“The Good Shepherd Knows His Sheep”

John 9:1-38

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,

that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned;
he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.

As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

When he had said this, he spat on the ground
and made mud with the saliva
and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,
saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).

Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”

Some were saying, “It is he.”

Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”

But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes,

and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’
and I went and washed and received my sight.”

They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.
Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.

So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?

How then does he now see?”

His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;
but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.

Ask him; he is of age.
He will speak for himself.”

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews. For the Jews had already agreed

that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah

would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God!
We know that this man is a sinner.”

He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see.”

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?
Do you also want to become his disciples?”

Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.

We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from,

and yet he opened my eyes.

Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.

We know that God does not listen to sinners,
but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.

Never since the world began has it been heard
that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.

If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”

And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”

Jesus said to him, “You have seen him,
and the one speaking with you is he.”

He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Have you ever noticed that, in the bible, exile seems not to be an uncommon experience? Many of our favorite characters—Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, David and Jonah, the entire nation of Israel more than once, and even the holy family, endure seasons of exile.

In each instance, life as they knew it was going along just fine—until something changed.  For Abraham and Sarah, it was a persistent voice calling him to leave everything behind.  Under Moses, the people of God are driven into the wilderness to freedom but also hardship; later, they are driven into captivity by conquerers and left wondering if they will ever again see their home.  Each time, the people of God had to set aside what they thought they knew, so that they could survive in a world that was suddenly very unfamiliar.  Each time, they had to learn a new way to be community, to worship God, to love one another.

Jesus himself was clearly familiar with what it meant to be an exile. As a child of the Jewish diaspora, he grew up hearing the story of his people, of their banishment from and later return to their own land, the very land in which he had been born, a land which was both their birthright, and also a place of displacement at the hands of a foreign occupier.  The people of Israel were both at home and at exile in the land that God had given to Moses.

And then there were those who were in exile from the exiles.  The outsiders, the blind, the lame, scores of sick and broken people, set aside for the sake of the health of the community, present but not accounted as persons in their own right, left to beg on the streets, left at the mercy of the people who passed them by. These exiles lived daily the stigma of knowing that they would always be defined by what they were not.  They carried their reason for their exile like a scarlet letter on their bodies.

Of course, it wasn’t personal.  In Jesus’ day, they didn’t know that blindness could be caused by something as simple as an infection, let alone have the tools to treat it. They didn’t have the miracle of modern medicine that today spares countless vulnerable people from preventable illness. And so they made difficult choices.  Better safe than sorry, was the general principle. They imposed restrictions on the sick and the impaired, enacting their own version of extreme and often permanent social distancing in order to contain illness and minimize its potential spread.

Certainly we know more now. It is easy to judge the people of Jesus’ day as cruel or heartless when you have ready access to antibiotics and anti-viral medication.  But perhaps in this moment we find ourselves in a special place, one where we might find it within ourselves to maintain a modicum of compassion for a community of people who, for all the love they had for one another, were terrified of getting sick or dying before their time, and who decided that perhaps it was safer to separate themselves from those who were.

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From that perspective, Jesus is truly reckless in this story. I will admit to you for myself that, given the moment we are living in, it is a bit terrifying to hear Jesus break numerous CDC protocols as he spits in the dirt, rubs his spittle it in his hands, and then touches the face of another person who has been cast out because he is sick.  I suspect his own disciples may have been a bit anxious themselves.  Of course, he had also been fraternizing with unclean Gentiles, and with a lot children, and conducting mass healings, so perhaps they were accustomed to it by that point.

But the same could not be said of the Pharisees.  You remember them.  A few weeks ago, Baron reminded us in one of his sermons that the Pharisees weren’t the “big bad wolf” that modern Christianity often makes them out to be. No, they were the ultimate insiders.  The keepers of tradition. The Pharisees were an important community of religious leaders who took the bible extremely seriously, and dedicated their lives to helping their community obey the law of Moses. During the political and social turmoil of Jesus’ lifetime and beyond, the Pharisees provided a promise of safety and a measure of control by teaching that the way to please God was to keep your head down and follow the rules for the good of the community.

And then there was Jesus.  He wasn’t a revolutionary, exactly, but he kept saying things that sounded, well, revolutionary.  He kept talking about a kingdom that was not of this world, one so unlike anything that anyone had ever seen before, or heard of, and so some people started wondering what exactly he might be planning.

Jesus seems to have had a habit of making the Pharisees nervous. He kept touching sick people and healing them, often on the Sabbath day as he was teaching the crowds. He kept pushing the limits of the purity laws by meeting with foreigners like the Samaritans, who many Jews considered to be mortal enemies.  He kept saying really strange things about being borne again, and calling himself the bread of heaven.  He was a problem: they knew it, and he knew it too.

And so it shouldn’t be surprising at all that, by the time he kneels down before the blind man and rubs mud in his eyes, the Pharisees have got their eye on him. This isn’t the first time he has broken Sabbath law—back in John 5, Jesus heals a man who cannot walk by the pool of Bethsaida. In fact, in John 5:16, the scripture tells us that “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him.” In Chapter 7, we are told that the authorities have been looking for a way to kill him. He has been accused of being possessed by a demon, of being a Samaritan, of blaspheming the name of God.

And into the midst of this heated moment is thrown one, poor, man who was born blind.

Have you ever been minding your own business, going about your day, when suddenly you are thrust into the midst of something beyond anything you could ever have imagined? Something that changes everything?

It’s as though the blind man won a lottery that he didn’t know he had bought the ticket for.  Suddenly, he has been given the one thing that had exiled him from his community.  But there is only one problem: his community is not very happy about how it happened.

The author of John is a masterful storyteller, and so this episode is full of juicy details revealing what can only be described as a comical level of confusion as the people in the blind man’s life seek to make sense of what has happened: as soon as the blind man receives his sight, neighbors who had walked past him for years in the market place suddenly “see” him for the first time, but they cannot agree on whether it really is him or not. But whoever he is, he must be trouble, because there he was doing something on the Sabbath day. When the religious authorities question him, they are so confused by what has happened that they begin to suspect him of the hard to imagine sin of faking his blindness all along.  And his poor parents—they are so overwhelmed by the whole incident that they practically beg the authorities to leave them out of it.

In the center of it all is the blind man who never asked to be healed. Notice something: the more that people push him, the more his neighbors and religious leaders question and discount him, the more he is left to fend for himself, the more confident he becomes. Over the course of this story, he transforms from someone who claims to not know anything, to proclaiming Jesus a prophet, and finally to confessing him as the Messiah, saying “I believe.”

It is almost as though he is being born again right before our eyes—this man, who once was valued as less than nothing, who barely existed in the eyes of the community, begins to see himself as a person worthy of living.  And not just any person: he becomes a disciple of Jesus.  A child of God.  He can tell the world what God has done in him, and the world may finally listen.

