Thursday, February 20, 2020

6 Epiphany (Year A) - February 16, 2020

Epiphany 6
Year A February 16, 2020
Matthew 5:21-37

A moment of confession: This is not this pastor’s favorite week to preach; there is so much going on our Gospel reading this morning – and we just can’t hit it all or I’d be preaching for an hour – and no one wants that. Our Gospel text for this morning is admittedly a difficult passage that has been used and misused in a variety of ways. In particular, Jesus’ strict words about divorce have been used in incredibly harmful ways, keeping people in abusive marriages or marriages that are unhealthy or just not working anymore (for whatever reason). Even though it is only two verses of this lengthy passage, these words on divorce ring loud, clear, and harsh, in part, because most of us know and love someone who is divorced and some people here have been divorced. Just in my family, both sets of grandparents divorced, my mom divorced her first husband before meeting my Dad, my uncle has been divorced twice, and I have three cousins who have been divorced at least once. To put it bluntly, without my mom’s divorce from her first husband, I wouldn’t be here. It is a hard text to hear with modern ears.

However, today, I hope to take today’s passage seriously looking at both the function of law and the context of relationships in the Kingdom of God as we begin to engage with this text in its entirety. Because it isn’t just or even mainly about divorce - it is about relationships and how we are in relationship with one another. It is about what life looks like in the community of the kingdom of God. Then, we maybe, just maybe we can better engage what Jesus is proclaiming on here the mount.

In seminary, our beloved Old Testament scholar, The Rev. Dr. Ralph Klein, talks about the Ten Commandments, particularly the 8 negative commandments - the you shall not commandments - as God’s playpen. Think about a playpen; we have them for pets and for infants. They create a boundary in which a child or a pet can play freely and ideally also safely. There is a boundary. But there’s a lot of room to play, to grow, to explore. Likewise, these eight commandments form the boundaries for the community of God’s people. Within those boundaries, the people can play and live with relative freedom. As long as you refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain, refrain from murdering your neighbor, refrain from committing adultery, etc., you’re within the community’s boundaries. And there’s lots of room to play, to grow, to explore life together in community and in faith. There’s lots of room for wrestling, for questioning, for figuring out what life together looks like. However, breaking these laws, places one clearly outside of the boundaries of the community.

In this way, the Commandments curb sin for the sake of the greater good of the whole community. The law, then, is not meant to be a burden, but a gift – a gift given for the sake of the health and wellbeing of people and of the community. Remember, the law was given AFTER God had chosen Israel as God’s beloved people. The Law isn’t about earning God’s love; it is about living in a community formed by God’s love. Certain actions and behaviors are ruled out because they damage the community, but there is a great amount of freedom within those boundaries.

I wonder if my professor’s theory can help us figure out what is going on in today’s passage. Jesus takes several commandments from Hebrew Scripture - you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely – and, on one hand, digs deeper to what lies underneath them. Underneath committing murder is unresolved anger and underneath adultery is unrestrained lust. And on the other hand, today, Jesus pushes back against societal norms that can create unhealthy and dangerous situations. For instance, instead of putting the onus on women to “cover up” or to avoid being objects of the male gaze, Jesus says “no, the responsibility is on the person looking at another person to see them as a beloved child of God.” Jesus’ words today go against the culture of “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk” that has existed throughout the millennia. It isn’t about what a woman is wearing (or not wearing). It is about how one looks at another human being. Do you see an object – one to be lusted after or to be used for one’s own pleasure? Or do you see a fellow human, made in the image of God?

To briefly turn back to Jesus’ comments on divorce. Divorce, in the ancient world, put women at risk. Only men could ask for a divorce. Women weren’t allowed to own property – because they were considered property. They couldn’t enter into contracts. Often, divorce, for a woman meant either returning to her parents’ home in shame or homelessness and (possibly) a life of prostitution. A divorced woman was placed in real danger. Whereas today, divorce sometimes is the most life-giving choice one can make, in the ancient world, divorce was a real threat to the life and the livelihood of women.

Making these comments, Jesus not only further defines or explains the boundaries for the community’s playpen, but also speaks to the environment and the relationships within the community’s playpen itself. What makes for a life-giving environment? The community is whole and healthy when the relationships within it are also whole and healthy. To be clear, Jesus is not contradicting the Law, but rather he is interpreting and expanding upon the Law to point us toward his vision of what ideally the Kingdom of God looks like.

Within those boundaries of God’s playpen - this world - what kind of community is hoped for? You have been saved by the grace of God. You have been freed from the power of sin and death. How do we enact that freedom in the community in which we live? You are recipients of God’s unconditional love. How do we live out that love in our community? how is our community shaped and defined by that love?

Jesus’ words today point to a hope that within God’s playpen the Kingdom of God will be fully realized - not just in some future afterlife, but in this world here and now - and it will be a life-giving community for all within it. Jesus’ comments today are about, in the words of our reading from Deuteronomy, choosing life – choosing the things that allow life not only to exist but to flourish. A life-flourishing community is one where people are reconciled and relationships are restored, where anger and lust are fleeting, and where people are trustworthy, where women are seen as children of God and protected, where people live up to their word (without the need for an oath). What a vision for community? Here, Jesus sets up some pretty high standards and expectations, not just within the context of marriage, but within the context of all of our relationships - relationships with family, with friends, with the neighbor and the stranger.

So on one hand, the law sets up the expectations for the community, curbing sin, trying to keep God’s people within the boundaries, yet on the other hand, it convicts us because we don’t live up to those expectations. Although we get glimpses of this Kingdom that is always pressing in, but we can also see WE so often miss the mark, our community so often misses the mark, the world so often misses the mark. Sin gets in the way. Our curved-in-on-self nature prevents this from being fully realized. Human brokenness leads to broken relationships with friends, with loved ones, with spouses, with others around us. That’s our reality. And that reality doesn’t live up to the ideal community of the people of God.

