Can Anything Good Come From…

As I type this, the United States House of Representatives has about 15 minutes left in the debate on the Article of Impeachment against President Donald Trump which accuses the President of “Inciting an Insurrection.” I’ve listened in, here and there, to the debate. As a church politics wonk, I find myself longing for the countdown clock and automatic mute that we have in the House of Deputies. As a citizen, I find myself profoundly saddened. As a preacher, I find myself hearing the words of Nathanael repeated again and again, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Can anything good come from New York or California?
Can anything good come from Texas or Alabama?
Can anything good come from the left or from the right?

Discord, assumption making, and bigotry is nothing new in this world, and we know from experience that is hard earned, that nothing good comes hate. Nothing good comes from othering. Nothing good comes from ignoring the beam in our own eye while pointing out the speck in another. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. This does not mean we’re all going to sit together and sing Kumbaya. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t accountable for the consequences of their actions. What it does mean is that we cannot assume that there is no good in one another. No one is beyond restoration. No one is outside the bounds of God’s love. When Jesus finally meets Nathanael, Jesus doesn’t assume him to be evil, but instead welcomes him into community, and to begin to work toward reconciliation. We are invited to do the same.

Can anything good come from… ?

The answer in Christ is always yes.

Prostitution, Fornication, and Sin… O My!

On of the things I try to do early in a preaching week is to look for red flags in the lessons. Is there something that is going to be heard by the congregation that absolutely needs to be addressed? It is part of the reason why I never choose to go with the semi-continuous Hebrew Bible lessons in Track 1 during the Season after Epiphany. When the Old Testament lessons are disconnected thematically from the rest of what folks hear, it can mean the sermon never gets heard while people sort out why Moses got so ticked off he beat a rock with his stick until water came out. There are just certain stories, certain words or phrases, that might need some nuance.

We have one of those lessons, this time from 1st Corinthians, this coming Sunday. It is a rather salacious passage, in which Paul admonishes the Corinthian Church to avoid sex with prostitutes and to shun fornication as the only sin that one can commit against one’s own body. Ignoring for the time being how wrong that second statement is (see also, gluttony and drunkenness, for example), in 21st century America, these words from Paul carry a lot of baggage, and will most certainly set off some alarm bells in the ears of some who hear this lesson read. Especially in the context of online church, while we are still unable to be together in person, the disconnected face behind the screen saying, “Shun fornication” might require some explanation on the part of the preacher.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have not intention of preaching this text this week, but the need to spell out how the Greek word for fornication means both sexual immorality and idolatry is certainly on my mind today. The reality that while Paul is probably speaking to the open sexual culture of a cosmopolitan Greek city while also reminding this fledgling Christian community that becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ means giving your whole life over to God’s will could certainly be worth pursuing. In a nation that has, during these 10 months of pandemic, shown itself to be 100% committed to the idolatrous worship of power, wealth, and privilege, these words from Paul deserve to be heard and explained. But, its Annual Meeting Sunday, and sometimes, the Word God invites us to preach is simply one of encouragement, of God’s call to discipleship, or Jesus’ invitation to “Come and See.”

The old familiar story

With apologies to my friend EFel, I have to admit that by Epiphany 1, I’m pretty sick of hearing about John the Baptist. As if two straight weeks of JBap in Advent isn’t enough, we hear pretty much the same story yet again around the Baptism of our Lord. Yes, the focus is supposed to be on what happens to Jesus at his baptism, but the Gospel accounts are so lacking there, we’re forced to once again hear about a wacky prophet who wears camel hair and eats bugs while proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Maybe it’s almost two decades of Lectionary preaching or misdirected anger after 9 months of pandemic restrictions, but God help me, I’m over JBap.

