Sunday, January 24, 2021

Jesus the Teacher

Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34

Mark 4: 1 - 25


Last week, we talked a little bit about Jesus and miracles.  As I was pondering that, the lyric “miracle wonderman, hero to fools” from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar popped into my head.  I like that description.  “Miracle Wonderman.” Definitely one of the “hats” Jesus wore.


We talked about how miracles were part of the way that Jesus revealed power…to his followers and to the religious elites who were keeping an eye on his message and ministry. And we talked about how those ancient miracles can still speak to us today, about how they might inform our ability to recognize miracles around us here and now, about how they help us to understand what miracles mean to us. 


Today, we’re turning to another mad skill set that Jesus had – teaching.  He was teacher extraordinaire.  In We Make the Road by Walking, McLaren points out that Jesus teaches in large and small lectures, in small groups, through protest and parables, over dinner and as he’s walking from place to place. He even does some one-on-one tutoring in the dark of night, as with Nicodemus. And he consistently modeled good teaching so that the disciples might pick up some skills.


We are blessed to have a lot of educators in this congregation.  Good educators know that teaching happens in so many settings and in so many ways. Good educators know that answers aren’t always the goal of good teaching. Good educators know that relationships are part of the learning environment.  Good educators know that learners have to be challenged in order to stretch sometimes. It was almost as though Jesus had a PhD in education… 


Why was it that Jesus was so busy teaching?  I mean really, his ministry seemed to be built for education for anyone who will listen.  What was the wisdom he was working so hard to impart?


Think about it…. He was teaching about the Kingdom of God. It is no small subject.  


He was trying to help people understand what God was like, how God was active, and how they could be part of God’s work in the world. 


He was teaching about religious practice, the economy, politics, health, history, sociology, psychology…all under the umbrella of God’s desire to restore the fullness of God’s creation. 


He was teaching about the Kingdom of God.


The language of a “kingdom” would have been a more familiar metaphor for the times…I appreciate some of the alternatives offered by McLaren – perhaps today we better comprehend the “global commonwealth of God,” “God’s beloved community,” “God’s holy ecosystem.”  A synergistic, interdependent, living, breathing thing that is the fullness of harmony.  


I had this image while writing this week – it was as if he were trying to impart the fullness of 1000 different encyclopedia sets. Those of us 45 and older will get that.  But for the rest of you, it is as if he was trying to teach the fullness of everything (good) on the internet.  He’s working to do nothing less than teach the wideness of God.


He was teaching all the time in part because the topic was vast.  The work to be done was vast.


Here in Mark’s gospel as it was read today, we get a glimpse of his teaching through the parable of seed and soil to a large audience. Once he’s alone with his ministry companions, they ask for more explanation because they don’t fully understand. 


Jesus responds by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, passages from the Hebrew scripture that would have been familiar to his followers. 


But it is a hard passage from Isaiah, especially for us in this day and age. The voice of God in this part of Isaiah is dripping with something like contempt for a people who have turned away. And I think we don’t like to often force ourselves to hear that voice of God, right?


After Isaiah has been purified with coal pressed to his lips so that he can speak for God, the oracle he is told to deliver suggests all the ways Jerusalem will fail to return to God, by not listening, not hearing, not understanding.

And so when the disciples gather privately with Jesus, probably aware that the parable about kinds of soil was not entirely clear to the gathered crowd OR frankly, the them, Jesus suggests by referencing the words of Isaiah that there is a little insider/outsider thing going on here – only those who lean in, who pay attention, who commit to understanding will have the truth of these teachings revealed to them…


Did Jesus really mean there was some secret to all this teaching? Some decoder ring that some people received and others would not?




That’s not how I encounter this teaching nor is it how I encounter the gospel.  Jesus IS saying that the hearers of the word do have to commit to work and action on an ongoing basis to participate in the fullness of God’s kingdom. 


And so it is as if the passage as a whole takes on another new level of meaning. Not only is the parable about seeds and soil itself suggesting that people are fruitful when they ground themselves in the right environment and attitude and ethos and practice, but then…then…he tells the disciples who have already made a specific kind of commitment to travel and learn and practice and teach with Jesus that it is only BECAUSE they are doing this, because they said yes to becoming disciples, that they will understand.


It is something of a narrow gate (which we’ll actually talk about in a few weeks)…The good soil is not some passive place where the message lands – the good soil is about being willing to learn and grow and become and live in new ways. The good soil is about committing ourselves to these teachings and to the work of being a disciples ALL of the time. 


All of the time.  Because the world around us keeps changing, and frankly, keeps putting other possibilities in our path.  We are constantly being lured toward what might seem to be an “easier” way of doing things – I mean…wouldn’t it be easier if I didn’t spend so much time reading this bible and praying on these knees and carving out time to serve somebody else or being intentional about how I use my money, my voice, my vote? 


Wouldn’t that be pleasant?


Maybe for a while it would be easier… 


But that is not how we create the Beloved Community, or God’s holy ecosystem. 


Nope, that takes leaning in and a commitment to doing the hard work of learning and rooting and growing all the time.


The good news of the Gospel is that God created us with love and for love so that love would bind us all together.  


The hard work of the Gospel is that we have to keep situating ourselves in the right soil.  Because it turns out that free will we were also created with makes it awfully easy to go find the quick fix or the immediate pleasure.


