Friday is Good, all on its own

For many years, I’ve loved a story told by theologian Tony Campolo.  It takes place in his church, during a revival where preachers from several local congregations were invited to speak.  While the goal was always to bring people closer to Jesus, secondarily, each preacher hoped to out preach the rest.  Tony remembers that he was on his game that particular morning, and when he sat down, he looked over at the preacher sitting next to him and whispered, “good luck.”  His counterpart simply responded, “Son, sit back.  The old man is going to do you in.”  For the next half hour, that preacher did him in with basically one line, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

       For many years, I’ve loved this idea of “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” but after thirteen months of Lent, I’m beginning to understand that what makes this Friday Good really has nothing to do with what will happen on Sunday morning.  Instead, Good Friday, I believe, is good all on its own.  It would be good even if Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead on Easter morning.  Holy Saturday and Easter Day are good on their own merit as well, but this Friday is Good because of what Jesus Christ did on that Friday two thousand some-odd years ago.  This Friday is Good because of the prophetic words Jesus spoke from the cross as he gave up his spirit.

       In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are, “It is finished.”  What Jesus came to earth to do wasn’t almost done through his death on the cross, but it was finished, accomplished, complete.  Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation was made complete through his entering fully into the suffering of humankind.  As we’ve heard several times during this Lenten Season, Christ was lifted up to glory, not upon a throne, but upon the Cross.  Through what theologians call Christus Victor, Jesus’ death is the moment of God’s victory over sin and death.  By way of an act of divine love, God entered fully into the bondage of death and turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, liberating all of humanity from the fear of death in order to live lives marked by the Way of Love.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that Christ took away the sting of death forever.

Alternatively, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22 for his last words.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  These seem like words that are as far from good as one can imagine.  Jesus, whom we believe to be God, feeling forsaken by God is very, very, not good.  Yet, even these pain-wracked words of Jesus can be seen as good if we understand that part of what God came to do in the Incarnation was to fully enter into and redeem the human experience.  All of us, at some time in our lives, will feel separated from God.  Whether it is bound in grief, fear, or doubt, at some point, each of us knows the deep feeling of lostness when God feels far away.  In Jesus’ final act in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity temporarily relinquished godship in the ultimate act of solidarity with humanity.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that God experienced and redeemed godforsakenness.

It is Friday, and Sunday is coming.  It’s Friday after thirteen months of deprivation, anxiety, and separation, and Sunday is coming.  Sunday will be Good, but this Friday doesn’t need Sunday in order to be Good all on its own.  Jesus Christ died that we might have life, that the sting of death might not have victory over us, that we might know that even God experienced what it means to feel separated from God’s unending love.  It is Friday, and it is Good.  Amen.

We Wish to See Jesus

       Over the past year, I’ve fielded quite a few phone calls, text messages, and emails asking, wondering, and sometimes even pleading for in-person church to restart.  I’ve felt each one of those encounters.  I’ve carried them with me every day since this pandemic began because I know these requests weren’t being made out of selfishness or the thought that this virus isn’t a real threat.  To a person, each one who reached out, and I’m sure all of you who didn’t, wanted to be back in church because, like the Greeks in our Gospel lesson this morning, you want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus in the face of our friends.  We want to see Jesus in the beauty of our sacred space.  We want to see Jesus in the Eucharist.  Part of what has made this year so difficult for all of us has been how disconnected we’ve felt, not just from one another, but at times, even from Christ Jesus.

       Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus’ last public teaching before his death.  It is the Passover Feast, and pilgrims from all over have come to Jerusalem.  Faithful Jews from across the Diaspora came to offer sacrifices, say prayers, and give thanks for God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish converts came as well, eager to say their prayers and to engage in the rituals of their newfound faith.  Of course, there were tourists in town too; interested onlookers who wondered what it was all about.  We don’t know if these Greeks were converts or tourists, but nevertheless, they wanted to see Jesus.  They’d no doubt heard about him.  Whether it was because he had raised Lazarus from the dead a week earlier or some other miracle, it seems news of the faith-healing Rabbi had spread far and wide.