Of course, maybe that’s the point. In his Crucifixion altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald sets history aside and makes John the Baptist present at the foot of the cross. As you can see, with a wildly elongated finger, John is pointing at Jesus and the words printed above his arm read, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John’s whole purpose in life was to draw attention to the Messiah who was coming and then to get out of the way. I don’t want to attribute too much thought or purpose to the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary, but I wonder if hearing about JBap three out of six Sundays does the job of reminding us of John’s mission and then getting us so annoyed by the old familiar story that he has no choice but to move along having done his job.

Again, I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions, but there seems to be some merit in hearing, repeatedly, someone say, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” only to have them disappear from the scene when the one who is greater shows up. There’s probably a lesson in here for those of us who follow Jesus as well. Rather than getting so focused on how difficult we might find evangelism, on how much we think the Gospel depends on us, maybe we’d do well just to point to Jesus through our words and actions and then get out of the way and let God take care of the rest.

The Spirit?

I think I can understand how the Ephesians felt when Paul asked, “Have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit?” That gut sinking feeling that goes with feeling out of the loop or unable to keep the conversation going is one of the worst, in my opinion. This is a silly example, but one that I’ve experienced more than once recently. I have a friend who has really enjoyed the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. A month or so ago, he asked me about it, excited to talk about the season finale, but I hadn’t seen it. We were talking last week, and, still excited, he asked me about it again. I still haven’t watched it.

It stinks to not be able to share in someone else’s excitement. My friend can’t simply lay hands on me and impart two seasons’ worth of content in my brain, but Paul was able to pray for the Ephesians and God willingly poured the Holy Spirit upon them with power and might. All it took was a willingness to experience the joy of God and Paul’s willingness to share the gift he had received.

I wonder if the general shyness Episcopalians have around evangelism is in part due to our limited comfort with the Holy Spirit. As a Church that was focused in the Apostles Creed for most of our existence, we’ve had very little liturgical pedagogy in the Spirit. This underdeveloped understanding of the Spirit has, for too long, robbed us of the joy of the the Spirit’s gifts and the desire to share them with others. Rather than living lives imbued with the Fruit of the Spirit like patience, kindness, humility, and self-control, we take to Twitter to rip one another’s pandemic liturgical choices and puff up our own liturgy and enlightened theology.

Perhaps this Sunday, as we recall the Baptism of our Lord, we should pray for some of that Spirit that descended upon Jesus at the Jordan and upon the Ephesians when Paul laid hands upon them. God is always willing to share the Spirit with us, and we should be ready to do the same.

Formless and Void

OK, no promises here, but I really miss writing and I’d like to find my way back into the habit of this blog. This isn’t a New Year’s Resolution, the timing is purely coincidental. Still, if you’d like to offer words of encouragement or accountability, they’d be welcomed.

By my calculations, today is Monday in the 43rd week of Coronatide. That’s forty-three weeks since Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert changed the world. Forty-three weeks of varying degrees of stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and virtual meeting. In my congregation’s context, that’s forty-three weeks since we’ve had any kind of normal, in-person, worship. While there is hope on the horizon in the form of a vaccine, today feels a lot less like January 4, 2021 and more like December 35, 2020.

After 43 weeks of #ThatPandemicLife, it is pretty easy to feel like the whole world is formless and void. Watching the news, it isn’t too far of a leap to imagine what the chaos of the pre-creation, unordered world of Genesis 1 might have felt like. Everything feels unmoored by now. Whether it is the patterns of our school, work, social, religious, or political lives, nothing has been left untouched by the chaos of 2020.

The story of creation reminds us, however, that before anything came into order, God is there. God is present in the formless and void. God is present in the chaos and upheaval. God is present in the pandemic. More than that, God is at work. The ministry of presence, as they liked to call it in seminary, might be 90% of what is needed, but that last 10% requires something. In the case of Genesis 1, it needed God to speak, “Let there be light.” At the River Jordan, Jesus needed God to speak, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And in this 43rd week of Coronatide, maybe we need a reminder that not only is God present with us, but God continues to be at work in the world, bringing about restoration and healing to a world that desperately needs it. Maybe this week, dear friends, God will use you to speak hope into the chaos. Maybe it is you who will help bring order into a world that feels formless and void.

