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

 

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.

Change is Coming

 Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Luke 1:47-55

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47       and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49  for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50  His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54  He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55  according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

the-change-up-180.jpgA special assembly, they called it. Just for girls. They kicked the boys out of our fourth grade classroom and out onto the playground for extended PE and rolled a large television cart into our classroom. A visitor joined us in the classroom, and before we knew what was happening, we were talking about “the change.”

Now let’s be clear. I was 10. I had no idea what she was talking about. All I cared about was the little pink and purple “pencil case” covered in quotes by famous women that she gave to each of us, at least, I thought it was a pencil case. It was full of strange objects that I had only glimpsed in my mother’s bathroom cabinets.

That woman in my classroom—neither her nor my teacher Mrs. Datlow ever really said plainly what she was there to talk about. Or maybe she did, but we didn’t really know how to understand what she was saying. All we were certain of by the end of our special assembly was that something was coming, that it would make us different, and that when it happened, we would need these bags. And Abstinence. That too.

So I kept that bag in my backpack (for years I kept it!), waiting for that moment when I would need it. Waiting for the day when I would finally understand what it all meant.

At home, I would pull out that little pencil bag and read the quotes printed on the outside. I remember the one by Eleanor Roosevelt the best: “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I loved that quote. Later I would learn that Ms. Roosevelt had a lot to say about women—she was once quoted as saying that “women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.”


It occurs to me that this certainly could describe our Gospel lesson today—for this morning we are introduced-reintroduced, really-to a woman whose story starts out with her in hot water, a woman whose encounter with God teaches her just how strong she will have to become. The only problem is that she isn’t really a woman yet—Mary is, by today’s standards, a child. Many scholars think that she might have been anywhere between ten and fourteen years old when the angel first arrived at her door.

Which, these days, would make a fifth-7th grader.

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It turns out that Mary wasn’t all that different than I was when I sat in that classroom what seems like a lifetime ago, pondering a messenger’s confusing words.

And I don’t know about you, but knowing that—knowing that Mary was a child, really—changes the story for me. To be reminded that Mary wasn’t a woman—she wasn’t fully grown, wasn’t fully anything yet—she was still a little girl when the angel brought the news to her that she would bear the savior of the world.

I wonder: Did she understand what that meant? Could she possibly? Can any of us imagine what that must have been like for her?

And maybe it is just my age, but these days I find myself wondering what it must have been like to be Mary’s parents in the days after this glorious news. For us, this news is glorious—for them, it must have been terrifying. In a culture where virtue is everything, this news has the power to destroy Mary, to destroy her reputation, to ruin her life before it even begins. Should we be surprised, then, that her first act after the angel’s visit is to run away to a distant cousin’s home? Back then, I wonder whether it was really possible to see this child for the blessing that He was?

And of course, I wonder what it must have been like to be Mary herself. I can’t speak for others, but for me being a preteen was often quite painful. I was growing so fast that my brain couldn’t keep up. I was trying to figure out who I was and what that meant. I always felt awkward. I still liked playing my little ponies, but I also was starting to think that boys were kind of cute too. I wanted so badly to be cool, but every time recess came around, I found that being cool and playing games, ie running around the yard pretending to be a horse, or a mermaid, or a princess, or a monster, were often mutually exclusive. And I wanted adults to take me seriously, but I struggled to understand what they wanted from me. When I was a tween, I was slipping notes under the door to my parents proclaiming that I was almost a grown up, and that they needed to start treating me like one and letting me stay up until 10pm if I wanted to. I wanted so badly to be grown up, but I didn’t know how.

And I think of this when I imagine Mary these days. Classic art often depicts Mary as this beautiful, peaceful, utterly calm and still young woman. How many 10 year olds does that describe for you?

