No Room at the Inn – or is there?

This is my sermon from tonight’s Christmas Eve service.  What a beautiful night of scripture, carols, communion, and candlelight, shared by so many folks from this little town.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Luke 2:1-20

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she 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.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Dear friends, dear people of God: grace to you and peace this night, from our loving God through Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

“There was no place for them in the inn.”

This is the phrase that stood out to me, as I read this oh-so-familiar story again this year.

There was no place for them in the inn.

And we’ve always thought of this like, say, a Motel 6, right?

But ongoing scholarship has suggested that this may not be an entirely correct translation.

In my reading, I discovered that the Greek word here that is translated “inn” is kataluma.  And that discovery led me to yet another: kataluma means “guest room” but not in the Motel 6 way of thinking.

It actually means the space for guests in one’s home.

I have a cousin who lives in Ambler, PA on a property that has a building with a  similar arrangement.  The main house was built in 1710; William Penn is somewhere on the chain of title.  There are all kinds of outbuildings on the property – a chicken coop, smokehouse, barn, and others – but the building I’m thinking of is the carriage house.

The carriage house is built in a hollow, and the upper floor is reached by a small bridge.  The carriage and horses would drive up to the top level, and the horses unhitched next to the bridge.  The carriage would be wheeled into the enclosure up top, and the horses would be led back down the hill and put away in the lower floor which served as a barn.  Both carriage and horses were secure from both weather and predators, and they were kept near each other to make the process of hitching up more convenient.

Homes in Palestine at that time – and, to some degree, today – consisted of familial space and guest space.  It was expected when you traveled to a place where you had family, that you stayed with family, in their guest space.  Kataluma is, incidentally, the word used to describe the Upper Room of the Last Supper, so perhaps in our story tonight the kataluma is upstairs.

“No room in the inn” – or, more accurately, “no room in the kataluma” – implies that there was already family there.  Many like Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem, and the family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier.  So it’s likely Mary and Joseph stayed in the main part of the house, possibly downstairs where the animals are brought in at night.

Thus, the manger with hay was a soft, logical place to put a child.  (We can assume that any pack-n-plays in the house were in use by other relatives.)

The idea that the Holy Family was in a stable, away from others, alone and outcast is culturally implausible.  In such a context – a city in the middle of a massive influx of travelers – it’s hard to be alone at all.

It’s quite a new way of thinking about this story we’ve heard over and over, for so many years.

So – what does this mean?  How is this more than just a historical/cultural footnote?

If this theory is true – if Jesus was born among family, in the inner part of a home, awash with radical hospitality – doesn’t this actually make the story better?

 If this is true, then Jesus’ birth story isn’t about rejection, or isolation.  Those come later, and they lead to the cross.  Instead, Jesus’ birth story is about the radical welcome of God, about overflowing hospitality where accommodations are made for ever-increasing numbers of travelers.

Jesus was born in an ordinary way, with peasants, in a simple home.  Not in the great palaces of the royal and wealthy.  But in a simple home, with the animals brought in for the night, so that ALL creation would be part of God’s coming in Christ – God’s Incarnation as a human in our broken, but still beautiful world.  God-with-us means that God is with us, not just the Caesars of the world.

My last work in my former synod in Southern California was to act as camp nurse for a week of confirmation camp at Luther Glen, in the mountains east of San Bernardino.  Luther Glen is not only a camp and retreat center, but also a working farm.  Confirmation camp is a week of barely-controlled happy chaos created by enthusiastic counselors and about 80 young people between the ages of 12 and 14.

As camp nurse, I was the purveyor of bandaids and Benadryl.  The one who passed judgment on the severity of the daily cuts and bruises.  And I was the one who was charged with dispensing medication to the kids who took prescription medicines each day.

One of those kids was a young person named Brady.

Brady struggled mightily with his ever-present Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  He was obsessed with germs, and carried hand sanitizer with him everywhere he went.  Brady was matter-of-fact about this.  He announced to the entire camp that this was something he lived with, and that he didn’t want anyone to take it personally but would they please use hand sanitizer before touching him in a game or activity.  To the counselors, he disclosed that he had spent time in a psychiatric hospital for his OCD and was hopeful he could continue to make progress.