       As Jesus is wont to do, he doesn’t seem to directly give anybody what they want.  Instead of heading over to take a selfie with the Greeks who came to see him, Jesus took the opportunity to teach his disciples, the Greeks, and anyone who would listen that his death was imminent and that his death would be the first seed of many that would produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus took the chance to remind those who would seek to follow him that discipleship means a life of sacrificial love.  As Deacon Kellie told us last week, in John’s Gospel, Jesus being lifted up wasn’t high on a throne of glory, but upon a cross, where his death would be the beginning of eternal life for the whole world.  If we are to follow Jesus, we must learn to see him in his fullness – in his ministry of teaching and healing, in his being lifted up on the cross, in his rising again at the Resurrection, and in his ascending into heaven.  In this final public discourse and in the private farewell discourse that was just for his disciples; Jesus sought to prepare all who would follow him for what life would look like when he was gone; when, one day, it would be impossible to see Jesus, face to face.

Not being able to come to church has us all longing to see Jesus, but on the other side of that coin, I think, are the many ways we’ve seen the face of Christ in the world around us.  In our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm that, with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And so, over the last year, we’ve seen Jesus in the many sacrifices we’ve made to keep our neighbors safe.  I see Christ in every pair of smiling eyes peeking over a mask covered face at the grocery store.  I see Jesus in the phone calls, text messages, and emails of encouragement and support.  I’ve seen Jesus in teachers caring for their students, students navigating NTI snow days, and on every one of the hundreds of Zoom meetings I’ve attended this year.

In teaching those Greeks that discipleship means sacrifice, Jesus affirms for all of us that what we’ve done over the last year is important.  In every sacrifice we’ve made in the name of the greater good, we’ve placed another piece of beautifully dyed thread into the gorgeous tapestry God is weaving into the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  As we think about how we will begin to return to some of the familiar practices of past, we would do well to remember that call to sacrificial love.  Holy Week and Easter aren’t going to be anywhere near normal.  Even as we come back into the Nave for Sunday worship, you might not be able to sit in “your pew.”  The space will look, feel, and sound different.  The season of sacrifice isn’t over just because we’ve announced a return to Church in the Pews beginning on April 11.  Instead, as I think we’re all experiencing, each time I do something I used to do pre-pandemic, I’m keenly aware of how different it is.  Going to a restaurant, waiting in my car for a table, seeing half the place empty, and my server wearing a mask is different.  Getting my temperature taken at the door of my doctor’s office and trying to fill out paperwork through fogged up glasses is different.  Helping Lainey find her mask before we head out to school each morning is different.  For me, the starkness of our year-long sacrifice is more apparent in the way things are different now than in the things that still aren’t happening.  As excited as I am to see folks back in these pews, I know that it’ll hurt to not give hugs and handshakes, to see you behind masks, and to not share a blueberry donut after the 10 o’clock service.  Those things will come, in time, I’m sure, but it’ll be helpful to remember that Jesus is present in every physically distanced wave, every masked smile, and, yes, even in every donut not eaten.

We want to see Jesus, but the truth of the matter is that, even in our disconnection, Jesus has still been present among us.  The key is to look.  With God’s help, we can have our eyes opened to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.  With God’s help, we can fix our hearts on true joy in a world of swift and varied changes.  With God’s help, the sacrifices we have made and will continue to make over the coming months will be the opportunity to shine the light of Christ into the world so that others might come to see Jesus for themselves.  To see Christ, we must follow Christ in a life of sacrificial love.  To see Christ, we must serve Christ in everyone we meet.  To see Christ, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  We wish to see Jesus, O God, open our eyes that we might see.  Amen.

God in the Valley – Last Epiphany B

I forgot to post my sermon from Sunday. Better late than never.