It would seem that this ordeal opens his eyes—literally, spiritually—to the truth that should have been clear all along: that he is a beloved child of God, such that, by the end, when he has exhausted the patience of the religious authorities, who deny the miracle and condemn him as made in sin and unworthy of community, it is too late.  He is a brand new person. Their words no longer have power over him, because he has found a new life in Christ.

Later, in John 10, Jesus goes on to explain to the Pharisees and those who witnessed the miracle that he is the Good Shepherd, and that he has come to seek and save the lost. He has come to give the outcast children of God something more than living in exile—he has come to restore them in the eyes of God.  And by the time Jesus says this, we know that it is true, because we have seen it in that blind man.  We may not know his name, but the faith of the blind man—this man who has experienced the darkest valley and has come out on the other side, who once was blind and now he sees—how can we not wonder at the faith of this child of God?  His story has inspired countless Christians with his determination to name the gift that God has given him, with his persistent wonder at the goodness of God, with his stubborn refusal to be defined by his illness.

So often in this life, we are told that if something isn’t going as we want it to, we need to make a change.  But sometimes, change happens to you. Sometimes, everything seems fine until suddenly it isn’t, and everything you thought you knew becomes a question mark. We know this. Right now, many of the things we take for granted—the ways we are accustomed to being church, the ways we are used to showing our love and our care for or friends, our family, our neighbors, the vulnerable—are being tested.  And it can feel like we are at sea. Adrift.  Cast off.  Even in exile.

But the Good Shepherd knows his sheep.  Like the blind man, you have heard his voice, and he is speaking to you even now, even in exile. How we are church is being tested, but we are not broken. Everything looks different right now, but we are still the church. We can still be the church when we are apart. Because we still have each other.  The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want.

 

Rachel is Weeping

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother,
and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night,
and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,
he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children
in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.

She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared
in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel.

For those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother,

and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.

And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth,

so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

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On the wall of my kitchen I have a series of cookie molds.  Many of them are replicas of molds that were carved in wood over 500 years ago, when the cookies that were pressed were used to tell stories visually because many people were unable to read or write.

Unsuprisingly, many of these special molds are religious in nature, and depict famous scenes like the nativity, the visit of the magi, and famous saints from history. In amongst them is the image of a woman being led by her husband on a donkey, holding her infant child as they flee their home for safe harbor in Egypt.

The Flight to Egypt, as it is known, has long held a special place in the Christian imagination. Centuries of Christian art and critical scholarship attest to this. For much of the history of the church, this story was considered so vital, so important to understanding the mystery of Christmas, so central to knowing who Christ is that it was given its very own standing Feast Day on the fourth day of Christmas. Nonetheless, it appears that artists and bakers alike rather preferred to paint and to carve images of the holy family fleeing on a donkey.  It was far more comfortable than depicting what the holy family was fleeing from.

But that is precisely where we find ourselves this Sunday. The Slaughter of the Innocents, as it is known, is often preached with disclaimers and content warnings attached, if it is preached at all.   It features an intimidating cast of characters, to be sure—a messenger from God who warns Joseph in a dream of the nightmare that is coming, a city that will soon be filled with the victims and perpetrators of senseless violence, and at the center of it all, a vengeful and evil King plotting genocide.  Even from the distance of nearly 2000 years, it is an awful story.

And it all begins with one very bad king.  Based on everything we know, King Herod was exactly the kind of man that he seems to be in this story.  According to the historical record, he was known to be clever and calculating, but also paranoid and grudge-holding. He survived more than one poisoning attempt on his life, and until the day he died he was convinced that his family members were out to get him. In the twilight of his reign, he was personally responsible for the deaths of three of his sons, one of whom he murdered just 5 days before his own rather gruesome death. In the Antiquities, the historian Josephus recounts that, as Herod realized he was dying, he instructed his guards bring to him all of the principal men of the Jewish region, one from every family, and shut them up in the local stadium. Then he summoned his own children and made them swear to massacre those same men when he died in order to ensure that the city would be thrust into a period of sincere mourning in his name.  If they will not cry for me, he thought, at least they will cry at the right moment.

In other words, although we cannot confirm that Herod might have been so callous as to murder a horde of babies and toddlers, it also would not have been inconceivable to imagine that he might do such a thing, especially if his legacy and kingship was at stake. It was, as they say, on brand.

So when we reach this Sunday, close on the heels of Christmas, and find ourselves witnesses not to the angel choirs of Christmas Eve, but rather to a chorus of terrorized cries from the women of Bethlehem, I wonder whether perhaps it might be appropriate for us to pause and consider, just for a second, what kind of world this is that our Lord and Savior was born into.

What sort of world is this, where power-hungry, self-interested men play games with the lives of ordinary people? Was there something special about this moment and this place that is significant to understanding who God is? What God came to do? Who Immanuel, God-with-us, came to heal and save? What did it mean, that in the words of John’s Gospel, that Jesus came to bring light to this darkness, and that this darkness would not overcome him?

In other words, what would this text have us know about the nature of God?

When you have dedicated your life to the study and explication of the Word of God to the people who gather in God’s name, one of your tasks is to understand the text, not only through the lens of your own understanding, but as it has been reflected through history.  And one of the things that I find notable about this text is that, in reading the words of those who have considered this text before us, it resists being explained.  Centuries of historians, in fact, have struggled to come up for a tidy reading that explains why God would allow something like this to happen.  Rather, this text emotes. It engages us beyond the point of reason, goes right for the guts and hits us at the core of who we are.

Instead of offering answers, great minds are more often left pondering what this could mean, like Mary, much like the Rev. Robert Jamieson, who in his commentaries is moved to cry out:

            O ye mothers of Bethlehem!  Methinks I hear you asking why your innocent babes should be the ram caught in the thicket, while Isaac escapes. I cannot tell you, but one thing I know, that ye shall, some of you, live to see a day when that Babe of Bethlehem shall be Himself the Ram, caught in another sort of thicket, in order that your babes may escape a worse doom than they now endure. And if these babes of yours be now in glory, through the dear might of that blessed Babe, will they not deem it their honor that the tyrant’s rage was exhausted upon themselves instead of their infant Lord?”

This pastor, who dedicated his life’s work to making sense of the Scripture, found himself at a loss to explain the vicious slaughter of innocent children.

And then there is John Calvin, who himself experienced the loss of a child, and, upon considering this text, could draw few conclusions but only observed that “even this massacre could not prevent Christ from appearing shortly afterwards as the Redeemer of the whole nation.”

It is a text so troubling that it is really no wonder that we preach it publicly only once every three years, on a Sunday when there is likely to be few people to hear it.

And yet.

It will not go away.  It will not be silenced or relegated to a footnote of some distant, defanged history, because the awful truth of Matthew 2 is that this tale of terror, of innocent children mowed down by power hungry tyrants, is not confined to Herod’s day but rather continues to play out, across the breadth of history.