As you can imagine, being on a farm, at a camp in the mountains, was the most germ-filled environment Brady had ever experienced.  And yet, Brady found himself drawn to the barn.

The barn was where the mama goats who were about to kid were housed.  The week we were there, every day brought a new bunch of baby goats.  There’s a magnetic field between baby animals and children, and Brady was no exception.

But that threshold was one he was not eager to cross.  There was no room in that inn for someone like Brady, so terrified of the power of germs.  The other kids were in and out of the barn all day; aside from a few asthma attacks from the hay, they were fine.

No room in that inn for Brady.  Or so he thought.

On the next-to-last day of camp, he summoned the courage to ask Beth, the farm manager, if the baby goats had germs.

“Everything has germs,” she said, “but when we wash up after holding them we keep the germs where they belong.  The babies stay healthy, and we stay healthy.  We are really careful about this.”

Brady turned this over and over in his mind.

The next morning at breakfast, his youth pastor showed me a picture on her phone.

It was a picture of Brady early that morning, sitting on a hay bale, holding a baby goat that was only a few hours old.  God had reached through this little creature to tell this young man, “don’t be afraid.”

And the look on Brady’s face was almost indescribable.  The one word that occurred to me was “transcendant.”

God comes to us in the unexpected, the apparently simple, the everyday.

“Don’t be afraid,” said God to Brady as he held the little goat.  “You are beloved, Brady.  You are welcome.  There is ALWAYS room for you in my inn.”

Dear people, the same is true for us.  In God’s inn, in God’s kataluma, God’s guest room, there is room for all.  No matter what burdens you carry.  No matter what secrets you harbor.  God comes not at the center of the world to just straighten things out a bit, but on the edges to call the structures of the day into question, and herald a new beginning altogether.

This is scary, and at the same time thrilling.  It’s unnerving to think of setting aside the way things have always been – but the thought of a new beginning just around the corner stirs the head AND the heart.

And so God comes at the edges of the story and of our lives, to speak quietly but firmly through the blood, sweat, and tears of labor pains and a baby’s cry, be those human or goat.  God speaks in ways that we know God is without exception FOR US.  Our ups and downs, our hopes and fears.  Christ comes not just to give us more of the same, but life writ completely anew.

Christ is God’s promise that God will not stop until every single one of us has been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and has heard the good news that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.”

And for all of us, there is PLENTY of room in the inn.

Amen.

 

 

Has It All Been for Nothing?

I was deeply influenced for this week’s sermon by a blog post from Debie Thomas, who serves as director of children and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA.  The last few paragraphs of my sermon are direct quotes from her fine work.  I strongly urge you to read her blog post in full, at:

Journey With Jesus

Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Dear people of God, of Emmanuel God-with-us: grace and peace to you this day from our loving Creator, through the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

Are you the one?

Or – should we wait for someone else?

These are the questions John’s followers bring to Jesus, on behalf of the one to whom they’ve been listening.  The one who has been speaking pretty frankly about the coming Messiah.  The Messiah who they expected to be the one to start the revolution and lead them all to rise up against the Romans and establish God’s kingdom, once and for all.

And on this Third Sunday of Advent, we find this gospel of John’s despair and disappointment paired with Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise to God and defiance of the oppressor empire.  Traditionally this Sunday was called “Gaudete” Sunday, “Gaudete” meaning “joy.”

Which of course begs the question, what is joyful about John’s despondent question, coming from his awful situation in prison?

We can see the joy in the first lesson, no problem there.  Being from Southern California, I’ve actually witnessed the desert blossom, and it’s a magnificent sight.

But the gospel?  Where is the joy?

John is in prison, having called out King Herod’s immoral behavior.  Hmmm.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  If you call out someone in power for their immoral behavior, you find yourself out of a job – or worse.

