God is Not Through

Matthew 24:36-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I just Kant help Myself

1 Peter 2:19-25

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

John 10:1-10

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

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

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This guy’s out of Kant-rol……

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

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

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

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

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

Until the Categorical Imperative.

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

His Categorical Imperative can be summarized as the following:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wait a second.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OR…..

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

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

Pub Theology: MLK Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love Your Body

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

-1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

-Luke 4:14-21

Is there anything that is as ordinary and extraordinary as the human body? On the one hand, bodies are pretty darn average—every created thing has one, and whether yours is old or young, healthy or faltering, they are pretty—well—familiar. We live in them every day, and so we are usually well acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses, our pains and our pleasures. Our bodies are like old friends, the sort of friend that we are so well acquainted with that rarely do we stop and pause to think about what our bodies are actually doing as we go about our business each day.

In fact, we tend to pay the most attention to our own bodies when they aren’t working as we think they should—when skin chafes and knees throb, bones break and muscles fail, eyes cloud and minds dim. Or we notice other bodies because they are different—they are different colors, or of differing abilities, or we believe either that they are more or less beautiful than our own. Then we are all too aware of bodies and what sets them apart.

And yet, more often than not, our bodies are simply a miracle. Consider your hands—hands that have likely borne you through countless days, held the hands of those you loved, that have borne the brunt of your labors, have held a pencil or typed your thoughts as they spill from your mind. Or your eyes—how many sunsets, how many loved ones, how many snowstorms have these, the only eyes you will ever have—beheld? How faithful have they been to you, whether you noticed or not? How many bones, muscles, sinews, and nerves have labored without your consideration? How many humble body parts—blood cells, lymph nodes, nerve endings—have carried the building blocks of your touch and your sight without our even thinking of it?

Because that’s the thing about bodies. Most of the time, they keep working whether we notice them or not. They keep on working, day in and day out, because that is what bodies do. It’s not that we don’t appreciate them. If you are like me, its more like we are so busy experiencing the world—touching, tasting, beholding—that we are left with little time for reflecting deeply on the gift that being embodied in this world is.

For it is indeed a gift. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle invites us to pause to consider just how amazing the body is. Only Paul has another body in mind, and that is the body of Christ, a motley crew of Gentiles and strangers from this ancient port city who have found their way into community and life in Christ. And to these people Paul reflects that the body of Christ isn’t all that different from our real, physical bodies. In fact, he says, we can learn a lot about being the church by reflecting on the bodies God blessed us with.

“Indeed,” Paul says, “The body does not consist of one member but many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”

It occurs to me that is not the sort of thing that you write to a church body when all is good and well. This is the kind of thing that you say to a community that is struggling. This is the sort of thing that you say to a community that is failing because it has forgotten that it is a body.

And indeed, Paul is concerned about the church in Corinth. He is concerned because the church has taken to drawing distinctions within itself. Just before this passage, we learn that the church in Corinth celebrates the Lord’s Supper quite strangely—they have one table for the rich and wealthy, and another for the poor. It seems that they have carried their own society’s attitudes about class into the congregation with disastrous results. Now church members are saying that “this person” is useful and “that person” is not. “this person” is right and “that person” is wrong. “This person” is in, and “that person” is out.

In other words, some members in the body have decided that others are not necessary to the well-being of the church, and so they have shut them out of the body, as though they were better off without them.

It’s not as though this is some booming mega-church. Unlike many of Paul’s other letters, the letter to the Corinthians is addressed to the one tiny church that has found a foothold in Corinth. More than likely, the church was no more than a dozen or so families, the kind of church where everyone knows your name. Not all that different from the church that we call home. And yet, they find ways to draw lines separating the handful of Jesus-lovers who have gathered in Christ’s name.

All of this reminds me of a story I recently heard about a neurological disease called Guillian-Barre Syndrome. Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes it, but what happens is this: sometime, often following an infection, the persons immune system begins to attack its own nerve cells. Within days, the person’s body is locked into nearly complete paralysis. In the most severe cases, people can’t even breathe, and must be put on a ventilator. Eventually, the symptoms begin to reverse, and many experience a full recovery. But those who endure Guillian-Barre describe a harrowing experience of losing complete control of their body as it attacks itself. They describe feeling utterly powerless to do anything.

I wonder whether perhaps this is what Paul is concerned about. Perhaps he is concerned that the church in Corinth has forgotten what a gift this Body of Christ is. And perhaps he knows that when the body attacks itself, it will be utterly paralyzed. Because it will have forgotten that every part, from the head down to the toes and everything in between, is important. From the priests and the scribes to the lepers and the widows. Not just important, but essential. Irreplaceable. Every single part of God’s body belongs.

According to Paul, what makes the Body of Christ extraordinary is that every part of the body is not just accepted, but is honored. In the body of Christ, “the members have the same care for one another, such that if one member suffers, all suffer together with it, and if one member is honored, all are lifted up together with it.” This is the Jesus kind of Body, one in which there is no strong or weak, poor or rich, gentile or jew. Instead there is just the Body, bound together in love, guided by Christ, reaching across divisions of culture or class, race or gender.