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If we were to imagine this story today, perhaps it might be more accurate to picture Mary curled up under the covers collecting cats on her iphone, wearing her favorite flannel pajamas covered in cartoon foxes. Perhaps we should imagine this fiercely independent child clutching her beloved stuffed animal, even though she would never be seen outside the house with it. Her hair mussed on one side, her teeth wrapped in braces, the first signs of acne on her forehead.

e81b495f2f1fddd112b40e781a633ce2.jpgAnd here is what is amazing to me—when the angel of the Lord speaks his promise into Mary’s life—when he asks this child of God to bear the savior, Immanuel, God-with-us, into the world…. she is not afraid.

Perhaps she is too young to be fearful. Maybe her parent raised her to be respectful to other adults. Perhaps the excitement of being chosen, being set apart, overcomes any reservation. But Mary chooses to embrace God’s promise of hope. “Let it be according to your Word,” she replies. In a world that is dark, and fearful, she imagines freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, hope for the hopeless. She is faithful to the God of promise who guides her.

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Does she know the desert she is about to enter? I wonder. But just as God promised a way through the desert for the Exiled people of Israel in Isaiah 35, so God will provide a way forward for this brave little girl who has embraced a very big task. A task that she will only come to appreciate as she grows in wisdom and knowledge. God will be with her when her child is born in the darkness of a stable rude. God will be with her at 24, when her child disappears in the city of Jerusalem and she cannot find him for days. God will be with her at 45, when her baby is executed by the state for proclaiming a kingdom not of this world, for suggesting that the way to make Israel great again is not through strength, not through force, not through violence, but rather by seeking out and saving the lost and the broken.

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I wonder what might it mean for us, at this midway point in Advent, to remember that God’s Good News for the world can come in the most unexpected packages—for our God has a fondness for surprises like preteen girls and homeless prophets. That in fact, God rarely chooses the most dignified and deserving of us for the biggest tasks—the Good News, more often, comes to us from lowly, forgotten, humble places. The corners of the world from which we tend to hide our eyes.
Might it change the way that we pay attention to the world around us? The way we listen to our own children, our own neighbors? I wonder, would we be willing to accept a God whose salvation is found in the desert places of this world, places where all hope seems lost, where life has given up the ghost? Would we be willing to listen to a God who speaks justice out of the mouths of today’s preteens, today’s homeless, today’s oppressed people?

Because that is the God we worship, friends. A God who shows greatness in the least expected places. A God who strengthens weak hands, makes firm feeble knees, breathes strength to the fearful heart, and grants sight to the blind, movement to the lame, words to the speechless, sound to the deaf, and water to the parched places. Can we imagine?

Playing the Long Game (Advent 1)

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

A man observed a woman in the grocery store with a three-year-old girl in her basket. As they passed the cookie section, the child asked for cookies and her mother told her “no.” The little girl immediately began to whine and fuss, and the mother said quietly, “Now Ellen, we just have half of the aisles left to go through; don’t be upset. It won’t be long.”

Pretend-city-grocery-store.jpgHe passed the Mother again in the candy aisle. Of course, the little girl began to shout for candy. When she was told she couldn’t have any, she began to cry. The mother said, “There, there, Ellen, don’t cry. Only two more aisles to go, and then we’ll be checking out.”

The man again happened to be behind the pair at the check-out, where the little girl immediately began to clamor for gum and burst into a terrible tantrum upon discovering there would be no gum purchased today. The mother patiently said, “Ellen, we’ll be through this check out stand in five minutes, and then you can go home and have a nice nap.”

The man followed them out to the parking lot and stopped the woman to compliment her. “I couldn’t help noticing how patient you were with little Ellen…”The mother broke in, “My little girl’s name is Tammy… I’m Ellen.”


Patience. It has been said that patience is that quality that you admire in the car behind you but can’t stand in the driving in front of you. Many of us learn from our children just how much patience we have.

I wonder how many of us have struggled with patience. For the moment we currently live in is one that seems not to value patience all that much. We don’t like to be told to wait.

