The Longest Night

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + December 21, 2016


A reading from the Gospel according to Luke:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2:25-35, NRSV)


Tonight is the longest night of the year. Despite our efforts to harness the sun through the great trick of Daylight Saving’s Time, the darkness of night has taken over more and more of the morning time, and the sun has been setting earlier and earlier in the evening. I’m sure many of you feel like you hardly get to experience the sunlight at all, and it’s an even stronger feeling when those few hours of sun are clouded over. If we didn’t know better – if we hadn’t been through this before – it could seem like the darkness was slowly overtaking the light.

We might have that same feeling at other times that have nothing to do with the length of daylight. Shadows fall with illness or injury, loneliness or over-exertion, bad news or brain chemistry, and life just seems so dark.

Maybe Simeon and the others who longed for the coming of the Messiah felt that kind of heavy darkness. The Messiah was the hope people clung to in the darkest times: the fire that would burn away evil and suffering; the “sun of righteousness”; the dawning of a new day; the light that would brighten the future.

A few weeks ago the Monday Evening Bible Study group talked via Skype with Lois Tverberg, the author of the book we’d been reading, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. It’s a book that taught us to better understand Jesus by studying the Jewish culture that he lived and breathed. We asked Lois about what Jewish people believed — and still believe — about the Messiah: what were they hoping for? What were they expecting? It’s a complicated question to answer in a few minutes, but she gave us a general picture of the wide spectrum of beliefs about the longed-for Messiah.

You are probably familiar with one common belief: that the Messiah would come as a warrior-king, conquering in the name of God, striking down the wicked, lifting up the righteous, and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven. Another school of thought said that the Messiah would only come after the world became what God wanted it to be: we would have to perfect ourselves and repair our world first, and then the Messiah would arrive. You might say that for those believers striving for righteousness was a way of “preparing the way of the Lord.” On either end of the spectrum, the coming of the Messiah was a sign of the perfection of the world.

What tonight’s story, what Simeon’s song and his prophecy tell us about Jesus the Messiah is much messier than that. This is a messiah born in the midst of darkness and brokenness, with more on the horizon.

In the Gospel of Luke, it is already obvious that this infant Messiah was born into the midst of an imperfect world. He was born into the midst of the global constants of our brokenness: wars, disease, poverty, greed…And the hurt of our world also surrounded Jesus’s own birth in specific ways: his mother had been forced to travel while heavily pregnant so that she and her husband could be placed on the registry of a far-away Emperor; and when it came time to deliver her child, she and Joseph could find no shelter. The Bible doesn’t even mention a stable; for all we know, our savior was born in the streets.

And now, a few weeks later, Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus at the Temple. But the words that Simeon speaks over this little baby do not paint visions of a King who will easily conquer the world; instead, Simeon’s words to the young parents are haunting: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

We, who know what happens in the rest of Jesus’s story, might hear in those words the foretelling of conflicts, ridicule, persecution, and crucifixion. And those things continue for Jesus’s disciples even after his resurrection.

And today, two-thousand years after the birth of the messiah, our world is still not perfect. In the midst of celebrating Christ’s birth, we are haunted by images from Aleppo; we are reminded of the hungry families in our own community; we mourn those who are not with us in our celebrations, and we grieve those we fear to lose. And so something about today, December 21, rings true: that in so many ways we are living in the longest night.

And yet we know that tomorrow – December 22 — there will be a little more light, and the next day a little more, and the next day, a little more.

And we know that a light shone in that manger 2,000 years ago. It was not the sudden, bright, light of a world made perfect; but it was the quiet light of a slow dawn: the gentler, humbler light of love — but with all the strength of divine love in action.

Because the message of the birth of the messiah —surprisingly — was not perfection. It was Emmanuel: God is with us. In the midst of our brokenness, our grief, our suffering, Emmanuel: God is with us. Even in the middle of our longest nights, Emmanuel: God is with us.

God cares for us — enough to take on flesh and dwell with us in this imperfect world. God grieves with us. God weeps with us. And God moves in us and around us to fight against that darkness and bring light into our world: God brings the light of love, through family and friends and even strangers sent to support us and help us to smile. God brings the light of joy through music and art that uplift us, through good memories, through the practice of thankfulness. God brings the light of hope for another dawn and a little more light. God brings the light of faith that Christ will come into our lives again, and again, and again — to “make our darkness bright.” We are not fighting the darkness alone. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Ready for God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 12th Sunday After Pentecost + August 7, 2016

Readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40


Almost every movie about teenagers at some point includes the line, “His parents are  out of town this weekend, and he’s having a huge party!” And then inevitably the party gets out of hand, the house gets trashed, and suddenly the parents pull up in the driveway, home a day early, and everyone is rushing to escape or clean up or hide all evidence of the party. (I expect some of you have more experience with these things in real life than others: as a parent or as a teenager.)

That stereotype has been popping up in my entertainment more than usual this week: in one tv show, the kids’ mad-scientist grandpa froze time so they could clean up the party mess before their parents got to the front door. (They left time frozen for six months, so they could take their time).1 In a book I read, the parents returned from vacation to find their house trashed and zombie-teenagers still slumped at their kitchen table.2

Anyway, those stories got into my head enough that as I was trying to interpret Jesus’s parable about the wedding banquet — a parable about slaves and masters and situations that don’t directly relate to our experiences — my imagination started re-writing it as a parable about one of those legendary teenage parties:

Be like those who are waiting for their parents to return from their weekend trip, so that they may open the door for them as soon as they knock. Blessed are those children whom the parents find alert when they come; truly I tell you, the parents will put on their aprons and serve their children snacks. If they come during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and find their children so, blessed are those children. […] You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I may not be so off-the-beaten-path in this interpretation, since a few verses later Jesus talked about one of the slaves taking advantage of his master’s absence to eat and get drunk and beat up the other slaves (Luke 12:42-48).

