Let’s just begin by saying that this is *not* a great way to meet your wife. It certainly isn’t a love story, or at least, it doesn’t appear to be one.
I mean, how many of you, if I asked you the story of how you met your beloved, would start with a story like this? “well, I was shaking this guy down for a few sheep to feed my troops while we were on the run from the king who is trying to kill me, and then this WOMAN emerges from nowhere and gives me a whole bunch of food, calls her husband an idiot, and…well… it was love at first sight.
So what is the point, then, of stories like this? Why are they here?
Well let’s start with what we can see.
First off, we know that David has been on the run. Last week, we heard of how Saul was trying to pin David to the wall with his Javelin. David has wisely left Saul. And now he is wandering about with a pack of warriors, on the run from Saul and his army.
And here, in our reading today, he seems to be running a protection racket. Perhaps he would have preferred that people think of him as a “Great, Good Shepherd,” taking care of the sheep, but the truth is that he is a shepherd nobody asked for here.
And when it comes time to enjoy the harvest, like any good shepherd, or any king, David wants his share of the harvest.
David seems to invite conflict: He greets Nabal with peace, but his words are a threat. His men practically swagger into the shearing grounds as they promise: we haven’t hurt your flock….yet.
Here David reveals himself as a threat to the people who maintain and care for the land, the heritage of God.
Now I am sure that you have heard the phrase before: we don’t negotiate with terrorists.
But David knows the cardinal rule that every parent learns: never make a threat that you can’t back up with action. In our house, if I start counting to five, my kids better believe that there is something on the other end of those numbers. And David is no different. He has an army to feed, after all. A few hundred disillusioned, angry young men, and he is not afraid to use them to get what he needs.
That’s really what this is about, when you get down to it. It is a parable about kings, and power, and corruption, a story about how that power inevitably pushes down on the people of God and takes and takes and takes.
But that is not all that this story is about, thank God.
It is also a story about how the people push back against those who wield the sword.
Because if you read this as a parable about power, and corruption, then who is the hero? Who comes out on top?
Why, Abigail of course.
She is the one who sees David for the danger that he is. If her husband Nabal is foolish (for that is what his name means), if he is foolish in his refusal to give David what he has demanded, then Abigail is wise for seeing the situation for what it is. She is able to understand that just under the surface of this man who is “called by god” is a potential for violence that seethes and threatens everything and everyone around him. Look how quickly he reaches for his weapons. How quickly he resorts to force.
She can see this, and so in her wisdom she uses that to her advantage. She gathers up what is necessary to keep David happy, but she also makes certain to secure a promise for herself. “Remember your Servant,” she says. Remember your servant who sees the king that you may one day be. Remember the woman who talked sense to you when you were breathing violence.
In that way, she is alot like David. Cunning. Creative. Determined. Wise. Willing to put her body in the path of violence and put up her hand to stay it.
Nobody expects Abigail to be the hero. And yet, she manages not just to save her family, but to save David, too.
I think that is part of the point, actually. Nobody expects anything from Abigail. And yet she uses what she has—her brains, her resources, her creativity—to exact peace from a dangerous and uncertain moment.
It reminds me, actually, of a story from a few years back. This woman, Antoinette Tuff, was working as a bookkeeper at her local public school when a young man walked in the door with an ak-47. He was breathing violence, and pain, and hurt. And over an hour, Antoinette talked to the young man about her own life, about her struggles, her pain, her fear. She gave him something valuable—no parched grain, or raisin cakes, but the gift of shared suffering, shared struggle. In her wisdom, she saw what he needed: he needed to be reminded who he was: someone beloved in God’s sight.
Don’t we all need that? To be reminded who and whose we are? To be recalled—out of our separateness, our pain, our struggle, our anger, even our violence—and brought nearer to the wisdom of God? Let us strive to be those who breathe the wisdom of Abigail into the world, and when we are not, let us be like David, who was open to receive it and be changed.
Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”
Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “The king should not do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and in fact what he has done has helped you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?”
Saul listened to Jonathan and took this oath: “As surely as the Lord lives, David will not be put to death.” So Jonathan called David and told him the whole conversation. He brought him to Saul, and David was with Saul as before.
Once more war broke out, and David went out and fought the Philistines. He struck them with such force that they fled before him.
But an evil spirit from the Lord came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the lyre, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape.
1 Samuel 19:1-10
Maybe it is just me, but somehow I think I am probably not the only one who has been feeling as though these last few months have been marked by a great deal of loss.
I have watched as so many in my church community have carried their grief—grief over the suffering of loved ones and neighbors and how their losses impact our own lives, despair for a world reeling from conflict and violence with barely a moment to catch our breath, sorrow for the many innocent people who have had their lives devastated by hurricanes and other natural disasters that have been made worse by climate change.
This week, so many friends, neighbors, and church family have carried a tender grief for one of our own as they comprehend a world without their beloved child, who died at the age of 16 in a car accident last week. They have cried their tears. They have offered meals. They have shared their own stories with each other, sorrow over children that they have buried too soon. Their wounds are deep. Their wounds are real.
In a world where we can, and often are, wounded, it can be easy to live out of our fear. To draw into ourselves. To see dangers around every corner. To let fear animate not just our words but our actions. The poet Hafez once wrote that “fear is the cheapest room in the house,” and I think he was on to something there. Because fear is the easiest place to find ourselves. It doesn’t require much imagination at all. And it is an awful emotion to live our lives from.
Now, King Saul knew a thing or two about fear. That should be clear enough from our Scripture lessons today. Right on the heels of David’s victory over Goliath, Saul has taken the young champion into his care, and has watched as his own son has “become one in spirit” with David. He has observed as David has risen in stature despite everything that should work against him as a pretty boy from nowhere and the youngest of seven sons. He has listened as the city has fallen in love with David. David, who has slain tens of thousands. David, whom his own son loves more than himself. David, to whom everything seems to come so easily.
