Make the Reason Love

       Can I admit something to you?  Just between us?  I’ve never really liked the phrase “everything happens for a reason.”  Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear someone say that it feels like the assumption is that the reason is always good.  In reality, as the old meme says, sometimes the reason things happen is “you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”  More often than not, sometimes things happen because addictions are powerful, mental health is fragile, power corrupts, and evil is real.  This is precisely what happens in today’s Gospel lesson.  A really bad thing happens to a pretty good person because sin is all too real.

       You might recall that last week’s Gospel lesson ended with Jesus and his disciples travelling all around the Galilean countryside preaching repentance and performing miracles.  When it was just one roaming Rabbi, nobody in power paid too much attention, but as the crowds around Jesus began to grow, and as his disciples began to branch out, word spread rapidly.  The Good News of God’s plan of salvation was beginning to gain a foothold and it was seen as a real threat to the powers-that-be in both the religious and political realms.  All around Israel, people were wondering who this Jesus character might be – Elijah, Moses, or another prophet – but Herod Antipas, the puppet King of Galilee, had no doubt, he was John the Baptist, risen from the grave.

       Herod had good reason to be wary of Jesus and to wonder if he was, in fact, some sort of Zombie John the Baptist back to threaten his power and privilege.  Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ruled Judea during the time of Jesus’ birth.  The Herodian family tree is a bit hard to unravel, what with multiple wives and various sons with similar names, but after Herod the Great died or was killed, depending on which story you believe, three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Philip the Tetrarch, and Herod Antipas, took rule over his kingdom.  Our Herod, Antipas, ruled the region of Galilee in northern Israel from about 4 BCE until his death in 39 CE.  After divorcing his first wife, Herod Antipas essentially stole his second wife, Herodias, from his brother, Herod II.  Herod II had been removed from the line of succession because his mother knew about, but did nothing to stop, a plot by another brother, by a different brother, Herod Antipater II, to poison their father, Herod the Great.  Confused yet?  I know I am.

       Anyway, according to the historian Josephus, Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of [Israel], and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive, and was married to Herod Antipas.”[1]  As you might imagine, a prophet like John the Baptist, who was deeply concerned with the sinful dealings of all of Israel, would have strong opinions about this, and he wasn’t afraid to share them quite publicly.  Eventually, Herodias became fed up with John’s complaints and convinced her husband, Herod Antipas, to have him arrested.  Interestingly, Mark tells us that Antipas refused to let John be killed for speaking out against their marriage, but instead kept him in protective custody where he enjoyed listening to his perplexing words.  Herodias waited and watched for her opportunity, which finally came during the celebration of Antipas’ birthday.  The powerful gathered, the wine flowed, and after watching his young stepdaughter delight the crowd with her dancing, Antipas blurted out, “Whatever you want, even up to half of my kingdom, it is yours.”  Salome ran to her mother with excitement.  “What should I ask for?” she wondered, but Herodias had no doubt, “The head of John the Baptist.”  Salome returned to her stepfather, and the girl of probably only twelve, asked not just for the head of John, but that it be served to her on a platter.  Fearful of losing face in front of his guests, Antipas had no choice but to oblige.

       I’m guessing that the disciples who came to retrieve John’s body weren’t thinking, “everything happens for a reason.”  There seems to be little, if any, redemption in this story.  John the Baptist’s gruesome death happened because power and privilege combined with anger and violence.  This deadly combination is all too common, even in 2021.  Moreover, as theologian Debie Thomas points out, John the Baptist’s head ended up on a platter because Herod Antipas loved to listen to, but never really heard, the words of the prophet John.[2]  No matter how much he might have enjoyed his time with John, when push came to shove, Antipas had learned nothing about repentance, forgiveness, and grace.  Rather, in that moment, he forgot everything he had heard, and impulsively reacted, choosing to save every last ounce of his overwhelming level of privilege over the life of a man he had come to respect.