Looking in Hope

       After a long, looong, looooooooong year, it was really nice to have a little time off between Christmas and New Years to refresh.  I did some small projects around the house, but mostly, the kids and I just hung out.  Once we got the internet back, we watched TV.  We played on our devices.  We vegged.  In a year of constant flux and adaptation, it was nice to just relax for a while.  One of the things I did this last week that I don’t normally do, was change the channel from SportsCenter to Good Morning America where I happened to catch an interview with Ryan Seacrest about his annual gig as the host of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  The GMA crew was talking with him about how different it was to celebrate the new year this time around, and asked, “How do you find that balance?  Some people just want to put 2020 behind [them] and just have a party, but also… you still have to recognize what we’ve been through.”  While acknowledging that the crowd would be very thin this year and comprised only of first responders, front-line medical workers, and essential employees, Seacrest reflected on the goal of not just the celebration of the end of 2020, but really, the reason we make a big deal out of the new year at all.  “We do want to have a celebration,” he said, “We all look forward to celebrating this new year and what hope this new year can bring…”

       Isn’t that the truth?  “We all look forward to… what hope this new year can bring.”  Of course, even with the particular hardships that defined 2020, looking forward in hope is nothing new in the human condition.  In fact, you could say that the overarching story of scripture is humanity looking forward in hope to the restoration of all people to unity with God and each other.  This morning, even though it is a few days before the Epiphany, we hear a unique version of that story of hope as God uses foreign astrologers to further the work of restoration, but before we get there, we have to go back, all the way back, to the very beginning.  In the opening chapters of Genesis, we hear the story of how God’s overwhelming love resulted in the creation of world, of plants and animals, and ultimately, of human beings, with whom, God desired to have a special relationship.  In the Garden, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God just as they walked and talked with one another, until one day, the serpent tricked them, they disobeyed the commandment of God, and their once perfect relationship was broken. Ultimately, they were expelled from the Garden to live East of Eden.

       For millennia, human beings looked toward the West, in the hope of seeing the sign of God’s forgiveness and the possibility of returning to Shalom, the perfect peace of the Garden.  So begins the well-known story of the Magi, astrologers from the East, who studied the skies, looking for signs of hope among the heavens.  Just as so many of us looked to the skies on December 21st to watch the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, these Wise Men set their sights on the skies in the hope of seeing a sign from above.  When a new star appeared, they interpreted it as the sign of a new King of the Jews, and so they packed their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and headed west to pay homage to the newborn king.  What they found on their arrival in Bethlehem was a child who we believe to be more than the King of the Jews, but the King of kings, the savior of the world, and the hope of all people.  Jesus, the Christ, the one who came to bring us all back from our exile East of Eden into perfect relationship with God and with one another.

Whether Jew or Greek or Zoroastrian like our Magi, it seems that there was an instinctual desire to look hopefully to the west and a return to the shalom of the Garden.  Of course, the reigning King of the Jews, Herod the Great, wasn’t so keen on the Magi associating this new star with the birth of his replacement.  His power was derived not from the Shalom of God, but from the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, that was seated not in perfect relationship, but in terror and violence.  As is always the case with empire, the authority of Herod was based in the sinful mess that is life East of Eden, and like all who buy into that system of power, Herod was hellbent on maintaining control.  He used all the political, military, and religious influence he had to try to subvert the Shalom of God, even to the grotesque point of killing all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem, but the relentless march West to the Garden had already begun.  In the birth of Jesus, the final restoration was underway.