In reading this passage, I’m immediately convicted - and if we’re honest with ourselves most of us are convicted right from the beginning too. I have been angry with people. I’ve insulted people out of anger and frustration (and the insults in the Greek are relatively minor; I’ve used much worse insults than those words). And there are people in my life that I am not reconciled with - and probably never will be. There are relationships left broken because I haven’t put in the effort for reconciliation to happen (in other words, because of my laziness or negligence in that relationship). Yet if I’m honest, there are also relationships that I don’t have any desire to mend because I don’t want anything to do with that person (in other words, I’m actively choosing not to reconcile that relationship). The
hurt and the brokenness is too much. Based on Jesus’ words this morning, I’ll be thrown into prison until I can pay the last penny.

Last time I preached this text, I used a similar confession. In the handshake line, one of my beloved members said something to the effect of, “Oh good, so if Intern Pastor Alex can not be reconciled to people, then it’s okay if I’m not too.” Ehh. Not what I’m getting at. God wants better for us. God calls us to do better. That is absolutely clear in Jesus’ words today. Because God envisions a playpen that doesn’t just allow life to exist but encourages life to flourish and thrive. I’m looking honestly at the reality of the brokenness around us that infects our playpen. As much as we may try, we all do things that strain and break relationships with our neighbor. We all act in ways that fail to promote a life-giving community. We all fall short of the expectations of God and of the law. And without the Grace of God, Jesus paints a grim picture: judgment, imprisonment, and hell (or, better Gehenna, the trash dump outside of Jerusalem, a current reality – a “living hell” – not a future punishment in the afterlife).

Therefore, in addition to curbing sin and setting of God’s play pen boundaries, the law acts like a mirror showing us for who we are - sinners in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Although within this passage itself, words of grace are absent, we can look to words of Grace found elsewhere in the Gospels for the promises of God through Christ. Thankfully, we have a God that recognizes that this world isn’t yet what it should be, that our communities aren’t yet what it should be, that our relationships aren’t what they should be, and that we aren’t yet what we should be. We have a God that through Christ that promises grace and forgiveness so that we don’t need to fear punishment and hell because of our sin and our shortcomings.

Each Sunday, we gather around the table, and we hear the words proclaimed, “This is the cup of the new covenant, shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sin.” We trust in that promise. Here at the table, Christ promises to meet us in our own sin and our own brokenness, promises to love us, promises us forgiveness of sin. Here Christ sets us back on a life-giving, life-flourishing path, giving us new life through his body and blood, so that, although so often we may miss the mark, we may try again and we may become agents of God’s life-giving Kingdom for all the world. Because of God’s grace, because we can trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus, we are free to live life-giving, life-flourishing lives in God’s playpen. Because of God’s grace, you are invited into the kind of life envisioned in God’s playpen – the kind of life that reflects the kingdom of God – so we and all people can experience abundant and flourishing life found in the kingdom of God.


Thursday, February 13, 2020

5 Epiphany (Year A) - February 9, 2020

Epiphany 5
Year A
February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-9; Matthew 5:13-20

For the second week in a row, I find myself drawn to our word from the prophets. For the second week in a row, we hear a prophet wrestling with a people that are talking the talk but not walking the walk. This text comes from, what we tend to call “Third Isaiah,” the latest of three sections of the book of Isaiah, composed sometime after the Babylonian exile ended and the Jewish exiles were able to return home in 539BCE. All of that to say: this is somewhere around 200 years after our text from Micah last week. Yet the same issue is rising (as humans, we’re prone to making the same mistakes again and again, aren’t we?). They’re saying the right things, they’re observing Sabbath, they claim to “delight to draw near to God.” And still something is still off. People are serving their own interests and oppressing their workers. Their fast is leading not to a restored community but to quarrels and fights. Something went awry. There is a belief that by saying or believing the right things, they will bring about God’s favor. Yet there is still pain. There is still brokenness. Restoration and healing seem far from a reality. Though freed from exile, they still find themselves in darkness.

What becomes clear is that the darkness is self-inflicted. They had the gifts of God’s life, God’s redemption, God’s freedom – not because they earned it but because of God’s love poured out for them. They had those gifts because God is God. The people of Israel are God’s beloved people. Yet people are still living under the bonds of oppression. Workers aren’t being treated justly. The hungry are still hungry. The homeless find themselves without a roof over their head. The call to care for the neighbor and the stranger is not being lived out, despite the fasting and honest desire to be close to God.

The prophet in Isaiah today points us to this truth: true restoration and wholeness cannot be found as long as oppression and marginalization are real for our neighbors. When I was in Tanzania, I was introduced to the African ideal of ubuntu. As a concept, it comes out of South Africa, but it is a common ideal in many parts of Africa. In European/ American societies, we’re formed by individualism. We may have heard “I think, therefore I am.” We’re formed by the idea that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps (and thus those who are suffering need to “just” do the same). My main responsibility is for me and for my family. Ubuntu couldn’t be more different from that. Ubuntu is the idea that I am because we are. I am because of who we are in community together. In other words, I cannot be whole unless you are whole. What affects you affects me. Our community does not find healing unless each member within it finds healing. We are intimately connected. That’s much closer to the proclamation of God through the prophets. The questions today, then, to the people are these: Do you live in ways that promote healing not just for you but for your neighbor? Do you live in ways that bring light to people that live in darkness? Do you see the ways in which our health/ healing is intertwined with the health and healing of others?

We hear God’s answer, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” Notice what we don’t hear: well, the poor need to find a job. If you’re treated unjustly at work, if you’re not making a living wage, find a new job. Pull yourself up. No, instead, the burden is placed on the community. The responsibility for the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed is on the community as a whole. You’re not experiencing wholeness? You find yourself in the darkness? Look at the way your neighbor is treated. Look at the way your neighbor suffers. You want to experience wholeness, healing, and light – make them real for your neighbor. For the darkness that affects them engulfs you too.

God is calling God’s people to live the kind of life that fosters healing, that fosters wholeness, that fosters restoration – not just for the individual – but for the whole. Then, they will experience the gifts and blessings that they so long for – light, healing, help, having needs met. Those gifts that already belong to them will be made real. In relationship with one another, in breaking down the bonds of oppression, in feeding the hungry, in housing the poor, they experience the presence of God in their community – in one another. As a people, they had already experienced God’s life and God’s light. This is the God that brought them out of the land of Egypt. This is the God that led them through the wilderness. This is the God that set free the Exiles from Babylon. God is calling them to allow that life, that restoration, that healing to break into their lives, to transform them, to propel them. God, through Isaiah, calls them to dwell in God’s own life, God’s own healing, God’s own restoration. The call, then today, is to live out or to participate in the life and the healing that has already been given to them. By participating in God’s life, the life and light of God becomes reality for them and for all people. By living out God’s light and God’s life, they become the people that God wanted them to be from the beginning – a people in right relationship with God and in right relationship with each other.