The ugly truth is not that this story is believable because Herod was a tyrant, but rather it is believable because humans, in their zeal for power, are capable of inflicting enormous amounts of pain and suffering upon the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the young. The innocents of this world continue to be massacred by the powerful and well-connected of this world, the cries of Rachel echo in the grieving cries of the inconsolable, and we, who gather here surrounded by the signs of Christ’s presence in this world, must ask ourselves: what is it all for?

Perhaps the miracle is that Christ comes at all.  That to a world that is capable of this much cruelty, God sent God’s own son to take a place amongst us. Not just to save us, but to identify with us, to experience the joy and the pain and the fear and cruelty of being alive in a world that can be both exhilarating and also incredibly dangerous.

I wonder if perhaps this text is as much a reminder of God’s redemptive hand as it is a recognition that the world we live in right now is not all that different from Herod’s Bethlehem.  For Herod may be long dead, but children still are slaughtered, their families still are denied refuge, their mothers are still crying in the streets. The light of Bethlehem simultaneously announces the birth of the Savior and exposes the unvarnished truth that the world can be and often is a dark and dangerous place for the poor and the vulnerable.

Perhaps Christ needed to come into a moment this dark not in spite of it, but because of it. Because we needed to see that light can shine in the darkest corners of human history. Because we needed to understand that our basest cruelty cannot overcome God’s infinite love. That the God of the poor and the weak and the powerless is greater than our collective indifference.  And perhaps Christ steps into this moment in history because God knew that we could not find our way out of the darkness of our own making on our own. We needed someone to show us another way.

It is most often pointed out that the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel According to Matthew is intended to parallel the birth and life story of the prophet Moses.  So perhaps it is helpful to remember that, for the people of Israel, the story of Moses was one of God’s identification and solidarity with an enslaved and vulnerable people. God sent Moses into the darkness of captivity and suffering under Pharoah with the promise that freedom was coming. Not without cost. Not without suffering. But in spite of it.

Perhaps, too, as we ponder the mystery of the Christmas season, we would do well to remember that what is most important in the Christmas story is not what happens in the halls of power. This is not a story of conquest by and for the powerful, but rather it is centered on a promise of reversal and redemption for the discounted, the disregarded, and the expendable.  It is a promise to those who refuse to be consoled, who weep as they wait upon that bright day when the justice of God will prevail.

So I wonder once again: What does this story tell us about the nature of God?  Perhaps nothing more important than this: That when the hurting people of God cried out in the darkness “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah listened, and made haste to come to tend to their sorrows, and that God abides with them still, and with all who recognize Christ within them. Until Christ comes again.

 

 

The Work of Christmas (By Howard Thurman)

When the song of the angels is stilled

When the star in the sky is gone

When the kings and princes are home

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace amongst the people,

To make music in the heart.

 

God is Not Through

Matthew 24:36-44

“But about that day and hour no one knows,
neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking,

marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and would not have let his house be broken into.

Therefore you also must be ready.
For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

It would begin, like so many things, with darkness. On that day, as so many slept, or tarried, or carried on with their day as they always had, the purging would begin.  Without warning, fire would rain down upon the world God had made, cleansing the fullness of creation of all evil, melting the dross away.

Already a sign had been revealed: a comet, stretching over the heavens, had been observed by those who waited and watched. And so, as the day approached, the faithful cut their hair, sold their possessions, and prepared themselves for the deliverance that was surely coming soon.  They put on clean, white garments and climbed the nearby hills so that they might be closer to the heavens, closer to God, when salvation finally came.

Up on the mountaintops they kept watch, waiting for it to begin.  But nothing happened. And as the sun set over the distant hills, and darkness fell once more, disappointment rained down upon the mountain top. Perhaps an error had been made? That had to be it.

The texts were consulted, and a new date was proclaimed, and again the people rallied, steeling themselves for that great day that surely was coming soon.  More people than ever before, it seemed, gathered themselves on the edge of eternity and waited with expectation for what was coming. But again the sun came and went, and as the darkness once again settled over the land, the people descended from the mountaintops, dispersed from one another and into the world they so dearly wished to depart, their hearts and their spirits divided over what it all had meant.

The Great Disappointment of 1843 was, if you haven’t guessed from the name, a bit of a letdown for the followers of William Miller.  Some in the media have called my generation, the Millenials, the disappointed generation, but I wonder if perhaps the Millerites might have beaten us to the honor of “most disappointed cohort.”  I don’t think I would choose to trade places with the folks standing on the mountain with Bill Miller, with their impractical homemade dresses and freshly shorn heads, keenly aware that they had recently divested themselves of all their worldly possessions in anticipation of a moment that wasn’t coming.

UnknownThen again, the Millerites had been so certain that they were onto something important.  Their leader, a quiet and thoughtful farmer, respected by friends and neighbors, had never set out to be a prophet, but as he looked at the world around him, and as he read his bible, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was imminent.

As he studied the prophets, he thought he recognized echoes of the destruction and chaos around him—in the human costs of the American and French Revolutions, and his own experiences as a soldier during the War of 1812.  The horrors of war became the crucible in which William Miller began to see his faith differently, and within the community of the Millerites, he found a hope that, while misplaced, sustained him and brought him through the dark night of his soul.

It feels appropriate at this juncture to acknowledge that it can be rather satisfying for many Christians, especially progressive Christians, to watch these end times prophecies fail to materialize.  If we honest, we get more than a little satisfaction out of knowing that the night will come, and the day will break, and somewhere a false prophet will lose his or her wings.  We tell ourselves that we would never rush to the mountain top or sell all of our possessions.  We tell ourselves we are smart enough not to fall for false promises.

Unknown-1And yet. I find myself wondering: can we blame William Miller for experiencing the trauma of a broken world, and concluding that the only thing that could mend what had been wrent asunder was the return of the Lord?  Can we honestly look at the world around us and say, this is fine?

Paul Tillich once observed that “if you find hope in the ground of history, you are united with the great prophets who were able to look into the depth of their times, who tried to escape it, because they could not stand the horror of their visions, and who yet had the strength to look to an even deeper level and there to discover hope.”

I feel compassion for the William Millers of this world. Because for all of his mistakes, William Miller was not all that different from us.  He was trying his best to be a good, humble Christian person living in a world that suddenly felt dangerous, where good, innocent people were dying and suffering from war and poverty and sickness, and he struggled to make sense of it. As he looked out upon the wreckage, he found himself wondering: what could all of this suffering and ruin and brokeness possibly be for?

I say he is not all that different from us because not all that much has changed. We live in a moment when, if we are paying attention, there are so many things to be anxious about. For my entire adult life, our country has been sending battle ships and missiles and drone strikes and young men and women out into the world to fight wars in distant lands.  Images of broken people in forsaken places, some of them suffering directly or indirectly because of the policies of our beloved country, have become so common that they have begun to blend together. Our swiftly warming planet has left many teenagers terrified of what the future will hold for them. Disappointment doesn’t begin to touch the feelings of dis-ease that follow so many of us as we look at the world and wonder—what could all of this wreckage possibly be for?