When I was in high school, I was deeply involved with my local Young Life chapter.  Every Wednesday, I would cram into somebody’s basement with a hundred or more other high schoolers to sing praises to God and hear a Bible lesson.  Thursday nights, a small group of us spent the night at our Young Life leaders’ house so that we could wake up early on Friday morning for Bible study and monkey bread.  The highlight of the year was, of course, summer camp.  We’d pile into a fancy motor coach and make our way north to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York where we were guaranteed to have the best week of our lives.  There, on Saranac Lake, we’d spend a week immersed in experiences designed to bring us closer to God.  The music was top-notch, the food was delicious, and the Ski Nautique boats were perfect for water skiing and parasailing.  There is no mountain top experience like hanging by a parachute, three hundred feet in the air, being pulled around one of the most beautiful lakes in New York by a high-powered ski boat, captained by a college student who loves Jesus.

Mountain top experiences are amazing.  Of course, they are.  That’s why they’re called mountain top experiences.  They are the pinnacle of life experiences.  We just heard the story of the first Christian mountain top experience in Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story.  A brief look through Scripture shows us several others: God gave Noah the rainbow as a sign after the ark came to rest atop a mountain.  Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai.  Elijah heard the still, small voice of God at the top of Mount Horeb.  The mountain top is often a thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth is seemingly nonexistent, and the presence of God can be felt.  It is natural for us to yearn for those profound experiences of God.  When they happen, we should rejoice in them, just as Peter did when he recognized Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.  We should rejoice because they are amazing and few and far between.  The mountain top is hard to come by.  That’s why religious leaders often work hard to cultivate them for us.  That the mountain top experience is pre-designed doesn’t mean it is disingenuous.  It seems clear that even Jesus pre-planned this particular event.  He took a select few of his most trusted disciples with him.  They climbed a literal mountain.  A spectacular event took place.  That it was manufactured, doesn’t mean the mountain top experience of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration or my week at Saranac Lake aren’t real, but it does go to show that the mountain top, while beneficial and worth pursuing, isn’t normal.  Life isn’t lived atop a mountain, but in the ups and downs of daily life, and if life has taught me anything, it is that God is just as present in the valleys as the mountain tops.

Before I went to seminary, I was a part-time youth minister at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Like the EYC here, we were a small, but committed group.  One summer, we joined with a large, international mission trip company, to spend a week in rural North Carolina rehabbing houses.  I was so excited for that trip.  Our partner company had slick resources, what appeared to be a decent theological foundation, and everything looked like it would be easy peasy lemon squeezy.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  We were assigned to a house that needed significant soffit and fascia repair.  My crew was me and five ninth graders.  Our first job?  Build two ladders.  That’s right, we were given a bunch of two by fours and some nails to build the ladders we needed to reach the roof.  Our second job?  Climb up our homemade ladder with a Sawzall to cut out of the rotten fascia boards.  Me. And five ninth graders.  Each night, the evening program was filled with “scared straight” type stories meant to get our kids to believe in Jesus just so they wouldn’t go to hell.  Our van broke down mid-week and my air mattress was flat each morning.  We were about as deep in the valley as we could go, yet, on our last night there, my kids and I got to experience the love of God in a deeply moving way.  I honestly don’t remember what the last night’s program was about, but I remember how our kids were able to see God amidst the hardship of the week.  Despite the lack of resources and despite my grumpiness, we all knew in that moment that God loved us, and we were transformed forever in that knowing and being known.

