Monday, January 21, 2019

2nd Sunday After Epiphany

2nd Sunday after Epiphany
Year C
January 20, 2019
John 2:1-11

The wedding at Cana - this scene where Jesus famously turns water into wine - is the first of Jesus’ “signs” in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John doesn’t talk about miracles. Miracles, from the Latin, mirari, are things that cause wonder or amazement. They don’t necessarily reveal anything, but miracles draw folks in by their astonishment of the event in and of itself. In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus’ miracles often obscure who Jesus is just as much as they reveal something about Jesus. When Jesus walks on water and stills the storm, the disciples are utterly astounded, but they don’t get it. In fact, the text says that their hearts were hardened, comparing them to the Pharaoh that wouldn’t release the Hebrew people from Egypt. Ouch. It is all part of Mark’s secrecy motif, that readers and characters are only able to get so close to Jesus’ identity, keeping that identity at a distance, until the cross and the empty tomb, where Jesus’ identity is ultimately revealed. That’s Mark.

On the other hand, the Gospel of John talks about signs. Signs, in contrast to miracles, serve to point to something beyond the event itself. Signs are not about what we see, but rather go beyond it. In the case of this gospel, signs are things that help point to Jesus’ identity as the messiah, as the Word made flesh that dwells among us. They are specifically meant to reveal something about who Jesus is - for us and for the world. Near the end of the Gospel, the writer states, “now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these [signs] are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting, you may have life in his name.” The signs reveal who Jesus is and inspire trust and faith in Jesus. Today’s gospel reading is the first recorded sign in the Gospel of John.

While I am not afraid to admit that I enjoy a glass of wine now and then, I find this to be an odd start to ministry. And I find it odd that this is the first thing Jesus does to point to who he is. In our adult forum a couple weeks ago, we kinda scratched our heads there too. And it is one that I struggle with, both as a pastor and as a scholar. I’d expect Jesus’ first act to be one that is big and showy. I’d expect everyone to know he did it. Perhaps, I’d expect the Gospel to start off with the raising of Lazarus or the healing of the paralytic. But we get Jesus turning water into wine. In comparison to other signs in the Gospel of John, it feels almost like a party trick. And the only ones who know that he did this sign were Jesus’ mother (who remains unnamed in this Gospel), the servants, and the disciples. That’s it. The majority of the people around them have no idea that the wine nearly ran out and they nearly missed a sudden end to the festivities. The bridegroom doesn’t even know. The good wine keeps flowing.

Thinking about this event as a sign, the event isn’t about the wine itself. It isn’t about the ability of turning water into wine (which is pretty cool in and of itself), but if we stop there, we miss the point. We’ve gotta get deeper than that. So I must ask what does the event of turning water into wine reveal about Jesus and who he is - for me, for you, and for the world that God so loves? For the other signs, I think that’s an easier question to answer - for instance, as Jesus raises Lazarus, we can say that Jesus comes to bring life out of death, and death never has the final word. It is a bit trickier, at least for me, to see what is supposed to be revealed about Jesus today.

Karoline Lewis suggests that, in looking at the Wedding at Cana, we take into account the prologue of John. The prologue tells us that “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” She encourages us to read, not just today’s gospel lesson, but the rest of the Gospel through the lens of this verse. What if everything that comes after this in the Gospel of John, points to the Grace and Truth that makes God known? In other words, what if the rest of the Gospel reveals what God’s grace tastes like, looks like, and feels like?
God’s grace tastes like the best wine that you’ve ever tasted when you expect the cheap stuff. It’s like getting the expensive, luxury wine (that I couldn’t dream of purchasing) when you expect to get the boxed stuff. If you’re not into wine, substitute whatever you do like to drink or whatever you like to eat. Grace tastes like a gourmet roasted chicken dinner - like the best you’ve had, seasoned perfectly, juicy and moist - when you’re expecting McDonalds chicken nuggets. Not only that, it is abundant and over the top. There were six stone jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons, filled to the brim with that water that Jesus turned to wine, giving us 120-180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine. To put that into perspective, that is 600-900 of our standard bottles of wine. That’s enough for everyone to their have fill and then some. It is free flowing. And indeed it is good news. It is akin to John’s telling of the feeding of the 5000, where five loaves and two fish feed 5000 people until each taking as much as they wanted, with twelve baskets left over. No one goes hungry, and there’s food left over.

When have you experienced the Grace of God? When have you tasted, touched, felt that grace overflowing for you? Maybe it was in true acceptance from a loved one. Or in kindness from a stranger. Or in hospitality around a table where you didn’t expect to find it. Or maybe it was felt in the presence of someone in your pains. Or in the gifts of God in the sacraments (which are tangible experiences of God’s grace). God’s grace and love isn’t a theoretical thing, but it is tangible and can be touched, tasted, felt.

For me, I experienced it most powerfully when I was in Tanzania. I was fourteen, travelling with
people that I barely knew, to a place thousands of miles from home. Getting there was… an experience. We flew out of Dulles on a ten hour red-eye flight to London. Had a ten hour layover in Heathrow. Then an eight hour flight from Heathrow to Dar Es Salaam. Then a twelve hour drive from Dar Es Salaam to Tukuyu. As we were leaving Dar Es Salaam, we stopped to pick up Mama Allen, who at the time was the bishop’s secretary. I was in the middle of the back seat, as the smallest person on the trip. Mama sat next to me. We’re driving through Mikumi national park. And, sadly I was exhausted, and I was falling asleep, missing all the wildlife all around me. My head kept going backward, as I struggled to stay awake. Mama Allen, someone I had known for just a few hours, pulled me over so I could sleep on her shoulder. In that small act of love from a stranger, I felt the grace and love of God. That’s what the love of God, working through Mama, felt like. It was a moment where I felt that love and grace of God that is bigger than what I could imagine, that grace that crosses the boundaries of country or nationality, of culture, etc.