So perhaps it is appropriate, this day more than ever, that we pause to reflect on what the prophets might have to offer to us at the threshold of Advent. To ask ourselves, what might it mean to put our suffering world in the context of the coming reign of God?

In our Gospel lesson today, it is easy to get caught up in the uncertainty of Jesus’ words. To focus on the not-knowing-ness of the day of the Lord. But perhaps if we can set that aside for the moment and notice that, in the midst of all of the reminders that we will not know the day or the hour, and that it will come like a thief, our Lord and Savior offers us a promise: that in the midst of the chaos and suffering of the world, Jesus is still coming.  There is no thing in this world that is so awful that it could stand in the way of promise of the coming Kingdom of God.

I don’t know about you, but this year I find a great deal of comfort in knowing that, as bad as the world has been, God isn’t finished with us yet.  It helps me to know that we can name the pain of the world, that we can hold it together as a community, and at the same time we can look forward to a day in which the scars borne by a suffering world will be healed over. The great womanist ethicist Emilie Townes describes this experience of communal lament as essential to Christian Hope. She says that:

When we grieve, when we lament, we acknowledge and live the experience rather than try to hold it away from us out of some misguided notion of being objective or strong. We hurt; something is fractured, if not broken…we are living in structures of evil and wickedness that make us ill. We must name them as such and seek to repent—not out of form—but from the heart. It is only then that we can begin to heal.

In other words, our healing, and the healing of the world, is bound up in our willingness to be here now. To forgo the distant mountaintop for the fellowship of the hurting. To stop wondering about the day and the hour which no one knows and instead get to the business of fashioning plowshares from swords, clothed not for battle but rather, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, adorned in the armor of light so that we might live honorable and full lives right here, right now, in this moment that we have been given.  Instead of dwelling in dreams and fantasy of a future we cannot conceive of, we keep awake by doing what we can, while we can: by loving our neighbor, healing the sick and the broken, bearing witness to the injustice before us.  For the hope of the Gospel is not found somewhere else, but right here, in how we make sense of the reality we have already been given.

In his book, the Scandalous Message of Jesus, Peter Gomes observes that “hope is not merely an optimistic view that everything will turn out right in the end. It is the more rugged, more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.” This hope comes at a price, and requires work and effort on our part. It requires patience, and endurance, and even stubbornness, to believe that, however bad this moment is, God is not through with us. God will bear us through.

My husband will tell you that I am Christmas Grinch, which means that my eyes start to twitch when the Christmas music starts blasting in early November. But I find myself drawn on this morning to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s great Christmas hymn, perhaps you know it:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men!

I have always loved those words and their joyful melody. But what I had forgotten about that hymn are the verses that follow:

Then from each black, accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the south

And with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; ‘there is no peace on earth,’ I said;

‘for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’

maxresdefaultIn Longfellows’ time, hope seemed like a fragile thing, for the darkness of our country had been broken open, and peace threatened by the violent reality of the Civil War.  And so the poet wonders: can peace be possible in this world that we have made? I am reminded in this moment that every generation of the faithful has had that moment when they are faced with the truth of how fragile is the line that separates life from death, order from chaos, peace from division.  And in those moments, if we find ourselves unconnected to a community in which we can lament together and name the sorrow of this world, if we do not have a safe place to wail and to wonder, the danger is that we might be swallowed up by the darkness that threatens us. For it is in our fellowship with the people of God that we are returned to the hope that sustains us, the hope that insists that God is not through with us yet:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep; ‘God is not dead, nor doth God Sleep;

The wrong shall fail; the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.

The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of God endures forever. Amen.

 

Not What We Expected

 

First Presbyterian Church

December 30, 2018

1 Samuel 2:18-20.26

Colossians 3:12-17

Luke 2:41-52

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Sometime in the late 1730s, a father was striving to raise his son to be a godly man. He taught him to be generous and kind, to share what he had with his playmates. He even constructed elaborate devices to teach him about the mysteries of God.

One time, he took a bunch of cabbage seeds and secretly planted them in a garden bed near his son’s window so that the cabbages would grow in the pattern of his son’s name. He waited, for weeks he waited, until his son noticed his name writ large in cruciferous vegetation. When the amazed young boy showed it to his Father, they were later able to talk about how, much like his father ordered the cabbage, God in heaven orders the earth.

There were moments, however, when his fatherly teachings were put to the test. One morning the father was strolling in his garden when he realized, to his horror that a beloved fruit tree had been viciously barked, and would likely die. Suspecting what had happened, the father warmly returned to his home and declared that he did not care a bit about the tree, but simply was curious what had happened.

Not long after, his son, who had recently been given the gift of a new hatchet, looked at his father, and, “with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all- triumphant truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I cannot tell a like Pa, you know I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.’”1 To which young George Washington’s father cried out in joy with the confirmation of his son’s good character and embraced him with gladness, for the heroism of honesty was worth far more to him than “a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold.”2

I suspect that I am in good company when I assume that many of you may have heard this powerful legend of our first president before. In fact, for much of our country’s history, this very myth was enshrined in the education of every little girl and boy who set foot in a primary school. It is part of the canon of the American story, a story that reveals who we are and what we stand for by teaching us something about the person who led our country to independence.

It is a powerful story.

If only it were true.

In the aftermath of Washington’s death, our brand new republic hungered for accounts of Washington’s life, anything that might help them better understand this man whom they so revered. Many biographies were commissioned, but none were as far reaching or as indelible in their impact on the American people as the bestselling “The Life of George Washington,” written by Parson Weems and first published in 1800, a year after the great president’s death.

Weems was a master storyteller, and he understood his audience. He also had a goal—to reveal the “true” Washington to a hungry public, one whose entire life was marked by virtue and character. One that provided a model for the youth of a young nation that was still uncovering who it was and what it stood for.

 

And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would focus on Washington’s childhood, on how pure and virtuous the young George Washington was! Nothing like other great men, whose lives were publicly virtuous but often privately rather disappointing. According to Weems, Washington was set apart for greatness from the very beginning, marked by a virtue so strong and indelible that it carried forward into the larger than life man that he became. A virtue that revealed itself not just publicly, but privately, when nobody was paying attention.

It didn’t matter to Weems whether these myths had actually transpired as related—what mattered was the truth that he believed that they revealed. That the man about whom they were told was a different breed, the sort of man who was born for such a time as this, a moment of transition in the life of our country.

Of course, Weems stands in a long tradition of biographers and storytellers who have sought to reveal the truth of important men and women long after they are available to fill in the blanks. World literature is brimming with stories of great men whose childhood marked them as set apart—the Buddha in India, Osiris in Egypt, Alexander the Great in Rome, Joan of Arc in France. So it should not be surprising to us that, in the aftermath of Christ’s death and resurrection, the people who had risked life and limb to follow him and spread the good news were eager for more—who was this man that they knew as Jesus? What was he really like?

