The “Yes” that Changes Everything

Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Dec. 21, 2014

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This is the Sunday closest to Christmas, so it is one of the big church-going Sundays of the year. I was thinking about the Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 1.52.32 PMpeople I know who have reasons not to be in church very often, and I have had conversations with some of them. One of them said it clearly: “I want to be science-based about what I believe is true.”

Well, if anyone here has had thoughts like that, I want you to know that you are not alone, and your number is growing rapidly. If that feels like you, I wonder what you think about the rest of us? Do you assume that we all just slide right by stories of angels and virgin births easily? Yes, some of us do; many others do not.

In fact I am willing to bet that in this room are two kinds of people. Some have trouble with stories of angels and miracles. Even if they want to, and used to believe them, now it seems difficult or even impossible. The other kind of people simply believe that God can do what God wants to do, and in this case, it involved an angel and Mary, just as the story says.

New Testament scholars who have examined all the literary devices in these stories we read at Christmas know there there is a lot going on here. These stories are structured in detail in ways that anticipate the themes of the gospels, especially the theme of Jesus as the new Moses. Perhaps the authors meant these stories to be read as parables.

If you are among those of us who have doubts about the literal nature of this story we just read, then let me invite you to consider it a parable. But I want also to encourage you to consider it as a parable with a poignant message, and one that we personally need – and one our world needs to hear.

Let us first consider this: that whatever is going on in this story, the message that Gabriel gives to Mary is that her son will be a king on a throne. He will, the angel says,

“reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke is the one telling this story, and Luke knows where it is going. He knows it does not end with the literal enthronement of Jesus as King in place of Herod, founding a new Jewish dynasty that never ends.

In fact, by the time Luke wrote this, the Roman army had put down a Jewish revolt, not too many years after Jesus walked the earth. In that revolt, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, the temple was destroyed, and there was no “king” reigning “over the house of Jacob” – and this is the world that Luke was living in as he told the story.

So why would Luke include these details? Wouldn’t it be like telling the story of the glorious grand opening of a Jewish glassware shop in Berlin in 1937, a year before Kristallnacht and not long before the Holocaust?

Let us give Luke the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he knows what he is doing by telling this story. So, what is he doing?

If this story means anything, it means that Luke believes Jesus is a crucial character. By this kind of a start, Luke is preparing us, his readers to read the gospel of Luke, a story about Jesus that has potential life-changing implications if we are open to them.

So let us spend a few minutes with this story and try to be open to its message.

The Three Big IdeasScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 1.48.22 PM

I see three big ideas that this story tells. First, as we said, that Jesus is super important, and that whatever happens in the rest of the story, Jesus’s life experiences, actions and words are the main event. Birth stories are portents.

Second, that God is involved here. This is a “God-thing.” Jesus is important because, as Marcus Borg says, he is a “Spirit-man” – a person deeply in touch with the presence of God. God is doing something, and Jesus is God’s means. Jesus’ significance is not super-human strength like Samson – whose birth was also announced by an angel – but rather that from the beginning, Jesus is in direct relationship with God.

Third, this is a human-response story. This is why it is so powerful for us. Luke wants us to see Mary as the model. She is a normal person; not a prophetess like Anna, she is not a judge like her ancestor Deborah, she is not anything special. Just a normal young person. So her response is the response of a normal person, and therefore, a model for us.

The AskScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 2.30.18 PM

So what does she respond to? What is she asked to do? This is not normal at all. She is to become a mother by a super-normal means. Now, think for a moment what this request entails. Let your imagination be your entry point to this story. Women probably get the implications here at a far deeper level than men, but men can at least attempt to appreciate that giving birth for the first time radically and permanently changes a woman.

Even without the God-part of this story, Mary is being asked to a task that is enormous, risky, painful, and life-changing. And if the physical part is not challenging enough, there is also the social-stigma of an unwed pregnancy to consider.

I heard a story on a podcast called “The Moth” told by a young mother who was getting questions from her daughter about where babies come from. So the mom remembered her mother telling her the facts of life long ago. As she heard about pregnancy and childbirth, she said she remembered thinking, “it’s all bad news!”

And that is the point. This human response story is about a normal person in a deeply challenging situation. This is not a pretty picture.

So, Mary is being asked to embrace what is coming as a God-thing that will serve a purpose beyond her imagination, but at quite a price.

Our Situation
If we are supposed to see her response as a model, then let us enter the story right here. What is your life like, right now? What are the challenges in your situation? What are you being asked to deal with?

For some of us, the process of aging brings a host of issues, both medical and emotional. It is not easy, as I have been reminded by many people here.

Some of us are dealing with grief because we have lost people we loved. Some of us have family issues, and the “happy holidays” only seem to accentuate them.

There are as many challenging situations as people – finances, relationships, guilt, depression, addiction, we are vulnerable on innumerable fronts. I have learned of two suicides in this Christmas season. People are dealing with a lot, often privately.

Unlike Mary, we do not get to choose. We do not get an angel coming out of nowhere giving us a yes-or-no vote about it. Life happens, and much of it is not pretty.

Let your imagination take you to that moment: how is Mary feeling? Overwhelmed? Fearful? Apprehensive? Yes, just the way we feel in the face of what life serves up.

Response, part A: IdentityScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 2.35.46 PM

So if this is a human response story, let us look at Mary’s response. How does it start? With a personal reflection on who she is; her essential identity. She begins,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord”

I can imagine her thoughts: “Here I am, young, unmarried, poor, from a village in the country side of an occupied nation, under the boot of a massive empire. I cannot see how anything good is going to come from me or from this. But more important than all of those ways of knowing who I am is that I know myself as a child of God; the servant of the Lord,” to use a prophetic image.

Response, part B: Yes
If I know that about myself, that I am in God’s hands, that God can be trusted with all the things going on above my pay-grade, then I know how to respond.

So, she says,

“let it be with me according to your word.”

In other words, “Yes; Let everything the messenger from God said would happen, happen. I will not fight it; I will accept it. I will trust. I will risk believing that God is with me in this. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve. But I will risk a “yes” to what is happening in my life.

Paradox: resist/accept
Most great truths seem to be paradoxes. Life is a struggle. On the one hand, you have to work hard. You will never accomplish anything by sitting around and letting life happen to you. You have to persevere, overcome obstacles and adversity, and push yourself.

And there are things worth fighting for, and fighting against. It is our high calling to fight injustice and discrimination. We believe in fighting poverty and homelessness. We celebrate the fight against corruption. We believe in the fight for a cleaner planet. All of those fights are nobel and good, demanding and yet, worth the struggle.

