One in Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What are you looking for?

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

Readings for Second Sunday after Epiphany: Lectionary Readings

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

Have you found what you’re looking for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No such thing as impsoters

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

Readings for Baptism of Our Lord: Lectionary Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And the Word became flesh…

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

Readings for Christmas 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Discovering Joy in Hope

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

Readings can be found here: Advent 3 readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Clear the Way for Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Source of Hope

This Advent, we’re doing a series called “All Earth is Hopeful.” The first Sunday’s sermon topic was: The Source of Hope. Even though I’m the one who picked this series, I had to shake my head a little bit. “The source of hope?” Don’t they know that Advent 1 is filled with apocalyptic texts? But perhaps that is in fact where we find the source of our hope.

Readings can be found here: Advent 1 lectionary texts

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

Christmas seems to come a little bit earlier every year. You know what I mean. I didn’t even manage to scoop up any cheap leftover Halloween candy this year, because by the time I got to the store—the very next day—Christmas displays were out instead. There were wreaths up at the King of Prussia mall before Halloween even!

Something, I’m not sure exactly what, is pushing us to start the Christmas spirit earlier and earlier every year. Except, at church, it’s not Christmas yet, but Advent. I’m reminded of a quote from the British show Call the Midwife, the true story of a young woman goes to work as a midwife in 1950s London. She lives at Nonnatus House, a convent of nuns who are also nurses.

She remembers back, saying: “My first Christmas in Poplar was unlike any other I had known. The streets, like all streets, were strung with colored lights, and children drew up lists, like children everywhere. As the days ticked down, it seemed as though the district was fizzing with delight. But at Nonnatus House, a different magic was at work. The sisters spent Advent in prayer and meditation, and the atmosphere was not one of excitement, but of expectant, joyous calm. I wasn’t entirely sure what I should make of it.”

A lot of us aren’t entirely sure what to make of Advent. All around us, the party spirit is in full swing already, but the season of Advent asks us to wait. Advent is focused, not on celebration, but on expectation. On longing. On hope—which is our theme for this Advent’s sermon series: All Earth is Hopeful.

But what exactly are we hoping for? As a child, I always thought that Advent was about waiting and hoping for baby Jesus to be born—that’s what happened at Christmas, after all. Is that what we are hoping for? Not really. We don’t have to hope and wait for Jesus to be born, because that already happened.

The word “Advent” means coming, or arrival. The first arrival of Jesus, as a baby in a manger, is certainly part of that, as we explore what it means for our lives. But so is the future arrival of Jesus, in what is often called the Second Coming. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is always an apocalyptic reading, always Jesus describing what the end of the world will be like.

Some years he talks in grand visions, with stars falling from the sky, but this year we read of two people working in the field, and one will be taken, and one will be left. Two people will be together grinding grain, and one will be taken, and one will be left. So stay awake! Because you don’t know when it’s going to happen.

So, is this what we’re hoping for? I think many, if not most of us, would say that we are in fact not hoping for the end of the world. Hope is found not in hoping for the end of the world to come right now, but in knowing God’s promised future which gives us hope for the present. What does that promised future, that consummation of God’s kingdom look like?

Isaiah offers us this vision, this promise of what God has in store for God’s people and the world. This vision comes from the second chapter of Isaiah. When things are terrible, when the people are about to destroyed as a nation and go into exile. And in the middle of this, Isaiah proclaims the impossible possibility. Destroyed and despairing, Jerusalem shall become a place of pilgrimage and hope, of those seeking to create and not destroy. Strangers will find a home in the holy city. Refugees will experience safety once more. War will be abolished, and nations will no longer plan on destroying one another. Laughter and joy will fill the city streets. The days of mourning will be a thing of the past as God’s future beckons us forward.

We can look forward to our future—to God’s future—in hope, because we look back at what God has done for us and what God has promised us. We look to Isaiah to see God’s vision of the future and it gives us hope for our present time. Hope because we get to flip to the last chapter of the book and know the end of the story. We know the future God has promised, so we look forward, not with anxiety or apathy, but with hopeful expectation.

Advent is not just about the future arrival of Christ and the consummation of God’s kingdom, just as it is not just about the past arrival of Christ in Bethlehem. I somewhere heard it described as the “Three Advents of Christ”: in history, in mystery, and in majesty. The history is the baby in the manger, the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Majesty is what I’ve been talking about, that final triumphant arrival to usher in God’s reign of peace and justice.