Two thousand years later, Christians no longer look to the West in hope.  It isn’t that we no longer have hope, though in 2020, it might have felt that way more than a few times.  Instead, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we believe that the return to the Shalom of Garden has already started, even as we await the culmination of God’s plan for salvation in the Second Coming of Christ.  As we wait, we work, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to rebuild the Shalom of God here on earth, and we keep our eyes now fixed to the East, to rising sun, waiting in hope for the coming of the Son of God to bring about the final restoration of all things and all people in the Peace of God.  Like Ryan Seacrest, we strive to strike that balance between acknowledging that right now, things are not as we wish they would be, even as we look forward with hope for better days ahead.

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, as we hear again the familiar story of the Magi, we would do well to learn from their example.  We should live our lives with our eyes wide open, looking constantly for signs of hope and the places where God’s peace is already at work in the world around us.  We celebrate the vaccine selfies of front-line medical workers.  We give thanks for the work of street medicine teams keeping our unhoused neighbors healthy.  We applaud the generosity of so many who have kept small businesses and churches afloat.  Like the Magi, however, we don’t just stop at seeing and celebrating, but as we scan the horizon in hope, we also roll up our sleeves and get ready to work.  Whether it is making sure the women and children at BRASS have a healthy meal or cash-strapped families keep their lights on and heaters running or simply not having in-person worship to keep everyone safe, you and I aren’t just called on to hope, but to work toward the Shalom of Garden, the perfect peace that God intended for all creation.  Keep your eyes open, dear friends, for hope and peace are always on the horizon.  Amen.

Wilbur Chocolate Christmas

       When I was a kid, I rode the bus to school.  Every morning, my sister and I would head down the hill to the corner of Blossom Hill Drive and Delp Road to wait for Bus 32 to arrive.  The bus stop was a little spit of grass, between the fence line and the intersection, marked by a red fire hydrant.  Growing up in Amish Country, like I did, most days, with the prevailing winds out of the west, the air was thick with the smell of cow manure wafting from the bucolic farms that still surrounded our rapidly sprawling community.  It wasn’t a pleasant smell, as you might guess, but we were used to it, so most days, it wasn’t terrible.  There were a few mornings, however, when the winds would shift and begin to blow from the north.  Those days were the best days, as the smell of cow manure was replaced by the aroma drifting off the Wilbur Chocolate Factory.  It didn’t matter how long we had to wait for the bus on Wilbur Chocolate days, we were glad to stand around and enjoy the scent of chocolate hanging in the air.

       I’ve reminisced a lot about the differences between Wilbur Chocolate days and normal bus stop days as I’ve thought about how different Christmas looks and feels in 2020 than in other years, especially as it relates to the Nativity scene and the birth of our Lord.  Most years, the manger we imagine is a Wilbur Chocolate, Norman Rockwell scene.  We tend to romanticize the story of Jesus’ birth with images of quiet cattle resting and sheep gently nibbling on grass.  The air smells of the sweetness of hay.  Mary and Joseph, despite the long journey and arduous, first century, birthing process, are well groomed, in neatly pressed attire, ready to receive the shepherds as guests and, if that one Christmas song is to be believed, even willing to put up with a little drummer boy offering the only gift he could muster.  Then there is the baby Jesus, no crying he makes, wrapped in swaddling clothes, tender and mild, and lying in the manger, aglow with the radiance of God’s glory.

In 2020, however, I wonder if we’re able to see a more accurate portrayal of the Nativity.  A scene more like the one evoked by a tweet I saw earlier this week.  “‘Infant so tender and mild’ suggests the existence of a spicy baby.”[1]  What if, instead of the sweet smell of hay, our noses were more in tune with Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Toddy County, Kentucky and the scent of animal… by-products?  Mary, her hair matted from sweat and her eyes puffy from tears, is doing her best to hold it together, as she takes it all in, wondering what exactly she signed up for when Gabriel appeared before her nine months ago.  Meanwhile, Joseph, unsure of exactly how to help, keeps watch from the entrance of the small cave cut into the hill.  The baby, well, he might be quiet now, but we all know that won’t last long.  Tender and mild, KFC Jesus will be Popeye’s spicy soon enough.  The animals are restless, as the shepherds with their own particular aroma and colorful language, tell a story that is too fantastic to be believed.  All of this comes before the three wise men bring gifts suitable for embalming and Simeon promises Mary that her son’s life story would ultimately be a sword that pierces her heart.  It isn’t exactly the olive woodcut scene we’re used to, but there is a gift in the messiness.