Perhaps that is why the Christmas decorations start coming out the day after Halloween. Or why the Black Friday Sales start on Thanksgiving evening these days. We don’t like to wait. And most of the time we don’t have to. So we don’t.5290272595_7ce14ac7e2_b.jpg

But here in this church, we are invited to pause. Advent season asks of us that we resist the temptation to live as though it is Christmas, and instead to take the time to reflect and remember why Christmas matters at all. To marinate in the question:

What would it mean for the Kingdom of God to be born in this world today?

It certainly meant something to the people to whom our Scripture was first written. It is easy to forget, but these words were proclaimed to a people living in deeply uncertain times. The people in Isaiah faced a siege by foreign powers, so they were locked up in their walled city with no food and nobody to bail them out, and they found themselves asking hard questions about who they were as a people of God. And the prophet Isaiah is unsparing—in the verses before today’s lesson, he rips them apart. You have forgotten what really matters, he tells them. You have forgotten justice, kindness, mercy, and peace. You have been impatient in seeking your own well being, and in doing so have neglected the vulnerable, the very people God has commanded you to protect. The mountain of the Lord is coming, he says. But right now, we are in the deep, dark valley.

The people to whom Paul wrote were also facing uncertainty. Remember, Jesus was born into a world where the Jewish people were the vulnerable. And remember, Christ gathered to himself marginalized people—poor, sick, widowed, orphaned, cast out—and promised them a place in God’s Kingdom. In a world where they had no place, no power, no community, he promised them a seat at the table. Christ assured them he was coming back soon, told them to wait and keep watch, but it had been a while since those words were first spoken. The ears who heard them had grown old while waiting, and those that came after that had never laid eyes on Jesus, never heard for themselves, grew impatient. And so the hope that he had kindled in these people was threatened. Was Christ worth waiting for? Would the Kingdom of God ever come?

Time and time again, the people of God have found themselves in moments such as these. Seasons when the future seemed uncertain, when they feared threats from outside their borders, or from within. Seasons when even the most patient among them began to lose heart in the face of injustice. Seasons when the drumbeats of war seemed to drown out God’s promise of peace. Seasons when it became easy to let their fear rather than their hope drive them forward.

A colleague of mine reflected recently that when we live our lives responding only to our fears, we often end up reversing the prophecy of Isaiah. We take our plowshares and turn them into swords, and beat our pruning hooks into spears. We take those things that are meant to build up the body of Christ—words, for example—and in our fear use them as weapons that divide the body of Christ to the point of breaking.

But in Advent we are invited to set down our swords. We are called to remember the Holy One, whose Word became flesh and dwelled amongst us as a healing balm and a Prince of Peace. We are called to remember a God who asks us to let go of our weapons so that we may clasp our hands with our neighbor. We are called to remember that some things, even when we cannot see clearly yet, are worth waiting for. Because God is playing the long game.

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And because God is playing the long game, we are called to resist the temptation of instant gratification. We are called instead to be a people of patience. For one thing we learn in Scripture is that God works through people, and people take time. Prophets like Isaiah don’t happen overnight. Communities don’t form in an instant. Wounds need time to heal. Babies must be carried in the womb long before they can be born. And we are always being born, always in the process of healing.

As we wait and watch for signs of Christ’s coming today, what might it mean to live into patience? To resist the temptation to rush through things, and instead experience this season as valuable in its own right? To remember that some things need time and patience—wine, bread, and babies do not happen in an instant. And Christ, who came to us as a fragile baby, who offered his body as bread and his blood as wine, comes to us still every moment that we choose hope over fear, light over darkness, joy over despair.