For me, beyond the good news that God’s grace is abundant, overflowing, and for all, I find more good news in this passage. Yes, the disciples, Jesus’ mother, and the servants know what happened, and see this sign. For them, it does reveal who Jesus is. Joanna Harader puts it this way, “In the free-flowing wine that others take for granted, they see the glory of God.” And that is indeed a gift. But even more so, I see good news in that the rest of the party is unaware of what had happened, and yet they experience the abundance of the grace of God through Christ, without even knowing it. Today, in Christ, we can proclaim a Christ who is at work, giving the gifts of God’s grace and love abundantly and to all, even when we can’t see it or name it. God’s work in the world isn’t dependent on us seeing it or feeling it, but in Christ, the gifts of love and grace are still given, and they still bring life abundant to all.

Karoline Lewis, "Commentary on John 2:1-11." Working Preacher.

Joanna Harader, "A Strange First Clue: John 2:1-11." Christian Century.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Baptism of our Lord (Year C) - Jan 13, 2019

Baptism of Our Lord
Year C
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“You are my son, the beloved one, in you I take great delight.”
What powerful words we hear this morning, from God to Jesus. We may likely be more familiar with, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” That’s certainly the most traditional English translation. Both are plausible English translations. As someone who greatly enjoys translating texts (from Greek, my hebrew isn’t so up to snuff), I find it helpful to hear texts in slightly different ways. It is one of the reasons that I translate a Greek text (in my own words) before working on a sermon. Hearing it another way often restores power to words and texts that have lost power, simply because we’ve heard it the same way so many times before. My translation of this final verse of our reading today, hopefully does a similar kind of thing. I hope that by pushing us out of “how we’ve always heard it,” we can hear this text anew. And we can reconnect with the power of our Gospel text.

I had a professor in seminary, Dr. Ralph Klein, who, as we were talking about the first creation narrative in Genesis 1, mused that God created creation out of pure delight in creating. It may seem odd to start here - none of our readings even mention creation. But I hope, by starting at the beginning, by exploring how God intended creation to be, we might get at what God does in the waters of baptism.

Other near-eastern myths have the Gods create, especially in their creation of humanity, out of self-interest. The babylonian myth, for instance, tells us that humans were created in order to be enslaved by the Gods, so that they would be waited on hand-and-foot. By contrast, in our creation myth of Genesis 1, God creates humans to be in the image of God, godself. This is a unique understanding of who God is, and who God is in relation to God’s creation. God created humanity to be in an intimate relationship with Godself, to be in an intimate relationship with each other, and to be in an intimate relationship with creation, as good stewards of it. At the heart of it: that’s the purpose of humanity. And God took delight in God’s creation, calling it not just good, but very good. That delight in creation is highlighted by God’s rest from God’s work on the seventh day; it is as if God took that day to just take in the wonder and beauty of all that which God has created. It is as if God says to God’s creation, “You are my beloved handiwork, I take great delight in you.” The creation myth of Genesis 1 is a powerful and ancient confession about God’s vision for the world, and about God’s delight in the goodness of God’s creation.

As we know, from the rest of Genesis (and the rest of the biblical text, in general), the goodness of creation doesn’t last. Humanity, in particular, deviates from God’s intention for it. And thus, humanity is corrupted by “sin.” For Martin Luther, sin is ultimately defined by the ways in which people are turned in toward themselves - which then makes it difficult, if not impossible to turn outward - either toward God or toward neighbor. Humanity chooses to go their own way and chooses to separate themselves from God, symbolized in Adam and Eve’s transgressions and their hiding from God. And thus, shame seeks to separate humanity from God. As we continue through the Genesis text, human bonds, not just between humanity and God, are harmed but also humanity’s bonds with each other are destroyed as well. Instead of delight, brokenness and the power of sin take over as the ruling force of the world. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see this cycle of God reaching out to God’s people, and the people turn away, so God reaches out again.

“You are my son, the beloved one, in you I take great delight.”

A voice from heaven says. And in this water, as God reaches out to God’s people yet again, Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism. It is surprising; as we’ve wrestled with in adult forums - If Jesus is sinless, why would Jesus even need to be baptized (by John or by anyone else for that matter)? People gather at the river to be baptized by John. We don’t know what exactly brought each of them to the river to be baptized by John. We don’t know, specifically, what brokenness they were experiencing. They were waiting for the Messiah. They sought forgiveness, perhaps in preparation for that Messiah. I think it is fair to say that, whatever brought them there, they sought to experience and to be in relationship with God. They’re nameless; they are ones that we cannot see - the Gospel text doesn’t let us get that close. Yet, the “one who is more powerful” than John, walks among them. Jesus lines up with the masses of people. Jesus does not turn away from them. Jesus does not condemn them. Rather, Jesus joins them in the water. For Luke, this is why Jesus is baptized. Here, Jesus identifies with the people in the brokenness and the darkness of their lives and of their world. In this water, Jesus takes on all that leads people to the waters on himself.

As Jesus joins them in the water, God takes delight, pleasure, happiness, in Jesus, the beloved son. The cycle of brokenness is, well, broken. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will restore humanity to its intended relationship with God. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will do whatever it takes in order to bring all people to Godself. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will bring good news to the poor and to proclaim release to the captives, in an endeavor to bring all into right relationship in the new community of the Kingdom of God. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will usher in the reign of God into this world, here and now. In Jesus, God stands in solidarity with humanity in their brokenness and in their sin. And God’s grace shines through. Here, in this water, Jesus sees the brokenness of those we cannot or do not want to see. Here, in this water, we see a glimpse of the world as God intended it to be - and God delights in it and delights in God’s son. God finds great delight in the ministry of reconciliation and restoration that God’s beloved son is beginning.

As we move through the Gospel of Luke this year, that ministry of reconciliation and restoration will be revealed further. For the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ ministry focuses on restoring the outcast, the hungry, those on the very margins of society. As we heard in the magnificat, just a few weeks ago, God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It is a vision for the world of a community of people back in right relationship with each other, where all are wrapped up in the kingdom of God.

