community in Acts for an example: hold fast to the teaching that you have been given. Gather together, however that looks right now. Share in fellowship and share what you’ve been blessed with so that no one is in need. Pray together. And give thanks and praise to God. Listen to the voice of the Shepherd, and trust that you are capable following. Because you are. You are God’s flock, and God does not leave you alone. Amen.




But we had hoped…

I know that I have focused on the phrase “but we had hoped” in the story of the Road to Emmaus before. Maybe in a sermon three years ago, or maybe in a Bible study. But it seemed way too applicable to today’s moment to pass it up in favor of focusing on another part of the story.

Have you had disappointed hopes recently? Are you scared to hope for the future, worried that it will only lead to more disappointment? These early disciples knew how we feel, and Jesus has a word for them and for us.

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

“But we had hoped.” But we had hoped. The road to Emmaus is a road where hope is in the past tense. The past tense of hope is just an incredibly sad word. But we had hoped. These two disciples have just seen all their dreams and hopes dashed. Jesus, the one they followed, the one they hoped in, has been put to death. The worst, most godless death imaginable. Worse still, his tomb is empty, his body is missing, and the women who loved and followed him seem to have gone crazy with their bizarre tale of angels and gardeners and talking ghosts. And so, they walk the road of exhaustion, grief, and disappointment. They are headed home dejected.

But we had hoped. I had hoped about my child’s birth since finding out I was pregnant. I had hoped about introducing this baby to family and friends, getting to see my grandmother hold her first great-grandchild. I had hoped.

We’re all a little familiar with that past tense of hope right now. Seniors in high school and college had hoped for celebrations of their achievements. They’d hoped for proms and graduations and thesis presentations. Engaged couples had hoped for weddings that are now postponed or limited to just a few witnesses. Family reunions, anniversary trips are canceled. But we had hoped.

But we had hoped that the treatment might work. But we had hoped that he wouldn’t get laid off, that she could keep working through the crisis. But we had hoped that our loved ones might be spared. But we had hoped. With those two disciples on that first Easter day, we travel the road to Emmaus, the road of disappointment and grief.

But then, we come upon this miracle: this bitter, grief-filled road is also a sacred road, because this is a road that Jesus walks. Jesus comes alongside these disciples in their pain and disappointment. He doesn’t reveal himself right away. He doesn’t push them straight to rejoicing, but first listens to them, talks to them. Enters into their grief and longing with them.

He hears them out, allowing them space to articulate their grief, to give voice to their dashed hopes. And then, when they’re done, he offers them another story. It’s the same story they just told him, only Jesus gives it a new light, a new context. When Jesus tells the story, the death of the Messiah finds its place in the history of God’s acts of redemption. Jesus shows them a new future. It’s not exactly what they hoped for; it doesn’t end the way they assumed the Messiah’s story would end, but it is full of possibility and promise. And hope.

If you are walking the road to Emmaus right now, living with disappointed hopes, whether big or small, know that you do not walk this road alone. Jesus walks with you. Jesus feels your pain and grief, and they matter to him. But Jesus also has something else in store. New hope, and a new future.

While the disciples do not yet recognize Jesus, they invite him in to share an evening meal with them. They take a chance on this stranger and extend their hospitality. And then, everything changes. Such small things. A loaf of bread. Thanksgiving shared around a table together. Small and commonplace things reveal the divine presence that has been with them all along.

God is powerfully, wonderfully, hopefully present in the small and everyday things of our lives. In sharing a meal together. In the phone call or text with a neighbor. In the encouragement offered to another disciple traveling the road with us.

But we had hoped. Yes, we had. Of course we had. So very many things are different right now than we hoped they’d be. And yet. And yet the stranger who is the Savior still meets us on that road to Emmaus. And yet the guest who becomes our host still nourishes us with his presence in the ordinary moments of life.

So, wherever you are on the road, know that we walk together. And we walk side by side with our God. Amen.

Finding Jesus in Isolation

Doubting Thomas is one of my absolute favorites. Maybe it’s that I like an underdog, but I always feel like Thomas is treated unfairly. After all, when Jesus meets the other eleven disciples, he displays his hands and side without prompting. All Thomas wanted was what the others got! I like that he demands to encounter Jesus for himself. He reminds me of the Greeks earlier in John’s Gospel, who approached Andrew and Simon saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We wish to see Jesus.

One of the best parts of this story is that, clearly, Jesus wants to be seen. He comes to meet the disciples where they are, not once, but twice. He shows them what they need to believe. Jesus has not stopped showing up. And, if this story is to be believed, we don’t even have to leave the house to find him!

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

This reading, of the disciples’ and then Thomas’, encounters with the risen Christ is always the Gospel story for the second Sunday of Easter. This year, I decided to browse through my old sermons on the topic, to see what I had to say for the past five years I’ve preached on it.

In almost every sermon, I talk about how the disciples were locked away in a room together. This is Easter day, when our story starts. Mary Magdalene has come and told them about her encounter with the risen Jesus, and they remain locked away. And a week later, when Jesus comes back to see Thomas, they’re still locked away! Didn’t the news of the resurrection mean anything to them? Why did they continue in their old patterns and old fears?

Well, needless to say, this year I have just a little bit more sympathy with these disciples locked in a room for days on end. As social distancing continues to extend into the future, and schools are closed for physical classes through the end of the year, staying in a locked room for just ten days like the disciples did doesn’t seem so drastic.

Of course, our reasons for staying in are very different than theirs. It says that the disciples were locked away for “fear of the Jews.” Now, all the disciples were themselves Jews, so they were really locked away for fear of the authorities who had put Jesus to death, not all Jewish people everywhere. But fear. Fear was what kept them inside, apart from Thomas.

We are locked away, separated from each other, not out of fear, but out of love. As an act of faith. To help slow the spread of COVID-19, to give our medical professionals a better shot in handling the surge of cases. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to stay inside, because our jobs allow it, because we have the resources of others who put them selves at risk to deliver and shop and tend, we do so not out of fear, but out of compassion and love.

