Being Named

Being Named

Sermon for Jan. 19, 2020 Epiphany 2A.

Audio will be here for several weeks.

 John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Sixty years or more after Jesus walked the earth, the Gospel of John was written down.  It probably went through several versions and had several contributing authors, but for simplicity’s sake this morning, let’s just call the author John.  

What is John doing with this scene, and why does it matter to us?  This is still the first chapter, as we divide up the gospel, so getting us introduced to the cast of characters is one reason for this scene.  

Another is to anticipate the themes of the whole story, like a prelude, or a movie trailer.  

John Names Jesus 

So the author, John, introduces us to Jesus.   This is his second introduction of Jesus.  This gospel starts with a theoretical introduction of Jesus as the “word made flesh” who is the “light of the world.”  But this is more of a practical introduction.  This time, Jesus is introduced to us, as he is meeting other humans.  

The first person to identify Jesus in this prelude is John the Baptist.  He calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”   It is an allusion to the sacrifice of lambs in the Jewish tradition.  That is a foreshadowing of  the end of the story, in which Jesus dies by execution.  

Though he is not guilty, he dies as a martyr, who, like the martyrs of the Maccabean wars of independence, sacrificed their lives for their people.  Their deaths were considered atonement for the sins of the nation.  Jesus, according to John, is the lamb whose sacrificial death atones for the sins, not just of the nation, but of the whole world.  

Naming Jesus Rabbi

But no one else besides John the Baptist knows much about Jesus yet.  As This gospel tells it, two of the people who heard Jesus called the “lamb of God” literally start following Jesus like chicks behind a momma duck.  

John’s gospel does this kind of thing all the time: he tells a story that sounds simple and literal, but is really a metaphor.  In the other gospels, Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him as disciples follow a teacher.  That is what John’s metaphor means.  

What Are You Looking For?

But John wants us to know that although they have begun to follow Jesus, they actually have no idea what they are getting themselves into.   Jesus turns to ask them “What are you looking for?”  They respond by calling Jesus “Rabbi” which means teacher.  

Jesus is far more than just another Rabbi, so this is another way of saying that they do not understand his significance yet.  The question John wants us readers to ask ourselves is, “What are you looking for?”  

This is an important question for us as well.  This is what I ask at the start of each service: what is your intention?  Why are you here?  What are you looking for?  That question is also a foreshadowing of what is coming.  We will soon read that lots of people began to follow Jesus for the free food, but dropped out when the conversation turned to sacrifice.  

But at this point in the story, the early followers of Jesus are full of curiosity.  They want to know where Jesus is staying.  His answer is the most open-ended invitation, and we are meant to hear it as inviting us too: “come and see.”  

This gospel is meant to help us “come and see.”  We are invited to watch Jesus, see who he interacts with, who he takes time for, what he does, what he says.  And if we do come and see, and if what he is about is what we are looking for, then maybe we will come to experience a transformed life.  

Being Named and Changed

If we stay with him long enough, it will change us.  We get a foreshadowing of that too.  Andrew has figured out that Jesus is the Messiah, so he finds his brother, Simon, and brings him to meet Jesus.  

The foreshadowing event is that Jesus changes Peter’s name.  Being with Jesus changes you.  It changes you to your core.  It changes your identity.   It may even change your answer to the question “what are you looking for?”  

The longer you stay with Jesus, the more you start wanting what he wants, which makes the things you were seeking previously seem small,  narrow, and insufficient.  Jesus is going to give you a new name. 

What was the significance of that name change for Simon?  I want to suggest this possibility.  Simon was a famous name for the people of Jesus’ generation.   After the Maccabean revolts against their Greek overlords, in 141 BCE, their first king was named Simon.  He was the George Washington of their newly independent kingdom.  

So, in the time of Jesus, that means that a Jewish mother, longing for a new kingdom and a new king that would lead them to national independence from Rome, named her boy “Simon.”  

And one day, that Simon met Jesus.  The first thing Jesus did, was to change his name.  Instead of Simon, the nationalist king, he would be called “Cephas”, meaning Peter, the Rock.  Meeting Jesus changes you, down to your identity.  

It is almost as if Jesus is saying to Simon, “What are you looking for?”  When your brother called me “messiah, what did you imagine?  Did you think I was going to start the next revolt, the new Maccabean revolution for independence?  Because that quest is far too small, narrow, and insufficient.  No, rather “messiah” means I am anointed to a much larger mission.”  

We will see, as John’s story of Jesus develops, that what Jesus wants is to accomplish God’s agenda.  It is not local or parochial.  It is not national or political.   What God wants is the transformation of the world.  

Why?  The answer we are given is simply love.  Probably the most famous verse in John’s gospel, John 3:6 can be understood this way: “For God loved the world so much, that he gave us Jesus, that every one who trusts him, who follows his way, who responds to the invitation to “come and see” will not continue down the path they were on, the path of perishing, but will have a transformed life.”  

There are lots of small, narrow, insufficient paths that lead to perishing.  Paths of violence, paths of nationalism, paths of exclusion and arrogance.  But there is an alternative path, the way that is true, and leads to life.

King Simon the Maccabean hero of old came to power by overthrowing the Greeks, but in John’s gospel, the moment in which Jesus knows that “the hour has come” for him is when the Greeks come up to the disciples at the festival and say, “we wish to see Jesus” (John 12).   

What does God want?  A reconciled world in which there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female in opposition to each other.   Is that what we are looking for?  Some of us are, yes.

MLK

On January 15, 1929, a woman in America had a baby boy.  She had high hopes for her son.  She wanted a reformer.   She wanted a leader.  She wanted a child who would grow up wanting what God wanted for the world: reconciliation; transformation.  So, like Simon’s mother did,  she named him for a hero of the past.  She named him after the great leader of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, Martin Luther.  

