Good is the Flesh

Below is my sermon from March 4, 2018. It is centered on the Gospel text from John 2, of Jesus cleansing the temple. Let me know what you think!

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

A friend of mine, a fellow pastor, shared a hymn on Facebook this week that our Gospel reading made them think of. I read it, and was so struck by it, that I wanted to share part of it with you. It’s written by Brian Wren, and titled, “Good is the Flesh.”

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,

good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,

sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,

growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,

longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

I had never heard the truth of the Incarnation, of God becoming human, portrayed so vividly before. I grew up in the church, and learned at some point, about the Incarnation. I learned that God became human in Jesus, and how important that was. But I suppose I never thought through what it meant that God took on our flesh.

Flesh isn’t a word we say too often. It might even make us a little bit squeamish. A lot of that hymn might make us a little bit squeamish, honestly. But what this hymn does, as what I didn’t do growing up in the church, is make the connection between the Incarnation of God and actual bodies, actual flesh. I didn’t learn in church how to honor the sacred found in our bodies, our muscles, our arms and legs, our hair.

But that’s exactly what Jesus is doing in this week’s Gospel. He’s clearing out the temple of all the money-changers, the buyers and sellers there for the sacrificial system. Jesus says to those who would destroy the temple of God that he will raise it again in three days. But the people misunderstand—of course they do—he’s not being very clear. They think he means the temple built by Herod the Great, that they are standing in.

But no, the writer of John explains, Jesus is not speaking about wood or bricks or stone. The home of the transcendent God is not found in a courtyard, or an altar, or a sanctuary. God resides in a different kind of temple: the temple of Jesus’ own body.

What does it mean to honor human bodies—mine, yours, everyone’s—as holy places? As homes for God? It’s not easy to do. We often get the sense in religious culture that bodies are bad, that they’re inherently sinful or shameful. Or, at the very least, that they hold us back. That’s part of why we fast during Lent. Fasting has the goal of controlling our bodies, of subduing our bodies, so that we might be more spiritually aware. Bodies aren’t spiritual.

And, in the secular culture, bodies might not be shamed—although many are—but they are all commodified. Used for the sake of a profit. I have to admit, I buy into this thinking. I often see my own body as something that I need to regulate, or master, or minimize. It’s always easier to see its flaws than its God-given dignity and worth. I don’t know when I’ve ever thought of my body as holy.

It’s hard in other ways, too. Sometimes our bodies feel more like curses than gifts. They get sick. They get worn down. Sometimes they are so wracked by illness that they no longer seem to work at all anymore.

And yet we are people of the incarnation. We are people who are called to cherish and to use our whole bodies by Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension tells us, to look, to see, to break bread and eat together, to wash one another’s feet. To literally embody God’s love and carry it forth with us.

Can we let go of the squeamishness, of the contempt that surrounds talk of bodies, and offer to God our whole selves? We say that the church is the body of Christ in the world. In the Lutheran church, our motto is: God’s work. Our hands. This morning, we welcome new members into that body. At the first service, new members joining our congregation, our expression of God’s presence. And at the second service, Owen DeLar, baptized into the great universal and eternal body of Christ. God has no body in this world but us.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, he wasn’t condemning Judaism, or even temple worship, but he was protesting the system it had become. A way of blocking access to the divine. It literally kept bodies, especially of the poor, the marginalized, away from God. That’s not something that is unique to first-century Judaism, by the way.

And it makes Jesus angry. It makes Jesus angry, because we cannot value our bodies as holy, we cannot cherish God’s love for our bodies, without also recognizing that God loves all bodies everywhere. All bodies. The bodies of hungry children and indentured women. The bodies of slave laborers half a world away and desperate refugees at our door. The bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking business people. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.”

To value our own bodies as God’s temple, as places of God’s presence, we cannot stand by while other bodies suffer. Jesus got angry. Anger isn’t something we talk about much in churches either, except to say we shouldn’t be angry. But sometimes, anger is what’s called for. Jesus, it says, burned with zeal. With a righteous, holy anger. Sometimes meekness and politeness doesn’t get the job done.

Jesus allowed a holy anger to move him to action on behalf of the helpless and the voiceless. If human bodies are truly temples—holy places where heaven and earth meet, then we must work, as Jesus did, to preserve and protect these holy places from every form of disrespect and desecration.

“Good is the body,” says Brian Wren’s hymn, “for good and for God.” Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God has no body in this world but ours. It is both a fantastic gift and a great responsibility. And thanks be to God that we are honored with both. Amen.


The Way of the Cross

My sermon for the second Sunday in Lent focuses on our gospel reading of Mark 8. Jesus tells the disciples what is to come–his passion, death, and resurrection–and Peter doesn’t take the news very well. It’s not exactly what he signed up for. The question I landed on was, “What do we expect from God?”

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

Has anyone ever seen the show “Undercover Boss?” It was popular a few years ago, and I ended up stumbling upon a marathon of episodes one Saturday a few years back. The basic premise is that the owner, or CEO, of a company goes undercover in the everyday jobs. For example, the owner of Best Western trained in housekeeping, maintenance, and hospitality at three different motels.

It’s revealed to everyone at the end that this is actually their boss, and inevitably everyone is shocked. Sometimes the past few days start making a lot more sense to the employees. The fact that the new hire in housekeeping had seemingly never used a vacuum cleaner before didn’t seem so strange.

The show was all about the shock value: people don’t realize, would never realize, it’s the owner of the company that they’re working with. You don’t expect the owner of the company to be scrubbing toilets and doing the dirty work. There are certain things that are considered beneath the dignity of the bosses. Below the paygrade. They do not fit our expectations of CEOs and CFOs and business-owning millionaires. Of leaders.

In our gospel reading, Peter’s expectation of his leader, of Jesus is challenged. In the part of the story just before what we read, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers confidently: “You are the Messiah.” When Jesus tells him what that means, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again, Peter cannot handle it. He rebukes Jesus for saying these things.