Friends, Saul is afraid.
I think back to the times in my life when I have felt insecure in myself, when I have worried that the person that I am is not enough. It is such an awful, isolating feeling, isn’t it? To doubt your own worth? To worry that the people with whom you share your life are just looking for a reason to walk away? When I remember myself in those moments, I can have compassion for Saul. He truly seems alone here—yes, he is the king, but the story he is telling himself, and the story that scripture seems to be telling us, is that everyone has abandoned him for David. There is nothing more awful than being scared and alone. And there is little that is more dangerous than a powerful person who is scared and alone.
Our own history can be a helpful teacher here. January of 1933 was a similar moment in Germany. This was shortly before Hitler came to power, and in Berlin unease was widespread. Speaking to his own congregation in a moment of great fear, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected
“the overcoming of fear—that is what we are proclaiming here (point at sanctuary). The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archenemy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Overcoming Fear,”
Fear tells us that we are alone in our suffering. It tells us that nobody will help us. Nobody will save us. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that, in our fear, we tend to make awful decisions. Like Saul, we resort to violence, we lash out at the people around us. Fear takes away our humanity.
So what is the alternative?
That is the question. And one answer, I think, is sitting in these pews with us every Sunday and is gathered around the table every time we choose fellowship over going it alone. You see, if fear tends to eat away at the ties that bind us to God and to others, then perhaps the antidote to fear is the hope that we encounter when we choose to be in community with others. It is what happens when we struggle against the temptation to turn inward, and instead look for strength in one another. In our Scripture this morning, David could not withstand Saul’s fear on his own—he is able to negotiate this incredibly awful situation with Saul because of his friendship with Jonathan. With a friend at his side, David is literally able to dodge the slings and arrows of death. Friendship is what saves him.
Perhaps this seems too simple, and yet remember: the God who came to us in Christ, who told us to not be afraid, offers us the gift of fellowship and friendship over and over again:
Come to me, all you who are weak and heaven laden, and I will give you rest.
Fear not, for I am with you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
Perhaps you believe that there might be something better than living only for yourself, worried only about your own difficulties and concerns. Perhaps you are tired, so tired of carrying your fears and disappointments, your anxiety and the hurts that can become like a heavy yoke, holding you down. Perhaps you are weary of trying to fight your fears alone.
We seek out one another, I think, because we know that God desires for us something better than a life lived in fear. We come to worship because perhaps we believe the church can help us to live differently. That somehow, when we gather together, when we lift our voices as one to the Creator who made us and called us by name, we will find a strength that we didn’t know was in us to withstand the fears of this time. And that when we cannot find that strength in ourselves, others will be there to hold us and to whisper words of hope on our behalf until we are strong enough. In worship, if we are lucky, we encounter the great affirmation of a God who loves us, and gathers us together and bids us banish fear, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of a world that is crying out for healing.
So let us lean deeply into that hope when we have the strength to do so. And let us trust one another to hold fast to us when we are broken with sorrow. Let us live out a faith that is wide and broad enough to hold the fears of this world, and to answer that fear with the persistent hope found in a God who gathers the brokenhearted together and calls us friend, neighbor, beloved.
Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, just as Jesse had directed him. And he reached the encampment as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines, army against army.Then David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the ranks and greeted his brothers.
As he was talking with them, behold, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and he spoke these same words again, and David heard him.Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.
Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? Surely he comes out to defy Israel. The king will reward the man who kills him with great riches and will also give him his daughter in marriage and will make his father’s house free from taxes in Israel.”
Then David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he has taunted and defied the armies of the living God?” So they told him, “That is what will be done for the man who kills him.”
When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard what he said to the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “What are you doing here? And who is watching our few sheep in the wilderness back home? I know you—you are overconfident and your heart ain’t right; for you have come down only to see the battle.” David cried, “Now what have I done? Was it not a harmless question?” He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before.
Now, when the words David said were heard, the men reported them to Saul, and Saul sent for him.
David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”
But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. And when a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the lamb from its mouth, and when it rose up against me, I seized it by its whiskers and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has taunted AND defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”
Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried to walk, but he could not, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off.
Then he took his shepherd’s staff in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag. And then, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
The Philistine came and approached David with his shield bearer in front of him. And when he looked and saw David, he derided and disparaged him, for he was just a young man, healthy and handsome. He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field!”
David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the corpses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, so that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel, and that this entire assembly will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will hand you over to us.”
As the Philistine rose and came forward to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone penetrated his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.
So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him, grasped his sword and drew it from the sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it.
When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they fled. Then the men of Israel and Judah stood with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as the entrance to the valley and the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the way to Shaaraim, even as far as Gath and Ekron. When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.
Then David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.
As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”The king said, “Find out.”
As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”
1 Samuel 17:20-58
That is quite a story.
A story that, I suspect, you have heard mannnny times. Perhaps the single most recognizable story about David that a person is likely to know.
It feels like something out of a movie, or a novel, or a comic book, this hero story of David, the someday king of Israel, and his magical ability to fell a big bad guy with nothing but a rock and a sling.
Who wouldn’t love a guy like that? As a story, it is utterly seductive.
There are some interesting things, however, going on in this story, right under the surface, that I would like to unpack together on this World Communion Sunday, a day when we mediate on words from scripture like those that David uttered when he said “that it is not by the sword or the spear that the Lord saves.”
Let’s begin by orienting ourselves. Remember that, in this moment, Israel already has a king. King Saul, the first King of the Israelites. And King Saul’s first task has been to take the fight, as it were, to the enemies of Israel.
And it isn’t going so well for Saul. Sure, his army is encamped against the dreaded Philistines. But they are all shaking in fear at this great warrior, Goliath, who scripture tells us is raining down terror with a mix of self-confident taunting and a rather intimidating appearance.
