That Kid Is Going to Be Trouble

1 Samuel 2:18-20 18

Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy wearing a linen ephod. His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the LORD repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the LORD”; and then they would return to their home.

Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.

Luke 2:41-52

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.

Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

It’s not easy being a kid. If you don’t believe me, ask one. Sure, you don’t have to work hard for the money, or pay the rent, but you don’t exactly get to do whatever you want, either. Wherever your parents go, there you go. Grocery Store, Doctors Appointments, Aunt Gracie’s house. Errands errands and more errands. Sometimes I wonder whether perhaps kids are so imaginative because there is so often little else that they can control than their own minds.

It wasn’t easy for Jesus to be a kid, either. Just because you’re the Messiah doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. Because party of being enfleshed, of being incarnate as a human being, is experiencing childhood.

There’s a reason, I think, that we don’t have a lot of stories about Jesus as a kid. It may have something to do with the fact that Mary probably didn’t have time to sleep, much less write anything down. Jesus wasn’t an only child, you know. Based on the Scriptural witness, we know that she had at least two other sons, and probably some daughters as well. In other words, Mary almost certainly had her hands full. If she was anything like mothers today, Jesus’ childhood probably looked a whole lot like a sleep-deprived blur.

Besides, if she DID have any time to herself, was she really going to spend it recounting the time that Jesus told her to “get behind me, Satan” because she made him take a bath? Perhaps parents back in Jesus’ day said the same things to each other that we say today—“You know what it’s like,” and left it at that? Perhaps they assumed that everyone would know what a poor Jewish kid’s childhood in Galilee looked like, so they didn’t bother. They just assumed we wouldn’t need, let alone want, that information.

Now, there are a few apocryphal stories about child Jesus, but they don’t exactly make him sound normal. Thomas’ “First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,” a gnostic (or mystical) account of Jesus as a child that dates from the 3rd Century makes him sound, well, kinda weird. According to the First Gospel, Jesus enters the world with the power of speech, proclaiming in the stable that he is the Son of God. Simply holding him, touching his clothes, even his dirty bathwater, has the magical power to heal the sick, cure the afflicted, and banish the devil. Based on this account, child Jesus takes after his Father (you know, that Father ), creating clay animals and animating them, even bringing the dead back to life. And even at an early age, he is schooling his elders in the temple and at school, which I am sure made him popular with grownups and his peers.

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Baby Jesus is MAGIC!!!!

As you can probably imagine, there’s a reason that these stories didn’t make it into the bible, but they do remind us that, as long as there has been a faith called Christianity, Christians have been wondering about what Jesus was like. They have been imaging what it must have been like for the Messiah to be a child, perhaps because a regular childhood seems just a bit too cliché.

But is it too much to imagine that our Lord and Savior was just a kid like the rest of us? To picture the Holy One as experiencing the whole of humanity, even childhood?

Consider Luke 2. Jesus goes on yet another family vacation with his parents, this time to the Temple. For a kid from a remote village, this must have been exciting, to be surrounded by so many people, languages, and cultures. To be around so many big buildings and new sounds. And like any kid in the city for the first time, he is so awed by his surroundings, so busy looking up, that he forgets to pay attention to his parents. And his parents are so overwhelmed—because what vacation is restful for parents with kids that age?—that they lose track of Jesus. They quite literally leave him at the gas station.

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Hey mom!! Where did you go?

It isn’t until almost a day later that they realize they are down a Nazarean pre-teen. Now, I don’t know about you, but that moment when you realize you do not know where your child is occupying space is quite possibly the most adrenaline-filled moment you will experience as a parent. It is one thing to dream about a day without your kids; it is another thing for them to make it a reality. Mary and Joseph frantically retrace their steps, looking high and low for Jesus. The sword pierces Mary’s heart, for what will not be the last time.

The Bible tells us that FOR THREE DAYS they search for him. Now, I lost sight of Amelia once for about 20 seconds, and it scared the living daylights out of me. I cannot imagine three days. Not knowing where your kid is. Wondering if someone has taken him. Fearing the worst.

So imagine how you might feel as a parent to discover after three days that your child CHOSE to stay behind. CHOSE to walk into the temple, and chill out with the priests and scribes.

What sort of excuse would be acceptable in that moment?