These aren’t the things that the Messiah is supposed to do. The Jewish people, especially while living under Roman occupation, were eagerly awaiting the Messiah. At the time of Jesus, it was an incredibly common belief that the Messiah would come with great power and force, through off the oppressing Romans, and rule over an earthly kingdom. King David come again, except like a thousand times better.

Perhaps Peter’s reaction is a little more understandable. He has said that Jesus is the Messiah, the one on whom he is going to pin his hopes, his future. The future of his people. And Jesus has followed that up by saying he will suffer and die. This is not at all what Peter expected from his leader. It is not at all what Peter expected from his God. A God who dies, a God who suffers, will not bring an end to Israel’s problems, or to Peter’s problems.

I wonder sometimes if we expect any different from God. Peter’s rebuke of Jesus reflects a very human way of thinking. The way to victory is a way of power and might. Might makes all things right and results in winning, being victorious, and success. Look at the way we act and think: if guns are a danger that threaten our society, our children—the obvious answer is to have more guns, so we can defeat this problem. Winning is pursued at all costs; it’s survival of the fittest.

And are our expectations of God any different? What do we expect from God? An all-powerful being who will fix our problems? Blessings and prosperity? Personal fulfillment? That’s not what Jesus has to offer. It’s not what he had for the disciples, and it’s not what’s offered to us through Christianity today.

Instead, we are given brokenness. Suffering and death. Those who wish to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for the sake of Christ will save them. No wonder Peter rebukes him. Jesus is being incredibly vulnerable. And that’s something we’re often uncomfortable with. We don’t like to let our guard down. We’re even be more uncomfortable with our leaders being vulnerable. And we certainly don’t like the idea that God is vulnerable.

We’d rather have strength, and health, and self-sufficiency, or at least the appearance of these things, over weakness, pain, and dependence on others. But Jesus says that to follow him is not a bypass around the hardships of life. It’s not an easy road. It’s not your ticket to heaven or your guarantee of prosperity. Instead, following Jesus is to be vulnerable. To open ourselves up to our own weaknesses, and to the suffering and weakness of others.

We do not get a God who takes our problems away from us, or offers easy solutions. We do not get a God who keeps us away from pain and hardship, or suffering. But instead we have a God who suffers and dies, and calls on us to do the same. Instead we have a God who is with us in our struggles and weaknesses, a God who appeared to us in vulnerability, so that our own weakness might become a blessing. We have a God who is present with us in the midst of hard times, in the midst of difficult things. A God who understands what it means to suffer because God suffered.

We have a God who is not above our messiness, or too good for our imperfect lives. We have a God who is right with us in the middle of the imperfections and mess. We don’t need to deny our brokenness and pain. Peter thought that suffering, loss, death, and grief were all things to be avoided, believing them to be literally god-forsaken. But in the cross, God demonstrates that there is no place God refuses to go in the quest to love and redeem us.

We don’t need to avoid the rough places in our lives. We don’t need to hide them away and pretend that everything is fine. These are places where God is. And these are places where God calls us to go for the sake of others. To enter into the brokenness and pain in our world, not with easy answers or to put a band-aid on the problem. But to enter into pain and heartache knowing that our God is not afraid of these places. That our God has been there before. That God is capable of taking suffering and death and transforming it into life and hope.

These aren’t easy things to do: being vulnerable, sharing another’s pain, walking with each other through suffering and grief. Following in the way of the cross is not easy. Peter and the rest of the disciples continued to struggle, and they even had Jesus there to help them!

It is not an easy way, but it is the way of God. The way that God walked for us, and that God walks with us. This Lent, may each of us be renewed, strengthened and uplifted along our way. May we rejoice in the God who is always with us and for us, even in the darkest of circumstances. And may we seek to share that companionship and vulnerability with others. Amen.


God’s Rainbow

Below is my sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18. I focus entirely on the text from Genesis about God’s covenant with Noah. If you want to read the whole Noah story, it’s found in Genesis 6-9. This sermon focuses on the beginning of chapter 9.

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

The story of Noah’s Ark is probably one of the better known stories from the Bible. Even those who don’t regularly come to church tend to know this story. We often think of it as a children’s story—maybe that’s because of all the animals. It makes for cute toys and books for little kids.

When you think about it, though, Noah’s Ark is anything but a children’s story. It begins as a story of God’s wrath and anger. There is sin and wickedness, there is widespread death and destruction. It’s not really what we tend to look for in bedtime stories.

The story of Noah’s Ark happens really early in the Bible. God has created the world to be good, for humans to live in peace with one another, but things have gone wrong. Because of humankind’s tendency to put ourselves first, the idyllic world that God made is no longer. The beginning of the Noah story tells us that when God saw the wickedness of humankind, God was sorry that God had even made humankind, and it grieved God’s heart.

So the Lord God makes a decision to destroy from the face of the earth all living things, humans and animals and birds, but God finds in Noah a righteous man. And God decides to save Noah and his family, and two of every kind of animal through the ark, where they will live for forty days, while a flood covers the face of the earth.

What we read today happens after the flood, after all of this death, after forty days on the ark. Noah and his family and all the animals have disembarked, and God makes these promises to Noah. “Never again,” God promises, “shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

In a sense, God is limiting God’s self. God is putting restrictions on God’s power and on God’s justice. The God revealed in this story is adaptable. God is touched to the heart by creation, but is willing to accept hurt to keep hope alive. If God wants to stay in relationship with humankind—with the creatures made in the image of God—then it turns out God must change.

God repents, turns from vindication to forgiveness, patience, and steadfast love for creation and for humanity, despite knowing that the hearts of humans may never change. These creatures made in God’s image may always resist God. And yet God lays down God’s weapons against humankind.

God makes a covenant, not just with Noah and his descendants, but with every living creature, with all flesh, to never destroy the world again. Each Sunday in Lent, our reading from the Hebrew Bible will be about a covenant, about the terms of the relationship between God and God’s people. It is a time to delve into God’s promises to us and who we are called to be as God’s people.