But, of course, there is one major difference between teenagers being ready for their parents to come home and us being ready for God. Being prepared for parents to return — or the boss to come back — requires some common sense, some responsibility, and maybe some impulse control. But what does it take for us to be ready for God? First and foremost: it takes a whole lot of faith and a whole lot of hope.

When I still lived at home, I saw my parents come and go all the time: sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for a couple of days. Plans might change and accidents can always happen, but I basically knew my parents would return. When I worked at Panera, I knew that if my boss said she was going on a ten-minute break, she’d be back in nine. It didn’t take faith or hope to make me prepare for her return (and to keep me from eating all the chicken salad on the sandwich line) — it was just…obvious that I should expect her.

But expecting God to show up is not obvious. Even those of us who have had very strong experiences of God speaking to us or guiding us or taking action in our own lives can probably also explain those moments away: maybe it was just a coincidence; maybe I was just taught to see God in moments like that. God tends to be invisible and intangible and — most frustrating of all — unpredictable. God is much easier to doubt — and therefore much harder to trust with anything as precious to us as our present and our future.

Consider today’s Old Testament reading: the story of God promising Abraham, an old man with no biological children, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Imagine yourself as Abraham. Imagine having no idea how the story turns out. Imagine that the one thing you want most in the world — something that you had long ago given up hope every happening, something you were powerless to control, something that seems impossible —imagine that thing had been promised to come to you. Even if you had the direct connection to God that Abraham had: how difficult would it be to really trust all that depth of emotion and longing to something that sounds so impossible?

Abraham trusted enough in God’s power and faithfulness that Abraham made himself vulnerable to hope and expect and plan for this promised future. And maybe it would be worth the risk of being disappointed and brokenhearted to put that kind of faith and hope in God’s promise — even for those of us who don’t hear from God so directly as Abraham — just to have hope and joyful expectation for our futures. Isn’t living that way more pleasant than living in despair, anyway — even if in the end we don’t get what we want?

But as Jesus reminds us in today’s reading, being ready for God and God’s promises demands more of us than that kind of feel-good faith and hope. In fact faith and hope themselves demand that we not only feel differently, but also see and live differently. As Jesus said: we are to be “dressed for action and have [our] lanterns lit.” Through our faith God asks us to shift our priorities and take action and make sacrifices. God asked Abraham to leave his land and his family to travel to a new land — when Abraham was 75 (Gen. 12:1-6)! Faith and hope in God are serious commitments that change not only our outlook, but also the way we live our lives every day. We are called to live with confidence that God’s promises will come to be. We are called to be ready for God.

So what does that look like? What did Jesus ask of his disciples? We could make a long list of examples, but in today’s gospel reading we hear: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return.”

This is a very different set of priorities than that which comes easily to most of us. American culture encourages us to be more like the rich man from the story Jesus told just a few verses before today’s reading, the story we read in worship last week: the rich man grows crops and accumulates and accumulates stuff and builds bigger barns to store it in, all so that he can feel safe and secure and rest easy (Luke 12:13-21). Sound like a familiar message? It even sounds reasonable.

But Jesus says that all the rich man’s work is meaningless; it comes to nothing when he dies. Instead of being rich toward himself, Jesus said, the man should have been “rich toward God.” He should have had a different set of priorities. He should not have placed his hope and faith in material wealth, but in God: and then his life would have been different, more meaningful.

In today’s gospel Jesus told his disciples to redefine what it meant to be doing well in life: what matters is not how big our barns are or how much we have stored up or even by how much safety and security we can build up. What matters is trusting that God will fulfill God’s promises to love and care for all people and living out of that trust. Not to accumulate for our own security, but to help meet the needs of others. To treasure God’s mission above treasure. When our heavenly parent pulls up in the driveway, we should be found living as if the promised kingdom of God were already here among us, prepared for God’s grace and mercy and justice to come in full. Faith and hope call us to live in God’s promises even now; to change our lives and take risks for those promises even now.

Today’s parable reminds us to be ready and waiting: to live prepared for God’s promises to arrive. We should be on the lookout for signs of God already present, already at work around us and among us. See the world through faith and hope. See where God is already bringing promises to life, and be ready to jump in and share those promises with the world.

Caspar David Friedrich

Woman Before the Rising Sun (Woman Before the Setting Sun). Caspar David Friedrich, 1774-1840. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.


1. [Rick and Morty. “A Rickle in Time.” Season 2, episode 1. Directed by Wes Archer. Written by Matt Roller. Adult Swim (Cartoon Network). Aired July 26, 2015. (Not recommended for children or most people.)]

2. [Charles Burns. Black Hole. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005). (Also not recommended for children or most people.)]

Moments of Grace

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 11th Sunday After Pentecost + July 31, 2016

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14 & 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21


In fairy tales the world usually makes sense. There may be crazy things like talking frogs and  snacks that give people the ability to fly, but in the big picture things make sense. The hero succeeds in the name of what is right; the innocent village is saved; the villains face the consequences of their evil ways, and the good characters live happily ever after. In fairy tales things almost always happen the way we feel they are supposed to happen.