If you are like me, the answer is that there is no excuse.images.jpeg

I can imagine Mary and Joseph now: “I don’t CARE if you are the Son of God. You are grounded forever.” I can imagine a whole lot of discipline raining down on that kid (notice how the scripture mentions that after they get home, Jesus “was obedient” to his parents. You bet your ass he was!) I can practically see Mary and Joseph with a lot more gray hairs after that day, and a lot of side-long looks that roughly translate as, “This kid is going to be trouble.” (You better believe that Mary “treasured” this in her heart for a good long while…because moms are like elephants.  They never forget.)

Of course, I can also imagine the sense of relief. The tight embrace that Mary and Joseph give to young Jesus as they lead him out of the city and back home. The ever more vigilant watch they will keep over him in the days and the months ahead. The love that will cling fiercely to him, trying to keep him safe.

I also can’t help but wonder whether this experience is meant to foreshadow another three days, at the end of Jesus’ life, when his beloved disciples will run through the very same city, entertaining their own worst nightmare—that their Teacher is really and truly gone. Fearing the worst, and surprised by the truth.

But who can be certain? Maybe, just maybe, it is really just a story about how Jesus managed to be both different, and utterly like us—not just in his adulthood, but in his childhood too. Fully Human, Fully God.

If this is what Jesus was like at 12, I don’t know if I want to know about the teenage years. I don’t need to know. Because it is enough to affirm that Jesus really was just like us. He was fully human. He was a child just like us. And he survived the slings and arrows of Childhood to become a fully formed adult, capable of love, and compassion, and forgiveness, just like us.

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2015 in Review

Just like every Christmas, this years’ was preceded by the darkest day of the year, on December 21st.

But as I have reflected on this year, I must admit that it has not be difficult to identify darker days.

If I am truly honest, 2015 has been a year that often has seemed lost in darkness.

I open the news every morning, evening, and night, and am reminded that ours is a world marked by terror—abroad and at home, I am forced to reckon with the truth that this world that we inhabit looks nothing like a a fairy tale (at least, not the kind that Disney tells us).

Newspapers, radio, and television sets give me daily updates on the world of ISIS, chronicling tales of slavery, indiscriminate violence, and cruelty perpetrated on the poor, on women, on Christians and Yazidis, and on Muslims who do not conform to ISIS’ description of Islam.isis.jpg

Part of the consequence of this spectacle of violence is that we are inundated with images of refugees pouring out of these war-torn regions, in addition to many more that our news barely mentions. Millions of refugees from Burma, Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and more have traveled by road and boat, have drowned in the sea, have shivered in the forests, have been beaten and turned back by border police, all to escape unsafe conditions at home. They have faced hell as they have struggled to make a new life for themselves.

And as they have struggled, as they have bled, as they have gone without heat, or clean water, or food, or a place to sleep, Western Nations have been consumed by fear–that this constant stream of refugees might bring with it other risks—they have asked themselves, will the hospitality of European and Western countries to legitimately persecuted people also open a door to terrorism?

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This is what we are afraid of.

Because this year also reminded us that we live in a world where terror is no longer confined to unstable countries.  The internet has made it possible for those drawn to extreme ideologies to connect online, to build relationships, and to encourage violence far beyond international borders.

Incidents like Paris and San Bernardino reminded us that the very terrorism we fear from outside more often is already here, living within our own borders—that those who perpetrate acts of terror are often citizens themselves, drawn to dark and threatening ideologies.

But lest we would be tempted to believe that terrorism is synonymous with radical Islam, this year reminded us that terror is part of our country’s own culture and legacy.

This year we were forced once more to reckon with the reality that racism and the legacy of slavery still reaches long, venomous tentacles into the present, where communities of color are often disenfranchised politically, financially, and civically. We were reminded that many white  communities in the United States still harbor irrational hatred against their brothers and sisters of color, and that some of them act on this hatred by terrorizing others.   And so we mourned the deaths of our brothers and sisters in Charleston at the hands of a young man who believed that we are not all equal. If we were paying attention, we noticed that, in the wake of this violence, 8 black churches were burned to the ground.  Black-Lives-Matter.jpg

And our society has been forced to grapple with a history of injustice against people of color which has resulted in endemic distrust of police and the justice system. Sandra Bland, Corey Williams, Freddie Gray, Laquan MacDonald, Tamir Rice—their lives and their deaths are a reminder that all is not light in this world. That not all of us experience the justice that we deserve. Not yet.