Early on, stories began to circulate about Jesus’ birth and early childhood, stories patterned on the lives of other Biblical greats—Moses and Elijah, and in this case, upon Samuel, the boy judge who ushered in the golden age of the Kingdom of Israel. Many of theses stories we hear on Christmas Eve—stories of a miraculous birth, of a star in the east, of shepherds and magi and angry kings.

But there are others. Stories that would sound strange to our modern ears. A good deal of them are collected and immortalized in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. They reveal a young boy prone to miracle working on the Sabbath from a young age, with the power to raise from the dead, punish the wicked, and outsmart the local teachers. Only one of these stories lives on in our canonical Gospels, and that is our lesson for today.

And I don’t know about you, but that leads me inevitably to the question: why did Luke choose to include this story? There have been many theories over the years, some more informed than others. Over the past century, however, many pastors have told this tale of the young Jesus with an eye towards humanizing the messiah. In this interpretation, Luke 2 reveals that, once upon a time, Jesus was a child, just like us—something along the theme of “kids grow up so fast these days, don’t they? You blink and suddenly they are twelve!” or “He’s just like us! He got distracted and scared the pants off his parents! He surely was FULLY HUMAN!”

But if I am honest, this sort of reading is more likely to bring to my mind the tawdry tabloid sections of US Weekly and People, weeklies that are often filled with unflattering and therefore “humanized” photographs of major celebrities. Sermons in this category often succumb to at least one example in which one was either lost by her own parents, or absent-minded left his own child at the gas station. You know the story.

The problem with these readings is that often these stories are told as though Jesus is the equivalent of a toddler with little or no agency. They risk reducing Jesus to a bundle of stereotypes, neutralizing his difference in favor of building connections to the foibles of our own journeys of parenting and being parented ourselves. With the unfortunate consequence that we lose sight of the purpose of telling this story in the first place.

So what is the purpose, then? First of all, the text is clear that Jesus is twelve years old. In ancient Israel, a twelve-year-old boy stood at the threshold of adulthood. A twelve-year-old boy was not yet a man, but not really a child either, and the truth is that he had far more in common with young adults nearing their 20s these days. He was likely preparing to be bar-mitzvah’d, which in his day meant that he would, at thirteen, be considered both responsible enough to perform the tasks of any adult, as well as accountable for his failures.

We also know from this story that Jesus comes from a faithful family. Not everyone made the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem—it was taken less as a requirement than a strong recommendation—and even then, the law required only that the men be present. And yet Luke tells us that Jesus’ whole family routinely made the trip together. Not just Joseph, but Mary and Jesus put down their livelihoods for a journey of many days to celebrate the festival as commanded in the Torah. Which is another way of telling us that Joseph and Mary were good parents. They were raising a son who was connected to the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Like Samuel in our Hebrew Scripture lesson today, like Weems’ George Washington, Jesus came from good, pious people.

And it is here that we get to the real point of this episode in young Jesus’ life. Jesus comes from a faithful, God-fearing family, and yet, when confronted with the majesty of the Temple, the very threshold of God’s dwelling, Jesus decides that his “first” home is with God. And so he stays there. Against his parents’ wishes, he remains in the temple to learn, to listen, to ask questions. The prominent feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza observes that in this moment, Jesus challenges the status quo as he asserts that biological family will always be of secondary importance in relation to the call of God and the spiritual family that God calls into existence, a theme that he will continue to explore in his adult ministry.

This is why Luke includes this story: he wants us to “see” the man who is emerging in Christ. To reveal what was always there, even in the beginning, even before Mary and Joseph could understand what his words might mean.

Truly, we are invited to sympathetic identification with Mary and Joseph and with their deep anxiety at the prospect of losing their child. But we are also invited, alongside Mary, to treasure these words and what they reveal about the Messiah in our hearts. To wonder with the crowds that throng at how much Christ knew and the answers he gave. To look back on these early days with recognition as Jesus comes into fuller focus through his teaching, and later in his betrayal, death, and resurrection.

Much later, perhaps these stories will help us to make sense of a teacher who says that his mother and father are those who do the will of God. Who identifies as family not just his immediate relations, but those beyond the borderlines of blood and religion, extending his own sense of family to include outsiders, sinners, tax collectors and unclean women at the margins. Perhaps we will find the courage to begin considering for ourselves: who might God be challenging us to invite into our family? Who is missing from our Father’s House that Jesus would bid come?

I don’t have all the answers, but stories like this one can’t help but bring to mind connections to our current moment: I cannot help but consider the plight of those whose children are currently lost to them at our southern border, and who despair of ever finding them. It brings to mind many vulnerable teenagers who have left their families to brave dangerous migrant journeys across the forbidding landscapes of Sub Saharan Africa and the choppy waters of the Mediterranean in search of a better life. I cannot put from my mind the images of Syrian and

Yemeni children who cry out to God, asking: are we welcome in the Father’s house? Is there room for us, too?

Because that’s the thing about stories that are True. They help move us from wondering to relationship, to knowing Christ more fully so that we may begin the lifelong work of, in the words of the letter to the Colossians, “clothing yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” the very values that Scripture tells us Christ embodied from his early childhood. These values set him apart as extraordinary. They also are likely the very things that made him a threat to the status quo. May they dwell in you richly, so that whatever you do, in word and deed, you do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good to Great

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Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I have been sooooo busy lately! So busy! There’s just been so much work to do, so many things to get done—I have literally been running from thing to thing!

Church has been busy.

School is almost out and there are parties and field days and open houses.

And don’t get me started on my kids—ha. They have been asking if they can do karate, and swimming, and maybe can we go to the beach soon? Oh, and let’s make time for the zoo next Saturday.

And then there’s our Garden and our yard—we can’t possibly let it start looking ragged. What would the neighbors think? So we are out there at 8pm mowing the law in the dusk, or weeding the flower beds. Inside, we are cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors because grown up people have clean homes, right?

I have barely had time to stop and take a breath. Forget doing something I actually enjoy–running, or sewing, even reading a good book—I simply have been too busy. No time for those things.

Maybe next year.


Have you ever found yourself in one of these conversations with a friend, a neighbor, a loved one? Ever noticed how, even as they are piling things up, making a mountain of suffering right before your eyes, that they seem to be enjoying telling you about it? Like it’s a badge of honor to be that busy? Its almost as if the more unhappy you are, the more stressed out, the more about to fall apart, the better?

And then, of course, you know the rules: when one person starts in on their list, everyone else feels compelled to chime in with their own stuff, as though this were a competition to see who was more miserable, more sleep deprived, more stressed out this week? Because it’s a competition, right?  Who is the most miserable this week?

What is it about our culture that so many of us (particularly women) feel compelled to make our lives unbearable with an unceasing pile of expectations? What is it about our society that the only way to look like you have it all together is to run yourself ragged until you are nearly falling apart?

