Not What We Expected

 

First Presbyterian Church

December 30, 2018

1 Samuel 2:18-20.26

Colossians 3:12-17

Luke 2:41-52

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

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

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

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

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

It is a powerful story.

If only it were true.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

 

 

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.

Theology 101: Idolatry

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

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Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table. You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in. But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

Perhaps this is because my mother is a good southern woman who was raised to keep conversation polite.  Here’s what I think: it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument. Because we don’t all think the same things, do we? In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to Republicans, sitting next to whatever Bernie Sanders people are calling themselves these days. So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion. Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties. Because let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about. In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties. One of those parties that didn’t exactly go as planned. Because Jesus showed up.

Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town. Maybe he figured this new guy would play it safe, stick to the rule-book, not ruffle the feathers.

Maybe he figured that, just like we do, Jesus knew what the rules were and cared about them. Because that is what we all really want right?  When I have a dinner party, I expect people to behave. And when I go to a party and don’t know everyone there, then I try my best to behave too. I stand quietly in the social area. Maybe I say hi to a few folks. And if we get to talking, we stick to “safe” conversation: “What do you do?”” Where do you live?” “Tell me about your kids.” You get the picture.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

A-Woman-With-DropsyIt all starts with a sick man. There is a man at the party with Dropsy. Anyone know what dropsy is? It is severe edema. Probably caused by severe heart failure. The man is swollen up like a balloon. Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath. He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath? What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done. He just can’t help himself. He moves on to the guests themselves. All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists. He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party. Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules. Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite. He is going to speak truth. To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful. Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

And what is the truth that needs to be said?

Perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.

Let me explain. A friend of mine was sharing this week that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status. For her, this just seems wrong. Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time. If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median.

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Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us. That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter. That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me recently that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family. So he did. He got a job, and he lived at his job. Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for. He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control. We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick. Can’t you just get a job? Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself? How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control. We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that. For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party. All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house. If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters. And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue. What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together. What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by.

And guess who we worship?

Not success.Martin-Luther-idolatry.jpg

Not money.

Not comfort.

Not power.

All of those are false idols. False promises of a secure life.

We worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus.

And that is enough.