Here’s what I love about Christmas.  Whether the experience is cow manure or Wilbur chocolate, the truth is that God is there.  The hardship of 2020 might have removed some of the misty romance from our Christmas celebrations, but the good news about the birth of Jesus is that God enters the darkness to bring light; God enters the messiness to bring restoration; God enters a fearful and violent world to bring hope and peace.  Christmas doesn’t have to be a Hallmark movie set, ripped from the pages of Pinterest, smelling like a Yankee candle to be perfect.  Instead, maybe the perfect Christmas is the messiness of opening presents over Facetime, while eating cookies that were shared via a no-contact-porch-drop, in a house that smells like dog because you haven’t vacuumed the couch in longer than you’d like to admit.  It’s perfect not because it has all the right trappings, but because God has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

Luke’s Gospel is clear that the first Christmas was far from perfect.  Whether it was the Emperor moving people around like puppets on a string or that the only room available for Mary to give birth to Jesus was a musty feed barn, the circumstances into which the Son of God was born aren’t what anyone would have imagined.  Yet still, the angels appear to the shepherds living in the fields, and proclaim good news of great joy for all the world.  “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”  No matter the messiness of it all, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One has been born for us, and the once dark world is now bright with the light of Christ.

We will probably remember 2020 as a year filled with cow manure, but today, the winds have shifted and the sweet aroma of hope is upon us.  In the birth of Jesus, a light has shined on all who live in deep darkness.  Through Christ, we are able to see past the hardships of today as we work to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more compassionate world.  Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more peaceful society.  The winds of change are upon us this morning.  God is here.  May your Christmas be a Wilbur Chocolate day in a year of Amish Farms, for unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.


The Tabernacle of Emmanuel

       You might not have noticed it, but each service in our Advent Approaching the Mystery series has started with one of the O Antiphons chosen by Mother Becca and I as thematically consistent with the rest of the service.  On Advent 1, we chose “O Dayspring” as we began the season in darkness and invited the dawning light of Christ to help us find our way.  For Advent 2, our focus was on “O Wisdom.”  The prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist spoke to us as mouthpieces of God’s wisdom, pointing us toward the beginning of the good news.  Last Sunday, on Advent 3, we set our sights on “O Lord of Might” who, despite great difficulty in the world around us, is able to stir up joy in all circumstances by way of unending grace and mercy.  Finally, this morning, on our last Sunday before Christmas and coming of Christ into the world, our O Antiphon is “Emmanuel,” God with us, God who enters the world, enters fully into our humanity, to bring about the redemption of all Creation.

       These O Antiphons have, to a greater or lesser degree, played a role in the responsories that we wrote, in the hymns that we sang, and in the sermons that we preached, but this week I’ve been particularly struck by Emmanuel and how God chose to come among us.  It all started with an email from a friend of mine who was working on his sermon for Christmas 1.  He was stuck on the word dwell in John’s Prologue, as in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  He asked me to nerd out with him on the various ways that God dwells with humanity in the Scriptures, and my mind was immediately drawn to our Old Testament lesson for this morning.

       David is coming off a pretty huge win as 2nd Samuel chapter 7 begins.  The Ark of the God had been returned to Jerusalem with great fanfare.  Musical instruments of all kinds led thirty thousand soldiers as they sang and danced with all their might, carrying the Ark of God into the City, and they placed it inside a tent, where the presence of Almighty God had dwelled since the days of Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert.  Suddenly, as David sat in his house of cedar, he began to feel uncomfortable.  Why should he live in a beautiful, sturdy, secure home when the presence of God was left to reside in a tent?  David began to plan to build a house for God, when the voice of the Lord spoke to his prophet, Nathan, and said, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”  Given the choice, God preferred to dwell in the flexibility of a tent so that God might be able to easily move about and be present, no matter where God’s people might find themselves.  Over and over again, throughout the Scriptures, we find that God chooses to be present among the mess.  God never forsakes God’s people, even when it feels like God is far away, Emmanuel, God is with us.