Maybe it’s our Puritan history. (When in doubt, blame the puritans, I always say.) This country was of course founded by people whose historical theological perspective told them that good people do good things. And not just some good things. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots…you get the picture. When Jesus said “Therefore be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” our puritan ancestors seem to have taken that to mean that we should literally strive to be perfect.

But here’s the thing.

Here’s the surprise of the Pentecost story today:

when the Spirit shows up in the room with the disciples, they are all together, and they are doing……….nothing.

On purpose.

Remember last week? As Jesus is ascending into heaven, he looks at his disciples and tells them:

Go to Jerusalem and wait. Wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Wait for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

They don’t have any idea what Jesus is talking about. They are literally clueless. But there is one thing that they have going for them, and that is this: they know how to listen. And when Jesus is gone, instead of

immediately rushing to fill the void

instead of

running around looking for something to do that will show the world that they are successful and contributing adults,

they listen.

They put down the nets and they wait. For something to happen that they do not know.

And when they are willing to do that, when they are willing to stop, to pause, to gather together in a posture of open-ness to what God might be doing and saying—the Spirit shows up.

Like the waters of creation, the Spirit

moves upon the disciples,

fills them up,

gives them words they didn’t know that they had,

until they cannot be silent any longer,

but are compelled to go out into the community and share what God has done and speak a word of life to those who are gathered there.

I wonder sometimes whether we have, in our rush to do good, to be good, to make a difference, I wonder if we have forgotten that sometimes the most important thing we can do is not more, but rather to simply be open. Perhaps we have forgotten that when we fill ourselves to overflowing, there is no room for the Spirit to maneuver within us in that place where Frederick Buechner says our heart’s deep gladness and the World’s deep hunger meet.

Because we are a busy people. We are so busy, our calendars need calendars.  Google cannot contain our schedules. Our children are so busy that they have to schedule the sorts of things that should be happening naturally—playdates, or soccer games on the borough field, or pickup games of basketball. We have so over-scheduled our lives—and the church is at fault for this too—that we have neglected to make space to wait for the promise of the Father.

And that is a real travesty. Because the real tragedy of all this is that we can do a lot of good on our own. I’m guessing that you are the kind of person who is really darn awesome.  You are probably a really wonderful, competent person that has the ability to do a whole lot of good. But we can do GREAT things through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can be more than ourselves in the power of the Spirit. That, I think is the miracle of Pentecost—that eleven good men became great when they were willing to make space for God to work within them.

The great runner, Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four minute mile, was once quoted as saying “before the race we store up spirit.” Friends, we who call ourselves disciples of Christ are running this race of life and faith. And it is hard. And we all will struggle. Sometimes we may want to quit. Sometimes we may be tempted to depend only on ourselves. And those are precisely the times when we need to set things down and make space for God’s Spirit to move within us. Because what we need is the strength that comes both from within and without us. The spirit that will carry us when we fall, will encourage us when we struggle, will rejoice with us when we triumph.

And what do we need to do to store up spirit? It’s simple, and yet possibly one of the hardest, most counter cultural things that we could possibly do in this world. We must be willing to say no, to put some things down, so that we can make space to rest, and listen, and wait for the promise of the Father, which is as alive today as it was back then.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Holy Spirit Advocacy

This sermon is deeply indebted to the reflection of Dr. David Lose, whose writing on his blog inspired my direction as I prepared to preach on the 6th Sunday of Easter.


 

 1 Peter 3:13-22

13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

John 14:15-21

15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

 

You have an Advocate!

Did you hear that?

YOU HAVE AN ADVOCATE!!!!

How does it feel to know that you have someone who is on your side? Someone who is, who has been, and who always WILL be FOR YOU?

This world is facing an epidemic of loneliness—that creeping suspicion that nobody is with me. That nobody understands ME. That nobody is for ME. It can make you feel more than a little paranoid—this idea that the world might be against you. Or worse, depressed, that maybe you don’t matter all that much. Or even angry—enough to hurt other people the way you have been hurt yourself. We see this. We see this.

And then into the picture comes Jesus Christ himself. And he tells us:

You have an Advocate. And not just any Advocate, THE ADVOCATE.

The Holy Spirit, God herself.

Who, like Clint Eastwood, will be there in the Good, and the Bad, and the Ugly.

Or, if you prefer a scriptural metaphor, will, in the words of the 23rd Psalm, be there by green pastures, and in the valley of th shadow of death.

She’s there. Through it all.

When you need encouragement—you’ll get it.

When you need to be reminded that someone is rooting for you—She will raise her voice and cry out your name.

……but how?

The Holy Spirit is one of the most confusing parts of God’s presence amongst us. It’s the point in confirmation class where I get a lot of blank stares. Because she’s hard to understand.

Jesus is easy—he was a literal man, who walked the earth we live on, who had a mother and siblings and friends and enemies just like we do, and who said a bunch of stuff that people thought was interesting enough to write down. We can understand him.

And that Holy Roller, the Father himself—who hasn’t imagined a voice within the thunder? Who hasn’t wondered whether there was something bigger out there, who made the earth and everything in it? What is man that you are mindful of him?

But the Holy Spirit?

All we have are metaphors.

She’s like the wind. Or was it a dove? A breath, even? Maybe she’s more like a Ghost? No, that can’t be it….oh yes, a still, small voice!  Or wait–is she your conscience?

Maybe.

The problem with the Holy Spirit is that none of us have ever met her in person.

Except.

Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit shows up when we are together. That somehow she is amongst us, and through us.

In other words—the Advocate makes her appearance whenever we are church to each other.

Whenever you support a brother or a sister in Christ

Whenever you encourage the fainthearted

Whenever you support the weak and the afflicted—

THAT IS HOLY SPIRIT ADVOCACY.

Whenever you love someone else’s baby like he is your own;

Or take the time to get to know that quiet teenager in church;

Or visit the elderly member because you know she might be lonely—

YOU ARE THE ADVOCATE.

You are testifying to God’s power moving through Y-O-U.

Which is pretty amazing, when you think about it.

top.jpgIt is utterly amazing to think that you could be the conduit through which God’s power might be felt in the world. It’s as though you were the electrical in a house that God has been building, and it wasn’t until you were Grounded in the Word that Jesus showed up and threw the circuit breakers on, and the Spirit coursed through your body as it flooded that house with light. To illuminate the world we live in.

See, Jesus isn’t content to just have us look back to the story of God’s presence amongst us. He wasn’t interested in a backward-looking faith. He knew that we needed to feel God’s presence, alive and active, amongst us now.

He knew that if those words he spoke were going to matter, we needed someone who would love us as much as he did.

He knew that we needed an ADVOCATE to show us how to be an Advocate for one another.

So how does it feel, knowing this? That you have someone?