But the paradox is, that there are also many parts of life that cannot be fought, and must not be fought, but rather accepted with the words of Mary, “let it be.”

Tragically, there are people who keep fighting unwindable battles, making themselves and other people miserable in the process.

The past is one of those unwindable battles. What has happened has happened. No amount of fighting it changes it. If you have experiences in your past that still cause pain, consider prayerfully saying, “Let it be.” I cannot change it.

“Other people” is another thing to stop fighting to change. It is also an unwindable battle. We can pray for people, wish them well, long for their healing or enlightenment, but we cannot change anyone else. We must, “let it be.”

  • There are many aspects of our present condition that are completely outside of our control.
  • Maybe we are responsible for some of them,
  • maybe we were victims or innocent bystanders,
  • maybe we were just the one in a thousand that got dealt the bad hand.

We can spend our lives fighting against the unchangeable facts with “if only, if only, if only” or worse, “isn’t it awful, can you believe it?”Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 2.40.53 PM

Or we can respond, as Mary did, “OK; let it be. I know who I am, and I know whose hands I am in. I can trust that God is present, even in this circumstance.

This is why we believe in and practice daily silent contemplative prayer meditation. In the silence, we let go of our ego, we silence our self-pity and self-justifications, we stop narrating our lives to ourselves and simply be present to the Presence. The harder it is to say “yes, let it be” as Mary did, the more we need that 20 or 30 minutes of silence every day.

All is well”
One of the last songs of the Christmas Choir concert last Thursday was “All is Well.” The words come from Julian of Norwich, who said,

“…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

She came to that conclusion in what we would call horrible circumstances. It was the time of the plague epidemics, the black death, as they called it, during the 14th century. There were a series of peasant revolts in her time, and she herself nearly died of fever.

And yet, she came to the conclusion that “all shall be well.” She had learned to say what Mary said; what all of us can learn to say:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

This is the Christmas invitation.

Stop fighting.

It will be alright.

God is here.


To Love What God Loves

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B, Dec. 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 6.42.15 PM
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion —
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
   I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 6.44.34 PM
   and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
   and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
   that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
   my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
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.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
  “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
  ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'”
    as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

To Love What God LovesScreen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.18.27 PM

I was eating breakfast, listening to the news on the radio this past week, when I heard a story that got me thinking. It was so engaging that I went to the news website to see the pictures. It was from Monrovia, Liberia. Usually the news from there is about the Ebola crisis, but not this time. In this country that has been devastated by years of civil war, corruption, poverty, and now this horrible disease, many people do not have any way of getting the news. They do not own radios or televisions, they cannot afford to buy papers.  (source: NPR Morning Edition, Dec. 12, 2014)

So a man named Alfred Sirleaf has taken it upon himself to inform his fellow citizens. On Monrovia’s main boulevard he has set up a triptych of blackboards he calls the Daily Talk. He hand writes, in big white, thick chalk letters, the breaking news. People stop and read, sometimes discuss, even argue about what is happening and what it means for them.

Better life without news?

So, it got me thinking: what would it be like to live without the news? To eat breakfast without that radio on; not to know about Ferguson or Stanton Island or Cleveland.

Imagine living without knowing anything about ISIS, or Ebola, or CIA torture;
– not to hear about the climate tragedy facing the world,
– or about how wide the floodgates of money for political campaigns can get when you have to pass an emergency funding bill in the blink of an eye,
– or about what happens to women on our university campuses.

I think I would like the world better if I did not know. They say “ignorance is bliss.” Maybe being in the dark about all the problems has its advantages, at least for the sake of one’s mental health.

Well, it is Advent, so my morning also included reading the Advent lectionary texts. So, as I read from both the prophet Isaiah and from the Gospel of John, I thought about the world those texts were written in, and how much like modern Monrovia it was for so many people back then: they had no access to any kind of news beyond rumor and local gossip.

Some people knew. Like Mr. Sirleaf in Liberia, some had their own sources of information. The prophets of Israel did. I imagine there must have been royal spies by the scads in those days. Probably there were a lot of loose lips among them, leaking information.

So the prophets were able to know about and speak about surrounding nations and empires from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Most of what they reported was bad news. Prophets were not known for being happy people. To a person, they all believed things were bad, and getting worse. They called for change.

By the time we get to John, the Roman Empire has built its famous road system, so news probably traveled fast, but still, it was second hand, person to person. However John got his information it lead him to conclude that things were bad – like a crooked road that needed straightening out.

John felt called to do something about it. He would be the voice Isaiah spoke of, crying out in the wilderness. He knew times were dark, and he knew that he himself was not the light that was needed. But he decided he could bear witness to the light. He could call out for change, and wait for God to take the next step.

What We Do With What We KnowScreen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.50.11 PM

We have the news; far too much of it. We know what is going on at home and all over the world. We all know it is bad and seems always to get worse. We do not need the prophets of old or even John’s declarations to tell us how bad things are.

What we need is a way to deal with it.

We could just try to avoid the bad news. We could go on a news fast. But there are two problems with the head-in-the-sand approach: one is that we know to much already. We would only take a head full of unsolved problems with us down into the sand, so it would not be a quite place of refuge anyway.

And worse, attempting to be happy through ignorance would leave us useless. We were not made for living self-referential, vacuous lives. We were put here for a purpose much bigger than ourselves. We cannot and should not want to avoid hearing the bad news just because it exhausts us to keep hearing it.

The Choice
So what do we do? There are again, two approaches. We can join those who light a candle, or we can join those who merely curse the darkness.

This is where Isaiah helps so much. The prophet does not stop with the bad news. Isaiah has a vision of a better world. He imagines how it should be. Instead of dwelling exclusively on the negatives, though, the prophet sets his mind to do one thing: to love what God loves.

This is the path open to us: to love what God loves. To look at the world with the flickering candle light of hope that it is not over yet. There is still a future, and we are alive here and now to be participants in that hopeful future.

So what does it mean to love what God loves? Isaiah tells us:

“For I the LORD love justice” (61:8)Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.43.25 PM

You cannot have justice as a lone castaway on a desert island. Justice is only possible in community. It is all about how the community is organized: who has the power, how are assets distributed, whose rights are upheld? How are the weak and vulnerable protected from the bullies and thieves?

If there is anything we have all learned from all the news we have seen and heard over the years, it is that there are plenty of bullies and thieves. Some of them lurk in shadows, but others wear expensive suits or uniforms. Some of them get elected.

And the rule that is almost never broken is that the more power they have, the more they take advantage; the more damage they do.

But the problem is not limited to the powerful; even some of those with almost no power are willing to be bullies if they sense they have the upper hand. Even children bully children, and so do spouses and neighbors and on and on.