Martin Luther King jr.  grew up to embrace God’s vision of a reconciled, transformed world.  He had a vision of a beloved community in which people would be valued, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  

He knew that the way toward that vision would be difficult, but like Jesus before him, he eschewed violence.  He trusted that the moral arc of the universe was long, maybe longer than his own lifespan, but that it bent toward justice.  

What do we want?  We want that same vision of a reconciled,  transformed world. We have responded to the call to “come and see” and being with Jesus has changed us.  We have been named by God as God’s beloved children, and we have been given a new identity.  We no longer wish for a small, narrow world of “us against them.” 

We long for a world of equality and justice.  The task is still incomplete.  Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.  Mass incarceration still exists.  Voter suppression still exists.  Discrimination in employment and housing still exists.  White supremecists still exist, and seem to be growing.  

But we are here to march in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of color.   We are here to be allies; even accomplices.  We are here to believe with them that a better day is coming; that a better world is possible.  We are here to re-assert that “God so loved the world” — that is the whole world, without exception.  Will we be successful? Come and see. 

Emerging From Those Waters

Emerging From Those Waters

Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 for the Baptism of Jesus Sunday, A. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We are going to look at one of the weirdest stories in the Bible today. But it is also, I believe, one of the most important stories. Its message is crucial for our spiritual health and growth.  

Why is it weird? For several reasons. For one thing, the story is about a profoundly meaningful mystical experience that Jesus had. Mystical experiences are weird by nature. 

Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

When Jesus emerged from those waters, he saw something, he heard something. He must have felt something, though the gospel writers do not tell us about how he felt. And it changed him. That was the moment that launched Jesus’ public ministry. So it was crucial for Jesus, and I believe the message is crucial for us too.  

But it is also weird because of how the four gospels retell this story. They all tell it a bit differently. In Matthew, which we just read, the voice Jesus hears is speaking to everyone, announcing to the world, 

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

But the prior version in Mark says that the voice spoke only to Jesus, as often happens in mystical experiences, saying, 

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.” 

To me, it is weird that Matthew felt free to edit what the voice of God said, but he did. He made Jesus’ private experience into a public announcement — which is fair enough. He wanted us, and everyone to get this message that Jesus is God’s beloved son. 

Why tell it as a public announcement? We will see in just a minute. 

Jesus in John’s Group

The story is also weird because if Jesus was baptized by John, it appears that John was the group leader and Jesus was just a group member. That situation seems to have bothered the gospel writers. Mark just says John baptized Jesus, but when Matthew tells the story, he says John protested about the inappropriateness of Jesus being baptized by him. 

John was a big deal back then, and had a lot of followers — even the ancient historian Josephus mentions him and his large crowds. He says that the size of the crowds was so large it made the local king, Herod Antipas nervous. Herod had John arrested and killed as a precautionary measure, according to Josephus.  

It is weird that Jesus would have been a member of John’s group, for an important reason. John was what we call an apocalyptic prophet. He preached that the world was messed up, and that God wanted to clean it up, and that God was going to start cleaning it up soon. 

How? His message is cryptic, but at the same time, plain in one sense: God was going to come swinging swords and taking prisoners. He used violent metaphors: the ax was ready to fell the trees that bore no fruit; the fire was ready to consume the chaff. 

It is evident that John thought God’s clean up of the world would look something like it looked in the stories of the Hebrew Bible when God used the violence of Plagues against Pharaoh or empowered the violent armies led by Joshua to conquer the Promised Land of Canaan.  

Jesus’ Difference from John

The weirdness is that Jesus was part of John’s group, but when he left and started his own public ministry, his message was entirely different. For Jesus, God’s method of cleaning up the world was not something God was going to do on his own, like sending plagues, nor was it violent. Rather God’s method was peaceful and collaborative. 

God’s desire to “repair the world” or, if you were here last week, you know the Hebrew term, “Tikkun Olam,” was not going to be done without our collaboration. We are God’s method. If the world is going to be “Tikkun”, or repaired, if it is going to get cleaned up, it is going to be through us.  

So, let us look at Jesus’ message. It was not, “Strap on your sword.” 

It was “turn the other cheek.” 

It was love God and love your neighbor. It was even “love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.” 

It was “blessed are the meek.” 

It was, “as much as you do to the least of these, brothers of mine, you do to me.” 

It was, “go and do likewise” as the Good Samaritan had done.  

That is called collaboration: God at work, in and through humans, to clean up and repair the broken messy, broken world. 

Dirty Hands

But who are we, to collaborate with God? Who do we think we are that we could repair the world?  Not only are we small, limited mortals, without superpowers, we know ourselves.  

We know that we are also broken. We all have a dark side. We are also part of the world that needs to get cleaned up. We know we have caused hurt and pain to others. We know how much of our headspace is taken up with concern for ourselves, our reputations, what other people think about us, the excuses we make up to let ourselves off the hook, when we do things that we would never call good, if someone else did them. 

We all have egos, pride that gets hurt, offended, humiliated. And when that happens, we know how ready to forgive we are, right? We have lists of people who we resent because of what they did to us — sometimes we carry those lists for years.  

So, if we need to be cleaned up,  if our hands are dirty, how can we be God’s collaborators in cleaning up the world?  

The Solution

That is exactly the problem that this story is here for, and why it is so important to all of us. Like Jesus, the vast majority of us have been baptized. For most of us, it was done when we were babies, too young to remember. But we were symbolically plunged under the waters.  What happened then? The same thing that happened to Jesus: we were named by God, and claimed by God as God’s beloved.  

Those waters are like a grave that you go down into, and come up as a new person, risen from death to life. 

Or, to change the image, those waters are like a cleansing bath that washes off all the dirt and grime so that we come out clean. 