This ministry, ultimately, will lead us to the cross. That cross where Jesus, innocent, will hang on the cross in between two criminals. In Jesus, we have a God that risks even death to enter into our darkness, our brokenness, our worry, our sin. Here, on the cross, Jesus identifies so totally and completely, not with the joys, but with the pains of our lives. Here, on the cross, Jesus embraces us in God’s love with an unconditional acceptance of us. No longer can our humanity nor the darkness of our world threaten separate us from God. And we are free to be human, living out our humanity fully and deeply.

Our baptisms, while different than Jesus’ baptism, unite us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are freed from any need to justify ourselves to God. By our own power, we can’t justify ourselves. We can’t justify ourselves through good deeds or the avoidance of bad deeds. We can’t justify ourselves through who we are or who we aren’t. We can’t justify ourselves through our sexuality or our understanding of our gender. We can’t justify ourselves through our place in society or what we do for a living. We can’t justify ourselves by having the “right” understanding of God or of Scripture. We can’t justify ourselves through having the “right” religious experience or being free from doubt. In Jesus, all of that goes out the window. But the Good News this morning is that, in this water, Jesus stands alongside us, and through Jesus, we are fully justified and brought into relationship with God. God binds Godself to each one of us in a covenant that nothing can separate us from God or God’s love - not because of what we do or who we are, but because of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. In this water, God lives out God’s intent for a deep and intimate relationship with God’s people. Our relationship with God is what God intended it to be from the very beginning. God accepts us -- not an ideal version of us - but our whole selves - both sinner and saint - and in our whole lives - rejoicing with us in our joys and lamenting with us in our sorrows. Having been forgiven and redeemed, God frees us to live fully into the new life we have found in Christ - as who we are. We no longer need to feel like we have to hide ourselves - our true selves - from God. And God frees us to turn outward in service as part of the Body of Christ in our homes, in our communities, and in the world. Here, in this water, we are adopted as beloved children of God, and we are marked with the cross of Christ forever. And God takes delight in us. It is as if God says to each one of us:

“You are my child, the beloved one, in you I take great delight.”

Thanks be to God for that.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Epiphany (Year C) - Jan 6, 2019

Year C
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12

For the last time this season, on this Epiphany Sunday, we hear one of the infancy narratives of Jesus. On one hand, it serves as a transition Sunday between the childhood Jesus and the adult Jesus and his ministry. Yet, on the other, it is so much more. Epiphany, meaning to reveal or to uncover, serves to illuminate Christ, the true King of the world.

The congregation I grew up in made a big deal about Epiphany. Every year, three of the choir
members dressed up as three magi. We sang, “We Three Kings of Orient are, bearing gifts, we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and Mountain following yonder star.” And they would process, one by one, on their corresponding verse, with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They would process slowly, with reverence and intentionality behind each step. They followed a Bethlehem star, which was hung above a nativity set, which had been placed near the front of the church, by the baptismal font, for the Christmas season. And, they laid their gifts in front of that tiny manger scene. It was a fun reenactment of the familiar story. (Even though, as I’ve come to learn, much of that familiar story relies much more on the song than the biblical text - the visitors were not kings - they were magi - likely Zoroastrian or other Gentile priests or astrologers -, and there is no mention that there three of them. But it was fun and meaningful nonetheless).

As I think about not just this story, but Jesus’ infancy narratives, in general, I wonder if we’ve romanticized it and tamed it all a bit too much. We tend to make these stories into nice, gentle retellings, complete with sweet domesticated livestock. We tend to gloss over the politics and the messiness of these passages. Especially in today’s passage, we can’t separate the arrival of the magi from the world and its politics that Jesus was born into.

The star that appeared signaled not just the birth of Jesus but also the dawning of a new Kingdom, a new regime, one that brings forth light and life out of the darkness of the rule of Rome. The light is made known as a star illuminates the way to Jesus. These gentile magi want to find this new king of the Judeans to pay him homage. Jesus’ birth has cosmic significance, as the birth is made known in the stars. These magi give gifts that are appropriate to honor a king. The arrival of the magi puts into reality, on a small scale, God’s vision of all people - Jew and Gentile - being united and enfolded into the Kingdom of God.

And Jesus’ birth has real consequences for the world in which we live. Jesus’ is a new kind of kingdom and a new kind of kingship. It is a kingdom where the human boundaries that threaten to separate us from each other - like the distinction between Jew and Gentile - disappear, and real, true, mutual relationships can be fostered and strengthened. The Gospel - the Good News of the arrival of Jesus - is political. Not partisan, but it is political in that the love of God and the grace found in this child affects all levels of society - us as individuals, our communities, and the wider world. It reorients all to the love and life found in Christ, and the birth of the Christ child calls us to live out that love found in Christ as we go about our lives in the world. 

But the star also signaled this arrival to Herod - the current King of the Judeans. What is good news for some, may seem like incredibly bad news for others. The birth of Jesus is a direct threat to his own rule. Herod is frightened. For him, the birth of Christ signals not hope but destruction and an end to all that he holds dear - his own power, his own wealth, his own safety, and his own hold on the world. Herod does everything he can to extinguish the light of Christ - including, as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, massacring all the children, age 2 or less.  Any competition for the throne must be eradicated, and he must keep the light from shining. And Herod, at least in his understanding of Jesus, is right. Jesus comes to challenge and to overthrow the corrupt powers that be. While Jesus didn’t assemble an army and reestablish Israel as its own sovereign nation, Jesus’ preaching, teaching, healing, his death and resurrection all serve to challenge the status quo that keeps people in bondage to the powers that be. It has significance not just for Judea, the province over which Herod was king, but for the whole world. Matthew does not hide or shy away from this brewing conflict, rather this conflict between the Kingdom of Rome (with the powers and ruler of this world) and the Kingdom of God becomes central to the Gospel of Matthew.