This too, is part of the way things are; the bad way that needs to change. Left to our own devices, a lot of us find it hard to love what God loves. This is why, upon serious reflection, we realize that we need first to be the change we seek. John’s call to make the crooked way straight begins as a baptismal call.

The hope for us is that God already knows that about us. And God has already done something about it. God is at work, by God’s Spirit, to keep kindling in our hearts a love for the justice that God loves.

A Spirit-inspired Vision

Isaiah, as a person who had encountered God, was open and sensitive to the work of the Spirit. So hear what the Spirit of the God who loves justice put in his heart to want:

 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.05.04 PM
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

This is what it means to light a candle rather than cursing the darkness. It means to proclaim the Spirit-inspired vision of good news; to say to everyone who is oppressed that that we believe in the God who loves justice. So instead turning off or turning away from the bad news, we look at it full in the face.

It means that because we love what God loves, we are advocates for the oppressed, the least of these, the ones whose voices are not heard, whose cries get drowned out. The people whose color makes them targets, the victims of oppressive systems.

We have a vision of the jubilee year – “the year of the Lord’s favor,” as Isaiah calls it, in which the economics work for the good of all, not just the good of the powerful. We have a vision of a common good in which everyone has a seat at the table – the table where decisions are made and the table where supper is served.

How to Change the World
Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 2.55.46 PM

Well, I would love to change the world. I would love to wave a magic wand and fix the problems like a fairy god-mother. But I do not have magical powers. I do pray; I pray for peace, for justice, for the bad to be put right. But it seems that God’s ways do not involve a magic wand, either, not even the wand of instant interventions as answers to prayer.

God’s ways seem to be far more personal. God begins with a baby, of no more seeming significance than the tiny wick of a candle in the darkness. A baby, born to oppressed people in times of grave injustice; a tiny hope, indeed. And God pours out God’s spirit on that child, who becomes a living testimony to God’s presence, God’s with-ness. He is called Emmanuel.

This is Jesus, whose birth we are waiting to celebrate. He came to proclaim a Spirit-filled vision of a world of good news, of jubilee. He grows to be a person who loves the God who loves justice, whose hope is kept alive by his practice of frequent prayer and silent retreat, and whose whole life is lived in a real time and place of crooked ways and bullies, and he proclaims a hopeful vision of the common good.

And from this One, God’s process is that a world-wide movement would arise of people who catch the vision, and love what God loves. People, like us, followers of Jesus, whose public lives and private lives, whose economic and political lives, and whose spiritual and religious lives would by lived in the Spirit.

This is the mystery of grace: that God’s way of dealing with the bad news is about us, personally, responding to the Advent call to Come, prepare the way of the Lord. This is why Christmas will be worth celebrating.

Malcolm Guite has written this sonnet which says it so well:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

- from Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, UK, 2013).



Ontological Discrepancy and the  Courage to Wait

Sermon for December 7, 2014, the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B, on Isaiah 40:1-11

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 12.16.27 PM
   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 for ever.
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.


At my home we still preparing for Christmas.  I wonder how your preparations are going?  We do not even have the tree up yet.

Advent Waiting as Preparation

Centuries before Christmas became a commercial event, Christians came to understand that the advent, or coming of the Christ was so powerful, so significant, that to celebrate adequately, they needed a period of spiritual preparation.   The season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is the time we do that preparation.  Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.06.15 AM

The kind of preparation those ancient Christians felt they needed in Advent had nothing to do with stringing lights on the house, decorating a tree, and certainly not shopping.  I am sure that even the simple Christmas feasts of former years required some advance planning, but the four weeks of Advent were specifically about spiritual preparation.

Four weeks of waiting became four weeks of taking time out to re-examine what it means to be a person of faith; to have the courage to hope in times like these.

It seems to me that if they thought they needed to take time for spiritual preparation in those far less-complicated and less-hectic days, how much more do we?

Days of Emotional Whiplash

These are difficult days.  Am I alone in feeling a whiplash of emotions on a daily basis?  Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.15.31 AM

Like you, I am trying to process the events of Ferguson and what they mean for our nation.    Just as the protests were calming down, and the glass was swept up off the streets, we hear about the Stanton Island case, and we watch the video in disbelief.

Even famous comedians are throwing up their hands in despair at these events.   One reflected that that comedy is tragedy plus time – but in the mean time, it is simply tragedy; no jokes make it better.

But then, the happy news about the  employment report comes on.  Apparently the economy is improving.  Gas prices are down. Stocks are up.  Even today there is a bit of discrepancy between sadness of the memory of what happened on this day in 1941 at Pearl Harbor and the fact that this is a joyful Sunday morning in Advent.  Is this a time to dance or a time to mourn?

Maybe you, like me, have personal reasons for feeing emotionally whiplashed in these days too.  My father received great news: the biopsy was clear.  But we have just learned that my cousin, who is my age, has terminal cancer.  Each of us has our own story.

People of Exile

Perhaps we can identify with the people Isaiah spoke to – people in exile, people acquainted with tragedy and loss.  They, like we, need reasons to wait with hope.Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.20.22 AM

In the medium of ancient Hebrew poetry, Isaiah pictures God turning to his lieutenants, the heavenly council that carries out his plans on earth, and giving them marching orders.  Here is what he wants them to do for the Jewish exiles in Babylon:

Comfort, O comfort my people,  says your God.

Isaiah and the other ancient prophets of Israel had the ability to see God’s hand at work in the large historical events of their times.  They saw, in the fortunes of  empires: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and in their own history, a long arc bending towards a purpose; evolving, yes, but not by randomness and chance alone.

But history is long, and the time that it takes the arc that is bending towards justice  to move is also long.  It challenges the capacity of a single generation who only lives long enough to see one span, whose vision only extends to the present horizon.

“People are like grass,” 

the poet-prophet acknowledges.

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” 

It is  too short to last long enough to grasp the big picture, the long view.

So, in spite of the apparent lack of evidence that anything good or hopeful is in progress, as another new year rolls around and the exile in Babylon wears on, and the Jewish cemetery grows larger, an announcement must be made.

A Fresh Word to Exiles

A fresh word has to be spoken out into the present darkness to assert a deeper reality; a cause to find the courage to hope.   Find the town crier and tell him to warm up for a new announcement.  The prophet says to him:

Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength…
say to the cities of Judah,
   “Here is your God!

Here is your God?  Where?  It is new years day in Babylon, again.  Where is God in exile?

Ferguson is burning.  Where is God?

Isis is undaunted.  Where is God?

The cancer has metastasized; where is God?