The message of this story of Jesus’ baptism is that in baptism, we are named by God and claimed by God, just as Jesus was, as God’s beloved children.  

I think our biggest problem is that we don’t believe it. We have internalized too many messages we have received over the years of judgment and condemnation.  

One of the most important reasons we gather together as we are now, is so that we can keep hearing again and again until we believe it:  you are beloved by God. That is your true self. That is who you are; your baptismal identity is that you are beloved.

What about that dark side? What about our brokenness? The good news of the gospel is that God is merciful and forgiving. 

That is also what we come together every week to hear. God knows our darkness even better than we do, but loves us and wants us to be healed; healed of our self-loathing, our guilt, our shame, our ego-defenses, and our self-concern.  

And when we can embrace our belovedness, when we can know our true identity as God’s children, then we are able to have the courage to join with God in the collaborative clean up of the world.  

The Confession Balance

You know, I struggle every week with how to write the prayer of confession that we say in our worship service. My struggle is that I believe two things at once: first, that there is no spiritual progress possible unless we examine ourselves and admit where we fall short and miss the mark. That is what we mean by “repentance.”  

But the other thing I believe is that we come to this prayer from different places spiritually. Some of us come knowing that we are forgiven and beloved, so we pray the prayer of confession with confidence in God’s mercy. 

But others of us have so internalized negative messages about ourselves, that we come with guilt and shame, maybe even believing that God could never forgive us. So I try to have a balanced prayer that avoids adding to someone’s guilt, while at the same time helping us to grow spiritually by honest self-examination. 

I don’t know if I ever succeed in achieving that balance, but the most important message to get through is this: you are beloved by God. With you, God is well-pleased. 

I don’t have any tattoos, (yet). But if I did, I think I might get my sons’ names tattooed, one on each arm.  I know that there is nothing that they could do to make me not love them. I would grieve if they did things that hurt themselves or others, but I could not stop loving them; I’m their father. That is a tiny glimpse, I believe, of how God feels about us. If God has ink, our names are there.  

That is the announcement that Matthew wanted us all to hear, and why he told the story of Jesus’ baptism that way. We rise up from the waters of baptism named by God as beloved, just as Jesus was. 

And once out of the water, we take on the mission that Jesus took on; being a collaborator in God’s great clean up of the world. 

As spiritually centered people, not unaware of our dark side, but convinced of our true identity as beloved children, we set out to follow Jesus’ mission. 

We work for a better world; a world of forgiveness and reconciliation. A world healed of hunger, of discrimination, of ego and of blood-lust. 

We seek the world that Jesus sought: a peaceable kingdom of abundance for all the beloved children of the world.  

Living With the Lights On

Living With the Lights On

Sermon for Dec. 5, 2020, Christmas 2A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

John 1:1–18

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.

I want to begin with honesty, on this, the first Sunday of the new year, and (as some people count it) the new decade. The honest truth is that this new year and new decade have begun for me, with a sense of dread, for all kinds of reasons, starting with the climate crisis.  

They say that 10 million acres have burned already in Australia, temperatures have reached 120 degrees, and it’s only the start of the summer fire season there. So, I dread what is coming for them, and I dread the climate crisis that puts us all in harm’s way.  

That’s just the start. How can we not dread what is coming in the Middle East? What will Iran’s next move be? And what will we do about it then? Where is this going? And how will it ever end?

Closer to home, you just say the word “Washington DC” these days and it fills most people with dread, on both sides of the aisle.  

What about the future of the church? I was just at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast Friday and spoke with a young man who told me he grew up in a conservative church but does not worship anywhere now. His story is the new normal, as we all know. Unless something new happens that reverses that trend, it should make all of us who love the church dread the future.  

An Alternative to Dread

So, honesty is a good place to start. But honestly, for me, and for people of faith, cannot ever end in the darkness of dread, even if it begins there. In our tradition, we make a point to begin the year with an alternative narrative. 

We begin with Christmas stories of blazingly bright angels appearing to shepherds in the middle of the night. If that story is about anything, it is certainly about light appearing in the darkness. That is what God does; bring light, and therefore hope, into situations that previously only had room for the darkness of dread.

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Jeremiah, is part of that tradition of asserting an alternative narrative. It recalls one of the darkest times in the story of the people of Israel; the time of their exile in Babylon. And yet, from that time of despair, the prophet imagined a new day; a light at the end of the tunnel of exile. He could imagine God saying, 

I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

The poetic language is, admittedly exaggerated, promising that “they shall never languish again.” It makes the point, poetically, that God’s will is to repair the broken world. 

There is a Hebrew phrase that sums up God’s desire: “Tikkun Olam” the repair of the world. It acknowledges that there is darkness; something is broken. But repair is possible. Return from exile is possible. Darkness does not have the last word. 

I want to pause to make a note about the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I just heard someone say again recently that the God of the Old Testament was brutal, judgmental, and not at all as the God Jesus taught us to know. That is only partly correct, which means it is partly incorrect. There is not only one view of God in the Old Testament, there are several, and they imagine the Divine in different ways. Yes, there is a lot of judgment and wrath, but here, in Jeremiah, the prophet imagines God saying, with tender parental compassion, 

“I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel.”

It is clear that Jesus was aware of both views of God, and that he accepted one and rejected the other. To Jesus, God was like a father, which is how he taught us to approach God in prayer, “Our father…” More about this in a minute.  

They did return and rebuild, but the story did not stop there.  There were more difficult times to come; there always are. By the time of Jesus, they were languishing in a new kind of darkness. They had been swallowed up by the Roman Empire. Now they lived with a Roman boot on their necks.  

What to Want?