And along each step of the way, if we are paying attention, we are learning.  


As we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, if our eyes and ears are open to hear and listen, we see what it means to bear fruit.  


We see what it means to love our neighbor.  

We encounter the difficulty of not just loving our friends but also loving our enemy.  

We grow deeper roots for the next lesson that washes over us. 

And as our roots dig more deeply into the soil we are better able to hear and understand and perceive ever more complicated teachings.


I wonder…


Where are all of the places you learned something this week?


What lessons have stuck with you this week?


What have you learned over the course of your lifetime from teacher Jesus that has become part of your root system? Or maybe even part of your flesh?


Hear again these words from the prophet Jeremiah:


…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


What is the good news? 


I will be their God and they shall be my people…I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.


It is written on our hearts. It becomes part of our flesh.  God has known us since the beginning.  We know God through Jesus… We learn what Jesus taught and teaches by placing ourselves in the midst of that teaching by our choices each and every moment of each day.


As I looked back over our liturgy for today, these words from the prayer of illumination took on so much meaning:


Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.


IN YOU God are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  I only receive it by being in relationship with GOD. I only learn in relationship to GOD. And when I learn, the treasure of God’s promise is in me.


With 1000 other things clamoring for our attention, our energy, our bandwidth, our created goodness, there is Jesus teaching us, sometimes in a big crowd, sometimes in a private tutoring session in the darkness of night. Rooting us in good soil, helping our very hearts bear God’s promise if we let him teach us.


What a promise that is. What good news that is.  Makes me want to learn more at the feet of Rabbi Jesus.


May it be so.



Sunday, January 17, 2021

Significant and Wonderful


John 2:1-12

Mark 1: 21 – 28


It feels like we have been working through this special weeks-long season of getting Jesus conceived, announced, embodied, born, honored, baptized, and launched – and now we have a few weeks on our journey together to slow down a bit and understand who this Jesus is as a healer, a miracle worker and a teacher before we launch our journey toward the cross in Lent, just 5 short Sundays away…if you can believe it.


Remember that in this journey we are sharing together as a community, author Brian McLaren is leading our reflections as we consider the wide arc of scripture, the stories we find there and the ways we find ourselves – individually and collectively - in the story of God that just keeps unfolding.


This week, we dwell in miracles.  


We dwell in miracles while figuring out what they mean to us today. 


Maybe you have experienced a bona fide miracle, an amazing change of circumstances for which there is seemingly no logical explanation. I had a spiritual mentor, Charlie, who kept a journal of every miracle he experienced – tiny to large – throughout his life.  Some say that we will only see miracles if we are looking for them.


And maybe you haven’t personally experience a miracle. That is real too.  Not everyone does. 


I think it is important to begin there. 


Miracles or the lack thereof can bring up feelings about why some people experience them and others do not. 


Sometimes we hear the suggestion that you have to achieve certain things or live or believe a certain way to receive the experience of miracles. 


I don’t find that very helpful, especially when trying to encourage others to learn more about God, put their whole faith in God’s grace, and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.


I mean… What kind of God picks and chooses? Ranks? Leaves some people in the lurch for cause?  Maybe WE do that as humans, but that is not how God acts in the world.


But what can we observe in the miracles that DO happen? What hope or direction or instruction might show up as we sit with amazing things when something does show up? How can we read the miracles we find in scripture so that we receive wisdom and solace and direction for this day?


Today, we have a chance to practice this as we remember two miracles stories that frame Jesus’ early ministry.


We’re going to walk through a process with each of these stories – naming the vital details, exploring what in context made those details important when this story was first told, and then think about what this story might say to us in light of what we’ve observed about the stories’ original importance and our circumstances today.


In our first passage from the gospel of John, Mary, mother of Jesus asks Jesus to do something about the fact that the party has run out of wine.  And at first, Jesus asks why he should worry with that detail.  But his mother moves ahead, notifying the servants to do whatever his son should ask. She’s got that mama wisdom that he’ll make it happen.


The servants fill vast stone jars with water. McLaren picks up on a significant detail here – those stone jars would be have been used to store water for purifying rituals.  And here they are, filled with water that becomes wine for the party. Wine that saves the host from embarrassment.  And not just any old wine, but the steward tells the bridegroom that this is the BEST wine.  Wine that makes this celebration especially festive and good. 


Jesus doesn’t make a fuss.  He does as his mother asks.  And wine shows up.


The vast jars, typically used to separate the ritually unclean from the clean have instead been filled with goodness for ALL who have gathered to share.  And the blessing is not the cause of the party but it is icing on the cake – it is bumping up the celebration a notch. 


The miracle isn’t for special people or even a particularly important moment or event, but it is evidence that goodness matters in the course of life for everyone present.


So with those details in mind, let’s ponder what this miracle might reveal for us or offer us today? 


What is it that is running out in the banquet that is our lives – our individual lives and our collective lives? Where are the places that we are marking a division between those who are “in” and those who are “out?”  How might those points of division be transformed as a source of goodness for all who gather?


I think about labels… maybe the weight right now of the labels “liberal” and “conservative.”  What is the dividing line between those two things?  Is there a way for whatever that division is to become some source of blessing to all of us? 