Karoline Lewis, this week, makes a helpful point - when people in power fear competition, it signals that they themselves know that their power and their use of power is not what it should be. His defensiveness signals a knowledge that his leadership has not lived up to his promises and to his rhetoric. His fear of a baby (to the point that he resorts to murder) signals that he’s doing everything he can to hold onto his position and his power - and all that comes with it, wealth, honor, respect (even respect out of fear). Someone who is leading well - with integrity, with morality, with the good of all the people in mind - doesn’t fear those who might complete with him. Unlike for the Romans, for Jews, the value and quality of kingship was judged not on the wealth brought into the kingdom (as put on display by building projects), but on the treatment and protection of their people, especially the people that are most vulnerable. And Herod did not live up to the standards of being the King of the Jews. If we look at the kings, the rulers of our world, I wonder if our world isn’t so far removed from that world of Herod, as much as I might hate to admit it.

Karoline further reminds us that, while we may not want to admit it, we are a bit more like Herod than what we might like to acknowledge. Hearing the call to give up our own safety and security (whether that comes with from our money, our status in society, or the barriers - physical and metaphoric- that we put up between ourselves and our neighbors - whatever makes us feel “safe”) for the sake of doing God’s work with our own hands is not an easy call. We’re called to give up power and privilege and lift up the most vulnerable. It isn’t easy. It means putting the good of others and the wider world before my individual wants (and I’m not always good at that - it is the turned-in-on-self sinful nature that Martin Luther talks about so deeply. For him, that is the basic definition of sin. It isn’t an individual action, but rather humanity’s nature to be so inward focused. It is that piece of ourselves that puts our own joy, our own pleasure, etc. above other people’s pain, hardship, and danger).

The Good news this morning is that the light of Christ is not extinguished despite our efforts and the efforts of the world to do so. Herod’s plot to destroy Christ fails. The Magi defy Herod and turn back to their home country another way. The attempt of the Empire to destroy Christ by crucifying him fails, as we encounter the empty tomb on Easter morning. The light of Christ is persistent - nothing, not even death can extinguish it, and that light shines brighter than our sin and the sins of the world. Jesus - the God-with-us - is here and is here to stay, as the Gospel of Matthew makes clear. And that light of Christ shines on us, on our turned in on self selves. Christ loves us, grants us grace, mercy, and forgiveness - so that we are able to turn outward and participate in God’s vision for the world. In Christ, God uses us, turned-in-on self sinners, to carry the light of Christ to our neighbor, to love all people as Christ has loved us, to break down the walls that divide us from our neighbor, to forgive those who have brought us harm, to resist this world and its rulers wherever and whenever it goes astray, and to witness to the breaking in of the Kingdom of God wherever we may find it.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

First Sunday of Christmas (Year C) - Dec. 30, 2018

First Sunday of Christmas
Year C
December 30, 2018
Luke 2:42-52

This morning’s Gospel reading is the only story we get of Jesus between the infancy narratives (only found in Matthew and Luke) and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, at least for a boy of his time, is at the cusp of adulthood. In Jesus’ world, age twelve or thirteen marked the end of childhood and the beginning of the transition to adulthood. It marks the shift from the home - a primarily feminine space - to the public world - dominated by men, as a boy of Jesus’ age, for instance, would begin to take up the business or trade of his father. 

As I read today’s Gospel lesson, it struck me that Jesus’ transition from childhood to adulthood is about as complicated as it is for us. We mark that transition a bit later - with graduation from High School and turning 18. Our high school and (for some) our college years then become this time to learn how to “adult” by starting to take up adult responsibilities for ourselves, before we finally get all adult responsibilities for ourselves (which, as I’m still learning, at times, isn’t all it has cracked up to be). These years are a time of transition, where we’re no longer fully children nor fully adults. We begin taking on adult responsibilities. We begin working. We begin dating. We begin to push our boundaries with our parents. We experiment. We do things just because we think we’re old enough to do it (whether or not our parents agree that we’re old enough). When I turned eighteen, I stayed out until midnight just because I finally could legally drive past 11pm - I think I got home at 12:05am (yeah, I was just *that* rebellious). My friends did more of that pushing of boundaries than I did. It is a difficult transition for both children and parents as we have to relearn our relationships as parents and with children and adult children with parents. And, as I think about it, sometimes we continue to relearn it. I’m 26, and I’m still learning how to navigate that adult child/ parent relationship. And my folks are still learning how to navigate that as well. 

It strikes me that it must have been just as hard (if not harder) for Mary and Jesus to navigate this as it is for us. Jesus pushes his boundaries by staying back in Jerusalem, without telling his parents. Perhaps he thought that he was old enough to be there and to travel on his own. Or perhaps, like many a preeteen, he just wasn’t thinking fully through the consequences of his actions. Mary and Joseph go on toward home, travelling for about a day before realizing that Jesus was not part of the group, and turned back. (Before we get too hard on Mary and Joseph for not noticing, when travelling as a group, it wouldn’t be uncommon to not see children for a whole day) They searched for days. I’m not a parent; I can only imagine the panic they were experiencing. Where did he get separated from the group? Was he kidnapped? Was he wondering around, lost, hungry and confused? Was Jesus scared? Or did something worse happen?

When I was seventeen, I went to the Lutheran Youth Gathering in New Orleans. I went with a friend’s church, not having a youth group to go with at my own church. Every day, we went to the Superdome for worship. We gathered with 37,000 of our closest friends. Usually, on the way out, the speakers were outside and we could briefly meet with them. In the chaos of leaving, one day, I got separated from my group. I turned around and realized that I didn’t recognize a single person around me (I barely even knew the group that I was travelling with, and suddenly I knew noone). No one had noticed. At the time, I had a cell phone, so I stayed where I was, trying to remain calm, and, I began calling the youth group leaders. They didn’t hear their phones ring. Eventually, what seemed like an eternity later, I got a hold of one of the leaders - they had made it all the way back to the hotel before anyone had noticed that I wasn’t there. I’m thankful that I had my cell phone, and all was fine. Yet the panic was real. I was in a city I didn’t know. Surrounded by people I didn’t know. 