What should you want, under those circumstances? What should your hope be? What do you imagine the “Tikkun Olam” the repaired world would look like? In Jesus’ day, there were competing versions of what a repaired world should look like, just as there are competing versions of what a repair of our world should look like today. Not everyone wants the same future. Some wanted revolution. Jesus rejected that version, but his was the minority view. 

Everyone has their own vested interests. The future they hope for is normally one that protects their interests. That is the way it has always been, everywhere. Can anything change that? Could anything change what you and I hope for? Or would our personal self-interests always tilt our hopes in self-serving directions?  

I believe that there is such a thing as enlightenment. There is such a thing as what addicts call, a “moment of clarity.” There is the experience of “illumination,” as mystics call it. Everyone has had moments in which the lights have come on, when you, as we say, “see things in a new light.” And once the lights have come on, and you see what is really there, you cannot unsee it.  

That is, I believe, what Jesus did for the people of his generation. That is why, several decades after his earthly life, the early Christians talked about Jesus as the light that “was coming into the world.” John described Jesus as,

The true light, which enlightens everyone.”

He turned the lights on for them. He got them to see the world in a new way. He showed them what was there all along, but had been hidden in plain sight by self-interest. 

And for many of them, this changed what they wanted for the future. It transformed what they imagined as “Tikkun Olam” — what the repaired world would look like. For some, they were able to imagine a repaired world that was made whole, not just for them and their own people, but for all people.  

When the light comes on, you can imagine God differently. If you had been imagining God as only punitive and judgmental, now you could imagine God as Jesus did, as the perfect parent, “full of grace and truth,” “From whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Grace is the opposite of judgment.

When the lights come on, you see what God’s kingdom looks like — and it looks like a banquet table to which everyone is welcome, and no one is excluded — and the miracle of that enlightenment is that you can even see beyond parochial self-interests. It is not just the kingdom of God for “good” Israelites, free of the “bad guys” or even the kingdom of only Israelites, free of gentiles. It is the kingdom for everyone.  

Even with the lights on, however, John reminds us that, “No one has ever seen God,” but Jesus shows us what God’s kingdom looks like. He was, John says, “close to the Father’s heart” meaning he wanted what God wants — and that looks like inclusion that transcends self-interest. 

That looks like the quest for peace and a rejection of violent resistance.

 It looks like a quest for justice, instead of upholding an iron-age purity code. 

It looks like people experiencing the religious illumination, coming to understand that, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, it is not about which mountain or which temple you think God lives in exclusively, but that

the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  

How?

Let’s make this practical. How do the lights get turned on so that we can see beyond self-interest? For me, it means constantly asking myself if what I want to see lines up with Jesus’ vision of a repaired world. So, in the coming year, and in the coming decade, I want to keep paying attention to Jesus.

 It also means that now that the lights have been turned on and I see that my self-interest, my ego is my biggest barrier to wanting what Jesus wants, I will engage the practices that help me with my ego. For me, that includes group study of the Enneagram and it includes regular meditation. It means showing up to be of service to others.  

It means getting outside of my comfort zone, as Jesus was continually coaxing his followers to do. It means turning the lights on my failures, admitting them, knowing that those are probably going to turn out to be the ways I learn and grow. We are all broken people, but as Leonard Cohen reminds us, 

There is a crack a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” (from the son, “Anthem”)

It means refusing to let the darkness of dread give way to despair, even when the things we dread start happening. We will be people of faith. We will keep doing what we do, and what we always have done, welcoming everyone around our table, participating in interfaith events, addressing the climate crisis, advocating for marginalized communities, ministering to shut-ins, making lunches and dinners for food-challenged people, collecting canned goods, and gathering in gratitude as we are doing now, thankful that the lights have been turned on for us, and we can have the courage to live with the lights on, no matter what is coming this year and this decade.  

Is the Christmas Story Believable?

Is the Christmas Story Believable?

Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2019. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 2:1-14

    In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

2:8    In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Does God even care about what is going on in the world?  You watch the news, and that seems like a fair question.  A person could give a glib pious answer: “Of course God cares.”  But a thoughtful person might want to ask how you could tell?  Everyone here could instantly come up with a list of horrors going on right now if they wanted to.  

What would it look like if God showed up?  Who would God care about?  How would God deal with this world and its people?  The way the gospels tell the story of Jesus, they are telling a story of God showing up in the world.  So, let us look at Luke’s version of the Christmas story that way: as a story of how God would show up in the world.  Then we will return to our original question. 

Luke begins with a  story of forced dislocation.  Mary and Joseph are uprooted from their home in Nazareth, at the order of a foreign power that dominates their nation and their lives.  They are dislocated for the sole purpose of paying a tax.  The tax will not fund roads, schools, or health care systems.  It will instead pay for palaces, banquets, swords, and shields. So this is a story of an oppressed people at the mercy of an Empire.  The main characters are powerless peasants. 

The main characters, Joseph and Mary are betrothed.  The families have agreed, the contract is binding, they will soon be married.  Mary is pregnant.  Far from home, they seek shelter, but find nothing but a stable.  They are literally homeless people at this moment.  

In the Roman Empire, they announced the birth of an heir to the throne with publicity and fanfare.  They had a special word for such announcements: they called it “good news.”  That is the same word that gets translated “gospel” in older English.  The baby born to Mary gets a birth announcement too, which is also called “good news.”  But the announcement is not made from the palace and it is not announced to the governing elite.  The announcement is made to shepherds, the lowest rung on the employment ladder.  

Nevertheless, the announcement is made by a divine messenger, an angel; a gloriously shining creature, a bright light in a dark sky.  That message outshines the gospel announcement of an heir to the Roman throne.  He says,

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Early Christians loved the stories of Jesus. Before they wrote them down, the handed on, by word of mouth, the stories of how he lived with great compassion for the poor people he spent his short adult life within Galilee.  