       As Christians, we have similar choices to make every day.  It isn’t likely that we’ll ever have the power to order someone’s head be brought on a silver platter, thanks be to God, but there are plenty of moments in our lives when the choice between saving face and hurting another child of God is all too real. Borrowing again from Debie Thomas, personally, the death of John the Baptist invites us to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I so bent on conflict avoidance that I harm other with my passivity.” Or “Do I prefer stability and safety more than transformation?”  Corporately, as a church and a society, we must consider, “When we choose silence for the sake of convenience, whose life becomes expendable?” And “When we decide that justice is too messy, chaotic, or costly to pursue, who suffers in the long term?”[3]

       I guess maybe it is true that everything happens for a reason, but often that reason is the result of sin and has nothing to do with God.  Whether it is individual sins like pride, envy, greed, and bigotry, or corporate sins like white supremacy, heteronormativity, or xenophobia, the power of evil in this world is quite real.  As not merely followers of Jesus, but disciples, we are called not to just hear stories like the death of John the Baptist and forget about them, but to learn from and be changed by them.  The more we dig into these stories, looking for how evil is at work in the world around us and how Jesus calls us to lives of grace and love, the more we will be equipped, when push comes to shove in our own lives, to choose right over wrong, compassion over indifference, and love over hate.  We may not have the capacity to beat down evil in our lifetimes, but every time we choose love, the Kingdom of God moves just a little bit closer.  If everything does happen for a reason, may the reason we do anything be out of love of God and love of neighbor, to the glory of Almighty God.  Amen.


[1] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3065-greatly-perplexed

[3] ibid.

God’s Heart

       Author, Elizabeth Stone, tech pioneer, Steve Jobs, and my mother are all quoted as saying, “Having a child is like choosing to let your heart walk outside your body for the rest of your life.”  It seems Blessed Mary knew this reality all too well.  It began on the night of Jesus’ birth as shepherds came rushing into the cattle stall where the holy family was attempting to rest, bursting with the good news they had received from angels who appeared in their fields with trumpet and song.  Forty days later, Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple for her ritual purification and to dedicate her first born son to the Lord God, when a man whom she had never met, took the child into his arms and declared him to be “the salvation of all people, a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel,” even as he promised to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul as well.  Less than two years after that, three wise men – magicians and priests from the East – came to visit Jesus armed with gifts of gold, suitable for a king, and frankincense and myrrh, symbols of death.  Meanwhile, her husband, Joseph, had a dream in which he was told to flee his homeland and take his family to Egypt to protect them. After a while bouncing around the Egyptian countryside, and almost as quickly as they were told to leave, Mary, Joseph, and young Jesus were once again told to pack up everything and return to Israel.  Instead of settling back in their old home in Judea, they made their way to Nazareth in order to protect their son from the powers-that-be who feared him and wanted him out of their lives.  Later, at age twelve, Jesus scared Mary to death, having stayed behind in the Temple while the family caravanned back to Nazareth.

       By the time we get to today’s Gospel lesson, Mary has already experienced a lifetime of worry over her son, whom she knew would be different since before he was even conceived.  This morning, we encounter a now thirty-year-old Jesus who has been quite busy collecting disciples, preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Our lesson tells the story of Jesus’ first trip back home.  Between the crowd that was following him around the Galilean countryside and the crowd of interested locals, so many people came out to see Jesus that he couldn’t even move his arms to stuff some hummus in his face.  They were pressing in upon him so intensely that Mary began to fear for his life.  Our translation, the New Revised Standard Version says that his family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” which is actually a pretty bad translation.  What the Greek actually connotes is that his family came to grab him, and they told the crowds, “He has lost his mind.”  One could write a whole book on Mark 3:21. There is double entendre aplenty in here.  The word that the NRSV translates as “restrain” also means “to keep careful hold of.”  The word often translated as “lost his mind” also means “amazed.”  His family said that he was crazy, but did they really believe it?  I can’t help but wonder if Mary saw all that was happening to her son and ran out to do whatever she could to save him.

       There is no question in the text, on the other hand, about what the Scribes were up to.  They had no intention of trying to protect Jesus from the masses.  Instead, it seems they were dead set on stirring the crowd up into a frenzy.  When you have the truth on your side, pound the facts.  When you don’t, you pound the table and call people names.  The Scribes didn’t ease their way into name calling either, but when straight for the jugular by calling him Satan.  “He’s Beezebul! He’s able to cast out demons because he is the chief among them!”  These are not the words of someone who came to engage in peaceful discussion.  It is clear that what the Scribes were hoping would happen was that someone or some mob would rid them of this meddling rabbi, but Jesus knew his time had not yet come and was having none of this.