Still, though, we can sympathize with the disciples. Staying put and not wandering out. Wondering what is going on in the city. Wondering when it will be okay to venture forth safely. Perhaps Thomas wasn’t there that first week because he was the one designated to make the shopping trip, to bring back essential supplies for the rest of them.

But here’s the thing: Jesus shows up. Suddenly, miraculously among them, locked door notwithstanding. Twice, in fact! Jesus shows up where the disciples are. You might have thought that after hearing the news of the resurrection, the disciples would race out and find Jesus. But it doesn’t matter that they didn’t. Because when they didn’t, Jesus came to where they were.

Jesus comes to meet us where we are. Whether we gather in a sanctuary, or across the internet in our own homes, Jesus is present with us. Whether we are staying home, working at a hospital or grocery store, or from a delivery truck, Jesus is present with us. There is nowhere we can go that Jesus won’t find a way in. Jesus is present in our interactions with one another, whether those we’re physically with or those we only see on Facetime. Jesus is present in the actions we take to keep one another safe and well. Jesus shows up no matter where we are, because Jesus knows we need the gifts he brings.

The gift of peace. The gift of his Holy Spirit. Gifts that provide us with love and hope, gifts that sustain us through difficult times. And Jesus brings the gift of sharing his wounded hands and side. It never actually says if Thomas takes him up on his offer to touch them or not, but Jesus displays them to Thomas, just as he did to the other eleven disciples.

Jesus is still wounded. Even resurrected, Jesus bears the marks of his suffering and death. Resurrection doesn’t remove all scars. Celebrating the season of Easter doesn’t mean that we can’t still be wounded and hurting. It’s okay to call ourselves resurrection people—to trust and hope and live in God’s new and abundant life—and to still bear the weight of grief and loss and sadness. Even Jesus’ resurrected body, the only resurrected body we get a description of, bears the marks of pain and suffering.

Christians are sometimes described as being an Easter people living in a Good Friday world. That’s true now more than ever. We are an Easter people because we believe that God’s actions in raising Christ ultimately defeated death and evil forever. That we live in this new reality where love is stronger than hatred and life is stronger than death. But we also live in the reality that suffering and death and loss remains a part of our lives.

Both those things can be true, just as the resurrected Christ appeared with his wounds still visible. Jesus comes to us where we are—wherever we are—wounded, scarred, but bringing peace. On this Easter day, let us join Thomas in his demand that Jesus show up for him. We need Christ to show up in our lives, and the good news is that he always does. No matter the locked doors, no matter the separation, no matter the grief or fear or pain. Jesus shows up, and offers us his peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The old, old story…

Several hymns are guaranteed to make me cry every time I sing them, and “I Love to Tell the Story” is one of them. It’s what came to mind this morning as I tried to come up with a title for this blog post. Easter was so different this year. Some things made me incredibly sad: not being able to gather with St. Paul’s, not seeing my parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, feeling so stressed out and anxious. Other things, I’ll admit, weren’t the worst: cooking a massive meal for just me and Tim, not feeling 100% exhausted at the end of the day, having time to breathe, getting to “go” to worship instead of leading it.

Even though there were a couple of positives, though, I would have gladly traded them in to have a “normal” Easter together. But as much as this Easter is different, one thing hasn’t changed: the good news of the resurrection. That old, old story stays the same no matter our circumstances, no matter our stress or anxiety, no matter our separation from loved ones. And it has a word to share with us as we find ourselves figuring out the “new normal.”

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

This is the cry that has echoed throughout the ages of Christianity. For two thousand years, in small rooms, in great cathedrals, in gardens, whispered in secret, proclaimed loudly in the town square, Christians have been greeting each other on Easter morning with this proclamation. Christ is risen!

We gather this morning with Christians far and near, with Christians throughout the centuries to proclaim the boldest news ever told: the tomb is empty! Death has been vanquished! Christ is indeed risen!

This Easter feels different, because, while we gather together, we do not do so physically, but virtually. Or, perhaps a better word, we gather spiritually with one another. We will remember this Easter for a long time, because of the change in our situations. But even though the way we are gathering has changed, the news has not changed: Christ is risen!

This year, I suppose understandably, I was drawn to the confusion in our Easter text. Have you ever noticed it before? How much chaos there is, especially in the early part of the story? Mary Magdalene sets out for the tomb, while it is still dark.

While it’s still dark. When I imagine that first Easter morning, I imagine the sun coming up. It’s early still, but the sky is lightening, bits of orange and pink appearing on the horizon. But that’s not what it says. It says it’s still dark. This is before the dawn. And there’s so much running around going on. Mary sees that the stone has been rolled away and goes no farther but runs to get Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. They run to the tomb then, go in and see the graveclothes lying there. And they go home, leaving Mary alone weeping in the garden.

On this morning that we celebrate with joyous shouts of belief, the disciples are stumbling around in half-light, running here and there, unsure what to think and what to believe. They didn’t understand.

As modern people, who like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, we sometimes forget that the idea that God could raise someone from the dead would be as difficult for these ancient people to believe as it is for us. These ancient people were not stupid. They had seen many people die and never once had they seen anyone come to life again. Their first thought is not that he has been raised from the dead, but that the grave has been disturbed, robbed.

But even there, in the midst of the confusion and chaos, in the darkness of the resurrection morning, is this great line about the disciple Jesus loved: he saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand. He saw and believed, even though he didn’t understand. We do ourselves a disservice when we try to understand the resurrection. When we try to make logical sense of something that simply defies logic. Resurrection isn’t something we understand. It’s something that we believe, something that we trust. Resurrection is something we experience.

Mary Magdalene, that most faithful disciple who came to tomb by herself, even she did not believe until she experienced, in her grief and sorrow, the wounded hand of Jesus reaching out to her. Until she heard the voice of her Lord calling her name.

