With Healing in Our Hands

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A Reflection on Matthew 21:1-9 for the Start of Holy Week

I have to confess that as a writer, I admire the author of this morning’s gospel reading for crafting a really spectacular scene. Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job. Even Netflix couldn’t have done a better job than the gospel writer has done of creating an almost unbearable dramatic tension–despite the fact that everyone listening knows exactly how this story is going to end.

Watching Jesus enter into Jerusalem with his ragtag band of followers, we know that just across town, the Roman army is already assembling, preparing to crush any hint of rebellion. From the moment this scene begins, we know, in our bones, that this is going to end very badly. We know that is not going to be possible for Jesus — a Jew living under Roman occupation; a peasant; a guy with no money, no political clout, no army — it is not going to be possible for Jesus to take a stand against the cruelty of the Roman empire without being crucified himself. Even after all these years, this knowledge stirs in our hearts everything that Aristotle says good drama should stir in us: pity, suspense, grief, and maybe even fear as we contemplate what awaits Jesus in the week ahead.

But as difficult as this week is going to be for Jesus, and as painful as this week may be for Christians, the sad truth is that for many centuries now, this week–the one Christians call Holy Week–has been by far the most terrifying week of the year for Jews. And this is a direct result of the gospel texts that churches traditionally read during their Holy Week liturgies. Before Easter Sunday dawns, churchgoing Christians all over the world will hear again what has come to be known as the passion narrative: a gospel story about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. A story that was created, depending on which gospel we’re using, 70 to 90 years after Jesus died.

I think it’s important to remind ourselves every year that the stories we read in the gospels are not eyewitness accounts, no matter how convincingly they render the story . None of the gospel writers knew Jesus. They wrote half a century and more after his death, and they were writing for a community that had grown confused and angry. Confused because the Messiah they were waiting for had failed to return as promised. Angry because their fellow Jews were not flocking to join their new religious movement, but were choosing instead to remain in the synagogue and wait there for the Messiah they believed had yet to arrive.

In fact, by the time our passion narratives were written, the followers of Jesus, who made up what we might call the very early church, were in the midst of an excruciatingly painful divorce from the synagogue. I’m pretty sure that every one of us has witnessed this kind of painful divorce. Some of us have surely experienced one firsthand.  We know that in the midst of divorce, as a couple slogs through thickets of grief and disappointment, one partner or another is likely to say things about the other that are gravely distorted, that are sometimes untrue, and that should never be repeated, much less captured in writing. Imagine what would happen if, during a painful divorce, our most bitter, hateful words were not only written down as gospel truth (so to speak), but also passed on to our children, and to their children, on down through the generations. Imagine the hateful words that would poison the hearts of those generations toward their ancestors forever.  

This, sadly, is what happened during those first difficult centuries of the church’s life. By the time the gospels were written, a generation and more after Jesus’ death, the community of Jesus followers was baffled by the fact that the risen Christ had not yet returned, and bitterly disappointed that their fellow Jews were not rushing to join them as they continued to wait and hope for Jesus’ return.

And so ensued a terrible, bitter divorce. If ever there was a poison pen, it was the pen that wrote the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, such as the one we read in book of Matthew, which tells us that it was the chief priests of Israel and a crowd of angry Jews who convinced Pontius Pilate to release a different political prisoner and to crucify the innocent Jesus. Now, one might think  this would be poison enough: laying the blame for Jesus’ death at the feet of his own people.

But there’s more! In the next scene, Pilate ceremonially washes his hands of the whole affair, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” To which the assembled crowd of Jewish onlookers, with one voice, declares, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

This is the story that has been handed down to us as gospel truth, despite the fact that historical evidence argues against any such event. Biblical scholars know that Rome was not in the habit of releasing political prisoners. Scholars also assure us that the chief priests of occupied Israel and the assembled crowds of Jewish peasants had no power to influence the decisions of a Roman governor. This is poisonous falsehood, penned in the heat of a terrible divorce.

At first, the damage was merely rhetorical. After all, at the time the gospels were written, the fledgling Christian community had no real power to harm its Jewish neighbors. But just a few centuries later, when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman empire, these gospel stories become the sacred texts of the Church of Rome. And this is the moment when the anti-Jewish rhetoric embedded in these early Christian stories suddenly acquires the power to kill.

And kill they did. Forced conversions at the point of a sword. Denial of Jewish civil rights by Christian bishops. Medieval crusades and expulsions. More forced conversions. Deep, church-sanctioned anti-Semitism that spreads throughout Europe and proceeds to genocide. Even today, the number of attacks against Jewish communities worldwide rises this week, as Christians continue to hear, from their pulpits, the gospels’ distorted and slanderous accounts of Jesus’ death.  

It is disturbing and perplexing to me that the worldwide church continues to use these texts in worship. In a classroom or in a Bible study, where we have time to unpack their historical context, we should certainly be studying these texts for the lessons they can teach us. But to continue to read them uncritically in worship–this is baffling to me. I find it particularly perplexing here in what we like to think of as the progressive wing of the church, where we often renounce other gospel texts that we view as dangerous to life and health and freedom.

Take first Corinthians, for example, in which the apostle Paul states that “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

Or take Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, in which he urges slaves to “obey your earthly masters.”

Knowing, as we do, how much damage these texts have done; knowing how many people have been enslaved, oppressed, and diminished because of these texts, I’m pretty sure we would be astonished if anyone stood in the pulpit and simply read them aloud uncritically. If we ever use these texts in worship, we do so in order to very explicitly, very publicly, renounce them.  If we read them in Bible study, it is so that we can unpack their historical context and work to undo the enormous damage they have done.

But somehow, this is not the case for the texts that speak of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. During Holy Week, the church continues to read these texts in worship, usually without unpacking them, and without renouncing them. And every time the church does this, we reinscribe upon our own souls, and upon the souls of our children, the centuries of hatred, terror, and bloodshed that the church has inflicted upon its Jewish neighbors.

Why the church continues to use these texts uncritically, I can only guess.

What I know for sure is that to cast “the Jews” (as the angry crowd is named in the gospel of John) as the agents of Jesus’ death is to dramatically distort history and to fatally scapegoat the most powerless players in this first-century drama.

I also know that even today, it can be very difficult for our Jewish neighbors to feel safe inside any church. Even a church that intends no harm toward anyone. Even a church that spends its days trying to make amends and working to make peace. Both psychologists and neurobiologists tell us that if our Jewish neighbors still feel afraid in our presence, it is not paranoia but deep memory–the memory of trauma that we now know lives not only in our minds and hearts but quite possibly also in our cells, passed down from generation to generation. If our Jewish neighbors feel a tremor of fear during Holy Week, it is not because they have failed to forgive, but because they cannot forget the historical terrors the church has perpetrated this very week in the name of the crucified Jesus.

What this means is that as members of the church, we continue to embody this bloody history for our Jewish neighbors. Whether we are aware of it or not, as members of the church, we continue to represent the face of terrifying persecution to our Jewish friends.

So. How in the world are we to proceed? A couple of thoughts…

First, I believe that the least we can do is to explicitly name the harm that the church has done: to learn about the hatred our sacred texts have sewn, and about the violence our Holy Week liturgies have incited against Jewish communities. It is only by becoming aware of this history that we give ourselves the option to try and repair the damage.

Of course, one way to repair that damage might be to simply stop reading these texts altogether, just as we have largely stopped reading the other texts of terror that have caused so much pain for enslaved peoples, for women, and for all those who are marginalized and oppressed. I believe this would in fact be a better choice than to continue to use these texts uncritically.