In the covenant with Noah, it is completely one-sided. It is all on God. Noah never even speaks, but God promises. God limits God’s self. God binds God’s sense of justice to God’s mercy and love. God binds God’s self to the world in a new and different way. God is subject to the hope and disappointment, joy and grief that come with all relationships.

And the sign of these promises is the rainbow. Set in the sky to remind God of God’s promises. I always find that interesting. When we tell the Noah story, we often say the rainbow is there to remind us of God’s promises. But God puts down the bow in the sky so that God will remember, and never again be moved by anger to destroy the earth.

I once read a poem, written by a mother of a four-year-old. She and her son had been out walking one day, and they saw a rainbow in the sky. “Can we bring that home, and put it in our house,” he asked? And she wrote this poem, called, “A Rainbow in My House.” She took her son’s question literally, imagining what it would be like to have a rainbow in their house, on their walls, emanating from the windows and doors, coming up out of the chimney. The whole house was transformed, and it could not contain the glory of the rainbow and its colors.

I searched and searched for that poem, and I could not find it, so unfortunately you’ll have to make do with my memory. But, imagine with me what it would be like if we had a rainbow in our homes, in our church. If we were constantly filled with the light and color and vibrancy of God’s love and promises. Who would we be? What kind of community would we be if we were shaped by the rainbow?

One where all are welcome, certainly. In this covenant with Noah, God makes no distinction between Noah’s family and the rest of humanity. This is my covenant with all flesh, says God. But all would not just be welcome, but valued, appreciated for the gifts, the perspectives, and the backgrounds that they bring.

To be shaped by God’s rainbow promise would mean that we would not be a people of vengeance and retribution, of violence and power, but instead a people of mercy and love and forgiveness. We live in a world, we participate in systems that are the complete opposite of those values. We see it played out when we value guns over children’s lives, when we value our own comfort over someone else’s basic needs, when we value the well-being of ourselves and our family over the well-being of all people and all creation.

I have to think, that if God grieved for humanity in the time of Noah, God grieves today. Because the heart of God is troubled when we are troubled. And God hopes so much more for the earth than it seems we are able to live up to.

But ultimately, the rainbow is God’s promise. The rainbow is there for God to remember, even more so than us. For God to remember us with love and forgiveness in the midst of life’s chaos with all its pain and suffering. And God does. God has not forsaken the promise made to Noah and to all humankind. Despite our limitations, God continues to be faithful, loving, and merciful to a world so desperately in need of those things.

This Lent, let’s live as if we have a rainbow in our house, and we cannot contain its colors and its brightness. Let’s live trusting God’s love for us, and for all people. May the light of God’s love and God’s promise shine forth in our lives, bringing with it mercy, forgiveness, and hope for the world. Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Below is my sermon from Ash Wednesday, February 14. If you came to the noon service, you might not recognize much of it. After the school shooting in Florida, I rewrote most of it.

I remain at a loss for words regarding these continuing tragedies, and our seeming acceptance of them as routine. But I come back to yesterday’s call to repentance. Repentance is not merely sorrow or remorse for the past. Repentance is a changed way of acting in the future. We are long past the point for needing sorrow and remorse over school shootings. Whether we are able as a society to repent–to let our sorrow change our actions–remains to be seen. Prayer is powerful, especially when our prayer leads to changed hearts.

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

Ash Wednesday is both a beautiful and a terrible day. It’s a day when I say the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” again and again and again. They are an echo of the words that we speak over caskets and urns being laid to rest: We commit their body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

I saw a joke on Facebook this morning from a fellow pastor. What are your Valentine’s plans? It asked. Oh, I have to work and remind people of their inevitable death. It’s a little funny, because it’s Valentine’s Day, only it’s one of those jokes that hits a little too close to home to stay funny long.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I have said these words to older people, to cancer and hospice patients, knowing the next time I said them would likely be at the burial. I have said these words to young and healthy people, to babies and toddlers, to commuters whose stories I don’t know.

Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes. I didn’t come up with that, it’s from Hamilton, but it’s true. We will all die. As I sat, horrified this afternoon and watched images and video of yet another school shooting, one picture caught my eye. A mother, weeping outside the school, waiting to know whether her child had lived or died, with an ashen cross on her forehead.

Today it feels like we do not need to be reminded we are mortal. I do not need to be reminded today that the world is sinful and broken, that the world we live in, the world we have created, falls terribly short of God’s intention and hope for us. As our psalm declares, our sin is ever before us. We cannot avoid it.

Like the people Isaiah addresses in our first reading, we might wonder, where is God in all of this? These people were living in a time of confusion and uncertainty, and they were trying to figure out what God’s response was. What God required of them. They felt that God was absent.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?” They asked of the Lord. “Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” In other words: give us some kind of sign, God, because we don’t know what you want.

And God responds with condemnation of the people: You serve your own interest on your fast day, God says, and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. You call this a fast? says God.

God has not abandoned the people, but God desires fasts, God desires repentance that leads to justice and to peace. Is not this the fast that I choose, says the Lord: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?

The people who claimed to keep God’s fast did not practice justice and peace. These are the hypocrites that Jesus condemns. Those who make a show of their piety, of their religion, but do not keep the faith in their hearts and in their actions.

Ash Wednesday’s call to repentance means that we must admit that we are also those hypocrites. That what we say does not always match what we do. That though we pray for justice and peace, we do not always take actions to promote justice and peace. That though we mourn victims of school shootings, we do not always use our voice and our power to speak up and protect them before it happens.

Our sin is ever before us. We are broken. We are not living in the fullness of life that God intends for us, whether as individuals or as a community. There can be no denying that. There can be no escape from those hard truths.

This day is a reminder of our mortality and of our brokenness. This day is a call to repentance and to changed hearts and lives. A call to the fast for justice and peace. But it is also more. For those marked with the cross there is always more.