Resurrection isn’t a matter of understanding. It’s a matter of trust. It’s trusting that death doesn’t get the last word. Trusting that there’s more to come in this story. Trusting that Christ will accompany us through our Good Fridays—no matter how long they last—to Easter morning. Trusting that Easter morning always comes. That love, life, that God has the last word. Trusting that in Christ we are raised to new life both here and now and in the life to come.

We can’t understand it, we can’t explain it. But we can experience it. I’ve experienced resurrection in these past days and weeks in watching people come together, help one another, support each other as best we can in difficult times. I’ve seen neighbors offering to make grocery trips for those who are most at risk. I’ve had people offer to make grocery trips for me, to help keep me and the baby safe. I’ve seen an outpouring of support for the Ardmore Food Pantry, I’ve seen our church community be flexible and innovative and learn to be church in new ways. Much like that first Easter morning, resurrection doesn’t always come when everything is sunny and bright and clear, but it comes in the half-dark chaos that we’re trying to figure out.

But resurrection never stops in that chaos. It takes us from tears and confusion into proclamation. Mary Magdalene experiences the risen Christ and is given a mission: Go and tell. And tell she does. She goes back to the disciples, to those who left the tomb and walked away and declares: I have seen the Lord! The story might have ended with her, if she hadn’t said anything. But the story continues, all the way to us today, because she proclaimed the truth to the disciples and beyond. I have seen the Lord!

We know from other Gospel stories that the disciples don’t believe her. Not until they too experience resurrection firsthand. But that doesn’t stop her. Mary insists on resurrection, even when she’s not believed. She knows what she has seen, and she doesn’t let the cynicism, or doubt, or lack of understanding dampen her proclamation. She insists on resurrection because it is what the world needed to hear. Because it is too good and too life-giving to keep to herself. She has seen the Lord, and she will let it be known.

Easter feels different this year. But the news is the same. Christ is risen! We have seen the Lord! God has conquered the powers of sin and death and creates a new reality where love wins. Where hope lives. Where life always gets the last word. Go and tell the good news: We have seen the Lord. Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Hosannas and Grief

I’m not exaggerating in the sermon below when I say that Palm Sunday is one of my favorite services of the year. When we were filming this service for our YouTube channel, it hit me full force during “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” It’s been weird the first three weeks to film church instead of gathering together–preaching to an empty room is never fun, you feel constricted by the audio/visual requirements, and it’s hard to keep up your energy level when there’s no feedback from people. All three weeks, I’ve been very sad at the end of filming.

But while we were singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. (Luckily, I was off camera and not wearing mascara.) I was imagining everything we were missing. Everyone, from babies just able to grasp a palm to folks who have been part of this procession ninety times already, together, singing this hymn. Andy running as dignified as possible to get ahead of us to the organ. The candles blowing out in the wind and Bob Burns frantically relighting them as we step inside. The acolyte narrowly missing the door frame with the cross. The people of God, gathered together in praise and acclamation.

It was just too much, and the tears started to come. I’ve called what I was feeling sadness, but really, it’s grief. I read an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review that addresses just this topic: HERE. It talks about how, through all of these changes, we are all grieving. We are grieving the things we’ve lost, the things we won’t get to do. Personally, I’m grieving connection, Holy Week, how I imagined the birth of my child happening, among other things. I’m sure you’re grieving, too.

Something I’ve noticed in the past couple weeks, from myself and from others, is a guilt around our grief. I feel guilty because I know that there are people much worse off than I am. People who have this disease, or who have lost loved ones to it. People who can’t self-isolate and must put themselves and their families in danger. People who have lost their jobs and don’t know what to do. What right do I have to grief in the face of such bigger problems?

And, while it is good to acknowledge the ways we remain blessed, to be thankful and grateful for what we have, it is okay to grieve. Grief and loss are not a competition. Just because it’s not as big a thing as what someone else is dealing with doesn’t mean you can’t grieve. We have to first acknowledge our feelings of loss and sadness to be able to process them and work through them. Whatever you are feeling right now is okay. This is all new, and none of us is an expert in how to deal with it.

This is possibly the longest introduction to a sermon I’ve ever written, and not even on the topic of the sermon. So I’ll get back to it. Holy Week runs the whole gamut of human emotion: expectation, hope, betrayal, disappointment, grief, hopelessness, and finally exultant celebration. Let yourself feel this week, for God is feeling it with us.

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

I love Palm Sunday. It’s one of my absolute favorite services of the year, honestly right up there with Easter. I love the pomp and circumstance, the parade of palms, the festive music. I loved to turn my palm into a little cross, and then do the same to my parents’ palms and any extra palms that the ushers would let me have. As a pastor, Palm Sunday is like getting to have a little Easter, just a mini one, without all of the added pressure that Easter Sunday brings.

But as much as I’ve always loved Palm Sunday, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned what “Hosanna” means. I always thought it was a joyous acclamation, just one step below the Alleluia that we save for Easter. I thought the crowds in Jerusalem were cheering Jesus on, celebrating his triumphal entry.

That’s not it at all. In Hebrew, “Hosanna” means something less celebratory and more desperate. More demanding. Something altogether more appropriate to this year’s Palm Sunday. It means, “Save us now!”

Holy Week feels so very different this year. I come to Holy Week, like many of you I’m sure, scared and unsure and anxious. I’m anxious about what the future will be bringing. I’m scared of all the stones sealing up all the graves that I don’t think are going to be rolled away. I’m yearning for a million different resurrections: small and large, personal and worldwide. As I stand here with my palm and read once again of Jesus coming into the city, my cry is not one of celebration or adulation. It’s a desperate, demanding plea: Save us now!

It’s the cry the people of Jerusalem offered so long ago. They were hungry for a savior. They had been under oppressive Roman rule for too long, and needed someone, anyone, to free them. They thought that maybe, just maybe, Jesus would be that person. The person to overthrow Rome, to liberate them.

Jesus didn’t come for that, though. At least not how the people wanted. He came into his kingship riding on a borrowed donkey. His reign would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, and sacrifice. So often, and especially now, I think I know exactly what kind of savior I need—what kind of God I need. The savior of the quick fix, the miraculous intervention, the tangible and obvious presence. But then we hear this story once again and are reminded: that savior is not Jesus.

