Going Deeper with John’s Gospel: The Prologue

Gospel of John Frontispiece and Incipit, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bibleand the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

This year, my congregation is undertaking the project of seeking to understand more deeply the Gospel according to John. This is the first lecture in the series. I will also be posting complementary sermons during this season.

John’s Gospel is an enigmatic text—it stands on its own, apart from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Whereas these other Gospels appear to follow a consistent and agreed upon narrative of the events of Jesus’ life and death, John appears to choose to go another way. Many stories, in fact, that appear in John’s Gospel, appear no-where else in the accounts of the disciples of Jesus. 

For this reason, many scholars of the centuries have proposed a boundary between the so-called Synoptics and John’s account.  Clement of Alexandria captured the general mood when he described John as a “Spiritual Gospel.” And in fact, for much of the history of Christendom, John has enjoyed a secondary status next to the synoptics, viewed by scholars as a supplement to the others but not at the same level of historicity. In other words—Matthew Mark and Luke tell us about the “plain facts” about Jesus, but John tells us about the spiritual meaning of his ministry.

In her excellent commentary on the gospel, Dr. Karoline Lewis describes a number of problems with this division:

  1. First is the fact that many of the “facts” that we think we know about Jesus are found in John’s Gospel.  She observes, for example, that “the supposition that Jesus’ ministry was three years in length is made possible by John.”
  2. The second problem is that this division between Synoptics and John’s Gospel relies upon the assumption that the synoptics are primarily histories, and they are not. The Gospels, she writes, “are no more interested in the historical account of Jesus than John is committed to a spiritual description of Jesus. The Gospels are gospels, the good news of Jesus Christ…they are a witness to the promise of God’s presence among God’s people, now in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.”[1]

And the problems do not end there. Many ancient scholars comparing the writing style and emphasis of the synoptics and John came to the conclusion that John’s Gospel must have been written later than the other three. John seemed to them more spiritually “developed,” which they assumed must have taken more time to evolve within the Christian Community. And so it is likely that many of you may have grown up learning that John’s Gospel may well have been written late into the second century. 

But modern archeology casts doubt on this assumption. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 50s, as well as archeological discoveries in Nag Hammadi, Egypt and other Coptic texts, it became apparent that there were far more “gospels” circulating in the world of ancient Judaism—the Gospel of Thomas, of Mary, of Peter and of Judas, to name a few that did not make it into our canon.  It would appear that not just Saducees and Pharisees, but Gnostics, the Qumran Community, the Docetists, and many others were writing and sharing their thoughts on God. Over time, many of these movements were branded as heretical for their views on Jesus. And many of these heretics preached a Jesus who was spiritually distant, mystical, and decidedly unhuman. For some, John’s Gospel seemed to edge close to that heretical view, and therefore the Gospel was viewed with suspicion.

And yet, if we can strip away our own assumptions about what we think is happening in John’s Gospel, perhaps we shall find that the Jesus we encounter here is very human. He breathes. He eats. He mourns. He suffers.  He is the word made flesh, in every way incarnate as we are.

Ultimately, my own well-worn bible, the New Annotated Edition printed in the late 2000s, attests that the scholarly consensus dates the final editing of the gospel to 80-90 CE, with its earliest material likely being written prior to 70 CE. This would make John’s Gospel roughly contemporaneous with the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.


And now let us turn to the Gospel itself. We will begin with the Prologue, a beautiful piece of scripture that contains within it the main theological themes for the Gospel as a whole.

The Prologue to John’s Gospel is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of scripture written in all the gospels. Like so much poetry, it says so very much in an economy of words, and its words evoke a world far beyond itself….

 In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word WAS God.

John 1:1

One cannot help but remember other beginnings when one hears these words: The beginning of creation, when the universe was cast and we were made players within God’s most perfect world. It is a remarkable way to begin the story of Jesus, one that tells us, without telling us in so many words, that this is a story that will have cosmic impact.

On Sunday, we spent some time delving into the power of a good story to capture our hearts and to help remind us of who and whose we are. And so I tonight it is my hope that we can turn from this conversation to another, one that has vexed theologians for centuries, and that is:

What is John the Baptist doing interrupting this gorgeous poetry?

 For right there in the center of this ancient hymn, just as light is shining in the darkness, just as we are promised that the light will not over come it, John arrives.