They remembered him having dinners that were open to all of them without any judgment.  They recounted stories of him welcoming into his company everyone he encountered, without prejudice or discrimination. 

They told stories of when Jesus taught them about turning the other cheek and going the second mile for each other. They remembered how Jesus taught them about how God was too.  That if they got off track, God would seek them out like a shepherd looks for lost sheep.  They felt the presence of God so strongly in Jesus, they were drawn to him. They found his presence healing to them.  

So, if God was at work powerfully in Jesus, then that meant that God was concerned about them; little people, poor people, peasant people.  So when they told the stories of Jesus’ birth, of course, the cast of characters had to be poor peasants.  

But the story also had to have angels — lots of them in Luke’s version — to make sure that the story was a God story.  If God ever showed up, the kind of God Jesus loved, prayed to, and taught about, would show up among peasants in a stable.  His first community would be common shepherds.  But make no mistake about it, he was going to grow up to be someone they were happy to call Messiah, Savior, even Lord. 

It is odd to say those things about Jesus; a man who lived such a short life, never had any power, never wrote anything, never became famous outside his small region, and whom the Romans ingloriously executed.  But that is because execution was not the end for Jesus.  His community continued to keep his memory alive by telling his story.  “Remember” they would tell each other, “never forget.”  They had been transformed by his message of forgiveness.  They had been healed by the way he taught them to be set free from the tyranny of their own ego demands.  

They formed inclusive communities of sharing across all kinds of barriers that used to seem so important.  They had been saved from a small life of self-concern for a large life of compassion for the world.  That was good news indeed, and the grounds for peace on earth.

But look around at the world; is that a true story?  Is it believable?  For me, it is profoundly believable.  The way God shows up in the world, is not with coercive force, stamping out evil, giving the villains their due.  Rather God shows up in people who, in spite of the way of the world, respond to the lure to goodness.  God shows up in people who live compassionately on behalf of others.  God shows up among the poor, the dislocated immigrants, and the homeless, as opportunities for showing love and seeking justice.  

God showed up in Jesus.  Now, let it be, that God shows up in me and in you, and in all of us.  If God does, maybe someday there will be peace on earth, and goodwill among us all.  

The Road Less Taken

The Road Less Taken

Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 for Dec. 15, 2019, Advent 3A. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Isaiah,  35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” is ambiguous; people take it differently.  It ends with a sigh, and a look back at a long life.  The woods are yellow, says the poem; it is the season of autumn, just before winter.  There are two paths that diverge; which to take?  

The author chose the one “less traveled,” aware that that that choice, back then, all those years ago, has “made all the difference.”  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  People have read it both ways.  

I have always wanted to read it as a good thing.  There is the way of the crowd, but the crowd-choice is often not the best way.  It may be the easiest thing to do, to take the path of the majority, but history is filled with majorities that were wrong.  

Think about how many majorities accepted slavery or the subjugation of women, not to mention support for wars of aggression.  Majorities err.  

So, the “road less taken” may turn out to be the right one.  Taking it makes all the difference.  I thought of that poem as I was looking at this text from Matthew this week.  

That is how Jesus looked at it, I believe.  He looked at what was happening in his time and said, in effect, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”  He considered what the majority of the people had accepted as true, and concluded that their thinking was misguided, even destructive.  

But then I reflected on how few people, through the years have paid much attention to Jesus.  Listening to Jesus seems to be one of the roads less traveled.   It is so weird that when you put someone on a pedestal, it is somehow more easy to ignore them.  For example, the Buddha taught non-violence, but Buddhists in Myanmar who revere him are brutally persecuting the Rohingya Muslims.  

In the same way, Christians through the centuries have put Jesus on a pedestal of worship, only to completely ignore his vision of a non-violent, reconciled, compassionate humanity.  The cost of veneration is always cheaper than the price of justice. 

Our quest is to try to faithfully follow the Jesus-path, even if it is the road less traveled.  So, we will look at this text from Matthew’s story of Jesus, and try to listen to him.  We will see how and why his vision confused John the Baptist, but how it has the capacity to lead us to enlightenment, even to transformation.   

John’s Faulty Expectations

So, what was the issue with John?  Why did he send people to Jesus with questions after Herod Antipas arrested him?  It was because Jesus was not doing what he expected.  

If you were here last week, you will recall that John expected Messiah to come with a force of arms to liberate the Jews from Roman imperial oppression.  He talked about the ax being ready to start swinging at the trees and the fire ready to burn up the chaff.  

God was supposed to intervene with force, as he did in the old days, according to the stories, back when Joshua conquered Jericho or when Moses went up against Pharaoh.  

John came by that expectation honestly.  The prophets in the Hebrew bible spoke of a future day, often they called it “the day of the Lord.”  They imagined a future of prosperity and abundance, of justice and equality — a beautiful vision.  

But that day, they imagined, would also include vengeance against enemies.  So, along with the beautiful vision expressed as a time in which:

the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” 

We also hear that it will be a time when: 

God…will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.”

 The beautiful vision of shalom comes along with an expectation of retributive justice.  That was the majority view.  That is what most people wanted:  a time of peace and wellbeing, with lots of fresh Roman graves.

The Sources of Jesus’ Vision

But Jesus took a different view.  We do not know how Jesus came to his vision of non-violence and restorative justice as an alternative to retributive justice.  Perhaps he knew many stories of the cycles of violence that are kept spinning by the quest to get even.  

I have heard that the longest odds are those against getting even, and I believe it.  I have witnessed what happened when Serbs tried to get even with the Croats for World War II; it looks like mass graves.  

One generation’s “getting even” is simply the next generation’s justification for atrocities.  

But I believe the source of Jesus’ vision probably goes deeper than that.  I believe that Jesus’ vision for the future was the natural result of his re-think about the nature of God.  