If Palm Sunday is about anything, it’s about disappointed expectations. It’s a story of what happens when the God we hope for and expect doesn’t show up, and another God—less efficient, less aggressive—shows up instead. It’s a story of what happens when our cries of “save us now” are met with silence, and our palm branches wither. We walk away, we close our hearts, we betray the image of God in ourselves and in each other. Our hosannas give way to hatred, and we lash out to kill.

Palm Sunday is a day that’s full of paradox. Hosannas lead to shouts of crucify. Hope turns to despair. Potential turns to devastation. God rides in on a donkey. We have a suffering king. We will call the day of his death: Good Friday.

But amidst the paradox, we find our hope: we are held and embraced by a God who is much too complicated for shallow, one-dimensional truths — even our own, most cherished, one-dimensional truths. We are held by a God who sticks with us even when we cry out in anger and hate. A God who accepts our worship even when it is self-centered, ungenerous, and selfish. A God who knows all the reasons our hearts cry, “Save now!” and who carries those broken, strangled cries to the cross for us and with us.

And yet, and yet I am afraid of what lies ahead. I am afraid of how many deaths lie waiting around the corner. I am afraid of how many sorrows and farewells and jagged endings we will have to face before resurrection comes home to stay. I can’t imagine most of it, and sometimes I can’t bear any of it. But Jesus can.

If there is anything in the Christian story that is true, then this must surely be true as well: Jesus will never leave us alone. There is no death we will die, small or large, literal or figurative, that Jesus will not hold in his crucified arms.

Welcome to Holy Week. Here we are, and here is our God. Here are our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry. Blessed is the One who comes to die so that we will live. Amen.

If only you had been here…

Where is God when bad things happen? It’s a question we ask ourselves a lot of times, and one we may be asking more right now. Couldn’t God have prevented this horrible tragedy, this death, this natural disaster? It’s a question that both Mary and Martha ask Jesus when their brother Lazarus dies.

Although, they don’t really ask it as a question, they state it: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” It’s as much a statement of belief in Jesus’ power as an implicit question about why he hadn’t come sooner. It’s natural to wonder where God is when we’re in the midst of suffering. But the Gospel of John reminds us that we will always find God right by our sides, grieving with us.

Bulletin (including readings): CLICK HERE

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

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s said twice in this gospel reading, by both Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus was gravely ill, and they sent word to Jesus, hoping he would come and heal him. But Jesus tarries, waiting several days before heading to Bethany to see the sisters. It seems he arrives too late. Lazarus has been dead for four days. In the ancient understanding, the soul only leaves the body after it’s been dead for three days, so by including this detail, we’re being told: Lazarus is really dead.

And both sisters weep at the lost chance. If only Jesus had been there sooner. If only he hadn’t delayed. If only he could have prevented this horrible thing from happening. Martha and Mary’s question is one we ask ourselves when bad things happen, when we’re in the midst of grief and pain. “Why weren’t you there, God?” “Where were you when this terrible thing was happening?” “Why didn’t you stop this, God?”

Where is God when we suffer? Where is God when our loved ones are dying, when hurricanes and tornadoes, and yes, pandemics, strike? Why can’t God prevent these things from happening? We feel it at a personal level, when we, like Mary and Martha experience losses in our own family, and we feel it on a corporate level, when it feels like God is absent from all the tragedy going on in the world.

Despair and grief is palpable in the air right now. We have lost connections, although we do our best to keep them going digitally. We have lost a sense of safety, we have lost a sense of security. In some sense, we are like those people of ancient Israel who cried out to the Lord, “We are cut off, our bones are dried up!” Those people had lost their country, their home. They felt abandoned by God in the exile and could not see any way forward in hope.

Ezekiel is granted this vision of the valley of dry bones that symbolizes the people. “Mortal,” asks God, “can these bones live?” You know, Lord, is the response from the prophet. You know. Even in the middle of that place of grieving, the dusty valley where all is devastation, surrounded by the shards of ruined nation, the prophet Ezekiel grants God the potential for life. “You know, God, whether life can emerge from these ashes.”

Mary and Martha, although they both grieve and express their disappointment that Jesus did not come sooner, continue to place their trust in him. They don’t demand a fix but continue to look to Jesus as the source of their hope. Sometimes grief and faith coexist. They bump up against each other in this miasma of feeling, seeking answers, seeking hope, seeking new life.

Where is God when bad things happen? God is there with us, standing amidst the dry bones of our disappointed hopes. Where is God in the midst of grief? God is there with us, weeping at the grave. God is not stoic or removed in the face of our pain and loss, our confusion and anxiety. God is there with us, sharing our pain and grief, lamenting with us at the losses we feel.

But the God who stands at the grave and weeps is also the God who brings about new life and resurrection. The God who walks with us through the valley of dry bones is the God that breathes new life and possibility into the world. We serve a God who calls us out of death into life.

So yes, we mourn right now. We mourn those who have died, we mourn lost futures, we mourn a world that is never going to be the same. But we mourn in hope. Because our journey is not to the grave, but through it. Our journey does not end with death, but with resurrection.

When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, Jesus calls on his family and friends and neighbors to unbind him. To let him loose from the wrappings of death. We mourn with God, but we also get to be participants with God in the act of resurrection. In the act of restoring life.

“Lord, if only you had been here.” God is here, brothers and sisters. God is here in our grief and pain, and God is here in our response. God is here in the care we show one another, in our acts of connection and kindness, in our doing everything we can to limit the spread of this disease. God is here. God is here weeping with us, and God is here bringing new life and hope even in the middle of despair. God is here. Amen.