It’s the kind of body that Jesus envisions when he preaches “good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Christ has given us a gift as well, of membership in the body. Across time and space, we are joined to the members of the Church in Corinth, who struggled with what it means to love and honor one another as they followed Christ. They remind us that being church together is one of the hardest things we will ever do, because it runs against everything we have been taught by our society—for in church, we are called to set aside our inclinations to group people as “our people” or “not our people,” and instead see all of us as “God’s Children.” Because we are.

And this is important stuff. Because unless we can learn to love our neighbors within the church as the children of God that they are, we have no hope of sharing that love with those beyond the church. Our love for one another IS our witness to the world. Church is both our testimony, and our training ground for life out in the mission field—the world beyond our sanctuary doors. It is, in the words of Paul, the “more excellent way.”

Friends, let us love one another, for we are all children of God.

Blizzard Church: Worshipping at Home in Bad Weather

Sometimes bad weather makes it unsafe to come to church.  But even if you are stuck inside this weekend, we can still worship together as the body of Christ!  I hope that this order of worship will help you and those you love to take time to give thanks to God and join with the communion of saints, wherever you are.

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WE GATHER TOGETHER

Lighting of the Christ Candle: gather your family together.  Take a moment to light a candle, remembering that Christ, whom we call “the light of the world” is always with us when we gather together.

Call to Worship: choose someone to “lead” and have everyone respond with the bolded words.

Great is the Lord—Exalted among the nations.

Mighty is the Lord—King of heaven and earth.

Holy is the Lord—Beyond our understanding.

Let us worship our God and King!

 Hymn            Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Consider singing along to this familiar hymn, or use the video below as a time of prayerful reflection.

   

Confession: take a moment with your family to remember that God loves us just as we are.  Whatever we have done or been this week, God accepts us.  Prayer the prayer together below, or take time together to name moments this week where you have struggled to do God’s will, and are in need of forgiveness.   

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Through Christ our Lord.

Give thanks to the Lord for God is Good and God’s steadfast love endures forever.  Nothing we can do, nothing we have done, can separate us from the Love of God.  In Jesus’ Name, we are forgiven. Amen.

*Response                        Gloria Patri

THE WORD IS PROCLAIMED

Prayer of Illumination Use this prayer to remember that the Scriptures are the one of the most important ways in which we can encounter God and know God’s will for us.

God of goodness and light, as you created the world by your Word and Spirit, breathe new life into us this day; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Scripture Readings: use the readings listed below, or find it together in the Bible.  Take turns reading the verses, or choose one person to read the first lesson, and another to read the second.

            First Lesson:            1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

  Gospel Lesson            Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Sermon            “Love Your Body” by Rev. Sarah Weisiger (click here for the full text)   

*Hymn             Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God

WE RESPOND IN FAITH

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Prayers of the People and Lord’s Prayer (opening paragraph written by Moira Laidlaw, and posted at http://www.liturgiesonline.com.au/)

Spirit of the living God, we praise and adore you for empowering us to claim membership of the body of Christ, a gift received through the fullness of your grace. Empower us anew, we pray, with tongues of fire and hearts of love to proclaim the reconciling word among people. Remind us that we are all members of the one body and if one member suffers, we all suffer. May we, as the body of Christ in this place, be the best evidence of your love by declaring and witnessing to this as the year of the Lord’s favour for all people. We give thanks that all of us are Christ’s body, and rejoice in each one being a part of it.

As we gather in church and at home, we pray for the body of our community.  We pray for those who give thanks for snow, and for those who fear its coming. We pray for those who have the luxury to stay indoors, and for our emergency workers–police, firefighters, EMTs, hospital workers, Postal Service employees, Road Crews–whose work calls them into the storm.  We pray for those who have no home from which to escape the cold.  We pray for those who labor to provide a home for the homeless and the vulnerable in the storm.  And we pray for those who are alone this weekend, and have no one with which to share their joy, sorrow, hope, or despair.

For all these and more, O God, we lift up our prayers.  For we are one body, and we rise and fall together.  In the name of our Head, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Offering: Remember that everything we have, and everything we are is a gift from God.  How will you commit yourself to be a gift to God’s world this week?  How will you be a blessing in the one and glorious life you have been given? Take a moment to share together ways in which you can offer your gifts, your time, and your treasure at home, at work, and at school. Consider making an offering together to bring to church next week, or use this weekend as an opportunity to try out our new online giving program through the Presbyterian Mission Exchange (click here to go to the website)

WE ARE SENT OUT

Hymn                                              Blessed Be the Tie That Binds

Passing of the PeaceClose your time of worship together by passing the peace, remembering that wherever you are, God is with you when you gather in God’s name.

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. And also with you.

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That Kid Is Going to Be Trouble

1 Samuel 2:18-20 18

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

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

Luke 2:41-52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baby Jesus is MAGIC!!!!

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

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

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

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Hey mom!! Where did you go?

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

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

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

What sort of excuse would be acceptable in that moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is what we are afraid of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Do we really believe that light can overcome the darkness?

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

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

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

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

A dark world, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

Love Was Born on Christmas Day

Luke 1:5-18, 57-80

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strong women need one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Life of Joy

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

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


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


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


Luke 2:25-32

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

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

We are going to do a quick thought experiment.

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


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What is joy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

They could not distinguish the weeping from the joyful shouting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soil Tending in the Desert

Comfort, O comfort my people,says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Isaiah 40:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a difference a little rain makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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