Today, Jesus says it another way. “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” Jesus today isn’t naming a hope for us. Jesus is naming a reality. You (all) – it is plural - are the salt of the earth… You (all) are the light of the world. As we heard a few weeks ago on Baptism of our Lord Sunday, You are God’s beloved child. Because we are God’s beloved, we are the conduit or the channel for God’s light and God’s justice in the world. In Jesus, you have received the light of God. In Jesus, you have encountered God’s love. In Jesus, you have received God’s grace. In Jesus, you all become the light of the world.

As we gather here, we encounter the gifts of grace and forgiveness that spring forth from God’s love. in Word, in Water, in Bread and Wine, in this community. And nothing - neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38). In other words, nothing can take the gifts of God from you; nothing can take the gifts of God from us. Not because we earned it. But because God is God. This is a God that became human, became flesh, made godself in our image. This is a God that risked everything – even the cross – to show God’s love and to bring God’s light to all people. As God’s beloved children, we receive the gifts of liberation, of healing, of wholeness, of grace. Washed in the waters of baptism, fed by the body and blood of Christ, you have been given the light of Christ. You are the light of the world. Washed in the waters of baptism, fed by the body and blood of Christ, we have been given the light of Christ. We are the light of the world.

And yet, the world we live in is marked by darkness, by pain, by oppression, by marginalization. The question is, then, what is our response to receiving these gifts of a loving God in a world of pain. Are we going to let the salt go stale? Are we going to hide the light under a basket, hoarding the gifts for ourselves?

No, today we hear God is calling us to allow that life, that restoration, that healing to break into our lives, to transform us, to propel us into a world in need. God calls us to dwell in God’s own life, God’s own healing, God’s own restoration. Our actions are a response to God’s action and God’s promises already given to us. Eric Barreto, a New Testament professor at Princeton, puts it this way, “If we trust God’s promises, if we stand grateful for God’s actions, then we will bend our lives toward the life-giving ways God has called us to follow.” The call, then today, is to live out or to participate in the life and the healing that has already been given to us. The call is to bend our lives toward the life-giving ways that God has called us to follow – to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to provide shelter to the homeless poor, to cover the naked, to break down the walls and barriers that seek to divide us from our neighbor. By participating in God’s life, by living that out in our relationship with the neighbor and the stranger, the life and light of God becomes reality for us and for all people.

The call today, then, in the words of our opening hymn is this: “You are a light on the hill, o people. Light for the city of God. Shine so holy and bright, o people. Shine for the kingdom of God. Bring forth the Kingdom of mercy; bring forth the kingdom of peace. Bring forth the kingdom of justice. Bring forth the city of God.”


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

4 Epiphany (Year A) - February 2, 2020

Epiphany 4
Year A
February 2, 2020
Micah 6:1-8

It is sometime around 720 BCE. Israel had been split into two kingdoms, after the death of King Solomon. Israel, the northern kingdom, has just fallen to Assyria; large empires surround the Southern Kingdom of Judah, hovering at their gates. It is a tense time period with enemies all around, a period of national turmoil. And there’s another problem: Social and economic evil has penetrated their society. God envisions a world without war – a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where instruments of destruction are turned into instruments that sustain life. God envisioned a community that was living by a structure of justice where the vulnerable are cared for and no one takes advantage of other people. However, the world finds itself in the turmoil of war. The vulnerable find themselves without what they need. The rulers, priests, and prophets extort money from people. There’s this high religiosity – where people made a special point to show how religious they were. Yet despite the ways the people pay lip-service to God, bending-over-backwards to tell the world that they are religious, God’s vision for the world is not being lived into.

It is in this context in which Micah speaks God’s word of justice. Micah, a humble country-boy, is called by God to be a prophet to God’s people. A prophet is not a fortune teller or one called to predict the future. But rather a prophet is one called to dwell deeply in the world as it is, to speak forth God’s word into that world as it is, as part of God’s desire to transform the world as it is into the world that God intended it to be. Prophets are given the spirit of God and are called to be God’s spokesperson in moments of crisis.

It is 2020 CE. If I’m honest with you, I’m not so sure that our world is all that different from the world that Micah experienced. I see, in our country, in general a push to show religiosity. Putting the 10 Commandments in courthouses. Posts on social media. Just yesterday, I saw a post on FB that read “Who all on my timeline are not afraid to admit how good God has been to them?” I’ve seen memes featuring Jesus saying something like, “97% of people won’t share this. Share if you love Jesus. He already saw you read it.” Putting crosses and Jesus fish on our cars. Or that bumper sticker that says “Jesus I trust in You.” I don’t want to sound like I’m too harshly critiquing these things. We all do things that outwardly show our faith; it isn’t inherently bad. I have shirts that say things like “This pastor loves you.” And I sometimes intentionally wear my collar in certain spaces and certain places to say something about who I am and my faith. But for good or for ill, there’s this push to show our faith.

But in this country – a country that has an abundance of resources – the vulnerable around us find themselves without what they need. The poor go hungry. One in eight children in Virginia struggle with hunger. The sick go without medical care. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US. And too many have to choose between medical care and basic needs. Those facing oppression are pushed to the margins. People are demonized because of the color of their skin, because of who they love, how they understand and express their gender, for their faith. Brokenness is still all around us.

This week, I was at the light, coming off on 199, turning onto Rt. 60. The car in front of me had the “Jesus I trust in you” bumper sticker. Yet right next to that car was a sign that read: “Do not encourage panhandling by giving money from your vehicle.” (We’ve all seen those signs, right)? Now, I have no idea the personal views of the person driving that car. But it was striking. In a town where I see A LOT of similar bumper stickers, we have signs that function to push our vulnerable homeless population away and underground – away from our sight. Homelessness is a large problem here, but unlike in places like Chicago, we don’t see it, because we’re not forced to see it. Because we’ve encouraged homeless people to stay away. We’ve If we’re honest with ourselves, despite the religiosity of our town and our country, God’s vision for the world is still not being lived into. And that’s just one example.