What was that that scripture told us just last Sunday? That God looks not at what is on the outside, but on what is inside the heart? Well, the army didn’t get that memo. Goliath looks terrifying, and they believe him when he says he will utterly destroy them. They are shaking in their armor.
And along comes this–how does the story say it—handsome, un-battle tested youth. The reason they keep calling him handsome, here, by the way, is to emphasize that he doesn’t “look” like a warrior. Not enough battle scars. David, the son that was left behind while the big boys went to war. Someone had to bring supplies to the front, and take care of the sheep. Someone, in other words, had to keep things going while everyone else picked up a sword.
Somehow David, is the only person who *isn’t* incapacitated by Goliath. This young man who doesn’t hide with the baggage but runs to the front, isn’t cowed by words from a giant of Gath. And yet his reaction—we have to *do* something about this—is met with anger from his brother, and dismissal from Saul. They are all convinced that the only way to solve this problem is with more force. But when they look at David, all they see is weakness.
We hear this story on a Sunday in which the church traditionally focuses on our call to peacemaking. Which feels, at first glance, a little incongruous. What could this story possibly have to teach us about peacemaking?
What if stories like this are EXACTLY why we need to talk about peacemaking? Whether we like to admit it or not, the stories of the bible are marked by violence—the violence of war, the violence of conquest. The violence of the cross.
When we talk about peacemaking, it is really important that part of that conversation include a reckoning with our own tendency toward violence. We cannot pretend that we do not stand on the wreckage and ruin of countless bloody wars and conflicts that brought us to where we are. As Christians, as Americans. Chris Hedges once wrote “war is a force that gives us meaning,” and if we are to be peacemakers, we must reckon with that truth.
Because the truth is that we are *not* peacemakers, not most of the time. We are far more like David, gaping at the battlefield, or like the Israelite army, either caught in the midst of it and filled with fear or lust for battle. We must reckon with the fact that we live in a world that glorifies militaristic conquest, and enshrines it in the national story that we tell. That leans less on the wisdom of God, and more on the power of those who wield weapons.
The call to make peace must also reckon with the fact that, even if we are creative and imaginative in avoiding violence, this violent world will still find us. We cannot run from the violence of the world. And if you don’t believe me, believe the witness of the cross.
So what, then, does it mean to transform a violent world with peace? What is all of this reckoning for?
Perhaps for the same purpose that these stories exist in our bible at all. The remind us where we have come from. Of the moments of greatest triumph, but also of our greatest mistakes. To reckon with our history is the gateway to choosing another path. Perhaps, if we are lucky, even a better one.
I first moved to Philadelphia in 2008 for a summer pastoral internship. The other seminary interns and I had been attracted to this worshipping community because its mission was, in part, to work to transform the city through solidarity and hospitality to the marginalized and the oppressed. But before we got there, one of the first things that the pastor who was our mentor asked us to do was to read a book. It was called “A Prayer for the City” by Buzz Bissinger, and it told the story of Philadelphia in the late 90s. As a California Girl with absolutely no context for understanding Philadelphia, that book became a sort of compass—it helped me get to know my adopted city, and to understand some of the things that made it the way it was. It helped me to see the ways in which the problems that city faced were larger than just what was in front of me—violence, homelessness, poverty, racism–all of these problems have roots stretching back into the past, and if we want to be a part of the solution, we have to be willing to do the work to understand where they came from. And so it is with the work of peace as well.
So this World Communion Sunday, let us not speak as though the work of making peace is easy. It is not. It is likely the hardest thing we may ever strive for, and in the broad span of history, we may make but the smallest difference. But let us also commit ourselves to knowing the barriers that stand in our way, so that, like David, we might be creative in slaying the giant that stands before us.
And it came to pass that Jesus was going to the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the sabbath to break bread, and they all were watching him closely.
He began to tell a parable to those who had been invited,
remarking how they were choosing the best places for themselves, saying:
“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast,
do not recline in the best place,
lest someone even more honorable than you might have been invited,
and the one who invited you both might come to you and say to you,
“Give your place to this man,”
and then you should with shame take the lowest place.
But when you are invited, go, recline in the lowest place,
so that when the one who invited comes, he might say to you,
“Friend, come up higher!”
Then you will be glorified before all of those reclining with you.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Then he said to the one who invited him,
“When you make a meal, whether in the morning, midday, or evening, don’t call
or your brothers,
or your relatives,
or your rich neighbors,
lest they return your invitation, and you would be repaid.
But when you make a feast,
call the poor,
and blessed you will be, because they have nothing.
They cannot repay you.
And you will be repaid in return at the resurrection of the just.
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.
My mom says that it is because she is a good southern woman, and that it just is poor table manners, but I think really 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 self declared socialists. 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. 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, I think. 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.
And like my mom, the ancient people had their own rules when they got together. Most of those rules are pretty common sense–
What are the dinner party rules? Guests are polite, right? When I go to a party and I’m the new person, usually that means milling about quietly near the refreshments. Maybe saying hi to a few folks. And if we get to talking, what are people usually going to ask you about? What do you do? Where do you live? Etc etc etc.
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.
It 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.
That’s the gift, friends, that Jesus gives us. The truth. So often, we worry ourselves sick over the impact that the truth might have—whose feelings it will hurt, how it will land, what the damage might be. And so we settle for pleasantries and half truths. We paper things over to make them sound better, and we do ourselves no favors. It feels safer, but there be dangers in these waters. We create for ourselves sinkholes and no go zones that impact not just us, but our children, and the world that they inhabit.
And that is not the world that Jesus wants for us. Jesus wants us to live honestly, and he models that in his every word and deed. So the question for us, today, I think, is this: what is the truth that we need to hear?
I wonder whether perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.
A friend of mine shared with me once 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.
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 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.
