Sunday’s service: Reaffirming Our Baptism and Renouncing Evil

Text used – Luke 3:1-22 (embedded in the text this week)

This week, we didn’t have a traditional sermon because everything about this week was anything but traditional. So instead of posting my sermon as I usually do, I’m posting the worship write-up.

Centering Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
As you breathe in, pray, “Lord, make me an instrument.”
As you breathe out, pray, “Of your peace.”

Friends, I tried to write a regular service for today – for Baptism of Jesus Sunday. But after the scene that unfolded in our nation’s capitol on Wednesday, a “regular service” just wouldn’t come. So today we are going to remember the vows made during our baptisms and re-immerse ourselves in the grace of those waters. We are going to read Scripture and some other powerful words of witness, of hope, of healing, of lament. And we are going to pray.

Prayer (based on a prayer from the Book of Common Worship):

            Gracious God, the news of this week has ripped our hearts and torn our souls. We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. In the depths of pain and anger, we gather before you, O God, our rock and our refuge. You are our only comfort. You are our only hope. Merciful God, you know the depth of our suffering. We have only begun to mourn the violence and upheaval, the death and havoc inflicted in Washington D.C. this week. Uphold all those who hurt, fear, and grieve, especially the families of those who died because of this violent uprising and in particular the family of Officer Brian Sicknick. Faithful God, surround us with your everlasting arms. Hear our cries of despair, heed our calls for justice, and do not let us lose hope, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, we pray. Amen.

A word before we read our Scripture this morning: You all know that we’re following the Narrative Lectionary right now which means that the passages I choose for each Sunday follow a plan that was laid out years ago. There have been times in the past, especially over this past year, when the pre-designated passage seems to speak powerfully and prophetically to current events. Those are the moments when we feel the thrill of the Holy Spirit stirring close at hand in our worship and in our hearts, and today is certainly one of those days. With the events of the past week in your minds and your hearts, friends, listen for God’s word this morning …          

Scripture – Luke 3:1-22 (translation from the Common English Bible):

1 In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 4 This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. 5 Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. 6 All humanity will see God’s salvation.” 7 Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.” 10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” 14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?” He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.” 15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 18 With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler had been criticized harshly by John because of Herodias, Herod’s brother’s wife, and because of all the evil he had done. 20 He added this to the list of his evil deeds: he locked John up in prison. 21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

I confess to you this morning that preaching after an armed mob has broken into the nation’s capitol with the intent of damaging property, taking the lives of elected officials, and subverting our political process was not a subject that we covered in seminary. Those aren’t even words I thought I’d ever say in American in the 21st century. And yet this is where we find ourselves. Yes, I realize that there were many people in Washington D.C. this week that were there to lift their voices in protest without lifting their hands in anger, but we also cannot deny that there were many, many more who went with the intent of violence and hatred in their hearts. And they carried out that violence and that hatred in damaging and devastating ways – damaging to property, damaging to lives, damaging to the nation’s trust in the system of government that we have upheld for centuries.

I want to read part of a statement for you this morning. This statement was put out by Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the coordinator of the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Incidentally, the physical location for the Office of Public Witness is directly across the street from the capitol building in D.C., but because of the pandemic, all those employed by the Office of Public Witness have been working from home since March. They were safe from the violence and threats that so many others enduring on Wednesday. Here’s Rev. Hawkins’ statement:

Wednesday, January 6, marked the day of Epiphany, Día de Los Reyes, as the end of the Christmas season. Sadly, on that same day, at 2:15 pm EST, the United States Capitol building was stormed by a mob of insurrectionists intent on disrupting the certification of Joe Biden as president of the United States.  This was an alarming and sobering reality of the divisions within our country and the danger posed by those who are guided by extremist ideology.

… Domestic terrorists attempted to intimidate our nation’s leaders in an attempt to halt the certification. Using guns, clubs, and other weapons, terrorists overran the police and broke into the Capitol Building. They broke windows, spray-painted walls, ransacked offices, and left threatening notes. Two pipe bombs were left outside of the DNC and RNC local offices. A cooler of Molotov cocktails was discovered in a parked car. Members of both houses were ushered into safe locations for their well-being knowing that their lives were at risk. Many are still shaken by what happened.

The Office of Public Witness mourns the loss of life that occurred and we pray for the four families now in mourning.

… These actions were not just an attack on the Capitol Building, but an attack on American democracy. … Epiphany proclaims hope in the midst of despair. Let not the destructive events of [this past week] derail us from our goal of liberty and equity for all. No amount of resistance will quell our resolve to fight for freedom, justice, and democracy for all people.

Our country is changing and there is resistance, much of it through violent acts and rhetoric. But we will prevail because whenever you stand for justice, love and inclusion, you stand with God.

Friends, today is the day that the church calendar designates as “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. Many of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism are elaborate tellings compared to our Scripture this morning. And yet instead of lavishing all his details on the River Jordan and John the Baptist, Luke decides to dedicate his account of Jesus’ baptism to what is happening in the world around Jesus and John at that particular moment: corruption and injustice, dishonesty and intimidation, political intrigue and deception. It almost seems like Jesus’ baptism, a seminal event in the life of Jesus’ own mission and ministry, is but a footnote – an afterthought to which Luke devotes a mere two sentence: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’” By spinning his gospel tale in this way, Luke inextricably links baptism with sacred integrity, with just actions and intentions grounded in God’s love, with a faith that is active and consistent – a faith that talks the talk and walks the walk.

As we hold all of that in our hearts and our minds this morning – what happened at the capitol and God’s word to us in our Scripture this morning and the meaning of baptism – I want to read you the vows that we ask parents/guardians/individuals to make when we baptize:

(From the Book of Common Worship): Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we enter the covenant God established in Jesus Christ. Within this covenant God gives us new life, strengthens us to resist evil, and nurtures us in love. Through this covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

            Questions for the individual or the parents/guardians: Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? (Answer: I do.) Who is your Lord and Savior? (Answer: Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.) Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love? (Answer: I will, with God’s help.)

In the face of the evil perpetrated in Washington D.C. this week; in the hope of a life everlasting a grace that is greater than all our fears – past, present, and future; in the assurance of a God who is just and merciful who calls us to action in the face of oppression, fear, and hatred, this morning, we reaffirm our baptism in gratitude and in strength:    

Beloved people of God,
our baptism is the sign and seal
of our cleansing from sin,
and of our being grafted into Christ.
Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ,
the power of sin was broken
and God’s kingdom entered our world.

Through our baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom,
and freed from the bondage of sin.
Let us celebrate that freedom and redemption
through the renewal of the promises made at our baptism.

I ask you, therefore,
once again to reject sin,
to profess your faith in Christ Jesus,
and to confess the faith of the church,
the faith in which we were baptized.

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God,
do you turn from the ways of sin
and renounce evil and its power in the world?
I do.

Who is your Lord and Savior?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple,
obeying his word and showing his love?
I will, with God’s help.

In hope, in strength, in conviction, in call: remember your baptism and be thankful. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Lament Psalm Forty-two” by Ann Weems (from Psalms of Lament)

O God, I am struggling
to survive,
preoccupied with dismal
thoughts
that will not
let me go.
My blood pressure climbs,
and I have aches
and pains
that have no cause except
my broken heart.

Why have you turned
your back on me,
O God?
Why won’t you protect me
against my emotions?

I have nowhere to turn
if not to
you.
I have nowhere to go
if not to your
house.
I have no one to talk to
if you won’t
talk.
Break your silence
and speak
to me.

Open your door
so I can
get in.
Turn your face to me
and pay attention
to my problems!

Trouble surrounds me
like a fence
with no
gate.
I need eyes in the back
of my head
so I can see
what’s coming next.
I’m worn down from trying
to deal
with one hell after another.
The pain in my mind
leaves no room
for rest.
O God, return me
to a life of
joy!
Give me a reason
for
laughter!

Can eyes weep
all
the time?
Can hearts race
night
and day?
Can minds agitate
constantly?
Can my soul survive
this assault?
O God, please
stop this revolving door
of emotional oppression!
Stop the outpouring
of unrelenting
adversity!

O God, on the wings of dawn
you come to my house,
bringing peace
in the palm of your hand.
You open my eyes;
you stand in
my doorway
and invite me
to your house.
O God,
you are my peace!

Hymn – “This Is My Song” (Glory to God hymnal, #340)

Blessing (from the Book of Common Worship):

Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.      

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you might abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Sunday’s sermon: Just a Boy?

Text used – Luke 2:41-52

  • I was watching one of the Harry Potter movies this past week (surprise, surprise … I know). It was one of the movies toward the end of the series (Order of the Phoenix[1], for those of you who are Harry Potter fans), and in it, there’s a scene in which Harry is attempting to join in an adult conversation about what to do about the return of Lord Voldemort, the most evil wizard of all time. The conversation progresses somewhat with the adults around the table divulging information about what they think Voldemort is up to and what the resistance in doing one small bit at a time. Then, just as they’re getting to the heart of this information – the really interesting, crucial piece – the mother of Harry’s best friend butts in and bring the conversation to a screeching halt. She says, “No. That’s enough. He’s just a boy!”