So today, we hear the words of Micah. Since that was our first reading, let’s take a moment to hear them again: “1Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3 ‘O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’ 6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The problem is not that the people aren’t religious enough. The problem starts with forgetting or losing touch with the saving acts of the Lord. God has brought salvation to God’s people – through liberation, leading the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt, through raising up leaders, through protection, foiling the plans of their enemies. God did it not because the people earned it. God did it because God is God. And God is a God of love, of liberation, of protection, of salvation, of grace. The people didn’t earn it by being religious enough. These are the acts of a gracious God.

As Christians, we see God acting again on behalf of God’s people, becoming enfleshed in a human body, in living human life, in dying, and in rising again, releasing us from the power of sin and death, leading us to new and abundant life. In Jesus, we are promised that we are brought into right relationship with our God, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In Jesus, God reaches out to God’s people again, not because the people earned it, but because our God is a God of love, of liberation, of protection, of salvation, of grace. We don’t earn it through our car stickers, facebook posts, etc. We don’t earn it through our acts of worship. God acted in Jesus because that is who God is; because God is God. This is purely the act of a gracious God.

Dwelling there, we get to the question: with what shall I bring before the Lord? In other words, what is our response to the acts of a gracious God? “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah is not saying that we shouldn’t worship God or outwardly show our faith through whatever medium we choose; the point is all of those things are just empty noise without doing justice – God’s justice, not ours –, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.  Here, today, we gather to worship, to dwell in God’s grace around Word, around Water, around Bread and Wine, encountering God’s gifts of grace again and again.

Dwelling in the gracious acts of God, we are called to turn out from this place to live out the love, the salvation, the liberation, the love of God in our relationship with other people and with the world. In other words, we reflect the grace that we have already received. God doesn’t need our facebook posts, but our neighbor needs God’s justice enacted in the world. God doesn’t need the 10 Commandments posted, but our neighbor needs our kindness. In other words, God doesn’t need us to show our faith, God calls us us to live out our faith, live out the love that we first received from a gracious God for the sake of our neighbor and for the sake of the world, mending the brokenness that surrounds us.

We are called to work for a world where the hungry aren’t just fed, but a for a world in which they don’t become hungry in the first place. We are called to work for a world that not only knows peace, but for a world that doesn’t know war. We are called to work  for a world in which weapons that take away life are not only destroyed but are refashioned into instruments that sustain life. We are called to work for a world in which people can not only survive, but thrive – dismantling the systems of oppression, dismantling racism and hatred, eradicating the systems that keep people in poverty – so that God’s vision for the world becomes reality. We’re called to this, not to earn God’s love – we already have that – but to live out that love for the neighbor that so needs to experience God’s love.

In Christ, we have hope and promise for the Kingdom of God that is breaking into this world. We have the promise that the brokenness of our lives and our world won’t have the last word. But God doesn’t just stay in the hope. God still wants the world to change right now. To quote Rachel Wrenn, “just because there’s hope and promise for a beautiful future does not mean that God gives up on changing things right now.” (First Reading Podcast). In other words, the promises of God aren’t just for some future afterlife, they’re intended to be enacted in this world now. Those promises are intended to become tangible now. God’s grace, God’s love, God’s liberation, God’s salvation are for right now. We encounter God’s acts here so that we can live it out in the world right now. Because of the hope, because of the promise, because of God’s saving acts for us, we get to live lives that reflect God’s saving acts in the world.

So… How is God calling us to reflect God’s love in the world? What does God want to be changed right now so that we get one step closer to God’s vision becoming reality? What brokenness do you see that God grieves? Where can we be one step closer to having the world that God envisions for us and for our neighbor?   Amen.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

2 Epiphany (Year A) - January 19, 2020

2 Epiphany
Year A
January 19, 2020
John 1:29-42

Initially, today’s text may seem like a repeat of last week. We find ourselves with John the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan again. While on one hand, we recognize this as familiar and similar to last week; on the other hand, this is distinctly different. Have you ever watched a movie/ tv show or read a book that takes a familiar story and tells it from a slightly (or even drastically) different perspective. As a kid, I quite enjoyed the book “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” – which is a spin off of the Three Little Pigs in which the Big Bad Wolf tells his side of the story. There’s a whole series of books that take classic Disney movies from a different perspective. The TV Show “Once Upon a Time” took familiar fairy tails and put a different spin/ perspective on them. Or have you ever noticed the differences when we read or hear the same news story from different sources. In each of these, it is the same story (and it feels like the same story) but the details are different (and sometimes contradictory), the perspectives are different.

The Gospel of John often feels like this. We know we’re reading the same story (a story about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus), but it comes from a very different perspective. Some of the details are different. The timelines are different. The theology is different. And that’s okay. We’re entering, at least for a brief moment, this week, a different view on the same story. We get different language and different emphases for talking about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Today, instead of getting a narrative of Jesus’ baptism, we get John’s witness of the baptism. For the Gospel of John, this moment of seeing the Spirit of God descend as a dove and land on Jesus is not just a moment that points to Jesus as the Son of God. It is the moment that brings Jesus’ identity to light. It is the sign that tells John that his ministry was coming to its fulfillment; this is the one he’s been pointing to this whole time. This moment at Jesus’ baptism tells John that this is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world.

When John reveals this to two of his disciples, they leave John and follow Jesus.  Oddly enough without telling Jesus that they were following him. They just leave John and follow Jesus. I’m clearly not Jesus because if two random men started following me, I wouldn’t have the same calm response – without a word, without an introduction, without knowing whether they meant good or meant harm. But when Jesus noticed the two of them following him, he simply asks, “What are you looking for?” or “What are you seeking?” The first words Jesus utters in the Gospel of John is this question: “What are you looking for?” The first public act of ministry for Jesus in the Gospel of John is this question: “What are you seeking?”

And the two disciples respond: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

I don’t know about you, but if Jesus, the Son of God, the Lamb of God sent to take away the sin of the world asked me this, asked me what I am looking for, I would likely have a different answer than the disciple. It comes across as if the disciples are asking Jesus what hotel he’s staying at. If I were face to face with Jesus (in the flesh), I would think I would have a different question. Or a million questions.