Courage to Hope: Willingness to SeeScreen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.33.06 AM

The courage to wait with hope comes from the willingness to see the coming of God, even in the darkness before dawn.  Even before the return from exile has begun.

It is the courage to trust that there is a great complexity at work in the world, a super-symmetry, instead of succumbing to the simplicity of despair, the less-demanding temptation to cynicism.

The courage to wait for God with hope is the willingness to read the events of the news and the details of our personal lives as moments in a process that is unfolding into a new future.

The coming of God takes many forms. Maybe one will be the release of the Jewish captives by a Persian monarch.

Maybe another is the new day that will come to race relations in America because change is finally being demanded from all sides, white and black.

And maybe the coming of God will be seen in the serenity that comes from accepting, without despair,  the things that cannot change, even things like our mortality.

A Glimmer of Light

Can we have such courage to hope?  We are frail people, like the grass of the field, whose courage often flags in the face of hopelessness all around.  So, I thought perhaps an example of a glimmer of light might be in order as we wait in this Advent season.

We are witnessing the horrors conducted by Isis and other fundamentalist Muslim groups on the news.  Sometimes we hear our news anchor people asking: where is the reaction by moderate Muslims?  Why isn’t anyone speaking up? Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.37.19 AM

Well, they are.  By the thousands.  A group of Muslim leaders has published document entitled, “A Common Word Between Us & You.”  In it they assert that at the core of Islam, according to the Quran, is the call to love God and love one’s neighbor.  They go on to acknowledge that this is a fundamental teaching of the Hebrew bible for Judaism and, for Jesus, and therefore, for Christianity.

This document has been signed by over four thousand Muslim leaders since it was written in 2007, including grand Muftis in numerous countries.  The Christian response has been overwhelming and positive – including responses by the pope and by our own Presbyterian leadership.

(By the way, if the news media you watch or hear is still asking, “Where is the moderate Muslim reaction to Islamic fundamentalism?” – then either they are not aware of this massive public response, and therefore not very good at what they do, or, for some reason, they find it in their interest to not tell you about it.)

In any case, we can take this as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark scene.  The arc bending towards justice is long, the process is slow.

Being and HopeScreen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.40.53 AM

But we are people hard-wired for hope.  We sense that we are both at home in this life, and somehow in a kind of exile. We sense that there is a “more” to life than meets the eye;  a transcendent level of life not fully accounted for by mundane material existence.

We long for things unseen, like justice.  We believe that our lives have purpose and  meaning.  This is our being, our ontology, despite the discrepancies of evil and suffering in our world, despite accident and apparent randomness, despite our mortal finitude.

We have experiences of wonder and awe.  We marvel at beauty.  We are dumbfounded by witnessing the uncanny human will to survive, even in unbearable conditions.  And we experience the coming of God  in unfolding new ways, every day, if we are open, willing, and receptive; if we take time for silence, for meditation, for contemplation.

This is Advent.  A time of waiting.  A time for preparation.  A time to be silent enough to hear the voice crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord”

So, make this a time of preparation.

Practice the habits of a Christian.

Have the courage to wait with hope.

God is coming!  God is here!



Living with the End in View

Sermon on Matt. 25:31-46 for November 23, 2014, The Sunday of Christ the King

 Matt. 25:31-46

[Jesus said:] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 11.55.06 AM

If you could travel in a time machine and go back in history, when would you go to?  That was the question they asked many people for the radio program and podcast that I like to listen to called “This American Life.”

When they first asked the question, my knee-jerk reaction was to go undo what happened in the year 312 CE at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Here’s what I would do.  I would go back in time with a pair of Ray Bans or some other polarizing sun glasses.  I would go up to Roman general Constantine, who was going to win the battle and become the Roman Emperor, and say “These may help with the glare, sir.”

Then he would put them on and look up at the bright sun, and then look at me and say “Much appreciated.”  And history would change.  Because then he would not see what he thought he saw when he looked up at the sun that day:  a big illuminated cross, along with the words, “by this sign, conquer.”

Constantine’s SignScreen Shot 2014-11-22 at 11.56.54 AM

They say that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Well, I guess the same thing holds true in this case.  If you are used to being a general in the Roman army, a sign in the sky must mean go conquer somebody with it.

Anyway, after seeing that vision, he ordered all is troops to scratch a Christian symbol onto their shields.  And, they won the war.  That victory set in motion the chain of events that led to both Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and then, eventually, to the proclamation of Christianity as the religion of the empire.

(BTW, general persecution of Christians had already ended in 311, with Galerius’ edict, the Edict of Milan – or of toleration).

Constantine’s HijackScreen Shot 2014-11-22 at 12.07.41 PM

Why would I undo that moment in 312?  Because the conqueror, Constantine hijacked the church for his own political purposes.  He made the church wealthy, gave it lands, built basilicas, and promoted Christians to high ranking offices.  And then, he called an Empire-wide council of bishops at Nicea which he presided over.

The question he wanted settled at Nicea was: which of the different versions of Christianity was going to be considered right, or “orthodox”?  What must everyone believe about such questions as the relationship, in the Trinity, between the Father and the Son?  Christians at the time were quite divided over the question – both sides, of course, assumed that human beings could know with certainty answers to questions like that!

So, one side won; the Christians of the other side were branded heretics, and the whole thing was summed up in the Nicene Creed.  From then on, believing the lines of that creed was what was important about Christianity.  From then on, God’s chief concern, it would seem, is orthodoxy; correct belief.  At least, that was the church’s main concern.

The View from the MarginsScreen Shot 2014-11-22 at 12.09.39 PM

Can we, for a moment, go back in time to an open air gathering of poor Jewish peasants in Palestine who were listening to Jesus?  He had been telling parables.  They were about the catastrophe coming in the near future and how to prepare for it.

In that setting, he tells a parable about the separation of sheep and goats.  It is a parable, like the others.  A lot of the specifics are fanciful, just as in the previous parable  about a bridegroom showing up at midnight.   But, as most parables do, it makes one point, and makes it rather sharply.  The point is all about what matters to the King.  What he thinks is so crucial that it makes all the difference.

But anyway, think for a moment about how far it is from that gathering of people in Palestine, listening to  Jesus’ parables, to a sunny battlefield where a Roman general thinks the Christian symbol is for conquering with the sword.  And then, even further away, to a time when Christianity is the State religion, wealthy, privileged, and completely beholden to the Roman Emperor.

And just consider how far apart those two different ideas about what is important are: for Constantine and company, it’s all about orthodoxy; right belief.  For Jesus, it is all about orthopraxy; right practice.