 

    • Implication = because of Harry’s young age, he can’t handle the truth, severity, and danger of what’s happening in the wizarding world → And as a mother, I can completely understand that reaction. Harry may not be her son by blood, but early on in the series, this woman basically adopts Harry since he has no parents of his own. She even says later on this same movie that, while Harry isn’t her son, “he’s as good as.” And parents want to protect their children – from pain, physical and emotional. And that’s all she’s trying to do: protect Harry and keep him from experiencing even more pain and suffering than he already has.
      • Long has age been used as a reason to shelter children → We know that as children grow and develop, their brains also grow and develop, both in their capacity for acquiring and holding on to knowledge as well as their ability to process emotions and increasingly complex thoughts. Often, we say, “He can’t understand that yet,” or “She can’t process that yet.”
        • Happens a lot in our house with conversations with the boys about their little sister → differentiate between the things a 2yo can understand vs. the things a 7yo can understand
        • Exact reason my preference as a pastor is to start the confirmation process as late as possible → cognitive level required for processing spirituality and abstract thought is one of the last to develop in the human brain
    • And yet, we have our Scripture reading this morning – the only story from Jesus’ youth that we find in all of Scripture in which Jesus himself is “just a boy” … but also so much more than that.
  • About the passage
    • Particularly rich narrative → few of the stories about Jesus throughout any of the gospels include this much moment-by-moment detail in the story itself
      • Gives us the time and place: begins in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover Festival
      • Gives us insight into Jesus’ upbringing: he and his family headed to Jerusalem “according to their custom,”[2] so they were faithful practitioners of the Hebrew religion
      • Gives us Jesus’ age – 12
        • Scholar pointed out the significance of this: While it makes sense for Luke to include Jesus’ age to write as specific a history as possible, the age 12 is important. At that age, Jesus is still considered a “child” since he would not have been expected to fully embrace his ancestral traditions; that would happen when he turned 13.[3] → Today, this transition from spiritual childhood to adulthood is called a bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah for girls). The particular bar mitzvah ceremony as it’s practiced today didn’t start until the 13th Still, that traditional transition to adulthood is ancient – the same tradition Jesus himself would have undergone … would have undergone but had not yet undergone in our reading today. So even Luke is making it clear that Jesus is, indeed, just a boy.
      • Luke’s narrative also gives us an incredibly detailed description of events → Usually, Biblical narrative will give us a few words or a sentence at most about what happened. But Luke details how Mary, Joseph, and supposedly Jesus were headed back to Nazareth with a crowd that had also traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover, traveling a full day away from Jerusalem before stopping for the evening. Luke details how Mary and Joseph failed to find Jesus among the group at the end of the day; how they searched for him; how they traveled back to Jerusalem themselves to look for Jesus; how they spent three who days searching before finally finding their missing son in the temple.
        • Can imagine the frantic nature of that search, can’t we? → Three days. They searched the streets and familiar places of Jerusalem – a massive, teeming city compared to their hometown of Nazareth – for three whole days as they looked for Jesus. Days. Three days of not knowing where he was, who he was with, what he was doing, how he was surviving. Can you just feel the tension in your chest? Can you feel the frantic flutter of anxiety and fear and worry in your stomach and your heart? Can you feel your mind racing with Mary and Joseph – racing with all the “maybes” and “what ifs” and “if onlys”?
    • Thanks to Luke, we actually hear Mary give voice to these anxieties when they finally find Jesus – text: After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were shocked. His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”[4] → Okay, there’s a lot to unpack in this part of the story.
      • Interesting dichotomy set up in the Gr.: Jesus “listening” to the teachers = verb that implies listening coupled with understanding BUT those who heard Jesus were “amazed,” a verb that implies confusion and not understanding → So while the boy Jesus is sitting there listening to and comprehending the teachings of the rabbis and religious leaders there in the temple, those sitting and observing this strange exchange lack that same understanding. For the first time (but certainly not last), Jesus understands … but the crowds do not.
        • Critical nature of this lack of understanding is further emphasized by the way that verse is structured in the Gr.
          • English transl: Everyone was amazed by his understanding and his answers.[5]
          • But in Greek, sentences aren’t structured in the same way English sentences are. You construct the meaning of the sentence using the various forms the words take (indicative, imperative, 1st person, 3rd person, and so on). Instead of directing the flow of the sentence, in Greek, word order indicates importance, and in the Greek, the very first word in this sentence is that word “amazed.” So the crowds bemused, bewildered amazement is paramount in this story.
      • Next: word that describes Mary and Joseph’s astonishment upon finally finding Jesus in the temple – text: When his parents saw him, they were shocked. → Gr. “shocked” = amazed/overwhelmed
        • Scriptural resource: Figuratively, [this word] means to drive out of one’s senses by a sudden shock or strong feeling, or “to be exceedingly struck in mind.” It means to cause to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed (struck out of one’s senses). It encompasses the idea of wonder, astonishment or amazement. [This word] expresses a stunned amazement that leaves the subject unable to grasp what is happening.[6] → This is the feeling that engulfed Mary and Joseph upon finally finding Jesus. It’s not just the kind of shock that drops your jaw. No. This is the kind of shock that drops your whole body to the floor because your knees have given way and your legs have forgotten how to hold you up.
      • Finally, the exchange between Mary and Jesus:
        • Mary doesn’t hold back – text: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”[7]
          • Gr. “treated us like this” = literally “made us this way” → Mary is literally imploring Jesus to look at the frantic state that she and Joseph are in and truly see them – truly see the physical consequence of his actions. She’s imploring Jesus to see her: all her fear and anxiety, her worry and her concern wrapped up in fierce, maternal love.
          • Gr. “Listen” = special word that is used throughout Scripture – meant to draw attention to whatever comes next → Very often when this word appears in Scripture, what follows is a declaration about God – about who God is; about God’s mercy or salvation; about the One coming in the name of God, and so on. But here, it is Mary using this word to grab Jesus’ attention.
            • Sort of the Biblical, linguistic equivalent of the Mom Stare
            • What follows: “Your father and I have been worried.” – Gr. “worried” = particularly pointed word that implies anxiety and something that has caused pain → Make no mistake, friends. Mary may know that she’s speaking to the Son of God … but she’s also speaking to her son, the boy that she carried and bore through her own body; the boy that she nursed and lifted onto her hip day in and day out; the boy whose skinned knees she kissed and whose dark curls she lovingly patted as he lay sleeping; the boy whom she fiercely loves. He has scared her pretty severely with this action, and she needs him to know it. Mary is not mincing words.
        • Jesus’ response – text: Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?”[8] → I don’t know about you, but in my head, I read Jesus as having one of those maddeningly calm tones here, not disrespectful or unkind … but in the face of frantic parents, maddening all the same.
          • Gr. is interesting here, too – “must be” = interesting combination of two small words that aren’t all that compelling by themselves but, when combined, are very revealing → “necessary” = must be + “I am” = exist, belong, stay → Jesus is literally saying to Mary, “I must be here. I belong here. My existence is here. In my Father’s house.” In this one sentence – really, in these two small, seemingly simple words – Jesus reveals his true identity and purpose for the first time. In the face of fear and misunderstanding, Jesus – young Jesus, the boy Jesus, supposedly-not-yet-spiritually-mature-by-cultural-standards Jesus – attempts to turn everyone’s attention to God: to God as home; to God as central; to God as essential; to God as belonging.
    • But of course, for the first but certainly not the last time in his life, those to whom Jesus speaks do not understand – text: But they didn’t understand what he said to them. Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.[9]
      • Who doesn’t understand? The implication is Mary and Joseph – sets up the fact that the majority of the misunderstanding about who Jesus is and what Jesus’ ultimate objective is doesn’t come from the crowds or from strangers but from those who are closest to Jesus and love him most → later in the gospel narratives
        • Jesus’ family doesn’t understand[10]
        • Jesus’ hometown doesn’t understand[11]
        • Time and time and time again, Jesus’ own disciples don’t understand
      • Jesus’ response to this misunderstanding = obedience and “growing in favor with God and with people”
        • Gr. “favor” = grace → So even at this young age – even though he’s just a boy – Jesus is already growing in grace.
    • And maybe that’s why Luke chose to include this particular story in his gospel: because it serves as a microcosm of the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry: calm and grace and obedience in the face of misunderstanding and impassioned reactions to his actions and his teachings. It reminds us that Jesus was, is, and always will be maddeningly and yet grace-fully unexpected.
      • Scholar: [This passage] teaches that God’s wisdom is available to the young as well as the old, which means that we must make room for God to surprise us with unexpected revelations given by unusual messengers. It teaches us that though God’s wisdom and holiness remind us of our limitations, it is precisely within these limitations that wisdom is often revealed. The incarnation represents the moment in which this wisdom enters the human sphere in all its contradictions, so that nothing is left without transformation and transfiguration.[12] → Transformation and transfiguration. From just a boy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates, screenplay by Michael Goldenberg based on the novel by J.K. Rowling (Warner Brothers, 2007), DVD (2007).

[2] Lk 2:42.

[3] Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero. “Commentary on Luke 2:41-52” for Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/boy-in-the-temple/49277. Accessed Dec. 28, 2020.

[4] Lk 2:46-48.

[5] Lk 2:47.

[6] “Astonished (1605) ekplesso” from Sermon Index: Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival. https://www.sermonindex.net/modules/articles/index.php?view=article&aid=33555. Accessed Jan. 3, 2021.

[7] Lk 2:48b.

[8] Lk 2:49.

[9] Lk 2:50-51.

[10] Mk 3:31-35; Jn 7:1-10.

[11] Lk 4:14-30.

[12] William J. Danaher, Jr. “First Sunday after Christmas Day: Luke 2:41-52 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 168.

Christmas Eve meditation: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Closed Doors and “No Room”

Text used – Luke 2:1-20

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7

 

“Can you spare a room?”

No.

“My wife and I just got into town.
Can you spare a room?”

No.

“My wife is pregnant,
and we’ve been traveling for days.
Can you spare a room?”

No.

“We’re here for the census.
We’ll be gone before you know it.
We just need a place to stay
for a couple of days.
Can you spare a room?”

No.
No.
No.

Doors closed –

            some gently,

                        reluctantly,

                        compassionately,

                        sympathetically …

                                    but still closed;

Doors closed –

            some quickly,

                        forcefully,

                        suspiciously,

                        uncaringly …

                                    for we are strangers here,

                                    and we don’t belong.

 

But God came anyway –

full of grace and truth,

            full of promise and potential

                        and all the uncertainty

                        and all the hazards

                        and all the chaos

                        and all the mess

                        and all the blunders

                        and all the blessedness potential can possibly bring …

God came anyway –

full of grace and truth,

            full of the discordantly sweet sound

                        of a laboring mother

                                    crying out in pain and boundless love,

                                    crying out in hurt and hope,

                                    crying out in surrender and sacredness,

                                    bringing life …

            full of the discordantly sweet sound

                        of a squalling baby

                                    new lungs

                                    new breath

                                    new cry

                                    new born.

God came anyway.

 

And here we are now,

            centuries upon centuries,

            miles upon miles,

            civilizations upon civilizations

            away from that day,

                                  that place,

                                  those “no”s,

                                  those doors,

And still, God comes anyway

            knocking,

            asking,

            seeking,

            hoping

                        to find an open space,

                                      an open home,

                                      an open heart,

                                      an open life …

 

How often do we fling wide the door

and let God in?

 

So full of “no” in our parenting and “no” in our politics …

So full of “no” in our finances and “no” in our fears …

So full of “no” in our doubts and “no” in our diets …

So full of “no” in our newscasts and “no” in our neighborhoods …

So full of “no”

            at every step,

            at every turn,

            at every possibility,

            at every street corner,

            at every border,

            at every desperate cry for help.

So

full

of

“no.”