And so I think we can understand that John might be pretty disillusioned at this point.  He is in chains and in crisis; as far as he can tell, Jesus the Messiah – his COUSIN – has changed nothing.  All those things John said in the wilderness about Jesus – choice words about wielding axes, bringing fire, renewing the world – John’s not seeing it.

And so all he’s got left now, in his valley of despair, is to cry out are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?  In other words: “Jesus, I’ve staked my entire life on you.  Has it all been for nothing?”

Have you ever had an experience in your life where you found yourself saying that?

I have.

I was a child during the civil rights movement and the antiwar protests during Vietnam.  When I was in high school, the feminist movement was in full swing.  My parents had taught me two things from an early age: one, all people are created equal and I was expected to treat them equally, and two, I could be anything I wanted to be.  It was a shock as I grew up to find out that theirs was a minority point of view.

I marched for passage of the ERA, I marched for women’s rights.  I boycotted grapes to support the passage of fair labor laws for migrant farm workers.  I protested for LGBTQ equal rights, and lobbied for the NIH and CDC to recognize AIDS and get working on a cure, or at least a treatment protocol.  I supported the Sierra Club and Greenpeace as they drew attention to the ways humanity was destroying creation.

And all along the way, I knew that the laws of this country, the way our democratic republic is formulated, would give me an opportunity to be heard.  Organizing for change is a time-honored aspect of American life.

But these days I find myself saying “has it all been for nothing?” a lot more than I ever expected.

The civil rights of so many are being eroded.  Our environment is in more peril, and more deeply, than just a few years ago.  My time at Legacy-Emanuel in Portland brought me face-to-face with the degree to which society has failed its most vulnerable members.

Has it all been for nothing?

It’s a disturbing trajectory, isn’t it?  What happened to that darkness to light thing?  John too has gone from heavenly light, when the Spirit descended at Jesus’ baptism, to jail cell darkness.

For a time I attended a Calvary Chapel in high school.  They had words for this kind of darkness, words that I now understand as judgmental.  Words like FAITHLESS and BACKSLIDDEN.

But in our gospel, Jesus doesn’t respond like that.  Jesus knows that despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties, and so responds to John’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and calm.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells the disciples who bring him John’s question.

In other words, Jesus says: go back to John and tell him your stories.  Tell him my stories.  Tell him what your eyes have seen and your ears have heard.  Tell him what only the stories — quiet as they are, scattered as they are, questionable as they are — will reveal.

Because who Jesus is, isn’t a one-time pronouncement.  It’s not a slick ad line, or a clever slogan you can plaster on a billboard.  No, he is far more impossible to pin down that that.  I saw Jesus repeatedly in the people that showed up at the emergency department at Legacy Emanuel – the plain, poor, ordinary folks who are trying to eke out a living on the streets or in low-income jobs.  We glimpse Jesus’ reality in the shadows where these people try to find shelter.

Because Jesus calls us to see and hear all the stories of the kingdom — and that includes John’s story, too.  “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says.  Offense runs away.  Offense quits.  Offense erects a wall and hides behind it because reality is harsher and more complicated than we expected it would be.  Yes, some stories are terrible, period.  They break hearts and end badly.  People flail and people die – and yet, this, too, is what the life of faith looks like.  A life of faith gets to a place where it doesn’t take offense.  It doesn’t flee.  It walks alongside.

What has it been like for you, in the valleys of your life?  Have you ever been able to find a so-called “Christian story” that makes sense of what you’re going through?  I wonder if you’ve had an experience like mine, where many of the “sermon illustration” stories I’ve come across get the ends tied up a little too neatly, almost like a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.  They move to closure and some kind of triumph so quickly that I feel like they’re almost dismissing my pain.  That they’re waving off all that I’m going through.  And in the times when I’m not the one suffering, but a friend is, such stories dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.

And so I wonder.  We all wonder – what kind of meaning and purpose IS there in suffering?  I mean, John did everything right and look what happened to him.