You remember John—In other Gospels he comes to us as the cousin of Jesus, brimming with a wildness of faith that borders on the fanatical. He is the man on the street corner, bellowing in a megaphone; the hermit in the desert, meditating on a stump. He is the strange holy man, begging for a bite to eat and a soul to save. John in the synoptics, is the Baptist, painted in full color with the volume turned up to eleven.

But not so in John’s Gospel. Here, John is a man sent from God, all right, but we do not learn what he looked like, or where he preached, or how the people responded. John does not tell us who his mother and father are as Luke does, or his relation to Jesus Christ. And John is not defined here as the Baptist, but as the Witness.

In her commentary on the book of John, Karoline Lewis observes that “commentators have regularly explained away John’s presence as a later interpolation that does not belong in such a majestic, hymnic, and poetic narration of Jesus’ origins and identity.”[2] In other words, they have tended to see John as a distraction. And yet Lewis disagrees. For her, John’s presence “points to another main theme of this Gospel—holding together, simultaneously, at every moment, the divine and the human.” John’s role, right here at the beginning of it all, is to be a witness, to show us what it looks like to testify or witness to the light.

The word that we translate as witness is in fact the word martyrian (μαρτυρίαν), and I can’t help but wonder whether knowing this little fact changes its meaning in our minds. For when we think of a witness, I think perhaps we tend to imagine a person who has seen or experienced something swearing under oath that what they have seen or heard is true. But when I think of the word martyr? Well, that is something else. When I think of martyrs, I think of those who were willing to hold fast to what they had seen or heard even unto death.  Who were willing to stake their lives (and who often did) upon what they experienced to be true.

And yet that is PRECISELY what the word means. Martys: to witness. But before we get caught up in the emotional implications of the word martyr, let us first pause and remember that words and their meaning have a tendency to evolve with usage. And this appears to be true for the word Martyr.  Originally, the word was simply a neutral, legal term in Greek. It meant, plainly, “to bear witness,” as one might in a court of law. 

But as Christians began to witness to their faith, and as some began to be arrested, tortured, and even killed on account of their unwillingness to renounce Jesus, what it meant to be a witness began to shift[3]. As the work of testimony took on a life or death element, the willingness to die for ones faith, to value the truth above one’s own safety, “to pick up your cross and carry it” with Christ was elevated within the Christian community from “witnessing to the truth to allegiance to a cause.”[4] The witnesses, the martyrs, began to mean something new in the community, something that perhaps the author of the Gospel did not intend.

What is at stake here is not simply etymology purity, but rather something much more important: what makes a martyr is not their willingness to die, or their devotedness to suffering. Rather, it is the truthfulness of the speaker, their willingness to share what they know. And that is what is meant when John is called the Witness. For he shares what he knows to be true.

And what does he know? His words continue to witness for him:

This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”

John will go on to say other things, and will in fact be martyred, in no small part because he is unwilling to stop preaching what he knows to be true. But for our purposes, what matters most about John is that he models the life to which all Christians since have been called: to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as we have received it. If we are able to do that, then God will indeed dwell among us, or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “God will have moved into the neighborhood.”


[1] Lewis, Karoline. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Fortress Press: 2014. Page 2,3

[2] Lewis, Karoline. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Fortress Press: 2014. Page 13.

[3] https://newmatthewbible.org/Martyr.pdf

[4] Ibid. pg 4

“In the Beginning….”

John 1:(1-9), 10-18

*translation offered by Tom Boomershine, available at www.gotell.org

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light,

so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light,

but he came to testify to the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;

yet the world did not know him He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name,

he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out,
“This was he of whom I said,
“He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ “)

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

No one has ever seen God.
It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart,

who has made him known.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem
by David Roberts (1796-1864) public domain

In 70 CE, the world as they knew it fell apart.

The First Jewish Revolt against Rome began as quickly as it ended, but the carnage was impossible to miss. On the ninth and 10th of the month of Av in the year 70, the Roman legions in Jerusalem smashed through the fortress tower of Antonia into the Holy Temple and set it afire. In the blackened remains of the sanctuary lay more than the ruins of the great Jewish revolt for political independence. To many Jews, it appeared that Judaism itself was shattered beyond repair.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes that 

“out of approximately four or five million Jews in the world, it is likely that over a million Jews died in the war for independence, many of them from starvation, others by fire and crucifixion. So many Jews were sold into slavery and given over to the gladiatorial arenas and circuses that the price of slaves dropped precipitously, fulfilling the ancient curse: “There you will be offered for sale as slaves, and there will be no one willing to buy.”