My friend, Keith Talbert, pointed out to me that the lessons for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, while often used to highlight the mountain top, could just as easily teach us to look for God in the valleys.  In a season specifically set aside to look for the “aha moments” of God in our lives, the lessons for this Sunday shine the bright light of God both on the mountain top, in the story of the Transfiguration, and deep in the valley, in the story of Elijah and Elisha from Second Kings.  Elijah’s final journey begins at Gilgal.  I’ll spare you most of the details, but it should be noted that there are several different Gilgals mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.  A Gilgal is a circle of rocks, built as a monument to a major event, and we have no idea which Gilgal marked the start of their journey.  It could be the Gilgal near the River Jordan, where the Israelites camped just before they crossed the Jordan and entered into the Promised Land, but that doesn’t make much sense given that the next stop is Bethel.  More likely is one of the gilgals erected in the mountains north and west of Jerusalem.  The story of Elijah and Elisha could, quite possibly begin on the mountain top, but like it was for Peter, James, and John, they couldn’t stay there.

As Elijah made his slow and steady march toward the Jordan River valley and his death, Elisha, heir to his prophetic voice, travelled with him in grief.  They came down from Gilgal to Bethel, where a company of prophets tried to dissuade Elisha from continuing to journey into the valley.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Bethel, Elijah and Elisha continued down to Jericho, where another company of prophets tried to keep Elisha from following his mentor into the depths.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Jericho, God called Elijah to the Jordan River, and Elisha followed yet again.  Finally, Elijah struck the river, the waters parted, and Elijah and Elisha found themselves standing in a dried-up riverbed.  There, about as far from the mountain top as one can go, Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit that rested upon Elijah and the glory of Lord came as a chariot of fire and took Elijah up to heaven.  At one of the lowest points on earth, during one of the lowest points of his life, Elisha experienced a profound encounter with the living God.

I don’t know about you, but after all that we’ve been through in the last eleven months, I find myself drawn to the story of Elisha and Elijah in a dried-out riverbed this morning.  From where I’m standing, there seems to be a lot of opportunities to walk uphill from here.  Even in the difficult times, however, we can rest assured that God is here.  God is present and ready to pour out grace and love in abundance on the mountain tops, in the valleys, and everywhere in between.  There are better days ahead, of this I am sure, but in the meantime, my prayer is that each of us will have the chance to experience the transfiguring love of God in the highs and lows of our everyday lives.  Amen.

Experiencing Jesus

       The process of discerning a call to ordained ministry is messy.  Every diocese has different requirements, timelines, and processes.  Every person has a different life story, a different calling, and a different spiritual life.  Meshing these together can be difficult, especially for those pursuing a call to the priesthood and studying in a residential seminary environment.  At VTS back in the mid-aughts, it seemed the only thing that all of us had in common was the requirement to do one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education.  I spent the summer between my first and second years as a chaplaincy intern at Goodwin House in Alexandria.  Goodwin House is a tiered care retirement facility owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  At the time, it had two locations, both of which offered independent living apartments, assisted living, skilled care, and memory units.  I got all kinds of experience.  Our CPE Supervisor was a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel turned Episcopal priest named Ruth Walsh.  I’ve thought a lot about Ruth over the past week or so as she died of COVID-19 complications on January 21st.

       As you might imagine, given her resume, Ruth was a no-nonsense kind of person.  As a CPE supervisor, she was kind, but direct.  She said what needed to be said.  I remember one time, she asked me flat out, “Steve, do you think you’re better than the rest of your colleagues?”  I learned to check my attitude that day.  Ruth was also deeply spiritual, and wanted the same for us.  Once a week, she would lead us through an hour-long guided meditation.  I’ve always struggled to drown out the monkey chatter in my mind while meditating, but there is one session I still remember quite vividly.  We were on the roof-top patio one warm, summer afternoon, gathered as a group on the outdoor couches, Ruth asked us to close our eyes, become aware of our breath, and find a happy place.  I found myself beside a lake, watching the water ripple along the shoreline, when she invited us to imagine Jesus standing right in front of us.  I’m not sure why, but the Jesus I saw was just his face, kind of like the image imprinted on the Shroud of Turin.  I think the strangeness of Jesus’ appearance is part of why I remember this meditation so vividly.  Anyway, from there, Ruth invited us to spend forty-five minutes talking with Jesus, sharing our hopes and our fears, listening, as we were able, to words of encouragement, grace, and love.  It was one of the deepest experiences of prayer I’ve ever had.  As our time ended, I felt refreshed and empowered to finish that difficult summer in CPE.