Orthodoxy vs. OrthopraxyScreen Shot 2014-11-22 at 12.13.35 PM

How are the sheep and the goats distinguished?  Who inherits the kingdom?  The ones who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger (meaning the non-citizen, the alien) those who lack adequate clothing, the sick, and prisoners of conscience.

Creeds, like the Nicene Creed, ask what you believe and what you deny.  The king in this parable asks how you lived.

I love the way the author, Peter Rollins puts it.  He says people ask him if he denies the resurrection of Jesus.  He says yes, he denies it.  He denies the resurrection whenever he sees hungry people and does not feed them.  He denies the resurrection when he sees people thirsty for justice and cannot be bothered with them.  He denies the resurrection when he sees suffering and turns away.

But conversely, the resurrection of Jesus is affirmed when he participates in acts of compassion and mercy, in the work of justice and reconciliation.

This is the kind of affirmation about what we really believe that matters far more than a line about metaphysics in a pre-modern creed.

So, I would like to go back with a pair of sun glasses to the year 312.  Maybe the whole history of Christianity could have gone another direction.

The Christianity I Do Not Believe In

We are living in some very strange times; lots of things are changing at an unbelievable pace right now.  Atheism has become popular, especially among the young.

Theologian NT Wright says that when he was chaplain at Oxford he would meet the incoming freshmen students by inviting them, one by one, to his office for a meet and greet.  They would often tell him that he would not be seeing much of them since they did not believe in God.  He would then ask them to tell him about the God they did not believe in.

Often they would describe an old man in the sky, angry, full of wrath, with a long list of demands no one could meet.  He would tell them, “Oh, well; I don’t believe in that kind of God either.”

When I listen to some of the new atheists criticize religion as the source of wars and conflicts around the world, and when they criticize religion for being about power and control in the hands of manipulative males, I cannot help but say, “Yes, I agree!  That’s not what it was meant to be about at all!”

Then my mind goes to that hillside in Palestine where Jesus sits telling parables about the kingdom of God to Jewish peasants living marginal lives on the fringes of the Roman Empire.  That is where we learned what is important after all.

What it is Supposed to be About

It is about people; little people.  People without titles, without power, without status or influence of any kind.  It is about open eyes that see hurts and pain, and open hearts that do something about it.

It is about helping people get food, clothing and shelter; the basics.   It is about welcoming the stranger with open arms.  It is about responding pro-actively to oppression – not violently; not with a big Roman army on the conquering rampage, but with compassionate care.

It is not about basilicas, cathedrals and mega-churches.  It is about communities; communities of people who, when they see each other, see Jesus himself, in need of their shared humanity.  Communities like this one right here.

Emerging Christianity: Following JesusScreen Shot 2014-11-22 at 12.18.15 PM

As I said, times are changing – and perhaps you feel as though the changes are mostly for the bad.  But I must say there is a new fresh wind (or, should we say Spirit?) blowing through the church in these days.  I read book after book and blog after blog, and listen to podcast after podcast from many people who are re-thinking what Christianity is all about.

Believe it or not, the name Constantine keeps coming up a lot as a major problem.  I do not claim any originality for my time-machine fantasy. A whole new generation of people are distancing themselves from the Christianity of the Crusades and inquisitions and all forms of empire, in favor of a return to following Jesus.   And the Jesus they are listening to is the one out on the hillside in Galilee with the people at the margins.

Missional Christianity

This is exciting.  The word “mission” keeps coming up among these  people in the emerging church, and it is not a mission to save the heathen.  It is about looking around and asking: what is the mission this community is called to in our circumstances?

I love that question.  That is my question.  That is our question.  Where are the “least of these” who stand in need among us?

Maybe, if Jesus were here, speaking to us the same way, he would tell a parable about sheep and goats, and he would say,

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

  • “for I was a middle schooler having trouble with English and Math, and you tutored me;
  • I was a homeless person and you served me breakfast;
  • I was an elderly person and you called me and wrote to me and came to visit me;
  • I was a grieving person and you were there for me;
  • I was a gay person, and you welcomed me;
  • I was someone who had a rough week, and I came to church, and your music lifted my spirits;
  • I was a hispanic person and you treated me with dignity and respect;
  • I was a black man and you did not assume I was a criminal;
  • I was a child, and you helped make sure that by the time I was your age, I still had a decent planet to live on;
  • I was addicted, and you supported my quest for sobriety.
  • I was a fallible human being, frequently displaying the human propensity to mess things up, and you forgave me 70 times 7;
  • I was a spiritually empty person and you lit a candle and taught me to pray in silence.

This is the mission we are called to.  It is a high calling.  It calls us to the best virtues humans are capable of.

The View from the End

This parable of the sheep and goats is set at the end of time.  It is a familiar scene in Jewish apocalyptic and wisdom literature.  There is often a great reversal of fortunes in which the ones who suffered are vindicated, and the oppressors get their comeuppance.

I think the setting at the end of time is perfect.  At the end, you have a different view.  You can look back, from the end, and see what really mattered.  You have a wiser perspective.

From here, you see that what matters is people.  What matters to God, is people.  What matters, is how we treated people.  What Brené Brown calls “whole heartedness.”  Showing up.  Being vulnerable.  Making a difference.

God seems to take that personally.  So we take that personally too.

This is why we are here.

This is what Christ the King calls us to.


The Family Trait

Sermon for Pentecost +23 A, Nov. 16, 2014, Dedication Sunday, on Deuteronomy 26:1-15 and Matthew 14:13-21Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.24.02 AM

I am sure you know the expression, “preaching to the choir.”  When a person is “preaching to the choir” they are speaking to people who already agree with what they are saying.

I thought of that expression as I was preparing for today.  This is “Dedication Sunday.”  We will be presenting our Time and Talent Questionnaire forms and our pledge cards today in this service of worship.  This is our act of dedication to God.  It is not an initiative, on our part, but rather a response.  It is a response we make, born out of gratitude to God.

And that is what made me think of that expression.  I wanted to talk about gratitude, and as I pictured you all, coming up to drop the papers in the baskets, I thought “I am going to be preaching to the choir.  I know these people; everyone of them, I believe, is a person of deep gratitude.”

You all are generous people too.  Over the years you have responded to God’s generous giving to you by giving back to God.  That is why this church is here.  This is who we are.  Generosity is simply a natural by-product of gratitude.

The Generosity Family TraitScreen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.28.09 AM

And we come by this habit of gratitude honestly.  It is a faith-family trait that, like freckles or blue eyes, is handed down through the generations in the family of faith.  Our reading from the Hebrew Bible was taken from the story that set in motion this family trait.