The historian Josephus described severe famine that left families fighting over food, the hill of the temple mount teeming with fire and piled high with the slain. 

It was a human crisis. But it was also a spiritual crisis. The temple, the symbol of God’s covenant with the world, was gone.

In the years after this awful moment, the people responded in many different ways. Some gave their lives over to the task of mourning. The Talmud says that these people rejected normal life, choosing not to marry or have children. They simply could not imagine going on with life as usual. They spent all their effort trying to restore what was lost.

Others planned for the next rebellion, gathering forces and making plans for what would ultimately be another failed attempt at independence.

And it was into the rawness of that grief and unknowing and despair that one community, perhaps one person in that one community, began to do something remarkable in the decades after the destruction of their world.

They began to tell a story.

Not just any story, mind you. With the grieving and the hurting gathered together, they told the story of the God who made the world. Only, it was different this time. Richard Swanson’s translation of the text goes like this:

“Things used to make sense.  And that sense, it was with God. It even WAS god, and that sense made the world, even as the world made sense.”

From the valley of despair, surrounded by death and destruction, John needs his community to see that all is not lost. And so he reaches for the story of creation, only he does not tell it like their ancestors did. Instead, he makes it new. He reshapes the story, and makes space for their lived experience—the experience of a suffering, struggling people who are uncertain of what the future may hold.  This is a story that can handle the messiness of the world. 

Imagine what it must have been like to meet the destruction and despair of the world with a story of God’s creative and redemptive power. To stand in the rubble of all that was lost and to proclaim: God is not through with us yet. For see, the God who made us, who hovered over the waters of creation, the one whose light shines in the darkness, cannot be overcome. Will not be overcome.

The author Wayne Booth has noted that when we read fiction, we read words that were written in their own times, but that we always, when we read a book, can only read it in our own century. And how we hear a story depends a great deal on what is happening to us.

And so I find myself thinking about this story and wondering: knowing what we know, how can we read it now?

I suspect I am not alone in imagining that perhaps some of us can identify with the experience of the Jewish people. I know that, as I read about the stories of the temple, I cannot help but remember where I was 20 years ago when our world as we know seemed to fall apart. This weekend, as many in our country looked back on the events of twenty years ago I found myself wondering: what is the story that we are telling about this moment?

That may seem like a small question, but I promise you, it matters a great deal. Advances in the study of the mind have revealed that our memories are not a solid thing. Rather, they are shaped by the act of remembering itself—how we tell the stories about our experiences change the way we remember, and even explain why three people can remember the same experience so differently. Each time we tell a story, it is made new, in some way, changed by the very telling itself.

This week, we have been asked to bear witness to the many stories about what happened in our country 20 years ago, about just how much our lives were changed in the past and in the present by that destructive morning. As Christians, we are called to be bear witness to those who suffer, to suffer alongside them even as we seek healing. But that is not all we are called to.  We are also called to look to the bigger story, the story that God is telling. We are called to the same radical act that inspired the Johannine community to tell the story of God’s dwelling with the people, from the beginning of time and in the person of Christ. And to find ways to connect the story of what God has done in the past, with what God is doing in this present moment to redeem the world. To envision a God that is bigger than our pain.

I will leave you with a story. In her book, Plan Be: Further Thoughts on Faith, the author Anne Lamott tells a story about a man name AJ Muste. He was a life-long pacifist who, during the Vietnam War, stood in front of the White House every night, for years, holding a single lighted candle.

Well, over time, people started to notice this man with a candle, and eventually, on one very rainy night, a reporter walked up to him and asked him, “Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change anything by standing out here alone every night with a candle?”

Oh,” Muste replied, “I don’t do it to change them, I do it so they won’t change me.”

May we seek to hold the candle of our faith in the darkness, that we might remember the story God is telling, and witness to the power of the redeeming Christ each and every day. Amen.

Yet He Could Not Escape Notice…

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. 

Yet he could not escape notice. 

But a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him,
and she came and bowed down at his feet. 

Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. 

She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go.
The demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child thrown on the bed, and the demon gone.”

Mark 7:24-30

“Sunday Morning” by Norman Rockwell

Some mornings, I wake up, and all I want in this life is to escape notice. On those days, I want to wake up when I am ready, walk downstairs into the kitchen on my own time, make myself a strong cup of coffee, and catch up on the news in peace. In my mind, this magical morning resembles something out of Norman Rockwell, with children playing quietly and peacefully while Alex and I gather ourselves together to meet another day.