For, as the Apostle Paul writes in Second Corinthians, because of the cross of Christ, even though we are dying—see, we are alive. We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. For those marked with the cross there is always more. Death is inevitable, yes, but death gives way to nothing short of baptism’s promised life. The ashen cross on your foreheads will be traced over the cross marked on you at baptism. Ashes are not forever. Ashes are a reminder of life’s endings, but also a reminder of new beginnings in Christ.

Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep living anyway, we rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. We are all of us sinners, marked by our brokenness and mortality. But we are also all of us saints in Christ, marked by the life-giving cross which leads to new life and resurrection.

So come. Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation! Let us return to the mercy and love of God, confessing our sin, admitting the places where we yearn for renewal and healing, and calling upon God to create new and righteous hearts in us. Amen.

On the Mountaintop

Below is my sermon from Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018. It’s based on our reading from Mark 9. It was also our Annual Meeting Sunday at St. Paul’s, which brought me to the main focus of this sermon: where is Jesus leading us? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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

My family had been stuck in the car for about five hours when we finally pulled into the National Park. We were bickering, as families do, especially when they’ve been forced into a small space together for the past week or so. The back and forth between my brother and me continued as we stretched our legs, and the increasingly ill-tempered snapping from my parents did nothing to stop it.

But, when we came up over the small hill to the outlook point, we all stopped. We didn’t speak at all. In front of us lay the Grand Canyon and awe and majesty of its beauty, its enormity—and our smallness in comparison—took away all of our words.

When I’d told my friend that my family was going on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon, she was really excited. “I can’t tell you how awesome it is,” she said, “I can’t explain it to you, you just have to experience it.” And she was right. No pictures or videos I had seen did the Grand Canyon justice. They cannot capture its magnificence, and words too seem inadequate.

I sometimes feel as if the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those experiences—where it can’t be explained to us, we simply need to experience it. Only we can’t experience it, because we weren’t there. Almost no one was there, in fact, just Peter and James and John. And we only have these second-hand accounts, written in the gospels years later.

When we try to explain the Transfiguration, we never are able to really get across what it must have been like to be there. And we get bogged down in some of the things that we can’t explain: what does it mean that Jesus’ appearance changed? Did it change back? How did Moses and Elijah show up? Were they visions? Actually physically there? Did just Peter hear this voice of God, or did everyone? In trying to explain this mystical experience, we lose something in translation.

It just has to be experienced. And, while we might never experience the totality of the Transfiguration’s transcendence and wonder, I think we have experienced pieces of this story in our lives. Maybe you have had a moment where you feel or see or hear the overwhelming presence of God in your life. It might not have been quite as dramatic a story as what we read in Mark, but that doesn’t mean it was less significant in your life.

Whether you’ve had such a moment or not, we can all relate to Peter’s reactions through the story. It’s almost as if we see this moment through his eyes. And Peter can’t believe what he is seeing. His first instinct, though, is to stay—to build dwelling places for these holy figures, and to make this experience last.

But that is Peter’s mistake. He wants to keep the Holy, the transcendent God, in one safe, confined place. It is good on the mountain, he says. And he is right. And so he wants to stay there. Can you relate? I know I can. When we find those moments of peace, those moments where everything seems to be right, we wish that they will never end. It doesn’t have to be some big revelatory experience, either. It could be the whole family together, when that doesn’t happen much anymore. Or a quiet day to yourself, when that doesn’t happen much anymore. A gathering of friends from far away. We want to stay in those beautiful, fleeting moments, because we know it is good to be there.

In the story from Mark, Peter’s option is actually the safer one. Staying on the mountain that is. Post-Transfiguration life is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps Peter is beginning to realize this. Just before he ascended the mountain with Jesus, Jesus told his disciples the truth about what was going to happen to him: that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. The Bible tells us that Jesus said all of this quite openly, the same way he says on their way down the mountain not to tell anyone about this until after he has risen from the dead. Rising from the dead sounds pretty good, but it also means that you were dead.

It’s no wonder peter wants to stay up on this mountain where the world is clear, God is present, and they are safe. It’s our human instinct when we’re facing an unsure future. Sometimes, even if our present reality is so great, we’d rather stay there than face the uncertainty of what might lie ahead.

Especially when, like Peter, we’re not sure what we can trust in anymore. When that which we’ve known, on which have relied is changing and sometimes crumbling before us. Whether it’s the very churches that we built to house God: less attended, less influential than they used to be. Whether it’s our relationships with one another: less trusting, less open than they used to be. Sometimes it feels like it’s the whole world: less safe, less predictable than we used to think it was.

Too often our only response seems to be pop-up tents: quick fixes, continuing resolutions, short-term thinking. We’d often rather stay in places feel okay, even if they aren’t great. Or try to cling to what no longer exists. None of which actually trusts in a future that God holds for us.

We are called to leave the mountain—to go into the future that God will show us. Even though it might be frightening. Even though it might be different than what we’re used to. We have our annual meeting after worship today, and at meetings like this, it’s always tempting to get bogged down in questions about numbers: financial or attendance. And, while I think both of those things are important, they are also not the true question at hand: Where is Jesus leading us? The voice from God says to listen to Jesus. What does that mean for us, as St. Paul’s? What does it mean for you, for your family, for your work?

I’m not sure. I don’t think we can ever know the specifics of what the future holds, and that we drive ourselves crazy when we try. God holds the future for us, and is calling us be a part of it. What I do know is this: we do not go into the future alone. The disciples aren’t sent by themselves to the difficult path awaiting them. Jesus goes down the mountain with them. And Jesus goes down the mountain with us. Jesus goes with us as we leave our dwelling places, as we journey into the unknown future together.

May God continue to bless us with moments of wonder and awe, with moments of peace and beauty. And may God guide and direct us as we seek to listen to Jesus, and journey with Jesus into our future. Amen.