But I think we can do even better. Because if we merely ignore these harmful texts and pretend they don’t exist, then we fail to grapple with–and we fail to heal–the harm they have done.

I want to suggest that if we are courageous enough to face the church’s painful history, then Holy Week might actually become a week of deep healing. A week in which we intentionally atone for the Jewish blood that has been shed in the name of Christ. And this would be a great gift to the world.

In Jewish tradition, there are two kinds of atonement. If we have done something to harm our relationship with God, then the way to atone is to ask God for forgiveness. On the other hand, if our actions have harmed another human being, then simply praying to God cannot bring atonement. If we have harmed another, then we must go to that person directly and ask forgiveness. Only then can real atonement take place.

If this is true, then Holy Week, with all its terrible historical baggage, begins to look like an opportunity. An opportunity for great healing. An opportunity for reconciliation with our closest spiritual relations.

I wonder what this kind of atonement and reconciliation might look like for us this week?

Maybe you’ll feel called to do some reading about what scholars think really happened to Jesus that week in Jerusalem so long ago. 

Maybe you’ll want to reach out to a Jewish friend and invite them to have coffee or take a walk, and talk together about the pain that each of you brings to this complicated week.

Maybe you’ll want to spend some time in prayer this week, asking God for guidance about what particular act of healing and atonement might be yours to make. And then perhaps you’ll go out and undertake that act of healing.

This morning, as we step together into this holy and terrible week, we seek to follow, day by day, the one we call Teacher: the one who rides into Jerusalem today on the back of a donkey, the  very symbol of humility and patience. This week, day by day, we seek to follow the one we call Healer: the one who, on Thursday night, will kneel to gently wash the dusty feet of his friends. This week, day by day, we seek to follow the one we call Savior: the one who on Friday will choose death on a cross rather than let anyone–anyone–shed blood in his name.

Together, this week and always, we follow the one we call the Prince…of Peace. Thanks be to God.

For the Love of God

a reflection on the Beloved for the Feast of Saint Valentine

Moyers, Mike. Awake My Soul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57138 

Today, as I’m sure you know, is not only the last Sunday of Epiphany but also the feast day of Saint Valentine. All season long, we’ve been visiting with saints of all kinds: guides and mentors whose lives illuminate for us the ways of God. And I think that Saint Valentine’s Day offers us a beautiful opportunity to take a closer look at the many diverse ways in which we humans embody and respond to God’s unconditional love. 

Of course, the exact identity of the man known as Saint Valentine is a bit unclear, as are the details of many ancient stories. But as far as we can tell, “Valentine” is the name of a third-century priest or  bishop who was imprisoned by the Roman authorities for proclaiming and acting upon his Christian faith. This was not unusual at the time, of course. But legend has it that Valentine incurred the wrath of the Emperor Claudius by trying to convert the Emperor himself to Christianity, and also perhaps for helping young Christians to get married. It is thought that marriage itself may have been an act of resistance against the Emperor, who believed that unmarried men made better soldiers in the Imperial army. In any case, Valentine was killed on February 14th, in the year 269. And right up to the moment of his death, he was steadfastly professing his unquenchable love for God. Whatever else we can say about the life of this man named Valentine, he comes to us as an example of what it means for a human to spend one’s life trying to return God’s unquenchable love for us.

Of course, one could do worse than to emulate Saint Valentine in his determination to return God’s love. A love that, throughout human history, God has poured into God’s beloved people; a love that, more often than not, has gone unrequited. Here are the words of God as heard through the prophet Hosea:

It was I who taught Ephraim — God’s people —  to walk, says God,

taking them by the arms; but they did not realize

    it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts

a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.

Friends, this is the lament of One who is broken hearted. The Divine Presence who has poured God’s self into God’s beloved humans, lifting them tenderly to God’s own cheek as one lifts an infant. Imagine! And still, the people turn away.

Who knows why? Maybe they were just busy! Busy making a living. Busy tending to children and aging parents. Busy worrying about where the next paycheck is coming from. Busy with all the things that busy our own human minds even as God offers to hold, and love, and heal us. From the beginning of time, so our ancient stories tell us, God’s love has gone unrequited by humans who refuse to make time, to make room in our busy lives, for the One who simply longs to be with us. The God who always longs to be in intimate, transformative relationship with us. 

And so we come to the season of Lent. A season in which we are asked to follow Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. Why? So we might do as Jesus does: make time, and room, and silence to simply be with God. That’s the call. Jesus, who has just been named God’s beloved in a public act of baptism. Jesus, whose people are starving and suffering under the thumb of Rome. Jesus, who has thousands of people to teach and heal — surely, Jesus was as needed and as busy as any of us. And yet he leaves the crowds on the riverbank and walks off into the wilderness for 40 days to answer the call of the God who loves him. The God who calls Jesus, and us, “beloved.”

And I wonder if we will do the same. Will we make time this season to get into an intimate daily encounter with God? 

I believe this is our call—and I also believe that this is the very foundation of our faith: To be engaged in spiritual practices that bring us into regular, deep contact with the Divine Presence. 

So here’s a  question for you: do you have this kind of spiritual practice? Do you have a practice that is bringing you into this kind of intimate, transformative contact with the Divine Presence?

Friends, a spiritual practice that is not changing us, says the season of Lent — a spiritual practice that is not challenging and altering who we are — is not a blessing to us, and will not allow us to become—as Jesus becomes—a blessing to the world. I wonder what practice God might be calling you to take up this season. It might be centering prayer, or meditation, or writing to God and letting God write back, or maybe a practice of Sabbath—setting aside a whole day just to be with God—because this is what it takes to be in any kind of intimate relationship: we have to set aside time to be together. There are infinite spiritual practices you can try, and we will practice some of them together in the season ahead. But the point of all spiritual practice is to get into deep relationship with the God who longs for us. The God who wants  to fundamentally claim and call and transform us, just as Jesus is claimed and called and transformed out there in the silent wilderness. 

One of my favorite writers on this subject of God’s unquenchable love for us is a spiritual teacher named Loretta Ross. On this Valentine’s day, I invite you to hear her words as she describes God’s unquenchable love. She writes: 

God misses you. God longs for you, pines for you, walks the floor at night for you. God throws Godself down on the ground weeping for you. God slumps on the couch, drowning God’s sorrow, eating three cartons of Haagen-Dazs rocky road ice cream for you.          God misses you.

A whole lot.

God misses you. God longs for you. That’s the message. Not just on Saint Valentine’s Day. Not just during the season of Lent. It’s the story of our lives, friends. In dreams at night, in whispers during the day, God is LONGING FOR US; calling for us. 

May we have the courage to answer the call; that we may become a blessing to this very world that God so loves. Amen.

Coming Alive

a reflection on the life of Howard Thurman for the threshold of a new era

We have been spending time this Epiphany season with some of the mentors and guides who are lighting the way for us: showing us how to bring God’s healing presence into a world that is desperately in need of healing, and justice, and truth. As the season of Epiphany draws to a close, and as Black History Month begins, I want to spend a bit of time with the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. I feel that it’s important to remember the life of Howard Thurman at least once every year because, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think we spend enough time in church talking about this particular mentor and guide. Which I think is a great loss, because Dr.Thurman’s own work for social justice–and his commitment to spiritual practice in the midst of that work–had a powerful influence on the Rev. Martin Luther King. And I believe that Dr. Thurman’s example might offer guidance and inspiration for us today.

So this morning, I’d like to remember together the life of Howard Thurman, an African-American man who was born just before the turn of the 20th century and who embodied a very particular type of social activism and spiritual activism that is rooted in faith, and very intentionally open to the guidance of God.