Of course, that is nothing like our actual lives. Most mornings, one or both of us are jarred from sleep when one of our beloved children comes in our room to announce that THEY ARE AWAKE. Or, someone awakens the whole house to a concert featuring one of their favorite Christmas songs sung at the top of their lungs. And then there are the times that the dog awakens us early, eager to get outside to chase a squirrel or a rabbit. Domestic bliss!

You know, I went looking for a picture that might capture the fantasy in my head of an ideal morning. I figured there would be dozens of options to choose from—Norman Rockwell was, after all, a prolific artist. But I couldn’t find any.  Instead I found pictures that looked a little too close to how I feel on my most stressed out days, which, in COVID, let’s admit, are more frequent than usual. Most days, I feel like the man in the picture above—slouching down in my chair, hoping that I will, for however briefly, escape notice.

Over the course of the pandemic, researchers have described a phenomena in which people were so desperate to be alone with their own thoughts that they were stealing that time late at night. Instead of going to sleep, which is the definition of a restful activity, they were scrolling the internet, binging television shows, hiding from friends and family and doing their best to escape.

In other words, we all know what it is like to want to disappear for a while. But most days, it turns out that we cannot escape notice. We cannot escape the reality that there are others—our children, our pets, our neighbors, the world outside—that need us to show up and be there for them. That remind us that we have responsibilities to one another.

Perhaps we can relate, then, to Jesus when he sets off for a little time alone.

You know, it’s interesting. It would seem that Jesus is trying to take a vacation in our scripture lesson this morning. He’s had a rough week—his hometown rejected his ministry, and then the religious authorities showed up at his door questioning his credentials. No wonder he wants to get a way for a bit. So he slips away from the boundaries of his community and into Tyre. Tyre is an interesting choice, I have to say, for someone like Jesus to be sneaking away to.  Just 130 years before Jesus was born, the community of Tyre had assisted King Antiochus in the siege of Jerusalem and desecration of the Jewish temple. 130 years is not that long. A Jew hearing this news about Jesus might have sucked in her breath, shocked to imagine that he, of all people, would be naïve enough to end up in that kind of neighborhood.

If Jesus were American, it would be as though, after a long and hard season of ministry, he woke up one morning and decided he needed to get away and clear his head. And so he jumped on a plane and landed at Kabul airport. Or in Tehran. Or in Sinoloa. Or any other number of places populated by people around whom we have reasons to be guarded. To go there seems reckless. He would have been alone, alright. Alone, and exposed.

There is a whole genre of literature that explores the urge to be alone. Into the Wild tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a man who disappeared into the Alaskan bush to find himself. Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild pulls her life back together by testing her limits on a life-changing hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Jon Krakauer documents the relentless and dangerous pull of Mt Everest in Into Thin Air. There is an endless supply, it seems, of novels and memoirs that document the stories of people who felt that they needed to “escape notice” from the world in order to understand themselves more fully.

What is interesting in these stories is what happens when “the world” passes away, and the characters at the center of the story are stripped down.  What will they  do with this precious opportunity? And I would suggest that the same is true for Jesus.

When he slips away into Tyre, we cannot know what Jesus expected to happen. But we know what DOES happen: Scripture tells us that he cannot hide. Even here, far away from the people with whom he shares a culture and a religion, there are people hurting and crying out for relief. People who look nothing like him. Who believe differently than he does. People whom he may even have reason to distrust. People who are foreign. Other. And yet, they have heard of him and what he does. And so they find him. The Syro-Phoenician woman bows at his feet, lowers herself and begs for him to heal her daughter.

And for the first and only time in his ministry Jesus will say no to someone who comes to him seeking healing.  But it is more than that—Jesus doesn’t just say no. He goes further, insulting the woman and calling her a dog.

Christians have twisted themselves in knots over the centuries trying to explain this behavior. “Perhaps Jesus is not saying what HE thinks, but what the disciples were thinking. Perhaps he is trying to expose their own prejudice.” Perhaps Jesus said one thing with his words, they suggest, and another with his eyes.

The truth is that we can’t know for sure. What we can be certain of is this: this is not an easy story to square with the Jesus we think we know. However his eyes looked, his words don’t seem compassionate or kind. He seems less holy, and more holier than thou, callous and indifferent to the suffering of the woman before him. 