We all come here, I think, seeking something. We no longer are here because of a societal pressure to be here. At our leadership conference last weekend, Pastor John Wertz explained that at his internship site, back in the quote “good ol’ days,” the Sunday School at the church had a thousand kids on the rolls, and folks lamented the few numbers in Sunday School today. Pastor John made it clear that there’s no way that the church could hold that many kids in its Sunday School. But there were a thousand kids on the rolls. Why? Because there were some high powered New York City CEOs in the church, and people found that they could earn social capital by belonging to the church that their bosses were members of. That kind of pressure doesn’t exist anymore, even on a smaller level. We’re not here for some social, political, or career ladder. No, we come here as ones who have followed the call to follow Jesus in some way shape or form. So what brings you here? What are you seeking as you come to this place? If Jesus asked you, “What are you looking for?” what would you say?

I imagine our answers would be quite varied. “Jesus, teacher, I’m looking for community, for a connection and relationship to people – to be part of something bigger.” “Jesus, rabbi, I’m looking for peace and comfort in what feels like a chaotic and scary world.” “Jesus, teacher, I’m looking for a place to take a breath.” “Jesus, teacher, I’m looking for love, to be seen, to be worthy.” “Jesus, rabbi, I’m looking for wholeness and healing.” “Jesus, teacher, I’m looking for answers to life’s questions.” “Jesus, rabbi, I’m looking for forgiveness, absolution.” “Jesus, teacher, I’m looking to find you, to touch you, to experience you.” What are you looking for as you follow Jesus? What do you need from Jesus? What motivates you to be here, to follow your baptismal calling? What longings are at the very core of your being – perhaps the ones that you’ve never found a voice for?

I wonder if there’s more to the disciples’ answer than I give them credit for. Our translation today says “where are you staying?”. The Greek offers other possibilities: “where are you remaining?” or “where are you abiding?” I think they’re asking a question at the heart of what most of us are looking for when we come here, when we follow Jesus. They’re question is closer to “where can we find you?” or “where can we encounter you?” or “Where can we come into your presence?” than “what hotel are you staying at?” They knew that this one was the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the light that shines in the darkness. They were seeking the light, the life, the wholeness that only this one can bring. They want to be with Jesus, knowing that being with Jesus brings about the rest. Where Jesus abides, where Jesus remains, where Jesus stays, light, life, love, peace, and comfort are there too. They wanted to know where Jesus abides so that they could abide there too.

Jesus’ response to them (and to us) is simple, “Come and See.” This is an invitation to walk with him, to abide with him. This invitation is so important for Jesus in the Gospel of John. As Jesus is preparing his disciples (including these two) for his impending death, resurrection, and ascension, he says this, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing… If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Today, we’re not promised easy answers to life’s questions. We’re not promised an easy journey (abiding in Jesus, afterall, leads to the cross). But today, as beloved Children of God, we have an invitation to come and see where Jesus stays, where Jesus remains, where Jesus abides. We have an invitation to come before God, see, touch, smell, taste,  experience God’s grace, God’s love, God’s peace through Jesus’ presence among us – in this place, in this community of faith, in our lives and in our world. We have the gifts of water, of bread and wine, where Jesus promises to be present. We have the gift of the body of Christ, of being in community with one another, in which Christ promises to be active. We have the call to be active in the world, a world that God so loved, that God sent God’s only son, so that all may come into relationship with Jesus, and experience that love and that joy that only God can give. Today, we’re invited to come and see, come and experience Jesus abiding in us and in the world.

Audrey West, a New Testament professor, puts it this way, “If you want to know the word made flesh, come and see Jesus. If you want to know what love is like, come and see Jesus. If you want to experience God's glory, to be filled with bread that never perishes, to quench your thirst with living water, to be born again, to abide in love, to behold the light of the world, to experience the way, the truth, and the life, to enter into life everlasting, . . . if you want to know God, come and see Jesus.” (“Commentary on John 1:29-42”, Working Preacher, Jan 20, 2008).

Today, come and see Jesus – the Word made flesh that pitches a tent among us. Today, come and see Jesus – the Lamb of God who liberates us from the power of sin and death. Today, come and see Jesus – the Son of God who draws us into relationship with God, abiding in us. Today, come and see Jesus – in the faces of one another. Today, come and see Jesus – in bread, in wine, in water, gifts for you and for all people. Today, come and see Jesus.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Baptism of Our Lord (Year A) - January 12, 2020

Baptism of Our Lord
Year A
January 12, 2020
Matthew 3:13-17

While my brother was here last weekend, we were hanging out in my living room, playing video games. I don’t quite remember why he asked this question, but he asked me, “Why don’t you like the name, Alexis?” It got me thinking about names and what is in a name. When I was a child, I hated my full first name, like absolutely hated it. I couldn’t tell you why; I just knew that I was Alex. And I would (sometimes in a less than polite way) correct anyone who called me Alexis. I would tell my family that when I turned 18, I’d legally change my name to Alex. It is so odd to me, but some folks are really uncomfortable with my name – to the point that I’ve had conversations like this: “Hi, my name is Alex.” “Oh, what is that short for, Alexandria?” “Alexis, but my name is Alex.” “Well, that’s so pretty. I’ll call you Alexis because I can’t call a girl Alex.” Really?

I still remember back in 3rd grade, my teacher misspelled my last name on my nametag for my desk, writing it as Alexis Wilt. I was so excited because, since she had to fix it anyway, she put Alex as the first name on my nametag. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to explain to others (like substitute teachers) that my name was Alex; for the first time, what was in front of me matched the name that I call myself and matched the identity I had for myself. And that was a big deal. Names and identities have power. There’s something powerful in being called the name that you call yourself, without question or explanation; it is an affirmation of who we are and how we see ourselves.