The Glory of God Revealed

Why? It’s a very human question to ask, and one that children learn really early. It seems like a lot of us are asking “why?” these days. Why did this pandemic start? Why don’t we know how to fight it better? Why would something like this happen at all? The disciples in our reading, along with others, want to know “why,” too. Why is this man blind? Surely someone is to blame for it. Back then, it was common to think that physical illnesses were the result of sin. As I say in the sermon, we don’t quite think that way anymore, but we still do like to have explanations for things. But, as he often does, Jesus takes our questions and turns them on their heads. It’s not about why, it’s about what happens next.

What happens next? How can St. Paul’s be a resource to you during this unexpected and unpredictable time? I invite you to follow us on either YouTube or Facebook for worship videos, here on the blog for my sermons, and to be in prayer for one another. If you need assistance in any way–shopping, financial, errands–please, please let us know. We have resources and people who have volunteered their assistance.

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

This Sunday is supposed to be the fourth week in our sermon series on Love Languages, specifically the language of physical touch. And while I could have written a sermon on that, especially about what physical touch means in these times when we are distancing ourselves from one another, this reading of Jesus healing the man born blind was pulling me in another direction.

I thought about trying to combine the two: somehow smashing together a sermon on this passage in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and love languages, but I realized that would do justice to neither. So, while I planned to talk about love languages, I also planned to preach this sermon in person to a room full of people, and not over YouTube. Plans change. I’m going to put a reflection on the love language of physical touch on my blog at some point this week, and instead preach the sermon that I think we more need to hear. And the one that I certainly more need to give.

This story of Jesus and the man born blind is all about seeing. And physical sight is just a small part of it. This is about how we see, who and what we see. I’ve heard this pandemic described in some ways as being apocalyptic. We see pictures of Times Square empty, famous landmarks deserted, and it can feel like we are living in a movie.

And I think this truly is apocalyptic, not in the world is ending kind of way, but in the truest sense of the word. Apocalypse means revealing. The word literally means “pulling away the veil.” The apocalypses in the Bible, in the books of Daniel and Revelation aren’t predictions about the future so much as they are stories that reveal the present circumstances in a new way. That help people see what is really going on.

This pandemic has pulled back the veil on our lives and is bringing some things into clear focus. We are fragile. We are not in control. We are all interconnected and interdependent. My everyday choices have life and death consequences for others. Unselfish love is risky, and inconvenient, but at the same time essential. We are not in control—did I say that one already? These things are true all the time. But we are so much more aware of them right now. Our eyes have been opened to realities that have been with us all the time.

In an ironic twist in our gospel, it is the man born blind who is truly able to see what is really going on, even before his physical sight is restored. The others in the story do not see him, except for Jesus. They see his condition. Even after he is physically healed, he is still referred to as “the man who had been blind.” The disciples, his neighbors, even his parents couldn’t see who he was, couldn’t understand him without the condition of physical blindness.

The disciples start off the reading with this really horrible question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We don’t necessarily talk about physical illness being caused by sin today, but in many ways, we still seek explanations for things. A seminary professor who had both legs amputated in his teens because of bone cancer remembers someone asking his mother if she regretted not feeding him healthier, more organic foods. As if she was at fault for his illness. We like to have cause and effect. We like people to get what they deserve. After all, if blindness or cancer or illness aren’t punishments for sin, aren’t results of actions we have or haven’t taken, then what does that mean about how the world works? Anyone can get sick, anyone can suffer from a disability, with no discernible reason at all. That’s terrifying.

Talk of sin and morality has certainly been happening with this pandemic, too. We judge those who aren’t doing exactly what we’re doing in response. We wonder whose fault it was in the first place. We point the finger. Some people have even suggested that God caused all this to happen, either as a punishment or as a test. Not only do I believe that is absolutely wrong and hurtful, according to Jesus in today’s reading, it’s missing the point entirely.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned, Jesus says. He’s just blind. It’s no one’s fault. But watch what happens now. Watch and see how the glory of God is going to be revealed even in someone overlooked, judged, and cast out by others. Even in terrible circumstances.

Religious historian Rodney Stark studied early Christian history and made the claim that Christian’s behavior during the Plague of Galen in the years 165-180 dramatically strengthened the vitality of the church’s witness. The Christian’s seeming irrational determination not to abandon their diseased family members and neighbors made them appear uncommonly virtuous in the midst of the crisis.

Now, I’m not advocating in any way that we expose ourselves or our community to a greater threat of illness. But, times of risk and isolation call Christians to active advocacy, compassion, and allegiance to our neighbors. The question isn’t what caused this situation, Jesus says, it’s not about judging and blaming and finger-pointing. The question is what are we going to do with this situation?

Will we be flexible in the ways we extend love across distances, or will we hunker down in fear and suspicion? Will we dare to be the church in new ways, even as we practice quarantines—or will we forget that are one body, incomplete without each other? Will we have eyes to see God in our neighbors, regardless of whether they are sick or healthy, insured or uninsured, protected or vulnerable? Will we be brave enough to look our own vulnerability in the eye, and trust that God is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death? Or will we yield to cynicism, panic, and despair?

The glory of God is made manifest in the most unlikely places and unlikely times. God didn’t cause this pandemic. But God is surely present in our response. Jesus opened the eyes of the man born blind, but his neighbors remained unable to see what God was doing. They were trapped by fear, by preconceived judgments, by their own vulnerability.

Come, Lord Jesus, we pray, and open our eyes. Open our eyes to your presence in our world. Open our eyes to see you in the faces of our neighbors. Open our eyes to your glory being made manifest in our midst. Open our eyes to your call love and serve, in new and different ways than ever before. Open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

Isolation and Togetherness

The woman at the well was isolated. In more ways than one. She came to the well at noon to draw water. Most of the other women would have come early in the morning, when it was cooler, and they would have come together. It was a chore, but a social one. One made easier through companionship and laughter. The woman Jesus meets is by herself. We learn some of her story, though not all of it. She has been married five times, and is not currently married. Has she been divorced? If so, it wasn’t by her choosing in that time. Widowed? Some combination of the two? Whatever has happened has left her as an outcast apart from others.