The story is about the Hebrew people, receiving instructions and guidance from Moses.  The setting is in the wilderness, where they have been now for 40 years, just before they cross over the Jordan into the promised land.  Moses gives them instructions about many aspects of their life as a covenanted community that they are expected to put into practice as soon as they get settled in the land.

Here is the plan.  They will each receive a portion of land to live on.  They are agricultural people, for the most part.  They will all work hard — that is simply a given.  They will be responsible to provide for their families.  They will feed the animals, plow the land, plant the seed, prune the vines, and then wait.

And then the spring will come, and the cows will calve and the ewes will lamb.  And a few months later, in autumn, the grain will be white, the figs, the grapes and the olives will be plump, all ready for harvest.  And in the mean time, there will have been days of sunshine and days of rain.

And as the lambs are born, as the juice is squeezed from the clusters, as fresh bread is taken steaming from the oven, they will know who to thank for the amazing goodness of the earth.  They are to, “praise God, from whomScreen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.31.27 AM all blessings flow.”

So, the practice of bringing in a tithe as a sign of gratitude for God’s generosity was born.  Moses tells the people how to enact in liturgy what they feel in their hearts.  They will present the tithe every year to the priest in Jerusalem and they will recite a script that sums up their family story.

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt…  When the Egyptians treated us harshly, …we cried to the LORD…; the LORD heard our voice …and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, …and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.””

I love the fact that the time of offering was a time of family story-telling.  Just like the Israelites, we can look back on where we have come from, what we have gone through, and where we ended up today, and give thanks to God.  Each of us has a story – you have your own story to tell.  And today as we come bringing our pledges and questionnaires, we will be bringing our expressions of gratitude, our response to God for bringing us to this day in our own  personal stories.

Moses said that when the Israelites brought their first fruits and recited their family story, the offering was to be followed by aScreen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.18.38 AM feast — a party!  (We just had our church Thanksgiving feast last Wednesday, and it was a wonderful celebration of gratitude to God.)  It was necessary, Moses said, that the Hebrew people  remember to invite to the feast the people who might not have enough: the Levites and the resident non-Israelite people, the aliens neither of whom possessed land of their own.

Gratitude becomes Generosity

The other part of Moses’ instruction was about a slight variation to this law of the tithe.  Every third year, instead of bringing the firstfruits to the temple, the people brought them to a collection center in their own towns.  This was a humanitarian aid provision.  Moses said, it was to be given:

“to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns”

Gratitude to God naturally included generosity, specifically including generous  help to those in need.  The covenant community was bound together by mutual responsibility and compassionate intervention on a community-wide level.

This is the pattern we follow too.  We set aside a real tithe of the money we receive from your tithes and offerings to go to missions.  We support, for example, the Christian Service Center which provides help for people in our community.

We support the Children’s Home which takes care of people in the “widows and orphans” category.  This is our family trait: people of gratitude, being generous, being compassionate, responding to human need.   As I said, I am preaching to the choir.

Times of Plenty, Times of Scarcity

Now, I want to pause and ask a question. When we picture the Israelites coming to present their first-fruit tithes, what are we imagining? I picture a bright sunny fall day.  I picture well-fed, healthy people arriving in families, content that the barn back home is full,  the larder is stocked, and the family is well prepared for the winter ahead.  I am sure that sometimes that picture fit their reality.

But sometimes not.  In fact many times not.  There were times of famine in the land.  There were times of locust plagues.  And then there were times of war.  Lots of times of war. Even civil wars.  And, then there were the two great wars they lost; the wars with Assyria and Babylon which forced the remnant survivors out of the land, entirely.

Jesus: Gratitude, Generosity, and ScarcityScreen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.34.07 AM

By the time we get to Jesus, over a thousand years after Moses gave his first-fruit tithe instructions, the situation is rather desperate for most Israelites.  It is the time of the Roman occupation.  Most people are peasants.  The majority are landless.  Many work as day-laborers, harvesting someone else’s grain and stomping out the landlord’s grapes.

It is in the context of scarcity that Jesus met with the crowd on the hillside in Galilee, and taught them about how to be a covenant community in their context.  He has been teaching all day and curing their sick, as Matthew tells it.  He is motivated by his compassion for them.  Times are difficult.

He realizes that by this point in the day, they are hungry.  Collectively their resources amount to “five loaves and two fish.”  All that, among thousands of people.

The point is that this is not a time of happy abundance; this is a time of scarcity on a wide scale.  No one has enough.

And in this time of scarcity, Jesus takes what little is there, and gives thanks.  Gratitude to God.  It’s not a big basket of firstfruits in his hands, and there is no full barn to back it up.  But, there he is, surrounded by real people in need.  So, he takes what he has, gives thanks, and starts sharing it out.  Gratitude followed by generous giving — even in the context of scarcity.

Gratitude and Generosity in our Context

I do not know how you are feeling about your situation right now.  For some of us, this is a time of plenty, for others, scarcity.  Some of us are somewhere in between; doing okay today, but one calamity away from potential ruin.  Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.36.25 AM

But whatever our situation, we are here to do what Jesus taught and what the people of faith inherited from Moses: to show our gratitude to God.  All of us can celebrate God generous gifts to us: the gift of life itself; the gift of a community of faith in which to gather and be encouraged on our journeys; the gift of hope, and love and beauty and music; the gift of freedom and the amazing gifts of science, medicine and technology we all benefit from; the list we all share can go on an on.

And those who have journeyed deeply in the spiritual world have born witness to other sources of reasons for gratitude as well.  They have been able to discern that even the times of scarcity that they have endured, the calamities, the days of darkness , the times of grief, were also, ultimately, sources of good in their lives.  Not that the situations they went through were good, but that from them, new goodness grew.

One who came to this understanding was Dag Hammarskjold.  He wrote a prayer that I find quite difficult to pray, but want to someday be able to say from a full heart to express this depth of gratitude and insight:

“For everything that has been,
         — thanks.
For everything that will be,
        — yes.”

The dedications we make today are both our response of “thanks” and our “yes” to God, the giver of all good gifts.  This is our time of gratitude, and our responsive generosity.


A Time to Wonder

Sermon for Pentecost +22 A, November  9, 2014 on Proverbs 30:18-19 & Matthew 6:25-34

Proverbs 30:1a; 18-19

The words of Agur…Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 10.45.19 AM
Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a girl.

Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. 

A Time to Wonder

Recently we read this same text from Matthew, a selection from Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount.”  Don’t worry, this is not a re-run.  But I wanted to start with two interesting lines Jesus said, and then look at the text from Proverbs.