Fast forward a thousand years, and our Gospel lesson tells the story of God once again choosing to dwell with humanity, not as a statue to be housed in a building and worshiped, or even as some magnificent, fully-formed human who arrives with great flourish and power, but as a baby, who grew up and became a person who lived and moved and had their being in the utter messiness of humanity.  In the Annunciation, we are reminded of the good news that God isn’t some far away deity, writing the code and pulling the strings that make the cosmos happen, but it is God’s intention to be among us, no matter the circumstances.  God chose to come among us in the most vulnerable way possible: as a baby, born to an unwed mother, living in a nowhere town, under the oppressive boot of a distant, yet mighty empire.

The Angel Gabriel comes to invite Mary to serve, at least temporarily, as the Tabernacle of God, but begins by reminding Mary of the overarching truth of God’s relationship with humankind, God is with her.  God will never leave or forsake her, and if she would believe in that truth, she would have the opportunity to change the course of history.  God didn’t choose a house of cedar to live in.  Instead, God chose the womb of Mary.  God didn’t choose a person with powerful political connections.  Instead, God chose the fiancé of a carpenter from the middle of nowhere, Nazareth.  Of all the times, places, and people God could have chosen as the Tabernacle of Christ, God chose Mary, the perfect example of vulnerability and faithfulness, presumably since the Ark of God.  This is especially true in Luke’s Gospel, where Mary serves as both the God-bearer and the model of Christian discipleship.  As Mark Allen Powell, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, points out, the Annunciation to Mary is her call story in line with the calling of such heavy hitters and Moses and Isaiah.  All the elements are there: the greeting, the started reaction, the exhortation not to fear, the divine commission, the objection, a reassurance, and the offer of a confirming sign.  In her words of acceptance, Mary models both Samuel and Isaiah in saying, “Here I am.” She goes on to preview the words her Son would pray to God the Father on the night he was betrayed, “Let it be with me according to your word” or “Not my will but yours be done.”  For Luke, Mary is the perfect combination of humility, obedience, faithfulness, and loving service.[1]  She is, the ideal Tabernacle for the nurturing of Emmanuel, God with us.

Throughout the course of human history, God has, again and again, chosen to be vulnerable in order to be present with human beings in their struggle.  Whether it was choosing to stay in a tent rather than letting David build a house of cedar or choosing the womb of a faithful young woman as the way God the Son would enter the world, God has never shied away from hardship or messiness.  On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our collective prayer is that God might continue that trend in us.  We pray for the faith of Mary.  We pray that, with God’s help, we might be willing to serve as the Tabernacle of the Holy Spirit.  We pray that Jesus, the Son of Mary, might find in us a mansion prepared for himself, and that as we live and move and have our being in the world, we might be the very hands and feet of God who is always among us.  O come, O come, Emmanuel!  Model us in the image of your Mother, Mary, and make us tabernacles of your grace. Amen.


The Beginning of the Good News

The beginning of the good news is upon us.  Most years, I hear this opening line to Mark’s Gospel without much fanfare.  Usually, there is good news all around, all the time, especially as the calendar turns to December and the secular Christmas season of peace and goodwill shifts into high gear.  In 2020, however, good news has been few and far between.  Since March, there have been glimpses of good news, here and there, but mostly our attention has been focused on the daily reports of the number of people infected or killed by this novel Coronavirus, the ongoing reality of racism in our nation, and political discord at every level of governance.  On Wednesday morning, however, we got the beginning of the good news.  The first Coronavirus vaccine was approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, and it should be available here in the United States in just a few short weeks.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, and for the first time since March, it might not be an oncoming train.