When I think about those labels in the context of our faith, I sometimes think the holy scriptures themselves become the dividing line, how we read it, how we interpret it, how we apply it to our daily lives. But what if the bible is a vessel overflowing with goodness for all who show up to it? How might our discussions be more like wine that brings us together and creates honor and goodness rather than separating us?  Wouldn’t that be a blessed event? Sending us out into the world full of goodness to share? 


In the gospel of Mark, the miracle of Jesus casting out demons takes on a different kind of emotional weight than a story about water, wine and a wedding. 


The author of this gospel tends to load sentences with a lot of subtext. We’re told here that those who gathered at Capernaum were astounded by Jesus’ teaching because he taught as one with authority.  That FEELS like a little back handed slap at the scribes referenced, who would have been teachers too. 


The nuance of the word authority here – the Greek exousia - is important to biblical scholars because this word suggests a KIND of authority that is granted through social interactions and experience – as in this Jesus’ teachings have proven authoritative in real time to those around him and therefore they trust his teaching because they are experiencing them to be true.  


Capernaum is in Galilee, away from Jerusalem and the seat of religious power surrounding the Temple. Remember last week we noted that John’s appearance in the wilderness was something of a protest – taking him away from the traditional power structures.  Perhaps Jesus is received with authority because he isn’t part of the Temple hierarchy and is willing to walk these dusty wilderness parts with the other folks that are already here.


Jesus encounters a man in the synagogue.  The text identifies the man as one with an unclean spirit.  The voice coming from the man asks what Jesus has come to do, asking if he has come to destroy “us,” whoever “us” is.  It could be that “us” points to the scribes, the folks with status, identified as the religious elites.


The MAN himself isn’t voicing this doubt or skepticism about Jesus – something possessing the man is speaking through him. Jesus knows he’s not just talking to the person that belongs to this body. There is something else going on here, and so he commands the unclean spirit or demon come out.  


And in that moment, Jesus demonstrates the very authority that people were beginning to hear about. They experienced his power and authority in that moment as they watched the negative energy or spirit or demon leave the man.


Now today, we understand mental health very differently.  People with various diagnoses are sometimes prone to speak in voices that are not true to their healthy selves.  But we have to be able to name that which is impacting us so that we can get the help we need to be healthy and well.


But also, sometimes there are attitudes and experiences or beliefs or anxieties infecting our soul, causing us to speak in a voice that is not our God-given voice.


I wonder…


Where are places of sickness or separation in our lives? Both individually and collectively? Where are the places we might need to acknowledge an imbalance? 


As McLaren puts it,


“What unhealthy, polluting spirits are troubling us as individuals and as a people? What fears, false beliefs and emotional imbalances reside within us and distort our behavior? What unclean or unhealthy thought patters, value systems, and ideologies inhabit, oppress, and possess us as a community or culture? What in us feels threatened and intimidated by the presence of a supremely “clean” or “holy” spirit or presence, like the one in Jesus?...In what ways might our society lose its health, its balance, its sanity, its “clean spirit” to something unclean or unhealthy?”


What demons are speaking into our world today? 


And how might our faith in God’s authority and power restore us to health? 

What would that look like right now?


Might it look like letting go of our racism, our classism, our sexism, our homophobia, our religious elitism, our individualism, our tendency toward violence? 


Might Jesus be speaking into our lives too? Our individual lives and our collective lives, inviting us to health, inviting us to follow Jesus, to share the good news of lives turned around and changed in a word….


Be silent and come out…


This weekend we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we do it against the backdrop of an assault on our nation’s capitol that featured anti-Semitism, racism and flags and banners flying in the midst of it all to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. 


On this weekend, we honor the work that King did to shed light on and call for an end to segregation and discriminatory practices that we like to think were a Southern thing, or a Jim Crow thing, or something “solved” by legislation and the courts, but we are remembering all of Kings’ legacy in the midst of a country that continues to be divided by skin color, ethnicity, money, power, opportunity and status.  


It feels a little bit like the voice of a demon crying out within the body, both in hope and fear of the power of God to transform…have you come to destroy us?


I wonder…What if we let Jesus call this evil spirit out of us, and then we watched our collective body become still?


That seems like a miracle we need right now.


A miracle that calls us to our better selves. Each one of us.

And all of us collectively. To our better selves and our better community and our better whole.


It seems like the demons are known to us and have been named – their names are extremism, racism, anti-Semitism, classism. Are we willing to accept that there is an illness? An imbalance? A pollution?


Will they come out? Will they leave the body? 


And do we believe that such miracles can happen and change us? Are we willing to call on such miracles, to participate in such miracles, to open ourselves to such miracles?


Come Lord Jesus.


May it be so.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Jesus Coming of Age

Luke 2: 29 - 52

Luke 3: 1 - 22

In the middle of Advent, we talked a bit about Herod – about the kind of power that he represented and about the ways that power manifested – in his desperate search for the baby born in Bethlehem, in the order to kill innocent boys much like Pharaoh had ordered so many generations earlier. 


Last week, we talked about the wise strangers who followed a star to discover a child that they understood to have great power – a power that would eventually be exercised very differently from that power exercised by Herod. 


The word epiphany means to shine forth or to manifest something.  In the context of our Christian faith, Epiphany is about the manifestation of God in the human child Jesus.  And it is ultimately about all of the power that divine manifestation conveys into the world.


We said this back in Advent: Power is a tricky thing – it is not inherently good or bad. What we do with power counts.