Howard Thurman was born in Daytona, Florida and raised by his grandmother, who was a former slave. He was ordained a baptist minister in 1925 and shortly thereafter became a professor and director of religious life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta. In 1929, he spent a semester studying with Rufus Jones, the Quaker mystic who led the interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1939, Thurman led what he called a “Negro Delegation of Friendship” to South Asia, where he met with Mohandas Gandhi. In 1944, he moved to San Francisco to co-found the first fully integrated, multicultural church in the United States: The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. And in 1949, he wrote his deeply influential book, “Jesus and the Disinherited.” It was this very book that the younger Martin Luther King was reading during the tumultuous days of the Montgomery bus boycott. 

Howard Thurman was a man who certainly understood the need to take creative and courageous action in the world. A man who knew something about how a person who longs to respond to the world’s pain can easily feel overwhelmed and pulled in a thousand different directions. He was a man who understood that no one person, no matter how gifted or committed, can answer every need that comes our way. A man who at least once advised Martin Luther King himself to take more time to rest, to reflect, and to pray about what God was calling him to do. 

So I think it’s worth asking what advice the Reverend Thurman offers to those of us who would seek to heal this broken world? You’ll find his words quoted as our prayer of confession this morning: “Don’t ask what the world needs,” he writes. “Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

I wonder if this advice might surprise you. Does it surprise you to hear an African-American man, one of the most effective social activists our nation has ever known, saying, “Don’t ask what the world needs”? 

I don’t believe that he is saying that we should never ask what the world needs. What he means is, don’t start there. Don’t start by asking what the world needs. Instead, start with the inner work of  discerning who God created you to be, and what unique gift God created you — and only you — to offer the world. What is it that makes you come alive? 

Do this thing, the Reverend Thurman says, and you will learn what gift God is calling you to offer to an aching world. A particular gift of healing that only you can bring. Once you know this gift — for organizing, or letter writing, or protesting, or community building — once you know your particular gift, then you are ready to look at the headlines and decide where you will put that gift to best use. Reversing climate change? Teaching meditation and anger management in prisons? Convincing the city council to build more very-low income housing? Strengthening laws to protect vulnerable rivers and streams from industrial pollution? 

Friends, I know the headlines are screaming at you as they are screaming at me. I know it can feel strange to be asking, at a time like this, what makes us come alive. But this is urgent work. You were born with a gift — a particular flavor of God’s love that the world desperately needs. If we fail to discern and bring forth the gift that is within us, the world never receives that gift. And that, surely, breaks the heart of the One who created you to bring that particular, shining gift to the world. 

Here’s the good news. Whoever you are, whatever pain of the world is breaking your heart open this day, it is never too late to listen for the particular gift you were made to bring. It is never too late to discover, or rediscover, what it is that makes you come alive. And there are countless ways to do this inner work of discovery and discernment. Today, I want to propose that we undertake together a particular spiritual practice for discovering our most alive selves, as a gift to the world. In just ten days, we will step into the season of Lent. It’s a season in which we are invited to follow Jesus into the wilderness and listen for who God is calling us to be. So that when our 40-day sojourn is over, we will be ready to bring that true self, and our unique gifts, to a world that desperately needs our care. Are you with me? Will you commit to this experiment to listen for the gift that you are called to bring? The gift that God is longing to offer the world through you? 

Friends, we know that the world is in great, great need. And from the looks of it, our old, familiar ways of responding to that need are not working very well, to put it mildly. I believe that what the world really needs is a Church, a people, so alive, so attuned to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, that through us, God can bring forth gifts of healing, justice, and restoration that have never been seen before. And it’s going to take every one of us, fully alive, fully committed to bringing forth our gifts–it’s going to take all of us to make it happen. 

May we listen well in the season ahead. May we have the courage to bring forth the gifts that will heal this world that God so loves. Amen. 

And the Rivers Cry Out

Berta Cáceres, by Erin Currier

a reflection on call for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

This Epiphany season, this season of God’s “showing forth,” we are paying some extra attention to the saints and mentors who guide us. The individuals who, through their own life and work, illuminate the way for us, demonstrating for us how it is that a human being might invite the presence of God to shine through us into the world. It has been a great gift these past few weeks to talk with so many of you in small groups and to hear what mentors and guides have come to you in mediation and prayer this season. To hear about how these guides are inspiring your days and inviting you into acts of healing and social justice.

So, I thought that over these next couple of Sundays, as our Epiphany season draws to a close, I might share with you a couple of the guides who have come to me this season. Individuals whose lives and work are often on my mind these days. When I sat down to do the mediation I suggested to you a few weeks ago, watching to see what mentor or guide would come to me, the first person who arrived was a woman named Berta Cáceres, a world-renowned environmental activist who was assassinated in 2016 by the government of her own country—the government of Honduras. Berta’s death was a blow not only to her family and friends, not only to her people — the Lenca people — but also to the worldwide environmental movement. And yet, her death was not unexpected. Because Berta spent all her days fighting to protect the lands and waters of rural communities in Honduras, her friends knew that this day was certain to come.

And so it is that when I ask God to show me a guiding spirit, it is often Berta’s face that appears to me. In my mind’s eye, I see her fierce and kind and determined. I see the faces of her children, now motherless. I see Berta standing beside the Gualcarque river; a river that is sacred to the Lenca people. A river that multinational corporations had been trying for years to dam so that they could generate energy for their mining operations on indigenous lands. A river that lost its best friend in 2016, but that was also saved by that friend. The following year, after massive protests in the wake of Berta’s death, the banks that were financing that dam and those mining projects withdrew their financial support. 

Today, when I ask for a guide, I often see Berta Cáceres. And every time I see Berta’s face, I see the face of Christ: the human face of God at work in the world; the passion of God enfleshed in the beautiful, vulnerable, human body of a woman who gave her life to save a people, and a land, that she passionately loves. A land whose forests are even now being burned to make way for palm oil plantations. A people whose ancient way of life is disappearing. A people and a sacred land who even now are crying out to God, and to us, for justice.  

I probably don’t need to remind you that we, as a nation and as a worldwide community, stand at crossroads. We are rapidly running out of time to stop irreversible and catastrophic climate change. Human action and governmental indifference all over the world are causing species to disappear at thousands of times the natural extinction rate; a loss of biodiversity that is almost unimaginable. Many of us all around the world woke up with hope in our hearts on the morning of January 20th, 2021. Hope for real change. Hope that our nation might yet lead the way to a just and sustainable way of life. We must remember that this hope will mean nothing, our work will be futile — all our work to feed and house and shelter and care for the vulnerable will be futile — unless we also act to save the earth that is sacred to God, and that is our one and only source of food and shelter and care. A home that is rapidly becoming uninhabitable not only for millions of plant and animal species but for those humans who are the most poor; those humans who are the most exposed and vulnerable to extreme weather; those whose communities, languages, and lifeways are rapidly disappearing from our cities, from Indian reservations, and from indiginous lands all over the earth — due to extreme weather and fire, poisoned water, rising sea levels, and a disproportionate number of COVID-19 fatalities.

You want to know how to live? Jesus asks. Do you want to be my disciples? Then take up your cross, he says, and follow me.

And so Berta Cáceres followed. Wading out into the current of that mighty river and pledging her life to save it. Listening to the sounds of a sleeping Honduran forest as the assassins made their way toward her camp. These are not the ordinary circumstances of life for most of us. For Berta Cáceres, there was no other choice. Her people had no vote, no voice, no avenue to seek justice for the land that holds their guiding spirits. Like Jesus, Berta and her people had nothing to give but their lives.