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So much violence in this country can be traced back to one thing: nearly unfettered access to guns.

Now I keep hearing that there are glimmers of hope—the newspaper says that the economy is better, but many of us still don’t feel it in our pocketbooks. We are still feeling vulnerable, and many of us have experienced the realities of financial and economic insecurity.

To paraphrase a line from Game of Thrones—this year has oft seemed dark, and full of terrors.


 

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Do we really believe that light can overcome the darkness?

So what, then, does it mean to proclaim that Christ is born in a world as dark as this? What does it mean to sing songs of praise to the light of the world, when it would seem that so much of the world still dwells in darkness?

In order to answer that question, we must remind ourselves of the world into which Christ was first born.

In the time of Christ, the land of Israel was a world marked by violence, military domination, and economic oppression. It was a world in which God’s people were an occupied people, living under the power and jurisdiction of Rome, a society rightly feared not only for its military might, but for its willingness to eliminate problems before they began. To be a Jew under Roman rule was to live your life in the knowledge that you were not free—you were not a citizen, you had no rights, and what little you had could be taken away if your voice or your religion started to sound too much like protest. It was a world in which kings could murder infants with impunity, behead prophets as a party gift, a world in which justice was something you read about in the Bible but rarely experienced for yourself.

But Rome wasn’t the only problem. Jewish society had issues of its own. For this was a world in which the sick, the poor, and the Other were shoved to the margins. It was a world in which lepers were left to fend for themselves, in which the poor were treated as expendable, in which the Gentiles were believed to be unworthy and unwelcomed in God’s kingdom. And women—they were little more than second-class citizens, suitable for marriage and childbearing, but rarely valued for other gifts.

A dark world, indeed.

And it is into this world that God shows up. The creator of the Milky Way takes on flesh, and nurses at his mother’s breast. The Divine Judge submits the daily indignities of incarnation. Our King and Lord stoops down and meets us as a poor, vulnerable, powerless child.

Could it be that the darkness of our world is precisely the kind of darkness into which Christ comes?

That perhaps the words of the Angel, “FEAR NOT,” are meant not just for the shepherds then, but for us now? Today?

What will we do with this incarnation? Will we pass it by? One more beautiful shop window in a world drenched in darkness? Or will we stop and wonder with the shepherds? Sing with the angels? Bow with the magi? Ponder with Mary? Will we resist the darkness, and cling to the light of the world? And will we dare to shout the good news to a world that sorely needs it?

May it be so, both now and forevermore. Amen.12376232_10153752622189754_2953881393138081528_n.jpg

Love Was Born on Christmas Day

Luke 1:5-18, 57-80

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”


Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
    that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A colleague of mine recently had her very first baby. She was so excited. She and her husband had waiting for years for the right time in their lives, in their careers, to welcome a child. All through the pregnancy, she was beaming. Excited for her life as a mother. Scared for how it might change her life. But mostly, excited.

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She and her husband were healthy, the baby was healthy, the pregnancy went about as you would expect. No worries, right? And this September, she gave birth to her beautiful, perfect baby boy, Jack.

Forty-five minutes later, she learned from the doctor on staff that Jack has Downs Syndrome.

Moments like these mark us. When what we have grown to expect based on our experience of the world is replaced by the surprise that life so often throws our way. My friend—she was overwhelmed. With love for this baby, this perfect, baby boy. With grief for the future she expected, but also concern for this child whose life would be harder than it had to be. With fear for herself, and her husband—how would they do this? Could they do this?

But they didn’t have time to wonder. Jack was healthy, mom was healthy.  There wasn’t much more to be done than to take Jack home, love him, and figure it out together.

There are so many things in this world that we cannot possibly prepare ourselves for. We can imagine what they will look like, but we cannot guarantee a thing. All we can do is get on the ride and buckle our seatbelts. All we can do is make a choice: to enjoy the life we have been given, or see it as something to suffer through.elizabeth_baby.jpg

In our scripture this morning, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives are dealt a surprise twist worthy of the movies. A cloud of angels and incense accompany the dumbstruck moment in which these righteous and good people learn that they will be parents. That the child they have hoped for is coming. He’s just coming a little late.

Funny side story about age—when my mother became pregnant with me, she was 34 years old, which at the time was still considered, well, old. Her doctor made the mistake one day of referring to her as an elderly primigravida, and let’s just say that was the last time he said that in front of her. 