Both of our scriptures this week draw us more deeply into the manifestation of God’s power in the world. 


Our first story is one that makes me cringe just a bit as a parent.  As Jesus is coming of age, he travels with his family to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of the Passover.  And while there, adventuring and exploring in the way adolescents are prone to do, he gets left behind.  Perhaps you know well those boundary-pushing impulses that show up between ages 11 and 13. I can imagine Jesus as a scrappy kid who is beginning to understand the bigness of the world, wandering from alley-way to alley-way.


Mary and Joseph are caught up in the bustle and joy of the festival too, and they leave with their traveling group, assuming that Jesus was with their group somewhere….you know, hanging out with friends. 


But he wasn’t… and when the realize this and return to the city, they spend three days searching for him. Imagine the tension – a crowded city, lost travel time, lost work, lost income, and a deep sense of dread. 


When they finally find him, he is in the Temple, listening and learning from those he finds there.  Mary and Joseph arrive with some frantic wonder, and Jesus quickly suggests that of course he would be here in his Father’s house - a reminder straight from the adolescents mouth that, after so many years since the wonders of his birth, something much, much bigger is going on here.


And then…isn’t it amazing what we don’t know much of anything about Jesus’ life between this moment in the Temple and the next passage, some 20 years later at the brink of his ministry. Don’t you wonder what other moments of awe he generated before this?  


Here in Luke, we meet Jesus again, this time in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem, seeking baptism from his cousin John.


John was born to a well-situated priestly family. By tradition, he would have followed in the footsteps of his father, Zechariah, taking his place in the hierarchy of ritual and worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps he would have been tending to the holy baths at the Temple. The kind of baptism that happened at the Temple had to do with ritual purity. Pilgrims had to be physically “clean” and spiritually clean to enter into the various parts of the Temple and there was a brisk business for the priestly class to oversee these rituals.


But instead, we find John is in the wilderness well-outside the city.  These are not private baths built into the stone edifices of Temple courts but instead he is at the riverside in the middle of nowhere.  


Dressed in garments drawn from nature. Eating what he finds there.  


Turning away from the pageantry and hierarchy and prestige of the religious elite, inviting a motley crew of untouchables to make a choice to turn their lives around. 


John is offering a baptism of repentance to those who have followed him into the wilderness, away from the Temple courts.


We’ve talked about this before – the language of  “repentance” found here is the word metanoia in the Greek.  It’s meaning is not just to be clean, but to change one’s ways, to take a new road forward into life, to have a change of heart.


Here is John, living his own protest movement – away from the power structures and the norms of Jerusalem, inviting or calling or challenging people to commit to a change of heart. 


And the text tells us that a LOT of people were showing up, perhaps squirming as they are labeled a brood of vipers. They clamored to know what exactly Johan meant when he said that they needed to change their lives. 


John says a radical thing – then and now (perhaps even more so now): John instructs them to redistribute their belongings so that everyone is covered and fed. You heard that right – if you have two coats, give one away. Same with your food – if you have enough, give the rest to those who need it.


There are two specific group mentioned here – soldiers and tax collectors. Both were working in the community on behalf of the occupying government, Rome.


Soldiers were part of the feet on the ground, keeping the order and maintaining a Roman presence,  while also extracting resources from the poor who were already squeezed by the occupying force. John’s counsel to them – stop skimming extortions to fill your pockets. Do no more taking away than you must. You get paid by Rome, let that be enough.


Tax collectors too, were pleasing the local officials (like Herod or Pilate) by collecting taxes from the poor.  Again, John’s counsel is not to take more than is due from people to meet their obligations. Do not make yourselves richer on the backs of those with less, from those over whom you have societal power.


John seems to be trying to navigate tolerating what must happen, avoiding the brutal repercussions of occupation, while reminding people of their basic humanity and interdependence, calling them to behave as God calls them to, loving one another rather than bending to economy or politics. 


John is stretching his power as far as he is able in the current circumstances. Because back in Jerusalem, it seems John has already fanned the flames around the current governor – Herod Antipas – by critiquing Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. 


This Herod is the next generation – the son of Herod the Great who three decades earlier had fumed about the wise strangers and the star. The text you hear today makes it clear that this “new” Herod is already prone to exercising his own impetuous and murderous power and he will eventually have John’s head on a platter. 


It seems Herod has little tolerance for protest movements.


In this Luke text, we don’t get all of the drama of Jesus arriving on the scene.  We have the crowds asking John if he is the Messiah, and John acknowledges that he is not – that one far greater is to come. 


And then Jesus sort of quietly appears on the scene having been baptized with the crowds. His cover is blown when, as he comes up out of the water to pray, the heavens open, a dove descends and the voice of God declares, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”


Talk about power made manifest… 


Here is Jesus, newly baptized, but in the descending of a dove and the voice of God it is made clear this is NOT just John’s work – it is the work of God.  


In We Make the Road by Walking, author Brian McLaren talks about the power of that image of a descending dove – not a lion, not an eagle – but a peaceful dove.


How different this man will be from the forces of power that surround him. Bit by bit we see who he is and how he is set apart. Bit by bit Jesus makes manifest spiritual powers of healing, of teaching, of unity and grace and inclusion.  Of resurrection, of forgiveness, of eternal life.  