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. -Romans 13:12-14

GUEST POST: Disciples Take Their Faith Public

This past Sunday my congregation was honored to welcome a guest, the Rev. Gloria Yi, into our pulpit to preach.  She was and is a gift to our church, and her powerful words, proclaimed in the aftermath of an incredibly emotional week for so many folks, were well-needed.  As a pastor, I give thanks for voices like Gloria, for she was able to preach a truth that I sincerely needed to hear at a time when I felt ill-equipped to speak myself.  Her words are printed, along with the lectionary for that day, with her permission, below:

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Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent-its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

The Gospel According to Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Today is described as an ordinary Sunday in our Christian calendar, the 33rd proper ordinary Sunday according to the lectionary… but for us in this nation that has elected our new President, it is anything but ordinary or proper… for some of us, today, marks the first Sunday of a new heaven and new earth. And for other of us, today marks the first Sunday in which nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. So you are either super excited and hopeful for what the future holds, or you are utterly shocked and fearful for the imminent doom.

Children have not escaped the divisive rhetoric and some modeled this divisiveness at bus stops, inside the bus, and at schools. And we adults have certainly not helped them mend this divide. The best that we came up with was, when they go low, you go high. And even in trying to bring civility back to rhetoric we created another set of labels: low class and high class. And nodded our heads in accord saying, that it’s just words, and both sides spewed out words that has torn our nation in half.

So I am going to read you this poem that went viral on the internet about two years ago. It’s included in your bulletins: Chanie Gorkin wrote this poem when she was in 11th grade, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY. I’m not reading the last line, because she wrote this when she was in 11th grade and I think it is much better without the last line.

Worst Day Ever?

Today was the absolute worst day ever

And don’t try to convince me that

There’s something good in every day

Because, when you take a closer look,

This world is a pretty evil place.

Even if

Some goodness does shine through once in a while

Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.

And it’s not true that

It’s all in the mind and heart

Because

True happiness can be attained

Only if one’s surroundings are good

It’s not true that good exists

I’m sure you can agree that

The reality

Creates

My attitude

It’s all beyond my control

And you’ll never in a million years hear me say

Today was a very good day

 

Now read it from bottom to top, the other way,

[You’ll see how I really feel.]

The genius of this poem becomes evident only if you read it top to bottom and then bottom to top. If you read it only from top to bottom, then today is the worst day ever. If you read it only from bottom to top, then today is a very good day. But if you read it both top to bottom and then bottom to top, then the Christian calendar is correct… today is just an ordinary Sunday, not the beginning of a new heaven and new earth nor the beginning of Armageddon. Today is the day of Lord. And the biblical passages that we read today declares that indeed, whether described as utopia or an apocalypse, everyday is the day of the Lord.

So it is no wonder that Isaiah’s description of utopia in chapter 65 finds wolves and lambs feeding together and the promise that ferocious and poisonous animals will not hurt or destroy us, but it is surprising to see that utopia also requires labor: building of houses, planting of vineyards, and literal labor of giving birth. In Luke’s description of the apocalypse we find the expected famine, earthquake and plagues but then surprisingly we also discover the promise that not a hair in your head will perish despite of all the persecution you will endure. And the biblical text insists and persists in declaring that no matter how we label our day, no matter what happens in each day, each day belongs to our Lord. For both in utopia and in Armageddon God is in control. And in both types of days we are asked to continue doing our part, continue working hard, enduring hardship, and trusting and witnessing the fulfillment of the outrageous promises that God makes… we will not be hurt or destroyed to the point that even if all hell breaks loose, not a hair in our head will perish, sorry, George, if you already lost your hair I guess this promise doesn’t apply to you, which actually means that you are never going to experience Armageddon.

And so I can make you laugh a little from this pulpit on this ordinary Sunday, but I was not laughing this whole week since Tuesday night. Fear entered my personal space as I felt that I woke up in a foreign land, in a land that might echo the childhood chant that I heard one too many times, “why don’t you go back to where you came from.” And it would be a lie to say that in this fear I didn’t fostered anger, because I did, particularly anger against white men. And so I sat with my grief, fears and anger. I cried out to God and as I sat there, I remembered a Mr. Roger’s song, “What do you do with the mad that you Feel?”  and the lyrics go on… I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time. And what a good feeling to feel like this. And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside. That helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a woman. And a boy can be someday a man. And so I stopped and searched youtube for everything related to Mr. Rogers, an old white man who taught me and convinced me through the television screen that he liked me, I would hear him again, “It’s you I like, every part of you, your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new, I hope you’ll remember, even when you feel blue, it’s you I like, it’s you I like.” And this old white Presbyterian minister who has gone to heaven ahead of us still ministered to me, and reminded me that today is an ordinary, beautiful day in the neighborhood of the United States of America.