Maybe that is the most fantastical thing about fairy tales, because real life isn’t very much like that. In real life there is some chance that what we do will lead to the expected results. Like in Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper: the grasshopper spends all summer partying, while the ant toils away, storing up food. When winter comes, the grasshopper has no food and goes hungry, but the ant is able to live off of his rations. There’s definitely wisdom in this story: it’s a good idea to do the work you need to do in order to meet your needs, and hopefully if you work hard like the ant, you’ll be full like the ant.

But sometimes even when we try our best to be good, to work hard, and to be healthy and wise, things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes life is much more like the parable Jesus told in today’s gospel reading: the rich man is blessed with an abundance of crops, figures out a way to store them so that he can retire to rest and live off his stores…and then that night he dies. His work and his planning come to nothing.

wenceslas_hollar_-_rich_man

“Rich Man,” Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677. Via Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

This kind of story is far too familiar. Hearing Jesus’s parable makes me think about people in our community who work long hours — maybe juggling two or three jobs — and still can’t make ends meet. It makes me think of people I’ve known — in the hospital, in my family, in this congregation — who have tried their best to live healthy lives and still find their bodies taken over by diseases while they are young. It makes me think of children who do their very best and yet can’t escape the addiction or the abuse or the poverty of their families. It makes me think of sudden accidents and betrayals by friends or family, of children who die before their parents…it makes me think of the simple fact that we’re all going to die one day. Sometimes these realities can make all our hard work and even life itself seem so meaningless.

This is the mental space the “Teacher” writing Ecclesiastes is living in. “Vanity of vanities,” he says, “all is vanity!” The Hebrew word translated to “vanity” means something like “vapor” or “breath” or “smoke.” Using that word to describe life paints a picture of how fleeting life is and how impossible it is to grasp it and control it. The Teacher laments about the futility of working: sure, he may earn good money, but then he will leave it to his children — it will be for them to invest and to enjoy, and who knows if they’ll use it wisely or foolishly. He laments the futility of being righteous: righteous people and wicked people both suffer and die (Eccles. 3:16-22). In the end, what can we control, what can we enjoy, what meaning can we make? “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”

(Those of you who like to read the Bible first thing in the morning, let me warn you from experience: Ecclesiastes is not a good way to start your day.)

Grace is many things. As I meditated on Ecclesiastes this week, I began to think of grace as the gift of meaning in the midst of all that meaninglessness. For instance: the point of Jesus’s parable is not “The man did all that work, and it was all for nothing. Isn’t life meaningless? All is vanity!” That’s how the Teacher from Ecclesiastes might sum up the story, but Jesus did it differently. Jesus ended his parable by pointing toward another way of living, a truer source of meaning in life: here, he called it being “rich toward God.” At other times he talked about living in the Kingdom of God, or following him, or taking up our cross.

All these phrases describe a life that is lived from a different perspective. Christian faith does not —or should not — mean denying all those unfair results and surprising tragedies that sometimes make life seem meaningless. That our main symbol is the cross — and that “taking up our cross” is one way of describing discipleship — ought to remind us to pay attention to the hard facts of mortal life. Our history is full of martyrs. Our scriptures call over and over again for us to pay attention to injustice: to poverty, to those in pain, to widows and orphans and social outcasts. Christian ethics ask us to sacrifice, to give of our blessings and the fruits of our labor, even beyond what is fair or reasonable. The cross reminds us that life necessarily involves letting go, suffering, unfairness, and, yes, death. But the cross also reminds us of grace, and moments of grace help us see all this in a different light.

The first gift of grace is the gift of acceptance — a gift in which God is rich toward us. It says, “Yes, life treats you unfairly. And yes, you do wrong sometimes. And yes, you will die. But there is Someone beyond all this that says you are loved, you are forgiven, and you are meaningful — and that Someone wants better for you.” This gift of grace gives us “the courage to be,” the courage to stand against a world that seems like its trying to make us feel small and meaningless and afraid, the courage to find meaning in our lives, to feel hope and joy and love. We have the courage to see all those things — to take hold of all those things as they come — because God says they belong to us; God has given them to us. Grace gives us the faith to see that our lives do have meaning.1

The second gift of grace is the gift of vocation, of a calling; this is where we are rich toward God. Grace takes us beyond ourselves and gives us a purpose as part of God’s mission in the world. We get beyond those questions of “what will happen to us if…” We get beyond trying to control the way life will go when we — as Pastor Lippard said in last week’s children’s sermon — “just do it,” when we are rich toward God, when we love our neighbor. And then when we look back at a moment helping someone, or using our talents well, or just spending time with a friend, and think: now that was a good use of my time. That was meaningful. And these moments of grace remind us that life does have meaning.

I call these moments of grace because I know how easy it is to slip into that Ecclesiastes mindset. I know that I need to be pulled back to faith and meaning over and over again. But I also know that God comes to us in moments: moments where that still, small voice says, “You are accepted,” and helps us believe it; moments where we lose ourselves in meaningful work or in the experience of joy; moments where the company of a good friend seems to give us all we need; moments where we can focus on the good things in our lives and let the negatives fade into the background. In Ecclesiastes we see how wisdom and realism can show us a bigger picture, where life seems meaningless; but moments of grace take us one step further, beyond our usual measures of meaning. These moments of grace help us find meaning not through logic, but through a pure experience of meaning, meaningfulness, of being loved and loving others.

In moments of grace we find ourselves confessing: yes, this is meaningful, this is what life is all about. Thanks be to God.