But mystery is what we have right now. Because God has not abandoned this world to its own devices, but continues to come to us, even now. In the meal of Holy Communion, Christ comes to us in bread and wine, and we get to take God’s promise into ourselves. To let it feed us and sustain us. The promise of the future, the promise of God’s grace and forgiveness and love, the promise of communion—of community—with each other, becomes embodied within us as we share in this meal.

And it opens our eyes to the ways that God is at work in the world. Stay awake! Jesus tells his followers. Because you do not know when the Son of Man is coming. Stay awake! Or you might miss it.  Stay awake to the ways that God is active in our world, right now. Holy moments may catch you by surprise, so pay attention. Pay attention to what God is doing, to the people God is putting in your path, to the glimpses of God’s promised future breaking through into the present.

Jesus’ words challenge us to live faithfully, to live in expectant hope, right now. To live in God’s kingdom, right now. To be awake and attentive to God’s presence among us. So even as we cry out, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, come, Lord Jesus to this world in need of healing and peace and renewal, we live as people of hope. So come, Lord Jesus. Come to your people this Advent. Awaken us to your presence in the world. Give us your hope, we pray. Amen.

 

A Different Kind of King

What do you do when it’s Christ the King, Consecration Sunday, and a baptism, all in one go? Try to make them all work together of course! I both struggle with, and really love, Christ the King. I don’t always like the language of ~king~. I think it needs to be unpacked, because Jesus isn’t the typical king. In fact, he completely inverts our understanding of what it means to be king. Then, I love Christ the King. What does it mean to claim Christ as our King, when he refuses to act like a king? Let me know what you think!

Here is a link to site with all the readings from Sunday: Reign of Christ Readings.

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

Well, once again it’s Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of our liturgical year, which begins anew next week with the first Sunday of Advent. Did you know that Christ the King is a relatively new festival? At least when you compare it to things like Easter, and Pentecost, and All Saints.  It was only started in 1925, by Pope Pius XI, and took much, much longer to catch on in Lutheran churches.

The festival was inaugurated to combat the rising nationalism and fascism around Europe, especially in Italy where the Vatican sits. It’s a festival that asks us to consider what it means that we proclaim Christ king. What type of king do we have in Jesus? What does it actually mean for our lives, 2,000 years later, to say that Jesus is king?

It’s not a bad idea to begin by asking what we think of when we use words like ‘king’, ‘ruler’, ‘kingdom.’ What is a king? Or a queen? The third season of The Crown recently came out on Netflix, all about the British monarchy in the last century, and Elizabeth II in particular.

The royal family has a very specific understanding of what it means to be a king—or in this case, queen. The crown must be protected at all costs. At one point, Princess Margaret, the queen’s sister, says to her: You can’t blink. If you blink, it will al be over. You cannot show weakness, at any cost. The crown must always appear strong.

If you’re like me, this is probably the type of thing you think of when you think of kings and kingdoms. The king being the most important—the one who is protected, the one who is served by others. Strong, unshakable, invincible. That tends to be the type of characteristics we want in a ruler—king or otherwise.

And so Christ the King can come as a shock to our systems. We don’t get strong, unshakable, or invincible. We don’t read of Jesus being enthroned in glory and power. Instead we read the story of the crucifixion. Jesus on the cross at his lowest moment. Executed as an enemy of the state. Mocked, derided.

And we look at that and we say—this is our king. This is the one we will serve. It is only in this moment, on the cross, that Jesus is ever actually proclaimed king. And so, the question remains, what kind of king do we have?

We do not have a king who seeks to be served by others, we do not have a king who seeks to be above others. Jesus doesn’t do that. He refuses to come in power but instead appears in abject vulnerability. He does not vow retribution on even those who crucify him but instead offers forgiveness.

He does not come down off his cross to prove his kingly status but instead remains on that instrument of torture and humiliation, the representative of all who suffer unjustly. And he does not promise a better tomorrow but instead offers to redeem us today.

He offers to redeem us today. Not in some far off distant future, but this very day. It is the promise made to the thief on the cross, and it is the promise that we too receive. When we proclaim that Christ is King, it means that we proclaim he is king right here and now—not waiting for some future time.

And so we come again to my second question: what does it mean for us, 2,000 years later, to say that Christ is King? It is a statement that requires us to recognize that the kingdom of God is all around us. If Christ is King right now, then we must realize that we live in the kingdom of God. It’s not something that we either attain after our death or will get to in some final cataclysmic event.