       At its core, Jesus rejects the premise of the Scribes.  A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, how can Satan cast out Satan?  It just doesn’t work.  By way of a parable, Jesus does show that he believes that the powers of evil are strong, and that he sees his calling as the one who was sent to defeat Satan once and for all.  The Father sent his only begotten son to tie up the powerful forces of Satan and to plunder the houses of evil – in empire, in business, in religion, and in families.  Jesus is clear that the fight that had already begun between him and the forces of evil, a fight that started when he was only a child, will continue, but he already knows that he will win, and in so doing, he will redeem almost all people back into right relationship with God.

Almost all, and here’s where things get particularly tricky, because of this unforgivable sin business.  “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  I don’t know about you, but anytime I hear this warning from Jesus, I find myself checking my receipts.  Have I ever blasphemed the Holy Spirit?  There was that one time in seminary, when we were all sharing at a class retreat, and I said, “sometimes I hate the Holy Spirit because I get called to do things that aren’t easy.”  Is that unforgivable?  I really hope not.  Is Jesus talking to his family and the Scribes alike in this cryptic message?  I don’t think so.  Rather, I think the eternal sin that Jesus warns the crowd about is the sin of assuming you are right; the sin of an intractable spirit; the sin of arrogance.  The Scribes, like so many who have come from positions of power and privilege over the centuries, simply assume that they are right, and Jesus is wrong.  There is no willingness to listen, learn, or grow.  Having been invited to receive the Holy Spirit as advocate and guide to God, they have said, “no thank you, we don’t need it.”  There is no saving those who don’t think they need to be saved.  Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich (powerful, privileged) person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who approach the Kingdom of God with humility, who embrace the invitation to follow Jesus, no matter what sins or blasphemies they might stumble into, can find forgiveness because they seek it.  Jesus’ family might not fully understand what he is up to, and they might let their worry overcome them from time to time, but they aren’t beyond redemption, and neither are you or me.  All who are willing to lay down their pride and be challenged by following Jesus can have access to the Kingdom of God, and can even help, from time to time, plunder the houses of evil.  Which is why we pray this morning that the God from whom all good proceeds, might grant us an open spirit to think what is right, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to do so.  It isn’t always easy to know what is right, but with a spirit of humility and a willingness to follow the leading of the Spirit, we can avoid becoming so sure of ourselves that there is no longer room for God in our own little kingdoms.  When we are willing to allow the Spirit to help us think and do those things that are right, we are able to more fully follow the will of God, and, as promised by Jesus himself, have entrance into the family of Christ.  In Creation, God chose to let God’s heart walk the earth for all of eternity.  As children of God and members of the family of Christ, we are God’s heart in the world.  We must be careful not to allow our hearts to become hard, but rather, to be open to the ways in which God’s love for the whole world will be poured out through each of us.  Amen.

ACTS, with a focus on the T

       Nearly a quarter century after my Young Life days came to an end, there is plenty that I would quibble with their leadership about these days.  My understanding of God’s grace, of atonement, human sexuality, and gender have all changed in the last 25 years. Yet, I still find myself recalling fondly many of the memories from those halcyon days.  One of the best lessons I learned from my Young Life leader, Fletch, is the ACTS form of prayer.  Not as in the book of Acts, from which the Pentecost Day story comes, but the acrostic, ACTS.  When my prayer life gets dry, I’m grateful that the foundation of ACTS is always there to catch me.

       I have probably told you this before, but in case you don’t recall, ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.   A prayer that follows that pattern can never go wrong.  Adoration, as defined in our Book of Common Prayer, “is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”[1]  This comes first as a means to enter into the presence of God in prayer.  Rather than flinging our requests up to some far away God, we seek first to come into God’s presence, so that we can enter into a conversation with the God of all creation.  Confession, an action we do corporately every Sunday, is the act of acknowledging our sins in the hope of repentance and forgiveness.  It comes second so as to wipe the slate clean before diving into deeper conversation.  Thanksgiving is also defined in the Prayer Book as the act of thanking God “for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.”  I often wonder if human beings put this third, not because it makes ACTS easier to remember than ACST, but because we feel the need to butter God up before we move onto the fourth step.  Supplication is asking God to do or provide something.  Supplication can be split into two foci: intercession, wherein we bring to God the needs of others, and petition, where we ask God’s will be done upon our own needs.