I wonder…How is Christ’s power continuing to be made manifest in the world today, and what role are we stepping up to play? How are we joining in, heralding his Lordship, and calling others to come and see and join in? Where is God speaking? 


Where is that power – the peaceful power and the table-flipping, truth naming power – manifest today? And what is our role as followers of Christ in that manifestation?


Today, I call us all to remember that manifestation, and to remember how the Spirit is manifested in, through and around us through baptism.


Baptism is an act that has been carried forward through the centuries and continues to be part of our tradition still as we seek to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. 


Baptism marks our commitment to living as a new creation – our commitment to make new creation manifest in our very lives. The reality that we are born anew through water and Spirit.


To remember that the Holy Spirit is present with us granting us the power to keep the promises of our baptism.


Today, it is tradition in the life of the church to remember the baptism of Jesus and our own baptism. And it seems to be just the right time to renew our commitment to make new creation manifest.

Today the work of remembering our baptism, of making new creation manifest by the power of the Holy Spirit falls to us as we are faced with unprecedented division in our country.  


That work falls to us as we grapple with a viral pandemic alongside the pandemic of systemic, historic racism affecting the day-to-day lives for generations of indigenous, black and brown people.  


In our baptismal vows, we renounce our sin and we profess our faith. 


We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of our own sin – our individual sin and the shared societal sins of which we are a part.


We accept the freedom and power that God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.


We confess Jesus as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as LORD. We promise to do that serving work in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all nations, ages, and races.  


We are broken people living in a broken world who have made missteps and yet, this baptism, each time we remember it, calls us back to our reborn selves – our life as new creation in God’s love. Empowered to receive the power and freedom that is given to us by God to resist evil, injustice and oppression.


I am well aware that we continue to be divided as a country, as a community, even as a church by the evil powers of this day. And I have found myself these past few days desperately seeking our common thread.  It is here – in these vows we take. 


To renounce the forces of evil, to reject the spiritual forces of evil and to repent of our sin – that which we commit and that which we stand by and let happen.

The power to accept the freedom and power that God gives to us…

So that we can resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  

Not just to avoid them. Not just to stop doing it ourselves…

We have the power to RESIST.  To resist.

To resist and to serve Jesus as LORD.  Jesus, not Caesar, not mammon. 


Sometimes that means protest – being on the outside the system and in the wilderness like John – protesting the ongoing and systemic relegation of black, brown and indigenous people, immigrants and refugees and LGBTQ people to second or third or fourth class status. 


There is so much good work going on here. I know there are moments when our voices falter and we say… do we have to talk about that here?  It is so divisive. It is hard to disagree. It is hard to find our way together. But beloved…


We make a vow. We make a promise.  

The call is to RENOUNCE, REJECT and REPENT. The receive freedom and power from God in order to RESIST evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.


It is our vow, and we renew it here today, together.


Come. Let us remember or baptism and be thankful.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Sharing Gifts

Psalm 117

Matthew 2: 1 – 12


There are scenes from parenting that are seared on some of our memories. Perhaps you have been part of this scene at some point. It is deep in the holiday season.  The house has been full of generations of family for what seems like days or even weeks.  Or you are on your third stop through all the various family tree Christmas celebrations – hopping house to house in other’s homes.  This is the second gathering of the day, your child’s nap was about as long as the drive here, approximately an hour shorter than the nap needed to be but definitely all the time the family needed in the car.


The sugar intake on this day has been high. For you, for the kids. Low tables in everyone’s home are covered with cookies, candy or breakable heirlooms the kids should not be playing with.  Dogs are zipping between guests’ legs and kids who only see one another and all of these adults once a year are anxious and clingy, but interested in the new or unfamiliar faces before them.

It gets to be gift exchange time – each of the kids receive a brightly colored package but the wrapping is torn off before you can even begin to know who has given this particular present.  One kid squeals with delight and just as everyone smiles adoringly, another shrieks and says, “I didn’t want this!! I hate this game.”


That shriek sounds suspiciously like one of your kids – one who definitely needed more nap and less sugar. Instinctively you glance around the room, scanning for disappointed faces.  Surely the giver of the classic game is feeling a bit let down right now. They probably love the game.  It probably has some deep sentimental meaning in their lives.  And now your kid is in full-bore Christmas meltdown on the floor.


Maybe I am the only parent with this memory lingering in my soul somewhere…


Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany – technically a few days early.  Christmas is a Christian feast of 12 days, and it ends officially with Epiphany on January 6.  The word epiphany means “a manifestation of something supernatural” or a moment of revelation.    If we break it down, the word is comprised of roots that come together to mean “shine on” or “show up.”


The Feast of the Epiphany then is a time when we remember the wise strangers who traveled from afar, following the emerging light of a star in the night sky, in search of a new King, bearing gifts for that new King.


When we say they came from afar, we’re not just talking about geographic distance.  These wise strangers – likely not exclusively men – were coming from a place whose ways were very different, whose religious traditions and interpretations of the world were very different. They were coming from Persia and they were steeped in Zoroastrianism, a tradition that was a precursor to Islam. Zoroastrianism is monotheistic – so at least they shared that in common with this Jewish family they sought.  But so much else was very different.