You know, earlier this week I was visiting a friend in North Carolina, and I went for a run. And while I was running, I started noticing all of this trash on the side of the road. Cups, bags, half eaten fruit, scattered everywhere along the freeway. Honestly, it was a little bit disgusting.
And I found myself thinking as I ran along, how often I look past the trash on the side of the road. How often I accept that as the price of admission for living with other people. How often we all agree that we will just pretend it isn’t there, or pay someone else to deal with it.
But then there’s that one person. In my experience, they are usually someone you never would have noticed. In my neighborhood growing up, it was an elderly immigrant from Vietnam. Every afternoon, I would see her walking along the side of the road that I passed almost daily, picking up the trash. Taking the time to pay attention. Noticing what was wrong and setting it right.
That is the goal, friends. Not a peaceful dinner table where we never talk about the issues that trouble us. Not a society where we look past the suffering of others. The table of grace is one where we notice what is wrong, and endeavor to set it right. Where we are willing to take the time, even if it gets our hands dirty, even if nobody notices, even it it seems like it doesn’t change a dang thing.
Because 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.
Los Angeles, the City of the Angels, home to 10 million people, palm trees, emerald lawns and backyard swimming pools, certainly doesn’t seem like a desert upon first glance. And yet, with an annual rainfall of little less than 15 inches, and summers so hot that one climate scientist observed that “moisture evaporates from your eyeballs so fast that you have to keep blinking,” it could be fairly argued that the land upon which the city is built is well and truly a desert landscape.
The thing that sets it apart from the “true” deserts of the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran deserts is the modern miracle of irrigation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American farmers and prospectors set about “improving” this land marked by seasonal drought and flood patterns into a controlled landscape with the creation of aqueducts that gathered and channeled the water into the growing urban metropolis. And the desert blossomed in response—with flowers and orchards, followed closely behind by the suburban sprawl of people that followed the completion of the Santa Fe Railroad. The desert was alive.
What is it about the desert that calls to the human imagination? White transplants looked upon the vast landscape of the Los Angeles Basin and saw a “City of Destiny.” The deserts of the southwest, too, have drawn many artists, poets, and seekers. The author Mary Hunter Austin left behind the verdant landscapes of New York state and the upper Midwest and escaped into the Mojave Desert seeking “pure desertness, a desire to know something essential in the desert,” a place of freedom without boundaries. Rebecca Solnit, reflecting on the desert, wrote that “once…I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation.”
I find myself reflecting on the importance of location as we encounter our scripture for this morning. Last week we reflected on what it would mean to pray for light in the midst of darkness; today we consider what it means to find comfort in the Lord in the barren, desolate wasteland that is the desert. Here, at the center of the advent mystery, is the strange fact that the Child is born not in a context of abundance, but of scarcity. We are reminded that long before Jesus was born, his cousin, John the Baptist, “appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and that the countryside went out to meet him and be baptized in the Jordan river.
Imagine, crowds of people flocking to the desert. What would it take in order for a whole countryside to be drawn to wilderness, harsh and austere, bleak and inhospitable? What would have to go wrong at home for the crowds to leave behind the comfort of home to choose a place where water is scarce, weather is unpredictable, and the pathway is rugged and rocky?
I find myself wondering what kinds of barren-ness the people might have been dwelling in already to get to the point where the actual desert felt like a welcoming place?
Writer Debie Thomas reflects that
“the wilderness of Scripture isn’t a destination we choose by ourselves. Sometimes, we’re taken there against our will. By illness, or loss, or trauma, or hardship. The wilderness is a place of captivity. Of exile. We end up there when our careful plans fail. When someone we trust betrays us. When our beloved dies. When the faith we’ve practiced so effortlessly, suddenly dries up. The wilderness of the Bible is not by any stretch of the imagination a place we’d wish to inhabit.
And yet, somehow, this is the place where God shows up. There in the desert, laid bare by our powerlessness, confronted with the reality of our vulnerability in this world, God is revealed. How miraculous that acknowledging our brokenness, our inability to make it on our own, our utter sinfulness, is the entry point to deeper relationship with God. Here, in the parched space of our acknowledgement, God’s deep well of graciousness flows. Here, we are baptized in the knowledge that the God we have come to know in Christ is here. The Spirit, our Comforter, was never far away. Even in the desert.
This is the good news that sustains me now, as I encounter the particular desert place that is our current landscape. The knowledge that my God would offer comfort, would promise relief, to those who are isolated, who are vulnerable, who are afraid, is a deep well of assurance in an unpredictable season. It gives me the strength to pick myself up and keep moving and empowers me in turn to persevere in the work to which we have all been called: to be light in the darkness and comfort to the afflicted.
Because that’s the thing about desert places. Whether we have come by choice or been dragged to the desert by circumstances beyond our control, they have way of stripping away the artifice, and revealing what was there all along. In the desert, you cannot hide from yourself, or pretend to be what you are not. You can only pay attention, and watch for signs of what is ahead, and pray for water. In the desert, there are fewer distractions—in the desert, perhaps, we are better able to hear the words of God’s messengers, whose words burn in our hearts and whose invitation—to stop pretending we are someone else, and to start over again—are somehow a balm to our troubled hearts.
May we all find strength, both in the knowledge that God is with us, and in the assurance that we have one another. May we listen to God’s messengers, who would have us prepare for Christ to come close to us. And may we take heart: for God is coming. Christ is coming. The Messiah is coming. Alleluia. Amen.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned;
he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
When he had said this, he spat on the ground
and made mud with the saliva
and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,
saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).
Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”
Some were saying, “It is he.”
Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”
But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes,
and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’
and I went and washed and received my sight.”
They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.
Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.
Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and now I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”
But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.
So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?
How then does he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;
but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.
Ask him; he is of age.
He will speak for himself.”
His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews. For the Jews had already agreed
that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah
would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God!
We know that this man is a sinner.”
He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see.”
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?
