Temptation, Wild Beasts, and Angels: When the Wilderness Finds You

Lent 1
Mark 1:9-15

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The summit of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, where thousands of hikers each year are rewarded with this view – and a reminder.

As a church, we find ourselves in the Lenten wilderness for another year.

I have to confess that I’ve never entirely been sure that things like Lent matter to most people, even church people. I’ve had my doubts over the years that most people have the time or the available brain power to imagine the forty day Lenten journey as anything other than something that happens at church. Naturally, for most people, missing church means missing Lent, and Lord knows that between flu season and busy lives, it’s easy to miss church these days.

It’s for all these reasons and a few of my own that I realize it’s not natural for many of us to have a lot of imagination about Lent; the only reason you might think about it outside of this space is if you’ve given up something or added something for your Lenten discipline. You might think about Lent when you reach for the chocolate or fast food during the week and remember that you can’t have it, but that’s probably about it.

But while we may struggle with Lent, we don’t need any help understanding the concept of wilderness. Literally speaking, even those of us who are non-hikers can imagine life on something like the Long Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Many of us know someone who’s done a thru hike like that, staying in the literal wilderness for days or weeks.

We understand metaphorical wilderness, too, and all of us understand it by experience. By this I mean the countless times in all our lives when we feel ourselves searching and lost. Any number of things can land you there: the illness or death of a loved one. An illness or injury of your own. A vocational crisis. A financial crisis. A broken relationship. A general sense of dread from what you see on the news. Any combination of these factors and countless more can land you in the wilderness.

You know the many feelings of the wilderness, too: sadness and depression, anger and bitterness, relief and gratitude — sometimes by themselves, and sometimes all at once.

You know what it’s like to find yourself in this kind of wilderness, even though it can happen in any number of ways, sudden or gradual. Maybe you’re plunged into the wilderness of loneliness and confusion suddenly when you hear the bad news — you know, that she’s sick or that you’re sick or that he died or that that person doesn’t want to be with you anymore.

Or maybe it happens more gradually, as you slowly find yourself sliding into a general confusion about your life and your identity and what’s happening in the world.

It doesn’t matter how you get to the wilderness, but it’s rarely by choice.

In today’s Gospel story, we get a re-run of Jesus’ baptism before we’re told that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.  Let’s be real: we mainly get that re-run of his baptism because the wilderness story is only two cryptic verses. But sometimes the most relatable stories are the ones without a ton of detail.

What we do know is that Jesus didn’t get there gently. While Matthew and Luke phrase it something like “was led” by the Spirit into the wilderness, Mark is much more forceful in his description. He says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness — using the same Greek word that Matthew, Mark, and Luke use to talk about what Jesus driving out demons, and the one that 1 John uses to talk about people wrongfully getting forced out of the church.

So Jesus, not unlike many of us, is driven into the wilderness, and there he meets the three things and entities: temptation, wild beasts, and angels. And so today, we’ll talk about the wilderness in three parts, using the experience of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to help us along.

Chapter One: Temptation

Because Mark doesn’t do details, we don’t know anything about what Jesus’ temptation was supposed to be like. As for us, though, we usually think about temptation in pretty petty terms, really: temptation to do bad things.

I don’t mean to belittle this kind of temptation; certainly we all have our vices, some more serious than others, that legitimately harm us and others. Most times, though, I think the problem is far more insidious than being about an individual behavior — the biggest temptation that grabs all of us, I think, is hopelessness. That this will never be okay, that we have failed, that we are tired and can’t go on.

Hopelessness. Thru-hikers get it in the literal wilderness, and everyone gets it in the figurative wilderness.

This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, there was another shooting. Another school shooting. For those of us who are teachers or students and for the countless more who love such people, this hit us harder than usual.

The photo that impacted a lot of us deeply was the one of a grief-stricken woman with an ash cross on her forehead. For liturgical Christians in particular, this impacted us deeply, churning up not only compassion for this woman, but reminding us that we are all a heartbeat away from utter grief and deep, dark, lasting wilderness.

Temptation for most of us these days is to give up and resign ourselves not just regarding gun violence, but public debate and our ability to solve anything in general. I feel it, that pull into my own uselessness and inability to change anything, ever. To resign myself to living in an entirely different political reality than those I love.

When you hit the temptation to hopelessness phase, you know for sure that you’ve found the wilderness.

Some days, that temptation wins, and I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t give in to temptation, but there’s only one Jesus, and I’m not him.

Chapter Two: Wild Beasts
The funny thing about the wild beasts of Mark’s story about Jesus is that we don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to make of it. Is Jesus up a tree running from coyotes, or is he taming foxes and hanging out with them so that he doesn’t get lonely in the desert? Well, personally, I can’t imagine God in flesh up a tree, and I’m a dog person, so I prefer the latter.