While roles were reversed, I imagine that Mary and Joseph were having a similar fear, except far worse, with the panic increasing every day that they were separated. Their son was in a large city that he was likely unfamiliar with. Surrounded by the thousands of other pilgrims that had ascended to Jerusalem for that year’s Passover celebration. Finding one person in the mass of people and in the streets of Jerusalem, especially during the festival of Passover, would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Eventually, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple. I wonder what brought them to the Temple. Did they really expect to find Jesus there - was it one of the expected places to check off the list of places to look? Or did they go there to connect with God in their grief and fear, and happened to stumble upon him there? While the text doesn’t give us the answer, I suspect it was the latter, as they were astonished when they saw him. Even as a preteen, Jesus was showing up in the places where we might least expect. And I have a feeling that Mary’s tone as she spoke to Jesus wasn’t cool, calm, and collected. But rather her voice was an a tone that mixed anger, grief, anxiety, and relief at seeing Jesus, sitting in the temple, in one piece. 

Unlike in typical art depicting this scene, Jesus is not teaching the teachers, but listening and asking questions. In other words, he doesn’t take a place above the teachers present in the temple, but engages them in seemingly mutual conversation, learning from them as much as they learn from him. And he seemed to learn from this experience as well, as the text states that, from here on, Jesus was obedient to his parents. 

Today, Jesus’ parents see him beginning to become the adult that he will be. Beyond, the anxiety that this particular incident caused them, I think Mary and Joseph begin to see what it means to have a Son who will be the Savior of all people. It certainly won’t be an easy journey - it leads to the cross. It is a journey that will be filled with anxiety and uncertainty of what will happen with their beloved son. I can only imagine how they had to relearn their relationships and their boundaries as Jesus grew in wisdom and in years. I can only imagine how difficult it was to navigate their lives and relationships as Jesus began his ministry, began to hang out with the “wrong” people, and eventually marched to Jerusalem and to his death (and resurrection).

As I think about the Christmas season, I wonder, why this story? Why this today - on the first Sunday of Christmas? Beyond that it is the only story that we get between Jesus’ nativity and Jesus’ adulthood. Then I think about what we celebrate at Christmas - Jesus’ incarnation. This is a wonderful story of God’s incarnation in Jesus. While Jesus is wise beyond his years as he engages in dialogue in the Temple, we also see that he’s living life not so far removed from our own preteen years - or the preteen years of our kids. So often, when we think about Jesus, we think primarily about Jesus’ divinity - how Jesus is God. Christmas is a time for us to celebrate that not only Jesus is God, but also God is human in Jesus. And God becomes incarnate and lives among us.

Today, we encounter Jesus in the messiness of his preteen years. We encounter the messiness of his transition from his family life (and seemingly boring or typical childhood - nothing is written about it in the canonical Gospels) to the adult that brings Salvation to all - especially to the lost, the least, and the lonely - and willingly marches to the cross. We encounter the messiness of his relationships with his parents - with the treasures and the anxiety that came with it. We encounter a Jesus who is willing to learn and to ask questions. In Jesus, God doesn’t shy away from being human, but becomes really and truly human. In becoming a child, in becoming an awkward preteen, Jesus enters into our messiness - the messiness of our relationships, the messiness of all our transitions (including but not limited to our transition from childhood to adulthood), and the messiness of following Christ as we do God’s work of salvation with our own hands. And we encounter a Jesus who encourages us to learn and to ask questions of each other, of our faith, of our God. Because Jesus lived that messiness, we are free to live into the messiness of what it means to be human and to live truly and deeply into our humanity - so that we may also live in solidarity with our fellow humanity in the messiness of their lives. 


Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve (Year C) - Dec. 24, 2018

Christmas Eve
Year C
December 24, 2018
Luke 1:1-14

Merry Christmas!! Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of year. My family, inparticular, my Mom and my Pap, used to go all-out with the decorating. We still have Pap’s beautiful hand-made and huge nativity set, which he made for us a number of years before he died. Every year, we would go to Rocky Ridge, a York County Park, for their “Christmas Magic” festival; we’d walk around the park to see the magnificent light displays and to meet Santa Clause. Gram and Pap would arrive so early on Christmas morning, so that they would be there before my brother and I even woke up; they found so much joy in seeing their grandkids opening their gifts. Beyond the traditions and time spent with family and friends, we always went to Christmas Eve services - both of them. The early service because it was the service in which the Kids choir sang - and I typically was in the Kids choir. And the late service (at 10:30pm) became part of our tradition - I think because at one point Dad played the trombone in the brass quintet - but that late service became one of my favorite services of the year - next to Easter Sunrise.

It is a joy to celebrate the birth of Christ with you on this beautiful night - to be part of the traditions here - and to create new ones. It is wonderful to see families and friends gathered. To see visitors who come to hear the story of Christ - again - or maybe for the first time. I love singing the familiar carols and hearing yet again the stories of Christmas. I’ll admit, it is a bit different (in a good way) celebrating on this side of the pulpit for the first time. But I am thankful to be here with you this evening as we commemorate the birth of our Savior. Tonight is a moment to stop, in the busy-ness of the season (and in all of the social expectations and distractions that come with the season), we stop, to gather together, to sing, and to reflect on what Christ’s birth really means for us, for our communities, and for and the world.

Something hit me as I was working on my sermon for yesterday. We were talking about the Magnificat - Mary’s song of praise in which Mary proclaims the role reversals that come with the arrival of Jesus. Mary knew that the birth of her Son would have lasting effects for individuals like her, for her community, and for the world. The proud are scattered. The powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. The arrival of her son inaugurates the reign of God in this world - one where relationships between God and between neighbor are restored, where poverty and oppression are eradicated, and the world becomes what God always intended it to be. In her song of praise, that we heard yesterday, her vision for the world became united with God’s vision for the world.