So far, you and I have not been asked to die for the sake of this world that God so loves. Because of our relative wealth, because of all kinds of privilege, because of the origin of our passports or the color of our skin—at this particular moment, most of us are not being asked to die to save this world that God so loves.

And yet. There is a cost to following God’s call. It costs something —it always costs something—to live in passionate love for a world that is crying out to be saved. Jesus didn’t have money. Berta Cáceres didn’t have political power or social standing. The only currency they had to spend in radical solidarity with the world was their lives.

You and I have other gifts we can give; political power and influence we can use. And I believe that the least we can do is to live—maybe not to die, but certainly to live—as Jesus did, and as Berta did, willing to offer anything we have to save the ones who are crying out. The ones who are looking to us, and to our nation, to lead humanity into justice and salvation for all the earth.

That’s a tall order. This kind of real justice will require us to work in the political arena, in the realm of national and international public policy. Individual acts of recycling, charity, and personal piety will not be enough to save this burning world and its most vulnerable. And while it is true that we, ourselves, in our finite, humble lives, will not be able to answer every single cry for help, I believe it is also true that every single one of us, just like Berta Cáceres, is called to love some particular part of this world with the radical, extravagant love of God. I believe that there is one particular piece of this holy, burning, desperate world whose cry you were made to hear above all other cries—your ears and your heart were made to hear it. And that cry—the cry of that place, that people, that creature—is yours, with God’s help, to answer. 

I believe this is what Jesus means when he says, Take up your cross and follow me. Take up your own cross and listen—as if it were a seashell—for the whisper of the one thing in all the world that you are called to live for, and to save.

There are a lot of people out there who will try to tell you what that is. A lot of people would love to tell you to what or to whom you should give your days and your political power and your money to save. But I don’t believe anyone can tell you what that is. Because God calls each of us to a very particular work of love.

I believe that we can help each other listen. And I wonder if perhaps you already know. Perhaps you already know what it is that you are called to save because of the guide, the mentor, who has come to you in prayer this season. And I believe that once you can name this thing—this passion of your very own—then every power on earth and in heaven will come pouring in to help you save it.

This is what we are listening for, here in this season after the Epiphany, as our nation steps across the threshold into a new era. An era in which real change might now be possible but in which that change is by no means inevitable. What is it that you are called to live for? Who needs you to stand up for them? What is the great, passionate love that will carry you through all the days of your life and into the new life that God is offering — for us and for the world?

I hope you’ll take some time to listen this week. To listen for the guides who are arriving to accompany you. To listen for the mentors who are helping you to hear the voice of whatever souls and whatever sacred places in all this this beautiful, broken world are calling out to you, even now. Amen.

With Our Own Eyes

a reflection for the third Sunday after the Epiphany

Scott, Lorenzo. Baptism of Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56877

As I mentioned in our opening prayer this morning, we are traveling through the beautiful season after the Epiphany. Traditionally, the scripture that leads off our Epiphany season is none other than the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river: an event that you will find depicted in the modern icon at the start of our worship bulletin.

I’ve included this icon because I believe that it can help us to step into this ancient story in a way that is particularly appropriate for the Epiphany season. As I’m sure you know, our tradition offers us a wide range of spiritual practices that are designed to help us immerse ourselves in our sacred stories and in the divine presence that is even now still speaking among us. It’s important to note that while some of these spiritual practices have fallen out of fashion in the west, they have been kept alive by our siblings in the eastern Orthodox church. And one of these very important spiritual practices is the ancient art of praying with icons. 

In popular culture, of course, the word icon often refers to a person who is revered. In this case, icon can become synonymous with the word idol. But this is not at all the church’s understanding of icons. In the church, an icon is simply a visual aid: a picture that invites us to pray with our eyes, allowing the light of God’s presence to shine through the image itself and illuminate our own souls. Here in the protestant wing of the church, we are more familiar with the practice of praying with words, using language and text as an aid to prayer. But as we know, we humans have many senses, and the deep intuition of the church is that we are most whole, and most able to apprehend the mystery of the divine presence, when we are willing to let God use all our gifts, all of our senses, in prayer. And so we are invited to use icons — paintings or other visual representations — as a tool to help us more fully  experience the divine presence in our spiritual ancestors, in the events of their lives, and in our own lives as well. 

Of course, we are invited to use this particular tool at any season of the year and at any time in our lives. But I think the season of Epiphany is a particularly appropriate time to explore this ancient spiritual practice of praying with icons. The word epiphany itself comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning “to appear” or “to show forth.” Which, of course, is what happens in the ancient story we read on the Feast of the Epiphany: the Gentiles, represented by the three wise travelers, arrive to see, with their very own eyes, the manifestation — the showing forth — of the divine presence that has come into the world. An appearance of the divine which is repeated in this season after the Epiphany, when the clouds part over the River Jordan and the voice of God names Jesus as God’s beloved. Epiphany, in other words, is a season in which the presence of God manifests in a very visual way. A way that invites all beings to see that God is indeed with us, right here in the very body of the same world that we look at every day. All we need in order to apprehend the presence of the holy is a way to slow down and practice a quieter, more contemplative way of seeing.

In the church, this practice of contemplative seeing is known as visio divina, or sacred seeing. If you have attended my Sunday morning spiritual practice circle, you will be familiar with the practice of lectio divina or sacred reading, which we practice every week. Visio divina is a very similar practice. The difference is that instead of praying with a text, as we do in lectio divina or sacred reading, visio divina asks us to pray with a visual image. As with sacred reading, the idea is not to analyze or theorize about what we see. In fact, the goal is just the opposite: to quiet our analytical mind in order to enter into the mind of contemplation; a mind that, instead of chasing after meaning simply rests in a state that is receptive to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. As I have said many times before, I believe that the divine presence is always offering to lead and guide us. But God is so gentle, so respectful of our own free will, that God will not force God’s way into our thoughts. When our minds are busy and active and full of words– thoughts, questions, theories–we crowd out the whispers of the Spirit. The practices of lectio divina and visio divina are designed to very intentionally quiet the mind into a contemplative state that makes room for the presence of God.

So, I want to invite you to give this ancient practice of visio divina a try this morning, here in the midst of this Epiphany season, this season of God’s showing forth in the body of the world. The icon we’ll use today is a modern rendition of the story  of Jesus’ baptism. I’m sure you have seen traditional paintings or icons of this scene. Today, we’ll take a fresh look at this story through the eyes of the artist Lorenzo Scott, whose painting you will find at the top of your worship bulletin or here at the top of this sermon.

I invite you to find this image, this icon, and display it on your computer screen or in any other way that lets you see as much of the painting’s detail as you can.

Begin by noticing your breath as you gaze at the painting. Just notice the breath as it comes and goes…notice the support of the chair beneath you…the earth beneath you, supporting you as you enter into this time of prayer.

Begin to notice which part of this painting initially draws you in. What part are your eyes most drawn to?

What parts of the painting are you inclined to overlook or look away from?

Be aware of any feelings that are arising in your body right now. No need to name these feelings…just notice them as sensations.

Now see if you can imagine yourself into the painting. Where would you place yourself? Is there anything you’d like to say to a character in the painting? Is there anything you’d like to ask of this character, or of God? Go ahead and ask…and give yourself as much time as you need to listen for an answer. Remember that answers often come in the form of an image or an inner knowing. You may not hear an answer in words.

Remembering that you can return here anytime, let the image go now and gently close your eyes. What parts of this image remain in your mind after your eyes are closed?

Here in the silence of the afterimage, I invite you to call to mind the divine presence, whatever that presence looks or feels like to you. See if you can feel that presence of God arriving to hold and surround you in this time of prayer. 