       I think about that experience often.  How wonderful it was to have a sit down with Jesus.  I think about how much easier life would be if Jesus were here among us to teach us, by his example, how to live into the way of love.  In fact, this week, in particular, I found myself getting jealous of the congregation gathered at the Synagogue in Capernaum who got to see and hear for themselves the Good News of God’s salvation live and in the flesh.  They certainly didn’t show up that Saturday expecting to meet the Holy One of God, but they sure picked a good day to go to services.

       A small fishing village of about fifteen hundred residents, Capernaum will play a prominent role as the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and it all started right here, as Jesus, Andrew, Peter, James, and John entered the Synagogue one Saturday.  It wouldn’t be uncommon for a visiting rabbi to be invited to speak.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but in other Gospels we hear about him proclaiming freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.  We know he often called on his listeners to repent and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come near.  It wasn’t the content of his teaching, however, that got the congregation’s attention this day.  Instead, they were enamored by how he taught, as one with authority, unlike the scribes.

       Jesus taught of God’s love, not as one who had studied it, but one who lived it.  Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him. He taught as one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength.  Human beings aren’t accustomed to that kind of authority, so it is no wonder the congregation was astounded.

       In the Greek, Mark says that the crowd was ekplesso, a compound word, that literally means “to be blown away.”  That’s where my jealously sets in, and maybe yours does as well.  We are blessed with some pretty good preachers here at Christ Church, but none of us is Jesus.  We can share from our experience of God’s grace and love, but none of us is the human embodiment of it.  You might be blown away by my rhetorical skill and humility, but it is impossible for anyone to teach with the same kind of authority as Jesus.  Gosh it would be nice if Jesus were here, right now, so that we too might be able to be blown away by his authoritative teaching on God’s love, but of course, he isn’t here, and we, like generations of disciples who have come before us, have to find ways to experience that grace and love for ourselves so that we too might be able to share it, with some level of authority, with those around us.

       This is, I think, the fundamental task of discipleship, seeking ways to experience God’s love so that others can experience it for themselves.  How we do that, when we aren’t the Son of God incarnate, requires effort.  In the seemingly never-ending days of COVID-tide, it probably even requires extra effort.  The Season of Epiphany, however, is the time we set aside to specifically look for the ways God is at work in the world in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  In our Eucharistic Prayer C, would that we could pray it, we would ask to have our eyes open that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

       Allow me, then, if you will, to invite you to close your eyes for just a moment.  Notice your breath.  Be aware as you breathe in deeply… And out… In… and out…

Think back over the course of this week.

Look around where you’ve been.

Listen again to the words you’ve heard.

Where did you see God?

Did you have the opportunity to be blown away by God’ love?

Did you take the chance to share God’s love with someone?

In… and out… In… and out…

Amen.

Choosing Peace

In her sermon last Sunday, Mother Becca reminded us that through baptism, all of us are made beloved children of God.  In our very best moments, we are beloved children of God.  In our mundane, daily routines, we are beloved children of God.  In our very worst moments, we are still beloved children of God.  That can be hard to remember when we are experiencing shame, guilt, and regret.  It can be hard to look in the mirror and say, “I am a beloved child of God.”  No matter how we might feel about ourselves, the truth remains, through our baptism in Christ, our worst moments are washed clean, our quotidian lives are made holy, and our greatest achievements bring honor and glory to God.