In the birth of her son, the incarnation of God in her baby, this evening, that vision starts to become a reality. I hadn’t really thought of it quite this way before: but God puts this role reversal that Mary sings so eloquently about into reality in Godself. In other words, in the birth of Jesus, God participates in this role reversal. God doesn’t expect the world to do what God isn’t willing to do Godself. In love for all of God’s people, God comes down from God’s own throne, and becomes really and truly human. God humbles Godself, not just in becoming human, but even more in becoming a baby in Jesus - vulnerable and totally dependent on everyone around him. God is willing to risk everything that being human m
eans - including risking death - a death that Jesus will face on the cross. If we really think about it… How absurd is that? A God that risks death to show love to God’s creation? Yet tonight, We proclaim a God that risks it all - vulnerability, the dirt and grime, the messiness of human relationships (including calling disciples that will fail him), even death - to show God’s love to ALL people, everywhere.

God does this new and radical thing to turn the world on its head. And to turn our expectations of God on its head. Tonight, we can say, with the baby in the manger, no longer does God remain distant but rather God says yes to our humanity and to everything that comes with this humanity. Divinity and humanity become one and can no longer be separated. And our humanity - the best and the worst of it - can no longer be a barrier to God’s love for us nor a barrier for God’s working in us and through us. In the birth of the Christ Child, God is solidly and firmly with us - working to bring salvation and liberation to us and to all people.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Advent Devotional, God is in the Manger puts it this way: “God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to become human—really human. Whereas we distinguish between the godly and the godless, the good and the evil, the noble and the common, God loves real human beings without distinction…. God takes the side of real human beings and the real world against all their accusers…. But it’s not enough to say that God takes care of human beings. This sentence rests on something infinitely deeper and more impenetrable, namely, that in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took on humanity in bodily fashion. God raised his love for human beings above every reproach of falsehood and doubt and uncertainty by himself entering into the life of human beings as a human being, by bodily taking upon himself and bearing the nature, essence, guilt, and suffering of human beings. Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.”

Jesus’ birth is confirmation that God is not willing to abandon God’s beloved creation. Jesus’ birth is confirmation that God is willing to do the unexpected to connect deeply with humanity, to bring humanity to back to Godself - with grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and to do the hard and messy work of restoring this world to what it should be - restoring people - especially those on the margins - to their rightful place in community. In Jesus, God is let loose in the world, turning this world upside down - starting with our expectations of God godself, and continuing to work, til creation is what it was always intended to be.

This is the good news that we celebrate tonight. God doesn’t pick the most upstanding person as the Mother of our Lord. Mary was unwed, poor, from the margins of society. And further, that Good News of God’s arrival as a baby in Jesus - goes first to those that the world considers less-than human - Shepherds - dirty, dishonorable, and thought of as thieves. The angels said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The Good News of God’s yes to humanity goes first to the margins - to the lowly - to those considered to be outside community - to those who need to hear it most. Their place in the world is no barrier for God’s work. They are loved, they are redeemed, they are promised salvation and a place at the table. Their response to the Good News is to go with haste to see the baby lying in the manger - to see that baby that will turn this world upside down. They want to see for themselves the baby that ushers in God’s new reign in this world.

So tonight, Christ’s birth is a yes to our humanity - and to everything - the joys and the sorrows, the hardships and the celebrations, the life and the death - that humanity brings. We know, that in the incarnation of God in Christ, God has experienced all that humanity brings. In Christ, nothing can any longer separate us from God; tonight, we have the promise that God will show up - in our darkness and in our light - perhaps in the ways or the places we might least expect. This is the good news of Christmas, not just for tonight, but for every night and every day. As we approach the baby in the manger, as we taste the gifts of God’s forgiveness and love in the real presence of Christ in bread and the wine, we call upon God to continue to come into our world, to continue to usher in the world that God promises, to break the bonds that bind us and that keep our neighbor oppressed. We call on this Christ child to equip us to participate in God’s vision for the world. And we call on this Christ child to inspire us to live so deeply into our humanity so that we live in solidarity with the neighbor and the stranger in their humanity. And we call on this Christ child to equip us to be agents of God’s peace, of God’s justice, and of God’s salvation.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent 4 (Year C) - Dec. 23, 2018

Advent 4
Year C
December 23, 2018
Luke 1:39-55

In my mind, as I picture the scene from this morning’s gospel, I have tended to think of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth as a family visit - a baby shower of sorts. In my family, when there is a pregnancy, the women tend to travel to visit with the expectant mother. My brother and I are the youngest of this generations of cousins, so most of my cousins have gotten married, have had children, etc. I was a pre-teen when my most of my cousins began having children, so I started going with my mom to the baby showers. My mom and I would get up early to travel the 3 hours to the area in which my mom grew up, and we’d return home late at night after the festivities. It was a female-only space where friends and family gathered to celebrate the new life that is about to be born. There were games and gifts. And little booties filled with blue or pink M&Ms (always a thrill for the few of us who don’t eat chocolate). And little blue or pink trinkets for us to take with us. There was talk about birth and nursing and babies, as my gram says, with their days and nights mixed up, and the joys and exhaustion of parenthood. And that’s kinda how I envisioned this scene - minus the m&ms, of course.

But, then I wonder, if over the years, as I’ve encountered this story again and again, I’ve tamed this scene a bit too much. I’ve made this story fit into my worldview and into what I have come to expect from our preparations for the birth of children.

Thinking more about it, It is a surprise that we get this piece of the story, at all. As Luke tells us earlier, Elizabeth is in seclusion. She faces solitude because women’s bodies, especially when talking about reproduction and childbirth, were still incredibly taboo. It was “women’s talk” and it was conversation that was to remain private (and yet here we have the stories on paper). Turning to Mary, her pregnancy would have brought shame upon her and her family. Further, she shouldn’t even be travelling to the hills of Judea alone. This is no small trek from Nazareth. It was a trek that required travelling from the region of Galilee, through Samaria, and into the southern region of Judea, likely a journey of several days. And women who travelled alone were, not only at risk of physical harm, but also the accusations of deviant behavior and the social implications that followed it (those assumptions and accusations certainly not helped by being an unwed mother-to-be). While visiting family was a legitimate reason for travel, Mary should not have made that journey, especially alone.