 

“Can you spare a room?” Joseph begged.

            No.

“Can you spare a room?” Jesus asks.

            No?

 

But God come anyway –

full of grace and truth,

            full of promise and potential

                        and all the faith

                        and all the hope

                        and all the reassurance

                        and all the courageousness

                        and all the grace

                        and all the blessedness potential can possibly bring …

 

God comes

            into the places in our countries and cities

                        where doors close in the faces

                                    of those in need of hope,

                                    of those in need of healing,

                                    of those in need of recovery,

                                    of those in need of a warm bed

                                                                 and a hot meal

                                                                 and a safe space …

            into the places in our neighborhoods and our homes

                        where doors close in the faces

                                    of hurt feelings,

                                    of angry words,

                                    of inflated misunderstandings,

                                    of past wounds that have gone untouched

                                                                                         and untended

                                                                                         and unhealed for far too long …

            into the places in our lives and our hearts

                        where doors close

                                    out of fear,

                                    out of distrust,

                                    out of anger,

                                    out of self-doubt that has led to anxiety

                                                                                          and depression

                                                                                           and self-loathing for far too long …

 

We can try to close the doors –

            the doors to our homes,

            the doors to our cities,

            the doors to our countries,

            the doors to our hearts,

                        but God comes anyway.

We can try to whisper our “no”s

            in the farthest, deepest corners of our hearts.

We can try to shout our “no”s

            from every rooftop and treetop,

            every billboard and pop-up,

            every frustrated retort and impatient comeback,

            every wordless wail and stifled sob,

                        but God comes anyway.

God comes,

            not forcefully,

                        storming down doors

                        and talking over our “no”s,

            but tenderly,

                    lovingly,

                    hopefully,

            as a child who just wants to be held

                                                                 and kept

                                                                 and treasured.

God comes,

            not impatiently,

                        waiting only moments

                        before storming off again,

            but steadily,

                    enduringly,

                    hopefully,

            as a child who just wants to be held

                                                                 and seen

                                                                 and adored.

God comes,

            not because God has to,

                        not because God needs us

                        to keep the universe spinning,

            but because we need God –

                        deeply,

                        fiercely,

                        unendingly,

            as a child needs someone to hold them

                                                           and watch over them

                                                            and love them unconditionally.

 

And so God came.

And so God comes.

            Every minute.

            Every day.

            Every heartbeat.

            Every need.

God comes anyway.

Alleluia.

And amen.

Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Broken Dreams

Text used – Luke 1:26-45

  • Does anyone else remember the Disney movie “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”[1]?
    • Came out in the early 1990s
    • Film adaptation of true story of Sonora Webster Carver[2]
      • Young girl from Georgia
      • 1923: Answered an ad seeking an “Attractive young woman who can swim and dive; likes horses; desires to travel” → mother convinced her to answer the ad
      • Hired by William “Doc” Carver (organizer of Wild West shows with Buffalo Bill Cody)
      • Swiftly became one of the most famous horse divers in the world → She would stand at the top of a 40 ft. platform, and as a horse ran up a ramp and passed her, she would leap bareback onto it’s back and dive with the horse 40 ft. down into a large tank of water.
        • Traveled the country
        • Eventually became a standing act/star attraction in Atlantic City
          • Performed up to 5 times a day for crowds of thousands!
        • Suffered terrible accident → hit the water with her eyes open and suffered retinal displacement → left her suddenly, completely, and irreversibly blind
    • In horse diving, Sonora found a life and a career that brought her joy and excitement, travel and, above all, one of the things that she loved most: horses. When she had her accident, much of that was stripped away from her for a time. The plan she’d had for her life – the dreams she’d been living as well as any grander dreams that she’d been dreaming – were suddenly in jeopardy.
    • Advent sermon series this year has been all about God being born in the person of Jesus Christ anyway
      • In the face of danger and fear … God came anyway
      • In the face of our own failings … God came anyway
      • In the face of things that hold us back … God came anyway
      • We’ve been talking about how, even in the midst of all the struggles and challenges of life (especially in 2020 – one of the strangest, hardest years that has ever been … at least in many of our lifetimes) … even in the midst of all the struggles and challenges that make us think the whole world has stopped, God came. God comes. God will come to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.
        • Bringing light to our darkness
        • Bringing comfort to our pain
        • Bringing hope to our distress
    • And so we come to the last Sunday before Christmas Eve – before we celebrate the birth of that treasured and beloved Christ Child, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And even as we prepare for that joy – for the relief that that birth will bring – we know that there are still broken parts of ourselves that make it hard to let that joy permeate all the way into our souls. Like Sonora Webster, our pasts and our hearts harbor broken dreams.
  • So there are a couple of things that we need to address before we dig into this text. The first is fairly light-hearted. The second … is not.
    • FIRST, let’s talk for just a second about the popular contemporary Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?”[3]
      • Written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green
      • Originally recorded and released in 1991 → instant hit
      • Covered by a lot of big names
        • Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd
        • CeeLo Green
        • Pentatonix (just to name a few)
      • Basis of the song: all questions asking whether Mary was aware of just who and what her “baby boy” would become
      • It’s a beautiful song with a haunting melody that lingers in your ear and in your heart … and it’s a song that is Biblically and theologically … wrong. Our text today is the exact opposite of “Mary, Did You Know?” because it’s the angel Gabriel literally giving Mary the answers to many of the questions posed by that song. With the exception of the opening line – “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?” – the rest of the song really is precisely what Gabriel is telling Mary in our Scripture reading this morning – text: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom. … [T]he one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”[4] → So, friends, as beautiful as the song is … as much as we may love it … yes, clearly Mary did, indeed, know.
    • SECOND thing we need to address with this text is something that can make it a particularly difficult one for a lot people this time of year for reasons that we almost never talk about (to the detriment of society and the Church): the pain and heartache that reading this text can bring for anyone struggling with fertility issues this time of year → For anyone who has lost a child, who has lost a pregnancy, who has struggled and prayed for years to become pregnant with no result, this text that we’re reading this morning presents a double whammy.
      • First we hear about Mary = literally pregnant without even trying: Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”[5]
      • Second we hear more about Elizabeth = miraculously pregnant in her old age → Elizabeth certainly isn’t the first woman in the Bible who spends nearly her whole life wishing for a child only for God to intervene and bring about a pregnancy much later in life.
        • Sarah (Abraham) → birth of Isaac[6]
        • Hannah (Elkanah) → birth of Samuel[7]
        • Today’s text (Gabriel to Mary – addressing her disbelief over her own impending pregnancy): “Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”[8] → Yes, many of us have found strength and encouragement and power in that last phrase – “nothing is impossible for God” – but I cannot read this text this morning without recognizing and naming the pain, the longing, the frustration, even the anger that it brings to a lot of women and men who dream of nothing more than being in Mary and Elizabeth’s shoes. It’s a pain I know all too well myself.
          • 4 yrs. ago today that 2nd of what would be our 3 miscarriages was confirmed
          • That Christmas Eve = the only Christmas Eve in my entire life that I wasn’t in church → Because even as a pastor, my soul could not endure a night of joy and holy expectation and a baby as I was in the throes of losing my own. And I know I am not alone in knowing the ache of that particular broken dream. So today, as we read this text, we make intentional space for that experience and that pain. [PAUSE]
  • True: this text is often read as a text of joy and devotion to God → Because, frankly, that’s what it is.
    • Just after today’s text = Magnificat – Mary’s hymn of awe and adoration to God: Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”[9] → I don’t think that we can deny the joy and praise in Mary’s words. But before we go there, let’s take a few steps back and think about Mary’s very first reactions a bit more.
      • Initial response = confusion tinged with fear – text: When the angel came to [Mary], he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.[10] → Gr. “confused” = perplexed but with a connotation of distress/being troubled → And we can’t really blame Mary, can we? I mean, not only has an angel suddenly appeared to her, but he has called her “favored one” and declared that the Lord is with her. That’s the kind of thing that would definitely unsettle just about anyone, I think!
        • Get another hint at Mary’s response with Gabriel’s next words: “Don’t be afraid.” → No one says, “Don’t be afraid” to someone who already isn’t afraid, right?
      • Second response (Mary’s question about how her pregnancy could possibly be real) = skepticism tinged with worry → Mary was engaged and unmarried, and at the time, for her to be visibly pregnant before marrying Joseph would have caused a great scandal. It definitely would have brought shame on her family. It could have gotten her killed. And it almost certainly would have ended her engagement to Joseph had God not intervened.
        • Story of Gabriel’s reassuring visit to Joseph in a dream comes from Matthew’s gospel[11] → not information that Luke shares with us and definitely not information that Mary would have had in this particular moment
        • Scholar emphasizes just how touchy this situation would have been: Mary’s assignment from God is an honor yoked with struggle. In her day, an unmarried woman expecting a child was cause for disgrace. Nonetheless, her neighbors’ prospective disdain does not hinder Mary’s willingness to proceed according to God’s entreaty. … Mary comprehends that her life, and not only hers, but the whole world’s, is about to be rearranged.[12]I think it’s important to recognize that when she accepted the call that God was placing before her and took up the mantle of “God’s favored one,” Mary had to let go of whatever dreams she’d initially had for her life. Because truly nothing would be the same after she said “yes” to God.
          • Read “Reflection” from Spill the Beans worship resource[13]

How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
meant that she was ostracised by her community,
shunned by her peers,
the subject of gossip and slander?

 How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
brought isolation, anxiety and overwhelming responsibility?

 How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
brought a swollen belly
and the pain of labour and childbirth?

 How could Mary sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord”
as her body changed
and weariness settled in her bones.

 Could it be that the peace in her heart,
the knowledge of responding to God,
of making God’s will her own
was so momentous
that joy overrode apprehension
and love overcame fear
giving way to the knowledge
of true blessedness.

 Mary, mother of God,
blessed art thou among women.

  • Remember Sonora Webster Carver? → following her accident, Sonora’s words: “After considering the matter from every angle, I decided that the best strategy I could adopt would be to treat my blindness as if it were a minor detail rather than a major catastrophe. The show must go on.”[14]
    • Returned to horse diving less than a year after her injury → continued diving for 11 yrs. until her show was permanently shut down in 1942 shortly after the U.S. entered WWII
    • After the end of her performing career, Webster worked as a Braille typist for the Lighthouse for the Blind and became an activist for those who are visually impaired
    • Friends, sometimes God’s call for us – God’s new dream for us – means letting go of other dreams, maybe even breaking other dreams. It doesn’t mean that there was anything wrong with those other dreams. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with God’s dream for us. And it doesn’t mean that we can feel conflicted, challenged, even a little broken as we make one choice over another. But it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t blessing that can come out of that brokenness. And it certainly doesn’t mean that God doesn’t sit with us in the midst of our broken dreams, enfolding us with love and grace, hope and call. Amen.