Anyhow, back to the story. It is easy to imagine how happy, how joyful, Elizabeth and Zechariah must have been, but the truth was probably more complicated. In Jesus’ day, childbirth was downright dangerous. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, or the old, or the frail. Consider that today, in this modern age, 830 women die every day from childbirth related complications like bleeding, infection, high blood pressure, and delivery complications. And the WHO has found that the risks only increase as women get older.

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Maternal Mortality rates worldwide–the rates have decreased over the last few decades but are still unacceptably high.

Elizabeth almost certainly knew this. She may not have had a child herself, but surely she had helped her aunts, her cousins, her nieces through pregnancy. And she almost certainly buried a love one who didn’t make it through. She may desperately want a child, but she may very well also be terrified.

We don’t often acknowledge this reality in our reading of Scripture. We prefer to skip over the practical considerations of pregnancy and childbirth, and go straight for the pink-cheeked babies. We prefer to ponder Zechariah’s muteness and pass Elizabeth by. I guess a dumbstruck husband is more interesting than a elderly pregnant woman. But it isn’t entirely honest. When we do this, we forget that Elizabeth was a real person who endured real risks in bearing John. That she may well have risked her own life to be faithful to God.

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Strong women need one another.

I also suspect it is no accident that Elizabeth happens to be related to Mary. It is no accident that these two faithful women find within themselves the chutzpah to bear the enormous risk of bearing John and Jesus. Their gift is that they do not have to do so alone. Scripture tells us that they spend much of their pregnancy together, and I wonder whether they do not draw strength from one another, and encouragement to receive God’s will for them with joy in that time.

And indeed, when the child does come safely, there is plenty of joy, and love to go around. Zechariah, finally able to speak, utters his first words, and they are a love song to the God who has safely delivered John and Elizabeth from the perils of pregnancy:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,

As he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,

The oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,

Might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

The amazing and life-changing Good News of the Gospel is this: the same God who watches out for elderly pregnant women and vulnerable babies watches out for all of God’s people. God’s redemptive story continues, in you, in me, as we wait and watch for Christ to reveal himself in this time, and in this place.

What will Christmas look like this year? Probably not so much like a baby in a manger. Or maybe he will. Perhaps he will look like my friend, who this week, after months of complicated feelings of love mixed with fear, took her precious child Jack to church for the pageant practice. She laid Jack in the manger and was called away for a moment. When she returned, her heart caught in her chest at what she saw: the children, crowded around the manger, in awe of a beautiful, perfect, precious child, a gift from God himself.

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Love was born on Christmas day. May it be so for us.

 

A Life of Joy

Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”


When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day. 


When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.


Luke 2:25-32

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

We are going to do a quick thought experiment.

If you are comfortable doing so, take a moment, perhaps close your eyes if you need to, and I want you to think back to an experience of deep joy that you have experienced. See if you can remember a time in your life, a moment or a period of time, for which the feeling of joy was inescapable.


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What is joy?

If you were to define it, what words would you use to explain what it was?

See I have a hunch that joy is one of those feelings that can be difficult to put words to, and yet we know it when we see it. We might be journeying through life when suddenly the light bulb hits us and we say to ourselves: THIS is joy.

This probably makes me a cliché, but I don’t care: when I think back on my brief life so far, the most palpable experiences of joy that I have had have been moments of connection between myself and other people. The moment I held my daughter and my son for the first time. Saying “I do” to my husband. The recognition that a friend whom I love dearly “sees” me and loves me despite my me-ness.

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But then there are also other experiences of joy, aren’t there? The feeling of victory when we finally understand an idea or concept we have long wrestled with. The experience of intellectual breakthrough of the student or the academic, in which that which was once murky becomes blazingly clear. The moment when a community no longer feels like another place you go, but a home, a family, a sanctuary. I could go on, but what is the common thread of these experiences? What binds them together?

I wonder if joy is not something that we experience when we find ourselves connected: when the deep yearning at the heart of our soul is met by the reality of the world. When we find that we are not alone, but are bound together: to God, to one another, to ideas, to a place, to the world beyond us.connected-communications.jpg

Certainly, the Israelites in Ezra found their joy in their connection to the land of their ancestors. In our scripture today, they have finally returned after a long exile. Finally, they can be a people of the land. Finally, they can worship their God without fear. Their joy ought to be complete. And yet, as they look upon the ruins of their Temple, as they see that the land of their memories does not hold up to the reality, their joy is tempered. Scripture tells us that even as many shouted for joy, others wept aloud, so that the people could not distinguish the weeping from the joyful shouting.