Jesus knew his Hebrew Bible, but the question of how to imagine what God is like and what God is up to is vexed.  Running through the Hebrew Bible a careful reader will notice many conundrums.  

For example, God is the creator of every human being, all of us are made in God’s image, yet God selected the Jews as the Chosen People.  

The land of Canaan was promised to the Jews, the Bible tells us, but for most of their history, including the present moment, for Jesus, it was ruled by gentiles. 

The law of Moses says that if you are good, you will be blessed, but if you are bad, you will be cursed.  But the book of Job spends 40 chapters protesting that Job’s suffering was not a consequence of anything bad he did.  

God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but then provides direct assistance to Joshua’s ethnic cleansing campaigns. Did these conundrums matter to Jesus?

Apparently so.  As he observed the world, the suffering of his people, most of whom were peasants, contrasted with the gross prosperity of the aristocracy, as he reflected on the oppression of his people under the vast power of the Roman military machine, he concluded that God was demonstrably not out to get retributive justice.  It just didn’t work that way.  

So, instead of embracing John’s vision of the Day of the Lord coming with vengeance, in the future, Jesus grew to embrace a vision of the kingdom of God, or as Matthew likes to have him say, the “kingdom of heaven,” as a present reality of restorative justice.  

The kingdom is not waiting for Divine intervention, but is present, calling for our collaboration by living as if God were indeed king.  

So, instead of a world of people bent on getting even, Jesus said, 

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  (Matt 5:44-45)

So Jesus’ reply to John’s messengers is all about the way the kingdom of God was made real in Jesus’ ministry, not of bringing vengeance, but of bringing restoration.  In his reply to John’s questions, Jesus was actually riffing on the vision of Isaiah as he told John’s messengers to tell him:

“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Experiencing Healing and Transformation

That was not the majority view; that was the minority report from Jesus who took “the road less traveled.”  And that view “makes all the difference.”  So, instead of merely venerating a silent Jesus, I want to listen to the voice of the living Jesus. 

I want to ask myself what I have been blind to that I need to see in a new light?  I remember when I used to believe God was going to judge people and condemn the vast majority of them to hell.  I was blind to the awesome extent of God’s love for all the people God made.  

I remember when I was lame, crippled by guilt and shame, growing up in a fundamentalism, in which it seemed that we were a constant disappointment to God, instead of being God’s beloved community. 

I remember being homophobic.  I remember when I thought I needed to avoid lepers, people who were unclean, people who did not keep to the straight and narrow, even though those were exactly the kind of people Jesus hung out with.  

I remember being deaf to the cries of the poor because we believed what God wanted most was to save their souls.  

And for a long time, I had no idea of what the “good news” was that Jesus preached to the poor.  I never heard of the year of Jubilee that stands behind that phrase “good news”, the time when debts were forgiven and people who had lost everything got a re-start.  

Now, I am so thankful for the journey I have been on, for the healing I have experienced.  But at this moment in the life of our country, the Jesus-path looks like the road less traveled.  

What have we learned from Jesus’ interaction with John’s messengers?  That although we would never claim to be able to speak of God adequately, due to our limitations as finite mortals, nevertheless, there are some ways of conceiving of the Divine that are closer to the truth, and others that are further away.  

John’s view of a vengeful God had lots of precedence, and was the majority view, but Jesus rejected it.  Jesus taught us to understand God through the metaphors of a loving father, a good shepherd,  a mother bird protecting her chicks, and as the source of rain and sun equally given to all.  

That view has a direct consequence in how we live, how we treat people, what we want for our community, our society, and for the world.  It is the vision of a reconciled, restored world that Jesus called the Kingdom.  It is not a future state, awaiting Divine intervention, it is a present reality, calling for our collaboration.  

That may be the road less taken, but it will make all the difference.  

The Short Term and the Long View: the Virtue of Courage

The Short Term and the Long View: the Virtue of Courage

Sermon for Dec. 8, 2019 on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 for Advent 2A. Audio will be here for several weeks.

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
  the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

How are we going to get through this? How am I going to get through this? Those questions can keep you up at night. Whether you are thinking about our country, our church, your health issues, your economic situation, or your personal relationships, the question haunts us: how will we get through it?

As a seminarian, learning Hebrew, I was struck by the way ancient Israelites referred to the future. They used the phrase, “in the behind of the days.” They faced the past that they could see, and backed into the unseeable future.  

Where is God in This?

Another question we ask ourselves, as people of faith, is, “Where is God in this?” Some think that God is the master puppeteer, orchestrating events from behind the curtain.  They think that God has a plan which is unknowable by mere mortals. The world would make sense if we could see it from God’s perspective,  they assure us. Even the Holocaust. Even child abuse. 

I personally cannot accept that view. To have a plan that included every crime ever committed would make the planner as monstrous as the people carrying out the plan.  God is not a moral monster, in fact, just the opposite. So that view cannot be correct.  

Well, then, if not a master puppeteer with a pre-set plan, then we are back to the question, “Where is God in this?” Is there a plan at all? This is a huge issue for all of us. We can only scratch the surface here, today. We will look to our wisdom tradition, to see what possible insights may help us get through all of this, and see where God is in it. 

Isaiah’s Vision 

We will start with a glance at the text from the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Isaiah. You have probably seen one of the paintings by Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister, and artist, in which lions and leopards are sitting peacefully with lambs and little children near them. Hicks painted 62 versions of that painting called, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” He was grasped by that beautiful vision of a world at peace, where there were no longer predators, and no more victims. He was painting the vision of this text from Isaiah 11.  

But the question for Israel in the time of Isaiah was, how do you get there? How do you get from here to there? How do you get from the mess we are in, to that future state of peace, security, and abundance? 