You might ask whether there is anything God is calling you to do in response to your experience of prayer this morning. No need to force an answer. It is enough to be gently open to any answer…be sure to make a mental note of anything you feel called to do. 

And now, notice whether there is anyone you feel called to invite into this healing presence of God. It might be someone you know and love…it might be someone who is grieving far or near. Know that there is room here for all…that the Divine Presence is spacious and expansive enough to welcome all who are in need of healing. 

Now see if you can let this healing presence expand to include all the earth…all beings…all souls across time and space…

Rest here, in the healing presence of God, for as long as you like, knowing that you can return here anytime, this day and always…

What Has Been Revealed

a sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 10, 2021

Le Breton, Jacques; Jean Gaudin
Herod Gives Orders to Slay the Children

This past Wednesday, January 6th, the worldwide church observed the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the day on which we remember the ancient story of the wise ones arriving in Bethlehem to see, with their very own eyes, that which has been revealed: the Promised One who has been born in Bethlehem. As you may know, the word “epiphany” comes from an ancient Greek verb epiphanaea, meaning “to appear” or “to show forth.” The great appearance or showing forth that we celebrate on the day of Epiphany, and in fact all through this season, is the showing forth of the divine presence that is alive, or incarnate, in the body of the world. Epiphany is a beautiful feast day in the church and one that is widely celebrated all over the world. I have no doubt that many of us all around the world woke up this past Wednesday morning expecting to bask in the light of the Epiphany: the showing forth of the divine presence glistening through the body of this beautiful, broken, always holy world.

And for many of us, the day began in just this way, as we heard that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock appeared to have won seats in the U.S. Senate. As the day of Epiphany dawned, both a young man who is the descendent of Jewish immigrants and a Black preacher and were carried to election victory by enormous voter turnout; by a young and multicultural electorate; by a coalition of Black and Jewish leaders that harkens back to the civil rights movement; by the work of Stacey Abrams and many others on her team who have been pounding the pavement for decades to make sure that the voices of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities are heard in our country’s legislative halls. Friends, the dazzling triumph of justice and inclusion in Georgia this week is not a new dream; many decades of hard work brought it to fruition. But this beautiful dream was shown forth, revealed to us, in a new way this Epiphany day.

But of course, as the day unfolded, it became clear that the bright star above Georgia would not be the only revelation on this  particular Epiphany day. This year, we had a twinned Epiphany; a conjunction, if you will. At the very moment when multicultural cooperation and inclusion were being celebrated in Georgia, the great evil of white supremacy was showing forth on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol; an evil that proudly identified itself on the clothing of those who were allowed to storm the Capitol. And, as is true of the work for racial justice, it is important to remember that white supremacy, while it was certainly revealed in a dramatic way this week, is certainly not new. On the contrary, it is an evil that has been with us since this nation was founded upon an economy of slave labor and the theft of this sacred land from her native peoples. White supremacy is an evil that we have seen on display at our own state Capitol for many weeks now, and that revealed itself once again as it breached the walls of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. The day of Epiphany. The day when things are revealed and shown forth–not because they are newly arrived among us, but because we have failed to reckon with them in the past. January 6th, 2021 is a day that will go down in history as one in which we were forced to reckon with the fact that though white supremacy has always lived among us, we have failed to name and address it. On the contrary, we have allowed it to run amok not only on the grounds of our Capitol but within the highest ranks of government and law enforcement as well. As many others have noted this week, it is impossible to imagine that a group of Black Lives Matter protesters would have been allowed to even approach the Capitol without a swift and violent response from law enforcement. I feel equally sure that if those protesters had so much as appeared to be Muslim, they would not be alive today to tell the tale. Friends, the evil of white supremacy is very much alive within the body and mind of this nation; a truth that was shown forth once again and with great clarity on this past Epiphany day. 

This is perhaps not what we expect to grapple with on the Feast of the Epiphany: this simultaneous showing forth of both hope and terror; of faithful love and persistent evil. We expect on this holy day to see only that one bright star shining over Bethlehem; the revelation of God’s Love arriving to heal this world.

And yet, if we look closely at our Epiphany scripture readings, we see that in fact they prepare us for this dramatic paradox; this twinned showing forth both healing love and powerful evil. No sooner has the arrival of the Christ child been revealed to the wise ones than Herod — who is the archetype of evil in our story — sets out to destroy the Promised One who has so recently arrived. This is a story we don’t often tell in Sunday school; a story we know as “the murder of the innocents.” 

Beloved, if our ancient tale has anything to teach us, it is that Epiphany is always a twofold revelation. In fact, what we see is that it is the very arrival of the good, the arrival of God’s dream, that seems to bring forth a new and terrifying facet of the evil that lives beneath the surface of our human life. Let’s remember that when goodness arrives, it always brings change that upsets the status quo. And when evil sees its power threatened, it lashes out in anger and in fear. So it has always been, and so it is among us to this day.

And this is why, long, long ago, in the light of a bright and beautiful star, our spiritual ancestors set down stories to help us see what they saw: both the brilliant hope of the incarnation, and the evil that sets out to defy and destroy anyone who embodies the change that comes with that hope. We see both. At the same time. In the light of the same star: a conjunction of terrifying proportions. 

This week, in the light of the same Epiphany star that shone upon our ancestors, we have watched as this ancient story reveals its deep truth once again. Both are present among and within us, friends: the promise of ongoing incarnation right here in the body of the world, and the promise that evil will oppose this work at every turn.

Beloved, we are called not to deny either of these revelations but to hold both within our minds and our hearts: the call to God’s justice, and also the reality of the conditioned human mind that drags us back into the clutches of evil. The choice between them is ours to make, always. Will we fall into the trap of despair? Or will we do as our Epiphany star asks us? Will we pledge to take a clear-eyed look at the evil within and among us and then set to work for the promise of justice, inclusion, and peace that our Epiphany star also reveals to us? 

Here’s the good news. We are not asked to do this work alone. We are never expected to do this work alone. That’s why we have church: this particular congregation and also the vast, wider Body of Christ that we are. A Body that works and witnesses for the continued incarnation of God’s healing and justice across distances of time and space. Thanks be to God!

So I want to invite you to call in help this week. I want to ask you to find a place where you can be undisturbed for ten or fifteen minutes. Then do whatever it takes to quiet your mind. I suggest that you follow your breath, allowing thoughts to drift away, until you find yourself in a vast and spacious field of awareness. That’s all. Your everyday thoughts and your everyday identity drop away as you become this field of spacious awareness.

And into this field of awareness, see if you can call upon the bright Epiphany star. Just bask in its light for a moment. Then visualize in front of you a blank screen. Perhaps a movie screen. Now, ask that Epiphany star to shine upon that screen, as if it were a lightbulb in a movie projector. Ask that Epiphany light to show you, on the screen, an image of the mentor, the guide, who is here to help you walk the path of God’s justice and peace in the year ahead. It might be someone living. It might be someone from the past. But what this Epiphany star will show you is a human being who learned how to look evil in the eye while simultaneously walking the path of healing, justice, and peace. A person who so embodies, who so incarnates, the divine presence, that the Light of this presence shines out from their spirit and illuminates the path for you this year. Take your time with this exercise. And please try not to think. Don’t force an answer. If you don’t get an image right away, be patient, and perhaps try again later. I want to encourage you to let the Spirit of Epiphany choose for you. Be sure to receive whoever comes, even if you don’t quite understand why this guide has been chosen for you. This mystery is yours to unwrap as you walk alongside your guide in the year ahead, listening for how this person is inviting you to walk in his or her footsteps…embodying the healing presence of God in a world where evil does exist.