It’s in times like these that we realize that the so-called “prosperity gospel” doesn’t hold up when things go bad, whether it’s your fault or not.

But what if the point of John’s story is to actually indict every form of transactional Christianity that promises us things like safety, prosperity, and blessings in exchange for good behavior?  What if our faith isn’t something that’s meant to dull our discomfort or blunt our sorrows, but rather give us the strength to live authentically in the face of it all?

Maybe we don’t need to slap purpose and meaning on all human experience in order to make sense of things, or prove our piety.  Maybe God is more present in the dark abysses of the world’s pain than in those sanitized, high-production-value narratives.

Maybe we are invited to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world.  To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice.  To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.  To feel deeply, because God does.

Feeling deeply.  Isn’t this a season where we yearn and long for precisely that?

Mary certainly felt deeply when she proclaimed her Magnificat.  And she had surely felt a host of other things, including fear and apprehension, about what this whole journey would mean for her.  And ultimately she feels deep joy as she utters this radical manifesto of God’s bringing of equity and justice to God’s creation.

Here’s an ironic fact: John the Baptist is remembered by the Church as the patron saint of spiritual joy.  Why? 

Perhaps because he understood something flinty about the life of faith.  After all, joy in a prison cell isn’t about sentimentality. Or about the pious suppression of our most painful crises and questions.

Perhaps John came to understand that joy is what happens when we dare to believe that our Messiah disillusions us for nothing less than our salvation, stripping away every expectation we cling to, so that we can know God for who God truly is.  Maybe he realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult circumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others.  Maybe John’s joy was otherworldly in the most literal sense, because he understood that our stories extend beyond death, and find completion only in the presence of God himself.

“Are you the one who is coming?” John asked in despair and yearning.

“You decide,” Jesus answered in love. “The blind see, the deaf hear.  The lame dance.”

We didn’t hear John’s answer then.  But can we hear his answer now?  It is filled with confidence, and it is a resounding YES.   Jesus is the one who has come, and is coming, and will never stop coming to meet us where we are.  We have not hoped in vain.  Christ will forever turn our despair into joy.   Amen.

Unlikely Connection

My sermon from this past Sunday.  Really grateful to have found the shared space between the beautiful images in Isaiah and John’s exhortations.

+++++++

Matthew 3:1-12

3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Good people, children of the creator: grace and peace to you this day from God, through Jesus who is already and not yet.  Amen.

Our first lesson and our gospel stand in such contrast.  Isaiah’s expansive and exhilarating vision, contrasted with John’s dark warnings.  And yet, they are deeply connected.  But not in that one predicts the other.

If anything, John’s warnings are for us to realize that we aren’t there yet.  We’ve not even begun to approach God’s holy mountain.

Isaiah’s vision is one that calls us to hope, in depths we may never have explored.  It calls us to a vision of the peaceable realm of God, as envisioned by countless artists – the predator and prey now become friends; the animals who once were dangerous, aren’t.

Taking this literally can be quite a stretch.  What if we were to think about it as God’s creation no longer needing to live in fear?

Remember, “don’t be afraid” is the signature greeting from any angel encountering a human.

Generally when we act violently, it is as the result of fear.  If the need to live in fear is gone, then the observation “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” suddenly makes sense.

At least, it makes sense until we get to today’s gospel.

Then it seems like everything John is saying is meant to strike fear into the hearts of those who hear him.

The curious thing, though, is that there’s nothing recorded about the entire crowd getting up and leaving en masse.  Not in any of the four gospels, ALL of which record John’s appearance to proclaim the one who is coming.

Instead, other of the gospels tell us they stuck around.  They asked “what then shall we do?”

And this is where I found an uncanny connection between our gospel story and the prophecy from Isaiah.

“What then shall we do” is another way of saying “how then shall we live” – and they are both the “acting” questions that follow Luther’s catechetical question, “what does this mean?”