2020 has been a year spent in the wilderness, and with news of a vaccine on the horizon, it would be tempting to quickly run toward normalcy.  The wilderness is often associated with desolation and despair, but our Gospel lesson for this morning teaches us that the good news of God’s steadfast love begins not in the marble halls of power or the comfortable seats of money and privilege, but in the discomfort of the wilderness, on the margins, and among the vulnerable.  So, even with the beginning of the good news upon us, the author of Mark, the prophet Isaiah,  and John the Baptist all would admonish us to stick it out and to see where God is at work, even here in the wilderness.

The Gospel of Mark begins with two different wilderness scenes.  First, we find ourselves in the wilderness of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah’s story takes place before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile of the Hebrew people, a definite top-3 most wildernessy experience in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Stripped of their land, God’s Holy Temple, and, in many ways, their identity, for seventy years, the Jewish people in Babylon felt lost and totally separated from their God.  The opening verses of Psalm 137 tell the sad story of Jewish exiles weeping as they hung their harps in the willow trees that lined the Euphrates River, unable to imagine how they could worship their God or sing with joy in their wilderness experience.  Mark opens his Gospel by borrowing a quote from the Isaiah 40 lesson that Bill Collins just read for us.  It is the transition moment in Isaiah as the story moves from judgment and destruction to the promise of hope and restoration.  It is the beginning of the good news that God will restore Jerusalem, but even more, it is the assurance that God had never really left them all alone.  God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Babylon, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.

Mark then fast-forwards some five hundred years to the wilderness near the Jordan River where a new prophet had arrived.  The people of Israel were once again under the thumb of an oppressive foreign power.  Rome had first conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE and had ruled over Judea since about 37 BCE.  Although Herod the Great oversaw the rebuilding of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were taxed heavily in response.  The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation, worshipped their own pagan gods, and took significant money out of the Temple system.  The Jewish people still resided in Judea, but it was no longer theirs.  God once again felt far away, and try as the Pharisees might to restore Israel through holiness of life, the people of God were once again deep in the metaphorical wilderness when John the Baptist began to preach repentance in the literal wilderness.

John the Baptist was the beginning of the good news of God’s next move in restoring Israel, and indeed, all of creation.  John was the one appointed to prophesy of God’s comfort, to make straight the path, and to prepare the way for God’s anointed one.  Yet again, God’s word of hope came not in the mighty Temple or in the Roman capital city or from the mouth of a mighty warrior, but from the midst of the wilderness and from a man on the margins of society.  God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Roman occupation, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.

Traditionally, the wilderness is thought to be a forsaken place, a setting unsuitable for human beings, a scene to be moved through as quickly as possible.  The last nine months have reiterated that reality for many of us.  As the COVID-19 pandemic has lingered, I’m guessing all of us have, at one point or another, just wished we could snap our fingers and be on the other side.  From the prologue to Mark’s Gospel, however, we learn that the wilderness can be holy ground, the place where God comes to redeem creation, or at least, the beginning of the good news.  The wilderness is a place of struggle, no doubt, but it is also a place of hope, renewal, and promise.  Rather than closing our eyes and running through it as quickly as possible, the opening to Mark’s Gospel invites us to slow down and look for what God is up to in the wilderness.  The beginning of the good news is that God is always present – in the wilderness, in the waiting, even in pandemic.  As we experience the beginning of the good news of a vaccine, through Mark and the prophets Isaiah and John, God invites us to seek out hope and restoration amidst the struggle.