They could not distinguish the weeping from the joyful shouting.

There is something so utterly true about that statement—the line that separates joy and pain is narrow indeed. And many of our moments of profound joy are also tempered by experiences of deep struggle, pain, and frustration. The experience of childbirth. The struggle of the academic and the student to understand. The mystery that so often attends the dance of friendship.

And what of us? Our church recently had cause for rejoicing as we welcomed new members in our midst. For us, this is cause to celebrate, for our family is growing.  Our connection is cause for deep and lasting joy.

But we also find ourselves with Simeon, the man of the Temple, whom we know from scripture has been waiting for God’s consolation and peace. Like we who wait and watch in Advent, he has been waiting on God. We do not know how long he has been waiting, but he must have been patient. He knew what it means to keep watch. To be attentive.

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And it is worth it, because in the moment of truth, Simeon does not delay. According to Luke, Simeon is waiting for Jesus in the Temple, and his joy is found in the moment when his soul’s desire—to experience God’s redemption in the Messiah—is met by its fulfillment in Christ.

Now, lets be honest and admit that for some, this might have been a moment of despair: to be told that the one you were waiting for was not what you thought it would be. To follow God and find that your Messiah isn’t rich or powerful, he has no skills or abilities that would make him great. He’s just a baby. And yet, Simeon is overcome. He cannot contain his joy. He doesn’t just wait for Mary to come to him—Scripture tells us he goes to the boy and takes him in his arms. He is so overcome by joy, he doesn’t stop to wonder what it all means. He simply rejoices.091simeon.jpg

Perhaps Simeon knows something that we need to learn: that joy is experienced in connection, but it is also found in assurance: that God is in control, that things will be as they should be. It is a disposition towards the world, not naïve or simplistic, but deeply cognizant of the reality of the landscape around us. Also deeply attuned to God’s plan for us, but open to the fact that God moves in mysterious ways.

Joy is found it the recognition that all of the pain and darkness of this world—all of our fear of the unknown, of the stranger, all of our tendency towards violence, towards war, towards aggression—these are not God’s plan for us. No, God’s plan for us looks less like a drone strike and more like a stranger rejoicing over a poor baby from Nazareth. God’s plan looks like hope for the hopeless, light in the darkness, and peace—true peace—on earth for all of God’s creation.

So let us learn from Simeon. Let us make room in our lives to pay attention to what God is up to. May we rush to greet the Messiah when we see him. May we long to hold the joy of the world in our arms, and share it with one another, so that our joy may become theirs.

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Soil Tending in the Desert

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.

Isaiah 40:1-11

atacama_desert2..jpgOnce upon a time, there was a vast and arid desert. The oldest, driest desert on earth. Hundreds of years would go by without a drop of rain. Only the sun scorched the earth that lay exposed beneath its rays. No plants could grow there; animals and people would walk miles out of their way to avoid finding themselves lost in the endless, barren place. Only the hardiest reptiles and tiny grasshopperes found a home there, where they preyed upon those unfortunate to lose themselves there.

Over time, deep fissures coursed through the red clay soil, and it seemed as though the land were forsaken, forgotten by the world. It was hard to imagine that anything could ever be otherwise.

But then, one day, something different happened. Rain fell from the sky. First one drop, then another. And another. And another. Before you knew it, water was coursing through the cracks in the earth, mini rivers soaking into the bone dry soil.

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For twelve hours the rain kept coming. 7 years of rain in half a day. The earth swelled, and the cracks disappeared. Tiny green shoots—where did they come from—appeared in the loam. The arid landscape suddenly blanketed in blues and yellows, purples and reds, veiling what once seemed dead and barren with unmistakable signs of life. The desert was alive.chile_desierto_florido14.jpg

If this seems remarkable, then it is. The Atacama desert of Chile, which is often compared to the terrain of mars and is regarded by many to be the absolute driest place in the world, experienced an explosion of color this fall as El Nino drenched the hillsides with water earlier this year.

It turns out that deserts contain more life than we would expect…many deserts, in fact, harbor hidden life in the form of seeds and deep root systems that are just waiting for the right moment, the amount of water so that the life may burst forth, for however brief.