1. [Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, (New Haven): Yale University Press, 2nd edition: 2000); Tillich, “You are Accepted,” (sermon) online at http://www.areopagus.co.uk/2012/05/you-are-accepted-paul-tillichs-famous.html]

Expect Life

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Resurrection of Our Lord + March 27, 2016

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12


 

At dawn on a Sunday morning, about 2,000 years ago, a group of women walked toward a tomb. They were prepared to see death: they brought spices to wash a dead body, to wash away the scent of death from one they had loved so dearly.

And of course they were prepared to see death; they were walking toward the tomb where they’d seen Jesus’s dead body laid two nights before (Lk. 23:55). Of course they were prepared to see death; they had watched as Jesus hung on a cross; they had watched as he cried out “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and breathed his last (Lk. 23:46, 49). Of course they were prepared to see death; they’d seen so much of it in their lives already: friends who died in childbirth; children who didn’t survive to adulthood; fellow Jews killed on the orders of Pilate (Lk. 13:1). Disease, starvation, the cruelty of people in power, violent rebellion. They had seen so much death; they expected only to see more.

We can be a lot like those women. We, too, have seen so much death. Death pops up in news alerts on our phones or TV screens: another terrorist attack, in Brussels or Afghanistan; another shooting; another accident. Death gets closer to home, too: we hear diagnoses; we feel disease or pain in our own bodies; someone we love dies, slowly or suddenly. We have known death, too; and we expect to see more of it.

And what we expect, we prepare for. We don’t come bearing spices, but we may come bearing arms, or fear, or distrust. We go into the world bearing grief and anger, we go with our defenses up. We go ready to fight or to hide away, to keep other people out. We go ready to give up hope in life in the face of the reality of death, much like the women who approached the tomb of the person in whom they’d placed all their hopes.

The women arrived at the tomb, the stronghold of death. If there was any place to feel certain of death, to feel certain that death wins, this was it.

But death was gone. The stone was rolled away; a spring breeze whistled into the empty tomb. Two living men appeared and asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

wom-tomb_detail-new

Bob Quinn, “The Empty Tomb.” Bronze. (See more images here.)

They weren’t looking for the living. They were looking for the dead. They were prepared once again for the harsh reality that death had taken someone they loved. What they weren’t prepared for was life. They weren’t expecting the power of God.

“Jesus is not here,” the two men told the women, “but he has risen. Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” It was not a question (“Don’t you remember?”); it was a message, almost a command: “Remember.”

The women remembered. They remembered what Jesus had told them about God’s plan: how death would not be the end of their hope. They remembered all the paradoxes he had spoken: you will die, but not perish (Lk 21:16-18); those who lose their life will keep it (Lk 9:24, 17:33). They dropped their spices – their death-preparations – and ran to the disciples to share the news of life.

For thousands of years Christians have gathered to remember that very news, to tell again the same story the women told to the other disciples.

So what happens when we remember? What happens when we remember that on a Sunday morning, long ago, life took over the tomb? What happens when we remember that God’s power is the power of life: the power to create life; the power to break free an entire nation of slaves and give them a life of their own; the power to transform hearts and minds and lives; the power of resurrection?

When we remember, do we dare to change our expectations? Do we dare to stop expecting death and start expecting life?

“The Easter message calls [us] from [our] old belief in death to a new belief in life.”[1] And that means having hope that, contrary to all appearances, life is stronger than death.

Even while I wrote these words, I heard sirens wail outside: an ambulance or a firetruck. I had just scribbled a note to myself, a reminder to send a condolence card to a friend whose wife died suddenly in the middle of the night. And just to complete the picture, I took a peek at CNN.com. The headlines read: terror attacks, a massive after-school fight that left one teenage boy dead, and the testing of a military attack submarine. Those kinds of things can make the memories of God’s acts of life seem like idle talk or a fairy tale.

That’s what the disciples thought of the women’s message. They didn’t believe the story about the empty tomb and the strange messengers. Jesus was dead. That was the end.

Still, Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He had to check. What if the story was true? Peter desperately needed it to be true.

The last time we saw Peter in this story, he was sitting around a fire in the high priest’s courtyard. While inside Jesus was being mocked and beaten, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.  Peter had just seen Jesus arrested, and he knew that execution was coming. And Peter knew that if word got out that he was one of Jesus’s followers, he would face death, too. So, expecting death to come for him, he hid from it; struggling just to survive, he denied Jesus, and Jesus saw it happen. It tore Peter apart; he left light of the fire, weeping (Lk. 22:54-61). Peter needed the story of the resurrection to be true, because he needed to say how sorry he was, he needed another chance to be a loyal disciple and friend. I can only imagine the rush of hope he felt when he peered breathlessly into the tomb and saw only a pile of cloths.

We need the message to be true, too. We need it because the more the world expects death, the more death it gets. We see the situation escalate every day in the way that some politicians (and voters, too) talk callously about bombings or people going hungry. We see it when we fear helping others, lest we get hurt. We put our trust in the power of death; expecting death to win, we figure we might as well live on its terms, terms like “kill or be killed” and revenge. And so when we take risks, whether with what we own or our lives or our moral code…we tend to bet on death rather than life.

But if we dare to expect life, that all changes. The risks we take will all be for the sake of life: we will risk making peace; we will risk forgiving; we will risk welcoming one another and loving one another. We will risk reveling in the moments of joy we are given. We will live on life’s paradoxically life-giving terms, terms like vulnerability and sacrifice and hope.