Here’s the story behind my name. My mom wanted her first-born to be named Alex, after her uncle, Uncle Alex, better known as “Uncle Pean” (Short for Peanut – my Mom’s side of the family shortens EVERYONE’s name or nickname; My Mom is called “Bren” and I’m often just “Al”). Uncle Alex was my Gram’s brother, who died a number of years before I was born. But he was an incredible man. My mom grew up in a poor family. My grandfather worked factory work, and periodically faced times of lay-offs, especially as the steel and slate industries began to falter in the North East. Uncle Alex was single most of his life, and spent much of his time at my mom’s home. Especially in the most difficult times, he’d check the fridge and the pantry, make sure that there was bread and milk. If there wasn’t enough, there would be food and milk in the house the next day. He bought my mom’s shoes for the beginning of school each year. And he even saved bit by bit each year, so when my mom turned 16, she could get a car. Both my Mom and my Gram have said that if Uncle Alex were alive today, he would have spoiled my brother and I, even more than my Gram and Pap did. He was generous, steadfast, a provider, and a support even and especially when times got tough.

So today, my name is both an homage and an honor. Something to live up to and live into, and live out. And while I’m not going to legally change my name, my name is Alex. And this is who I am.

Whether you have a story behind your name or not, I think we all can agree that there’s power in a name, in what we call ourselves and one another – power to affirm and power to hurt, power to lift up, and power to tear down. We all learn as kids that the names we use for each other have power to heal or the power to do tremendous harm. And we all have a multitude of identities: sibling, parent, child, grandchild, friend, partner, teacher, pastor, nurse. These identities further reveal something about who we are, describe something about what it means to be Alex or Bob or Carol.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In this Epiphany season, we hear a voice from heaven pointing to the identity of Jesus, as he is washed in the waters of baptism. During this season following Epiphany and leading up to Lent, we get these glimpses into the identity of who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. And we start here, in the waters of baptism – a baptism that sparks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. While often, we tend to focus on baptism as a washing away of sin (and it is certainly part of it), baptism also gives a name and an identity. Today, the focus of Jesus’ baptism is on a name and an identity, proclaimed by God godself. Jesus receives a name: “the beloved.” And an identity: “my Son.” Jesus, in his life, ministry, death and resurrection, lives up to, lives into, and lives out those identities. It is who Jesus is and who Jesus came to be for us and for the world.

In Jesus, as the Son of God, the divine comes close. In Jesus, as the Son of God, we’re brought into relationship with our creator and our redeemer. This is the one who comes to “fulfil all righteousness” – in other words, to bring us back into right relationship with our God. In Jesus, the Son of God, we are brought into relationship with a God that is so incredibly committed to us and to the world that this God puts on our flesh and lives our lives. No longer does God remain distant but rather God comes close, saying 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  and for the world. In the baptism of Jesus, God affirms Jesus’s ministry and reaffirms that we have a God that is solidly and firmly with us - working to bring salvation and liberation to us and to all people through the love that encompasses all. The Beloved Son of God comes to affirm and proclaim the belovedness of all people  everywhere – especially those on the margins – by risking it all – vulnerability, dirt and grime, the messiness of human relationships (including calling disciples that will fail him), even death – a mission and ministry that makes God well pleased.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In our baptisms, we receive a new name and a new identity. There’s advice floating around that on this Sunday, we should stick to Jesus’ baptism and not wander too far into our own baptisms because, well, Jesus’ baptism is something somewhat different from what we experience. I’ve taken that advice (and likely will at another time), but for today I’m going to ignore it. Because in our baptism, we’re linked with what we hear in the Gospel reading today. In the waters of baptism, we are named “Beloved” and called “children of God.” And we don’t get that reminder often enough. The world too often tells us that we aren’t worthy and we have to earn love. But in our baptisms, God says to each one of us “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In water, we are given the gift of the forgiveness of sins, but we also are united with Jesus in his life, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are the story behind our names as beloved children of God. We are beloved not on our own merit, but because our God names us and claims us as children of God. In this water, God says to you and to me, you are beloved, you are worthy, you are mine. And nothing can separate you from that belovedness. Among all of our other names and identities, this is the primary one: beloved child of God.

To be clear, it isn’t that our other names and identities aren’t important. Yesterday, a few of us went to the EPIC leadership conference held by the Virginia synod. Pastor Kelly Bayer-Derrick, assistant to the Bishop, in encouraging us to introduce ourselves to those around us, helpfully reminded us that, while our primary identity is as a beloved Child of God, God also knows us by our names, the names that we call ourselves. We are beloved as we are, who we are. In the beloved Son of God, God put on flesh and took on a particular name, Jesus, in a particular place, with particular people, with a particular body, with particular personality traits, with particular identities: son, friend, brother, teacher, prophet. In becoming human, in Jesus, God affirms all of that – our names, our identities, our particularities are important. We’re not anonymous or faceless to God. No, we trust that this God, made known in the person Jesus, knows our names, our identities, our particularities better than we know them ourselves. But by water and God’s word, our identity as a beloved child of God becomes the primary name and identity that defines us, that centers us, that calls us. We live into and live out that identity in our particular names, bodies, identities, gifts, vocations; we live into and live out that identity as beloved child of God, as we proclaim the belovedness of all people and all of creation.

Today’s text and themes remind me of a quote on my office door from Jess Cook about water and baptism. It goes like this: “at some point in seminary I was introduced to the idea of remembering my baptism every time I interacted with water. This idea has held so strongly through years of practice that it now comes without thought – rain starts falling and every drop on my head, every plink on the gutter reminds me I am loved even when I do not have the capacity to ask for it. Tear ducts become wellsprings within me, sometimes gushing open at the most unexpected moments. The rain on my back a reminder of the holiness around me, each tear a reminder of the holiness within me, grounding me in who I am and connecting me to everything else. It rains, and I am loved. I cry, and I am loved. I wash my hands, and I am loved. Hard as I may try sometimes (and I guarantee I have certainly tried hard), I have realized that I simply cannot outrun my belovedness. None of us can.”

I hope that today, and every day, the water of the font, the water around us, and the water within us, are reminders of your identity: as a claimed and named beloved child of God. I hope that the water of the font, the water around us, and the water within us, are reminders that you simply cannot outrun your belovedness. Name it and claim it. You are God’s beloved child. And in you God is well pleased.


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Christ the King Sunday (Year C) - November 24, 2019

Christ the King Sunday
Year C
November 24, 2019
Luke 23:33-43

We’ve officially been on this journey together for a full year. My first Sunday with you all was Chris the King Sunday last November. And what a year it has been! I so am thankful to have been called here and to be walking this journey of faith together with you. Thank you for all the work that we do together. And today, as we conclude our first year of ministry together, we also conclude this liturgical year with Christ the King Sunday.