[1] Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, directed by Steve Miner (Walt Disney Pictures, 1991).

[2] https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/sonora-webster-carver-daredevil-horse-diver-gygmrx/15128/.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary,_Did_You_Know%3F.

[4] Lk 1:31-33, 35b.

[5] Lk 1:34.

[6] Gen 21.

[7] 1 Sam 1-2.

[8] Lk 1:36-37.

[9] Lk 1:46-55.

[10] Lk 1:28-29.

[11] Mt 1:18-25.

[12] Ashely Cook Cleere. “Fourth Sunday of Advent: Luke 1:26-38 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 96.

[13] “Advent 4: Sunday 18 December 2016 – Reflection” in Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 21. (Scotland: Sleepless Nights Productions, 2016), 38.

[14] “Unladylike 2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America – Sonora Webster Carver: Daredevil Performer and Advocate for the Blind” from the American Masters series, produced by Thirteen for the Public Broadcasting Service. Premiered July 15, 2020, viewed Dec. 19, 2020.

Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Things That Hold Us Back

Text used – Isaiah 61:1-11

  • I want to introduce you to two women this morning: Cecilia and Virginia.
    • Contemporaries who both lived and worked in the early 20th
    • Both amazing women in their respective fields
    • Both thoroughly disregarded despite their intelligence, ingenuity, determination, and jaw-dropping accomplishments … simply because they were women.
    • Cecilia Payne → astronomer and astrophysicist[1]
      • Born in England in 1900
      • Completed all coursework and requirements of an undergraduate program at the University of Cambridge but was denied a degree → Cambridge wouldn’t start conferring degrees on women for another quarter of a century[2]
      • Received a fellowship to study astronomy at Harvard in 1923 → work there changed the field of astronomy forever
        • Granted the first Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College (since Harvard itself also didn’t confer doctoral degrees on women at that time)
        • Ph.D. thesis: Stellar Atmospheres; A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars → a thesis that has been called “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”
          • Proved that the classification system already being used for stars did, in fact, correspond to the surface temperature of those stars
          • Determined that stars are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium
          • BUT was initially dissuaded of that conclusion by a male colleague
      • Remained at Harvard as a technical assistant to the director of the Harvard College Observatory
        • Convinced to shift the focus of her work to “photometry” (basically taking pictures of stars) → phase of her work which she later referred to as “sad” and “a waste of time”
        • Named a lecturer in astronomy at Harvard in 1938 … but not listed in the Harvard catalogue until after WWII
        • Finally appointed a full professor at Harvard in 1956 → became chair of the astronomy department
    • Virginia Hall → foreign agent and French resistance organizer during WWII[3]
      • Born in America in 1906[4]
      • Studied abroad in France for most of her formative years → called France her “second country” for the rest of her life
      • Applied for positions in America’s diplomatic corps numerous times but passed up time and again despite her obvious intelligence and capability (spoke 5 languages) because she was a woman
      • Suffered a firearm accident while hunting with friends in Turkey when she was 27 → resulted in amputation of her lower left leg → forever used a wooden prosthetic which she affectionately named “Cuthbert”
      • Eventually recruited by England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1940 → trained and sent into occupied France (Lyon) → began to establish elaborate and highly successful networks of French resistance fighters
        • Carried out countless operations that chipped away at Nazi morale, disrupted supply lines, and diverted troops → e.g. – single-handedly was responsible for at least 8 German battalions being unable to reach the beaches of Normandy on D-Day
        • Coordinated numerous supply and personnel drops under the cover of darkness → secured safehouses, funds, covers, etc. for other foreign agents from Great Britain and eventually the U.S. as well
        • Broke many resistance fighters out of jail after being caught either by Nazis or by the French police collaborating with the occupying German army
        • Later trained as a radio operator (one of the most dangerous and vulnerable positions during WWII) and spent hour upon hour relaying critical messages to London via morse code
      • Evaded capture by the Germans while under cover for 3 whole years
        • Relentlessly pursued personally by Klaus Barbie, SS and Gestapo functionary known as the “Butcher of Lyon” → still never caught
        • Escaped from France into Spain for a time by trekking across the Pyrenees in the middle of winter (immensely difficult and dangerous climb in summer, let alone winter!), all the while concealing her prosthetic leg from her fellow escapees → spent short time resting up, then headed right back into enemy territory (even though the entire German army at that point had a detailed description of her and was on the lookout for her specifically)
      • Despite all of these amazing accomplishments → continually dismissed, ignored, disparaged, and even undermined by her male colleagues for being a woman
      • Returned to America after WWII → worked for the CIA until her retirement → never given the opportunities, responsibilities, or recognition that her male colleagues received, even to the point of being deliberately stymied in various positions or passed up for well-earned promotions
    • So why am I telling you about these two amazing women this morning? Because they were smart. They were ambitious. They were imaginative. They were beyond capable and infinitely qualified. But because they were women, their careers were held back in undeniable and unjust ways.
      • Last week’s sermon → God came down to dwell among us anyway even in the face of our own failings and mistakes
      • This week → recognizing that some of the struggles that we face in our life – some of the things that end up holding us back – come not from within us but from the outside … but even as we recognize and name that those struggles and hurdles exist, we also recognize and name that, indeed, God did come … has come … will come anyway, overcoming those hurdles with ease and helping us to rise above.
  • Scripture reading this morning = from Isaiah → This is significant because we have to remember that Isaiah was a prophet delivering God’s word to the people of Israel who were being held captive in Babylon or had been held captive in Babylon and had just returned to a Jerusalem unlike any they had expected.
    • 3 different parts of Isaiah = different authors of Isaiah and time period in which words of prophecy were delivered[5]
      • 1st Isaiah (chs. 1-39) = prophecies during captivity
      • 2nd and 3rd Isaiah (chs. 40-55 and chs. 56-66 respectively) = prophecies after the people had returned to what was left of Jerusalem
    • Babylonian Captivity = different from the enslavement that the people of Israel had suffered hundreds of years before at the hands of the Egyptians → In Babylon, the captive people of Israel were allowed to live similar to the way they would have in Jerusalem.
      • Participate in city life
      • Gather with one another
      • Build relationships with their Babylonian neighbors → some even married Babylonian men and women
      • Continue their intellectual and artistic pursuits
      • However, the land they lived on wasn’t their own. The homes they inhabited weren’t their own either. And the religion they were made to observe certainly wasn’t their own. They were free … but not really.
        • Ps 137 captures the anguish and desperate longing of the people of Israel during this time of captivity: Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil? Jerusalem! If I forget you, let my strong hand wither! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. LORD, remember what the Edomites did on Jerusalem’s dark day: “Rip it down, rip it down! All the way to its foundations!” they yelled. Daughter Babylon, you destroyer, a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us! A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock! → We can hear the utter pain of captivity and forced separation in this. We can hear the yearning. We can hear the despair. We can hear the hopelessness.
    • This portion of Isaiah = written after the people had actually been allowed by King Cyrus to return to Jerusalem → return hoping to find the beautiful city from the stories their grandparents told them only to find the Temple destroyed, the walls still very much in ruins, and the city nowhere near the haven they had hoped for
      • They are beaten down
      • They are disappointed
      • They are overwhelmed
      • They are devastated
    • It was to these people – these people feeling this disconnectedness and isolation, these people feeling this pain and this hunger of the heart and soul – that Isaiah spoke God’s words of reassurance and empowerment. → [READ today’s text] → In delivering his message, Isaiah doesn’t shy away from the difficult or the painful. He doesn’t try to tell the people that things aren’t as bad as they know they are. He doesn’t try to whitewash their troubles with empty platitudes. In no way does Isaiah diminish the struggles the people of Israel are enduring or the grief that they are feeling. But still, he gives them hope.
      • HOPE: [God] has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners … to comfort all who mourn[6]
      • HOPE: They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.[7]
      • HOPE: I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness … As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.[8]
  • Friends, we know that there are people and circumstances in the world around us that hold us back – things that are out of our control, things that often feel utterly and disconsolately insurmountable.
    • Broken relationships
    • Financial barriers
    • Limitations places on us by others because of their own prejudice
      • Prejudice based on race
      • Prejudice based on gender/gender identity
      • Prejudice based on economic status or education level
      • Prejudice based on where we were born
      • Prejudice based on our accent or the language we speak
      • Prejudice based on the way we worship and pray
    • All of these are things that sometimes hold us back – things that we desperately wish to overcome, but despite our best efforts, we cannot find our own way over. Like Cecilia and Virginia, we are discounted, ignored, passed over. Or maybe we’re the ones doing the dismissing and the passing over. Maybe we’re the ones discounting the work and contributions of others because of barriers they face – hurdles that they are mightily struggling to get over, hurdles placed there by others … or even by us.
      • Scholar: Even amid the greenery, candles, and mangers in our sanctuaries, it is often difficult to see God’s transformation “spring[ing] up before all the nations” (v. 11). The real definition of Advent is something Isaiah challenges us to ponder … We do not need to look too far to see the injustice of poverty, abuse, hunger, oppression, and war. Yet our Christmas distractions often speak louder than Isaiah’s call for God’s transformation. … Jesus speaks the words of Isaiah again as a reminder that God’s advent is transformation that will alter our personal lives and the world in which we live.[9]
    • Hear again God’s promise through Isaiah: Instead of shame, their portion will be double; instead of disgrace, they will rejoice over their share. They will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs. I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.[10] → To bring us reassurance and hope in the face of the things that hold us back, God came anyway. To bring us strength and courage to rise above those things that hold us back, God came anyway. To remind us that sometimes those around us are being unjustly held back, and it’s our job to make sure they can rise up, God came anyway. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cecilia-Payne-Gaposchkin.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecilia_Payne-Gaposchkin.

[3] Sonia Purnell. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. (New York, NY: Viking Publishing), 2019.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Hall.

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/Isaiah.

[6] Is 61:1b-2.

[7] Is 61:4.

[8] Is 61:10,11.

[9] Donald Booz. “Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 53.

[10] Is 61:7-9.

Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Our Own Failings

Text used – Joel 2:12-13, 28-29

  • My kids have a book that they love to read called The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.[1] (If I could have found it before coming to church this morning, I would have showed it to you … but such is life with kids!) Anyway, it’s a story about Beatrice, a girl who has never in her life ever made a mistake. She doesn’t mismatch her socks. The proportions of her peanut butter and jelly in her sandwich are absolutely even. Her homework is always perfectly done. And for the last 4 years running, her act in the school talent show has been the winning act.
    • So perfect that no one calls her Beatrice → just call her “The Girl Who Never Makes
    • Day of this year’s talent show is a little different
      • Beatrice is nervous
      • She has a couple of near misses
        • ALMOST trips and falls
        • ALMOST drops eggs in her cooking class
    • As she’s getting ready for the talent show, Beatrice grabs everything she needs and heads out the door. At least, she thinks she grabs everything she needs.
    • Gets to the talent show and begins her juggling act → juggling a water balloon, her hamster, and a salt shaker → Except, when she grabbed all of her juggling items on her way out the door, Beatrice didn’t grab the salt shaker. She grabbed the pepper shaker!
      • Pepper flies out as she’s juggling → causes her to sneeze → sneeze startles the hamster who grabs a hold of the water balloon in mid air and pops it → And suddenly Beatrice finds herself on stage soaking wet and holding a hamster and an upside-down pepper shaker. Not only has she made a mistake, but she’s made that mistake in front of everyone. And for a moment, the whole world freezes.
    • Now, I’m pretty sure that if I asked how many of us have never made a mistake, I wouldn’t see any hands raised. We all know we make mistakes, right? We know we have faults. We know we have flaws. We know that we fail. And so often, we get it in our minds and our hearts that those flaws and failings somehow exempt us from the love and work of God.
      • Our flaws are too many
      • Our failings are too great
      • And yet here we are in the season of Advent, a season in which we await the birth of the Savior once again – a Savior who comes into the realness of the human experience, a Savior who comes into the messiness of the human experience, a Savior who comes into the fracturedness and flawedness of the human experience.
  • Scripture reading this morning reminds us that this fracturedness and flawedness aren’t a surprise to God → God has been with humanity since the beginning, all. There is not a mistake that’s been made – in your past, in my past, in human past – that God hasn’t already seen. Since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, people have been making mistakes and turning away from God – both intentionally and unintentionally. That was the whole role of prophets: to deliver God’s word of reproach to the people to remind them to turn back to God in repentance.
    • Book of Joel = words of just such a prophet
      • LAST WEEK: book of Daniel → one of what we call the major prophets
      • THIS WEEK: Joel → one of what we call the minor prophets (those short little books all sandwiched together at the end of the Old Testament)
      • A bit of a hazy book[2]
        • Can’t really pinpoint the timeframe for Joel like we can for many other Biblical texts
        • Relies heavily on the work of one of the previous minor prophets: Obadiah
        • Know that it’s the word of God for the people of the southern kingdom of Judah
        • Speaks more broadly than specific time and place → renowned Old Testament scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier: The book brings with it a message that was a matter of life or death for Judah, but Joel also deliberately directs that message to every age, and thus this prophetic literature is never out of date.[3] → So Joel the prophet was deliberately stretching out his message of reproach and repentance for the people because he knew that it was a message that people in every age would need to hear.
    • And, indeed, it is. – first portion of today’s text is message that we could hear over and over again every single day: Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts, with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow; tear your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.[4] → genuine and realistic call to repentance
      • Realistic in that it recognizes mistakes have been, are being, and will be made → We will turn away from God. We will make choices contrary to what God wishes for us. We will do things that we know we shouldn’t do and neglect to do things we know we should We will mistake the call of the things of this world – fame, fortune, things that glitter and shine, people that flatter and fawn with their own agendas in mind – with the call of God and follow the wrong voice. We will misunderstand God’s call. We will even have moments when we plug our ears a lá a 2 yr. old and outright refuse to listen to God.
      • Genuine in that it makes it clear what God wants from us
        • Genuine regret
        • Genuine repentance
        • A turning and returning to God that is wholehearted and true to the depths of our spirits – text: return to me with all your hearts → Heb. expressed the utterness of this request
          • Heb. “heart” = sort of all-encompassing Heb. word that means heart but also inner being, mind, and will → So we are to return to God with everything in us. Fully. Wholly. Unequivocally.
          • Heb. “return” = Heb. “repent” (same word) → So the language implies that when we make the conscious choice to return to God, we must do so with repentance.
  • 2nd part of our Scripture reading this morning makes it clear that God’s promise of presence and hope and blessing remains even through our mistakes and mishaps
    • Text: After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.[5]
    • One of the most difficult things as a parent is trying to raise your kids to be good people, right?
      • Boys used to have shirts (that they have sadly since grown out of) that said “Boys will be boys” with the 2nd “boys” crossed out and replaced with “good humans” = shirts: “Boys will be good humans” → And that’s the ultimate goal, right? To raise kids that are kind and respectful and confident in who they are. To raise kids that want to try their best and help others and make the world a better place. To raise good humans.
        • Difficulty in walking the line between holding them to task when they’ve made a mistake without beating them over the head with that mistake (figuratively beating them over the head!)
          • Talk through the mistake with them
          • Help them to learn from it
          • Help them to find confidence and reassurance in that learning
          • Watch the evolution of their moral compass as they learn and grow
        • The saying is true, friends: parenting is not for the faint of heart! But as we help our kids navigate through the ups and downs of learning through mistakes, one of the most important things we can do as parents is make sure our kids know they are loved through it all, right? “Yes, you made this mistake. Yes, you should have made a different choice.” Maybe even “Yes, I’m disappointing in that choice that you made … but I love you anyway. No matter what.”
    • This text from Joel is God’s reassurance of that. After those initial verses about repentance, God is reassuring the people (us!) of God’s continues promise and blessing: “I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions.” “Yes, you made this mistake. Yes, you should have made a different choice. Yes, I’m disappointing in that choice that you made … but I love you anyway. No matter what. I love you so much, that I will come down anyway. I will inhabit all the messiness and flawedness of humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. I will be born to imperfect people and grow up among imperfect people. I will teach imperfect people and lead imperfect people. I will heal imperfect people. I will love imperfect people. And I will die for imperfect people to show you just how far my grace extends.” And that is what God did, friends. It happened anyway. God came down to dwell among us anyway, not in spite of our flaws and failings but because of them. God loves us enough to love us through those mistakes, helping us to grow and learn and deepen in our faith.
      • Need a reminder of that? We have one right here → communion table = God’s promise to us that no matter what, God is with us
        • God’s grace extended in something as simple and universal as wine and bread
        • God’s grace extended to us in something as common as a shared meal
        • God’s grace extended to us in blessing and prayer, in ritual and familiarity
        • Most importantly: God’s grace extended to us not just once … but over and over and over again → “Whenever you do this, remember me. Remember my love. Remember my grace. Remember that I came for you anyway.” Amen.

[1] Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein. The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes. (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), 2011.

[2] Elizabeth Achtemeier. “The Book of Joel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 7. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 301-303.

[3] Achtemeier, 302.

[4] Joel 2:12-13.

[5] Joel 2:28-29.