Because remember what we said in the beginning—the world is a dark and lonesome place. Perhaps it gives you the strength, in the words of Peter, to endure, to suffer for what is right, to resist fear, to defend your difference in Christ with gentleness and reverence. Perhaps it helps you to put your hope where it belongs—in Christ, the defender and author, pioneer and perfector of our faith.

And perhaps it gives you the courage to share what you know—that we are not alone. To embrace one another, to baptize babies in defiance of the darkness because you know the power of the light that courses within you. To be with and for one another because we are better together than we are apart. Because THAT is our Testimony. That is HOLY SPIRIT WORK.

Just be warned—the Holy Spirit cannot be contained. Once she is in you, she may take you somewhere you did not expect. She may ask you to open your heart wider than you anticipated. She may change you, or challenge you, or bid you follow her into unknown territory. But she’s worth it. She’s worth it, friends. Because in her, we are alive. And God is with us. Amen? Amen.4ba29a44f27cce7fb545c9654ff5dcf8.jpg

 

 

 

Dinosaur Bones

 

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You gotta love a good metaphor.

The other day, I was sitting with some clergy colleagues and we were talking about the role of the pastor.  What, we wondered, is the pastor’s real job?  Sure, they are supposed to preach, to teach, to visit the sick, to shepherd the flock, to die on the cross demonstrate self-sacrifice, and to model discipleship.  But how?

For some of us, the answer was simple–you do all of that by casting a vision.  One colleague offered that when he serves a church, he sees his role as providing the church with a vision that is God-centered and faithful to the gospel.  A faithful ministry, he said, is one where you have succeeded in convincing your church to follow you where you believe God would have the congregation go.

But not all of us agreed.  As we sat in the room debating, I found myself thinking about dinosaur bones.  Specifically, about the process by which archeologists carefully and meticulously unearth these ancient treasures from below the ground, and then painstakingly assemble them together to show us something of what dinosaurs (or ancient pottery, homes, synagogues, you name it) may have looked like.

In that moment, I was compelled by the notion that successful pastors don’t cast a vision–they unearth the vision that was there all along.  They tend to the soil of their congregation, listening for clues that might help them discover what is lying below the surface, waiting to be revealed.  Good pastoral ministry knows that the congregation has a vision, they just may have forgotten it, or buried it beneath anxiety about change or finances or anything else that has a tendency to get in the way of the gospel.

Of course, I was feeling pretty profound when I finally had the courage to share my metaphor with the group, but it turns out I had still more to learn, because no sooner were the words out of my mouth than a colleague blurted out:

“Of Course!  It’s like the Hadrosaurus!”

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this can’t possibly be right….

If you are like me, then you were probably utterly confused, so I will explain what my colleague was so excited about.  Apparently, we have been finding dinosaur bones for centuries, but that doesn’t mean we always knew what to do with them.  In fact, , scientists were often baffled by the bones, and sometimeswould put them together in all kinds of shapes using what seemed to be educated guesses.

Until they found the Hadrosaurus. In 1858, scientists in Haddonfield New Jersey uncovered the first largely intact dinosaur skeleton.  It was the first time they had enough pieces to know what a dinosaur actually looked like, and what it revealed is that, up until that moment, we had it all wrong.

 

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Ahh, that’s better…

Before the Hadrosaurus, paleontologists had assumed that most dinosaurs were
quadrupedal; Hadrosaurus revealed that they were not.  It turned out that dinosaurs like the Brontosaurus were completely fictional–they never existed, we just imagined them because we didn’t know what we were looking at. It took seeing a complete, intact dinosaur to realize that we had it all wrong.

In our group, we found ourselves on the precipice of something important.  We were realizing that the role of the pastor may have more to do with paleontology than we realized.  Yes, a good pastoral leader pays attention to her congregation and helps uncover what is already there. But they also need to know how to faithfully fit it all together. In order to help the church be faithful, they must endeavor to fit those pieces together so that they make something that is real and honest and true.

There are plenty of instances where we uncover a bunch of different passions and visions, but if we don’t have a blueprint, we cannot fit them together in a faithful way. And that is what Scripture is for.  It is our Hadrosaurus, our guide to what the church should look like.  And thanks be to God that, like the dinosaurs, there are countless models of faithful churches to look at. But they all follow certain rules.  They are faithful to the message of Christ, devoted to works of mercy and compassion, to worship and prayer, hospitality and healing, justice and reconciliation, generosity of spirit and with resources.

These building blocks make us who we are. And when we are attentive to them, when we put them together correctly, they reveal something about who God is.  More than that, they leave something for future generations, a blueprint for those who come after to follow as they, too, learn what it means to worship the one we know as God.

 

 

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What if my bones were in a museum,
Where aliens paid good money to see ’em?
And suppose that they’d put me together all wrong,
Sticking bones on to bones where they didn’t belong!
Imagine phalanges, pelvis, and spine
Welded to mandibles that once had been mine!
With each misassemblage, the error compounded,
The aliens would draw back in terror, astounded!
Their textbooks would show me in grim illustration,
The most hideous thing ever seen in creation!
The museum would commission a model in plaster
Of ME, to be called, “Evolution’s Disaster”!
And paleontologists there would debate
Dozens of theories to help postulate
How man survived for those thousands of years
With teeth-covered arms growing out of his ears!
Oh, I hope that I’m never in such manner displayed,
No matter HOW much to see me the aliens paid. -Bill Watterson

 

I just Kant help Myself

1 Peter 2:19-25

19For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22   “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

John 10:1-10

1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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This guy’s out of Kant-rol……

Recently my husband and were driving in the car and we had the rare chance to enjoy one of those adult conversations that have become so rare for us lately.  We didn’t talk about our kids, or our schedules, or who is making what for dinner, or who needs to clean what when.

So you may be wondering–What did we talk about?

We spent an hour talking about Kant’s categorical imperative.

Of course, you are saying to yourself! The Categorical Imperative! I’m sure you and your partner discussed the Categorical Imperative at length last summer over mimosas in the garden! Your toddler reminds you of the Kant’s analytical thought all.the.time.  Right?

Of course, there may be a few of you who haven’t found yourself wading into German Philosophical Waters recently, so let me explain.  First of all, who the heck is Kant?  Well, Kant was an 18th Century philosopher.  As a young man, he wasn’t all that remarkable.  In fact, he was darn ordinary.

Until the Categorical Imperative.

His thinking on this subject launched him from relative obscurity to mega-star status–he was the Bruce Springsteen (for all you PA-NJ types), the Michael Jackson (for the rest of us) of his time. And he had a heck of a lot to say about moral action, where it comes from, and how we know what it is.

His Categorical Imperative can be summarized as the following:

The idea that things that are right are right in themselves, what is wrong is wrong. That these are things that are able to be discovered through reason alone.