And one more thing I want to ask you to do this week. When you have received your guide, I invite you to pick up the phone and call someone from church. It might be someone you know well or someone you’d like to get to know better. Call and share your guide with them. Call and talk about who has arrived to help you walk in the ways of God this year. We are not meant to walk this path alone. We are called to walk together. And when we come into the church, we each enter into a covenant to walk together in all God’s ways as the holy is revealed to us. 

This season, we are called to walk in the footsteps of those who carry God’s justice, God’s hope, and God’s healing peace in their hands and hearts. Those who, by their light, illuminate the path for us, showing forth the Way. May we have the courage to walk in their footsteps…this week, this year, and always. Amen. 

Whom Will You Protect?

A reflection on the courage of Joseph for the fourth Sunday in Advent

a meditation on Matthew 1:18-25

by Yael Lachman

Early this week, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, and I couldn’t help but notice who is on the cover of Life magazine this month. Maybe you’ve noticed her, too. It’s Mary, mother of Jesus. A glossy, full-color, full-page portrait of Mary is staring out from the magazine racks at Fred Meyer this month. But I think it’s time for a little affirmative action on behalf of Joseph: the guy who never makes the cover of Life magazine, but without whom the Christ of God might never be born into the world. 

This Advent season, we’ve been thinking about what it means to make a way for God—to make a way for the peace of God, the justice of God—to be born into the world. And it seems to me that our friend Joseph has something to teach us this season about how the promises of God might become more than just a nice Christmas card greeting. Something about how we ourselves are called to bring to birth God’s dream for the world.

So. Joseph. We can’t open Life magazine to read about him, but we can open the gospel of Matthew, where we read that Joseph has just discovered that the young woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant, and that her baby does not belong to him. It’s important to remember that engagement in the first-century Jewish community was not just a promise between two people, but a binding religious contract. And it appears that Mary has violated this sacred contract; that she has broken a social and religious agreement that she and Joseph have both been brought up to obey. And so, in his bewilderment and grief, Joseph goes away by himself to contemplate his next move.  And there, in his solitude, Joseph has a dream. And in that dream, Joseph is told by an angel not to be afraid, but to take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own.

Which, to us, might seem like a perfectly natural thing to do. After all, we’ve seen Joseph standing at the manger every Christmas of our lives. What else would he do?

It’s worth remembering that most men, confronted with Joseph’s predicament, would be expected to renounce Mary as quickly as possible. An unexpected pregnancy, an unwed mother, is a serious liability in Joseph’s day. A mother bearing a child out of wedlock is enormously vulnerable. To cast his lot with Mary means that Joseph makes himself vulnerable as well. Tying his own fate to that of Mary and her unborn child means that Joseph risks his social standing, his livelihood, his respectability in the community, and, significantly, all of his privilege. Because as a male in a patriarchal society, Joseph benefits from automatic privilege. Privilege that lets him walk through the streets in safety at night. Privilege that lets him walk away from an unplanned pregnancy. Privilege that lets him earn his own livelihood and make his own way in the world. None of these are available to Mary. Simply because she is a woman, Mary enjoys none of the privileges that Joseph takes for granted as his birthright. Simply because she is a woman, Mary, when we meet her today, is excruciatingly vulnerable to the political and social powers that rule her world. And yet, Joseph chooses to stand in solidarity with Mary. He chooses to take the side of this powerless young woman and the infinitely vulnerable new life that she carries. A new life that is coming to the world in a human body which will, in time, be broken by the patriarchal and imperial powers that threaten Mary this day. Joseph, in choosing to obey the angel of God by binding himself to Mary, uses his own privilege and power as a shield to protect this vulnerable young woman and the new life she carries. And in doing so, Joseph risks everything he’s got.

I don’t know about you, but I think that deserves at least a Life magazine cover story.

I’ve been thinking about Joseph a lot this week. Joseph, who wasn’t rich. Joseph, who didn’t make the unfair rules that privilege one group of people over another. Joseph, who wasn’t powerful by the world’s standards, but who nonetheless had a certain amount of safety and power just because he happened to be born male. I’ve been thinking about how Joseph had to make a choice: about whether he would act to preserve his own privilege and power, or whether he would use his own privilege and power to protect Mary and that baby, despite the cost to his comfort.

And in our ancient story, Joseph does this more than once. Our story says that after that child was born, when Herod saw his social and political power threatened, he sent his soldiers to kill that newborn child. I’ve been thinking about how when Joseph heard of Herod’s threat, he once again acted to protect that vulnerable child and his mother by fleeing with them into Egypt. I’ve been thinking about how vulnerable they all must have been there across the border in the land of Egypt, an immigrant family with no connections, no livelihood; dependent on the kindness of strangers, waiting until the political winds shifted and it was safe for them to go home. This is our ancestor, Joseph.

And I think he sets a pretty good example for his adopted son. A son—Jesus—who will grow up to take the side of the powerless and the broken. Was the Christ child born already knowing how to do this? Maybe he was. But I imagine that he might have learned a thing or two from the man who raised him. The man who risked everything to protect, to shelter, and to defend God’s dream of safety and justice for every single body in this world, no exceptions.

I wonder if Joseph has been smiling this season. A sad smile, maybe. To see so many bodies gathered in the freezing cold to protest injustice. To see white bodies holding up signs declaring that black bodies, black lives, matter. I wonder if Joseph is smiling today as all over the world, people are risking their own bodies, their own safety, to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable black bodies that God so loves? 

I wonder if Joseph is watching today as United Church of Christ congregations all over the country continue to take in immigrant families who have fled for their lives just like the holy family did; immigrant families who are in desperate need of shelter and comfort and protection during these long winter nights. 

I wonder if Joseph is praying with us as we ask ourselves whether we, too, will stand in solidarity with the ones who need us to protect them. The ones who need the shelter of our determined love. What is it that God is calling us to risk—those of us who have been born into privilege simply because of the color of our skin or the place of our birth? What privilege are we called to share, what power are we called to use, so that others may live, and breathe, in the gift of God’s own peace?

Beloved, the season of Advent comes to remind us that our God has never been a God of the status quo. The God who leads us out of slavery in Egypt, the God who leads us into the wilderness of an unknown future, is also the God whose dream for the world hinges on the birth of a child. A child whose arrival, like that of every child, will change everything. A child whose arrival in our lives—if we will discern it, if we will welcome that arrival—might yet bring the new life that God is dreaming, even now, for us, and for all the world. 

And so, says the angel of Advent: You have a choice to make, beloved human. Whom will you protect? Do not be afraid.

May God help us all to choose wisely and well. Amen.

All I Want for Christmas is You

Mary’s Dream by Lauren Wright Pittman

A reflection on God’s desire for the third Sunday in Advent

Anybody happen to remember where you were when you heard your first Christmas music on the radio this year?

I remember where I was, because I was standing in the fabric aisle at Joann’s. It was a Saturday morning, and I was trying to choose fabric, moving bolts around to see how the colors looked next to each other, when all of a sudden, there was Karen Carpenter, singing “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Which in my book, is not a bad way at all to start the season of Christmas music. I’m very fond of Karen, possibly because she’s a true alto and I can actually sing every note she ever recorded. So it wasn’t that I objected to hearing Karen singing “I’ll be home for Christmas.” It’s just that I was a little surprised to hear her singing it on the 7th of November–just a week after Halloween! There were two women in the store with me that morning, and when that song came over the speakers, we all looked at each other and did our own version of, “Do you hear what I hear?” One of the women insisted that it was a mistake: someone must have accidentally chosen the wrong holiday playlist. So we waited. But when the last notes of that Carpenters’ song were followed by the first notes of Bing Crosby singing about the Christmas of his dreams, we knew it was true: November 7th, 2020, 10:30 am, was the moment this year’s Christmas music season officially began.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has already spent several weeks now contemplating the phenomenon of Christmas music. There are a lot of things we could say about Christmas music, of course, but I wonder if anyone else has noticed how many popular Christmas songs there are about desire? I’m talking about real longing. Not just for abstract ideas like peace on earth and goodwill toward men, but earthly, fleshly, embodied desire for the physical things of this world. The real people, the real places on this earth, that we love with everything we’ve got, and that make your heart ache when you’re away from them. Especially this year, when we are likely to be separated from so many of the ones we love.