When we live expecting death, our struggle is only to survive – like Peter outside the high priest’s house. But when we live expecting life, our struggle is to build up all that makes for true life: justice, peace, truth, grace, love – like the disciples who, after the resurrection, dedicated their lives and even their deaths to spreading the word of Jesus Christ, the message that God’s love, grace, and justice is for all people.

So remember the Easter story. Remember all the stories of God bringing strength from weakness, victory from defeat, and life from death. And choose to see the world through these memories. Choose to expect life. Don’t live your life under the power of death; live your life in the promise and power of God. The promise and power of the resurrection.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia, alleluia.


 

Additional Sources of Inspiration

Curry, Michael (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church), Easter 2016 message. Available online: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/03/23/easter-2016-message-from-presiding-bishop-michael-curry/

[1] Koester, Craig R., Commentary on Luke 24:1-12, Working Preacher, April 4, 2010. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=558

Monroe, Shawnthea, ”Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary” (March 27, Easter Sunday) in The Christian Century, (Vol. 133, No. 6), March 16, 2016. Available online: http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-02/march-27-easter-sunday

 

Receive Children, Receive Me (World Day of Prayer 2016)

Written for the 2016 World Day of Prayer, hosted by the Church Women of Franklin + March 4, 2016

Reading: Mark 10:13-16


 

When a child at St. Andrew is preparing for their first Holy Communion, we teach them about the sacrament with the help of a book by Daniel Erlander called A Place for You. The book tells the story of Jesus’s ministry: how he loved, shared, healed, forgave, and welcomed. It tells the story of the Church: how people continue to join Jesus’s family through the waters of baptism and how all kinds of people gather around the Lord’s table as the family of Jesus.

In Daniel Erlander’s telling of the gospel story, there are a group of characters he calls “the crabby people.” He introduces them by saying: “By loving all people, Jesus upset the crabby people who thought God only loves some people.” The crabby people reappear throughout the story. When Jesus eats with sinners, the crabby people say: “He should only eat with good people like us.” When Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people, the crabby people are in the crowd saying, “Some of these people don’t deserve free food.” When the Church continues the ministry of Jesus — welcoming outsiders and proclaiming that God loves everyone — the crabby people say, “I thought we put a stop to this! It’s like Jesus is back.” On one page there’s a tiny drawing of the crabby people in the corner saying, “We still don’t like this!”

mannamercyimage

In the story we just read from the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are being crabby people. Others are bringing little children to be blessed by Jesus, but the disciples snap at them. We can imagine them saying, “This great teacher doesn’t have time for little children! Move along!”

But Jesus reprimands his crabby disciples. Not only are the little children worth his time, but he tells the disciples that only people who will enter the Kingdom of God are those who can receive the Kingdom like a little child does. There’s something the kids have that the adults are missing — even the adults who spend all their time with Jesus.

There are lots of opinions about how children receive the Kingdom and what it is we adults need to learn from them. Some people point out how children had pretty much no social status in the ancient world; maybe we need to give up our craving for status, become humble, in order to better receive the Kingdom. Some point out how children are totally dependent on their guardians; maybe we need to learn to give up our protests of independence and admit our total dependence on God.

Today I am thinking about how children receive the Kingdom of God in terms of how children receive the people around them. Children are born receiving people like God receives people; they have to be taught to be crabby people.

Children are born ready to trust people and ready to accept people. After all, they don’t have a choice at first, when they are young and entirely dependent on the people around them. But as they grow, they are taught not to accept everyone. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like when we teach our children not to take candy from a stranger. Sometimes that’s a tragic thing, like when a parent neglects or abuses their child, and the child learns from that experience that she can’t trust people. Sometimes it’s an unjust thing, like when a child learns that people who look different than her, or grew up somewhere else, need to be treated like a whole different category of human.

An old Rogers and Hammerstein song comes to mind: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” from the musical South Pacific.

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

When we teach children to draw a boundary between “us” and “them,” it’s usually out of fear and a desire for safety. Even the most hateful racism, I think, is a cover for (misplaced) fear. But children aren’t born with such fear; they have to be carefully taught.

By the time we are adults, most of us have become much less like children and much more like crabby people. We divide and choose “us” over “them” in so many ways. We choose people from our nation over people from another nation. We choose people who look like us over people who look different.

But when God looks at the human race — actually, when God looks at all of creation — God doesn’t see “us” and “them.” God looks and sees only children of God. God looks and sees a world God has made. God looks and sees one family. God is greater than our fear and our hurt and our distrust, and God sees beyond them to the picture of an entire world that is broken and hurting, an entire world that needs God’s love. And so God offers grace to the whole of creation and hopes that everyone and everything receives that grace.

And so the little child sees the world like the great God does. Our broken world hasn’t yet taught them to live out of fear instead of hope and love. So if the Kingdom of God is a way of life where hope and love finally beat out fear and hate, then the children enter it much more easily than we adults do. It is we adults who are more likely to say: Wait, they shouldn’t be here. Wait, I don’t feel safe around them. Wait, I thought they were the bad guys.

Jesus calls us to be more like young children. To live out of love and hope even though living out of fear seems like the more reasonable and even the safer thing to do. We need to take that risk, because so many are suffering on the other side of the boundaries we draw.

The liturgy for today’s worship reminded us of how the economic embargo on Cuba endangers the “health and growth” of children on the other side of that line, as well as hurting other vulnerable groups of people. The embargo prevents advancements in medicine and technology from reaching people who need it on the other side of the line. It too often stops efforts to bring aid to those who suffer. In fact the United Nations condemns this embargo because of the way it prevents help for those who desperately need it.