They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Strange gifts for a child – and yet they were gifts known to the ancient world. The prophet Isaiah references gold and frankincense being presented by the nations at the restoration of Jerusalem.  Other recorded histories document these three specific gifts being presented to new kings elsewhere in the region in prior centuries.  Gold was universally precious. Frankincense is a resin used for perfume or incense.  Myrrh was also a fragrant resin, combined with other things for anointing and medicinal use. 


So these wise strangers were bearing seemingly exotic and unusual gifts – gifts which they understood to have great value.  


They were also gifts that would have been far from the humble daily life of Mary and Joseph and the child who was probably more toddler than baby at this point, Jesus.  Scholars have imagined the symbolic role these gifts might have played – gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh to be used for embalming at Jesus’ death. 


These gifts, this journey – the intent of the wise strangers was to pay homage, to bow down and worship this new king. Somewhere in the ways that they understood the world to work, it had been revealed to them that this child was someone of great power.  And that revelation had moved something in them – something that caused them to set out on a journey, a journey that included a stop at Herod’s palace before landing in the tiny town of Bethlehem. 


I want to lift a few things from this story that might guide us as we stand at the threshold of a new year, pondering what light is calling to us.


First, these wise strangers were just that – strangers.  They were from a different political system, a different religious system, a different social system.  And yet they recognized the bigger “good news” of the birth of Jesus. Somehow, they recognized it, sought him out and honored him before the religious leaders of the Jewish community. Let’s not forget that the early visitors in these stories were shepherds who were working the grunge jobs and sages from afar, not the priests, scribes, local leader or King Herod.  The outsiders were the first to understand the signs and to show up.   


I wonder, how often do strangers, particularly strangers who are not the kind of folks that we typically hang with or the kind of folks we particularly respect, offer us gifts that we recognize and receive? I wonder how many times we have been offered a bit of wisdom, and acknowledgement, an opportunity or an insight from someone whose ways or understandings or truths are foreign to us…and we’ve not even known what was being offered?


These were strangers with strange beliefs, but they came to worship the power and majesty this child possessed.


Next, the gifts that the strangers came bringing were their idea of goodness and honor, not necessarily what a new young family needs, right?  And probably not something even someone who knows what it means to be a future king is apt to be super-excited about.  These gift offerings had value that was understood as honor by the GIVER. 


Think about how we often give gifts today – think about the anxiety that we create around gift-giving.

Somewhere along the line, the giving of gifts has become an anxious undertaking – trying to anticipate the deepest desires and hopes of the recipient rather than reflecting the givers deep respect and honor for the person receiving the gift.


I wonder…have you had the experience of receiving a gift from someone who was SO VERY excited to give you something, and they were nearly giddy as you received it.  But somewhere you weren’t quite sure what you would do with this gift? Or why the giver thought it was perfect for you?


Finally, I think it is true that not every “gift” makes sense to us until we’ve lived with it for a bit. And maybe, the reason someone gives us a gift and the reason we value a gift are two really different reasons. Remember how I mentioned biblical scholars interpreting the gifts that Jesus received – gold for Kingship, frankincense for the priestly role or the religious reformer, and myrrh for embalming a body broken by crucifixion.  Gifts that were the tradition of the day came to have meaning in the context of Jesus’ life and death – particularly as we look back over the wide scope of the storyline.  Those gifts couldn’t have been seen for that value in that moment. By any of the characters in this story, really…


Gifts are complicated things.  They involve a giver and a recipient.  They involve an intention and acceptance.  They reflect values, hopes, dreams, acknowledgements.  They reveal something about the giver. They reveal something about the recipient. 


This week, you should have received a gift in the mail for the year to come. A star word should have appeared in your mailbox. 


Star words show up in our lives at Epiphany – sparks of guidance or wisdom, energy or call. Star words are not chosen by each of us. In this case I want to assure you that while you’re not picking one randomly out of a basket, these words were not chosen by human hands for you. (Really – I promise – it was a random and blind process.)


I have already heard from some of you. I have already heard some of the resonance or appreciation you feel for the word that chose you this year.  In the immortal words of .38 Special, “hold on loosely, but don’t let go…” (Special nod to all of those children of the 80s out there – looking at you,  Michael Wu.) Don’t be to quick to assume the role this word plays in your life.  But notice, pay attention, ponder on your heart.


(If you are a visitor with us today, if you didn’t receive a star word and you would like to, please use the worship sign in form linked on our website and let us know you’d like a word. Share your contact info and we’ll get one to you PRONTO.)


It is my prayer that this star word hasn’t caused shrieking disappointment.


It is my prayer and my hope that this star word might accompany you in the year to come as a gift. 


A gift whose meaning is not yet clear.


A gift that might mean one thing now and an entirely different thing later.


A gift you didn’t choose. A gift that chose you. 


A gift that might shape the offering that you make to Christ in the year to come.


May it be so.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Overtaken By Events - Christmas Eve 2020

Very early in 2020, before we knew how this year would unfold, I was introduced to a new term. We were working as a task force on an issue that seemed to be of utmost importance to the life of the church… and some news broke and made our future work unnecessary – at least for the time being.

A long-time member of Faith noted our work had been “overtaken by events.”  O.B.E.

Circumstances had changed quickly, significantly.  And our work was untethered – not useful, not resolvable, not relevant.  

We had been “overtaken by events.”

Who knew those words would come to carry so much truth throughout the year to come.

We have been “overtaken by events.”

I confess that it has been really hard to imagine what to say on Christmas eve this year.  