Sunday’s Sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Danger and Fear

Text used – Daniel 6:6-27

  • There have been a lot of words used to describe this year that we’ve had – this year, 2020, that is swiftly coming to a close. To be frank, a lot of those are words that I’m not going to repeat in the middle of a worship service! Suffice to say that many of the words that I’ve heard used to describe this year have been less than complimentary. Because I think we can all agree that it’s been a rough year on so many different fronts.
    • Year full of …
      • Isolation and loneliness
      • Frustration and uneasiness
      • Injustice and unrest
      • Loss and grief
      • Danger and fear
    • I think it’s safe to say there’s never been a year like this one. I know the word has been tossed around a lot, but between the pandemic, the protests, and the election (just to name the top 3 stressors of this year), 2020 has truly been an unprecedented year. It’s been a rock-and-a-hard-place kind of year. And yet today we enter into the season of Advent – a time of waiting for the birth of peace … and salvation … and love the encompasses all. A time when we’re waiting for the birth of an unexpected and unprecedented child into circumstances that are far from perfect and pristine. Because we know – we believe! – that even though the odds weren’t good and the world wasn’t untarnished and humanity wasn’t really ready, it happened anyway. The Star of Bethlehem shone. The angels sang. The shepherds rushed to the stable. And the Christ child was born – born to bring us God’s love wrapped in flesh and bone, in swaddling clothes and stray bits of straw. It happened anyway. Christ was born anyway. God came to dwell among us anyway … not even in spite of the fear and danger, the failings of humanity, the things that hold us back, the broken dreams, and the active “no”s … not in spite of all those things, but because of them, Love happened anyway. Grace happened anyway. God happened anyway. And it is to that reality that we will cling during this crazy, backwards, isolated Advent season. It. Happened. Anyway.
      • Advent sermon series → walk through our Scripture readings – familiar stories and the ancient words of prophets still speaking to us today – with this theme in mind: Against all odds … in the face of struggles and strife … despite hurdles and heartbreak … the Christ-child was born.
  • Starting point = probably an unexpected story → not one we generally think of as an “Advent text”: the story of Daniel in the lions’ den
    • Background for Daniel
      • BOOK of Daniel = basically divided into 2 parts
        • Back half – chs. 7-12 = what we call “apocalyptic literature”: visions, interpretations, prayers, and prophecies having to do with the greatness of God, the end of days, and retribution for the wicked
        • First half – chs. 1-6 = stories that introduce us to who Daniel the prophet was – a mouthpiece for God among the community of diasporic Israelites who had been removed from Jerusalem when the Babylonians conquered the city in 587 BCE
          • Told this at the beginning of the book of Daniel: In the third year of the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and attacked it. … Nebuchadnezzar instructed his highest official Ashpenaz to choose royal descendants and members of the ruling class from the Israelites – good-looking young men without defects, skilled in all wisdom, possessing knowledge, conversant with learning, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. Ashpenaz was to teach them the Chaldean language and its literature. The king assigned these young men daily allotments from his own food and from the royal wine. Ashpenaz was to teach them for three years to that at the end of that time they could serve before the king. Among these young men from the Judeans were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.[1] → So Daniel was one of those exiled Israelites who, in addition to being dragged from his home and possibly his family and everything that he knew, was also hand-picked by the king’s officials to serve in the Babylonian court.
    • So basically, Daniel has been hand-picked to be smart, good-looking, and above all, subservient. He is supposed to amuse the king. He is supposed to keep the king happy and entertained. He may even have chances to assist or advise the king on particular matters. But only so long as he remains in the king’s favor.
      • Similar to appointments in our own government: many people in their positions “serve at the pleasure of the president”
    • 1st rule of surviving in a forced position in a foreign, conquering court = don’t anger or offend the king (obvious)
    • 2nd rule of surviving in said court = don’t anger or offend your rivals → This is the rule that Daniel missed. Daniel is, indeed, intelligent and capable, just as he was chosen to be. And like his ancestor Joseph before him, he is also an interpreter of dreams (with God’s help, of course).
      • Previous chapters of book of Daniel → he interprets many dreams for one Babylonian king after another which earns him great favor and praise → so much favor and praise that he begins to overshadow all others – text just prior to what we read this morning: Darius [the current king] decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. Because of is extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators – so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption. So these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”[2]
    • And so we come to today’s passage: other officers and chief administrators trick the king into signing a law specifically crafted to target Daniel and his religious practice: prayer to God → law makes it illegal to worship anyone but the king himself → other officers and chief administrators catch Daniel in the act of praying to God → haul Daniel before the king, eager to see their rival punished to the fullest and most fatal extent of the new law: When the king heard this report, he was very unhappy. He decided to rescue Daniel and did everything he could do to save Daniel before the sun went down. But these men, all ganged together, came and said to the king, “You must realize, Your Majesty, that the law of Media and Persia, including every law and edict the king has issued, cannot be changed.” So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and hurled him into the pit of lions.[3]
    • But of course, that is not the end of Daniel: At dawn, at the first sight of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit. As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God – the one you serve so consistently – able to rescue you from the lions?” Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.” The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God.[4]
    • “The rest of the story” (a lá Paul Harvey) = the king decides to have Daniel’s accusers thrown into the lions’ pit instead (doesn’t work out so well for them as for Daniel) → king sends out a new decree, declaring “fear and reverence” for Daniel’s God – “the living God”
  • I don’t think any of us would argue that 2020 has been a year in the lions’ den.
    • Daniel faced danger and entrapment on all sides
      • First from the jealous and corrupt officers and chief administrators
      • Next from the letter of the law (despite the king’s anguish and frustration with his own law)
      • Finally from the lions themselves
      • And no matter how strong his faith, I can imagine that Daniel felt fear in some of those moments – fear in the moment when the other officers and chief administrators caught him in prayer; fear in the moment when, despite the king’s own misgivings, Darius sentenced Daniel to death in the lions’ den; fear in the moment when he was lowered and sealed into that pit with those lions.
        • Important point: fear and faith are not mutually exclusive à being afraid doesn’t mean your faith is weak or lacking or ineffective … But it also doesn’t mean that God is not with you.
          • Benjamin Disraeli (former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1868): Fear makes us feel our humanity.
    • If nothing else, 2020 has certainly made us feel our humanity.
      • Feel the fear of our neighbors, family, friends, and loved ones battling COVID
        • Those who are ill themselves
        • Those who are working on the front lines in overextended hospitals and care facilities around the country
        • Those who are experiencing the extreme isolation of this pandemic
        • Those who are struggling financially because of the screeching halt pandemic brought to our economy
      • Feel the fear of our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color neighbors, family, friends, and loved ones in the wake of the violent and senseless deaths of so many: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Atatiana Jefferson, and so many more
        • Feel the fear of our communities and our nation in the months that led up to the election and in these weeks that have followed
      • Fear can be paralyzing. It can be insidious. It can steal even the most basic things from us: our ability to think clearly; our breath and our speech; our compassion and our empathy. But fear can also be inspiring – the thing that stirs us to move with purpose and intention.
        • Move closer to one another
        • Move closer to God
      • Friends, the aspect of our faith that continues to astound me is that, even knowing about the deepest depths and most hidden corners of fear, God chose to come down among us. Because of those deepest depths and hidden corners, God chose to come down among us – not as some avenging force, not as some charismatic leader with an overpowering army, not as some mystical presence to sweep through the land … but as a child. As a vulnerable, precious, fully human child in a manger. God knew the dangers and fears that lived in the world … and God came anyway. God knew the dangers and fears that lived in human hearts … and God came anyway. God knew that those same dangers and fears awaited the Christ-child … that those same dangers and fears would eventually bring about the death of that Christ-child … but in that death, those same dangers and fears would be overcome forever and all time by God’s own love embodied in that Christ-child. And so God comes anyway. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Dan 1:1, 3-6.

[2] Dan 6:1-5.

[3] Dan 6:14-16a.

[4] Dan 6:19-23.

Sunday’s sermon: A Promise in Action

Text used – Isaiah 6:1-8

  • I want to share a picture with you this morning. It was taken by Romain Bréget (found on Wikimedia).[1] If you’re joining us via Facebook Live this morning, I posted this picture right before church, so it should be on our page.

  • Isn’t this a beautiful spot? A beautiful, secluded, natural spot? Well … sort of natural. You see, this is a picture of something called a holloway or a sunken lane. While it looks like a natural little ravine, this is actually an ancient road of sorts.
    • Not the kind of paved road we’re used to today or even the paved roads that the Romans erected centuries ago
    • More like a local path that has been worn down and worn down and worn down by centuries worth of feet – human and animal alike
      • Holloway in this picture = from the site of a WWII battle in La Meauffe, France
    • Article from website Atlas Obscura: “Appearing like trenches dragged into the earth, sunken lanes, also called hollow-ways or holloways, are centuries-old thoroughfares worn down by the traffic of time. They’re one of the few examples of human-made infrastructure still serving its original purpose, although many who walk through holloways don’t realize they’re retracing ancient steps. … You’re most likely to discover a holloway where the ground and the stone below are soft, such as places rich in sandstone or chalk. No one ever engineered a holloway — erosion by human feet, and horses or cattle driven alongside, combined with water then flowing through the embankments like a gully, molded the land into a tunneled road. It’s hard to date them, but most are thought to go back to Roman times and the Iron Age, although in the Middle East some are believed to stretch back to ancient Mesopotamia. They even have their own ecology, such as the spreading bellflowers that enjoy the disturbed earth.”[2]
    • I find holloways fascinating things because they have literally been born out of human habit – century upon century of people going the same way, literally walking in the footsteps of those who came before them. They’re not marked and named roads. They’re not going to appear on any map (not any conventional map, anyway). And they certain don’t change direction. They may get deeper, but the wandering ways of these sunken roads were set centuries ago. They are long past the point of change.
      • This morning: contrast the unchanging nature of holloways with the ever-changing, ever-unexpected nature of God’s call in our lives
  • Scripture reading this morning = perfect example of the emphatic and unexpected way that God calls us to action → This is the story of Isaiah’s call to be God’s prophet in a troubled time.
    • Background for Isaiah
      • Isaiah the BOOK
        • One of the major prophets (along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the book of Lamentations in the Bible)
        • Almost certainly the work of a few different editors à distinct linguistic, stylistic, and thematic differences in 3 different sections of Is (1-39, 40-55, 56-66)
        • Certain historical indicators that seem to point to those different sections being written down in different centuries → But remember, much like many other languages, Hebrew was an oral language long before it was written down. Important stories and elements of the Hebrew culture and faith were passed down from one generation to the next through stories, poems, songs, and so on. When we keep that in mind, it makes more sense that the various parts of Isaiah were eventually recorded by different people.
          • Not too unlike the 4 different accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings that we find in the 4 gospels
      • Isaiah the PERSON = prophet in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah
        • Time of prophecy spanned the reign of a number of kings → started at the end of the reign of King Uzziah (as per our text this morning) and went through the reign of King Hezekiah
          • Starts somewhere in the middle of the 8th BCE
        • Time of prophecy also covered the Babylonian exile → Jerusalem conquered by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who razed the city, then took all the best and brightest Hebrew politicians, scholars, artists, craftsmen, entertainers, teachers, priests, and so on and brought them back to live in Babylon for an entire generation → Isaiah was part of that group that was taken into exile.
    • But before all of that happened, we begin Isaiah story with his call from God – text: In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting and the house was filled with smoke.[3] → Clearly, God wanted to get Isaiah’s attention! This is some next-level call action here! Being in ministry, I have the privilege of hearing a lot of different people’s call stories.
      • Stories of calls to ministry
      • Stories of calls to other professions
      • Stories of calls to particular experiences (mission work, international placements, volunteer experiences, etc.)
      • And every single call story I’ve ever heard has been beautiful and different and powerful in its own way. To be frank, I don’t think any story of God reaching down into the heart and life of an individual and saying, “My beloved child, I have work for you to do” could be anything but powerful and eye-opening. God is so much bigger, so much greater, so much more than we are, that any brush with the Holy like that feels wild and frenetic and teeming with possibility and the unexpected. I will admit, though, that I’ve never heard a story quite as over-the-top as Isaiah’s!
    • Isaiah’s response to God’s call feels appropriately overwhelmed – text: I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”[4] → two interesting little bits to note here
      • First: Isaiah’s immediate reaction to God’s call = repentance → Isaiah doesn’t even ask for forgiveness or mercy from God. He simply names his flaws, laying bare the least pleasing parts of himself (according to him, anyway) before God.
    • Second: just how tied all of this is to speaking and silence
      • Isaiah’s confession = “I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.” → Heb. “lips” could also be “speech/language”
      • Some of the first words out of Isaiah’s mouth = “Mourn for me; I’m ruined!” → Heb. “ruined” could also be “silenced”
      • I find this fascinating, especially as we live in this culture where it feels like words become cheaper and cheaper every day. If anyone lives in among a people with unclean lips, it is us. How easy it is to shoot off an angry email or write a nasty, intentionally argumentative comment on Facebook or some other online forum. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to parrot the soundbyte that we heard on last night’s 2-minute news story without investigating the context or actual facts behind that soundbyte. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to take the latest bit of gossip that we heard and pass it on quickly through a text blast or Facebook or even a quick phone call without considering the person at the center of that gossip. How easy … and how unclean. Truly, Isaiah’s dilemma has not changed much in more than two millennia, has it?
    • But as the saying goes, those whom God calls, God also equips, and in keeping with the rest of this odd and fantastical call story, God equips Isaiah in a spectacular fashion. – text: Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” → When I was growing up, there was a row of stained glass windows in my church that depicted various scenes from Scripture: the birth of Jesus was one. So were the crucifixion and the resurrection. Moses and the Ten Commandments was another. And so was this scene – this strange, other worldly scene with Isaiah on his knees and the many-winged angels around him with one of them holding a coal to his lips.
      • Fascinating scene to see depicted in stained glass
      • Fascinating scene to imagine
      • Fire has long been used as a tool for refining things … for good and for ill. Fire refines precious metals to their purest, most precious and costly forms. Fire was also used throughout the Inquisition as a way to try to “refine” the heretical Protestantism out of people to try to get them to return to the Catholic Church, the “true” church.
        • Fire of the burning bush refined Moses’ call[5]
        • God was present in a pillar of fire as the people of Israel fled Egypt[6]
        • God was proved in the fire that came down from heaven when Elijah challenged Jezebel’s 400 prophets of Ba’al[7]
        • Jesus spoke of God’s judgment in terms of fire burning away the chaff and leaving the refined wheat[8]
        • So while God’s use of fire in Isaiah’s vision here certainly has the weight of precedence behind it, it is no less shocking … no less attention-grabbing.
    • Which is exactly what it’s supposed to be because following the burning coal touching Isaiah’s lips, we get to The Point of this story – God calling Isaiah. – text: Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.”[9] → And there it is: the crux of the matter, the moral of the story, the whole point in four simple words. “I’m here; send me.” Not surprisingly, this is a popular verse among pastors. Many have it hanging on the walls in their office or their homes in some form – as a sign, as artwork, as an undeniable and constant reminder. Many others actually have this phrase tattooed on their bodies (some in English, some in Hebrew) as an even more permanent reminder and commitment to that call. “I’m here; send me.” You see, friends, we’ve been talking about God’s promises as we’ve been winding our way through God’s Grand Story of Faith with the Narrative Lectionary this year, and this single verse contains everything that we’ve already talked about.
      • First half of the verse speaks to God’s promise to the people that God will, indeed, remain their God → God is seeking someone to go out among the people and remind them who they are and whose they are. God is seeking someone to speak God’s own words of chastisement and judgment for the actions that have drawn the people away from God, but behind that reproach is love. God isn’t looking for someone to call the people out just because God wants to give them the ultimate public shaming. God is looking for someone to call the people back to God because God loves them. God longs to be in that holy and sacred relationship with the people once more – that relationship promised and renewed and promised and renewed time and time again throughout Israel’s history. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us? Who will help the people remember me? Who will help the people find their way back to be? They are my people, and I yearn to be their God again.”
      • Second half speaks to the relational nature of that promise → Throughout Scripture, God works with people and through people. God doesn’t force people to choose God. God doesn’t force people to worship. God doesn’t force people to pray. God continues to work with these crazy, frustrating, broken human beings that God created. It is God opening the way for people to continue in this relationship that God promised to us. And it is one powerful, moving example of one of those crazy, frustrating, broken human beings saying, “Yes.”
  • Modern-day calls take on any number of variations and forms … but just because it doesn’t look dramatic and charismatic like Isaiah’s call doesn’t mean God’s call in your life is any less real, any less potent, any less packed with potential and unexpected possibilities. God calls us first to faith, but as part of that faith, God also calls us to action. Over and over again. In big ways and small ways. In easy tasks and difficult tasks. With people we love and with people we find it difficult to love. God is calling you to action. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” “I’m here; send me.” Amen.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Meauffe_-_Chemin_creux_1.JPG.