Do you also want to become his disciples?”
Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.
We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from,
and yet he opened my eyes.
Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.
We know that God does not listen to sinners,
but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.
Never since the world began has it been heard
that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.
If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him,
and the one speaking with you is he.”
He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Have you ever noticed that, in the bible, exile seems not to be an uncommon experience? Many of our favorite characters—Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, David and Jonah, the entire nation of Israel more than once, and even the holy family, endure seasons of exile.
In each instance, life as they knew it was going along just fine—until something changed. For Abraham and Sarah, it was a persistent voice calling him to leave everything behind. Under Moses, the people of God are driven into the wilderness to freedom but also hardship; later, they are driven into captivity by conquerers and left wondering if they will ever again see their home. Each time, the people of God had to set aside what they thought they knew, so that they could survive in a world that was suddenly very unfamiliar. Each time, they had to learn a new way to be community, to worship God, to love one another.
Jesus himself was clearly familiar with what it meant to be an exile. As a child of the Jewish diaspora, he grew up hearing the story of his people, of their banishment from and later return to their own land, the very land in which he had been born, a land which was both their birthright, and also a place of displacement at the hands of a foreign occupier. The people of Israel were both at home and at exile in the land that God had given to Moses.
And then there were those who were in exile from the exiles. The outsiders, the blind, the lame, scores of sick and broken people, set aside for the sake of the health of the community, present but not accounted as persons in their own right, left to beg on the streets, left at the mercy of the people who passed them by. These exiles lived daily the stigma of knowing that they would always be defined by what they were not. They carried their reason for their exile like a scarlet letter on their bodies.
Of course, it wasn’t personal. In Jesus’ day, they didn’t know that blindness could be caused by something as simple as an infection, let alone have the tools to treat it. They didn’t have the miracle of modern medicine that today spares countless vulnerable people from preventable illness. And so they made difficult choices. Better safe than sorry, was the general principle. They imposed restrictions on the sick and the impaired, enacting their own version of extreme and often permanent social distancing in order to contain illness and minimize its potential spread.
Certainly we know more now. It is easy to judge the people of Jesus’ day as cruel or heartless when you have ready access to antibiotics and anti-viral medication. But perhaps in this moment we find ourselves in a special place, one where we might find it within ourselves to maintain a modicum of compassion for a community of people who, for all the love they had for one another, were terrified of getting sick or dying before their time, and who decided that perhaps it was safer to separate themselves from those who were.
From that perspective, Jesus is truly reckless in this story. I will admit to you for myself that, given the moment we are living in, it is a bit terrifying to hear Jesus break numerous CDC protocols as he spits in the dirt, rubs his spittle it in his hands, and then touches the face of another person who has been cast out because he is sick. I suspect his own disciples may have been a bit anxious themselves. Of course, he had also been fraternizing with unclean Gentiles, and with a lot children, and conducting mass healings, so perhaps they were accustomed to it by that point.
But the same could not be said of the Pharisees. You remember them. A few weeks ago, Baron reminded us in one of his sermons that the Pharisees weren’t the “big bad wolf” that modern Christianity often makes them out to be. No, they were the ultimate insiders. The keepers of tradition. The Pharisees were an important community of religious leaders who took the bible extremely seriously, and dedicated their lives to helping their community obey the law of Moses. During the political and social turmoil of Jesus’ lifetime and beyond, the Pharisees provided a promise of safety and a measure of control by teaching that the way to please God was to keep your head down and follow the rules for the good of the community.
And then there was Jesus. He wasn’t a revolutionary, exactly, but he kept saying things that sounded, well, revolutionary. He kept talking about a kingdom that was not of this world, one so unlike anything that anyone had ever seen before, or heard of, and so some people started wondering what exactly he might be planning.
Jesus seems to have had a habit of making the Pharisees nervous. He kept touching sick people and healing them, often on the Sabbath day as he was teaching the crowds. He kept pushing the limits of the purity laws by meeting with foreigners like the Samaritans, who many Jews considered to be mortal enemies. He kept saying really strange things about being borne again, and calling himself the bread of heaven. He was a problem: they knew it, and he knew it too.
And so it shouldn’t be surprising at all that, by the time he kneels down before the blind man and rubs mud in his eyes, the Pharisees have got their eye on him. This isn’t the first time he has broken Sabbath law—back in John 5, Jesus heals a man who cannot walk by the pool of Bethsaida. In fact, in John 5:16, the scripture tells us that “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him.” In Chapter 7, we are told that the authorities have been looking for a way to kill him. He has been accused of being possessed by a demon, of being a Samaritan, of blaspheming the name of God.
And into the midst of this heated moment is thrown one, poor, man who was born blind.
Have you ever been minding your own business, going about your day, when suddenly you are thrust into the midst of something beyond anything you could ever have imagined? Something that changes everything?
It’s as though the blind man won a lottery that he didn’t know he had bought the ticket for. Suddenly, he has been given the one thing that had exiled him from his community. But there is only one problem: his community is not very happy about how it happened.
The author of John is a masterful storyteller, and so this episode is full of juicy details revealing what can only be described as a comical level of confusion as the people in the blind man’s life seek to make sense of what has happened: as soon as the blind man receives his sight, neighbors who had walked past him for years in the market place suddenly “see” him for the first time, but they cannot agree on whether it really is him or not. But whoever he is, he must be trouble, because there he was doing something on the Sabbath day. When the religious authorities question him, they are so confused by what has happened that they begin to suspect him of the hard to imagine sin of faking his blindness all along. And his poor parents—they are so overwhelmed by the whole incident that they practically beg the authorities to leave them out of it.
In the center of it all is the blind man who never asked to be healed. Notice something: the more that people push him, the more his neighbors and religious leaders question and discount him, the more he is left to fend for himself, the more confident he becomes. Over the course of this story, he transforms from someone who claims to not know anything, to proclaiming Jesus a prophet, and finally to confessing him as the Messiah, saying “I believe.”