The prophet imagines that the way will include new leadership. A new shoot will grow up from the stump of the ancient king David’s family tree.  

What can we expect of this new Spirit-inspired leadership? Some things are clear: this leader will be just; the poor will have the same standing before the law as the rich. 

But other things are unclear. Vagueness and ambiguity in the poetry make it difficult to know whether the way forward will include violence or not, as a means to get to the time of peace and harmony. 

The poet says, “He shall strike the earth,” but only with “the rod of his mouth.” He shall “kill the wicked” but only by “the breath of his lips.” Does this mean he will use only words, so that the striking and killing are metaphors for victory by persuasion? Or will there be blood on the ground? It’s not clear.  

So then how does this provide us with wisdom, if the message is ambiguous? At least one thing is clear. The end state we wish for is a time of justice, peace and abundance. We share the vision of Hick’s paintings. What we long for is justice for all the poor and oppressed of the earth; for a world in which every child is safe, and there is no fear of being hurt or destroyed, as the prophet envisioned.  A world in which there is enough for everyone.

John’s Take On It

So how do you get from here to there? Let us fast forward several centuries to the time of John and of Jesus. Everyone is still asking “How are we going to get through this?” And they are asking, “Where is God in this?” It’s a mess. They are humiliated, oppressed subjects of the Roman Empire, with no foreseeable way out.  

John still believes in the ancient vision. The Divine will is for that peaceable kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance. But John believes there will be blood on the ground before you get to peace. He anticipates the new leadership. He expects Messiah to come, striking the ground and killing the enemies of God. His imagery is violent. It involves the “wrath to come.” “The ax is lying at the root of the trees” ready to be wielded with force. Limbs will be chopped off. Whole trees will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus was part of John’s group. He was baptized by John. But Jesus eventually separated himself from John’s group. Details are scarce. New Testament scholars suggest that perhaps Jesus took a lesson from what happened to John and what failed to happen. 

John was critical of the current political leadership, so he was arrested. Herod Antipas’ troops got him, and Herod had him executed. God did not intervene. There was no fire burning down the trees that were bearing such evil fruit. 

Bad people were not prevented from doing bad things. That seems to be how it goes in this world. Children get abused. Nazi’s march and salute. Gas chambers run smoothly.  People who were sent back to Mexico to await asylum hearings are assaulted, kidnapped and raped by the hundreds.  

Jesus’ View

So, back to the same questions: “How are we going to get through this? And, “Where is God in this?” Jesus took a different view. He still believed in the long term vision of justice and peace, but he rejected violence as a means. So, with “the breath of his mouth,” he taught. He taught things like “Blessed, are the peacemakers.” And, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  

Was Jesus then, an advocate of passivity? Was Nietzsche correct that Christianity is “slave mentality?” Not at all. Though this teaching has been missed by the church, as so much of the teachings of Jesus have been, Jesus advocated neither violence nor passivity. He did not just roll over for the Romans. His way was a third way of non-violent, but active resistance. What do you think that demonstration in the temple was, the day he shut it down? The leadership got the message, and killed him for it. He had the courage to face even death, living for the vision of the kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance.  

What about Now?

So, back to the questions. How are we going to get through this? First, by doing what Jesus did: by holding onto the vision. We will refuse to allow the current situation we are in to vanquish our hope. We believe in justice. We believe that our liberation, our wellbeing, our “shalom” is inseparably bound up with the liberation and wellbeing of the poor and the oppressed.  We practice nonviolence. We are allies of and advocates for the poor and the oppressed, resisting systems of injustice.  

We believe that God is not the master puppeteer, but rather the master persuader, who has put the longing for justice and peace in every heart. God is present always and everywhere, not coercing us into a pre-planned outcome, but luring us towards the good. 

Where is God in this? God is right in the middle of it all with us, experiencing it with us — all of it — the joy and the pain, and offering us the possibility, in each situation, of the next right thing. That means that God is in relationship with us, with love and grace, enabling us to have the courage we need in the short term, to keep living virtuously toward the long term vision.  

It is Advent; Christmas is coming. How will we get through this time in our country? How will we get through this time in our church? How will we get through all the things we face in our personal lives? We will get through it, not alone, but with God, and with each other. 

God’s plan is for our wellbeing, our shalom. God’s plan is for the wellbeing, justice, peace and shalom for our society, and for our world. God’s plan is not static and pre-made, but dynamic and evolving with every moment.  

So, we will have the courage to keep painting paintings of the peaceable kingdom. We will keep practicing our daily spiritual disciplines, our prayers, and meditations. We will keep gathering in common worship, giving gratitude to God and being strengthened by the sacraments. 

We will keep walking backwards into the unseeable future, responding to the lure of goodness, cooking meals for the poor, making muffins for sack lunches, giving gifts to angel tree kids, providing a house for the DHS children, and reaching out to our community with courageous commitment to an ancient vision.  That is how we are gong to get through this.

Being Awake

Being Awake

Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44, for Dec. 1, 2019 Advent 1A

Audio will be here for several weeks.

Matthew 24:36-44

[Jesus said:]
“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.”

What in the world was Jesus talking about?  What could it mean that the Son of Man was going to come, bringing along such an odd string of events: two in the field, or two grinding, one taken, the other left.  

Sounds ominous.  Taken by whom?  Taken where?  Why one and not both?  What are we supposed to imagine is happening at this seemingly normal unexpected hour? 

A lot of ink has been spilled to explain this. Here are the questions that get asked:  Was Jesus talking about the end of time?  Or, was he talking about the Roman army invasion in 70 CE to crush the Jewish revolt?  Who does the cryptic “Son of Man refer to?”  That title could mean so many different things in the Hebrew Bible — a single person, the whole nation collectively, the action of God, using a human army.  Which one of those is most like the surprise coming of a thief in the night?  And what would any of that have to do with me, today?