Yes, of course, Mary and Elizabeth are celebrating the new lives that are to come - with the births of John and Jesus. The text tells us that much. Yet it still isn’t exactly the baby shower that I had pictured in my head. Instead of family from far and wide gathering together to celebrate as a community, we get the meeting of two marginalized pregnant women - Elizabeth pushed to the edge of society for a chunk of her adult life because she was barren, too old to conceive - someone who, until now, was unable to fulfil her duty as a woman to bring about children and heirs - and Mary pushed to the edge of society because she was an unwed (and likely poor) mother. Their positions in life put them in an unsettled place.

In that society, these women are two of the least expected to be bearers of the Good News. We get the Good News this morning not from the rich, not from the powerful, not from men, but instead from women from the edges of society - living in seclusion apart from community and apart from family. The seclusion and the marginalization that these women face will not have the last word. Society’s norms and expectations are no barrier for God at work in the lives of these women. In their unlikely meeting, in this unsettled place that they inhabit in their society, they begin to find the new life and the new community that the Savior will bring about - not just for them but for the whole world. In other words, this meeting between two pregnant women is a small scale glimpse into the new life that God promises to bring about in Christ. The hope and the anticipation is palpable as John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. It is these two women who first proclaim and witness to the joy of the good news of the coming of Jesus. Even more, they are active and willing participants in God’s vision for the world - not just in their acceptance of their pregnancies but also in the new life found in community with each other.

Today, we get to hear Mary’s song of praise (also called the Magnificat) twice. Once, as our psalm, and again, at the end of our Gospel reading. It is a beautiful hymn in which Mary proclaims the good that God is doing for her, and moves outward, proclaiming that this is indeed good news for everyone, for the whole world.

Her song is a proclamation, not just about what God has done for her, but what God is doing in
the Christ Child for the entire world. One of my favorite hymns is the absolutely beautiful Canticle of the Turning, based on the Magnificat. In the refrain, the hymn puts it this way:

  “My heart shall sing of the day you bring.          
   Let the fires of your justice burn.
  Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
  and the world is about to turn!”

This morning, Mary is pointing us precisely to that world that is about to turn. The dawn that draws near in Christ in which people are made right with God and with neighbor. And that turning world has effects - on individuals - like Mary and Elizabeth themselves - and also on the whole world.

God is turning the world upside down - the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted high; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. This reversal is highlighted by how God is bringing Godself down by becoming human, and even more, by becoming a baby - vulnerable and totally dependent on those around him. In Jesus, we have a God that is on the side of the lowly and the vulnerable, having been there Godself. God is turning the world on its head, bringing about a world where oppression ceases, where poverty is eradicated, where community is restored, where all that separates us from our neighbor is broken by the strength of God’s arm. It is about the liberating salvation that is coming into this world in the Christ Child. And in Mary’s song, we can definitively say, to answer the question of the popular song, yes, Mary did know. Her hymn unites what she is experiencing with the God’s vision for the world. A vision that she waits to be fully realized in her son. A vision that she herself participated in, as the mother of our Lord.

The distance between us and these two women seems vast. And it makes it easy to romanticize the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth (as I admittedly have done - thinking of this as a baby shower). It makes it easy to just hear Mary’s hymn as a beautiful hymn, but one that doesn’t have much to say to us today. Perhaps we even see Mary’s words as foolish. The powerful still have power. The distance between rich and poor only seems to get wider. Racism and sexism run rampant. Our siblings of different gender identities, sexual orientations, skin colors, religions, are still pushed to the edges of society. The world still seems so unsettled.

As I think about Mary’s song, along with Mary and Elizabeth, we too anticipate God’s vision of the world finally being fully realized here in this world. We too are affected by the ways in which society and society’s expectations pull us apart from our neighbor. The seclusion and the marginalization that us or our neighbors face will not have the last word. Society’s norms and expectations are no barrier for God at work in our world. We are waiting for our unsettled worlds to be turned upside down. Along with Mary and Elizabeth, we too can look at our lives and the world around us and see God at work in Christ - sometimes in the most unlikely places. We can see God at work when relationships are restored as forgiveness and grace are given, when community is found as we embrace all our neighbors, when folks living in poverty find relief, etc. These seemingly smaller things are glimpses into the turned-upside-down world that, in Jesus, God is bringing about. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we too are drawn into God’s vision for the world, to the point that our anticipation for the world that we long for turns to participation in that vision - so that we become active in the acts of forgiveness, of restoration, of lifting up those living under the weight of poverty and oppression. And we call upon Christ to keep coming into this world again and again, to fully bring about God’s vision into this world.

As we make this transition together from Advent hope and expectation to Christmas morn, I leave you with a (slightly edited and expanded) Franciscan Christmas blessing:

May God bless us with joy at the coming of Christ, that our vision for this world may become the vision that God has for this world:

May God bless us with discomfort at half-truths, easy answers, and superficial relationships, so that we will live deeply and from the heart - with the love we find in Jesus.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so that we will work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed with those in pain, so that we will reach out our hands to them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world that is about to turn, so that our anticipation turns to participation in the turning world, doing those things that others say cannot be done.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent 2 (Year C) - Dec. 9, 2018

Advent 2
Year C
December 9, 2018
Luke 3:1-6

There are few things that most pastors look forward to more than baptisms. It is one of the things that we get to do in this profession that typically is pure joy, as we proclaim the promises of God made to the newly baptized and to each one of us. And I’m so thrilled to have had the honor of baptizing Grant this morning, as my first baptism as a called and ordained pastor. It is also such joy and a pleasure to remember Tripp’s baptism together. We rejoice as we proclaim that they are indeed united with Christ so that nothing can any longer separate them from the love of God found in Christ. Today, we welcome them as part of the body of Christ, of which we all are a part, and we as a church celebrate with their family this morning. And today, we welcome them into the reign of God.