Christ the King Sunday is a day in which we reflect on what it means to proclaim that Christ is our King; and we boldly and loudly proclaim – against all the voices of this world – that it is Christ that reigns over us, over our nation, over our world. This is a radical and bold act. This world wants to tell us that the powers of this world reign. This world wants to tell is that it is our earthly kings, our politicians (on either side of the aisle), that rule and that bring about safety and security. The world wants to tell us that they are our saviors, that they will bring about peace, prosperity, and safety – and we hear a seemingly intensifying version of that each election cycle. This world wants to tell us that we can make our own way and our own salvation through physical might, through earning enough and hoarding enough riches for ourselves, through pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and making a name for ourselves. This world wants to tell us to be afraid of the neighbor and stranger, seeing them as a risk and a threat against our way of life, a threat against who we are and everything we’ve worked for, a threat against our very lives. The kings of this world are marked by hubris, by misuse and abuse of power, by trampling on the lowly, by stoking fear to further divide us from our neighbor – all in an effort to hold onto power for themselves. But today, in defiance of those voices and narratives of this world, we gather and we proclaim that it is Christ that is King.

On this last Sunday of the church year, just before the beginning of the Advent season and the celebration of the birth of Christ, it may seem odd to return to Good Friday, to return to the cross. But it is at the cross that God chooses to make Godself known; indeed, the cross is at the center of Christ and at the center of our lives as Christians. It is here at the cross that we see Christ as king. It is here at the cross that God reveals what it means to have Christ as our king. As I noted in my mid-week update, Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new festival in the Christian calendar. It was started in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, between the two World Wars, specifically to lift up, to remember, to lean into the kingship of Christ over and against the kingships of this world, especially pushing back against the rise of nationalism and fascism. This Sunday is inherently political; not partisan, but political. We recognize today that Christ’s reign has something to say about this world as it is and has something to say about our participation in it. That’s political. Today is a reminder that our faith is not just between me and God, but we have faith in a God that is breaking into this world, to bring light, life, and salvation to all people. We have a faith in God that says that Christ is our true king. There are political implications to Christ’s rule; a rule that transforms this world as it is to the world that God intended it to be.

As I think about our world, as we see its brokenness, as we see the ways Christianity is misused in ways that harm and exploit, as we see Christian nationalism rising again, it seems just as important to as in 1925 to lean into Christ’s kingship and into the Kingdom of God coming into this world. Here, on Christ the King Sunday, we point to a kingship and to God’s vision for the world – a world transformed and recreated as the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom with Christ as our King. It is a vision of the world as it is being turned upside down. It is a vision in which the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down. It is a vision where the boundaries between people are broken, where those on the margins are brought to their rightful place within society and the community. It is a vision where the stranger is welcomed and the hungry find their fill. It is a vision for the world where peace is won not through violence but through Christ’s redemptive love. It is a vision for the world in which all are brought into right relationship with God, with neighbor, and with all creation.

Our Gospel reading today highlights this stark contrast between who this world envisions as a King and what that King looks like, and the King that is sent by God to establish God’s kingdom in this world. Today, we see Christ the King not on a throne, not commanding an army, not surrounded by cheering fans – with campaign banners and flags, nor adorned with expensive clothes and jewels. Instead, we see Christ the King on a cross, condemned to death by the empire, surrounded by criminals and crowds deriding and mocking him – sarcastically calling him the King of the Jews -, adorned with a crown of thorns.

This is a King who does not repay evil with evil, but repays evil with good, forgiving the very people who crucified him. This is King, by the world’s standard, would be considered weak and a failure. This is a king who shows power not in might or in saving himself but in service, in vulnerability, and in the act of forgiveness. All year, we’ve been talking about how, the Gospel of Luke emphasizes that Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God turns the world upside down. This isn’t what the world expects when we think of a King. This is not a king that this world would recognize. This is not a kingship that this world values. It turns our expectations of Kingship upside down.

It is here at the cross, we meet our King. Or probably more accurately, it is here at the cross that our King meets us. Our God stepped off God’s throne, becoming enfleshed in a real – and vulnerable – human body, as a baby, lying in a manger, totally and utterly dependent on those around him. God chose to step off the throne to be enfleshed in a  human body that is executed on a cross – a horrible and torturous death – a death of the lowest, most dangerous criminal, the death of a convict.

What kind of God would do that? What kind of God would dare to step off their throne, choose to put on our bodies, and willingly experience death on a cross? This is a big deal. In Jesus, as we hear in our letter todady, “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In Jesus, we meet the fullness of God who does not retreat, does not pull away, does not use power to save or to protect himself. Instead, we meet the fullness of God in Jesus that steps off his throne, dwelling with us, stepping closer to us, refusing to let even the worst evils of the world separate God’s beloved creation, God’s beloved people from him. On the Cross, Jesus makes Godself present, hidden in weakness, vulnerability, and dying. On the Cross, we meet a God in Jesus that is faithful even in and beyond death – in order to establish God’s reign in the world. A reign established not through violence but through the “tender mercy of God… to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). And this is indeed good news.

What does it mean to proclaim this kind of king? What does it mean for us to have this kind of king? As Daniel Erlander, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, says in his book, at the cross:
“God finds us – in our darkness, our pain, our emptiness, our loneliness, our weakness. As God meets us where we are, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see… the Cross is God’s Embrace. God enters and embraces us with total and unconditional acceptance. Identifying so completely with the pain and sorrow of our existence, God woos us into a love relationship with himself. The Cross is God’s Victory. God enters our darkness and exposes and defeats the powers that reign in this world. By the death of Jesus, God liberates us from any person, thing, system or ‘ism’ which would enslave us by demanding absolute loyalty. We are free! Free to let God be God. Free to be human.” (Erlander, Baptized We Live, 4-5).

It isn’t our might, it isn’t our power, it isn’t our riches, it isn’t our earthly kings that bring about security and freedom. No, it is the God that makes Godself known on the cross that does that. On the cross, Jesus invites us into relationship with himself, embracing us, and telling us, “today, you will be with me.”