If you are like me, Christmas eve has a rhythm and an energy and an excitement.  It is about place and people and certain foods and certain songs and certain specific sounds and smells and tastes and decorations.  It is about traditions and rituals and expectations.

And here we are. With many of those things stripped away.

We have been overtaken by events.

And it can feel hard. Disappointing. Sad. Untethered. Unhinged.

It is important that we make space to sit with that, to not rush past that. Our loss is real. We get to grieve and lament all the things.

Our collective grief colors how we hear what is happening in the world and how we understand what is happening in the world and how we participate in what is happening in the world.  It is like a kind of yeast that feeds and grows and bubbles within all of us, changing us.  

So I think it is important to look at all of that honestly. To name the hard things and the hurt. That is important, vital work.

And then, maybe we are better able to reflect on why it is that we gather on Christmas eve without all of those other things.. 

Maybe I have a new opportunity because I am not thinking about one thousand other things like baked goods and candles and how the choir will move and how the liturgists will move and what I will eat between multiple services…

I have space to think about the reason we gather. 

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child…”

Surely Mary and Joseph’s very lives had been overtaken by events. 

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified.”

Surely the Shepherds’ work and comfort had been overtaken by events.

“All went to their own towns to be registered…”

Surely Bethlehem itself and all of the surrounding territories had been overtaken by events, crowded by weary travelers.

I wonder…

I wonder if this year being overtaken by events gives us a unique opportunity.

I wonder if this year being overtaken by events creates for us a once-in-a-lifetime shared experience with everyone else around us. 

I don’t mean to say our experiences are the SAME because they are not, but we are ALL having a changed life experience right now. There is a unique quality of universality in this moment.

What if we can see what is happening around us today in a pandemic and see how every single thing is affected – and then bring that awareness to the story of Jesus born in Bethlehem.

The gospel of John describes it in much more cosmic terms – 

“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was 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.”

What if what overtakes us tonight is awe and wonder and light as we consider the bigness of how God entered the world? What if tonight we are overtaken by the power of God’s love in creation, in a baby named Jesus, in a Rabbi who was persecuted and overcame death, in the power of the Holy Spirit whose lifeforce courses through and around us?

What if we are overtaken like Mary:

“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them on her heart.”

What if we are overtaken like the shepherds:

“The shepherds returned to the fields, glorifying and praising God.”

It is true that much of our life right now has been overtaken by events. 

What if tonight we are overtaken by light that cannot be overcome?

What if we are overtaken by the sense that everyone, everything belongs to this light?

May it be so.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

Surprising People

Psalm 34: 1 - 18

Matthew 1: 1 - 17

Genealogies are fascinating and meaningful things.  Maybe you have done this work for your own family.  There is a bit of a treasure hunt quality to it. 


In my genealogy, there is my great great great great great grandfather, Benjamin Lincoln, the little-known general who accepted Cornwallis’ sword of surrender at Yorktown in the little battle of passive aggression between Washington and Cornwallis. That’s kind of cool. He’s featured prominently in the John Trumbull painting of that moment that hangs in the capitol rotunda.


There is also my grandfather, the Methodist minister who followed in a line of generations of Methodist preachers beginning with the earliest Methodists movement in the United States. But he didn’t launch that career until after he’d ridden his motorcycle across the country and fled one night’s camp under the cover of darkness because he’d overheard other traveler’s plans which seemed unsavory.

And there is my grandmother, who was born into an abusive household, shuttled off to another abusive foster-family type situation where she essentially lived as an indentured servant until she met my grandfather who to his death talked about marrying her as something of a mercy mission.  She lost several babies, was hospitalized for a severe depression and raised four children on a shoestring in parsonages across Northern Illinois.


Our genealogies reveal vitally important things – some things we want to know, others we would rather not remember at times.


In scripture, genealogies help to set the stage and remind the reader / hearer of the backdrop of someone’s life or the whole story’s frame. 


Genealogies appear in several places in the Hebrew scripture, most notably in Genesis – where the lineage sets up an understanding of the various tribal nations, relationships among them, and the ancient geography of the Middle East.  


And in the gospels, there is a genealogy in both Luke and Matthew.  In Luke, the genealogy is not told as part of the birth narrative, but is instead part of how we learn of Jesus’ ministry being launched. That version in Luke, unlike the version from Matthew that you heard today, ties Jesus back through the ages all the way to Adam, the first “son of God.”  In doing so, the author of Luke’s gospel sets up Jesus as something of a “new Adam,” and thereby suggests a “new creation.”  The genealogy is there to shape “the rest of the story” in Luke.


In the genealogy Clyde shared today from Matthew, Jesus’ family line is tracked back to Abraham.  For hearers of this story early on, this would tie Jesus’ birth to the well known promise that God made to Abraham – the promise that through him, “all families of the earth shall be blessed.” Immediately following the genealogy, the writer of Matthew tells of the divine source of Jesus’ birth – with Mary engaged to Joseph but being found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  In 19 verses, the author establishes that Jesus is both of Human and of God. Once again, the genealogy is an important frame for how the rest of the story will be told and received.