And if you are not so familiar with the situation in Cuba — I wasn’t until I started preparing for today’s service — I’m sure that by now you have thought of other examples of those who suffer because of the ways humans draw boundaries of “us” and “them.” At the very least you’ll be reminded when you turn on the news later and see images of refugees packed into camps, or another story of discrimination against people of color or foreigners, or another hate crime. Maybe you’ll be more personally reminded when someone puts you on the other side of a line.

We need to enter the Kingdom of God. We need to start living out of God’s love for all people and God’s hope for all people — for the sake of those who are vulnerable, those who are suffering.

The theme for the 2016 World Day of Prayer is “Receive Children, Receive Me.” That title should remind us of an earlier story from the Gospel of Mark, another time Jesus takes a little child into his arms. Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

Children are some of the most vulnerable people in every society, and they are the ones most unjustly hurt by the lines we draw. We need to remember that the way we welcome and care for them is the way we welcome and care for Christ.

For many of us, it is easier to welcome and care for all children than it is to welcome and care for all all adults. We tend to see children as innocent and in more desperate need of our care. But I wonder: can we learn to better see all people as children of God? Children of God who need care and grace, as much as we can give? Can we hear in the gospel news that God loves all people a wider, more demanding message? “Receive my children, receive me.” Or “Receive my creation, receive me.”

When we receive all people as God’s children, we enter into the Kingdom as a little child.

At the end of that book I was talking about at the beginning of the sermon, there’s a beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has his arms spread wide in welcome over the Communion table, and crowds of people and animals are gathered around him. People with skin of all different shades celebrate together. The lion lies down with the lamb. People wear clothes from all sorts of cultures and time periods, and they’re hanging out with penguins and giraffes and squid.

At the bottom of the page is a question: “Can you find the crabby people? Are they still crabby?”

Nope. They’re standing right next to Jesus, in the middle of the family that welcomes in all people, and finally, there in the Kingdom of God, they are smiling.

On the back cover of the book, they are dancing with a little child.

The Angel Gabriel: the Power of the Message

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Wednesday in Advent + December 16, 2016

Readings: Daniel 9:17-23a; Luke 1:5-20

The angel Gabriel is mentioned by name in four stories in our Bible: two in Daniel, and two in Luke. We just heard one Gabriel story from each of these books. We will hear the most familiar story about Gabriel during worship this Sunday: the Annunciation, when Gabriel appears to the young virgin Mary and tells her that she has been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God, to be the mother of Immanuel, God-with-us (Lk. 1:26-38).

And here’s my fun fact for the evening: in Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and Joseph is just mentioned in passing as Mary’s fiancee. In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus’s birth begins more suddenly, without an angel’s warning: “Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph quite reasonably comes to the conclusion that Mary has been with another man, and decides to call off the marriage. It is at this point that an angel comes to announce what God is doing; this unnamed angel appears to Joseph in a dream, tells him to stay with Mary, and explains that she is carrying the Son of God (Matt. 1:18-25). Mary is not visited by angel in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel.

But anyway, back to Gabriel. The very first time that Gabriel appears in our Bible is in the book of Daniel, just a chapter before the story I read to you a few minutes ago. Daniel has just had a crazy vision involving a goat and a ram whose horns get broken and regrow. One of the horns grows so tall, it grabs the stars and throws them to earth and tramples on them. Needless to stay, Daniel is pretty confused, and he’s trying to figure out what all this means. At that moment someone “having the appearance of a man” is suddenly standing before him. And Daniel hears a voice say, “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision” (Dan. 8).

Those are the very first words spoken about this angel: “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision.” And to help people understand what God is saying and doing is Gabriel’s role in each of his appearances in our Bible. He appears to Daniel, to Zechariah, and to Mary, and he helps each of them to understand what God is doing and what it means for the world. He delivers and makes clear God’s messages.

This is why Gabriel is considered to be the patron of many professions involved in delivering messages and making sure they are clear: telecommunication workers, radio broadcasters, postal workers, ambassadors, clergy, and even stamp collectors.

Gabriel’s name is an interesting choice for the role he plays as the consummate messenger. In the Bible a person’s name often tells us something about their character. The name Abraham comes from the Hebrew word for “father,” and he is the father of the Jewish people. The book of Genesis tells us that the name Jacob means “heel-grabber,” a metaphor for the sneaky way Jacob gets ahead in the world throughout his life (Gen. 25:26). The angel Raphael’s name means “God heals” and refers to Raphael’s works of healing, which we heard something about last Wednesday (in the story of Tobit). Gabriel tells Mary to name her child “Jesus,” which in Hebrew is Yeshua — a form of the name given to the Old Testament figure we know as Joshua, who led Israel into the promised land. Jesus also means “he saves” or “God saves.”

The name Gabriel means something like “God is my strength.”

It struck me this this name was not given to the angel we know as Michael, even though he is the one most obviously associated with strength. Michael is a warrior-angel, the leader of God’s armies, the defender of Israel. In art he is often dressed in armor and standing on top of a dragon he is just about to slay. But the name “Michael” does not refer to might or skill in battle; Michael means, “who is like God?” — maybe a reference to how the God on behalf of whom Michael fights is powerful beyond all human power.

Instead it is Gabriel the messenger whose name points to the strength that comes from God. Which made me wonder: why? Could there be a connection? Here’s the wild speculation I’ve come up with:

There are lots of kinds of strength, from the strength needed to move a couch to the strength needed to get out of bed when you’d really rather tap out for the day. Underlying all the different kinds of strength is the strength of faith, trust, confidence, hope. The warrior is strengthened by his faith in the cause he fights for. The hospital patient is strengthened by the love of family and the hope of getting better.