Isolation is difficult to bear. It wears on our hearts and souls, slowly over time. In this time of global pandemic, we’re experiencing voluntary isolation and social distancing out of love and care for our neighbors, but it is still difficult. St. Paul’s offered virtual worship this past Sunday (CLICK HERE), and will continue to do so. As we seek best practices to maintain the physical health of our community, let us also be mindful of our spiritual health. Reach out and connect with each other in all the ways technology offers, and reach out to me with prayer requests and concerns.

The sermon below, based on John 4, is a little different than what you hear in the video, this is what I had written before the decision to cancel church was made, although with an ending written after that point :).

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

During his last year in seminary a colleague of mine signed up for a class called “Confession and Forgiveness from a Pastoral Perspective.” All forty-five slots filled up on the first day of registration, which was pretty impressive for a three-hour class that started at 2 in the afternoon.

On the first day, with everyone in eager anticipation, the professor asked, “What do YOU think this class is about?” The extroverts quickly gave their answers: the importance of forgiveness every day. God’s love for us. God’s grace given to us. God’s assurance of forgiveness. Nodding, the professor moved to the chalkboard and wrote one word. “Shame.”

For the most part, the class was intrigued. They could see why shame would be part of the class, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the course description or syllabus. They were on board with this change, until, at the end of the first class, the professor dropped the bombshell.

The final exam would be something different. Each student would have to write a fifteen-page autobiographical essay about a personal experience of shame. Are you surprised, that after that first class, one-third of the students dropped the course? What would you do, if, right now, I asked you to turn to your neighbor and share a personal experience you’ve had with shame?

Not embarrassment, like when I was ten and forgot the lines in the school play and my teacher had to whisper them to me. Not guilt, which we might feel when we make a mistake, but shame, the feeling that I AM a mistake. The feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with me, that I am deeply flawed in some unfixable way. I’d bet at least a third of you would flatly refuse.

With that in mind, I hope you won’t be too disappointed to hear that this isn’t a sermon about shame. Shame is a relevant topic, if for no other reason that we need to hear the good news that God made us just as we are, that God loves us no matter what, and that we are worthy of God’s love. But this sermon isn’t about shame, because this text isn’t about shame—in spite of what many of us have been taught.

A long tradition of biblical interpretation concludes that this woman at the well must be a prostitute. After all, she is living—so to speak—with a man who isn’t her husband! That tradition means many of us come to this text preconditioned to see this woman as shameful and ashamed.

Yes, she has been married five times, but there are perfectly logical reasons in the ancient near east that might make this happen. Yes, the man she lives with now isn’t her husband, but there is nothing in the text to suggest this is so awful. It could be her father, or brother, or brother-in-law.

This story isn’t about shame. It’s about judgment. It’s about division. It’s about assumptions and boundaries, and the ways we distance ourselves from one another. And it’s about how those judgments and divisions and boundaries might unravel if we engage one another as human beings created by God, inherently valuable and worthy of love and respect.

In our series looking at Love Languages, the language for today is Quality Time. Quality time is the love language that centers around togetherness. It’s all about expressing your love and affection with your undivided attention. When you’re with someone else, you put down the cell phone, turn off the tablet, and focus on them. It’s not just about time, it’s about the level of attention and care you put into that time.

I should say, that while I offered the survey, and have been saying that we all have our own primary love languages—that doesn’t mean we don’t all need the other four. We might need one or two more than the others, but all of us need all the love languages in some form or another. We all need quality time with those we love and care about. Especially now, as we talk about social distancing and staying home, we might want to ask what does quality time look like? How can we make sure we’re still giving and receiving it, while being safe and conscious about our actions?

It’s probably not surprising that this is the love language for today, given the sheer length of today’s gospel reading. This is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone in all of Scripture. And it’s a conversation that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

The woman is naturally suspicious of Jesus. She’s by herself with a jar at a well—the ancient near east equivalent of a singles bar—and this man asks her for a drink. She is especially suspicious because she can tell this man is Jewish. And Jews and Samaritans were deeply mistrustful of one another after a long and painful history.

But thankfully, Jesus fails to follow the culturally acceptable script. Instead of refusing to interact with this woman simply because she is a Samaritan and woman, he engages her. He speaks to her, he listens to her, he sees her as more than her labels. All of which allows her to see beyond that Jesus is Jewish and a man. As they talk, she comes to discover things she never thought possible. This man talks about God in ways she has never heard before. Moreover, he is unafraid to talk with her, utterly unashamed by their encounter. He welcomes the opportunity to engage her, to converse with her, in spite of the things that should divide them from each other.

And the woman leaves transformed—inspired to share the good news of this unlikely encounter with her community—the news that God might just be bigger than they thought, big enough, in fact, to hold together Jews and Samaritans. Big enough to overcome the divisions and divides that we create.

God offers us the gift of quality time. Quality attention. God is never too busy to be in deep and meaningful conversation with us. Are we willing to take God up on the offer? Do we put quality time into our relationships with God? With each other? What miraculous things might happen if we did?

Who are our Samaritans? Who are the people that we see as other? In this time of heightened anxiety around illness, people of Asian descent have been the increased targets of racism and xenophobia. This is unacceptable. Being wary of spreading and catching illness, which is a god thing, can have the negative effect of making us wary of each other, distrustful and suspicious.

God can hold us together, we can break with the shame we may have internalized and see ourselves how God does—as whole, and wholly worthy of God’s love. We can see others that way too. We can reach across barriers and see people not for the labels and judgments they might be given, but for the children of God that they are.

A detail we might miss at the end of the story—after this woman rounds up all her neighbors to meet Jesus, Jesus and the disciples stay there, in that Samaritan village, for two whole days! They eat and drink with Samaritans, share space with them, all things that neither group was supposed to do. Imagine how many assumptions and judgments were destroyed in those two days.

Time spent together, listening, learning, trying to understand, is time spent in a godly way. As many of us are off from school or working from home in these days, maybe we can consider: how can we spend quality time with God and with each other? How can we maintain our necessary social support of each other, even if we aren’t physically present with one another? Think about if you were in church this morning. Who would you see? Who would be sitting near you? Pray for that person. Reach out, give that person a phone call or an email or a text letting them know you’re thinking about them.