The Kingdom of God is here and now, and the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same — not our relationships or rules, not our view of self or others, not our priorities or principles — nothing.

Saying that Jesus is our king, is our lord, is also saying what is not our lord. Charles Greenly is being baptized this morning, and in the baptism service, we all declare that we renounce the Satan, the powers of evil, and everything that draws us from God. We are saying that we do not give these things permission to control us. They do not get to be our lord. Since Jesus is Lord, our overfull calendars are not. Our debt is not. Our anxiety is not. Our addiction is not. Our pain and our grief is not. Our prejudices are not. That’s not to say that these things don’t impact us—of course they do—but they are not our Lord. They do not get to define us. Jesus does—and in baptism he calls us all beloved children and makes us citizens of God’s kingdom.

As citizens of God’s kingdom, we’re called to be stewards of all that has been entrusted to our care. That stewardship involves the wise and prayerful use of all of our resources, and a part of that is what we give away for the benefit of others.

It is consecration Sunday, when we take time to consider our stewardship, and consider how we might support the church in the coming year. When you come forward for communion, you are invited to place your commitment card in the bowl in the aisle. We take time to do this every year because it allows us the opportunity as a church, as individuals, and as families, to thoughtfully consider what it means to be stewards for God. What it means to be part of God’s kingdom.

How are our resources best used? How are the church’s resources best used? Because we are stewards of God’s kingdom, whether we think about it or not. We’re able, as a church, to do so much to show and share the kingdom and love of God in this world—our outreach programs, our educational programs, our worship—it is all possible, and it is only possible, because of stewards like you and me.

What does it mean to proclaim that Christ is king? It means living in the kingdom. It means living as a reflection of our king. A king who welcomes a criminal into his realm and promises relief and release amid obvious agony. A king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world, a king who will not be governed by its limited vision of worthiness or justice.

A king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and need. A king willing to embrace all, forgive all, redeem all, because that is his deepest and truest nature. It is, finally, our king, come to usher us into his kingdom even as he implores us to recognize and make manifest that kingdom already around us. This is our king. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Do not grow weary

You know we are approaching the end of the church year when the readings take a little…apocalyptic bent. The church year always ends with Reign of Christ (often called Christ the King), which is next week. The week before Reign of Christ, we always read Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple. These can be odd readings for us, because unlike the first disciples we generally aren’t anticipating the end of the world any time soon. (For the most part, anyway.) But, if we pay attention, we notice that Jesus doesn’t talk much about the actual end of the world, instead he focuses on the trying times before the end. What does Jesus have to tell us about living in difficult and scary times? (If you want, read Luke and Thessalonians, which I focus on in the sermon.)

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

If you’ve ever watched Parks and Recreation, you might remember a group called “The Reasonablists.” These people were a cult, who were convinced that the world was going to end soon, when their leader Zorp came back to earth. They named themselves Reasonablists, because they decided no one would want to oppose them. To do so would be unreasonable.

In one episode, they rented a city park to celebrate and be together, because that was the night that the world was going to end. Zorp was coming back finally. Now, these guys were pretty harmless. Their rituals included playing music on wooden recorders and dancing around a fire. One of the main characters loved the Reasonablists, because he carved recorders to sell to them. And they would pay any price. They even laughed while asking if he took checks. Because they were convinced those checks were never going to get cashed. The world was ending! It didn’t matter what they did.

Only, as you can imagine, the world didn’t end, and those checks definitely got cashed. In the Parks and Rec story, this was just a funny way to point out some of the many ways humans can be ridiculous and unreasonable. But this actually happens, and it’s not always funny. Back in 2011, a man named Harold Camping thought the world was going to end. He amassed a huge following of supporters, many of whom sold their homes and gave him their life savings.

Well, the world didn’t end, and these people had no recourse. He hadn’t done anything illegal. It happens often—at least once a generation, but it seems like more often now—people become convinced that the end times are near and quit their jobs, sell their homes, take drastic measures. It’s funny when it’s a TV show, but it wasn’t funny at all when almost a thousand people died at Jonestown, all because they thought it could bring about the second coming.

Why this obsession with apocalypse and the end of time? And what is a faithful Christian response? This is some of what the Apostle Paul is trying to address in his letter to the Thessalonians. This very early community of Christians was convinced that the end was upon them, that Jesus would be returning any day.

They lived in the Roman town of Thessalonica. They were an extreme minority and were probably experiencing persecution. All around them, they thought they saw signs of Jesus’ second coming—as he had promised his followers. Wars, persecutions, troubling times. And it led some of them to stop working. They thought there was no reason to tend to the fields or the shop, because soon all would be gathered in the Lord. They had given up their day-to-day lives.

And Paul tells them: guys, you can’t do that. You have to keep working, you have to keep living life. You can’t be mere busybodies. Because if you don’t participate, the whole community suffers. You can’t just sit around waiting for the end times to come, because we don’t know when that’s going to happen. Instead, do not grow weary of doing what is right.

Jesus himself seems to say pretty clearly that it’s not our job to try to figure out when the end will be. In our reading this morning, he is standing outside the Temple, during the last week of his life, and he says to his disciples that one day the entire Temple will fall. This huge, marvelous, impressive building will crumble to nothing.

Immediately, they want to know when this will happen. There are lots of people who are going to try to tell you that the end is near, warns Jesus. Don’t be led astray. Things are going to be terrifying, but do not be alarmed, do not be afraid.

You’re going to live through wars and persecutions, famines and earthquakes, but these thing are not the end, but rather an opportunity to testify. Terrible things will happen—some of the terrible things that were surely happening to the church in Thessalonica, but Jesus promises protection and confidence even in the midst of terrible, terrifying events, and urges the disciples to see them as an opportunity to make their faith known.

Maybe we don’t have the same inclination as the early church to look for the end of times. When we see wars and famines and natural disasters, we are more likely to see the ways human hatred and greed have caused such brokenness than to think it is God bringing about the end of the world.

But Jesus’ words speak to us still. They speak to us about what our calling is in the midst of difficult things. In the midst of natural disasters and climate change. In the midst of political unrest and upheaval. In the midst of an uncertain future that we wish we could somehow predict.

First comes the promise: You are not alone in this. Do not be alarmed. God is always with you, and God will never leave you. And second comes the calling: Use this as an opportunity to testify. Use the time which you have been given, the circumstances that you find yourself living in, to testify to God.

Jesus promises that he will provide words and wisdom when we need them. And he has. The church has been equipped with all kinds of gifts: some of us are gifted in the ways of speaking publicly for God’s kingdom. Of advocating for justice. Some are gifted to organize efforts to care for those in need. Some are gifted in prayer to support the work of the church and lift up all in need. Some are gifted in resources to provide for the work of ministry. Some are gifted in teaching to raise up new generations.

All have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit, and so all are needed. We can’t have mere busybodies in the church, like they did in Thessalonica. Because all of us have a part to play in testifying to God’s love and justice in the times we have been given. We all have gifts to offer, and the church is not complete, our testimony is not complete, without all of them.

These are scary texts today. But Jesus knew his disciples were going to have to deal with scary things. Following Jesus doesn’t mean you get a free pass through life’s difficulties. We have to deal with scary things in our lives and in our world. But siblings in Christ, do not grow weary in doing what is right. Because we not are alone. And we have the amazing—and sometimes overwhelming—call to be God’s voice, God’s heart, God’s hands, in the times that we live. This is an opportunity to testify. And the message we bring of love and hope and justice is something our world needs to hear. Amen.

 

I Know that My Redeemer Lives

Every Sunday is a little Easter–that is, every week we celebrate Christ’s victory over death and experience the joy of the resurrection in word and meal together. Some Sundays are a little more little Easters than others, though. Yesterday, all of our readings had to do with resurrection in one way or another. We heard Job declare that in the last day he would see God in his flesh, Paul warned the Thessalonians to hold fast to what they knew to be true about the end times, and Jesus discussed what resurrection looks like with some Pharisees. What questions do you have about the resurrection?

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!). You all did really well with that, I thought it might take a second or two for you to catch on. It feels out of place for me to use the traditional Easter Sunday greeting on a random Sunday in November. But the word of the day today is “Resurrection.” It is absolutely everywhere in our readings.

The first lesson, from the book of Job, sees Job himself declare: I know that my Redeemer lives…and in the last day…in my flesh, I shall see God.” Job, who at this point has seen his entire life destroyed, and had his friends badger him about what he did to deserve it (he hadn’t done anything to deserve it, by the way), Job says to those friends: I know that God is alive, and that means this is not the end of my story.

In Second Thessalonians, Paul is writing to those who are shaken and alarmed by the things they see happening around them. He tells them not to lose sight of the hope of their calling. These tumultuous times and rulers that they are living through do not get the final word on their lives, but rather God, who has called them in love, and chooses them to be the first fruits of salvation. So, hold fast to that hope in the face of worry and anxiety, says Paul.

And finally, in our gospel reading, Jesus is approached with a question from some Sadducees. If a married man dies childless, his widow is married to his next oldest brother. In the Sadducees’ story, there are seven brothers, and seven childless deaths. How is this going to work in the resurrection, they wonder? To whom will the woman belong? This practice is known as Leverite marriage—it was part of the laws of Moses—and its purpose was to care for the widow. A woman without a son or a husband was incredibly vulnerable in ancient times. This law was a way of protecting her and of providing descendants for the dead brother.

The Sadducees’ story provides an exaggerated case of something that really did happen. And they want to see how Jesus thinks the resurrection works. I had a theology professor in seminary who, whenever you asked a question, invariably asked you, “Why do you ask that question?” Eventually, we started to preempt him by sharing our reasons for asking before ever asking the question. He knew, though, that questions about God, about the Bible, about the resurrection, about church—they often stem from real situations, from our worries and doubts about ourselves and our family and what will happen to us.

Now, Jesus knew why the Sadducees were asking this question. As Luke helpfully explains in his narration, Sadducees, unlike some other Jewish groups at the time, did not believe in the resurrection. They’re not asking this question because they have been widowed and remarried or know someone who has. They’re not actually concerned about the plight of the woman in their story or anyone like her. They want to trap Jesus by mocking his own beliefs. They want to point out how silly believing in the resurrection is.

And when Jesus answers them, he almost says, “Yes, you’re right. The resurrection doesn’t make any sense. At least, not the way you’re thinking about it.” The Sadducees are asking the wrong question. Who will the woman belong to in the resurrection? She will belong to God. The very premise of their question is wrong. Their conception of God is too small. To try to grasp what the resurrection will be like in earthly terms is impossible; it’s a reality of an entirely different order, an order that can only be approached by faith. The ways we define relationships and society won’t apply, because they won’t be needed.

The Sadducees hoped to trip Jesus up with this story of the widow handed from brother to brother. Jesus knows why they’re asking this question, and he knows it isn’t sincere. But we often have very sincere questions about the resurrection: will I see my loved ones again? What will my body be like—will it be like my old age, or like when I was young? Will my grandmother—who didn’t know who I was for the last five years of her life—will she recognize me? Will there be dogs there? Or maybe even a genuine version of the Sadducees’ question: I have been widowed and remarried—what does that mean for me and my spouses? Is the resurrection even something I really believe in anyway?

We don’t ask these questions to one-up Jesus or to score theological points. We ask because we miss our loved ones. Because we wonder about what happens when we die. Because we’re scared that maybe there isn’t life after death after all. What is the resurrection like?

Well, I don’t know for sure, because no one’s ever experienced it and come back—except for Jesus. This is one area where we truly have to go on faith. But I think of Job, sitting in the literal ash heap of his life, resolutely, even stubbornly, defiantly declaring: I know that God lives. And because of that I know that I too will live. Despite all the evidence to the contrary around me, God is good and God intends life for us.

I think of the woman in the Sadducees’ story. What did resurrection look like for her? The idea of not being married or given in marriage in the resurrection was probably pretty appealing. Imagine her finally arriving in a place where her worth and her belovedness don’t depend on her husband, or her fertility. She no longer belongs to anyone but the God who created her and who now surrounds her with eternal, unconditional love.

Jesus doesn’t answer all of our questions about the resurrection in this passage. In fact, he might have created more questions in us than when he started talking. That’s okay. Questions aren’t bad. Questions come from our desire to know God and to understand our place in the world. Questions are good, as long as we’re okay with sitting with them sometimes. Because Jesus doesn’t answer them all, no matter how much we might wish he would.

What he does do, though, is point us to a God whose faithfulness to us is immeasurable and inexhaustible. A God who chose us, and called us, who gives us eternal comfort and hope through grace. And in God’s faithfulness to us, we find the strength to endure all that life and death will ask of us.

What will the resurrection be like? I’m not exactly sure. But I know that my Redeemer lives. Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed.) Amen.