       ACTS is a simple way to begin, or restart for the 4,000th time, a routine of regular prayer and conversation with God.  If I’m honest, however, I’ve found the Thanksgiving piece to be increasingly difficult over the last 15 months.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  As I said on Wednesday evening, COVID-19 has taken so much from us, there have been times when it felt nearly impossible to come up with things to be thankful for.  When you are working, schooling, cooking, cleaning, and everything else from home, it can be hard to even be thankful for that dang roof over your head.  I guess that’s why I’ve found myself drawn not to the typical Pentecost lesson from Acts, or even Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit in John, but to Paul’s short little lesson on the Holy Spirit from Romans.

       “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”  Tell me about it.  Whether it isn’t knowing how to give thanks for the little things when COVID was raging, or not knowing how to pray through such weighty issues as police violence against our black and brown siblings, assaults on the democratic process in this country, white supremacist Christian nationalism, or the return of mass shootings in the post-COVID world, I have found myself stuck, not knowing how to pray as I ought, again and again.  Thankfully, the redemption of the world is not dependent on my ability to pray, and even if it was, my ability to pray isn’t even dependent on my ability to pray.  “The Spirit helps us in our weakness…” Paul asserts, “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

       Off the top of my head, I can think of three famous prayer scenes in movies from the last three decades.  There is the grace prayed over Christmas dinner by Aunt Bethany that is nothing more than the Pledge of Allegiance in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  There is the grace prayed to tiny infant Jesus in his golden fleece diaper by Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.  And finally, there is the dinner prayer of Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act.  “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts … and, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I shall fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day our daily bread … and to the republic for which it stands … by the power vested in me, I now pronounce us, ready to eat. Amen.”[2]  None of them know how to pray as they ought, and even though each prayer is ridiculous in its own right, I still firmly believe that the Spirit can translate even those prayers into words of thanks and praise.  Just imagine what the Holy Spirit can do with whatever prayers you or I might come up with.

       To further assuage my worry that my prayers aren’t up to snuff, Paul goes on to remind us that the reason the Spirit can take our deepest prayers to God using language that beyond words is that the mind of the Spirit is fully known to God the Father.  As we’ll hear again on Trinity Sunday next week, there is no brokenness in the relationship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The mind of the Spirit, which knows what is on the hearts of each of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ, is the same mind that is in God the Father.  The Spirit knows that even in my inability to be thankful during this difficult season, my desire to be thankful is enough. 

       Sometimes, I worry that the reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t get much love in the denominations of the former Mainline Christianity is that we think we’re too proper for such things.  The Spirit is so often associated with ecstatic outbursts like praying in tongues or Benny Hinn type healing miracles, and we prefer a more polite version of God, thank you very much.  On this Day of Pentecost, however, in the midst of a long, difficult journey through the COVID-19 pandemic, a long overdue racial reckoning, and a highly polarized and often violent political climate, I wonder if we might be well served to remember that for all the wind and flames and foreign languages, what the Spirit is really about in our lives is carrying the mind of humans to heart of God, and mind of God to the heart of humans.

This morning, as we gather to celebrate Holy Eucharist together for the first time since March of 2020, I’m reminded that Eucharist means Thanksgiving.  We begin this morning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a long-overdue season of Thanksgiving, for all that is past, for what is, for what is to come, but especially for the gift of God’s grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Come Holy Spirit.  Come and intercede to God on our behalf.  Come and show us the will of the Father.  Come and teach us to be thankful.  Come and refresh us, that we might help renew the face of the earth.  Amen.