I remembered his most moving Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award acceptance speech, I remembered his interview with Charlie Rose in which the self-proclaimed pundit and beloved newscaster slowed down and had moments of confession and reflection on national television as Mr. Rogers answered Charlie’s questions. As Mr. Rogers highlighted the importance of influence that television has and the essential need to capture wonder rather than information, create room for silence in a world filled with noise. Mr. Rogers told Charlie that he had a plaque in his office with the phrase, “What’s essential is invisible to the eye”, an ironical phrase to be found for someone in the business of utilizing a camera lens, and so Charlie Rose asked Mr. Rogers, “What can’t we see about you that is essential?” And Mr. Rogers answered, you can’t see my spiritual life unless you ask me about it, you can’t see my family life, and he went on to tell Charlie, the things that are center stage are rarely the things that are most important.” And then, Mr. Rogers asked Charlie, “What’s essential to you, Charlie?” To have a satisfying life that has a connection to something larger than you and to know I made a difference. Mr. Rogers is the most pastoral person, and he asked, “Have you known anybody who was satisfied and did not make a difference?” And Charlie answered, “They want to be recognized and want something larger than life, and benefit their world, neighborhood, and their world.” And without condemnation but just sheer modeling, Mr. Rogers taught a lesson worth relearning today: He took Charlie’s definition of the essential as satisfaction from doing the most good that benefits others and compared it with his definition of the essential. By Mr. Roger’s definition, the essential is getting a hug from a down syndrome child at the end of a long work day.   And Mr. Rogers unwrapped that by explaining: I want to be the best receiver, graceful receiving is one of the most wonderful gifts we can give anybody.

So what are the essentials that disciples do to make their faith public? They become graceful receivers who eat together. If you are a democrat, you need to gracefully receive a republican neighbor (yes, the one with the Trump/Pence sign still on their lawn) over for dinner, lunch, or at least a cup of coffee—don’t offer them tea, it’s not a tea party! If you are a republican, you need to gracefully receive that democrat co-worker, (yes, the one who openly made fun of Trump and is enraged and in tears, who will wear yoga pants every single day of her life as a protest against men) and take her out to lunch. Let her fume. She’s not so much grieving the loss of Hilary Clinton, but the loss of a possible history making moment of having a woman president (if this doesn’t make sense to you, just keep on chewing your food slowly and be quiet and gracefully receive her venting). When the donkey and the elephant feed together, we gracefully receive one another, we don’t pass up the opportunity to testify that this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. For everyday is the day that the Lord has made. Let’s us learn to receive each day graciously, for our Lord tells us that each of us whites and colored, democrats and republicans are a delight to our Maker, so much so that he sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to die for us, so that in Christ, we may be united on this ordinary day and everyday. Amen.


Gloria Yi is an Associate Pastor at Woodside Presbyterian Church in Yardley, PA. Gloria Yi came to Woodside in 2004 to work with the children and youth with her late husband, Steve Yi. God blessed them with Emmanuella Yi (Ella), and allowed them to shine God’s light in joy and sorrow. Gloria’s favorite group to work with is the junior high age group, believing that critical spiritual decisions can be made by the age of 12, as Jesus was found at the temple discussing with the teachers. She enjoys having the youth group over to her house, going to the beach, having heart-to-heart discussions, and trying any new cuisine.

After Election Day…

I had the honor of writing this letter, which was signed by nearly 45 area clergy.  It represents our hope and prayer for our country in the days following the election on November 8th.