May God grant all of us living water during these anxious and trying times. May we be refreshed and renewed in God’s presence, and by God’s gifts of love and grace. And may we be brought closer together—even if not physically closer—in support and prayer for one another. Amen.

Words of Affirmation

The second week of our Love Language series is “Words of Affirmation.” People who receive love primarily through words of affirmation love feeling understood and receiving recognition for their labor and contributions. It paired well with Nicodemus, who is seeking to understand and to be understood. This is a very famous passage (and particularly verse) in John, so it was fun to look at it from a new angle.

Readings: Lectionary Readings for Lent 2

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

At least two or three nights a week, I fall asleep on the couch while we’re watching TV. Lights on, TV blaring, sixty-pound dog cutting off circulation in my legs, doesn’t matter, I’m dead to the world. But then, when I wake up and drag myself to the bedroom, with its blackout curtains and white noise machine and cool mist humidifier—the perfect environment for sleeping—I’m wide awake. Sleep will not come anymore.

Instead what comes are all the questions and thoughts, emerging from the nooks and crannies of my mind in the shadows. At first, they are very utilitarian: did we remember to take the dog out? Lock the door? Did I set the alarm for the morning? I forgot to put laundry detergent on the shopping list.

But then, seemingly without warning, the questions will change, morph into something more serious: Is my grandmother going to recover from this illness? Am I ready to be a parent? Will my baby be safe from coronavirus? Will my parents? Why doesn’t God seem to answer my prayers? Does God really care about us—about me? At that point, night has truly descended. The questions come, more honest, but safer, somehow, less exposed than if they were thought in daylight.

What is it about the night that invites questions? That causes us to worry and doubt, to hope and imagine? I’m not sure, but it was definitely at play for Nicodemus, too. He comes to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness. It is strongly implied that this is to keep his visit secret. He comes in darkness to visit the one who has come to be a light in dark places. He isn’t ready yet to ask his questions in the light of day. But I also wonder if the night plagued Nicodemus with questions, too.

What do we actually know about Nicodemus, this partner with Jesus in one of the more famous conversations in the Bible? Well, for starters, we know that he is a Pharisee. This means that he is someone concerned with piety, with living out God’s righteousness in everyday life. Pharisees get a bad reputation in the Bible, because they are often opponents of Jesus, and there are some real points of disagreement that I don’t mean to brush over, but that’s because the Pharisees took their religion really seriously. It meant a lot to them that they were following the law and doing the right things, that’s why Jesus was such a disruptive force. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have been bothered.

Nicodemus is also on the Sanhedrin, the ruling court that oversaw religious, civil, and criminal affairs. So this is a religious man with a lot of power. He’s been paying attention, and so he knows what Jesus has been up to. This is only the third chapter in the Gospel of John, but already Jesus has created a name for himself. Just before this conversation, Jesus cleared the Temple courts of the moneychangers and predicted its destruction. That’s something that happened at the end of Jesus’ life in the other three gospels, but in John it’s one of his first public acts of ministry. It sets the stage for questions and confrontation.

And so, Nicodemus comes with his questions. He acknowledges Jesus’ power and the fact that God is working through Jesus. But he wants to understand more. Has he come on his own? Did the council send him to try to get dirt on Jesus? We don’t know. But Jesus’ takes his questions and inquiries seriously. He tries to explain to him that God is doing something new. That he must be born again—or born from above—of water and the Spirit.

Nicodemus, bless his heart, just doesn’t seem to understand. And honestly, how could he? He’s taking this all much too literally, but it’s also a lot to take in all at once. Jesus is referencing his crucifixion, which hasn’t happened yet, and isn’t speaking in a straightforward way at all. It’s confusing enough for us to puzzle out, I think, and we know the end of the story.

But then Jesus stops speaking in riddles and gets to the heart of the matter: God loves the world. God is trying to save the world; God is inviting the world into something new. This is not about condemnation but about God’s deep and abiding love for the whole world.

We’re talking this Lent about love languages, how we each give and receive love in different ways, and how God uses all of those ways to reach out to us in love. This week is the love language of Words of Affirmation. People who receive love in this way are all about hearing it. Like actually hearing you say the words. It’s not about the need for praise or constant validation, rather people who receive love through words of affirmation want to know they matter to you. It’s not always just saying, “I love you,” either. Words of affirmation people want to be seen and acknowledged. Phrases like: “I appreciate it when you….,” “I value you because…,” and “You are important to be because…” mean so much.

Jesus has been performing signs, doing powerful acts, and it’s all quite impressive. Nicodemus has seen what Jesus has done and is clearly intrigued. But to hear, in no uncertain terms, that this is for him, well that means a lot to someone who needs words of affirmation. God loves the world—the whole world—that means you, Nicodemus. That means us, too. This whole rebirth thing? It’s because of how much God loves us. God wants to do something new with us, to bring us into a new way of seeing and being and loving in the world.

Christianity has sometimes turned being born again into something that we have to accomplish to please God. Well, I’ve actually been studying up on birth lately, and it turns out we’re not super active participants in our own births. There’s someone else who does the labor for us to be born. God in the Holy Spirit is the one who labors to bring each of us to new birth.

Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes love doesn’t sink in right away. We need to hear the words and ponder them. Then hear them again. This is the end of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, but it isn’t the end of Nicodemus’ story. He comes back again when the council is trying to arrest Jesus. He speaks on Jesus’ behalf, arguing that he must be given a hearing before being arrested. Then Nicodemus comes back one final time, after the crucifixion. He brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body, and he helps Joseph of Arimathea lay him in the tomb.

We don’t get to see the impact that Jesus’ words have on Nicodemus right away. It takes a while sometimes for us to let those affirming, life-giving words sink in. Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become full participants in the abundant life he offers. It’s not something we can do on our own. It is God who will give birth in water and the Spirit. Rebirth is God’s gift to give, God’s work to accomplish, and it is God who labors to bring us to new life. God loves the whole world. Which means God loves us. And God will keep seeking us out, keep working, keep laboring, to bring us to share in abundant life. Amen.