To the basics of Christian belief, which Luther assembled into the Small Catechism, Luther poses the question “what does this mean?”  The question in German is “vas ist das?” or “what is it?”  It is said that Luther modeled this after his little son Hans, who once he had learned a few words, toddled around the house pointing at things saying “vas ist das?”  Luther realized the natural curiosity of a child was fertile ground indeed.  And so that is why the Small Catechism takes the form of questions and answers.

Notice how the people in the gospel reading are located.  They are coming to John to be baptized.  They hear his warnings and admonishments, and both before and after they are baptized they are urged to live their lives in new and different ways.  The Jewish ruling elite have showed up as well.  The verb in Greek is not entirely clear; whether they had come to be baptized or just to see what was going on is up for debate.  But they were there, and John calls them out.  There are two phrases John uses that I want to focus on:

*bear fruit worthy of repentance

*don’t presume to say of yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’

Keep in mind that John is speaking to folks before Jesus has made his appearance to begin his adult ministry.  We have the gift of considering this lesson from our vantage point of 20/20 hindsight.

But that doesn’t mean this lesson simply holds historical value.  By no means.

Look again at our first lesson from Isaiah, in particular at verse 2:

2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

In the Isaiah reading, the spirit of the Lord rests upon the shoot from the stump of the tree of Jesse, which we consider now to be a metaphor for Jesus, who is a descendant of Jesse.  Jesse was King David’s father.

We have heard this in our baptismal rite, in the blessings before the anointing:

Sustain  name  with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.

All of the spirit references in that reading are understood to be gifts of the Holy Spirit.

These are gifts by which we are empowered to live lives that are drenched in God’s liberating love and justice-seeking Spirit.

And so I see these lessons as reminders to us that we are baptized children of God, beloved by God, and entrusted by God to be a force for good in this world.

This is the implication, nay, the OBLIGATION of our baptism: to be a force for good in this world.  Which is another way of saying, to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world.

Those are indeed fruits worthy of one who has traveled the well-worn path of repentance.  Of turning and going a different way.  Of examining their life and deciding that there are parts of that life that need to be left behind.  Perhaps they’ll be composted into something beneficial.

And this is a road that is meant to be traveled by everyone.

John points out that no one gets to claim “well, you know, we have Abraham as our father, so we get a hard pass on that rough part of the road.”

You could legitimately make the argument that John is saying “you don’t get a gold star just for showing up and saying “hey, so-and-so is my father so I’m special.”

It’s an incredibly egalitarian statement, hidden between the lines.

It’s saying we are all workers in the kingdom of God.  Even those who can claim a star-studded lineage.

This is another connection to our baptism.

God doesn’t seek us out and claim us because we are related to someone notable.  No, God seeks us out because we are God’s creation, God’s beautiful and beloved creation.

We are washed clean in the waters of baptism and set on a new road.  We are free of any need to impress God, because God loves us as we are.

We have all the time in the world to respond in joy to God’s freely given love.  And Christ calls us to a way of response that is best described as neighbor-love.

Loving, serving, and empowering the neighbor is what Jesus came to enable us all to do.  That is the essence of the peaceable realm of our gracious and loving God.

Do we sometimes need a reminder that we’ve become rather self-centered again?  That we’ve engaged in extended navel-gazing, what Luther termed “the self turned in on the self”?  Well, of course.  We are human, and we mess up.  Those reminders have the potential to be welcome intrusions into that self-centeredness.

But I wonder if that turning from that self-centeredness can also be the turn towards this existence we read of in Isaiah – this peaceable kingdom where all are at peace.

And maybe it is also, for some of us, a turning towards ourselves in a way that, finally, is healthy.

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

Dear people, is this not the core of all that we dream?  That one day all shall be well, that pain and sorrow will be no more, that none will hurt or destroy.

And that the dwelling of God shall be glorious.

Humankind takes steps each day towards that dream.  Here in Stevenson, we feed 87 kids every week through 3 Squares.  The local government makes the Christmas baskets happen.  Local vendors contribute goods and discounts throughout the year to help provide for folks who are down on their luck.

However you might be joyful today, include that goodness in your joy.