It is almost as though he is being born again right before our eyes—this man, who once was valued as less than nothing, who barely existed in the eyes of the community, begins to see himself as a person worthy of living. And not just any person: he becomes a disciple of Jesus. A child of God. He can tell the world what God has done in him, and the world may finally listen.
It would seem that this ordeal opens his eyes—literally, spiritually—to the truth that should have been clear all along: that he is a beloved child of God, such that, by the end, when he has exhausted the patience of the religious authorities, who deny the miracle and condemn him as made in sin and unworthy of community, it is too late. He is a brand new person. Their words no longer have power over him, because he has found a new life in Christ.
Later, in John 10, Jesus goes on to explain to the Pharisees and those who witnessed the miracle that he is the Good Shepherd, and that he has come to seek and save the lost. He has come to give the outcast children of God something more than living in exile—he has come to restore them in the eyes of God. And by the time Jesus says this, we know that it is true, because we have seen it in that blind man. We may not know his name, but the faith of the blind man—this man who has experienced the darkest valley and has come out on the other side, who once was blind and now he sees—how can we not wonder at the faith of this child of God? His story has inspired countless Christians with his determination to name the gift that God has given him, with his persistent wonder at the goodness of God, with his stubborn refusal to be defined by his illness.
So often in this life, we are told that if something isn’t going as we want it to, we need to make a change. But sometimes, change happens to you. Sometimes, everything seems fine until suddenly it isn’t, and everything you thought you knew becomes a question mark. We know this. Right now, many of the things we take for granted—the ways we are accustomed to being church, the ways we are used to showing our love and our care for or friends, our family, our neighbors, the vulnerable—are being tested. And it can feel like we are at sea. Adrift. Cast off. Even in exile.
But the Good Shepherd knows his sheep. Like the blind man, you have heard his voice, and he is speaking to you even now, even in exile. How we are church is being tested, but we are not broken. Everything looks different right now, but we are still the church. We can still be the church when we are apart. Because we still have each other. The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother,
and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night,
and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.
This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,
he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children
in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared
in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel.
For those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
On the wall of my kitchen I have a series of cookie molds. Many of them are replicas of molds that were carved in wood over 500 years ago, when the cookies that were pressed were used to tell stories visually because many people were unable to read or write.
Unsuprisingly, many of these special molds are religious in nature, and depict famous scenes like the nativity, the visit of the magi, and famous saints from history. In amongst them is the image of a woman being led by her husband on a donkey, holding her infant child as they flee their home for safe harbor in Egypt.
The Flight to Egypt, as it is known, has long held a special place in the Christian imagination. Centuries of Christian art and critical scholarship attest to this. For much of the history of the church, this story was considered so vital, so important to understanding the mystery of Christmas, so central to knowing who Christ is that it was given its very own standing Feast Day on the fourth day of Christmas. Nonetheless, it appears that artists and bakers alike rather preferred to paint and to carve images of the holy family fleeing on a donkey. It was far more comfortable than depicting what the holy family was fleeing from.
But that is precisely where we find ourselves this Sunday. The Slaughter of the Innocents, as it is known, is often preached with disclaimers and content warnings attached, if it is preached at all. It features an intimidating cast of characters, to be sure—a messenger from God who warns Joseph in a dream of the nightmare that is coming, a city that will soon be filled with the victims and perpetrators of senseless violence, and at the center of it all, a vengeful and evil King plotting genocide. Even from the distance of nearly 2000 years, it is an awful story.
And it all begins with one very bad king. Based on everything we know, King Herod was exactly the kind of man that he seems to be in this story. According to the historical record, he was known to be clever and calculating, but also paranoid and grudge-holding. He survived more than one poisoning attempt on his life, and until the day he died he was convinced that his family members were out to get him. In the twilight of his reign, he was personally responsible for the deaths of three of his sons, one of whom he murdered just 5 days before his own rather gruesome death. In the Antiquities, the historian Josephus recounts that, as Herod realized he was dying, he instructed his guards bring to him all of the principal men of the Jewish region, one from every family, and shut them up in the local stadium. Then he summoned his own children and made them swear to massacre those same men when he died in order to ensure that the city would be thrust into a period of sincere mourning in his name. If they will not cry for me, he thought, at least they will cry at the right moment.
In other words, although we cannot confirm that Herod might have been so callous as to murder a horde of babies and toddlers, it also would not have been inconceivable to imagine that he might do such a thing, especially if his legacy and kingship was at stake. It was, as they say, on brand.
So when we reach this Sunday, close on the heels of Christmas, and find ourselves witnesses not to the angel choirs of Christmas Eve, but rather to a chorus of terrorized cries from the women of Bethlehem, I wonder whether perhaps it might be appropriate for us to pause and consider, just for a second, what kind of world this is that our Lord and Savior was born into.
What sort of world is this, where power-hungry, self-interested men play games with the lives of ordinary people? Was there something special about this moment and this place that is significant to understanding who God is? What God came to do? Who Immanuel, God-with-us, came to heal and save? What did it mean, that in the words of John’s Gospel, that Jesus came to bring light to this darkness, and that this darkness would not overcome him?
In other words, what would this text have us know about the nature of God?
When you have dedicated your life to the study and explication of the Word of God to the people who gather in God’s name, one of your tasks is to understand the text, not only through the lens of your own understanding, but as it has been reflected through history. And one of the things that I find notable about this text is that, in reading the words of those who have considered this text before us, it resists being explained. Centuries of historians, in fact, have struggled to come up for a tidy reading that explains why God would allow something like this to happen. Rather, this text emotes. It engages us beyond the point of reason, goes right for the guts and hits us at the core of who we are.