Matthew sets the stage with Jesus on a mountain, surrounded by crowds, teaching.  It is an outdoor setting.  I imagine a warm sunny day in Palestine.  The mountain is probably not much more than what we would call a hill.  If we were there, down below we would have a lovely view of the big lake known as he Sea of Galilee.

The subject on Jesus’ mind are the two most important questions ever asked: who are we as people, and who is God?  Those two questions always lead to the third: how do we relate to each other – people with God?

Jesus, the master teacher, simply has people look around at what they see.

Look at the birds of the air,

— he tells them.  Take a lesson from what you observe.

Consider the lilies of the field

— they too can be our teachers.

I love the word he uses: “consider.” It means to contemplate, mull over, wonder about.

Agur’s Wonder Poem

This is exactly what Agur, the writer of the poetry in Proverbs 30 does.  He considers, he mulls over, he allows himself to experience the wonder of the world; to be awestruck and amazed at the seemingly commonplace.

Agur likes the poetic device of naming a number, then adding one, so he says,

Three things are too wonderful for me;Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 10.58.16 AM
four I do not understand:

He finds wonder in considering the way, the manner in which these four mysteries operate:

“the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a girl  (i.e. maiden, not child).

It is simply a wonder to watch an eagle or hawk or pelican or seagull float, seemingly effortlessly, on invisible currents and updrafts of air.

Like Icarus, we have all longed to experience what that feels like, to fly, to float in the sky.

And though thinking about snakes makes a lot of us queasy, nevertheless, moving  as they do, without legs, is amazing.

The way of a ship on the high seas is also a wonder.  Supported by the water instead of sinking into it, it carries cargos – even back then – of produce and commodities for trade, moved forward by the unseen force of wind.

No matter how much science we understand, who has not been moved by watching  nature?  People pay good money just to take a boat out to watch dolphins swim.  Imagine – nothing is more common place – and few things are as joy-producing.

Wonders of Science

Speaking of science, I am often filled with wonder when I hear scientists speak of the things that fill them with wonder.  Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.00.19 AM

I recently heard Krista Tippett, on her podcast called “On Being,” interview S. James Gates.  He is a professor of physics and director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland.  Dr. Gates and a team of physicists and mathematicians were looking into some unsolved puzzles.

They were studying what he calls “mathematical objects which sit inside of the equations with the property of supersymmetry.” – most of us have no idea what that means, but listen to what he found amazing (I don’t usually use quotes this long, but you need to hear him say it in his own words):

…even more shocking for us, when we analyzed these [mathematical] objects very carefully, we found out that they have attributes of ones and zeros in precisely the same way that computers use ones and zeros to send digital information. And in particular, the kinds of codes we found, which was the most shocking thing for us, is that there’s a class of codes that allow your browsers to work in an accurate way. They’re called error-correcting codes. We found a role for error correcting codes in the equations of supersymmetry, and this was just stunning for us.”

He uses words like “shocking” and “stunning” – these are words for wonder.  The wonder of a scientist, discovering the supersymmetry in the deep structures of the world.

Agur’s Climactic Wonder

Agur, the poet, has one more cause for his wonder, and as the last in the series, it is, for him, the most wonder-making:

the way of a man with a girl” (i.e. maiden).Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.02.51 AM

The way love happens is a wonder; the way strangers meet and fall in love, the way they long to be together, the way they bond and become families;

“love is as strong as death

— another biblical poet said.

But Agur does not simply find courtship a wonder – he seems to be thinking broader about the whole experience.  The way of a man with a maiden is open -ended.  Perhaps he means to include all of it, not just the romance.

Perhaps he finds wonder in a couple’s capacity to look past each others imperfections and faults, each other’s bad habits and bad days.

Perhaps he has known enough successful couples to find wonder in the power of forgiveness and reconciliation after hurt and betrayal.  The willingness to move beyond selfish interests and to risk, even to sacrifice for the other.  Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.04.51 AM

Maybe he even finds wonder in long relationships that have weathered  years.  The  couples who have stayed together and stayed in love, even though life has been filled with the kinds of things you say at the wedding ceremony, but at least half of which don’t really expect to happen when you promised “to love, honor and cherish, for  better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.…”

Listing Wonders

What would you list as the four things that most make you feel wonder?  Maybe you too would start with nature – like the way sea turtles hatch from buried nests and instinctively seek out the moonlight, guiding them to the water.

Maybe you would think of the wonder of music – how a single chord – sometimes a single note can send chills down your spine and give you goose bumps – or tears, depending.

I would need to include the incredible wonder of the way of humans with humans. Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.10.28 AM

I find wonder in considering the the 90 year old man in Fort Lauderdale who will not stop feeding  homeless people, even after the police there threaten to arrest him for it.

I find wonder in the courage and commitment of people here in the States who go  as volunteers to Africa to treat complete strangers suffering from ebola – risking their lives to do good in the world and to make a difference.

I find wonder in the people who are so committed to the common good that they vote in favor of school levies even after their children have graduated.

If I had to list only four things that cause me amazement and wonder, that fill me with hope and renewed confidence in God’s goodness and love – I do not know how I would narrow down the list.

I find every morning a wonder.  Not just because I wake up easily – that’s not what I mean.  But rather the way each new day can be a fresh start, a new beginning.  That no matter how the day before ended, with the rising sun, a new opportunity is given to us to live in brand new moments.

I find it a wonder that God has built into us such enormous capacities for healing. That people who have suffered terrible experiences of pain, even trauma, and grief that once they believed were more than they could bear, find new reasons for hope.  That even after tragedies, people can move on and accept the things that cannot be changed.

I find it a wonder that people can live in recovery from addiction.  That in recovery groups, they will sacrifice hours and hours, year in and year out, to be help to other people find similar healing and hope.Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.12.18 AM

It is a wonder to me that people will part with their hard earned cash to support causes they believe in; in fact I am amazed that giving is actually higher among poor people than the well-off.  That without any obligation or expectation of being noticed or even thanked in person, people sponsor children in other countries, they fund missions of all kinds around the world, they donate to organizations that try to protect the environment and groups that fight for the rights of people being discriminated against – even if they have no personal connection to any of them.

The God Wonder

I could not fail to leave off my list the wonder that absolutely nothing in all the world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  The amazing knowledge that God can be trusted to be for us, not against us.  That there is no condemnation, but rather forgiveness, redemption, and even transformation given to us by a God who is Good, and who is best defined, simply by the word Love.

It is a wonder that we are able to connect to God in simplicity and in the immediacy of silent meditation.  That it is not a matter of achieving anything or becoming expert or perfect performance of a ritual, but that God is there for us when we call, all the time, everywhere, and listens, and cares.

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand

— as the poet says.