In a very early chapter of the book we’ve been studying this year, We Make the Road by Walking, author Brian McLaren begins to point to the way patterns matter throughout creation and then in the world around us – we can sometimes overlook the patterns and only recognize chaos, but if we look hard, we are apt to find patterns that point us to something bigger going on, some organizing structure, some truth. Throughout the journey we are on together, we will name patterns that show up in our Holy Scriptures. Today, we’re focusing in on a pattern because it matters to how we see the big picture of Jesus’ birth and ministry, and eventually his death and resurrection.


In Matthew’s gospel, the family tree of Jesus is divided into three parts – the first moving from Abraham to King David, the second moving from King David to “the time of deportation to Babylon,” the season of exile for the Jewish people, and finally from the exile to the birth of Jesus.  Each division includes 14 generations.  Remember that what we know as “books of the Bible” began as stories passed down orally within a community – a pattern like this might have helped the teller to remember all the details – because the details mattered.  This is why we still have those details today!


Further in the details of this family tree, there are remarkably five women mentioned. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (although she is not “named,” exactly), and Mary.  


Tamar had posed as a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law into a tryst so that she might bear a son and seal her financial and social security.  


Rahab was an inn keeper or perhaps ran a brothel – and helped Joshua’s spies as the assessed the military might of Jericho before crossing into the Promised Land. In return she found a place among the Israelites for her family and her future generations.


Rahab’s son Boaz is seduced on a barn floor by Ruth, a widowed Moabite who committed herself so firmly to her also widowed mother-in-law Naomi that she sought a politically savvy union that would preserve the whole family. 


Perhaps best known is the “wife of Uriah,” the woman named Bathsheba whose union with David while her husband still lived resulted in the birth of Solomon, who is responsible for building the Temple in Jerusalem. (Real time edits. I realized as I listened to myself today online that this does not read correctly - Solomon was not conceived when David and Bathsheba first came together because of that root top sighting - that child died. But Solomon was born of their union.)


And finally there is Mary – who is engaged but not married and now found to be pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.


The common thread among these women?  As my study bible carefully names it, all five had “irregular sexual unions” but were considered important enough to name as part of God’s plan.


As McLaren points out, these aren’t the kind of women who would typically be named in great histories of the time.


And really, that is the point of their inclusion. 


These women and their various unions represent some of the messy realities of life.  They aren’t glossed over or forgotten, they are actually named and claimed. Their lives are real, complicated, and vital. 


Jesus, from the moment of birth is entering a world of messiness and is ultimately PART of the messiness.  There is something of his story and his family line that even suggests that messiness is not only a reality, but it somehow belongs. Somehow by God’s grace, all the crazy circumstances yield a big picture that is fuller and brighter and more inclusive and grace-filled than our humanity can sometimes fathom.


But what if we never actually see it that way? I think we miss the gospel good news when we gloss over the messiness of it all.


In 2013 I visited India as a part of my seminary studies. We worked over two weeks with a number of Dalit theologians and political activists.  In the ancient caste system that still shapes social norms in India today, Dalits are the lowest caste – they are the untouchables, understood to be unclean and stuck doing the work that others will not – things like scavenging through trash, handling the carcasses of dead animals, digging graves or tanning hides.


As you drive through cities and villages across India, there is inevitably something of a squatter camp on the outskirts of each one – a complicated assortment of shelters stacked together, bright swatches of torn tarp or rescued fabric, a mix of cardboard and salvaged plywood, black smoke of cooking fires and warming fires interspersed. Nearby you are apt to find the community dump, where those occupying these squatter villages are combing through the trash to find anything that might be consumed, used for clothing or shelter, or repaired and sold elsewhere. 


We didn’t just drive by these enclaves of poverty.  We spent time in them, talking to the people, finding the leaders, learning about how they prioritized issues to seek help and support and more connection to the rest of the world around them.  


These weren’t poor and hopeless and helpless people. They were clever, creative, resourceful. They were grateful for what they had and they were called to help one another. There lives were not simple.  I do not intend to glamorize their hardship, only to recognize the fullness of their humanity.


In my imagination, these are the people Jesus would seek out today. Here is where Jesus would bring good news – the world is hard and your life is messy and God loves you so. You are not forgotten.  In fact, you belong and are a critical part of the story. 


But how can they be part of my story if I do not pay attention?


I am aware that sometimes when we dwell in the hard parts of some people’s stories, we can feel guilty – like we get overtaken by some sort of survivor guilt and we have to turn away, or worse yet, we start seeking out reasons a poor person must be poor – bad life choices, a broken family, a lack of legal status. 


It is as if our rational brains cannot face the gaping difference of our circumstances.


Jesus time and again sat with the least of these. 


He was himself from the least of these.


I suspect we are all from some “least of these” people too, if we look hard enough. I revisit gingerly the story of my grandmother, her experiences of neglect and poverty, her struggle to maintain mental health. These are not sources of shame, they are part of the big picture. They are part of her contribution to the world around her…


And I wonder if we can understand the least of these in our own experience whether we might be better able to, like Jesus, be fully with the least of these – in understanding, in shared vision, in service to the wholeness of the Kin-dom of God.


And so as we continue to make this road by walking, I pray that we will sit with the fullness of the story of Jesus, of the way that as a human, he was from the messy realities of life. So that we might be able to acknowledge the messiness that is always with us, not to reject it or judge it or be shamed by it, but to understand that messiness is part of who we are, part of how we are equipped to move in the world, and how we are also called to be with other’s messiness in the world. 


May it be so.