On November 9th, we awake to the results of an election that has bitterly divided our nation.  It is tempting to proclaim winners and losers and to treat this election cycle like a sporting match where one party has emerged victorious at the expense of the other.

But to do so would be a grave mistake. In the aftermath of such an election season we will all need to work diligently to repair the damage done. Those who founded this country believed that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us. The candidates who celebrate victory on election night must rise in the morning prepared to govern for the good of all people, including those who voted against them.  To forget this is to forget the history of this great nation, to forget the ideals and the hope of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

We are leaders of faith communities that, for centuries, have had many disagreements.  And yet, we believe that what is more important than those things that divide us are those things that bring us together.  In that spirit, our prayer for our community and for our nation is that we might set aside the rancor and bitterness of the campaign season in order to remember that we are Americans together. Together, we pray for the wisdom to remember the challenge of Isaiah: that our life together depends upon our ability to turn the swords and spears of hostility and division into the plowshares and pruning hooks of peace and unity.

May God be with us all, and the wisdom of the Divine guide those who lead the people, this day and every day. Amen.

 

Rev. Bruce Ballantine Morrisville Presbyterian Church

Rev. Wendy Bellis Morrisville United Methodist Church

Rev. Kyle Benoit Greater Grace Community Church

Rev. Josh Blakesley Warminster United Church of Christ

Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy Congregation Kol Emet

Rev. Catherine Bowers St. Andrews United Methodist Church

Rev. Luky Cotto Casa del Pueblo Latino Ministry of Lehman Memorial UMC

Rev. Dr. Nancy Dilliplane Trinity Buckingham Episcopal Church

Rev. Chris Edwards Northampton Presbyterian Church

Rev. Susan Fall Forest Grove Presbyterian Church

Rev. Laura Ferguson Newtown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Joshua D. Gill Doylestown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Bailey Heckman Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church

Rev. Debbie Heffernan Morrisville Presbyterian Church

Rev. Doug Hoglund Woodside Presbyterian Church

Mary Dyer Hubbard Pastoral Counselor

Rev. Lynn Hade Church of the Advent

Rev. Keith Ingram Bucks County Seventh Day Adventist Church

Rev. Stacey Jones-Anderson First United Methodist Church Bristol 

Rev. Catherine D. Kerr Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Rev. Nathan Krause Redeemer Lutheran Church

Rev. Bill Lentz Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church

Rev. Nancy Ludwig Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church

Rev. Joe Martin Fallsington United Methodist Church

Rev. Sam Massengill Newtown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Dr. Kari McClellan First Presbyterian of Levittown

Rev. Mary McCullough Trinity Episcopal Church Ambler

Rev. Dorry Newcomer Newtown United Methodist Church

Rev. Jake Presley Bux-Mont Baptist Church

Rev. Eric Reimer St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church

Rev. Keith Roberts Doylestown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Michael Ruk, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, New Hope

Rev. Janet L. Saddel St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Warrington

Rev. Michael Saunders Crossway Community Church

Chaplain Susan Sciarratta Counselor, Insight Christian Counseling

Rev. Barbara Seekford Chalfont United Methodist Church

Rev. Stuart H. Spencer Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church

Rev. Doug Stratton Hatboro Baptist Church

Rev. Mark Studer Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church

Rev. Jim Sutton New Britain Baptist Church

Rev. Bill Teague Langhorne Presbyterian Church

Rev. Lorelei K. Toombs Willow Grove United Methodist Church

Rev. Sarah Weisiger Ivyland Presbyterian Church

Rev. John Willingham Doylestown Presbyterian Church

 

This Place Could Be Beautiful

1 Kings 19:1-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”-for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Mem Park

“Where is God?”

That is a question I have been hearing a lot this week.  In the newspapers, on Facebook, in private conversations and pastoral visits:  “Where is God?  You must know, pastor.  Isn’t this your specialty?”