It is a happy coincidence that, as we celebrate Grant’s baptism this morning, our Gospel lesson today turns to John the Baptist, as he was in his ministry of baptism in the wilderness region around the Jordan. It was not planned this way, but it works out well. John is called while he is in the wilderness and goes, interestingly, not to the synagogue or to the palace or to the marketplace (where one might expect to find a lot of people), but remains in the wilderness throughout his ministry. The wilderness becomes, then, for John his place of spiritual growth and development. It is here that John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for t
he release from sins.” It seems an odd choice… In the desert, the land is at least somewhat barren. It is a place of potential danger. People are few and far between. It is a place of isolation. It is a place that can bring about fear. In the Greco-Roman world that valued order and civility, the wilderness represented a place of chaos and disorder. Those who spent too much time in the wilderness were often thought to be engaging in deviant behavior. In many ways, the wilderness is the place we might least expect to prepare the way for God. Wouldn’t it be far more effective and far safer to go preach in the midst of the busy marketplace in town?

Yet the wilderness is an important place, both for John and for the people of Israel. It is an in-between place. It is the place where Moses and the Hebrew people wandered for 40 years between slavery in Egypt and the promised land. It is the place between the Babylonian Exile and the return to Israel and Jerusalem. In other words, the wilderness is the place between captivity and freedom, the placebetween oppression and salvation. It is the in the wilderness that God leads God’s people on the Way (or road) of the Lord that brings wholeness and life back to God’s people. So while for some the wilderness conjures images of desolation, isolation, and fear, for others, it brings about the very hope that God is again acting on behalf of God’s people.

And it is no accident that it is here that John the Baptist has his ministry. John the baptist inhabits this in between place situated between the reign of Rome marked by its emperor Tiberius and the local governor Pontius Pilate and all the other names listed in the Gospel reading and the reign of God, ushered in by Jesus, John’s cousin and the Savior of all people. The wilderness is where John proclaims the coming of God and encourages people to prepare for that coming. It is here that the Word of God is let loose among the people of God. It is here that John proclaims that, Jesus, God is at work, bringing about freedom and releasing people from that which keeps them captive. Salvation is coming. And all flesh will taste the salvation found in Jesus. And it is coming in the very places that we least expect to find it.

Isn’t that what we see throughout the Gospel though? God, in Jesus, shows up where we least expect God to show up. And with Jesus, God shows up to bring release from sins and salvation to all people everywhere. In just a little over two weeks, we celebrate the arrival of God incarnate, not as a super-power or an emperor, but as a baby lying in a manger. The mother of that baby was not a princess or an upstanding wife, but a poor unwed mother. We proclaim a God in Christ that shows up among the people society doesn’t expect - among fishermen, among women, among the sick, among those struggling with demons, among Samaritans (and other foreigners), etc. We proclaim a God in Jesus who shows up in the wildernesses of our world and of our lives. We trust that Jesus shows up in the mundane, the simple, the everyday. We trust that in Jesus, God shows up in our in between places, leading us to wholeness, new life, and salvation.

Today, in particular, we proclaim that Jesus shows up in the everyday element of water. Something so simple that surrounds us. We turn on our faucets and water comes out (at least we hope). We have the York and the James rivers, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. In the ordinary, God promises the extraordinary. The water combined with God’s Word does the extraordinary. In this water, we trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit to bring about the gift of faith in each one of us. In this water, we are joined into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Through water, God meets us in this in-between place of this world. In this world, we are living between the powers of this world that work to keep us and all people under the bonds of oppression and the powers of God that work to liberate all flesh from that which binds them. This world is an in between place where we are already living in the Kingdom of God, but we’re also waiting and hoping for that Kingdom to be fully realized in this world here and now.

In our baptisms, we trust that we are released from our the power of our sins. We trust that not even our sins can separate ourselves from the God who chooses us. Here, we proclaim a God who meets us in the in-between places and the wilderness of our lives and brings about freedom. We trust that it is our baptism that brings us the salvation and freedom. Because we are free and because the power of our sin can no longer separate us from God, our baptism frees us to live our lives out in service to the neighbor.

Baptisms are joyous. Baptisms are one of the biggest days - theologically speaking it is the biggest day - of our lives. Without my baptism - I wouldn’t be here as your pastor. Ordination into this ministry - which many of you attended - is one way in which people may live out their baptismal calling. The ordination doesn’t happen without the new life found in Christ in baptism. Yet, baptism is kind of this odd thing because especially for those of us baptized as infants, it is a day that we don’t remember. My brother and I were baptized in October of 1992 in Ebenezer Lutheran church in Greensboro, NC. Off the top of my head, I don’t know the exact date; I know I had to find it for my initial application for the candidacy process in order to become a pastor. We were somewhere around 4 months old. I obviously don’t remember anything about that day. I’ve seen a few pictures. I think I’ve seen my baptismal candle; it is likely somewhere in my folks’ attic. I even mix up my Godparents and my brother’s Godparents. My baptism just wasn’t something we talked about. It wasn’t something that was part of our family narratives. So not only do I not remember my baptism for myself, I don’t have the stories surrounding that baptism. I don’t blame my parents for that; it wasn’t part of their family narratives either. Baptism was something we just did because we were supposed to do it. And suddenly, in Seminary, I had to connect my baptism to my faith journey to my calling, not only in my mind, but also in writing - for my candidacy committee and academic advisors to see.

Parents - I hope that the baptism of your children are part of your family narratives. I hope you will talk with your kids about their baptism. Did they sleep through the whole thing? Did they scream at the top of their lungs? Who was there? More importantly, I hope you will tell them tha
t in that water, God claims them as God’s own beloved children. In this water, God promises to love them forever and that nothing can separate them from that love in Christ. I hope you tell them that their baptism ties them into the body of Christ and into work of God in the world. I hope that you will tell them that God meets them in the in between places and in the wildernesses of their lives. I hope that you’ll bring out the candles. I hope that you’ll light them periodically (perhaps on the anniversary of your kids’ baptisms), and I hope that you’ll rejoice together again at the Good News that God claims them.

I hope that each of our baptisms (whether we have remembrances or stories of the event itself or not) become part of our narratives. I hope that we all can tell the world - both in word and in action - what our baptism means for us - that we are claimed children of God. I hope that we can tell the world that we have been given the gift of faith. That, in our baptism, we have entered the new life found in the Kingdom of God.