Instead of offering answers, great minds are more often left pondering what this could mean, like Mary, much like the Rev. Robert Jamieson, who in his commentaries is moved to cry out:
O ye mothers of Bethlehem! Methinks I hear you asking why your innocent babes should be the ram caught in the thicket, while Isaac escapes. I cannot tell you, but one thing I know, that ye shall, some of you, live to see a day when that Babe of Bethlehem shall be Himself the Ram, caught in another sort of thicket, in order that your babes may escape a worse doom than they now endure. And if these babes of yours be now in glory, through the dear might of that blessed Babe, will they not deem it their honor that the tyrant’s rage was exhausted upon themselves instead of their infant Lord?”
This pastor, who dedicated his life’s work to making sense of the Scripture, found himself at a loss to explain the vicious slaughter of innocent children.
And then there is John Calvin, who himself experienced the loss of a child, and, upon considering this text, could draw few conclusions but only observed that “even this massacre could not prevent Christ from appearing shortly afterwards as the Redeemer of the whole nation.”
It is a text so troubling that it is really no wonder that we preach it publicly only once every three years, on a Sunday when there is likely to be few people to hear it.
It will not go away. It will not be silenced or relegated to a footnote of some distant, defanged history, because the awful truth of Matthew 2 is that this tale of terror, of innocent children mowed down by power hungry tyrants, is not confined to Herod’s day but rather continues to play out, across the breadth of history.
The ugly truth is not that this story is believable because Herod was a tyrant, but rather it is believable because humans, in their zeal for power, are capable of inflicting enormous amounts of pain and suffering upon the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the young. The innocents of this world continue to be massacred by the powerful and well-connected of this world, the cries of Rachel echo in the grieving cries of the inconsolable, and we, who gather here surrounded by the signs of Christ’s presence in this world, must ask ourselves: what is it all for?
Perhaps the miracle is that Christ comes at all. That to a world that is capable of this much cruelty, God sent God’s own son to take a place amongst us. Not just to save us, but to identify with us, to experience the joy and the pain and the fear and cruelty of being alive in a world that can be both exhilarating and also incredibly dangerous.
I wonder if perhaps this text is as much a reminder of God’s redemptive hand as it is a recognition that the world we live in right now is not all that different from Herod’s Bethlehem. For Herod may be long dead, but children still are slaughtered, their families still are denied refuge, their mothers are still crying in the streets. The light of Bethlehem simultaneously announces the birth of the Savior and exposes the unvarnished truth that the world can be and often is a dark and dangerous place for the poor and the vulnerable.
Perhaps Christ needed to come into a moment this dark not in spite of it, but because of it. Because we needed to see that light can shine in the darkest corners of human history. Because we needed to understand that our basest cruelty cannot overcome God’s infinite love. That the God of the poor and the weak and the powerless is greater than our collective indifference. And perhaps Christ steps into this moment in history because God knew that we could not find our way out of the darkness of our own making on our own. We needed someone to show us another way.
It is most often pointed out that the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel According to Matthew is intended to parallel the birth and life story of the prophet Moses. So perhaps it is helpful to remember that, for the people of Israel, the story of Moses was one of God’s identification and solidarity with an enslaved and vulnerable people. God sent Moses into the darkness of captivity and suffering under Pharoah with the promise that freedom was coming. Not without cost. Not without suffering. But in spite of it.
Perhaps, too, as we ponder the mystery of the Christmas season, we would do well to remember that what is most important in the Christmas story is not what happens in the halls of power. This is not a story of conquest by and for the powerful, but rather it is centered on a promise of reversal and redemption for the discounted, the disregarded, and the expendable. It is a promise to those who refuse to be consoled, who weep as they wait upon that bright day when the justice of God will prevail.
So I wonder once again: What does this story tell us about the nature of God? Perhaps nothing more important than this: That when the hurting people of God cried out in the darkness “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah listened, and made haste to come to tend to their sorrows, and that God abides with them still, and with all who recognize Christ within them. Until Christ comes again.
“But about that day and hour no one knows,
neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and would not have let his house be broken into.
Therefore you also must be ready.
For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
It would begin, like so many things, with darkness. On that day, as so many slept, or tarried, or carried on with their day as they always had, the purging would begin. Without warning, fire would rain down upon the world God had made, cleansing the fullness of creation of all evil, melting the dross away.
Already a sign had been revealed: a comet, stretching over the heavens, had been observed by those who waited and watched. And so, as the day approached, the faithful cut their hair, sold their possessions, and prepared themselves for the deliverance that was surely coming soon. They put on clean, white garments and climbed the nearby hills so that they might be closer to the heavens, closer to God, when salvation finally came.
Up on the mountaintops they kept watch, waiting for it to begin. But nothing happened. And as the sun set over the distant hills, and darkness fell once more, disappointment rained down upon the mountain top. Perhaps an error had been made? That had to be it.
The texts were consulted, and a new date was proclaimed, and again the people rallied, steeling themselves for that great day that surely was coming soon. More people than ever before, it seemed, gathered themselves on the edge of eternity and waited with expectation for what was coming. But again the sun came and went, and as the darkness once again settled over the land, the people descended from the mountaintops, dispersed from one another and into the world they so dearly wished to depart, their hearts and their spirits divided over what it all had meant.
The Great Disappointment of 1843 was, if you haven’t guessed from the name, a bit of a letdown for the followers of William Miller. Some in the media have called my generation, the Millenials, the disappointed generation, but I wonder if perhaps the Millerites might have beaten us to the honor of “most disappointed cohort.” I don’t think I would choose to trade places with the folks standing on the mountain with Bill Miller, with their impractical homemade dresses and freshly shorn heads, keenly aware that they had recently divested themselves of all their worldly possessions in anticipation of a moment that wasn’t coming.
Then again, the Millerites had been so certain that they were onto something important. Their leader, a quiet and thoughtful farmer, respected by friends and neighbors, had never set out to be a prophet, but as he looked at the world around him, and as he read his bible, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was imminent.