[2] Allison Meier. “Holloways: Roads Tunneled into the Earth by Time” from Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/holloways-roads-tunneled-into-the-earth-by-time?fbclid=IwAR3at6jqjT-dPVWZzDZT2cB0igdovqnFzPJz1h8IVIWDWzny7ywGSp6sKz0. Posted Sept. 25, 2014, accessed Nov. 15, 2020.

[3] Is 6:1-4.

[4] Is 6:5.

[5] Ex 3:1-12.

[6] Ex 13:17-22.

[7] 1 Kgs 18.

[8] Mt 13:24-30.

[9] Is 6:8.

Sunday’s sermon: Hidden Potential

Text used – Jonah 3:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11

  • So Julia is 2 now – 2½, actually (if you want to get technical) – and she’s started doing this thing lately. Nearly every time you ask her something, she’ll say, “No.” Not surprising, right? She is 2, after all. The funny thing is when it’s something that she actually does want to have or to do. Her automatic response is still, “No,” but half a second later, shoe goes, “But … yes.” “Julia, do you want some milk?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, do you want to go outside?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, should we read some books?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” (Just kidding … the answer to that last question is ALWAYS yes!) Oh, toddler-hood! It’s an easy thing to joke about, right? “Toddlers always say no. Hahahahahaha!” But do you know when it becomes less funny? When it’s adults.
    • Adults who refuse to listen to each other
    • Adults who refuse to talk to each other
    • Adults who resist any form of communication with each other whatsoever
    • Adults who have decided the other side is
      • Unreasonable
      • Unreachable
      • Unredeemable
  • Enter our Scripture story this morning: Jonah. Most of us probably think of this story as “Jonah and the Whale” or “Jonah and the Big Fish.” I have a tendency to think of this story as “Jonah the Adult Toddler.” I bet you can figure out why. Let’s read the story. [read text] Like I said … “Jonah the Adult Toddler,” right? Jonah … who ran away from God when God said, “Come here.” Jonah … who tried to hide from God in the hold of a ship heading in the opposite direction. Jonah … who was pretty sure he knew better than God. Jonah … who, when he was proved wrong, decided to go up on the mountain and pout. Jonah … the adult toddler. → two separate judgments that Jonah makes in our text this morning
    • First judgment = Jonah’s judgment of the people of Nineveh
      • Now, Nineveh had quite the reputation back in Jonah’s day.
        • Huge city – text: Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.[1]
        • Wild and sinful city Let’s just say the motto for Nineveh could easily have been: “What happens in Nineveh stays in Nineveh.”
          • Described this way in various parts of the OT
          • Also described this way by various ancient writers and historians (Herodotus, Aristotle, etc.)[2]
        • Foreign city
          • Capital of Assyrian empire at the time relations between Assyrians and Israelites were never good
            • Antagonistic
            • Hostile
            • Violent
          • So in Jonah’s defense, God calling him to take a word of rebuke and call to repentance to the city of Nineveh is no small feat. It is a frightening call. It is an intimidating call. And it is a potentially dangerous call. On the other hand, Jonah is by far the first person God calls to do something hard. God called David to kill the giant Goliath.[3] God called Daniel to worship despite King Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous decree, and Daniel ended up in the lions’ den.[4] God called Esther to circumvent Haman’s political manipulations and plans of genocide.[5] God called Shiprah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, to defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill all male Hebrew babies born in Egypt and ended up saving the life of Moses.[6]
        • As an Israelite, these are all stories that Jonah would have known – stories from which Jonah could have drawn courage and conviction in the face of his challenging call. And yet, when God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah flees. Jonah runs from God as far and as fast as he can in the exact opposite direction.
          • Makes is way to Joppa (modern-day Tel Aviv) and gets on a ship headed for Tarshish (modern-day Lebanon) literally flees west when God has called him to go east
          • And why does Jonah do this? Because of his pre-judgment of the people of Nineveh. They’re supposed to be lawless people. They’re supposed to be scary people. They’re supposed to be immoral people. They’re supposed to be people beyond saving. Surely, Jonah’s never been there himself.
            • Jonah = one of the Hebrew people from the northern kingdom of Israel
            • Jonah served as a prophet for God during a time of relative peace means Jonah got to bring words of affirmation and comfort … You know, words that people liked to hear. Words that people were happy to hear. Words that people found to be a blessing rather than a condemnation. So Jonah’s life was pretty cushy. This whole “taking God’s word of judgment to a giant city full of rough-and-tumble people” didn’t really fit in with Jonah’s vibe.
          • So without even meeting the people of Nineveh … without ever setting foot anywhere near the city itself … Jonah dismisses them as not worth his time. Not worth God’s time. Certainly not worth even the possibility of God’s redemption.
    • Middle of the story
      • Jonah gets on the ship headed for Tarshish God causes a massive storm at sea that puts the ship and its entire crew in jeopardy Jonah finally fesses up that he’s running from God sailors throw Jonah into the sea (at his own request) sea immediately calms Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish and spends 3 days in its belly giant fish vomits Jonah out onto the shore God calls Jonah a 2nd time to go to Nineveh Jonah finally relents – text: And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. … Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[7]
      • But then, something miraculous happens. The people of Nineveh – those scary, evil, immoral people that Jonah had tried so hard to avoid! – heard God’s word through Jonah. They believe God’s word, and they repented. – text: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.[8]  And indeed, God does And indeed, God does turn away from the path of wrath and destruction that God had laid out for the people of Nineveh. God was, indeed, merciful and gracious to them.
    • And here’s where Jonah’s 2nd judgment comes screaming into the story – text: But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”[9]  So Jonah stomps out of the city, heads up to one of the hillsides surrounding Nineveh, and sits down to pout. And there he is, folks! There’s the adult toddler Jonah, full of petulance and backhanded compliments. “I knew you were too nice, God. I knew you were too loving, too forgiving. Thanks for wasting my time, God, since you’re too nice to destroy this city. You brought me all the way here for nothing. Might as well kill me because this is lame. Humph!”
      • Jonah is judging God’s mercy as too broad
      • Jonah is judging God’s forgiveness as too easy
      • In Jonah’s mind, he’s come all this way, he’s gone through all these trials and tribulations (which, let’s remember, were his own doing), he’s shouted himself hoarse delivering God’s word to such a giant city, and he wants to see some punishment! He was to see some real live fire and brimstone! He wants to witness the destructive power of a righteously angry God. He doesn’t want to see this wimpy, predictable, lackluster response from God. Forgiveness, for Jonah, is just not exciting enough. So he judges God’s response as inadequate.
        • God tries to reason with Jonah and teach him in this strange little vignette at the end: Jonah builds a sulking hut on the side of the hill God causes a bush to grow up beside Jonah to provide him some shade (which Jonah thoroughly enjoys) next day, God sends a worm to eat the shrub so it withers and dies God doubles down and adds a full, hot sun and a “dry east wind” to the mix, making Jonah’s sulking hut on the hillside definitively uncomfortable Jonah gets angry again (maybe a touch more justified this time) – text: God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good – even to the point of death!” But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[10]  God is trying to get Jonah to understand just how misguided it is to mourn the passing of a simple shrub while rooting for the destruction of an entire massive city. God is trying to provide Jonah with some much-needed perspective.
  • So what happens to Jonah? Who knows? That last question that God poses to Jonah about pity for Nineveh’s 120,000 people and animals is the end of the book. Maybe Jonah stayed up on that hillside until he did, indeed, perish. Maybe he stayed up on that hillside until he was too hot, hungry, and thirsty to continue, then went down to seek refuge from the very city that he argued so hard to condemn. Maybe he saw the error of his ways and engaged in a little repentance of his own. We simply don’t know.
    • What we do know: this story isn’t really about Jonah it’s about God and the lengths to which God will go to reach out to us
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh à traveled every frustrating, circuitous step of the journey with Jonah
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to Jonah through his stubbornness and indignation
        • A storm at sea
        • The belly of a giant fish
        • A shrub, and a worm, and a hot, hot day
      • And God does this – God goes to these lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh … to Jonah … even to us today – because God loves us. God loves us enough to see through all the barriers we put up and the false selves that we cling to. God love us enough to see the truth of our hearts and our souls. God loves us enough to recognize hidden potential in us even when we refuse to see it ourselves … when we are too busy getting in our own way.
        • Potential that we don’t see
        • Potential that the world doesn’t see
        • Potential that some, out of their own ignorance and prejudices, may try to diminish, deny, or destroy not unlike the way Jonah wished for the destruction of Nineveh despite the potential that God saw there But God sees through those false judgments and malicious intentions of the world, too. Whether we are the ones hiding our own potential or the world is trying to crush it out of us, God is greater. God sees. God knows. God loves. And God will move.
      • Beautiful thing: God’s love makes that initial move to reach out to us because God sees that potential But it doesn’t stop there. As God’s love claims us and enfolds us, it also begins to change us. God’s love works slowly but surely within us – our words and our actions, our thoughts and our desires, our hopes and our prayers – and transforms us bit by bit into a greater and greater embodiment of God’s love in the world. And in that transformation, even more hidden potential is revealed in us and through us. It’s like a fabulous upward spiral, going higher and higher and getting wider and wider as we draw nearer to God. All because God sees potential in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Jonah 3:3.