Healing and a Purpose

Below is my sermon from Sunday, February 4, 2018, better known as the day the Eagles won the Super Bowl! We had a fun time at church with the references to eagles in our Isaiah reading and in “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Andy even led us in a rousing rendition of Fly, Eagles Fly on the organ! And congrats to everyone who participated in the ELCA World Hunger Big Game Challenge. Team Philly pulled out a close win, and together with New England we raised almost $36,000 dollars to help fight world hunger.

The sermon focuses on Mark 1:29-39, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.

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

Did you know? The readings we use in church are on a three year cycle, and they were all laid out in 1994. So the fact that we have a reading about eagles on this Sunday must conclusively prove that God is a Philly fan. And I’m betting a lot of churches in New England left off that last verse of Isaiah this morning.

But anyway, I digress. I wanted to start with a story about my mom. I called this week to ask her for permission to share this story, and she agreed, although she couldn’t see why it was anything special. When I was in tenth grade, my mom was walking our dog one afternoon, and she slipped and fell on some ice. She landed pretty hard, but she was about a mile from home, without her cell phone, so she had to walk all the way back.

When she got home, she took some ibuprofen, then proceeded to drive to me to my piano lesson. While I was at piano, she cooked dinner for our family and picked my brother up from football practice. When I left my teacher’s house, I found my dad waiting for me.

It seems, that three hours after falling, walking a mile, shuttling two kids around and cooking dinner, my mom decided to go to the emergency room. She had been doing all of these things with a broken wrist. And still to this day, she doesn’t think it was that big of a deal. “It wasn’t until I had a chance to stop that I really felt the pain anyway,” she told me.

I thought of my mom, and that day she broke her wrist, when I read this week’s gospel from Mark about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. It made me wonder why, even when we’re sick and hurt, it seems we have to keep going and keeping up with our busy tasks. It applies to all of us sometimes, but it also seems that women are particularly likely to put their own needs aside.

And at first it made me a little mad and frustrated with Simon Peter, and with the other disciples. Couldn’t they have made their own dinner, this one time? Fevers were a serious business back then, and people died from them all the time. Couldn’t they have given this poor unnamed woman a few more days of rest? We need to ask those questions, because people have used stories like this one to keep women out of leadership roles in churches for far too long.

But then I came to realize that that’s not really what this story is about. We’re not meant to look at this story and see examples of gender roles, but instead see an example of discipleship. Far from being a pathetic, un-liberated, subservient woman, Simon’s mother-in-law is an example of discipleship for us to follow.

Jesus has restored her, not just to health, but to a calling, to a purpose. Showing hospitality in Jesus’ culture, welcoming guests into your home was a way of showing honor, and respect, and love. It was an incredibly important job.

Later in the gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples that he came not to be served but to serve, and they don’t understand. Simon’s mother-in-law understands. She is one of the first people who gets it. She has been freed from her illness and made healthy again, not just for her own benefit, but for the benefit of those she will serve.

Her service is not simply waiting on her son-in-law and the men with him, but welcoming others in need of healing into her home. Having been healed herself, she can now extend compassion and hospitality to others in need. The word used for the service she offers is diakonia. She is a deacon to them, someone entrusted to care and support the body of Christ. We won’t hear her name, ever, but she’s mentioned again, on Good Friday, when Mark tells us that some women, who had served and provided for Jesus in Galilee stayed until the last.

Last week, when we heard the story of Jesus casting out a demon, I focused on the ways God wants to set us free from the things that hold us back: whether they are internal or external demons: addiction and depression, prejudice, racism and sexism, nativism and xenophobia. These things keep us from being the people that God intends for us to be, from experiencing the wholeness and joy that God intends for us. That is the work of God, and Jesus continues it this week, healing and restoring all those who are brought to him.

But God doesn’t set us free simply that we might enjoy ourselves, or bask in that freedom. God sets us free so that we might live into our God-given identity and potential. So that we might claim our calling as children of God and join God in the mission to love and bless the world.

Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian theologian and author, is quoted as saying: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where is that place for you? Where is the place where God is calling you—where your gladness, your skills and passion, your gifts can meet the needs of a hungry world?

For some it might be their jobs, but for others, our callings are found elsewhere. They might be found in family—in caring for others, whether they are young or old. That is a calling. They might be found in justice work—in advocating for fair treatment for the disenfranchised. That is a calling. They might be found in our relationships—in bringing needed compassion and empathy to others. That is a calling. They might be found in welcome and service—in providing hospitality. That is a calling.

We all have callings, only often we don’t see them for what they are. We might dismiss small actions as insignificant, or just what a good person does. But callings come in all shapes and sizes. Let’s claim ours. Let’s celebrate the ways that we are able to be part of what God is doing in the world.

Have you not seen? Have you not heard? The Lord God Almighty is at work in you, with you, and through you to care for the people and the world God loves so much. Amen.


Shut Up!

My sermon from January 28, 2018 is below. It focuses on the gospel reading from Mark 1, the story of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. As I touch on in the sermon, we don’t think about things like illness, trauma, and struggles the same way people did thousands of years ago. We don’t personify our demons in quite the same way. But we do still struggle with many things. Do you find it helpful or unhelpful to think about things as “demons” or “unclean spirits”? Why?

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

It’s said that a first impression—good or bad—has serious and lasting consequences. It’s partly because, as humans, we have to process so much information that our brains make decisions without us even realizing it. We have to make judgments quickly, sort people we’re meeting for the first time into categories: a person we can trust or not, worth our time and attention or not, good for the job or not.

When we learn more about someone, when we have a second and third and fourth impression, we can learn to change that initial judgment, but from a psychological standpoint, it takes a lot of work to rethink our first impression. First impressions matter.

Our reading from the Gospel of Mark today, in a way, is Jesus’ first impression. It is the first public act of ministry that he performs. He is baptized by John in the Jordan River, is led out into the desert where he is tempted by the devil, and then this moment at the synagogue on sabbath occurs.

His very first act of ministry, the first impression that he gives to his new disciples, to the crowds who are astounded at his teachings, is to cast out an unclean spirit. It’s hard for us to know what to make of this phrase “unclean spirit.” After all we don’t think about illness and medicine or psychology the way people in first century Palestine did.