As he studied the prophets, he thought he recognized echoes of the destruction and chaos around him—in the human costs of the American and French Revolutions, and his own experiences as a soldier during the War of 1812. The horrors of war became the crucible in which William Miller began to see his faith differently, and within the community of the Millerites, he found a hope that, while misplaced, sustained him and brought him through the dark night of his soul.
It feels appropriate at this juncture to acknowledge that it can be rather satisfying for many Christians, especially progressive Christians, to watch these end times prophecies fail to materialize. If we honest, we get more than a little satisfaction out of knowing that the night will come, and the day will break, and somewhere a false prophet will lose his or her wings. We tell ourselves that we would never rush to the mountain top or sell all of our possessions. We tell ourselves we are smart enough not to fall for false promises.
And yet. I find myself wondering: can we blame William Miller for experiencing the trauma of a broken world, and concluding that the only thing that could mend what had been wrent asunder was the return of the Lord? Can we honestly look at the world around us and say, this is fine?
Paul Tillich once observed that “if you find hope in the ground of history, you are united with the great prophets who were able to look into the depth of their times, who tried to escape it, because they could not stand the horror of their visions, and who yet had the strength to look to an even deeper level and there to discover hope.”
I feel compassion for the William Millers of this world. Because for all of his mistakes, William Miller was not all that different from us. He was trying his best to be a good, humble Christian person living in a world that suddenly felt dangerous, where good, innocent people were dying and suffering from war and poverty and sickness, and he struggled to make sense of it. As he looked out upon the wreckage, he found himself wondering: what could all of this suffering and ruin and brokeness possibly be for?
I say he is not all that different from us because not all that much has changed. We live in a moment when, if we are paying attention, there are so many things to be anxious about. For my entire adult life, our country has been sending battle ships and missiles and drone strikes and young men and women out into the world to fight wars in distant lands. Images of broken people in forsaken places, some of them suffering directly or indirectly because of the policies of our beloved country, have become so common that they have begun to blend together. Our swiftly warming planet has left many teenagers terrified of what the future will hold for them. Disappointment doesn’t begin to touch the feelings of dis-ease that follow so many of us as we look at the world and wonder—what could all of this wreckage possibly be for?
So perhaps it is appropriate, this day more than ever, that we pause to reflect on what the prophets might have to offer to us at the threshold of Advent. To ask ourselves, what might it mean to put our suffering world in the context of the coming reign of God?
In our Gospel lesson today, it is easy to get caught up in the uncertainty of Jesus’ words. To focus on the not-knowing-ness of the day of the Lord. But perhaps if we can set that aside for the moment and notice that, in the midst of all of the reminders that we will not know the day or the hour, and that it will come like a thief, our Lord and Savior offers us a promise: that in the midst of the chaos and suffering of the world, Jesus is still coming. There is no thing in this world that is so awful that it could stand in the way of promise of the coming Kingdom of God.
I don’t know about you, but this year I find a great deal of comfort in knowing that, as bad as the world has been, God isn’t finished with us yet. It helps me to know that we can name the pain of the world, that we can hold it together as a community, and at the same time we can look forward to a day in which the scars borne by a suffering world will be healed over. The great womanist ethicist Emilie Townes describes this experience of communal lament as essential to Christian Hope. She says that:
When we grieve, when we lament, we acknowledge and live the experience rather than try to hold it away from us out of some misguided notion of being objective or strong. We hurt; something is fractured, if not broken…we are living in structures of evil and wickedness that make us ill. We must name them as such and seek to repent—not out of form—but from the heart. It is only then that we can begin to heal.
In other words, our healing, and the healing of the world, is bound up in our willingness to be here now. To forgo the distant mountaintop for the fellowship of the hurting. To stop wondering about the day and the hour which no one knows and instead get to the business of fashioning plowshares from swords, clothed not for battle but rather, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, adorned in the armor of light so that we might live honorable and full lives right here, right now, in this moment that we have been given. Instead of dwelling in dreams and fantasy of a future we cannot conceive of, we keep awake by doing what we can, while we can: by loving our neighbor, healing the sick and the broken, bearing witness to the injustice before us. For the hope of the Gospel is not found somewhere else, but right here, in how we make sense of the reality we have already been given.
In his book, the Scandalous Message of Jesus, Peter Gomes observes that “hope is not merely an optimistic view that everything will turn out right in the end. It is the more rugged, more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.” This hope comes at a price, and requires work and effort on our part. It requires patience, and endurance, and even stubbornness, to believe that, however bad this moment is, God is not through with us. God will bear us through.
My husband will tell you that I am Christmas Grinch, which means that my eyes start to twitch when the Christmas music starts blasting in early November. But I find myself drawn on this morning to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s great Christmas hymn, perhaps you know it:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men!
I have always loved those words and their joyful melody. But what I had forgotten about that hymn are the verses that follow:
Then from each black, accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the south
And with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; ‘there is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’
In Longfellows’ time, hope seemed like a fragile thing, for the darkness of our country had been broken open, and peace threatened by the violent reality of the Civil War. And so the poet wonders: can peace be possible in this world that we have made? I am reminded in this moment that every generation of the faithful has had that moment when they are faced with the truth of how fragile is the line that separates life from death, order from chaos, peace from division. And in those moments, if we find ourselves unconnected to a community in which we can lament together and name the sorrow of this world, if we do not have a safe place to wail and to wonder, the danger is that we might be swallowed up by the darkness that threatens us. For it is in our fellowship with the people of God that we are returned to the hope that sustains us, the hope that insists that God is not through with us yet:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep; ‘God is not dead, nor doth God Sleep;
The wrong shall fail; the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.
The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of God endures forever. Amen.
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.
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.
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
running around looking for something to do that will show the world that they are successful and contributing adults,
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.