Perhaps its just that I don’t want to believe that Jesus could be as human as I know that I am. For I know that I have hardened my heart in the face of suffering. I know that I have made judgements about other people, people I have decided are not like me. I have seen the struggling, and instead of reaching out to help, I have thought to myself, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I,” and I have gone about my business without doing a thing. I have convinced myself that I need to compartmentalize, to decide that some suffering is more worthy of my time than others, because otherwise how could I possibly function in the world?

But not Jesus. I want Jesus to be better than that because I want to believe that, God willing, I can be better than that. Surely, when we affirm that Jesus is utterly human, just like us in every way, we cannot mean that he is as callous as we have the ability to be to one another. Because isn’t the fact that he is also utterly divine supposed to make him better than us?

You know, it’s easy to forget, but, according to the scriptures, there are times when God changes course. Times when God was prepared to mete out punishment, or withhold grace, and then is convinced to do otherwise.  In Exodus, more than once, the people of God complain to Moses, and God decides right then and there to do away with the lot of them. And do you know what happens? Moses convinces God that there is another way. And God listens to Moses! In 2 Kings, when scripture tells us that the wickedness of Israel led God to send invaders to siege Jerusalem, King Hezekiah’s prayers of penitence convince God to have compassion on the city and to save the people once condemned. In the book of Jonah, the repentance of the people of Ninevah leads God to spare them from destruction, even though they are the enemies and oppressors of God’s chosen people.

Do you see what happens? Time and again, God erects a boundary, or pronounces a judgement, only to change course. To choose mercy. 

So why would we believe that this encounter with Jesus and the woman is any different? For when Jesus judges her, calls her a dog, she does not respond in anger. Instead, she absorbs the insult, takes it in, and in the tradition of Moses and Hezekiah and the people of Ninevah, she makes her case.  Am I not God’s child too? Do I not deserve God’s grace?

Let me ask you: do you believe that those whom you mistrust, or who have hurt you, those you have judged wanting, are worthy of God’s grace? Jesus found it in within himself to see the Syro-Phoenician woman in a new way that transformed an enemy into a neighbor, a stranger into a child of God. In the process, he opened the door for gentiles, people like you and me, to experience the goodness of the kingdom of God for themselves.

I can’t imagine it was easy for Jesus to change course, but then again, isn’t that part of the experience of being human? Science tells us that our brains are amazingly plastic, that they can actually reorganize themselves by forming new connections as we take in new information. The way I understand it, that means that the very part of us that many people think makes us who we are is inherently flexible. God made us to be flexible. 

This morning, Christ shows us that, when we are wiling to embrace our inherent flexibility, it is possible to see in a new way. That it is possible to open our hearts to people and places that might once have seemed beyond God’s reach. That is possible for strangers to teach us something important about the character of God. The truth is that we are capable of so much more than our worst instincts. And that is what gives me hope right now. That, I believe, is the best of Good News. Because ours is a world that is aching for faithful examples of what it looks like to live as though the ability to be humble and flexible and open to change were the expectation, not the exception. 

I want to leave you with one final story. 16 years ago, you may remember, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, killing nearly two thousand people and displacing over 100,000 students. At the time, I was a senior at the University of Southern California and a resident advisor in the honors dorms. I can remember how it felt to watch the news of what was happening in Louisiana, and how far away it felt from me and my world. I cared about their suffering, but what could I possibly do? 

A week later, Ms. Brevard arrived in our dorm. She was a student from one of the Historically Black Universities in New Orleans that was flooded by Katrina. She and nearly 100 other students arrived at USC with nothing—nearly everything she had was lost in Katrina. She told us about how, at her college, the floodwater line reached up the wall of the dorm, knocking out the power and the generators, and that even when they mopped up the water, it didn’t matter because the mold and mildew covered every surface. 

I cannot imagine how hard it was for her to leave a place that was home and find herself in Los Angeles, surrounded by a bunch of well-meaning, sheltered, mostly upper-middle class Californians who had no concept of what a hurricane was. And I am certain that we were imperfect in our support and our friendship of her in what was certainly a traumatizing time. But here is what I also know: Katrina became personal for us when we met her. When she arrived, we could no longer pretend Katrina was happening somewhere else. We could no longer escape notice. 

That’s the thing about our faith. Our call is to follow where Christ is leading us. Sometimes God is revealed to us in the expected places, and sometimes we discover the face of God where we did not expect it. Sometimes God grabs our attention and makes us see the place were weren’t looking, where God was all along.

Let us walk humbly, and follow closely, that our Lord and Savior might lead us in the way that leads to life. Amen.

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