Even the land of the Bible has seen this phenomenon. Long, long ago—10,000 years ago, in f act—monsoon rains transformed the Sahara desert into a lush and habitable land. Generations of people and animals found refuge in the desert.

What a difference a little rain makes.

I wonder if this is the sort of notion that Isaiah was getting at when he told the people to prepare a highway in the desert for God. You see, the people have been waiting a long time for this. For generations they have waiting—in exile, forgotten, barren, disconsolate—held prisoner in a foreign land. They have wondered—has our God abandoned us? Will we fade away in the darkness of exile?

It is to the desert of the soul that Isaiah speaks a word of comfort: Comfort, Comfort, my people. God is coming. Get ready. Prepare a way for the Lord. What faith it must take to prepare for something that you cannot see. For something that you cannot know for sure will happen. To live as though God is coming, even when you cannot see through the darkness that is in front of you.

And yet, that is what we are called to do in the season of Advent. To acknowledge that often we find ourselves living in the desert, living in lack. But we aren’t called to live with despair. Rather, we are called to live like the seeds do—to pay attention, to wait and watch and make room for the possibility that rain may fail on us. To trust when it comes that it will be enough. To live as though we were made to bloom.

If this is difficult to imagine, then perhaps another horticultural image will help: If you are someone who likes to garden, perhaps you have noticed that your easiest years of gardening in a plot are often the first. You plant your tomatoes and your eggplants, your peas and your cabbage, and they spring up with no trouble at all.

It only takes a year or so for the pesties to figure out that where you planted the buffet. Suddenly, you have an extra chore: managing the bugs and the interlopers so that some of your harvest makes it to your table. And perhaps you have noticed, that if you don’t rotate your crops, or amend your soil, your cabbage heads are smaller and smaller, your tomatoes are less fruitful. So then you find you are spending your time tending soil as well.

Winter turns out to be a great time for doing this work—after the plants have grown, that is the time for preparing for the next year. For planting cover crops, and turning in hay or leaf mulch. For cleaning your tools, and making notes about what worked and what didn’t, which pests to treat for, and which to keep an eye on.

Again, the earth reminds us that we are in the season of our faith in which we are asked to wait, and watch and prepare. To tend the garden of our souls. This is a season for reflection, for deepening our knowledge of God and of love. This is a season for remembering God’s promise—that The LORD is coming, even when we find ourselves lost in the desert. This is the time for preparing for rain whose arrival we cannot predict, but whose promise is like a desert full in flower. It is a time of opening: of our hearts to God, and to one another as well.

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Perhaps it is also a time for us to reflect on the deserts of our own lives. To remember that there are two kinds of deserts in this life: the ones that find us, and the ones that we create. To remember that grief and loss, violence and despair, hatred and division—these are deserts. But so too are the personal choices we are faced with: to overwork ourselves, to overcommit ourselves, to deny ourselves rest or pleasure, to isolate ourselves, to “go it alone” because we would rather be in control than be in community.

And perhaps it is also a good time to remember that no desert is so vast that God cannot find us. That there is no war that cannot be meet with God’s peace, no hatred that cannot be met with God’s compassion, no hunger that cannot be met with God’s body and God’s blood in Christ. We can—we must—acknowledge the deserts. But we can also affirm that they are not God’s intention for us. There is, as Paul says, a more excellent way.

When we remember that, when we are filled with the bread and the cup that remind us of God’s constant abiding in us through the Power of God’s spirit, then we have something. We have God’s story, which reminds us that the violence and hatred of this world, the partisanship and division and vitriol—they are not ultimate. They will not win. Darkness cannot overcome the darkness. Only light can. Only Christ can. And Christ, the light, hope, the Kingdom—take your pick—they prevail when WE live as though the Kingdom were real—when we choose hope over fear, love over hate, open arms over closed doors, following Jesus at the risk of our own lives over our own safety, because we cannot do otherwise.

So come, out of your deserts, whatever they may be. Come and be fed at the table that will never fail, be refreshed by the baptism of living water that never dries up, be encouraged by the knowledge that Christ is coming soon. Christ is coming very, very soon.

Two Hundred Pounds, or What is Precious?

2 Kings 22:1-8; 23:1-3

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, “Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the Lord; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. 


Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LordThe king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

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A man was serving the church as a missionary in China. He was under house arrest, when soldiers finally came one day and said to him, “You Can Return to America.”