[1] BCP, p. 857

[2] Thanks to Pastor Charlie Woodward at Epiphany Lutheran Church for transcribing this one. https://www.epiphanydayton.org/sighs-too-deep-for-words/

The Work of Lament

       One of the things I remember most vividly about seminary is the mantra of self-care that the faculty tried to instill within us.  Take your day off.  Eat right.  Exercise regularly.  Get a spiritual director.  See a therapist.  Advisors, Deans, random professors, even visitors to campus who had recently graduated would remind us, again and again, to take care of ourselves.  They did so, I assume, because they hadn’t, and knew the cost.  Like so many of them, I didn’t either.  I’ve never been terribly bad about taking my days off, but the seminary lunchroom was an all you can eat buffet.  Exercise requires self-discipline.  Spiritual directors might be easy to find in Washington DC, but not so much in Foley, Alabama.  And therapy?  I’d take care of that someday.  I graduated in May of 2007.  In May of 2020, I finally got a counselor thanks to the pandemic and the rise in telehealth.

It has been a little more than a year since I signed up with Betterhelp.com to deal with anxiety, stress, and grief, and these days, I find myself sounding a lot like those faculty members from so long ago, telling everyone who will listen that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of the strength you need to take control of your life and further your walk with God.  As COVID restrictions loosen and life begins to return to “normal,” I am keenly aware of the need we all have to find healthy ways to deal with the grief we’ve all experienced over the last 15 months.  Most obviously, we have to grieve the friends and family who have died during the pandemic, whose loss we have not been able to mourn in the usual ways.  Our list for this evening contains more than 30 names, but there are countless others whose funerals we’ve been unable to attend, whose families we’ve been unable to hug, whose stories we’ve been unable to share.  For many of us, the process of grieving the loss of loved ones has become backlogged in this long COVIDtide, as grief has stacked upon grief stacked upon grief.  Rather crudely put, we’re all a bit grief constipated at this point.

Less obvious is the grief associated with the loss of other patterns in our lives.  Two Easters were spent online and physically distanced.  Christmas Eve was a snowy night on State Street and quick walk-through nave to receive communion.  Graduations, proms, birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, dance recitals, concerts, sporting events, even Memorial Day picnics – you name it, the pandemic took it away or drastically changed it.  It might feel strange to mourn the loss of a watermelon seed spitting contest on the 4th of July, but it is real, and it is normal.

We gather this evening to do the important and necessary work of lamentation, grief, and remembrance.  According to the folks over at the Oxford English Dictionary, lament is a word that has gone out of fashion over the last 200 years.  Maybe it is because the industrial revolution’s goal is to make life easier and more comfortable, there’s been less reason to lament, but the act of expressing grief, in forms both ecstatic and humble, is part of what it means to be fully human.  Lamentation is a part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  There are 58 Psalms of Lament, both personal and corporate, making up 39% of the book of Psalms total number.  There is an entire book of the Bible called, Lamentations, in which the Prophet Jeremiah is thought to have penned five poems of lament after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.  In the lesson we’ve heard read here this evening, Jesus, Mary, Martha, and a whole crowd of others gather in lamentation and mourning at the death of Lazarus.  Even our Book of Common Prayer acknowledges the holiness of lamentation, when, at the end of the Burial Office, it teaches that while we find our hope and joy in the resurrection of the dead, grief is not unchristian.  “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deeps sorrow when we are parted by death.  Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend.  So, while we rejoice that [those] we love [have] entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”

This service of lament and remembrance isn’t the end of the grief process.  More likely, it will mark only the beginning of a long road toward acceptance and hope, the final stage of grief as first posited by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969.  Looking at the world around us, it seems that corporately, we’re all stuck in the anger phase, which is often marked by lashing out at others for no apparent reason.  No matter where you are, or how many times you’ve walked through the stages of grief, the work is hard, but important.  As my counselor has told me on several occasions over the last year, “feel your feelings.”  Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Fighting them, won’t make the grief process any easier or help it go by any faster.  Instead, as individuals and as a community, the lament, grief, and remembrance work that we do tonight will be part of what God uses to carry us through the days, weeks, and months to come, so that, on the other side, we might be able to accept all that we have lost and look forward with hope to a brighter future.  If you don’t have a counselor, I can now, with confidence, invite you to find one.  If you don’t have habits of discipleship like prayer and Bible reading, I invite you to start one.  If you don’t know the stages of grief, I’d be happy to tell you more.  Tonight, we turn our focus on the beginning of a long, hard road.  The end of which, is nothing less than the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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.