Being Awake

The funny thing is, that we do not have to know the answer to any of those questions in order to get the point.  The point is: to be awake.  Don’t let life lull you into passivity.  Use the time before the flood, as Noah did, to prepare, because the water is already rising.

But, we need to ask the question: is there anything coming for us that we need to be awake to?  If the warning given was about a past calamity, as I believe it was, then maybe danger has passed and there is no need to be alarmist now.  

Well, consider this: if the calamity was already over by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, which I believe it was, why would Matthew want us to read about it?  

You normally don’t warn people that the barn door is open after the cows have left.  I believe it is likely that Matthew knew that it wasn’t the last calamity.  More is coming.  More is always coming.  It is always time to call people to wake up.  

It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked,

“My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”

“No,” said the Buddha

“Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?”

Again the Buddha answered, “No.”

“Well, my friend, then what are you?”

The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

“Buddha” means awake.  

I think that says it.  Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, lived the first part of his life asleep to the world outside of his privileged luxury.  Then, he woke up to suffering.   Eventually, he experienced a profound awakening we call enlightenment.  He became Buddha; awake.

We know next to nothing about Jesus’ early life, growing up as a poor laborer in the tiny peasant village of Nazareth, but the gospels record an experience that seems to have been a moment of awakening for him.  It was his baptism.  That seems to have been the moment in which he came to understand himself as God’s beloved child in a transformative way.  That baptismal experience is recorded in all the gospels.  

After that, his public ministry started.  I think it would be fair to summarize his quest as trying to awaken people.  Jesus tried to awaken people to the presence of the Kingdom of God and all that that could mean, both personally and publicly.  It meant awakening people to their essential identity as God’s beloved children.  That is the message we need to keep hearing until we believe it in our bones: that God loves us; God is for us, not against us.  We are beloved.  

Why is it so hard to internalize that message?   In other words, why do we so easily fall asleep to our belovedness?  Maybe because we live surrounded by so many messages telling us the opposite.  

That is why what we do here is so important.  This is the place where we come to hear the counter-message.  This is where we find the strength and encouragement we need for the next week, and, cumulatively, for the next calamity which will surely come.

So, I wanted to take the occasion, on the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the church year, to say something about how I understand the significance of what we do when we gather like this for worship.  Some of us have been coming to church all our lives.  It is easy to be on auto-pilot, but that would be a pity.  When we are awake to what is happening here, it can be transformative. 

Awaken to Worship

So, let’s talk about worship.  First, you showed up today: that is excellent.  You got up, got ready, and here you are.  Now, make sure to get everything being offered here.  To do that, stay present.  If you are like me, you know that you can attend something good, like a concert or a movie, and if your mind is somewhere else, you can miss out on the pleasure and power of the experience.  

It is common for people to think of worship as a performance.  Often, people think of God as the director. The minister and liturgists are like the actors on stage.  The congregation is the audience.  But that is actually mistaken.  

One theologian has suggested that worship is indeed like a performance, but we should imagine the roles differently.  The clergy is like the director, the liturgists are like the stagehands.  The actors are the people in the congregation.  The audience is God.  

Actually, the word “liturgy” itself means, “the work of the people.”  That is why you have so many active parts in our services.  You are not just an audience having an auditory experience, as you would be if this were a concert.  You participate.  Worship is the work of the people; the work of giving gratitude to God, of acknowledging our shortcomings, and of affirming God’s inexhaustible grace in words and songs.  Doing that work, if we are awake and present to it, helps us to believe that we are beloved.  

The fact that we do the work of the people together gives us strength in numbers: we are not in this alone.  When the next calamity comes for us, knowing that will be crucial.  

Sacraments

To help all of this to go from our heads down to our hearts, were are given the sacraments.  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, because they involve physical things we can see and experience, taste and smell, help seal the message of our belovedness deeply.  

Our Presbyterian Church has gone beyond what the Bible teaches about how to celebrate the sacraments, giving a primary role, for the sake of order, to the ordained minister.  But the language of our Book of Order is permissive about most of the rest, if you want to read it that way, which I do.  

There is not one mention of the word “worthy” in the discussion.  It is about service; serving; which means that it is about being a servant, which is what we aspire to be for each other.  

God, is our audience when we do the work of the people in common worship. God is present in a powerful way as we gather like this today.  God becomes more present to us, more real to us, when we are awake to what we are saying and doing.  We leave here more awake to God’s presence in our lives.  God’s Spirit, we believe, is in all things, and everyone; staying awake to that reality changes everything.   

The Flow

Worship has a flow.  The large print in our bulletins shows the direction of the flow: from Gathering, to Proclaiming, to Responding and finally to Sending.  We begin by being gathered; we are called to worship, and we respond to that call with a celebration of God’s mercy and forgiveness in prayers and songs.  

Then we flow to the proclamation of the Scripture, our wisdom tradition.  We remember the words of Jesus and of the prophets and apostles.  We reflect on what they mean for us today in our very different context.  

We flow next to our response.  By receiving the sacraments, and by acts of giving and affirmations of commitment, we enact our desire to stay awake to what we have been called to do and be.  Finally, we flow towards the world outside the walls of the church as we are sent out as the beloved community, to the world, and for the world.

We do not know what the next calamity will be.  It may be as personal as a health crisis for us, or for someone we love.  It may be political.  It may be the effects of the climate crisis.  It may be terrorism or something another nation does; who knows?   Whatever it is, we need to live wide awake.  What we are doing right here, right now, if we are awake and present to it, will help us be awake and stay awake, prepared for it as part of the beloved community.  When the next calamity  comes, as it surely will, we will have each other.