 By the cross of Jesus, we are freed from the powers and the voices of this world that harm, divide, and destroy. In a world that points to the powers of this world as king, we are freed to stand up against the voices of this world, proclaiming Christ’s kingship and God’s kingdom. In a world that tells us that we should be afraid, we are free to be unafraid, to be bold in our proclamation and in our service. In a world that tells us that we should put up boundaries and that some people are “worth” more than others, we are freed to break down the boundaries between us and our neighbor, we are freed to welcome the stranger, we are freed to proclaim the value and dignity of each and every person in the eyes of God – especially to those that the world pushes aside and dehumanizes. In a world that where violence and hate are the norm, we are freed to show the love of God, that love that we first received from Christ, bringing Christ’s peace to the world. In a world that is so often lacking hope, we are freed to lean into, to live into the hope and the vision of the Kingdom of God as it breaks into this world.

Today, at the foot of the cross, we loudly and boldly proclaim: Christ is our King.

Alleluia. Amen.

Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service

Ecumenical Thanksgiving Reflection
November 24, 2019
Psalm 139:1-10

I’m incredibly thankful to be here with you all this afternoon. This is my first time at this service. One year ago, this service was supposed to be the first thing I did as the called pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran church. But my car battery had other plans, and I unfortunately missed the service, waiting for roadside assistance to jump my car. What a year it has been since. It has been a joy and an honor to be part of this service and part of this ministerium. I’ve truly enjoyed getting to know you all through our Lenten and other ecumenical opportunities. I give thanks to God for the colleagues and friends in our ministerium. I give thanks to God for our talented musicians, and I give thanks to God for each one of you gathered here today. I’ve lived in a lot of places in my 27 years on this planet. And I have to say: this is truly a special community, unlike others that I have lived in, and I’m thankful to be part of it and I look forward to what the next years will bring in this place.

As I think about Thanksgiving, I am struck by our first Psalm reading for this afternoon, from Psalm 139. I love this Psalm; yet I would not have initially thought of this psalm for a reading in a Thanksgiving service. This is the reading that starts off our service, and frames our time of thanksgiving together. This is a hymn that trusts/ confesses that our God knows us fully and completely – not just the good things, not just what we want to show of ourselves before God, but our God knows our whole, real, true, and messy selves. We all have those pieces of ourselves that we hide from the outside world, those pieces of ourselves that we keep close because we fear that those pieces of ourselves are too much for others or that those pieces will push others away. Some of us (and I hope we all do) have people in our lives that we can let into those parts our lives and those pieces of ourselves. But my point today is that we hear that we have a God that knows the best and the worst parts of ourselves and our lives.

And not only does God know those pieces of ourselves and our lives, but God promises to dwell with us anyway. Instead of having a God that might turn a back to us, God hems us in, behind and before us, laying God’s hand upon us. Nothing about who we are or what we do can push our God away, for we cannot flee from God’s presence. We ask God to reform the “wicked ways within us,” but even those things don’t separate us from the God that so loves us. God completely and fully accepts us for who we are – both what we show of ourselves to the world and those pieces we want to keep hidden. We hear, in this Psalm, a proclamation that our God dwells with us not just with our joys and celebrations but also with our bumps, our bruises, our scars, our character flaws.

One of my favorite hymns, “Will you Come and Follow Me,” puts it this “will you love the you you hide, if I call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?” In our best times, and in our worst, it is God that calls us, our full selves – even the you you hide - , to follow and to be drawn close to God. It is God’s hand that holds us fast. Today, we hear a promise that nothing about who we are or what we do can push God away or can scare God into fleeing away from us; our God is with us and dwells deeply with us.

As Christians we proclaim that God doubles down on that promise in becoming human, in becoming flesh and bone, in Jesus. My seminary Old Testament professor, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Klein, talked about the incarnation of God in Jesus like this. He said, “in the incarnation, it is like God asked, ‘I’m God, not human. But would it help if I became human?” In other words, “would it help you trust that I am on your side if I became like you?” or “would you trust my yes to you and to all humanity if I became human?” or “Would it help you trust in my love and in my covenant if I lived, loved, walked this earth – with its hills and its valleys – and died, like you do?”

What kind of God would do this? Seriously, I think sometimes because we’ve heard the story so often, we forget how radical and unexpected this is. This isn’t something most people would expect a God to do. What kind of God would risk putting on flesh and bones? What kind of God would suffer and die for the sake of a broken humanity and a broken world? This is an incredible act for the divine to take. This is a God that is so radically on our side that God is willing to risk making Godself in our image, in our flesh. This is a God that is willing to so identify with us and be in solidarity with us – in the joys and the struggles that being human brings – that God godself puts on human flesh and experiences it too. God, in Jesus, doesn’t even flee from experiencing death – not just an ordinary death – but the death of a dangerous political convict on a cross. This is a God that is willing suffer, to die, and to conquer death, sin, wickedness in rising from the dead.

In that resurrection, we can trust that God’s final word to God’s people is always a loud and resounding yes. We have a God that can’t let God’s people go. We have a God that won’t let sin and death have the final word for us or for this world. It is God’s life – the new life and the new creation – of the resurrection that has the final word – freeing us from all that threatens us, freeing us from all tries to tell us that we’re not worthy of God and God’s love, freeing us from our own sin, - even freeing ourselves from those parts of ourselves from the you you hide.

So, today, I give thanks because we have a God who knows us so intimately and deeply – the good, the bad, everything in between – and remains with us. I give thanks that we can say “You are my God.” And we can trust that “You are my God” – in the best of times and in the worst of times. Psalm 118 says it another way “with the Lord on my side, I do not fear.” Because we have a God that is so completely and totally on our side, we do not have to fear. And I give thanks that God’s final word to me, to you, to all of humanity is a loud and resounding yes.

I hope that, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, whether you’re gathering with family or friends, whether you’re going to Jimmy’s for the community dinner, whether you’re having a quiet evening at home, you hear God’s yes to you. I hope that whether Thanksgiving brings with it joy or sorrow, companionship or loneliness, or a bit of all of it, you hear God’s promise that God is with you there in whatever the holidays bring. And I hope that, among all the other things we have to give thanks for, we give thanks for the God that knows us inside and out and refuses to let us go. For:

“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

Thanks be to God for that.