Messages from God strengthen us by boosting our faith and our hope. This must be part of the reason why we are always seeking messages from God and seeking to make sure we understand the messages we have been given. We seek to know what God is doing, what God is saying to us, in order that we have more confidence in the way we are living our lives. We worship, we pray, we read the scriptures and tell their stories, looking for hope and for guidance to strengthen us along our journeys. When we hear from God, we are strengthened for love and service.

The angel Gabriel strengthens people by bringing them words from God and helping them to understand. We see this in the examples of Daniel and Zechariah.

Daniel’s powerful visions often make him faint: he falls to the ground, weak and trembling (ex. Dan. 10:8), and then a being having the “appearance of a man” appears to help him understand the message of the vision and to strengthen him. This being is not always called an angel and not always called Gabriel, but I think it is Gabriel returning to help Daniel over and over.

At one point Daniel says to this being, “I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.” He is weak, he can’t go on. But the angel touches him and says: “Do not fear greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!” And Daniel says “When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me” (Dan. 10:15-19). The angel’s message of love and protection strengthens Daniel.

In tonight’s reading from the gospel of Luke, we saw Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, in states that society might call weak. They are both very, very old — and they have no children, no heirs to carry on their legacy. For Elizabeth especially this was a source of pain: to be unable to have children can be a very painful thing on a personal level, but in the ancient times barrenness was a mark of social shame on a woman.

The angel Gabriel brings the couple the message that now, in their old age, they will have a child, and that child help turn the hearts of their people back to God. This message strengthens the couple, revives them, gives them renewed purpose. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Lk. 1:25). She is lifted up both emotionally and socially. She is made stronger.

Even more than that, Zechariah and Elizabeth are strengthened by the bigger message: the messiah is coming, and they will get to see him come (Lk. 1:67-79).

We continue to find strength in these messages of Gabriel. God pays attention. God speaks to us — and speaks not to the powerful, but to the lowly: to Zechariah and Elizabeth, too old to have children; to Mary, young and poor. Gabriel’s messages continue to give us faith and hope, because at their core they are a reminder: God is with us, and God is our strength.

Prisoners of Hope

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin TN + Advent 1 + November 29, 2015

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36


The dichotomy is irresolvable: knowledge of death and hope for life both have their claws in me. –Dorothee Soelle

Our Advent wreath stands right here before me, with that very first Advent candle burning brightly. Each of the candles in the wreath represents a different intention for our devotion during the season of Advent; each candle is a reminder of one of the gifts God promises to us, something to meditate on as we prepare our hearts and our lives for Christ to come into them, again and again. The first candle is for hope; the second for faith; the third for joy; and the last candle is for peace.

The candle we lit today is the hope candle, sometimes called the “Prophet’s Candle.” It reminds us that in the midst of all the dark, depressing, or just frustrating stuff of life, God gives us reason to hope. A devotion Pastor Lippard led for some groups here at church this week put it in even stronger words: we are prisoners of hope.

“Prisoners of Hope” comes from Zech. 9, in which God promises to send a king to restore Israel: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (v. 12).

That phrase stuck with me. Something about calling myself a “prisoner of hope” felt like it hit on something stronger and more true than simply saying “we are hopeful people” or even “we are the people who never lose hope.” I think it’s because a lot of the time I am not a hopeful person.

Well, no, that’s not exactly right. I’ll force myself to be more honest. I try not to be a hopeful person. I am a very hopeful person. Sometimes too hopeful.  And that terrifies me. So one of my most automatic defense mechanisms is to try and stop myself from hoping too much.

Because hoping is not passive or easy or safe. Sure, when I hear the word “hope”, the first images that pop into my head are always the cute, fluffy ones: someone daydreaming about the perfect career or the perfect love or the perfect afternoon and being filled with that warm, sunlit feeling that it will come to be. They go on about their day with a little bounce in their step, a little more patience, and a little more strength, because they have that hope lighting them up from the inside.

But that’s not how hope really works. Hope is so much more assertive, so much more demanding. Hope gives us a vision for the future. And then that vision gets inside of us; it becomes part of the way we imagine our lives; we start to make choices based on that hope we have for the future. We start to prepare for it. We make ourselves vulnerable to it.

And that’s what terrifies me. What if I put all this time and effort and emotional energy towards a hope that falls apart? What if that eight-year-old boy gets up early on a Saturday and reorganizes his tackle-box and digs up worms in the backyard, and then his dad can’t take him fishing after all? What if a woman turns down a leadership position on a big project at work so that she can focus on interviewing for a new, better job…and then doesn’t get the job? What if I spend time with these guys in jail, encouraging and mentoring and forming friendships, hoping that they start living better…and then I see them back in the jail again?

Hope makes so many decisions and sacrifices feel totally worth the risk, and it fills day-to-day life with a special energy; but crushed hopes make it all feel like a waste. When my hope is crushed, it makes me wonder what could have been, had I not pinned all my energy to that hope. Makes me question my ability to make good decisions. And crushed hope just plain hurts. That’s why I try to run from hope.

And yet I am a prisoner of hope. I can’t escape hoping. Not just because of my personality, but because of my faith. Christianity demands that we hope. Christianity demands that we hope, even when it’s hard to hope, even when it doesn’t make sense to hope, even when it’s dangerous to hope. In the face of overwhelming odds; when we are the weak little underdog; in the valley of the shadow of death, God demands that we hope.  God demands that we hope and that we act on that hope. That is a message I see over and over throughout the Bible, and it’s here in our readings today.