[2] Thomas M. Bolin. “Nineveh as Sin City” from Bible Odyssey. https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/nineveh-as-sin-city. Accessed Nov. 7, 2020.

[3] 1 Sam 17.

[4] Dan 6:10-24.

[5] Est 5-8.

[6] Ex 1.

[7] Jonah 3:3, 4.

[8] Jonah 3:5-9.

[9] Jonah 4:1-3.

[10] Jonah 4:9-11.

Sunday’s sermon: Gritty Hope

Text used – 1 Kings 17:1-16

  • The classic 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem called “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”[1] You’ve probably heard it, or at least are familiar with the first line of it:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

  • I’ve always loved this poem because it paints such a beautiful, delicate picture of hope. Hope, the tender little bird perched in the soul. Hope, the light, uplifting melody echoing in the dark. Hope, the warm and welcoming fire that keeps out the chill. That’s the kind of hope that I picture with Emily Dickinson’s poem, and I think a lot of the time, that’s the way that we think about hope in general.
    • Hope that comes with a new phase of life → new home, new job, new relationship, new baby, etc.
      • Hope of endless possibilities and open doors
      • Hope that is effervescent and brilliantly bright
      • Hope that bubbles and sparkles with excitement and joy overflowing
      • Hope that anticipates all good things
  • But that’s not the kind of hope we find in our Scripture reading this morning. In this story, we encounter the grittier, grungier side of hope. → see the same gritty, urgent, audacious hope in both of the main characters this morning: Elijah, the prophet and the widow of Zarephath
    • First, Elijah → prophet sent by God to deliver words of condemnation and a call to repentance to King Ahab
      • Ahab = king of the northern kingdom of Israel in late-to-mid-800s BCE
        • Evil king
        • Married to Jezebel → leads Ahab to abandon worshiping God and instead establish the Canaanite religion of Ba’al in Israel
        • So not only has Ahab himself turned away from God, but he’s led the entire nation of Israel to turn away from God as well.
      • Hence Elijah’s call to be God’s prophet – to declare the word of God in the face of such widespread and state-led idolatry. And so we open with Elijah’s words for Ahab in our passage today: this threat of a national drought so severe that “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”[2] Not surprisingly, this declaration infuriates Ahab and Jezebel so much that Elijah is forced to flee.
      • Today’s reading = Elijah running for his life → God instructs Elijah to run and hide himself by the Cherith Brook, reassuring him that the ravens will bring him food → And so Elijah heads into the wilderness. And since he’s relying on the brook for his water and the ravens for his food, I think we can assume he fled with little to nothing. The clothes on his back, and God in his heart. Imagine the desperate hope Elijah must have been clinging to throughout this ordeal.
        • Hope that the birds will come the next day … and the next … and the next
        • Hope that God will not forget him
        • Hope that Ahab and Jezebel’s agents won’t find him
        • Hope tinged with the fearful knowledge and reality that the brook providing the water that’s keeping him alive will certainly dry up because of God’s words from Elijah’s own mouth: “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”
      • And in fact, that’s exactly what happens: After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land. The Lord’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon, and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Elijah left and went to Zarephath.[3]
    • And so we are introduced to the other character in desperate need of hope in today’s story: the widow of Zarephath. The woman with literally nothing left. Nothing but a tenacious and tattered scrap of hope.
      • Elijah encounters the widow collecting sticks outside the town gate → asks her for water → when she brings him water, Elijah goes a step further (giant step!) and asks for some bread as well
      • Widow’s own description of her circumstances is chillingly bleak: “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll at the last of the food and then die.”[4]
        • A couple of interesting things to notice about this enigmatic widow
          • FIRST: as a woman from Zarephath, she was surely not an Israelite (Zarephath = modern-day Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, roughly 100 mi north of the border between Israel and Sidon) → see this “otherness” when she says to Elijah, “the Lord your God”
          • BUT: she is clearly someone that God has interacted with in some way
            • Yes, she says, “The Lord your God,” but when she says that, uses the sacred Hebrew name for God. She calls God “Yahweh,” a name that was only used between God and the people of Israel.
            • Remember God’s word to Elijah on the dried-up banks of Cherith Brook: Get up and go to Zarephath … I have ordered a widow there to take care of you.[5]
              • Heb. in this phrase is fraught with layers and meanings to wrestle with: “take care of” carries connotations of a task that needs to be endured, but at the same time “ordered” carries connotations of a direct command but also a blessing → It’s a complicated and complex statement. It seems that God knows this particular command is not going to be easy for this foreign widow, but God also ensures that there will be blessing in the midst of this challenge. There will be goodness. There will be hope.
      • And indeed, Elijah brings a miracle and brings this nameless, Gentile widow hope. – text: Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t fun out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. The jar of flour didn’t decrease, nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.[6]
  • Confession: I find this to be a really, really uncomfortable Biblical story because of what Elijah does here. This widow is at the bottom of the social ladder. She’s just told Elijah that she literally has nothing left. And yet Elijah asks of her. “Before you make your last bit of food for yourself and your son, make some for me. Feed me first, then take care of yourselves.” Yes, I know that it works out alright in the end. Yes, I know that Elijah was acting on God’s behalf. But it still sits prickly and troublesome in my soul, especially in the face of the poverty and injustice suffered by so many across this country and around the world today.
    • Scholar put pointed and powerful words to this discomfort: Too many around us are that widow or that child, literally or figuratively. Too many around us feel lost, hopeless, hungry, and thirsty for something beyond the tangibles of daily living, for more than meager leftovers, scraps of food, love, and justice. Many feel there is simply no one willing to empower them with healing and grace.[7] → Too many feel that loss of hope. Too many feel that hope is beyond their reach. Or at best, too many are only acquainted with the grittier side of hope – the desperate, slogging-through-the-mud, last chance kind of hope.
      • Hope that is more like molasses than the effervescent bubbles of champagne
      • Hope that is more frayed and tattered than gleaming and brilliant
      • Hope that is more like a quickened pulse than an outright, joy-filled laugh
      • Hope that has been tempered and knocked down and stripped nearly away so many times that it is a mere shred
  • Friends, we are still in the throes of a global pandemic. The numbers around us are rising rapidly. Our healthcare workers are exhausted and overwhelmed. Our teachers are frantically doing everything they can to teach while keeping a classroom full of masked kids safe. And we have been apart from each other for so long … with no sure end in sight. Friends, we are facing Election Day this week at a time, as Rev. Dr. Nishioka said last week, when our country is more politically divided and hostile than it has been since the Civil War. The constant political rhetoric is ruining relationships left and right: between neighbors, between friends, between families. Friends, our black, indigenous, people of color neighbors are crying out for justice and paying for those cries with the blood of their bodies and with their very lives while white supremacist groups march openly through the streets armed to the teeth. I don’t know about you, but my hope feels fragile. It feels brittle. It feels more like Elijah’s hope along the bed of that dried up creek. It feels more like the hope of the widow gathering the last sticks to make her last meal. It’s not that bubbly, effusive, joy-overflowing kind of hope. It’s the kind of hope that you fiercely cling to by your fingertips, not the kind of hope that you gently shelter in the palm of your hand. But it is still hope.
    • Scripture this morning is so important because it reminds us that God still makes space for that darker, dingier side of hope as well as the sparkling, pie-in-the-sky kind
    • Recently read a book called Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang (director of International Justice Mission’s Institute for Biblical Justice): God is so greatly concerned with injustice that [God] continually invites [God’s] children to face darkness for the purpose of sending us in to scatter it. As we choose to face grave darkness in our broken world, one of the best ways to combat our own pendulum swinging between apathy on the one hand and despair on the other is to also intentionally choose hope. Hope can be impotently naïve and moorless when pursued as nothing more than a sentimental wish. But when hope in grounded in the reality of who God is and the reality of how God works in our world, it becomes a source of great power in the face of even the darkest circumstances.[8] → “Intentionally choose hope.” It doesn’t have to be perfect hope. It doesn’t have to be pretty hope. It doesn’t have to be big hope. It can be the smallest, most tattered scrap of hope you have left. But for God, that is enough. Amen.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314.

[2] 1 Kgs 17:1.

[3] 1 Kgs 17:7-10a.

[4] 1 Kgs 17:12.

[5] 1 Kgs 17:9.

[6] 1 Kgs 17:13-16.

[7] Gláucia Vasconcelos Wilkey. “Proper 5 (Sunday between June 5 and June 11 inclusive) – 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24): Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 100.

[8] Bethany H. Hoang. Deepening the Soul for Justice. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 26.