The family was celebrating, and the soldiers said, “You can take 200 pounds with you.”

Well, they had been there for years. Two hundred pounds. So they got out the scales, and started the family arguments: 2 children, wife, and husband. Must have this vase. Well, this new typewriter. What about my books? What about this? And they weighed everything and took it off and weighed this and took it off and weighed that and, finally, right on the dot, two hundred pounds.

The soldier asked, “Are you ready to go?””

“Yes.”
“Did you weigh everything?”
“Yes.”

“You weighed the kids?”
“no, we didn’t.”

“Weigh the kids.”

And in that moment, typewriter and vase and all became trash. Trash. It happens.

-From Craddock Stories, a collection of stories by Fred Craddock

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G B Farthing and his family, Baptist missionaries in China, c. 1900.

‘Tis the season, it would seem. Some of us are still digesting our turkey dinners, and already the emails and phone calls are flying about: Christmas lists, dinner plans, party invites. And all of it is JUST. SO. IMPORTANT.

Anyone ever just wish in moments like these that you could go back to being a kid? Remember what Christmas felt like when you were little? The countdowns until school is out? The excitement? The sense of complete and utter wonder? The awe and mystery of Christmas Eve? The unfettered joy of ripping Christmas wrapping? The complete and utter lack of dread, or responsibility? I don’t know about you, but I know an awful lot of adults who wish there were a few more weeks before Christmas.

So what is it about childhood? Somehow, Children have it all figured out: that this is a season of anticipation, of hope for the future, of excitement for what is coming. They are counting down, and every day is one step closer.

Like Josiah, the child king, who recognized the importance of the law, kids just get Christmas. They may not know the story so well, but they get the feeling of Christmas: the hope, the joy, the excitement of what is coming.

Because that is what it is folks. We may have smothered this season in Black Friday ads, tinsel, and obligation, but when you get down to it, Christmas is all about anticipation.

Over the last few weeks, we have been talking in acolyte class about this, and we came up with this idea, that there are certain foods that taste like Christmas. And we thought to ourselves, what would it mean to “taste” Christmas on the first Sunday of Advent? To remind ourselves of what we are looking forward to?

And so for first Advent at IPC, we brought our favorite Xmas Food to share in worship.  Cookies, candy canes, Stollen. And we brought it because we hoped that all of those who gathered with us would take a moment, an opportunity during worship, to remind themselves that this season, of Advent, is always looking forward to Christmas: that this is a time to prepare, to remember, and to anticipate.Aqua-and-red-platter-42.jpeg


I have a theory about why we grown-ups have a harder time remembering to hope during Advent. I have a feeling it has something to do with being so busy, or thinking we are. We are always doing something, planning something, preparing something, driving someone, checking emails, filling every moment until there simply is no time left to stop and remember. NO time left to think, really. We don’t give ourselves permission to slow down. We worry that if we do, Christmas won’t happen. Or that it won’t be perfect.

And so there is no time left to ask the questions, like:

Is this true?

Is this real?

Is this what Christmas is really about?

I wonder whether perhaps the greatest gift that we could give ourselves this Advent is the gift of Time and the permission to not be perfect. To choose rest, to choose face time with family and loved ones, to choose quiet and reflection over the seemingly inescapable soundtrack of Christmas out there? To choose to be with those who will support us in that effort so that we can remember together, why this season is so important?

A colleague of mine has suggested that perhaps Advent is the perfect season for fasting. She writes: “The point of fasting during advent is not on what you are giving up, it’s on what you are gaining.” So, for example, fasting from our phones is time to focus on something else. Money we choose not to spend on so many obligatory gifts can be given to a worthy cause. Fasting from television, from shopping, from facebook: they aren’t easy, they are hard. They are disciplines.

But what might we gain? One more afternoon with loved ones. One more opportunity to remember that love isn’t something that money can buy—love looks more like that very first imperfect Christmas in a dirty stable, and it is remembered every time we take time for one another rather than for ourselves.

Love looks like the recognition that all the lamps and typewriters are worthless compared to 200 pounds of children home safe with their mother and father.

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In a head to head contest, the kids always win.

Because that is the lesson of Advent, and the reason for Christmas hope: God spent time with us. In the person of Christ, God came and dwelled, and in his light we found that we were not alone. We were not afraid. We were loved. And it was enough. In fact, it was perfect.