But we can easily imagine the impact and effect of suffering with such a spirit, from other passages in the gospel. This man is at the synagogue today, but he will likely become ostracized if his condition persists. Those who love him must be in great distress—agonized over his current situation and afraid for his future. And this is the very first thing Jesus does: free this man from the hold of the unclean spirit and restore him to himself and his community.

I don’t know much about these unclean spirits, or demons as they are often called. I don’t know where they come from, whether they come from inside or outside us, I don’t know whether they are actual demons or human darkness. But before we are tempted to dismiss this story as inconsequential, a relic of a different way of thinking, we should think about what we do know.

I do know things like addiction and compulsion and anxiety and despair can take a hold of us and make us do things we don’t want to do. I know that evil and darkness and destructive forces are real. Jesus takes away this man’s unclean spirit and restores him to abundant life in the community.

What are the things that rob us, that rob our loved ones, of abundant life? Addiction? Loss of gainful employment? Unsafe working conditions? Situations where power is abused or harassment and discrimination are tolerated? Lack of access to housing, education, or medical treatment?

God is not simply against these things in some theoretical way, rather God stands completely opposed to them and the way that they seek to limit and control us. And there’s an interesting thing about this—the demons know it. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the demons always recognize Jesus’ authority and the demons are afraid.

Which is exactly why our demons—those things that keep us from abundant life—our demons try to keep us away from people who remind us how loved we are. Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God.

And what is Jesus’ response to that? In our reading in English it seems kind of tame: Jesus rebukes the demon and says, “Be silent!” If we wanted to retranslate the original Greek, though, Jesus essentially yells and tells the spirit to shut up!

I learned early as kid that we don’t tell people to shut up, because that isn’t a nice thing to say. And Jesus is all about being nice, right? But Jesus isn’t wishy-washy or quiet when it comes to things like this. Jesus isn’t tame. He tells that unclean spirit to shut up about its lies, to shut up trying to convince this man that this is all he is and that this is all he is worth.

Jesus tells the demon to take a hike so that this man may reclaim his dignity, so that this man might know the truth of who and whose he is. Jesus defiantly reminds us of our own worth and value even when we can’t see it ourselves. Jesus persistently and unfailingly reminds us of our dignity as children of God until we can at last see that dignity in ourselves and in others.

Alex Hampson is going to be baptized in a few minutes, and it will be proclaimed once again that God loves Alex as a beloved child and that nothing will ever change that love. Like the Spirit descended on Jesus in his baptism, God will say: this is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased. And it’s not just Alex, but all of us who are claimed and loved by God just as we are.

The truth is that all of us, including Alex, are going to hear other messages in our lives. Messages that tell us we are not good enough. That we do not have anything to offer, that we need to be better in order to be worthy of love. We hear these messages everywhere, from commercials and billboards, our own insecurities, to more some more difficult demons to fight, like addiction and depression.

And to those messages, to those voices, who tell us that we are not enough, we can say: Shut up! Because Jesus tells them to be quiet and get the heck out of here. When those voices, those thoughts come to you—to your loved ones—remember that at the end of the day there is always a louder voice. The voice of God. Which sends those voices of insecurity and doubt running away scared. The voice of God which declares loudly for all to hear that you are loved and you are worthy. You are beloved. Amen.

Reluctant and Eager Disciples

Here is my sermon from January 21, 2018, the Third Sunday after Epiphany. We have Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1, and Jonah prophesying to the people of Nineveh. (If you have time, and you haven’t before, read all of Jonah. It’ll only take about 20 minutes!) Have you ever identified with one or the other of these responses to God’s call?

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

The few times in my life I have been forced to go fishing, my boredom at all the waiting was only matched by my terror when I actually caught a fish. I decided pretty early on in my Girl Scout career that this fishing thing was just not for me. Sometimes I wish I’d stuck it out just a little bit longer, because there are so many stories about fish and fishing in the Bible. Imagine all the stories I’d have to tell in my sermons!

It’s ok, though. At their heart, these stories aren’t really about fish or fishing. Today we have a story from Jonah and the calling of the disciples in Mark that center around fish, but are really a couple of different examples of responding to God’s call.

I have to admit upfront that Jonah is probably one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s this absurd trek taken with the reluctant prophet. If you never knew the Bible contained comedy before, you should read Jonah start to finish—it’s only four chapters. It reminds me a lot of books like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. Although they are laugh-out-loud hilarious at parts, the absurdity is there to teach us some important truths.

In our reading today, we start in the middle of the story: the word of God comes to Jonah a second time. Jonah didn’t much like what God asked him to do the first time—go and preach to the Ninevites—so he ran the opposite direction and got on a boat the first time.

That didn’t work out so well for him, as he ended up in the belly of a big fish for three days, only to be spat back out. After all that, God comes to Jonah again, with almost the exact same words: Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

Now Jonah really can’t be blamed for not wanting to go to Nineveh. It’s the capital of the Assyrian Empire, who has been attacking and killing the Jewish tribes for the past couple of centuries. Nineveh was a bad, bad place.

But it becomes clear that fear wasn’t Jonah’s only motivation for avoiding Nineveh. When he preaches what is possibly the worst, but most effective sermon ever, and the people repent, God changes God’s mind about destroying the city. And that is just what Jonah was afraid of.

Jonah knew that God is gracious and merciful, and he did not want that grace to be shown to the Ninevites. He did not want God’s grace to extend beyond his own people. When God announces that because of their repentance, the city of Nineveh will not be destroyed, Jonah is really disappointed.

His reluctance to follow God’s call and preach to the people of Nineveh stemmed from his fear of the chance that he might be successful. And he was—despite himself—Jonah was an instrument of God’s grace.

It’s a hard job Jonah had—I can’t judge him. Who wants God to extend forgiveness and grace to their enemies? Who among us truly wants those we dislike and despise, and who despise us in return, to be extended mercy? Jonah may be a comical prophet, but he speaks the words of our hearts. What he, and we, needed to learn, though, is that God’s grace is something that you cannot lose by giving it away. Our share of God’s love does not decrease by bringing more people under its care.