However you might be hurting today, remember that people do care, and care about you.  Your pain is real, and you have every right to claim it and feel it.  And this congregation stands ready to walk with you in that pain.

And all of us, all of our experiences, stand together and hear God’s words of peace.

“They will not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

The one who is more powerful comes as a baby – the most vulnerable of creatures.

That little child leads us to that day on that holy mountain, in ways that turn the world upside down.  In ways that inspire our repentance – not a way of feeling bad but a way of thinking differently, and ultimately acting differently.

May we bear fruits worthy of such repentance.

Amen.

 

Watching, waiting, and slowing down

I’ve not been able to post my sermons or blog for a few weeks, as I had a couple of large writing requirements due as I move towards ordination.  So here is my sermon from yesterday – the first Sunday in Advent.  A call to step away from the craziness of the season.

Matthew 24:36-44

36[Jesus said] “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this first Sunday of Advent, from our Creator God through Jesus, our Emanuel, God-with-us.  Amen.

In case you needed a reminder that we are NOT yet in the Christmas season in church, this gospel should suffice.  No pretty Christmas villages or caroling choirs in this reading!

Keep awake.  Be ready.

These are curious commands to hear at this time of year, aren’t they?  Keep awake, when the days are shortening considerably and all we want to do is sleep.  Be ready, when the list of things to do in this season lengthens as much as the days shorten.

What if we look at these lessons today in light of last week, where we celebrated the end of the church year?

That would make today the “Happy New Year” for the church.  Break out the champagne!

What do we usually do around New Year’s, aside from watching the Rose Parade and an assortment of college football games?

We make resolutions.  We think about the year to come.

And I wonder if we were to see and hear Jesus’ words through that lens, the lens of New Year’s, it might give us some clarity.

This is an apocalyptic text, to be sure.  But Jesus is clear that no one – not even HE – has any idea when that time will come.  And interestingly, his description is the flip side of what is told in stories like the Left Behind series.

Instead of the faithful being taken, they are actually the ones left behind.

Such discrepancies in the biblical narrative suggest to me that taking them literally diverts us from what’s between the lines of Jesus’ words.  Church history is littered with the corpses of defunct predictions of the end of time; it’s gotten so ridiculous that the group Nickel Creek even wrote a song poking fun at the one about May 21st a few years ago.

So may I suggest that instead of parsing this text out, and trying to make every bit of it make sense, we step back and think broadly.

This text doesn’t call us to prediction, but to preparation.  A commentary I read this week talked about Jesus calling his audience to shape their lives as if they were living in the golden hour – that term familiar to photographers, the brief window of time just before the sun fully breaks.  The transitional period between the darkness of night and the light of day.  Jesus calls us to live as if day were just about to break.

Those commands of “keep awake” and “be ready” can sound like more work at a busy time of year.  But thinking about daybreak, I wonder if instead of more responsibility, this is actually more gift – gift from God.

You and I have been transformed by Christ’s death and resurrection.  Perhaps this is where we are invited to participate in the transformation of the world which is yet still in process!

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s reign come and that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  In saying “keep awake” and “be ready”, Jesus gives us the opportunity to partner with God in answering that prayer.

Jesus describes an arrival of God’s kin-dom that disrupts everyday activity.  It’s not the same-old, same-old.  Life carries on as usual, until Jesus arrives.  Think about it: Mary’s pregnancy interrupts the usual procedures of engagement and starting a family.  John the Baptist’s own apocalyptic ministry, full of warnings about the judgment to come, is itself interrupted and reshaped by Jesus’ arrival.

When Jesus calls his first disciples, he disrupts them as they cast nets into the sea.  And then his arrival disrupts their fishing collective as they walk away from those nets and follow him.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ arrival exposes things for what they are.  It disrupts the delusions we hold about ourselves and our world.  As I read this lesson this year, I was struck by how Jesus’ mention of Noah reflects the issues of climate change that in our time have been reduced (in some quarters) to mere political scorekeeping.  Remember, we understand Jesus as the Word – from the opening lines of John’s gospel.  Since we live in the already-not yet – we wait not for Jesus’ initial arrival, but for him to come while we experience him with us in the here and now – so it feels like this word is one that indeed exposes things.  Hearing this reference to Noah today is something worth pondering, at the very least.