The Language of Gift-Giving

This Lent, we’re doing a sermon series at St. Paul’s on the Five Love Languages. (I explain it a lot in the beginning of the sermon, so I won’t go into it here.) I wanted the series to still be lectionary based–that is, we would stick with the assigned readings, rather than going off on other texts I would personally pick. Most of the weeks lined up very nicely, but this first week, and gift-giving, was a bit more of a stretch. That’s why we have a long look at “bad” gift-giving, instead of just the good aspects.

Lent 1 Texts: RCL Texts

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

Have you heard of love languages before? They first appeared in a book in 1992 by Gary Chapman. Chapman is a Baptist minister, but also a licensed counselor. He wrote the book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, based on observations in his counseling practice.

This Lent, we’re going to spend one week looking at each of the Love Languages: Gift-Giving, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, and Acts of Service. Chapman theorizes that we each have a primary love language—a main way that we like to receive affection. Trouble can arise in relationships when partners’ love languages are not the same—and when they fail to understand what the other needs or to communicate their own needs.

For example, my primary love language is acts of service, which means I see things like Tim folding the laundry, getting an oil change for my car, or doing the dishes as how he shows he loves me. Tim’s primary love language is words of affirmation. So, when I take care packing his lunch, it doesn’t mean as much to him as if I leave a little note inside telling him I value him. Chapman’s goal in describing these love languages is to help people learn to be multilingual. To be able to understand how others give and receive love differently from them, and to increase communication. So even though my primary love language hasn’t changed, I’m able to understand that Tim is looking for different things than I am and meet his needs, and vice versa.

Since the first book, he’s broadened his theory to include not just couples, but parents and children, workplace dynamics, friendships, really any form of relationship. These love languages are not limited to romantic relationships but are how we share appreciation and love in all of our varied roles.

I should say, as a caveat, this is a theory. It’s not really testable, and it certainly shouldn’t be used to constrict us. But it can help us understand ourselves and others a little bit better. In the narthex, there are short questionnaires that will help you determine what your primary love language is. And what I’ll be talking about in the sermon series are the ways that God speaks all of our love languages. We receive love differently from each other, and that’s okay, because God is able to love each of us in the ways that we need and in the ways that speak to our hearts.

This week, we’re looking at the love language of gift-giving. Gift-giving isn’t materialistic—at least it shouldn’t be—it just means that a thoughtful or meaningful gift makes you feel loved and appreciated. At the end of a long week, if a partner or friend surprises you with a pint of your favorite ice cream (or perhaps beer) it is hugely appreciated. You might a gift-giver if you’re the one who always has to buy the small trinket when it makes you think of someone.

But every love language can become warped. And in our readings this morning, we have some examples of bad gift-giving. Or at the very least, attempts at bad gift-giving. In the first reading of Adam and Eve and the Gospel reading of Jesus’ temptation, the serpent and Satan offer some gifts, but with the worst of motivations. These gifts seek to manipulate the recipients. They come with strings attached. They are not based in love but in the desire to control.

These are sometimes confusing texts to apply to our lives today, because the idea of a walking, speaking devil—much less a speaking snake—just isn’t something that we operate with anymore. But instead of dismissing these texts out of hand as no longer relevant to us, might we think seriously about how evil is present in our world today? About how its gifts and promises still seek to lure us into temptation?

Adam and Eve are promised the best gift of all: if you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will be like God. You will be in control. You will have power. Power is the main temptation that Jesus faced, too. Power to change his circumstances, power to prove his worth. While we don’t have talking snakes anymore, power is still a very real temptation for us today.

Temptations are real, whether we call them temptations or call them something else. The things in our lives that try to undermine our relationships with God and with each other are temptations. Wealth. Power. Control. Prestige. Less obvious things, like prejudice, fear, and contempt. Everyday we face temptations that seem like they might be good things that will help us. Or will keep us safe.

But the gifts that temptation offers aren’t gifts of love. They are gifts undermine us. Gifts that take away from our true identity as God’s children. The devil even prefaces all of his pleas with the words: “if you are the Son of God.” Power, greed, and envy, prejudice and hatred, they all seek to make us prove we are good enough. Deserving enough. These aren’t not gifts of love, but of control and manipulation.

But if we see how gifts can be given or offered in a bad way in these readings, we also see how God speaks the language of gift-giving in loving, life-giving ways. The gifts that God gives aren’t meant to manipulate. They aren’t meant to control. They aren’t given for the sake of the giver, but instead they are wholly for the recipient. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul describes “God’s free gift in the grace of Jesus Christ.” It is given to all people to bring liberation, justification, righteousness. In other words, it is given to bring life. Given to free us from the ways that evil seeks to keep us bound. Given that we might know God’s love for us and claim on us. A gift given in pure love.

Temptation offers us many gifts—gifts that say, “Do this, and you will be happy…If you only had this, you would be complete…Without this, you are nothing.” God’s gift of love and grace says instead, “It is already done, you are complete, because you are mine.”

My love language isn’t gift-giving, or gift-receiving. In fact, I really struggle with receiving gifts. I feel like I need to offer something in return, or that the gift I give will be taken the wrong way. My mom is a good gift-giver and receiver. She’ll tell me: if someone wants to give you a gift, let them. They don’t expect anything in return, not if they truly mean it. They just want to do something nice for you.

She’s right, as she often is. The only thing we can do with God’s gift of grace and love is accept it. We can’t earn it, and we can’t pay God back for it somehow. That’s not why God gives it in the first place. God gives it not to get anything back, but because of how much God loves us. The only thing we can do with this free gift of love is to cherish it, to let it enter deep within us and come pouring out again in love for others in our lives.

We thank you, God, for your gifts in our lives: the gift of everything we have, but most especially the free gift of your love in Christ Jesus. Amen.