“I’ll be home for Christmas,” Karen sings. “…if only in my dreams.” Or how about  Bing Crosby singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”? I learned recently that “White Christmas” was especially meaningful to soldiers during WWII, when so many found themselves far away from home, pining for the loved ones, and for the beloved places, they longed to see once again. And then, of course, there are the Christmas songs that give voice to a more explicitly carnal kind of desire. How many versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” have you heard this year? Or how about Aaron Neville singing, “Please come home for Christmas.” And of course, Mariah Carey, everywhere, singing “All I want for Christmas is You.”

Now, before you start to think that songs about desire a product of our traveling and morally wayward modern age, I invite you to listen to these lyrics:

The sound of my lover
coming from the hills
quickly, like a deer
upon the mountains

Now at my windows,
walking by the walls,
here at the lattices
he calls—

Come with me,
my love,
come away

Friends, this is carnal desire in the form of a song. It comes, of course, from the Song of Songs, that part of the Bible that Rabbi Akiva (who was nearly a contemporary of Jesus) called, “the Holy of Holies” because it paints such a vivid picture of God as lover, and of God’s infinite desire for Israel, the beloved.

I want to talk about exactly this particular divine desire this morning. Because I believe that the desire we hear in the strains of Christmas songs this season—desire that is often superficial but sometimes deep enough to stop us in our tracks—I believe that this desire we hear coming over the speakers in our cars and in our homes might point us back to the deep desire that lies at the very heart of this Advent season, and at the heart of our journey with God.

As we make our way through this Advent season, I think it’s very important that we acknowledge this fundamental truth: the incarnation is, above all, about desireGod’s own desire for us. 

For the first fifteen or sixteen centuries of Christian tradition, long before Mariah Carey appeared on the scene, the church understood this fundamental desire of God’s. Christian theology, as well as Christian poetry and song, were full of references to the incarnation as the result of God’s longing for us. Here’s how the gospel writer portrays the angel Gabriel explaining to Mary how in the world she’s going to become pregnant: 

“The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy.” 

And here’s a poem by St. Catherine of Sienna, who was writing in the 14th century about God’s incarnational desire. She writes:

“You, high eternal Trinity,  acted as if you were drunk with love,

infatuated with your creature.”

Beloved, incarnation is what happens when God gets drunk with love for God’s creation. And I want to suggest that this declaration of love, this declaration of God’s desire, which we hear delivered by the angel Gabriel today, is not an isolated incident. What happens to Mary is just one chapter—a particularly vivid chapter—in the one great story of God’s desire for us. I want to suggest that in fact, the purpose of the Bible is to record—in narrative, in poem, in song, in lament—the great story of God’s persistent desire for God’s people, and for God’s creation. A story in which the Christmas incarnation is one crucial, astonishing chapter. 

From the first chapters of Genesis when God surveys God’s new creation and calls it “good…very good…” to the longing in God’s voice when God calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” to the great wedding scene on Mt. Sinai where God and God’s beloved people pledge themselves to one another for all time…

…to the day God chose a girl-child in the town of Nazareth to be the vessel of God’s infinite desire for humanity. A desire so great that God will stop at nothing to be with us, from birth in a stable to death on a cross and far beyond into any future we humans may create. 

If I were going to write a one-sentence summary of the entire Bible, this would be it: God desires us. We humans are unfaithful in all kinds of ways, and yet God chooses us again and again, for God so loves this world. That’s the one, great story. Our story.

And in this great love story that we’re moving through right now, the Advent chapter opens with this giant cupid of an angel singing: “Greetings, O favored one. God has chosen you to bear the fruit of God’s desire. God has chosen you to bear the fruit of God’s longing for divine union with the world. In other words,” Gabriel says to Mary, “all God wants for Christmas is you.”

And here’s where things get interesting. Because there are two ways to read this story. One is to try and convince ourselves that it happened, or didn’t happen, long, long ago and far, far away. In which case, you can sit through the gospel reading on Sunday morning and go back to your life unchanged. No worse for the wear. 

But that’s not the way our tradition invites us to read this story. Hold the book up to your ear like a seashell and you can hear the ancestors calling. Listen! they say. This is how it felt to us when God broke into our lives. And guess what? they call, God is longing to break into your life, too. Listen, say the ancestors, and we’ll tell you the story of what happened when we turned away from God’s desire. It went badly for us every single time. Learn from our mistakes, they whisper, and you won’t have to repeat them.

Listen, the ancestors whisper. Here’s the story of what happened when God drew near, and we said a holy, trembling “yes!” It happened on the day when an angel appeared in a burning bush. And it happened again on the day when a young girl stood face to face with an angel of the Lord and said, with a trembling voice, “Okay. I will be the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be with me as you have said. If this is really God’s desire, far be it from me to turn away.”

And so we learn, again and again, in every generation, that this is the way that the holy, the wholeness of God’s presence, is born into the body of the world. It happens in the moment when we consent to God’s desire for divine union with us. 

But here’s the catch. The God who so loves the world, the God who so desires you, will never coerce you. You’ll notice that the angel stands still today, awaiting Mary’s reply. God will never force God’s desire upon us. It is up to us, this season and always, to say that holy yes.

And so I wonder. Do you hear what I hear? Can you hear the Holy One calling you this morning, “Beloved“? The angel awaits your reply. The whole world waits to know what good news might yet be born through us, in holy union with the God who still so loves, who so desires, this beautiful, broken world. Thanks be to God.

The Christmas Card I’m Not Sending

A reflection on John the Baptist for the second Sunday in Advent

For sermon audio, click here

The holiday season is officially upon us, and so is the season of Christmas cards. Maybe tomorrow afternoon, you will open your mailbox to find a bright-green Christmas envelope. A Christmas card! you say to yourself. Just what I need to cheer me up in this bleak midwinter of our pandemic discontent. Stepping back into the house, you notice that this envelope has no return address. Who might have sent it? You sit down at the kitchen table and imagine what you might find inside the envelope. Perhaps a lovely Nativity scene, or a trumpeting angel. Or maybe the three kings following their star through a dark desert night. Smiling in anticipation, you pick up a butter knife, slit the envelope, and pull out the card. And to your surprise, the image staring back at you is not an angel or a star, not even a gentle donkey at the manger. Nope. The full-color picture on this Christmas card is none other than fierce, wild-eyed John the Baptist, with his matted hair and camel-skin shirt. There on the front of your card, you see him standing in the middle of the river yelling: “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” And you think to yourself, “Seriously? Is this some kind of a joke? Who in the world would send me a card like this?” And then it dawns on you: it’s gotta be your pastor. She’s the only person you know who would ever think it’s a good idea to put John the Baptist on a Christmas card.

Just for the record, I am not sending out John-the-Baptist Christmas cards this year. But I confess that every year, I’m tempted to do exactly that. Because I do think that this scene down at the river would make a pretty great Christmas card picture: all that water dripping off John’s body; all those people gathered on the riverbank, waiting to wade in and confess their sins. All those people longing to do their part to prepare the way for the arrival of the Promised One—the One they have been waiting and longing for with all their hearts. I’ll admit it’s not a Hallmark Christmas card, but I think it would be a very appropriate one. 