Jesus’ words don’t go down easy today.  He speaks of things I would rather not consider much of the time.  And I don’t know how we live as if this “wokeness” is so all the time.  Even so, these things are as true as they can possibly be, and they are meant as gift – if only I can receive them as such.  Indeed, I need to be reminded of these things:

  • Don’t lose sight of what matters most.
  • Know that it will all one day end.
  • Live like that is so.

And through it all — on those days when I do that reminding myself well, and on those days when I don’t – there still comes the whisper of grace that I am still loved. As are you.

When my late husband was diagnosed with cancer, he vowed that he would not let the disease define him.  It might kill him, he acknowledged that.  But it would NOT define him.

In the wake of making that vow, he lived his life completely and totally in those three things I just mentioned:

  • Don’t lose sight of what matters most.
  • Know that it will all one day end.
  • Live like that is so.

I give thanks daily for the witness he gave my son and me.

How do you hear Jesus’ words today?

Do they make a difference for how you live your life?  Have they made a difference in the past?

We are able today to see glimpses of true existence in the kingdom of God that Jesus invites us towards in this lesson.  We can see pictures of Isaiah’s description of the peaceable realm of God.

On the hallway wall outside my office there is a map from Lutheran World Hunger of the places in the world where they are hard at work – and have been for decades.  The green places are places where one effort is happening, and the blue areas mark where more than one is happening.

I am heartened to realize that we are present, doing God’s work with our hands, in the majority of the world.  And at the same time, there is always more.  There is always much to pray about, as my best friend Suzie says.

I want to invite you all to think about what matters most now, in these waning days of the year, as the sun moves south and we gather in close.

It’s very easy for the busy-ness of this season to distract and overtake us, pulling our attention away from the things that matter.

And I’m as guilty as anyone: I love decorating for the holidays, baking cookies, and wrapping gifts to make the perfect picture under the tree.

But those are secondary to the things that last, the things that matter.  I have to remind myself constantly of that truth.

And so I wonder if what Jesus is really telling us when he says “keep awake” and “be ready” is: “pay attention.”

“Pay attention” is a prominent Advent theme.  As I meditated on that, this is what arose:

  • Pay attention to the people closest to me. How will I give and receive love in those relationships?
  • Pay attention to the people I encounter. How might those interactions become holy moments?
  • Pay attention to the people least like me. (This will likely be difficult.)  How will I learn from them?
  • Pay attention to God, and to what God is doing in the world. How can I awaken my senses to notice goodness and peace?
  • Pay attention to myself. (Self-awareness is highly underrated!)  How will I be awake to my body, soul, spirit, and values during this Advent?  How will that translate into how I spend my time?

I think that the season of Advent – a time of watching and waiting – is ideal for rediscovering the art of paying attention.  Of being attentive to.

Especially here in the Pacific Northwest.

We don’t have a ton of daylight.  I noticed just yesterday that it was completely dark at 4:45 PM, a full month earlier than it would happen where I used to live.

But as I watched the snow come down last night, I realized that this time of year is one that lends itself to slowing down, not speeding up.  Just as I told the children about the wagon wheel* for the Advent wreath.  It’s to get us to slow down.

To wait.  To make space to keep awake.  To make ready.

Amen.

*In northern European climates, when folks would be snowed in for the winter, they removed the wheels from their wagons so that the cold, and particularly the mid-winter warm-freeze cycles, wouldn’t warp the wheels.  Those became the frames for wreaths of greens to remind themselves that the trees knew spring was coming, and that the removed wheel was their reminder to slow down.  Spring and its planting time outside would be here soon enough.  The wheel continued to be used as Christianity spread and local customs were incorporated; the reminder to slow down is a striking coincidence to the season of Advent’s waiting.