But how do you know if something is “right in itself?” Kant proposes three conditions, all of which must be satisfied in order for a decision to satisfy his categorical imperative:

1) all actions must be universal. You should only act if it makes sense for you to will everyone to act in the same way. Your will must be consistent. (thy will shalt make sense)

2) every human must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end. In other words, manipulation is always wrong.

3) We have a responsibility to be a moral agent: We are ALWAYS setting an example for other people. Always behave as though you are the moral authority of the universe.

 

Wait a second.

This sounds an awful lot like something we heard in our scriptures earlier this morning.  What was it that Peter said?

But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

In other words, doing what is right is more important than being comfortable. It is, pardon the pun, categorically imperative.

Which is why it MUST, according to Kant (and Jesus), come from within.
Remember that first condition of Kant? That our actions must be universal? That means that our actions should be consistent with the kind of world where you think everyone should act the way you are choosing to act in that moment. Whenever you have a choice before you, ask yourself : what would the world be like if everyone were to act this way? And then do what seems best for the world. That is an act of good will.

For Peter, an act of good will is to follow Jesus, to do what Jesus did, even if it threatens your own safety and well-being. Because it is right. And that, to Peter, makes sense.

Consider the following example: I have always felt personally uncomfortable in the presence of the suffering of another person. When my son got stitches on his lip after falling off a chair, my stomach was in knots at the Emergency Room. Whenever I encounter someone begging on the side of the road, or struggling with a particularly heavy burden, I am tempted to look away.

So I ask myself: would the world be a better place if it were morally acceptable to avoid the suffering of other people?  If we were not morally obligated to bear witness, would the world be a better place?

I wonder.

Which is precisely where our second condition from Kant. Because it isn’t enough just to be consistent. Our choices also must respect the dignity of other people. Kant’s second maxim for discerning what is right is that you may not manipulate another person or treat them as a means to an end. Which is another way of saying that your choices, your decisions, your moral code must not take advantage of another person, or forget their inherent worthiness.

That means we can’t go around ignoring inconvenient people, and we also cannot go around imposing our will on others just because we think it is good for them (or for us). Which, incidentally, we do all the time at church.

If this isn’t sounding utterly insane to you, let me put it another way: if we are to take Jesus and Kant at their word, then logically it follows that we need to stop teaching people “because I said so” kind of rules, and instead create the kinds of opportunities that lead people to impose these rules, our moral framework, upon themselves. Under this framework, the good will of the Christian Community should be to create opportunities for individuals to take Christ’s yoke upon them. The last thing we should be doing is throwing up barricades and boundaries on the behalf of others. Once we do that, we have ceased to do God.

To be a little more Gospel, you cannot put down the nets and follow Jesus for anyone else. You can only do it for yourself. You cannot choose to suffer for anyone else; only they can make that choice.

Kant’s second maxim: you can’t manipulate someone—everyone deserves to be treated as an end rather than a means to an end.

Or, in the words of our Gospel today: you cannot make someone be a sheep. A sheep chooses to obey the master. Trust me, as someone who raised sheep herself—you can’t make a sheep do something she doesn’t wanna do. You will NEVER gain the trust of that sheep through force, threats of violence, or coercion. The sheep must choose for itself. When the sheep has the freedom to choose, only then is it capable of good will.

If we want more sheep in the pasture—well, then, we need to act like that pasture is worth living in. Finally, we find ourselves at Kant’s final condition: there is a responsibility to being a moral actor. We must remember we are always setting an example. So we have to act like it. At all times. Even when nobody is looking. Because it doesn’t matter what happens. What matters is our intent. Remember, it was Jesus who said that sin is a matter of the heart as much as a matter of our actions. Because it doesn’t matter how kind you act, what matters is what you think.

We who have chosen, we who believe these words of Christ to be true and timeless, not because someone told us to long ago but because we have experienced it, we must take care to honor our neighbor, and to be a good example. We are all potentially somebody’s big sister or brother in this faith, and our actions will determine whether this family, this flock, continues to grow and bear fruit, or withers on the vine.

We must be constantly open to improvement, to the opportunity to do the right thing, whatever it is, because we will it. Because it is good and right.

Jesus believes it ISN”T enough to just do what you are told. You have to believe in it for yourself. In Kant’s words, it needs to originate within you. What is good and doing good only count if they originate out of the system of rules that you place upon YOURSELF. That means you have to have decided to adopt them. They must be freely chosen—no one can impose them upon you.

This is I think what made the early church so special. They shared out of their abundance, they gave to one another as anyone had need, they worshipped because they BELIEVED IN IT. And the response was overwhelming: daily they added to their number.

At this point one of a couple things have happened to you:
1) you tuned out somewhere along the way—in which case, my apologies for losing you!  Watch this awesome youtube video for a more interesting overview of Kant.

OR…..

2) perhaps you have found yourself thinking a little differently. Perhaps you have found yourself asking: what is MY categorical imperative? How have I made a commitment, or how CAN I commit to “will the good” in the world? Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that Philosophy is not actually the worst choice of major that your grandkid/child/best friend could have chosen after all. Perhaps it actually may have something important to say.

So what is OUR Categorical Imperative? What can we not live without? What kind of world do we imagine? If we are Christian, our Categorical Imperative is contained within the vision of the Kingdom of God—the blueprint is laid when Jesus directs us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned. Not because he told us to. But because we believe it is the right thing to do. Until we are whole. Until, alleluia, we are one. Amen, and may it be so.

Cross Post: Young Clergy Women

I had the honor of interviewing some of my female colleagues in ministry recently for a reporting piece that was published with the Young Clergy Women Project Magazine, Fidelia.  The piece is about how our bodies inform our ministry, and how ministry informs the way we think about our bodies, especially as it relates to assumptions around child-bearing and caring.  There are some great reflections from young clergy women of various backgrounds, speaking about the experience of adoption, of pregnancy and childbirth, and more.  It was an honor to share these stories, and I hope you will find it useful, either as a fellow clergy woman, or as someone who might benefit from hearing some of the real experiences that “women who work” endure in order to provide for their families and answer their callings.

Pub Theology: MLK Edition

This week our Pub Theology Group met and discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jan Pub Theology.jpg

It was an absolutely wonderful gathering filled with great insights and engaging conversation.  We started our gathering by reading some quotes from MLK’s speeches, sermons, and letters later in his career, wondering together–how are MLK’s words still relevant, challenging, difficult, and inspiring?  What do we most need to hear?  I am thankful to this group who gathered and dared to name the difficult realities of our past and present, who sat with one another as we wondered about connections between MLK’s legacy and Black Lives Matter, racism and sexism, economic inequality and the call for the church to be a place where difficult and honest conversation is not only safe but encouraged, because we cannot be transformed by one another if we cannot speak our truth.

If you are interested in the discussion prompts, there are listed here (the images of MLK’s quotes were created by artist Daniel Rarela)

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“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows… How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail-light behind the Supreme Court and other secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, 1965.

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“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” –Martin Luther King Jr, 1967.

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“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968.

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”