On the other end of the call story spectrum, we have the first disciples: Andrew and Simon, James and John. Rather than being reluctant, they are all but tripping over themselves to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. It makes me wonder what they had heard about Jesus before now. Were they expecting this man to call to them? Were they taken completely by surprise?

We don’t know, and we won’t ever know, really. What we do know is that they go immediately. As soon as Jesus calls, offers them a new identity as fishers of people, they are there. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you hear this story about the disciples being called, and you might wish you could have that kind of faith and courage. The kind that doesn’t doubt, but simply trusts. That goes at once, without questions.

But I have to remind myself that, yes, while the disciples are certainly to be celebrated for their trust and speed in answering Jesus’ call, this is not the end of their story, but just the beginning. It’s a great beginning, but there’s going to be much to learn ahead, much stumbling, much misunderstanding, and much backsliding.

This early decision to follow Jesus needs to be reaffirmed and even corrected time and again. At Caesarea Philippi, Simon affirms his faith in Jesus, but not his faith in Jesus as the suffering Messiah—that will take a lifetime. On the mount of transfiguration, Peter knows how good it is to be with Jesus but forgets that the real task to follow Jesus. In the courtyard, warming himself before the fire, Peter threatens to give up a lifetime of fidelity for a moment of fear. At the very end, when Jesus is on the cross, Peter, Andrew, James, and John are nowhere to be found. Even then, God does not count that moment as the final word: now Jesus will go before them, for a lifetime.

The truth is, becoming a faithful Christian disciple takes both a moment and a lifetime. And we all probably fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between the ultra-reluctant Jonah and the ever eager disciples.

The joy of this week’s readings is that God is able to use many different types responses—the feet-dragging ones that require much prodding, and the jumping out of the boat instantaneously ones. God calls, and uses, many different people, with a variety of gifts, to accomplish God’s work.

We are all of us called to be disciples. It’s a calling that we receive from our very beginnings as Christians in the waters of baptism, where we hear that all the baptized are called to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and dead, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. It might start at baptism, but it’s a calling that we live into over the course of our whole lives.

So, wherever you might be right now on the spectrum—running away, as fast as you can, like Jonah, or eagerly jumping into a new beginning like the disciples—know this: you are not alone. As a community, we are all on the path of following God together. And we are not alone. Because the God who calls us to bring good news, to be fishers of people, is the God who travels with us on our journeys. The God who sustains us when things are difficult, and the God who rejoices with us at the good news. Amen.

The Stage of Creation

Below is my sermon from January 14, 2018, when St. Paul’s celebrated The Baptism of Our Lord. It is also Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in the U.S. Although the sermon touches on the baptism of Jesus as recorded in Mark 1, it mainly focuses on the first story of creation in Genesis 1. Even if you’re familiar with that story, take a minute or two and read it again–I find we always notice something new in even the most well known scriptures.

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

In one of my English classes in high school, we were required to read Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. Are folks familiar with it? The play tells the story of the small town of Grover’s Corners, between the years of 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its inhabitants.

What makes it unique, though, is that it is performed without a set, on an almost bare stage. There are no backdrops, no scenes, no props. The actors pantomime actions, without the physical items in their hands. The stage manager—a narrator of sorts—opens the play by setting the scene with his words.

Beginning from nothingness, Grover’s Corners is brought to life as the play begins to take shape on the blank stage. Similarly, in our first reading, from the very beginning of Genesis, the opening words of the Bible, God begins, not quite from nothing, but almost.

In the beginning when God begins to create the heavens and the earth, the earth is a formless void, and darkness covers the face of the deep. It is sometimes translated as “chaos” covering the face of the deep. Not nothing, but not truly anything either. And into this shapeless, chaotic darkness, a wind from God sweeps onto the stage. The breath, the spirit of God, makes its way to begin setting the scene.

And into the silence, God speaks: let there be light. And God separates the light from the darkness, bringing the beginnings of order to the chaotic world. Our reading only covered that first act of creation, but the poet of Genesis continues, weaving the tale of God bringing order and life and beauty out of those chaotic waters.

In addition to night and day, the waters would be separated so that there would be a sky. And the waters were to be gathered together so that dry land might appear beneath the sky, and God declared it good. And still creation continued: vegetation, plants of every kind, fruit trees of every kind came to life. And it was good.

The waters themselves yielded living creatures—the great sea monsters and everything that swarms within the waters. And birds flew through the air, and God said that it was good. And then on the dry land the living creatures appeared, the creeping things and wild animals, and the cattle. That, too, was good.

But it was not finished. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And God creates humanity, in the image of God. And God blesses them, and declares that with them, all creation is “very good.”

Out of a dark stage filled with chaos, creation has come forth. Starting with big, huge acts—creating dry land and continents and sky—God is not finished, but continues to focus more and more minutely—first with plants, then with the fish and sea creatures, with animals, until finally stooping down into the earth itself to create human beings.

There’s a moment in Our Town where a character receives a letter from her pastor. He addresses the envelope with great care, and with great detail: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

Her pastor is making a very valid point about humanity’s place in the universe. At the end of the day, we are very small. Our lives are but a blink in the face of creation, and being aware of our relative unimportance can keep us from being focused too inwardly, only caring about ourselves.

While I certainly understand his point, the creation story in Genesis offers a radically different perspective. The Mind of God; the Universe; the Solar System; Earth; the Western Hemisphere; the Continent of North America; the United States of America; New Hampshire; Sutton County; Grover’s Corners; the Crofut Farm; Jane Crofut. From the waters of creation down to each individual—we are not too small to notice. On the contrary, we matter immensely to God.

You could fill in the blanks with your name, and location. Every single one of us—we are none of us accidents of circumstance, but our very existence goes back to that loving, life-giving, creating mind of God. Every person could fill in the blanks—no matter their name, their religion, the country they call home: in America, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe.