It is a very real question.  In a world where 50 lives can be snuffed out in one evening of violence, where toddlers are dragged into lakes and idealistic politicians are gunned down by angry citizens—where is God?

I look to Scripture and am reminded this week that the people of God have been asking this question in the midst of their suffering for as long as there has been breath.  Sitting on the ash pile, scraping his wounds, Job cries out into the abyss and wonders—where is the Lord?  Elijah, running for his life, hiding under a broom tree in the desert and waiting for Jezebel’s army to find him, despairs—where are you God?  Can you not come and end my misery?

And then there are those who have perhaps given up on God entirely.  The possessed man in Luke’s Gospel this morning does not cry out for a Savior, at least as far as we know.  Scripture is silent on the issue. Living in the land of the Gentiles, far from the land of the God of Israel, he is utterly and completely forsaken.  By his city. By his family. He lives in the land of death amongst the tombs.  Beyond hope, beyond redemption. He doesn’t pray for a Savior, either because he doesn’t believe he is worth saving, or doesn’t know the possibility exists.  He doesn’t even know his own name.  He has been completely and utterly possessed by the dark and sinister Legion which has left him unclean in the eyes of his family and his community.  There is no one more forsaken than he.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ journey to meet this man?  Just moments before, Jesus had been preaching and teaching amongst his own people, when he suddenly decided it was time to get on the boat and sail across the lake from Galilee into foreign territory.  And so they go, away from home and through the stormy seas, not to a city filled with people but to a cemetery.  A land of the dead.   Where he is encountered by a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  In his blog on preaching and the lectionary, David Lose points out that this is an interesting designation, reminding us that there are a variety of spirits, some life giving, some not.   And from the story, we are meant to know that this man is a danger, not only to himself but to others, rendered religiously unclean both by his possession and his location amongst the dead.

According to Lose:

It would seem to be the very last place we would expect to find Jesus.

Which, when you think about it, is where God usually shows up.  At our moments of profound doubt, grief, loss and defeat.  And—and this is the one that often surprises us—among those who may to this point have little interest in, let alone relationship with, God.

Remember, this man has no reason to think that Jesus would come for him.  And yet, here he is.  And given Jesus’ abrupt return to Galilee after his healing has been accomplished, it seems quite possible, probable even, that Jesus made that long trek across the stormy waters for the sake of this one man.

All of which suggests that there is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to reach and free and sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.

We find reinforcement for this interpretation when we look to the story of Elijah—this prophet who has stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, who now hides under a broom tree in the desert waiting for God or Jezebel to end his life, finds instead that God will sustain him.  That even the desert is not beyond God’s power to heal and restore. There is literally no place that God cannot find us, and bring us home.

It is as though the Word of God needs to remind us, on this week in which the suffering of the world is so near to us, in which our frailty, our weakness, our brokenness is so on display, that there is no place on earth that is God-forsaken.  Whether we dwell in the desert of despair or amongst the tombs of the dead, God is with us.  And as Lose is quick to point out,

We are reminded that there is no person who is God-forsaken.  Unclean. Outcast, Abandoned, Unpopular, incarcerated, unbeliever.  No one is left out.

Consider that the man in the tombs is no Jew, and there is no indication that he becomes a Christian.  And when he begs Jesus to let him come with him, our Savior sends him back home with one instruction: “Go and tell what God has done for you.”

And that is, I think, the essence of the Gospel.  This is what we are meant to teach to our children.  That there are no conditions to be met to receive God’s love.  That there are no categories more deserving of God’s grace, no groups of people who are more favored.  You don’t have to have believed your whole life, or have come to faith recently, or perhaps have any faith at all.  Jesus will seek us all out just the same.  And the most faithful response we can make to this reality is to Go and Tell what God has done for us.  To share the Good News of the Gospel with the world, whether they are in the tombs, in the desert, or living a life of relative comfort.

