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.

Such Great Heights

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

Readings: Transfiguration Readings 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt and Light

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

Readings: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blessed are they…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presentation of Our Lord

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

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

Lectionary Texts: Presentation of Our Lord

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