There is no person, no place, that is outside the mind of God, the care of God, or the love of God. We are made in the image of God and reflect the image of God through all of our differences and individuality. It is a fitting thing to reflect upon on Martin Luther King weekend, in honor of a man whose life’s work was to proclaim the dignity of all people, no matter their race or place of origin. It was a threatening enough idea that it got him killed. It remains threatening enough today that we still fear those who are different from us.

But we are not just made in the image of God, as if that were not enough. We are loved and claimed by God. At Jesus’ baptism, God offers affirmation and celebration of who Jesus is. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The voice from heaven, the same Spirit and voice that moved over the water blesses and claims Jesus.

This announcement comes before Jesus has done anything. Before his ministry—before he has taught, or has healed. Before he has fed thousands or found followers. God’s blessing and God’s love don’t follow our achievements. God’s love creates our potential for love.

We are called God’s beloved children not because of something we do but because of who God is—a loving parent who wants nothing more than to see us flourish. In Holy Baptism, God just chooses us. God says that we are enough, already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. Just as we are.

Created in the image of God, claimed by God, loved by God, we have the opportunity not only to reflect, however flawed and imperfectly we may do so, but to reflect God’s image to the world through our love and creativity and advocacy, but we also the opportunity to find the image of God in others. To recognize others as also being reflections of that divine love.

May we appreciate and celebrate the diversity of God’s image, and may we give thanks for our inclusion in that great diversity and love of creation. Amen.



Below is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17th, 2017. In a rare move for me, I don’t even mention the Gospel reading! This sermon is focused on the readings from Isaiah and 1 Thessalonians. Let me know what you think in the comments!

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

This time of year can be a season of homecomings. Schools are out for winter break, and college kids stream back home. Families travel from near and far to join one another for holiday parties and gatherings. Homecomings are always meant to be joyous occasions, but sometimes they don’t always live up to expectations.

It didn’t happen my first semester back from college, or even the second. But by the third or fourth time I returned to my parents’ home from school, I started to notice a few things out of place. It started small—there was no longer space for me to kick my shoes right by the door, the spot where I dropped my keys now housed a coin jar. But by my senior year of college, my closet had been taken over by my mom’s overflow clothing, and my desk had become her office space. My brother’s room wasn’t touched at all and still remains in pristine condition—something I’m completely fine with, by the way.

When I was still in school, it was ok to be home still, but things feel even more weird now, that I have an actual home of my own instead of a dorm room. When we go back to our childhood homes, we expect to fit back into familiar roles and patterns, but often they don’t really fit anymore. It’s not always that things at home have changed, sometimes we are the things that have changed—and home hasn’t.

Our first reading from Isaiah is actually the story of a homecoming. The book of Isaiah starts with the Israelites in exile in Babylon, and great things are promised about when they will return to the land. That’s the path in the wilderness, the highway through the desert, everything is supposed to work out well when they return home.

But here, in our reading from this morning, they have made it back to the land; the exiles have returned, and they’re realizing it’s not everything that they expected. The people are in mourning at what they have found: ruined cities, devastations. Home is not at all what they were promised.

I think many of us have had the experience of looking forward to something with high expectations, only to be disappointed when it finally arrived. Maybe, like the Israelites, it was with a homecoming. Maybe it was something else. Working hard to reach a milestone—a new degree, or a big anniversary, or a good promotion—only to find out that it’s not perfect on the other side of that momentous occasion.

This time of year is ripe for disappointed expectations. All around us we hear that this is meant to be a season of cheer and happiness, but that doesn’t mean that all of our problems go away during the holidays. Sometimes they might even fell like they’re worse, especially in comparison to all the bright lights and happiness around us.

And yet in the midst of all of this—in the midst of the ups and the downs of real life—we hear the Apostle Paul’s call to rejoice. And not just to rejoice, but to rejoice always. To give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is typically reserved for joy. This third Sunday, we focus on joy, because, as Christmas nears, we turn from hope and expectation to realized rejoicing. It’s why we light the pink candle today instead of another blue one. If I had them, I could even be wearing pink vestments today, to take the rejoicing to a whole other level.

But what does it mean to rejoice always, to give thanks in all circumstances. Honestly, these phrases feel like the kinds of Bible verses that you put on a cross-stitch and hang up somewhere, but not like the kinds of verses that actually help in the real world.

Are we meant to rejoice when something bad happens? To rejoice in relative or friends’ illness? To celebrate a broken relationship? To take joy in being depressed or struggling with anxiety? Is this the will of God in Christ Jesus for us?

On this Sunday of joy, we sometimes read or sing Mary’s song of praise to God, the Magnificat. After the angel has announced to her that she will give birth to God’s son, while she is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Mary shows us how we might rejoice in difficult circumstances. She is in a tough position: a young woman, a girl really maybe as young as twelve, unmarried and pregnant. No matter how miraculous the birth, she is still incredibly vulnerable. Nevertheless, she rejoices. She gives thanks for how God is working through her to bring about good.

We cannot rejoice about all things. We’d be lying. We cannot give thanks for all things. It wouldn’t be honest, and risks trivializing pain and hardship. But we can rejoice in the midst of all things. We can give thanks in the midst of all circumstances. Because in the midst of all circumstances, God remains with us, supporting us, sustaining us, and working for good.

The people in Isaiah return from exile to devastation. But in the midst of their devastation, God continues to promise hope and new life. God will provide for those who mourn in Zion, the prophet says—God will give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. The downtrodden, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, they will be called oaks of righteousness and display the glory of the Lord. They will rebuild. It won’t be exactly what they remembered before, but new life will come out of what was once lost.

We rejoice always because joy is about more than just happiness. Joy is about more than just good things. Joy is found in the deep and abiding presence of God in the world. Joy is found in God’s resilience, in God’s completed promises, and even in the promises of God yet to be fulfilled. Because they most certainly will be fulfilled.

So, as we enter this final week of Advent: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen.