Now, Wait a Minute…

photo by kewl from pixabay.com – used with permission

(sermon 2/21/21 – First Sunday in Lent)

Mark 1:9-15  

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

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There are different ways of writing for different purposes. Each way has different expectations, different rules, written or unwritten, different vocabularies, rhythms, meters, based on the type of writing it is. We write one way if we’re writing a journal or diary entry, another way for an online classified ad, another for a real estate listing. One way for writing meant primarily to be read, and another for writing meant primarily to be spoken and heard. One way for a legal pleading, another for a novel and another for a short story. In fact, it can get a bit confusing and counterproductive when we don’t follow those assumptions and rules that guide the different ways we write for different situations: “Now, through Darrow and Holmes, his attorneys, and unto this honorable Court, comes the above-named John Smith, plaintiff herein, who enjoys movies, concerts, pina coladas and quiet walks along the beach…” We mix our writing genres and styles at our peril.

Today, we heard a bit of the beginning of Mark’s gospel. For our own purposes, Mark was pretty much the inventor of the gospel genre of writing. His work was the earliest of the four gospels, so it probably isn’t surprising that stylistically, it’s a bit different than the others. The style of writing a gospel hadn’t yet had time to mature or become more elaborate. Mark’s gospel is more direct, more to the point, than the others that have come down to us. Biblical scholars have noted that Mark didn’t write in an overly sophisticated or formal style of Greek; in fact, they’ve suspected that based on his vocabulary and style, he seems to have been someone much more accustomed to speaking rather than formal writing.

Mark’s gospel tries to drive us, to get us to what he considers the most important part of his story about Jesus – that he’s the Son of God, and the details of his teaching. Because of that, Mark almost rushes through the very beginning of Jesus’ story. In fact, one of the most common words in Mark’s gospel is “immediately” – Jesus and the disciples did this; then they “immediately” went to some other place and did such and such; it happens over and over again in this gospel. Mark also condenses parts of the story he considers less critical in order to get where he thinks it matters most. The other gospels have more details about Jesus’ birth, youth, John the Baptizer, Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the Wilderness are all teased out in greater detail in other gospels.

We heard today that Mark cuts through all of those things in just a few short sentences, or giving them no mention at all, so he can quickly get us to where his story really begins – Jesus’ teaching ministry. Mark does make one important point in these preliminaries – the pronouncement for God that Jesus is God’s beloved son, the anointed one. As a somewhat interesting sidebar, in the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in other gospels, where the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends “on” Jesus, in Mark’s Greek, the Holy Spirit descends “into” Jesus – and that’s important, in order to establish Jesus’ divinity and identity in a gospel where you don’t have an incarnational birth narrative like Matthew’s or Luke’s. But even at that, the three important points in today’s gospel text – Jesus’ baptism and divine identity; his testing in the wilderness; and with John the Baptizer’s arrest, the fulfillment of time for Jesus’ own ministry to begin – all happen so quickly that you want to say “Now, wait a minute, Mark – slow down!. Let’s consider these things and their importance a bit more slowly.”

Today, the First Sunday in Lent, it’s important for us to at least slow down and consider one of those things – Jesus’ forty days of testing, temptation, and preparation in the wilderness, because it’s a model, a foreshadowing, of our own forty days of Lent, our own preparation that we observe leading up to the joy of Easter. Jesus’ time in the wilderness  was a time for him to engage in serious soul searching about his life, his identity, purpose, and his calling from God; set against very real obstacles and temptations of an easier life found in the things of the world. And Lent is intended to be a similar time of soul-searching, identity clarification, and recommitment to God’s claim on us, too.

They say that confession is good for the soul, and I certainly believe that. In that spirit, I’m going to make a confession to you: I have never, ever, successfully given up anything for Lent. Never. No particular food, no special comfort or treat, no practice, no bad habit, no petty vice, and certainly not for want of their actual existence. Many years I haven’t even tried, and the times I have, I’ve failed at it. In fact, the only thing I’ve succeeded at giving up during Lent has been the practice of giving up something for Lent. As I’ve wondered about that perfect, dismal record of failure and why that might be, I think I’ve come to realize that while giving up something like that might be a nice symbol of our desire to repent from worldly pleasures, and turn more toward God, at the end of the day, it’s just that – a symbol. And while Noom might care whether I ate that Hershey’s bar – or, who’s kidding who; they’re small, so let’s just say two of them – I don’t think that ultimately, God does. God has seemed to make pretty clear through the scriptures in both Testaments, and especially through Jesus, that God cares very little about mere outward appearances and symbolic gestures that aren’t tied to something more concrete and meaningful. God is more concerned with the truth of our lives, and the honesty of our faith and our actions.

In my mind, it seems insulting to God to equate the giving up of, say, Big Macs, with the giving up of our biases and prejudices, and working to correct our cultural blind spots that cause other to suffer here in this country and globally. It seems to be a kind of cheap grace to think we’ve pleased God, and proved our devotion, by, say, giving up watching our favorite Netflix series for the next six weeks – especially since we know we’ll just binge-watch all those missed episodes after Easter – with giving up some of our time to help make meals for unsheltered folks, or to collect furniture for a refugee family, or tutor a child at risk of falling behind academically.

And besides, I’ve got to say, haven’t we all given up plenty this past year already without talking about giving up anything more?

Of course, I’m being a little facetious. There are definitely some things that would please God if we gave them up, and not just during Lent but forever. I just mentioned a few of those things. But there are other things, too; maybe not the kind of things that a person might immediately think about being something to give up for Lent. How about finally, once and for all, giving up the self-defeating attitude that you just aren’t good enough, not in God’s eyes or in the eyes of others? That you aren’t this enough or you’re too much of that, or that you just aren’t applying yourself enough and if you just worked at it a bit harder, then, THEN, maybe God would be pleased with you and accept you. There are many people who have given and sacrificed so much of themselves for others that there’s almost nothing left of themselves; I don’t think God wants them to feel like they need to give up even more in order for God to be happy with them. How about giving up for Lent those feelings of inadequacy, insufficiency, unlovability?

I think giving up those things would be very pleasing to God, and they would help to clarify two important realities: first, that God is a God of love and grace; and second, that that love and grace surrounds you, enfolds you, envelopes you, every minute of every day. That God, who knows your flaws and shortcomings better than you know them yourself, and has known them since before you were born, has unilaterally decreed you worthy and lovable. There’s no need for you to live forty days, or forty years, or an entire lifetime, in a self-imposed, self-defined wilderness of self-doubt, self-debasement, and self-punishment.

Maybe the most important thing behind the tradition of giving certain material things up for Lent is the idea of renouncing the claim those things make on your life – letting go of their pull, and the false sense of comfort and security the give us; and trusting ourselves, our comfort, our security, our lives, our everything – to God. Like the child Joyce mentioned, giving up the security and safety of standing on the dock, and trusting enough to just let go, and to jump into the water and their parent’s waiting, loving arms. Ultimately, the child trusts, because the child knows the parent loves them. And that’s a key point, because at its core, the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is one chapter in a love story – a chapter about God’s love for Jesus. And our symbolic Lenten recreation of that same kind of testing and reflection  is another chapter in that love story, this time a chapter about God’s love for us. It’s an amazing, wonderful story; it’s the greatest love story of all time, no matter what vocabulary might be used, and no matter what style it’s told in, no matter whether it’s written or spoken.  

Thanks be to God.

Transfiguring Dignity

Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Israel. Photo by Paul Wellauer at pixabay.com. Used with permission

(sermon 2/14/21 – Transfiguration Sunday)

Mark 9:2-10  

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

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We packed into the little minivan, a bunch of us from seminary who were doing J-term study in Israel and Palestine, very early one morning at the foot of Mount Tabor – the mountain that sits just about four miles or so east of Nazareth that, while no one knows for sure where it really happened, is at least the traditional site of the Transfiguration. We sat in the minivan packed like sardines, while the driver and tour guide sat up front, discussing something in Arabic as we doubled back and forth on the precarious little switchback road leading up the side of the mountain on our way to the top.

When we arrived, the whole mountaintop was encased in a thick fog; a silvery-grey mist filling the air, deadening sound and giving everything a magical feel that made you believe that yes, maybe something as mystical as the Transfiguration could have really happened right here, and something just as mystical could even happen again on this very morning.

And it was something mystical, something hard to imagine, this Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John just going along with Jesus for what they assumed was another routine mountainside bit of prayer time, when suddenly, Jesus is transformed, glowing, radiant, whiter than the brightest white; and he’s joined by Moses and Elijah. From a theological standpoint, their presence – Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the foremost prophet – are a sign, a validation that Jesus is indeed the summation of the Law and Prophets, God’s specially chosen one. It’s validation to us that our God-given trust and faith in Christ is justified. And also, in a way, it’s a sign that in a way clearly not identical, but in some equally mysterious and inexplicable way, God changes, transforms, transfigures us as well, making us new creations.

A big part of being that new creation is recognizing, and being grateful for, the dignity inherent in each of us – having been created in, and bearing, the very image of God. A dignity that doesn’t lead to any sense of superiority or supremacy of haughtiness – just the opposite, actually. This dignity leads to a recognition of the beauty and connectedness of all of us. A quiet, humble celebration of the goodness and love that dwells within and connects all of us, and that we’re all capable of; and, honestly, coupled with a disgust, a tiredness of people being ugly to one another. Maybe, as I think about it, it isn’t that God transforms us and then we recognize that dignity; maybe it’s in the recognizing of that dignity, of God’s thumbprint on our soul, that God achieves the transforming. Because there absolutely is transformative power in that dignity that God has given us.

One day while I was working as a hospital chaplain, I glanced at the names of the patients on one of my floors in the hospital, and I recognized one of the names. It was the name of a very well-known architect in the city, part of a partnership that had designed a number of large, impressive projects over many years. I was intrigued – it wasn’t really a common name – L___d – and I wondered if it was just coincidence, or if it was the same person, so I visited that room first that day. I knocked on the open door and stepped into the room. Inside, there was an old, gaunt man propped up in the bed, while a staffer gave him a partial sponge bath. He had a vacant look in his eyes; he clearly didn’t know exactly where he was or why. He had an bad case of hospital hair, several day’s growth on his face. He was sitting on a bedpan but couldn’t remember asking for it and said he didn’t know if he needed it. Overall, he looked distant, depressed, and just, well, small.

I sat down next to him, calling him by name, introducing myself and asking if he’d like a visit and to talk. We made a little chitchat, to the extent that he was able, while the aide continued quietly caring for him. After a couple of minutes, I asked if he was, in fact, the architect. I told him that I’d also been an architect and that if he was, I’d always been impressed by his work, that his firm was the kind of firm I’d have loved to have worked for. He smiled faintly and said that yes, he was the architect. We discussed the profession a bit, and we talked about some of his firm’s noteworthy projects while he sat there, looking tired and somewhat distant. Then, I asked him what his favorite project had been, and he told me it wasn’t any of the big projects he’d done, but rather, a small church that he’d designed in conjunction with the very famous Italian architect whose name anyone architecturally in the know would recognize immediately. I asked him about the project, and what it was like to work with him. And as he started to answer me, something happened. Something magical. He smiled, and he suddenly gained a clarity in his eye. He sat up, his shoulders broadened, it was almost like he got physically bigger, his presence filled the room. He regained his presence – he regained his dignity. In a moment, he was no longer a tired old man battling dementia in a hospital bed, he was the consummate professional again, the mover and shaker, sitting behind his executive desk in the corner office in his expensive suit and holding court with a younger protege. He told me about that project for maybe five or ten minutes, and during that whole time, I was spellbound, not only by the fascinating story itself, but by his transformation. For at least that ten minutes, he’d regained himself. He’d been transformed, transfigured, through that spark of human dignity. And then, when his story was done, just as quickly as it appeared, it was over. He shrunk back, and became the tired, confused man still sitting on the bedpan. It was a remarkable thing to experience. It was a gift – to him, to me, and to the hospital staffer who had seen it all and was amazed and commented on it, too. That was the first and last time I ever got the chance to talk with L____d; I saw in the newspaper that he’d died probably less than a year after our encounter, but I’ll never forget it, or him.

Human dignity – sometimes hidden, but always present within each of us – is one of the greatest expressions of God’s love for us, and one of greatest gifts that God has given us.

Once we experience that kind of life-changing dignity, once we’ve seen its magical, transfiguring power and beauty within ourselves and within others, how could we not want to help others recognize and experience it within them, too? I firmly believe that’s at the center of our purpose in this life. That even though each of us walks our own particular path laid out for us by God, the whole point, the central focus, of all of those paths is to help all of God’s people know and live that dignity – the dignity that comes when we’re accepted as equals, and treated with compassion, and justice, and equity. The dignity that comes when you aren’t made to feel less than. When you don’t have to worry about, or be afraid of not having enough food, or shelter, or a decent education, or adequate healthcare, or meaningful work.

I don’t imagine any of us will ever experience a transfiguration as dazzling and impressive as Jesus did, whether it was on Mount Tabor or somewhere else, at least not until our own resurrection. Maybe some of us will experience a transfiguration sometime in our lives as dramatic, even if not with the specific details, that I was blessed to share with L_____d in the hospital that day. But all of us, as followers of Jesus Christ, all of us, as people of God’s realm, have, in a very real way, already been transfigured; we do all have that bit of divine/human dignity within us. And together, as God’s people, God calls us to help others in every way God makes available to us to discover that same dignity, and experience that same transfiguration, within themselves.

Amen.

The Path is the Point

Ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum. Image used with permission. By Jong-man Kim at Pixabay.

(sermon 1/31/21)

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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Sitting right on the northwestern edge of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was a small town of about 1,500 people or so in Jesus’ time, where if you didn’t make your living by fishing, you made a living selling goods and services to those who did. It had a public square, and a small market or two, and it must have had some kind of school for the kids, a couple of restaurants, and at least a few taverns, since even with as few as 1,500 people there would have been factions, and each group would have undoubtedly gravitated to their own favorite watering hole. Imagine a first-century Palestinian version of the little fishing village in the BBC show Doc Martin.

It also had one synagogue. We know that not only because the gospels mention one, but also because ancient Capernaum has been the subject of many archeological digs; the perimeter of the town and its ruins include those of one synagogue. It’s actually the ruins of several synagogues, one built on top of another over time, so the ruins you can visit today are of a synagogue built shortly after Jesus’ time, but it sits right overtop of where the one mentions in today’s gospel text sat. You can go there now, and stand in the ruins, and imagine the townspeople seated there in a U-shape around the perimeter of the building, listening to Jesus speak as he began his ministry, and you can maybe feel a bit of a chill up your spine as you think, with apologies to Hamilton, “This is the room where it happened” – or at least, the space where it happened; you’re walking where Jesus walked and taught.

And apparently, according to today’s gospel text, where Jesus also exorcised an “unclean spirit.” A lot of discussion has ensued regarding whether the people in the gospels who were reportedly beset by these unclean spirits were actually possessed by some spiritual being, or whether they were actually just suffering from any one of a number of physical, mental, emotional maladies that we understand now have a more explainable, and less supernatural, less spooky, explanation. And who knows? Maybe the man was just having a really awful week. His kids hated him, his wife just left him, he’s underpaid, overstressed, his boss is breathing down his back, if he has to sit through another Zoom meeting he’s going to explode, life just stinks, and now here comes this person who’s clearly sent by God, and maybe he’d just had enough, he was a the end of his rope, and he just blurted out – what’s *he* going to do, smite us all? Squash us like a bug? What now?

Well, whatever the reality, suffice it to say that what Jesus did was noteworthy. It exhibited real power and authority.

I admit that I wonder how this scene ended up happening to begin with. I mean, at this point, Jesus was still pretty much unknown. He’d picked up his first disciples while walking along the lakeshore just outside of town – Simon and Andrew and their families lived with their mother just a few steps away from the synagogue – but now, just a few days later, here he was – someone nobody knew, with no formal religious training, no seminary degree, not on the Presbytery’s list of approved pulpit supply – he just seems to have shown up at the synagogue that day, a first-time visitor, and he asks to preach, and they say “Sure, no problem; go ahead!” I mean, Springdale has a real reputation for being warm and welcoming to visitors, but that beats anything we’re ever likely to do. However it happened, it happened, and when it did, we hear the story how this man loudly and rudely interrupted him, yelling and screaming out.

As a sidebar, I had a similar experience when I was just starting my own ministry. I had just started serving as a Commissioned Lay Pastor to a little country church in Ohio; I may have been there a month or two, I don’t know – when one day, we had some visitors – a man and his wife, and their two kids, a boy and a girl, well-dressed, well-groomed, pleasant, each of them carrying their own Bible in their own zippered Bible cover. The service that day started out, and I remember the preaching text that day was from 2 Timothy. Just a few sentences into my sermon, I mentioned almost in passing that while it didn’t take anything away from the meaning of the text, most biblical scholars have come to understand that Paul himself hadn’t written this book; that it was likely written by one or more of Paul’s disciples and out of respect attributed to him. But I never got all that out. Once I said that most scholars don’t attribute the book to Paul, the man jumped up. I mean, it was more like he was ejected; like he’d been on a spring-loaded ejection seat. I never saw anyone move that fast. And just as he did, he prodded his wife and kids up, too; they went up one by one, kind of like they were doing the wave; and once they were on their feet, he started yelling at me, “Shame on you! Shame on you! Paul wrote it or he didn’t; he wrote it or he didn’t!” and he pushed his family out into the aisle and they all headed to the door, all while the man kept looking back over his shoulder at me and wagging his finger at me and yelling “Shame! Shame! Blasphemy! False Prophet! False Prophet!!!” And they left, slamming the door behind them. For my part, I wish I’d been as forceful as Jesus was in today’s story, but I wasn’t. Instead, I fumbled around a few seconds, finally caught my bearing, and just continued on. In fact, it wasn’t until a week later that I finally responded in any way to it all. The following Sunday came, and as always, Joe, the usher, was sitting at the back of the little sanctuary in a chair near the entry. When it came time for the sermon, I stepped into the pulpit, paused for a moment, and just said, “Um, Joe… lock the door.”

Well, the way I handled my own encounter with a raving madman just got some laughs, but the response to the way Jesus handled his encounter was very different. The people there were amazed. Shocked. “Did you just see that? Did you see what I saw? What’s this all mean? This man has real power and authority in him!” Frankly, it was unsettling. Maybe even a little scary. “With that kind of power, what else might he do? And what might he do to *me*?”

A lot of Mark’s gospel is meant to emphasize, and witness to, Jesus’ power and authority, and this very opening of his ministry in this gospel means to make clear that Jesus has come into the world to oppose, and to overcome, the forces of evil in this world – and not just some generic definition of evil, but, as the Rev. David Lose has pointed out, Mark sees evil throughout his gospel as “anything and everything that robs God’s children of life” as God intended it. That’s the evil that Jesus came to be victorious over.

Well, if that’s true, then why is the world, why are our lives, still filled with all kinds of that kind of evil that robs us of that kind of life? It isn’t an idle question. It isn’t really a disrespectful or blasphemous question; in fact, it’s a perfectly logical and reasonable one to ask. And it isn’t a particularly new question, either; Christians have been asking that very question since probably a month or so after Jesus’ crucifixion.

I think a part of the answer to that question lies in the way we want Jesus power, and his victory over evil, to work, as opposed to the way he sees it. Through that amazing power and authority, Jesus places us on a journey; a journey of following him, a journey of living in accord with God’s rule. The victory over evil isn’t some one-time, singular, thunderclap event – rather, it’s a continuum, an ongoing process, and we, and our journey, are a part of it. We don’t just sit around waiting for it to happen; it’s all about our being on the path that he’s set for us, that’s all an unfolding part of that victory. In that sense, Jesus has chosen for his power to be participatory, collaborative. The path itself becomes the victory; there’s no waiting for the kingdom of God to unfold in the sky by and by; if you’re on the path toward the ultimate destination, then in an important way, you’re actually already there. Evil has, in fact, been defeated. You are, in fact, living that abundant life.  There’s no need to worry, no need to fear Jesus’ power and authority, because all of it distills down to love for you, and wrath for anything that would rob you of that abundant life you were created for.

In humility, and in a spirit of assurance and gratitude, walk that path, continue on that journey that Christ has placed you on. Walk that path even if it’s difficult, or the path is full of obstacles, or if the way is muddy. Walk that path, filled with the joy and the assurance of Christ’s power and love enfolding you, even if crazed people, possessed by unclean spirits or otherwise, yell and scream at you and oppose you. Walk that path even if you can’t see what’s coming up around the next bend. Just walk that path because Christ, the one who preached in that Capernaum synagogue, loves you, and is strengthening you, and is guiding you in the ways of abundant life; and through Christ, you will get there – in fact, in maybe the most important way, you’re already there.

Thanks be to God.

Pivot Point

(sermon 1/24/21)

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of God came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of God. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind changed about the calamity that God had decreed to bring upon them; and God did not do it.

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Mark 1:14-20     

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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The scriptures are full of normal, ordinary people, going about normal, ordinary lives, whose ordinary lives are suddenly interrupted by something extraordinary. Last week, it was Nathaniel; this week, it’s Jonah and the two pair of fishermen brothers, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. On the day that God called out to Jonah to go to Nineveh, and on the day that Jesus called out to those fishermen to drop everything and follow him, none of them had awakened that morning expecting anything like that, any kind of divine encounter, and yet, here they were. Of course, Jonah required some pretty extreme encouragement to obey God’s call – he’d just been vomited up onto the beach by the great fish as our first reading began – while the brothers apparently dropped their nets and followed Jesus pretty much immediately. But the point remains this wasn’t the way any of them had thought the day was going to go. They were all faced with a critical moment to deal with on that day.

The story of Jonah features God, through Jonah, telling the Ninevites to repent from their sinful ways. In today’s gospel text, Jesus tells people to repent, too, but at least in this case, he’s using the term in a more general, maybe more neutral, way. The Greek word that we translate as “repent” literally just means to turn from one direction to another, maybe even the complete opposite direction. It isn’t necessarily referring to sin, or even necessarily turning from something bad to something good. When Jesus called these brothers, telling them to turn away from fishing and to follow him instead, there wasn’t anything particularly bad or negative about their current lives or occupations; Jesus was just calling them to set those aside for something else, something better, something that God wanted them to be doing more than what they were doing at the moment. That scenario unfolds numerous times in the scriptures, and I think it’s probably the most common scenario when God calls us today, too.

On the day that God called Jonah, and the one that Jesus called the fishermen, each of them faced a pivot point of sorts in their lives – a change in a moment that dramatically changed the direction of the rest of their lives. We can imagine that in that moment they were all filled with countless questions, probably some resistance, and a lot of uncertainty. I mean, none of us would be likely to turn away from what we’re comfortable with, familiar with, and that seems to be working for us, and to go off in a completely different, unknown direction without some hesitation. It’s that tension that makes these pivot points in life so dramatic, so intense, so interesting; the subject of so much film, so much theater, and yes, so much scripture.

What about your own life? Can you remember any of these kinds of pivot points, any of these key moments? Can you remember how you handled them? Can you remember your emotions, your feelings, your thoughts, your questions?

Dealing with just one of these pivot points can be stressful enough. But as we all know too well, we’re all caught up in multiple, simultaneous pivot points in our lives right now, and we have been for some time, and yes, it can be exhausting.

Our nation is at a pivot point, as a new President and a new political party take the reigns of government.

Our society is at a pivot point, ideologically, and especially as we deepen our understanding of the racial injustice and inequity, the white supremacy, that’s been baked into our culture since its very beginning, and as we wrestle with how we might finally eliminate this sin, this evil, from our social structures.

As individuals, we’ve all been stuck in this pandemic limbo since last March, but now, as vaccines are rolling out, and we’re allowing ourselves to have some hope and to maybe make out the light at the end of the tunnel up ahead, we wonder – after the initial glut of hugging and visiting and traveling and eating out and socializing that we’ll all do again as soon as we can – after that, how will our lives have been permanently changed by all this? How will we be different? And make no mistake, we will be different. What will we have learned in this time? What life-insights will we have gained? What new directions will we follow as a result of this experience?

Clearly, the church – and our church – is at a pivot point, too. Just as is the case with us individually, the church need to assess, to discern where God is in all of this. What is God calling us into? What might God be calling us turn away from, and to turn toward? What does God hope for us as we face this current pivot point?

Maybe God is using this moment, in you, in me, in the church, to open our eyes to a different way, a new and better way, to follow Jesus, and to proclaim and live out the gospel, God’s word of love and good news for all people. Maybe what we’re being asked to turn away from – to “repent” of – is something sinful, like the Ninevites’ actions or Jonah’s attempts to avoid following God’s will. Or maybe what we’re being asked to turn away from isn’t anything inherently wrong at all, as was the case with the four fishermen – but rather, maybe we’re being asked, called, to use this pivot point, this moment of clarity, to something even better in terms of living out God’s will.

I wonder if God isn’t using this key moment to call us both as individuals and the church, toward really seeing the social and racial injustices and inequities that have been laid bare in multiple ways for all to see in this critical time; and to turn away from the status quo that most whites haven’t even seen the inequity in; and to work, as a matter of gospel – as a matter of being a disciple of Jesus; as a matter of the rule of God – toward being people, being a church, and being a society that truly models God’s love and desire or justice and equity for all people. Is that at least one thing that God may be opening our eyes to now, in this pivot point in history and in our life of faith?

The ancient Greeks had a word for this kind of time, this kind of pivot point. They understood time in two different ways. First, there was kronos time, the linear kind of time that can be measured and kept track of with a clock; and then there was kairos time – meaning the most proper or opportune time for something; a critical moment when everything was aligned in just the right way for something.

As you think about pivot points in your past, and as you consider the pivot points that we’re all living in right now… as you think about your own life… is there some particular pivot that you sense God might be calling you to right now? Is God trying to open your eyes and your heart to sense that this is some kairos moment for you? Is there some way that you sense God calling you, Jesus calling you, saying, “Follow me. Make the most of this moment. Learn from it, and change your current path to an even better one. Follow me in this direction; it’s time. Just follow me to where we’re going. And don’t be nervous, don’t be afraid, don’t be filled with discomfort or anxiety. I took care of Jonah, and Andrew and Simon, and James and John, and so many more – and I’ll take care of you, too. I love you; always have; always will. So come on – what are you waiting for?”         

Thanks be to God.

Can Anything Good…

(sermon 1/17/21)

Photo by Barbara LN used with permission – www.flickr.com

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to God under Eli. The word of God was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of God, where the ark of God was.

Then God called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. God called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know God, and the word of God had not yet been revealed to him.

God called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that God was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if God calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, God, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now God came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Then God said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of God.

Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is God; let God do what seems good.”

As Samuel grew up, God was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of God.

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John 1:43-51  

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

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Nathaniel – Nate, to his friends – was just minding his own business, spending his Saturday afternoon cleaning up the garage, sorting a bunch of stuff into two piles – “Trash to Throw Out;” and “Things to Save Because I Might Need Them Someday;” you can guess which pile was larger – when his buddy Phillip from across the cul-de-sac showed up in the doorway. After an initial greeting, Phillip looked at Nate’s progress on the two piles, and he picked up some odd thing from the trash pile and he asked, “Are you really getting rid of this? If you are, I’ll take it; I think I might be able to use this some day.”

After a several more minutes of sorting, Nate pulled a couple of camp chairs down from a hook on the wall and opened them up. Phillip set his newfound treasure that he’d saved from the landfill alongside his chair, and the two of them sat in the open doorway, enjoying a cold can of some beverage and complaining that the Buckeyes really should have won the national championship a few nights earlier, and how much they both hated Alabama, the football team at least,e and maybe even the whole state the more they thought about the game.  

“So what have you been up to today?” Nate asked Phillip. And that’s when Phillip told him all about this chance encounter he’d had downtown that morning with Jesus, and that he was amazing – and that Phillip believe that he was the messiah – the real, actual one; not another one of those posers who seemed to show up every month or so. Nathaniel was intrigued. His getting all excited about that worthless piece of trash sitting next to his chair notwithstanding, Phillip had a good head on his shoulders. He wasn’t anyone’s fool; he was smart, and serious, so if this guy had impressed Phillip, Nate wanted to know more – right up until he heard where Jesus was from. Nazareth? Nazareth? The messiah coming from that worthless little craphole of a place? That would be like expecting the next Pope to be a Presbyterian. It just wasn’t going to happen. It took some coaxing, but after they finished their drinks, and Phillip put his prized find in his own garage, he managed to get Nathaniel to meet Jesus, and Nathaniel saw how mistaken he was. The next Pope still wasn’t going to be a Presbyterian, but clearly, Jesus was the real thing. God had made something good come out of Nazareth.

God made something good come out of a bad situation in our first reading, too; an actual bad situation, not just a perceived one as was the case with Nathaniel. It might be a little hard to follow because we don’t hear the full story in today’s reading, but Eli, the leader of the temple at Shiloh, and his sons were using Eli’s position for their own personal gain. Later on in 1 Samuel, we learn the fate of this greedy, corrupt, self-absorbed family – it isn’t anything good, bearing out what God revealed to the young boy Samuel in the part of the story we heard this morning. But despite the tragic situation of the temple being run by this family of greedy, immoral grifters, God worked through the situation and raised up this young boy, Samuel, Eli’s own acolyte, his apprentice, to become a highly regarded prophet, one of the great prophets in the history of the faith.

Our own lives, our own times, are more than full of things that make our heads spin, and our hearts ache, and that make us wonder how things ever got this bad.

Being separated from family, and friends, and church, and pretty much everything else due to a pandemic that’s killed almost 400,000 people in this country and still counting; overcrowding our hospitals and maxing out our healthcare system and overstressing our healthcare workers, and all of this brought on by our own government’s policies regarding the pandemic that range anywhere from half-hearted efforts to outright denial.

Cities in every state reeling in pain and anger over decades, centuries, of racial injustice, and police impunity and brutality directed against blacks and other people of color.

And now, centuries of white supremacy, nurtured and cultivated for almost 40 years now through radical right-wing media, has finally bubbled over into full-fledged armed insurrection. The Capitol two weeks ago; Washington DC delineated into Green Zones and Red Zones for the inauguration like it’s Iraq or Afghanistan; State Capitol buildings boarded up and fenced off and National Guard mobilized; churches that are seen by the radical right as “liberal” being targeted for vandalism and possible violence and being told to be on guard starting today, and through the inauguration and beyond. Combined, it can make us all wonder, as Nathaniel did, whether anything good can come out of all this.

The short answer, I believe, is yes. I don’t say that because I’m a wild-eyed, naïve idealist – truth be told, I have a cynical streak at least a quarter-mile wide. And it certainly isn’t because I think that God has intentionally given us these problems just to teach us a lesson – I don’t believe God works that way, and frankly, I believe that we do a good enough job of creating these kinds of problems ourselves, without any need for God’s help in causing them.

The reason I say yes, something good can come of all of our current stresses and problems and despair, is because we are the people of the God who made something good come out of Eli’s corrupt and greedy leadership of the Shiloh temple. The God who made something good, very good, come out of Nazareth. Out of Nazareth, the place that Nathaniel and so many others saw as just a grubby, unimportant little backwater, God brought out truth, and goodness, and light and life eternal, proclaimed for all people and for all times. We have trusted and we have seen the truth of this God, the God that we worship, the God by whom we were “fearfully and wonderfully made” as the psalmist says; the God who has promised to be with us always, to the end of the age, as Jesus says. This God can, and has, brought so much good out of so much bad, and this God can, and will do the same now.

Through Christ, you and I will be made better, stronger, our faith will be made deeper, through all of this, as long as we allow God to work within us.

Our church will come out of this with a new, refined understanding of, and focus on, God’s mission for us, as long as we allow God’s Spirit to speak to our hearts and we act on it.

As long as we hear God’s call to repentance for our nation’s ills and shortcomings, in this touchpoint of commonality between our civic life and our religious one, even our country can come out of this transformed, by living more truly into the beautiful words of our founding, and truly working for a society of compassion, peace, equity, and justice for all.

Yes, something good can come out of this. For me. For you. Just be still, and know that God is God, and that in all of this, God love you and is with you, and will never leave you.

Denise* was a beautiful young woman, a wife, a mother of two wonderful little boys, in North Port, Florida. One day, while her husband – ironically enough, Nate to his friends – was at work, a man came to her door. Before she could do anything, he overpowered her and forced her at gunpoint into his car, leaving the boys behind, alone. As he drove her away, multiple people saw her struggling and beating on the windows of the man’s car, and they called 911 to report it – but in a tragic combination of shift changes, different police jurisdictions, and things just generally falling through the cracks, the worst happened. Denise’s body was found a few days later. Nate and the whole family and all who knew them were devastated, as any of us would have been.

But things didn’t end there. Nate decided that to honor the memory of his wife, he would start a foundation to create improved policies and training for all 911 staffers. The organization was able to get new legislation passed in Florida to make 911 systems more efficient and effective, and they’ve worked in other states to pursue similar legislation there. Without any doubt, many people are alive today who otherwise wouldn’t be, as a result of the foundation started in Denise’s name, in Denise’s honor. God brought something good out of even a situation as awful as that tragedy.

Something good came out of Shiloh. And Nazareth. And North Port. And by holding fast to our God, even when things seem hopeless, completely off the rails – by trusting in God’s steadfastness and love, something good can, and will, come out of our current despair, too. And when we participate together in the Lord’s Supper as we’ll do this morning, even remotely, we’re affirming that we’re a part of this covenant God has made with us. In this sacrament, we not only have a sign of this unchangeable promise from God to be with us always, but it’s actually being enacted withing it – Christ is literally, spiritually present within this sacrament. God is literally with us, and will not abandon us regardless of what we see around us. Something good can come out of all this, and in some ways, already is.

Amen.

* Sermon illustrations are often factual, sometimes fictitious. This particular one is real. For more information, visit the Denise Amber Lee Foundation.

And the Spirit Moved

(sermon 1/10/21 – Baptism of Christ)

Photo by pexels.com – tim-mossholder-1439227

Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Before anything – before the earth had form, before the waters had boundaries or purpose, before even the beginning of time, as contradictory as that phrase might sound – Genesis tells us that the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, and speaking out “Let there be light;” and calling it good, the sacred story of creation begins. Throughout the remainder of this story, God speaks creation into being, creating a unity, a connectedness, assuring acceptance by virtue of that goodness and connectedness.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

Before beginning to call disciples and preach to the people, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Mark’s gospel tells us that as he did, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, and speaking out “This is my Son, my beloved; in him I am well pleased;” and calling him good, the sacred story of his public ministry begins. Through this, the Spirit proclaims the unity inherent in the very nature of our triune God, a God whose essence is a unity of relationship; and assuring acceptance by virtue of his goodness and connectedness with God.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

And at some point in your past, just as was the case with Jesus, you were baptized, too. You might actually remember it, as we always remind people to do on this Sunday, Baptism of Christ Sunday; or more likely, you just remember stories that your parents told you about it; it might have been administered with water measured in feet or in fluid ounces; but whatever the details, the Spirit of God moved over the face of those waters, too, and spoke in the same way, calling you good, and the sacred story of you own faith journey began. Throughout the remainder of that story, God has spoken into being within you a unity among Christ and all who trust in him, and an assurance of acceptance.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

We see the overall creative witness of the Holy Spirit in the original creation, the creation of the cosmos, and in the new creation seen and made possible through Christ, and in that, there are at least two important things going on that we should take note of.

The first of these is affirmation. Validation. Assurance that the universe is good, and Christ is good; and through your baptism, God affirms and assures you that you’re good, too. There’s no need to worry, or to beat yourself up over whether your good attributes are enough to offset your bad ones in God’s eyes. We believe that what we see in baptism is that God has preemptively proclaimed us good and accepted, and because of that, we can be grateful and not fearful.

The second thing that the Holy Spirit is doing in these events is creating unity. There is a unity of common goodness and purpose, seen first in the order, and beauty, and connectedness, of the universe that we’re continually discovering more and more deeply. We probably all know that a coin toss has a 50% probability of coming up heads, or 50% tails; and the more times you toss the coin, the closer and closer the outcome will mathematically approach exactly 50/50. But I recently learned that experiments have shown that if a coin is being tossed, and a person is told to concentrate on the coin landing on one particular side, the outcome actually starts to move away from the 50/50 split, and to come out more in the direction the person was focusing on. Similarly, an experiment was performed where a common house plant was placed in the corner of square, windowless room, where the only light source was an electric light designed to randomly beam light into just one of the four corners of the room. But once the plant was put into place, the beaming of the light became less random, favoring the corner where the plant was – and whenever the plant was moved to a different corner, the light began to favor that corner instead.

There is a unity, a connectedness, of being and relationship and purpose throughout creation, and throughout all of us. Our baptism is a reminder to us of both the unity that we have with God through Christ, as well as the unity we have with one another, and that we’re called to live out that unity in all that we do.

That’s an important thing for us to keep in mind, living as we do in times that are full of ugliness, and division, and disorder and chaos. The kind of chaos and division and ugliness and violence – the actual, violent sedition, the insurrection, that we all saw in Washington DC this week. As people of the kingdom of God, we are called to speak out against that kind of chaos and discord and violence, not to mention the underlying oppression of people embedded within it, and we’re called to speak out against anyone who would encourage or enable it, as being completely contrary to the key tenets of our faith; the key teachings of our understanding of our place within God’s creation, and how we’re to live in unity within it.

We are called to live in unity with one another. But I don’t want you to misunderstand what I’m saying. To call for the kind of unity called for within our faith – the kind of unity instilled within us through the Holy Spirit – isn’t just to agree with, or go along with, everything that comes down the pike. This unity isn’t just ignoring serious, harmful, sinful – maybe even evil – differences, pretending they didn’t exist. God’s unity isn’t unity at any cost – there can be no real unity without responsibility. And God’s unity isn’t some sort of always just splitting the difference in any disagreement, because honestly, the truth isn’t always somewhere in the middle, but is often much closer to one end or the other of the spectrum of the debate. We’re called to unity, but a unity for God, a unity for good. We’re called to a unity that renounces sin and evil in the world, as we do in our baptism and when we receive new members, as you’ll hear in just a little while this morning.

I believe that this is one of those times, when we need to be clear in renouncing what we’ve seen – what we’ve all communally experienced – this past week. This isn’t a matter of mere politics or ideology, but is a core matter of our faith. We need to declare without any ambiguity that the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being calls us to stand in peace and unity against violence and division. And that includes standing in unity to renounce any group or any person who would incite, encourage, energize, or justify, that kind of division and violence. It’s important to remember that consistently throughout the scriptures, and as is pointed out powerfully in both the Barmen Declaration and the Belhar Confession, part of our Book of Confessions, the wrath of God is voiced more often – almost exclusively – against authority figures who abuse their position and who work contrary to the good of the people they have authority over. God’s wrath is reserved almost exclusively in the scriptures for leaders who oppress; who suppress; who ignore the health and well-being of the people; who trample on the people in their greed and their lust for power and privilege, and more power and more privilege.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit moved over the waters, and separated the light from the darkness, the land from the waters, and set into the very essence of creation an inherent goodness and connectedness and unity. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit moved over the waters and affirmed Jesus’ life and teaching as the very personification of what that unity looks like in human existence. And today, as we think of our baptism, whether we literally remember it or not, remember that the Spirit confirmed and assured us of our goodness and acceptability in God’s eyes, and called us to live in that same eternal kind of unity seen in Christ – a real unity, the unity of being, a unity of essence and of purpose, defined by not by any earthly person or power, but by God; and that it is in God alone that we have our life, and hope, and our greatest joy, and that it is in God, and God alone, that we trust.   

Amen.


She Knew

(sermon 12/20/20 – Fourth Sunday of Advent)

“The Annunciation” – Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

Luke 1:26-38  

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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Have you ever played around with Google Earth on your computer? If you haven’t, you should try it; it’s kind of fun. You start out with a view of the entire Earth as seen from space, and you can type in pretty much any address on the planet, or enter a latitude and longitude, and you’ll start to zoom in to that exact location on the globe. First, the Earth will get larger, and closer, then the continents are easily visible as the globe turns toward your location, and as you zoom further in you can see topography, mountains, rivers, lakes, then cities, then individual buildings, highways, until finally you end up pretty much directly overtop of the address you’d entered.

In a similar way, long before Google, Luke did this the same dramatic sort of thing in a literary way as he started the story we heard in today’s gospel text. He moves us through space, starting with Gabriel in the otherworld, in God’s presence, then moving to the region of Galilee, then drawing down on the city of Nazareth, then to a virgin who’s engaged to be married to some man named Joseph, and finally, arriving at this particular young woman named Mary.

We’ve arrived at this space, and we’ve already been told the time – six months after Mary’s older, barren relative Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptizer. Now, with the time and space settled, we can focus on the actual events unfolding. Gabriel appears to Mary, following a recurring pattern for angelic visitations seen in both the Old and New Testaments – the angel appears; greets the person by name; tells them that they are favored and blessed by God; that a child is going to be born; what the child’s name is to be; and what they will do in their lives. Also somewhere within this recurring pattern, the angel reassures the person to not be afraid.

In this instance, we know that Mary was afraid – that she was “greatly perplexed” or “deeply troubled,” and I suspect that was putting things mildly. In addition to just imagining how I would feel if this kind of thing happened to me, I suspect it because Mary undoubtedly knew the Jewish folk story about Tobit, which shows up in what we Protestants call the Apocrypha, the Books of that are part of the Catholic canon, the Catholic Bible, but not the version we Protestants us. Among other things, the story tells about a jealous angel who appeared at a woman’s wedding night every time she got married and killed her bridegroom. As the story goes, Tobit fell in love with the woman, too. He was the seventh man to marry her and was, as Frederick Buechner put it, “the only man who married her and lived to tell about it.” And now, here’s Mary, about to marry Joseph, and she’s being visited by this otherworldly visitor. Did she wonder at first if this was an evil spirit, like the one in Tobit’s story, and that his visit was going to wreck her impending marriage? If she did, her fears were well founded, since we know that it almost did. So, facing that cautious reception from Mary, Gabriel continued, reassuring her that she didn’t have anything to be afraid of, that he actually came with good news, and that she was blessed by God.

One of my favorite paintings portrays this exact scene. “The Annunciation,” by the great American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, was painted in 1898, and I think it captures Mary’s emotions in this moment beautifully.

In it, you can see Mary, sitting quietly trying to take in what she’s being told, weighing it all in her mind. Look a little closer at her.

Look at the emotions visible in Mary’s face. She seems wise beyond her years. Even at her young age, she’s wary of what she’s being told. Even at her young age, she already knows the way the world works and it isn’t like this. And she’s wise enough to know how God’s blessings can work, too. Beyond understanding the biological impossibility involved in what she’s being told, she already knows that being blessed by God, favored by God, has nothing to do, then or now, with enjoying the things that most people would consider a good life – wealth, health, comfort, good fortune, good relationships, being held in high esteem by other people. The history of her people showed, and Mary was undoubtedly well aware, that if anything, the opposite was true – that being chosen, blessed by God, would typically lead to none of those things, and could often even prevent those things. We often think about the good things we enjoy in life and because of them, say we’re blessed; but in all honesty, if the scriptural record is any indication, prosperity, comfort, and social acceptability have almost never been the essence, or evidence of, God’s blessing. In the moment captured in this gospel text, Mary didn’t know – she couldn’t have known – the details of what her blessing would include – almost losing her marriage, having a child out of wedlock and facing public gossip and shame, that her family would have to flee for their lives to another country and live as refugees, or that this promised child would eventually be executed as a criminal. But still, I think that she could at least see the general contours of what might be coming – I think that she knew that this great blessing was also going to bring great difficulty.

Another thing that Mary, like many women in the scriptures understood and that she would later express herself, is that we worship a scandalous God – repeatedly, almost exclusively, choosing the lowly, the common people, rather than the wealthy and powerful, to fulfill God’s plans. Mary certainly embodies the reality of that scandalous nature of God. And she also embodies the truth that when a person is blessed by God, that obedience needs to flow outward from it. That God’s blessing is inextricably connected to the relationship that we have with God.

Knowing these things, even though she may have cast a wary eye on it as Tanner painted her, Mary was, in fact, obedient. She showed faith, and trust, and more courage than most of us could muster, and she said yes – “let it be with me according to your word.”

Maybe the defining moment in Mary’s thoughts in this moment was Gabriel’s reminder to her that as impossible as it all seemed, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary’s wordly-wise, eyes-wide-open assessment and acceptance of the risks and potential consequences of obeying and following God’s will is an example, a model, for all of us. I suspect that at various times in our own lives, we’ve been presented with a situation where God has presented us with a situation to step out in faith – to trust in God and to have the courage to hear, and obey, and follow, in some way that’s outside our normal lives and expectations. To trust and obey God regarding something that challenges our assumptions, our comfort, our way of seeing the world. Something that, make no mistake, we know is consistent with God’s will, but that has a real potential to have real consequences in our lives. It may pose risks to our financial situation, or our comfort, or our standing in the community, or in our relationships with family members or friends. It can be hard to hear God, and say yes to God, in those situations, I know that myself, and like anyone else, I haven’t always made the right choice, the courageous choice, either. Still, across the ages, I think about the face, and the emotions, of that Jewish Palestinian teenager, and her wisdom, and faith, and courage are an inspiration that we can all draw on, when we see her as something more than a porcelain-skinned image in a Renaissance painting or a marble sculpture, but rather, as a real, living, breathing, laughing, crying, playing, working, sweating, bleeding, person just like us, with all the same fears and worries and doubts – and all the loves and hopes and dreams, too – and even with all of her questions and fears and misgivings, she said yes to God, because even though she knew all of that, she also knew of God’s love and faithfulness and goodness. She trusted, she had courage, because she knew.

Mary’s courage – and Gabriel’s reminder that nothing is impossible with God – gives me, and hopefully all of us, courage, too, when we encounter difficult decisions and situations as we try to be faithful, and obedient, and courageous, in our relationship with God. Truly, nothing – nothing – is impossible with God, precisely because we do believe in a scandalous God. A God who blesses and works through the common, the average, the lowly. A God who blesses us without our even asking to be blessed. A God who knows all our flaws – our violence, our selfishness, our corruption, our pettiness and vindictiveness, all of that and more – and who still, in spite of all that, chooses enter into this same human existence in order to be one of us, to be with us, to show solidarity with us, to show a new way, a better way, and eternal way, of life. Most importantly of all, to give us, hope – the same hope that Mary knew, the hope of all the Google Earth and beyond, the hope that was made flesh in the Bethlehem manger.

Amen.

Jubilee/Nativity

(sermon 12/13/20 – Third Sunday in Advent)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. The Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display God’s glory.

They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

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It had been a long and complete nightmare. After their nation had been destroyed, all of their governmental, social, and religious traditions and institutions obliterated, and after living for years under the rule of a tyrant as captives in the land of their oppressors, the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding kingdom of Judah were finally free from life under those conditions. They were finally free from their misery, free to return to the land, the laws, the life they’d known and loved, and, they’d assumed, its former greatness and their former joy.

The reality was something different, though. When they arrived home, what they found was utter desolation. All the former things – the city, its buildings and defensive walls, its institutions, its governing system, and especially the center of its religious faith, the Temple, were all gone, or if not completely gone, lying in ruins real or metaphorical. The people had dreamt, and sung, and prayed for this time when their society would be able to be restored, but now, they were shocked at how much damage had been done. Even as they settled into their newly restored existence, they came to realize that repairing that damage was going to take a lot longer and would be a lot harder, than anyone ever imagined. They realized it was going to take decades to fix it all, and that some of it might never be repaired.

It was to these despondent people that God spoke through the prophet Isaiah in today’s Lectionary text. In it, God promised the people that yes, the ancient ruins, the devastated cities, all the harm would be repaired, even if it were going to take a lot of work and a long time. God initiated a new covenant between them. But key to that, at the very core of their new beginning, was God reminding them of something from their past. Before anything else – before the promise of restoration, before announcing the new covenant itself – God commanded the people to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, God reminded the people of the tradition, the commandment, of the Year of Jubilee. The year of Jubilee was a practice that the Book of Leviticus tells us was established by God as a requirement of God’s people, where every fiftieth year, all property that had been sold within the previous forty-nine years would be returned to the family of its original owners, all personal debts were canceled, and all those who were serving as slaves or in similar bonds in order to pay off their debts were freed, given liberty, freedom, their debts zeroed out. These were the captives that God was referring to in those beautiful, inspiring words that we heard in the text. This was important, because the people of Judah had been back in their land long enough that even though they were establishing a new society, they’d already recreated the same kinds of oppression and debt and economic captivity and social dis-ease that had existed in the past. God told them, through Isaiah, that it was time to stop it, and to start fresh – to proclaim that very year a Year of Jubilee. To reset the clock and to establish a new society rising out of the ashes of all the damage and problems of the past, that didn’t create that kind of poverty and suffering and economic instability. It was God establishing a benchmark of how God would view them, their nation, their society.

As we consider where our own country goes from here, after January 20 and the incoming of a new administration in Washington, we’d probably be wise to consider what God was telling the ancient people of Judah. We face similar challenges in restoring some of the great harm that our society and its institutions have suffered, and it will take a long time, if ever, for some of that harm to be repaired. But we can take heart, and not despair, too, just as God told the ancient Judahites. God still offers us the same good news – the same hope, the same assurance, and truly, the same covenant, that was offered to them. But the rest of God’s message applies to us, too – that at the core of a society consistent with God’s wishes, at the core of a society that would please God, are the things identified in this text. The same things echoed in John the Baptizer’s preaching in the wilderness, the same things echoed in Jesus’ own preaching and teaching throughout the gospels – and, truth be told, they’re words words that don’t always sit comfortably with us and our presuppositions. They’re the stipulations of the Year of Jubilee: bringing hope to the oppressed, by ending their oppression and creating systems that don’t oppress people to begin with. Binding up brokenheartedness, in other words, getting rid of despair, by getting people out of despair and eliminating the systems and conditions that caused it. Creating paths of liberty, of freedom, releasing people from poverty, debt, and economic entrapment, which, to be honest, are all just more socially acceptable forms of modern-day slavery.

In our world, we have the very same kind of economic captives that God refers to in this text. People drowning in debt that they’ll never be able to get out from under, just in order to obtain the basics of normal life, just in order to make ends meet. We have people who are filled with despair because of economic, social, and other systems that are stacked against them, whether it stems from racism or simply a classism that exploits people to create a small, permanent ultra-upper class who holds most of the wealth and power and privilege, at the expense of the vast majority of the people. Without going on at length, our society is full of the same ills that God said was wrong, and that God broke into the world to proclaim an end to. This is God’s good news for all people, for all of us created in the divine image, and it was the same message, whether it came through words of assurance and hope offered through Isaiah, or it came through God’s entering into our world in the flesh through Jesus, whose birth we’re about to celebrate again. As we do prepare our hearts for that celebration, let part of that be to consider the importance and meaning of his birth, and its significance to us in our own lives, and in the life of our society. Let’s understand, and accept, what it means to profess faith in the one who was born into our world to specifically to proclaim that message of good news, even the parts that message that might offer us some degree of personal challenge. And understanding it, let’s live accordingly, with both our eyes and our hearts wide open, and let’s do full of the joy of knowing that it’s pleasing to God.

Amen.

Comfort My People

(sermon 12/6/20 – Second Sunday of Advent)

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

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Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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This past Tuesday was the 65th anniversary of Rosa Parks being arrested on a Montgomery Alabama city bus. Maybe many of you know the fact of that event, but I’m embarrassed to say that it was only a few years ago that I learned what really happened. I’d always thought that when Ms. Parks got on the bus, she sat in the “Whites Only” section and refused to move to what they called the “Colored Section.” But what really happened was that the busses were equipped with a moveable signboard, attached to the backs of the seats, that separated the two sections; and if more whites got on the bus than would fit in front of the divider, the driver would move the sign back further, and any blacks that had been seated in front of that new location had to give up their seats to the whites. And if there weren’t any more seats for them behind that new demarcation point, they had to get off the bus. So on that day, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks got on the bus and sat down in the “Colored Section,” but when more whites boarded the bus later and the driver moved the separator behind her and told her she’d have to give up her seat, she refused. And when she did, she became an icon in American history, and the incident is often considered a historical milestone, the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Of course, in addition to the exact details of the event sometimes being missed, it’s also often missed that Ms. Parks wasn’t the first black woman to be arrested this way, or who would contest the law in court. In March of that same year, Claudette Colvin was arrested for the same thing, and three years before her, in 1952, Sarah K. Evans was also arrested She sued the Interstate Commerce Commission and won her case in November 1955, a month before Parks was arrested, even though that ruling still wouldn’t be enforced until 1961.

History, and social movements, are like that. A person will come on the scene, or something will happen, that even though the same thing had happened before, for some reason this became “The One” – the one person, the one incident, that just because of the timing, the context, the alignment of the planets, whatever, this one would be the one that people would remember, that would mobilize people, begin a movement, or that would become a catalyst for some kind of change.

People point to the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village in 1969 in a similar way, often calling it the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement – even though it certainly wasn’t the first event of its kind, either. There had been the uprisings and protests over police abuses of gay people that had occurred at the Black Kat Tavern in Los Angeles in 1967, and at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966; and gay rights pioneers Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings were organizing protests in Washington DC and Philadelphia in 1965. In fact, both the black civil rights movement and the gay cilvil rights movements both went much further back than Rosa Parks or Stonewall, but just due to circumstances, not least of which being the way our Western human brains think of history, all the other people or events before them tend to become respected but secondary, and often even forgotten predecessors to the main historical milestones.

At this point, you might wonder what all that has to do with the Second Sunday in Advent. Well, I think that John the Baptizer, who we hear about in today’s Gospel reading, can often be seen in a similar way to the historical forerunners of Rosa Parks and of Stonewall – that he was an important predecessor, but ultimately, not the main event in the story. I imagine that those civil rights pioneers could have felt – in fact, some of them have even said so – a bit slighted by history, and upset that their contributions to their movements, to history, weren’t remembered in a more prominent way. And I’ve sometimes wondered if John the Baptizer may have had some of that same feeling. I mean, he admitted that the one to follow after him was greater than himself, but knowing up front that you’re second fiddle really doesn’t take the sting away from that reality; if anything, it can sometimes make it even worse. And I’ve wondered if living in that recognition is what makes our general perception of John that he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder. I mean, the details we have of him in the gospels certain paint that picture of him.

And I get that, at least partly, because John’s message of repentance, and fear of the coming of the kingdom of God, and the impending arrival of a messiah who was gong to set all wrongs right, would certainly have been a sobering message to the people who were oppressing or exploiting or mistreating others. But by the same token, John’s words had to have been a message of hope, good news, for many others – the ones who were suffering. For them, John’s words had to truly be the forerunner, the precursor, actually the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as Mark actually calls it in verse one of the gospel. So while there’s definitely the negative side to John – and to be sure, you can’t get away with calling people a “brood of vipers” as he did without people thinking you have a negative side, or without people thinking you’re harsh – there’s also great comfort in his words, too, that doesn’t get uch emphasis in the gospels – words of comfort to people who have little or no comfort. It’s a message of peace to people who have little or no peace. It’s exactly the same kind of proclamation of comfort that we hear in today’s Isaiah text, of God calling out, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

The Rosa Parks incident needed those precursor people and events to lay the groundwork that made possible all the advances that sprung out of her arrest. The Stonewall uprising needed all the ones that came before it, to do the same. And Jesus needed John the Baptizer’s efforts to similarly lay the groundwork that made people’s hearts and minds ready for God’s good news that he would ultimately proclaim.

There are many times in our own lives – most times, actually – when we or the things that we do, aren’t “The One,” they aren’t some big event in history. It isn’t likely that any of us will ever have a book written or a movie made about us, and what great things we’ve accomplished. And yet, in a way every bit as real and vital as those other forerunners, what we do means everything – written not in books or screenplays, but in the hearts of the people whose lives we touch. Some days it may not seem like any big deal, like you’re certainly not changing the world, but I promise you, you are. Every time you do some small thing, every time you offer some small act of kindness, provide some small comfort, extend some small hope, you have heard God’s call spoken by John the Baptizer and by Isaiah. Every time you’ve done so, you have changed the world. It doesn’t really need to be the forerunner of something else that will change the world in a big way; it’s already changed the world for good. And who knows? Maybe some small act of comfort, peace, kindness you help to cause in someone else’s life will actually lead to something else – like throwing a stone in a pond, maybe the ripple effects of what comfort you offer to someone will actually emanate outward and lead to some big historical event. It’s certainly possible. In fact, I think it’s almost guaranteed to; we just may never see or know what that big thing will ultimately be. But whether it does or doesn’t, know that you will have already changed the world for the better in the life of at least one person, and probably more. You will already have carried the message of peace, and hope, and comfort proclaimed by Isaiah, the one calling out to the people in captivity; by John, the one calling out in the wilderness; and Jesus the one born in Bethlehem. You will have made that message real in the life of others. And that’s the greatest thing that anyone can do, the greatest gift that anyone can give.

Amen.

“Keep Going” – A Lesson in Hope

(sermon 11/29/20 – First Sunday in Advent)

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

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At the beginning of Advent, it’s probably a good idea to remember that the entire season has a double emphasis. First, it’s meant to be a time of preparation, of waiting, for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the incoming of God-in-the-flesh into our world, to share in our joys and sorrows, to show solidarity with us, and to proclaim the gospel to us. Second, it’s intended to be a time of waiting and anticipation of the culmination of God’s kingdom being established, whether ones considers that a literal, physical second coming of Christ into the world, or some other manner of the restoration of all things, a resetting of creation to be what God had designed and created and intended it to be. Maybe this year, a bit more than most, we can identify with the spirit of Advent, since we’ve all been waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for a resumption of life without having to deal with a pandemic.

Each of Advent’s four weeks focuses on a different aspect of the season’s emphasis. The first week focuses specifically on hope – specifically, hope for a correction of the world’s problems, and specifically pointing toward that resetting, that restoration I mentioned – the final judgment, and the great “eschatological banquet,” as theologians would call it, a time when pain and sorrow and suffering would be gone, and when every tear would be wiped away. Given that, each year the First Sunday in Advent includes a Gospel text that makes reference to that time, along with a First Reading from the Hebrew scriptures that can be seen as a similar reference to it. Most of those Old Testament readings come from Isaiah; there are so many sections of Isaiah that can be understood through the lens of the Christian faith as foretelling something about Christ that Isaiah is sometimes called “the Fifth Gospel.” While we Christians do find great meaning in Isaiah’s words, that’s actually unfortunate. While, as Christians, we can definitely find parallels that resonate with us, Isaiah was first, and continues to be first, Jewish scripture. The book is certainly sacred to both of our traditions, but we read and understand it in different ways, and both of those ways are equally valid. When Isaiah spoke the words that we heard this morning, or any other of his words, he wasn’t looking into some crystal ball and foretelling some prophecy about Christ. When he spoke, he wasn’t thinking about Jesus, as one friend put it earlier this week. This text that we heard today, for example, wasn’t talking about, wasn’t looking forward to , God entering the world at some point in the distant future and setting the whole world right, and being visible and present again in the lives of the people as part of the end times. This passage of lament was asking for God to take action in the moment – the “now” of the situation. Isaiah wasn’t even really asking for God to send a messiah, since the idea of a messiah in Jewish tradition didn’t really come about until well after the time that Isaiah was written. Isaiah’s pleas to God was for something in his here and now.

There’s a troubling bit in this passage from Isaiah. In this passage, and again in the Psalm for this day, which we’ll use in our outdoor gathering today at noon, Isaiah puts forward the theological belief that God sends us troubles out of anger against us, or that God hides from us or abandons us out of anger over our actions or faithlessness. That was the default assumption about what God, any god, would act like in Isaiah’s time, and some people still believe in our time, but I’ll say that I don’t believe that about God. It’s utterly inconsistent with what I understand to be the overarching scriptural witness to the nature of God and of human existence. To be blunt, there’s plenty enough pain and suffering and abandonment in the world all by itself, without God needing to add to it. Isaiah was also holding God’s feet to the fire a bit, too, pointing out that God was the potter, and the people were just the clay – and clay doesn’t have any say in how the potter fashions it, so if the clay doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, if the clay doesn’t ultimately act the way it’s meant to, if the potter doesn’t like the way the clay turns out, well, whose fault is it, the pot’s, or the potter’s? In this passage, Isaiah not so subtly points his finger at the potter, and says that because of that reality, God shouldn’t judge us too harshly or with too much anger.

Still, even though Isaiah’s words are essentially a psalm of lament, he ends up on an implied hopeful note – that, because of the past times that God has been present and has provided for the people, often in a bold way, he can have hope that God will act again in the lives of the people, and their fortunes will be restored, and their current suffering will come to an end. This was a specific lament, a specific request, for a specific period of time in Jewish history, and it came to fruition in a specific time in history. Reading this text through the lens of Jewish faith and tradition, it’s entirely reasonable and proper, to hear Isaiah’s words as being a reminder of God’s faithfulness throughout time, and because of that, we can have hope that God will continue to act this way in our times as well, and never once having Jesus come into the mix.

Of course, as Christians, we can, and do, read this text through the lens of our faith too. We can extend Isaiah’s words, and we can see parallels between his words and Jesus’ words about the end times, without having to try to negate the validity of the text’s original, primary meaning, or negating or dismissing our siblings in the Jewish faith who hear it that way. In different ways, both of these texts point to the hope that we have that God will act to set things right, to restore things, both in this world and the next. Jesus’ words in the gospel text gives us assurance of the reality of God’s eternal realm; the Isaiah text says that the present time is God’s realm, too. Because of that, we have hope during this season.

But that’s also the tension of the season, because the suffering and the pain and the despair of not seeing or feeling the presence of God now, in the midst of our struggles, wants to extinguish our hope, and it will, if we let it.

You probably saw in the news this past week that a young, 21-year old man named Travis Nagdy, one of the leaders of the protestors downtown, was killed. He was a good man with a charismatic personality, natural leadership qualities, and his whole life ahead of him when he was killed under circumstances that are still being learned and that may not at all have been random or unrelated to the fact that he was a very visible protest leader. Following his death, a candlelight vigil was held in his memory, and First Unitarian Church downtown opened to provide food and outdoor space for some of those people to gather after the vigil. I was there for a while; I worked in the kitchen with a few others, helping to make chicken soup, and pasta, and cornbread for the people who came there that evening. What struck me about the people who gathered there was that while there was certainly sorrow over the terrible loss of this man’s life, there was also joy, more than I expected would be in evidence at that gathering. Without my having to comment or ask anyone about it, I actually overheard someone else there talking about it. They said that the truth was that as terrible as this news was, the black community had to deal with news like this over, and over, and over again. They were conditioned to it, and because of that, they’d learned how to cry – and they did – while simultaneously holding on to the joy of life – joy over the life seen in the person lost, and in life in general, in the very gift of life itself. That when things seemed hopeless, they created hope from no hope; they created hope by acting hopeful, and to just “keep going; keep going,” which, ironically, was a well-known chant that Travis himself often led with his ever-present bullhorn.  

It was a remarkable thing to hear someone say, and it drove home to me that it’s probably in the midst of disturbance and tragedy that we humans can show the best, most noble aspects of our having been created in God’s image; and it’s in those same times, I believe, that God’s presence is most real, moving in the midst of our troubles and making it possible for us to have hope – real hope, for better days, both now and in eternity.

The great writer and thinker Frederick Buechner touched on this same idea when he wrote about a tree that he knew: “By the side of an old dirt road in the woods,” he wrote, “is a big maple tree that is so nearly hollow that three children can get into it together and still have wiggle room. Year after year it puts out a canopy of leaves even so, and a friend of mine once said, “If that tree can keep on doing that in the shape it’s in, then there’s hope for all of us.” So we named it the Hope Tree.” He then went on to talk about trees in general, writing that mostly, what we know about trees are “only that they are most beautiful in the fall when they are dying. They are craziest when the wind is blowing. In the snow they are holiest.”

Like them, maybe we best illustrate the divine image that we’ve been created in, when we respond with grace, and nobility, and hope, in the times when we’re being blown like the wind blows the tree, or otherwise facing the most distress. I can’t prove that’s true, but I do believe it. And so I have hope this year. Hope when thinking about Emmanuel, God incarnate – “God with skin” – coming into our world; hope for a blessed and meaningful Advent and Christmas season; hope for a new and better year; and hope for a new and better world, both in the here and now and yet to come, in the name of and through the power of, the one born in the manger. Amen.