Every single year—if we are following the scripture readings for the season of Advent—we come upon this extraordinary scene by the river. Before we encounter the angel Gabriel. Before we encounter Mary singing her song of praise to God.  Every year, before we do anything else in our Advent season, we are asked to look at this astonishing scene in which the people of God are leaving their homes by the hundreds. They are standing by the river, waiting in line to be held underwater by a wild-eyed hermit of the wilderness. Why would anyone do that? And why is it that we are asked to look at this strange scene every Christmas season? Can’t we just stay at home in our cozy kitchens, gazing upon manger scenes and angels trumpeting joy? 

Here’s what I think. I think it is the deep intuition of our tradition, the deep intuition of our ancestors in faith, that Christmas cannot really come—not to us, and not to the world—without John the Baptist. If Christmas is about the arrival of Emmanuel—God with us, God among us, God’s very presence arriving to transform our brokenness—if this is what Christmas means, then Christmas cannot come without John the Baptist. Which means that if we are serious about the promises of Christmas, the promises of peace on earth and God’s reign of justice; if we are serious about the will of God that we pray every week will be done on earth; if we’re actually serious about the coming of God into this world, then I think we need to listen very carefully to what John the Baptist says to us this season.

And what John says, of course, is a direct quote from the prophet Isaiah, whom we encountered last Sunday. Here, John quotes Isaiah as he speaks the words that all the Hebrew prophets have said before him: Make a way for the Lord. The message of the prophets, the message of John the Baptist, the message of Jesus, is this: God is longing to transform this world. In fact, is the very nature of God to continually pour God’s healing presence into this world. If God hasn’t poured in to transform us yet, it’s not because God doesn’t want to. It’s because we are standing in the way.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, says John.

We like to think that no matter what we do, no matter how inattentive or distracted or just plain old stubborn we humans have been, God can fix things. No matter what kind of mess we’ve made of the world, if we just pray hard enough, God will swoop down from the heavens, maybe with a huge chorus of Christmas angels, and rescue us.

That’s not how it works, says John the Baptist. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

No matter how much God is longing to help us, no matter how much God is offering to help us, here’s what John the Baptist is here to tell us: God will not override our own, God-given free will. No matter how hard we pray or how much we wish, God is so gentle, so respectful of our free human will that God will not force God’s way upon us. It is up to us to make a way for God.

And so we find John standing in the river this Advent morning, on the cusp of God’s arrival among us once again, asking: Will this be the year? Will this be the year, John asks, when we finally prepare the way of the Lord by letting go of our own mistaken ways? By letting go of the human ways that have caused so much misery for ourselves and for God’s creation?

Or are we too attached to doing things our own way? That’s the question John asks from the river this morning.

Are we serious about Christmas? John asks. Do we really want that peace on earth, that Christmas-card vision of all creatures great and small living side by side in harmony and well being? Or are we too attached to an economy of destruction, to the fossil fuels that are overheating the planet and that must be extracted by destroying the body, and the waters, of God’s sacred earth? How’s that working for you? asks John the Baptist. If you’re ready to let it go and make a way for the Lord, the river’s right here.

Are we serious about Christmas? John asks. Do we really want God’s will to be done on earth, God’s will of abundance and joy for all—no exceptions? Or are we too attached to an economic system in which working people cannot afford to put food on their tables or heat their apartments? How’s that working for you? asks John the Baptist. If you’re ready to let it go and make a way for the Lord, the river’s right here.

Are we serious about Christmas? John asks. Are we serious about the coming of the Kingdom of God’s justice that we pray for every week? Or are we too attached to a law-enforcement system that makes mothers and fathers afraid to send their black boys out to the grocery store, out to the playground—the playground—in fear for their lives? If you’re ready to let it go, says John, the river of repentance, the river of tears, the river where we confess our collective sins and invite God to make us new—that river is right here. 

Repent, says John. When we are finally willing to change our ways, then all the power of God will rush in like a river to heal this world. But the river of God’s healing, the river of God’s justice, the river of God’s new life cannot, will not, roll in to heal this world until we ourselves clear the way. Until we consent to let go of the old systems, the old habits, the old privileges that we have created for ourselves, and that stand in the way of God. 

And so, beloved, the river waits: cold and true this day. John the Baptist, fierce and loving teacher, waits for us this day. Asking us if this will be the year that we prepare the way for God to make us new. 

May this be the year we find the courage to come to the river: to let our old ways go, and to say a holy yes to the way of the Lord. Amen. 

Practicing Peace

A wonderful writer named Edward Hayes once said that Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. A winter training camp! I like that image. After all, a training camp is a place where athletes get strong and ready for their game. And our game, as the people of God, is to be athletes of peace in the world.

So, if the season of Advent is our own winter training camp, who might our coaches be?

Our tradition says that our coaches, the ones who train us to be athletes for peace, are the ones who have gone before us. The prophets and teachers and ordinary people who wanted God’s peace and God’s justice so badly that they didn’t just wait for God to fulfill God’s promises; they lived their whole lives in faithful expectation that God’s presence is always arriving and that God is even now offering to transform and heal this broken world.

Which, as we know, is not always an easy thing to believe or to expect. Sometimes, the world seems too broken even for God to fix. Sometimes, when we open up the newspaper or the news feed and see the faces of people whose bodies, and whose hearts, have been broken again and again by injustice, by unfairness, it can seem that there is no one—not even God—who can make it right.

This is why we need the season of Advent. Advent comes along every year to be our winter training camp, to get our hope muscles back in shape, and to teach us how to be the ones who trust in God’s promises and make a way for God’s justice in the world. Even when it’s very, very hard.

And our coaches during this season of Advent training are people like the prophet Isaiah, whose words come to us all the way from the 8th century BCE. That was a really, really long time ago. But even then, it was not always easy for people to believe in God’s promises and trust that those promises would come true. The time of Isaiah was a time of war, a time of worry, a time when people were wondering whether God might have forgotten them.

Do not be afraid, Isaiah says. A leader is coming who will show us the ways of God. God will send us a leader who will usher in the era of God’s own peace. Watch and wait and do not lose heart, says this prophet of Advent. The time of peace is coming, a time when the wolf will live with the lamb…when the most powerful of animals — and, yes, even the most powerful of humans — will protect the gentle and the weak.

This is what coach Isaiah says to us this day, right here at the start of our winter training camp for peace.

So as we step into our Advent training camp, a time of very intentional watching and waiting, I invite you to think about your own relationship to the spiritual practice of waiting. The spiritual practice of making space in our hearts, and in our lives, for what is even now arriving.

Is there something you have waited and hoped for, maybe for a long time? 

What has that waiting felt like to you? 

What are you watching and waiting for this particular season?

And what helps you to remember that God is with you as you wait?

I want to give you some time to think about these questions, here in this season of sacred Advent silence; this season of holy waiting. Perhaps you’d like to pause this recording and consider these questions, maybe even journaling your answers as you explore what waiting means to you this season. As you listen for how God might be inviting you to make room for that which is arriving. 

You know, at an athletic training camp, we pay a lot of attention to the breath: to the ways in which our breathing supports our practice. I think it serves us well to do the same in our Advent training camp. So I want to offer you a breath prayer this morning. You can say the words silently in your mind as you breathe:

Breathing in: O God,

Breathing out: Teach me your peace. 

I invite you to carry this prayer on your breath this week and see what happens as we cross the threshold into our Advent winter training camp for peace. Amen.