And after that there are three and four more.  And more after that.  And the longer I consider the wonders in my life, the more I see that this list is infinite.

Look at the birds of the air…consider the lilies of the field

— and know that God has given us the capacity to experience wonder, so that we can trust him with everything in life and in death.


A Time to Live Honorably

Sermon for November  2, 2014, Pentecost +21 A on Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 12.49.54 PMseat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I grew up in the American North where autumn is a dramatic season of change.  Nearly all of the trees loose their leaves, and, after a brief flourish of beauty, remain with bare branches for the next six months.  The fields are harvested for the last time of the year; they are a lifeless-looking brown until snow covers them.

It is easy to understand why so many of the world’s nature and fertility religions thought of this annual cycle as a kind of dying of the earth.

There is a time to be born, and a time to die,” as Ecclesiastes reminds us.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Here in the south, the changing of the seasons is far less dramatic with so many evergreen pines and the multiple growing seasons for crops.  Right now, fields that would be barren if they were in Ohio are instead, covered with big white cotton blossoms.

But though there are fewer colorful signs of the changing season, right outside my kitchen window is a Japanese Maple tree which marks the changing season as its  leaves become a deep magenta before they finally fall away.

Halloween’s OriginScreen Shot 2014-11-01 at 1.04.26 PM

From sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1, the ancient Celts celebrated the gathering of the harvest, the end of summer, and the approaching “dark half of the year” as they called it, with the Samhain (pronounced “sow-hen”) festival.

It was considered a liminal time when the spirits of the dead had easier access to the world of the living.  Spirits could be harmful, and therefore, needed to be propitiated with rituals to ensure that people and livestock would survive the coming winter.

The church had a history of honoring martyrs who died in persecutions, and eventually moved the day of that celebration from spring to coincide with the first day of Samhain.  It became the feast of all saints, or as they used to say, hallowed ones, which gives us our word Halloween: all hallows eve.

It is fitting, therefore, that in this season, as winter approaches, we set apart time to honor the memory of those who have died.  Christians do not fear death.  We do not feel threatened by malevolent spirits.

We are in the hands of a God who is good, a God who is for us, a God who, in fact, loves each of us, and knows us by name.

What is Honor?Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 1.17.58 PM

As we honor those who have gone on before us, perhaps this is a good time to reflect on the subject of honor itself.  What does it mean to live such a life that, at our death, people will be able to say, from a full heart: “she/he lived an honorable life; he was an honorable man; she was an honorable woman”?

To know what something is, often it helps to know what it is not, and this is especially true of “honor.”

This is where Jesus starts, in the text we read.  He observed that there were many who were greatly concerned with honor, but who had a warped, twisted understanding of what honor meant.

He found the religious leaders of his day guilty of being, what younger people today would call “posers.”  Like people putting on fancy clothes and a fake smile to pose for a picture, posers are all about image.  Their concern is how they look compared with others.  Jesus said,

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others”

So, they want the honorable seats at the banquet, next to the people with power and influence.  They want to be seen to be religious.  They like titles and expect to be addressed accordingly.  It is theater for public consumption, all in the quest for honor.

These scribes and Pharisees are such easy targets, it is almost unfair.  I have to look in the mirror.  I have to ask myself how much of what I do is calculated to make me look good in the eyes of others?

Socrates supposedly said:

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”

Apparently this is an old and widespread human problem.

Jesus’ Alternative Vision of Honor

Jesus has an alternative vision of what is honorable.  He calls his followers to be different.  After describing what honor is not, by using the scribes and Pharisees as foils, he looks at his disciples and says,

“But you…”Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 1.21.05 PM

But you are different.  But you have a higher calling.  But you know things and believe in a different value system.

But you know that there is one God, Source of all life, Creator of every man, woman and child.  You know, therefore, that all of these external markers of status and importance are merely that: external, not essential.

You know that no amount of money can make a person of greater value than another.  You know that skin pigmentation has nothing to do with how God values humans, nor does the language they speak, nor the word they use to name God.

You know that power can just as easily serve dishonorable purposes as honorable, so that the powerful people may or may not be held in honor.

You know that to be honorable is not about what you do when people are looking; in fact it is the opposite.  Honor is about what we do when no one is looking, no one notices, when there will be no one to give us credit.  Honor is about doing the right thing, not out of the lowest moral level reasoning of fear and punishment, but out of a morality that knows goodness is its own reward.

And you know that honor is not about protecting a fragile little ego from all insults and threats.  In fact, honor is not about self-interest at all.  To be a person of honor is to be an other-oriented person, seeking the welfare of others, finding ways to make a difference on behalf of the community.

Honor in ServiceScreen Shot 2014-11-01 at 1.22.43 PM

This is why Jesus can sum up the subject of honor with these words:

“The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

From the one who was not ashamed to take up the towel and foot-washing basin, we learn that it is an honor to serve.

It is honorable to be a generous person; to be generous with our time, with our energy, with our talents, and yes, with our money.  It is honorable to be one of those who makes a difference on behalf of those who need us.

So it is honorable to tutor children.  It is honorable to provide worship opportunities for the elderly and to bless our services with music.  It is honorable to take time to make sandwiches for memorial services and it is honorable to clean the kitchen afterwards.

It is honorable to go out of our way and accept inconvenience for the sake of the planet – to recycle, to protect turtles, and to fight for policies that benefit our planet, even if it means paying a price for them.  We are called to higher standards than the standard of short term self-interest.

For us, it is an honor to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to fight for justice for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  It is an honor to stand up for those who are discriminated against.  It is an honor even to imitate our Lord who was willing to suffer for doing the right thing.

It is an honor to be the lone voice in the room who will remind everyone that not all Muslims are terrorists.  To be the one who insists that the radicals of Isis, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban do not speak authoritatively for Islam, any more that the Hillsborough hate-mongers or the Florida Koran-burners speak for Christianity.

It is honorable to point out that seeing a sign in Spanish or hearing it spoken actually does not do anything harmful to anyone in the world.  In the words of Jesus himself: “ for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”

The Call of this Season

  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

This is the season to honor those who have gone on before us, and to observe the ways in which they lived honorably.

None of us lives with any guarantees for tomorrow.   And all of us are mortal.  There will be a time when people gather to remember us, and to speak of our lives.  What will they say?

We are given only one moment to live: the present moment.  So, today is the day to live honorably.  This is the high calling we have been called to.

We do not respond out of self-interest.  Nevertheless, it is a a wonderful blessing that goodness is indeed its own reward.   A life of service is actually a happier life than a life of apathy or selfishness.

In the end, what St. Francis prayed is completely true:

It is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”



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