Good Bones (Maggie Smith)

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

In a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

A thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

Fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

Estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

Sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

Is at least half terrible, and for every kind

Stranger, there is one who would break you,

Though I keep this from my children. I am trying

To sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

Walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

About good bones: This place could be beautiful,

Right? You could make this place beautiful.

May we make this place beautiful by our love, by our witness to Christ, by our unfailing hope in the Father, who will go to the furthest reaches to remind us that we are not alone. That we are loved. And that we are  called to do likewise.  Amen.

Remembering Orlando

Vigil Pamphlet

The following remarks were delivered at the Ivyland Borough Vigil held on Tuesday, June 14th for the Victims of the Orlando Massacre:

On Sunday morning, we woke up to yet another reminder that we still live in a culture of violence.

Perhaps, like me, you woke up early expecting another day of worship when you first heard the news of the carnage in Orlando. As a person of faith I asked myself—what does it mean to worship God on a day like this? As mothers and fathers, sisters and friends and loved ones mourn the dead and the wounded? As EMTs and hospital staff and police and fire men and women gather the bodies and tend to the wounded?

Perhaps you woke up expecting to spend the day outside, or at the beach, or at brunch with friends, and your carefree day was interrupted by the news that yet again, another troubled soul had inflicted rage and violence and terror on a vulnerable community in the very place where they felt safe and known and welcomed.

Perhaps you went to sleep feeling safe, feeling welcome, and woke up to the awful reminder that for some, being brown or being queer can put you on the barrel end of an angry man’s trigger. That they can come and find you in the places you feel safest. While you are dancing and singing and rejoicing, hate can burst through the walls. And so we do not feel safe. And all the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and pastors and well-meaning people cannot still our frantic hearts, cannot put to rest our sense that there is too much that is wrong in a world where an angry person can buy a guy and mow down young men and women in a dance club.

If you are Christian like me, perhaps it is tempting to look to Scripture at times like this for answers. To ask, “What would Jesus Do?” And when I look at the witness of Scripture, when I turn to my God seeking answers, what I see is righteous anger. What I see is a God who will not be silent in the face of violence, in the face of hatred, particularly when it is directed at those whom our society has too often ignored and silenced.

The God I know in Christ wasn’t satisfied with a system that oppresses the poor and the vulnerable. To those who would crush the vulnerable, he had this to say:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be filled

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude and revile you, and reject you on account of the Son of Man.

Such is the Kingdom of God. It is not like this world, but rather it is a place where the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated—are embraced. Are welcomed. Are loved. Because they are God’s children. WE are God’s children. But here’s the kicker—the Kingdom of God isn’t up in the clouds. It is within us. It is AT HAND. Which means that we have a responsibility to one another. A responsibility to love and care for and protect and uphold one another. Because we are all God’s creation.

So as we gather tonight, let us not stop with prayers, but let us commit to stand with the poor, with the hungry, with the weeping, with the hated. Let us embrace our gay and Latino neighbors who are reeling from this trauma. Let us embrace our Muslim American neighbors who are afraid that this one act of violence will brand them too. Let us speak the names of the dead because they are our brothers and sisters. They are our mothers and fathers. They are our neighbors and our fellow citizens. There is no us and them. There is only We. And we are bound together, as neighbors, as citizens, as Americans. E Plurbis Unum—out of many, one.

So let us pray. But let us also remember that it’s not enough. It’s not enough. Prayer did not stop Orlando. It did not stop Sandy Hook. It did not stop Aurora. It did not stop San Bernardino. Clearly, more is called for from us.

And so we must weep, but we must also act. We who remain cannot let our outrage end with a vigil flame—we must turn and go back into our community and work for peace. Whether we do it because Christ calls us, or our faith compels us, or because we are simply good, decent, moral American people, we cannot let this tragedy be one more statistic. It is up to US to speak truth to power, and to say—enough. Enough violence. Enough bloodshed. Let us try another way. Let us create a world in which all are safe, in which we find sanctuary in our common brotherhood. Let us aspire to better.