As hard as it might be at times to see ourselves as beloved children, often, it is even more challenging to look at our neighbors and say the same thing.  It is so much easier to define the other by their worst behavior, or what we perceive to be their worst qualities, and then to label and dismiss them, as if any of us is as bad as our worst moments.  As I see it, the hardest challenge of our baptismal calling is to live into the Covenant we have made with God and with each other to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Relationships are hard because sin is real. Human beings are constantly finding new ways to hurt one another.  Seeking Christ in our neighbor is easy when they act how we think they should and uphold the social contract, but when they fall short, as we all do, it can be pretty darn hard to love them, let alone believe that God loves them too.  Still, that is the job we signed up for in our baptism.  It is the choice that we are called to make, again and again, to seek the belovedness in all of God’s children.

I thought about how hard this all is on Wednesday afternoon as, like many of you, I tuned in to watch the impeachment debate in the House of Representatives.  To a person, every member of the House was willing to declare that what happened at the US Capitol last Wednesday was wrong, but there did seem to be a whole bunch of Nathanael’s coming to the microphone that day.  “Can anything good come out of California or New York?”  “Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky?”  “Can anything good come from the left or from the right?”  The Democrats saw their colleagues as beloved.  The Republicans saw their colleagues as beloved.  Few were too keen to name belovedness on the other side of aisle.  Thankfully, the members of the US House of Representatives are not where we need to look for examples of Christian virtue.  Our focus should instead be on the one from whom our identity as Christians is drawn.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear an early example of Jesus choosing love over anger, fear, or hatred.  John’s Gospel is by far the most cosmic.  Jesus, while a living breathing human being in John’s Gospel, is often in tune with what is happening in places he can’t see.  He knows the hearts of those around him.  He performs great signs and miracles.  And in today’s lesson, it seems he can see through time and space.  After being invited to follow Jesus, Philip immediately ran away to find his friend, Nathanael.  I see a lot of myself in Nathanael.  He was a natural skeptic and a bit sarcastic.  I like that about him, but I’m also keenly aware that not every responds positivity to sarcastic skepticism.

Anyway, a breathless Philip, red in the face from running and excited at the news he had to share, found Nathanael under a fig tree, and exclaimed “We have found him!  The one about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote!  It’s Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth!”  “Psssh!” Nathanael responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Sarcasm aside, this is something of a valid question.  Philip invoked Moses and the Prophets, and any self-respecting Jew would know that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  Nazareth was a back-water village of maybe 500 people located some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, and 50 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee.  Nathanael’s skepticism is understandable, even if his tone is not.  Philip simply responds, “Come and see.”

As Philip and Nathanael approached Jesus, it seems as though Jesus already knew what Nathanael was thinking.  Jesus knew that Nathanael was a man in whom there was no deceit.  Jesus knew that his skepticism would mean he’d always say what was on his mind.  Even though Jesus had good reason to doubt Nathanael’s faithfulness and to have his feeling hurt, Jesus didn’t respond with harsh words, anger, or frustration, but rather, he saw Nathanael as a beloved child of God.  He invited Nathanael into a relationship, and invited him to experience the freedom that comes from God’s love, grace, and forgiveness.  While I might imagine, after turning water into wine, Jesus looking at Nathanael through a wry smile and asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, the truth is that in the eyes of Jesus, Nathanael and, indeed, each of us, is a beloved child.

Discord, assumption making, and bigotry are nothing new in this world, but we all know from hard earned experience 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 precisely because every person we meet is a beloved child of God. We don’t get to choose whom we love, we’re simply called to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This does not mean we’re all going to sit together and sing Kumbaya. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t mean becoming a doormat, letting folks do whatever they want, or even that we have to stay in relationship with everyone.  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 out of Nazareth?  Can anything good come out of Bethsaida?  Can anything good come out of California or New York?  Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky?  Can anything good come from the left or from the right?  It isn’t all good, none of us are, but in Christ, the answer is an emphatic YES, all are beloved, all are made in God’s image, and all have good within them.  Amen.

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.


[1] https://twitter.com/vivarockbella/status/1336378854282153984

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.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3

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.