Perhaps it is perfect, then, that the beginning of the good news of the end of this pandemic comes to us in the Season of Advent.  Advent is, at its best, a deliberate time in the wilderness.  While the world has already jumped ahead to Christmas, the Church invites us to approach the mystery of Christ’s birth slowly and with intention.  Advent, like the wilderness, can be a place of God’s revelation when we are present to it.  As we slowly move out of the darkness and toward the light of Christ, be careful not to rush toward the finish line.  Take your time in the wilderness, look around, and ask God for glimpses of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ coming into the world.  Jesus may not yet have been born in a stable in Bethlehem, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present, especially in the wilderness.  Amen.

A Moment of Thanks

       One of the cooler things that I’ve been able to do as a priest is blessing the peanut harvest in Lillian, Alabama.  For several years, each fall, Craig Cassebaum of Cassebaum Farms and I would drive out into the middle of one of his peanut fields to pray.  Usually, we’d be able to time the prayers during the week or so between when the peanuts were dug out of the ground and flipped over to dry, and when they were ultimately harvested.  The smell of mold, dust, and peanuts roasting ever-so-slightly in the hot, late-September sun would sit heavy in the air that was still thick with humidity.  The experience, and the two shopping bags full of green peanuts, was well worth the week of itchy eyes and a runny nose.

The prayer service that Craig and I used came from the Church of England, and it had four parts.  We would begin by confessing the ways in which we often forget to tend to the needs of the poor and the care of God’s creation.  Next, we would thank God for all the colors and forms of creation, for our daily bread, and for the science, weather, labor, and infrastructure that brought it to our tables.  Third, we asked God for the wisdom to conserve, for protection upon all who labor, for wise governmental leaders, for the sick, and the suffering.  Finally, then, it was my duty and privilege to pronounce God’s blessing upon not only the peanut harvest, but also upon Craig and all those who would benefit from his labor.

I think about that little prayer service every Thanksgiving.  As I ponder the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers and how only one turned back to offer thanks, I think of Craig’s faithfulness.  I wonder how many other farmers invite their pastors to stand out in a field and pray.  I think about all the things I have taken for granted; from the peanuts in the jar in my pantry, to the ability to gather in corporate worship on days like today.  It is easy to focus on 2020 as a year of lost things, but on this Thanksgiving Day that is so very different than any we have known before, what if we really took the time to be thankful for all that we do have?  What if instead of lamenting all the things we can’t do, we took stock of and gave thanks for all the ways we are still connected, one to another, in even the simplest of things?

Take the lowly peanut, source of such shame in these days of increased food allergy awareness.  Before you pour some out in a dish for a Thanksgiving Day football snack, stop and give thanks for the employees at the seed vendor who sort, pack, and ship seed peanuts to famers.  Give thanks for the UPS driver who delivers them, for the farmer, laborers, and equipment operators who plant and harvest them.  Give thanks for the John Deere combine and all whose labor make it possible to mechanically separate the legume from its plant.  Give thanks for the truck drivers who deliver the green peanuts to the processing facilities, for the roasters who make them edible, and the salt that makes them delicious.  Give thanks for all the people who work to make the jars, at the company that prints the labels, and the company that produces the shipping boxes.  Give thanks for the mechanics that keep the trucks running, the grocery buyer who orders, the stocker who shelves them, the Kroger Clicklist Shopper who safely shopped on your behalf, and the delivery person who put them in your trunk.  Give thanks for electricity, for fuel, for computer programmers, for banking systems, and, yes, even for government regulators who keep us all safe.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget to give thanks for George Washington Carver who convinced southern farmers to rotate their cotton fields with peanuts to enrich the soil in the first place.  In one little peanut, there are thousands of minds at work across generations, millions of hands at work even today, and that’s before we start listing the things that God alone can provide like nutrient rich soil, rain, sun, and temperate weather.  In a year of so much loss, there is still so very much to be thankful for.

On this day that is set aside to give thanks to God for all the blessings of this life, in this year that has been so challenging, be like the Samaritan leper and remember to give thanks.  I pray that today, each you might find time to take stock of some the little things we take for granted every day.  God is the giver of all good gifts, and this day, like every other, is a day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice, give thanks, and be glad.  Amen.