Our first reading comes from the book of Jeremiah, and the fact that Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet” ought to be a good reminder that his messages of hope come from a time when hope must have been nearly impossible. In fact, one of my Bibles introduces this book with the sentence, “The book of Jeremiah was written for people in the throes of suffering.”(1)

Jeremiah prophesied during one of the greatest historical tragedies of the Israelite people: the time when Babylon was taking over the nation of Judah, taking over the capital city, Jerusalem, taking over the government. He spoke the word of God in the midst of violent resistance and chaos as his country collapsed all around him, and as, eventually, its king, its leaders, and many of its people were taken away to exile in Babylon. God had promised to establish the Israelite people in their land, to protect them, to keep David’s decedents on the throne — but now all that seemed gone, destroyed. If ever there was a time that all hope was lost, this was it.

And yet in the middle of the book of Jeremiah are a few chapters that tell the people to keep hoping. Don’t give up on the promises of God. Don’t live your lives like the future you had been promised is gone. Don’t get used to the way things are. Live like you know that God will save you. God remains faithful to you. Stay faithful to your God.

The gospel reading also calls for hope in the midst of hopeless circumstances. At the time when Jesus gave this apocalyptic little speech, he had been in Jerusalem — the big city, the home of the Temple, the center of his religion — long enough to see what was going on there.

And this part of Jesus’s life reminds me of the time Martin Luther first visited Rome. The 2003 movie Luther starring Joseph Fiennes does a great job of portraying it. (Click here to watch the film scene.) The young idealistic monk makes a journey to the great holy city, takes a deep breath to prepare himself for the glorious enlightenment that awaits him there…and then finds himself surrounded by throngs of poor and needy people, sees clergy unabashedly taking part in prostitution, struggles to get away from those peddling things they claim to be holy relics, and, along with rushed crowds of others, pays the church so that he may do penance in behalf of souls in purgatory. When he gets home to Germany, he is disillusioned and angry: “Rome is a circus,” he says. “A running sewer.”

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, his experience was similar. But Jesus was not so idealistic; he was already weeping over the city as he approached, even referencing Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” (Lk. 19:41-44; Jer. 6). Then he visited the Temple, saw how that holy place had become a place of profane buying and selling, and drove the people out (Lk. 19:45-46). He saw the priests and other religious leaders living richly while the poor widows who had nothing else to live on gave all they had to the Temple (Lk. 20:45-21:4). His disciples looked around and admired the huge, beautiful Temple, but Jesus said: No. It will all be torn down (Lk. 21:5-6). And then he went on to say the words we read earlier this morning: conflict and wars will continue; his followers will be persecuted; nature itself will show signs of suffering. Soon after this speech — in the very next chapter, in the book of Luke (22:39 and on) — Jesus is betrayed by a friend, handed over to the Temple authorities, then handed over to Rome, and then handed over to Death. Maybe Jesus sees all this coming, too (Lk. 18:31-34).

But, again, like in the book of Jeremiah: in the midst of all this betrayal of religion and faith, in the midst of the chaos as a city and culture are crashing down, and even in the midst of personal persecution, Jesus gave a message of hope. And he gave it as a command to his disciples: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

This is not easy hope. This is demanding hope. There will be violence and war, but stand up and raise your heads. Nature will fail, but stand up and raise your heads. You will be persecuted, but stand up and raise your heads. Be faithful. Keep pressing on. Live in the way of Jesus, for your redemption is drawing near.

Jesus’s faithful hope that God would redeem the world from this never-ending cycle of injustice and violence demanded that he live according to that hope. It demanded that he be arrested and crucified rather than give in to that cycle by becoming part of the violence or by being a passive observer to it. From his disciples that hope demanded hard work and travel and sacrifice and persecution and death.

And when these words were written in the Gospel of Luke, they were written for a people who knew what this hope demanded. Living some 50 years or so after Jesus had died, they had seen the Roman governors stomp on the faith and the customs of the Jewish people. They had seen the people of Israel revolt against Rome. They had seen Rome besiege Jerusalem, starving its people. They had seen the Temple go down. Maybe they had suffered themselves, and probably they faced persecution for their faith in Christ. This was no easy time to hope in a savior who had been crucified, who some claimed had been resurrected, but who was so slow to return and set things right.

And yet the Gospel of Luke encouraged those people to hope. To actively hope. It told them to stand up and raise their heads. It told them to live according to the teachings of Jesus even in those dangerous times: to care not only for themselves, but for the people who were most vulnerable to need and suffering. To dare to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. To be willing to sacrifice and to take risks. It told them to have faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In short, the Gospel commanded them to commit daring acts of hope — hope that the Kingdom of God had indeed drawn near, and would one day come in full.

And the gospel continues to demand that we hope — and that we act on that hope.  So, in this first week of Advent, this season of preparing our hearts and our lives for the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of all God’s promises, I ask you to ask yourself: What does our Christian hope demand from us? What sort of world does God promise for us, and how do we act as if we believe that world is truly coming to be? How do we prepare the way for God’s kingdom?

Female Teen Hands Holding Burning Candle

Image from galleryhip.com


Dorothee Soelle is quoted in Deanna Thompson’s Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), pp. 139.

  1. O’Connor, Kathleen M., “Jeremiah: Introduction,”The Access Bible, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 963.