I know animals aren’t for everyone, but those of us who love and appreciate the presence of animals know that their noticing us can lift our day. One of my favorite cartoons is called “The Awkward Yeti” and is often a discussion between organs and other parts of the body either among each other (for example, the brain is analytical, the tongue is demanding, the gut is ornery and embarrasses everyone all the time, and the heart is whimsical and impulsive).

One particular cartoon goes like this: Panel one: the heart is walking alone and sad. Panel two: A cartoon dog walks up to the sad heart and wags its tail. Panel three: The heart walks up to the dog and pats the dog on the head. : pat, pat : Panel Four: the heart bounds away smiling. Pets, whether our own or someone else’s, have a way of lifting our hearts. Diego would like to note that he is usually available after church for doge therapy upon request. His fee can be paid in scritches behind the ear.

But the “wild beasts” can be just that — wild. They can come to you in the form of wild geese over your head or the hawks floating around the mountains or a rabbit or a deer that you see in your yard. This is the part where the real wilderness and the metaphorical wilderness are the same. People wouldn’t undertake thru hikes through ugly places, and what often keeps hikers’ feet moving is the promise of beauty — beautiful creatures and beautiful views.

In the same way, part of what can make the metaphorical wilderness okay is the chance to enjoy the real wilderness, even if it’s just the beauty of the or the snow or the sunlight or the birds outside your window.

St. John of the Cross knew wilderness of his own, and he wrote this poem:

“I was sad one day and went for a walk; I sat in a field.
A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times –
to just be close to creatures who are so full of knowing,
so full of love;  they don’t chat.
They just gaze with their marvelous understanding.”

Final Chapter: Angels
Jesus also meets some angels in the wilderness, whom we are told “attended to him.” Unlike Matthew, Mark doesn’t tell us that the angels show up at the end. In Mark, it looks to me like the temptation and the wild beasts and the angels are with Jesus at different points all along the journey.

On the Appalachian Trail, there’s a whole other culture with its own set of terminology. “Trail magic” is an unexpected thing that lifts a hiker’s spirits. “Trail angels” are people who make trail magic happen, whether it’s a ride into town or a hot shower or a hot meal. At its heart, a trail angel is someone who is not spending all their time in the wilderness taking a moment to help someone who is.

I don’t have to tell you that when you’re in a period of metaphorical wilderness yourself, there are plenty of trail angels along the way. They’re the ones who give you a meal or a smile or a helping hand when you need it most. They can’t take you out of the wilderness, but they can give you what you need along the way.

So the next time you find yourself in the wilderness or if you find yourself in the wilderness today, look for and give thanks for the trail angels along the way, be they family, friends, or strangers.

Learn what thru-hikers know: there is always trail magic to be found.

And while you’re at it, this Lent, consider how you can be a trail angel yourself. Consider who you know that’s in any kind of wilderness right now, and consider whether you’re in a position to help. Relationships are complicated and messy and often broken and you are not capable of helping everyone. But everyone can be a trail angel to someone.

Epilogue
The liturgical Lenten journey isn’t primarily, for most people, about a pious observance. I think Lent is most useful when it helps us understand something about our lives inside and outside of these walls. Whether you’re here for every service held in this place through Pentecost or whether this is your only time to join us, you’ll likely find yourself in some wildernesses on the journey from now to the end of spring. Most of us are settled in some sort of wilderness already.

May you find food for the journey here, because the bread we break is God, the one driven into the wilderness before us, teaching us to withstand the temptation to abandon it all, the one who was with the wild beasts and created the beauty of the wilderness we see, and the one who met and sends us angels along the way. 

We don’t usually go into the wilderness by choice, but the Good News is that we also do not go into the wilderness alone.

When hikers reach the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, they are greeted with a plaque with these Ash Wednesday-appropriate words: “Man is born to die. His works are short lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all it’s glory shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.

Ash Wednesday reminded us that we came from dust and will return there. All of our journeys in the wilderness will not save us, but they can teach us. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we find the end and a stunning view and a glimpse of  a loving God who shall stand far longer even than Katahdin, and we will feel small, humble … and fulfilled. So let us journey this Lent — together. Amen.

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Ash Wednesday: Morbid, Hopeful Humor for Another Year’s Journey

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Maybe there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday is the day that the church always plays a joke on us: the Gospel is about how not to disfigure your face, then we go and put ash on ours right after that.

In addition, this year, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day; “be my Valentine, ya sinning mortal.” And that is where we begin today.

Just recently, I happened upon a crude and delightful Instagram account called @LordBirthday which usually includes mostly ridiculous lists.

My favorite list was “Things I worry about that are totally normal to worry about.”

Some highlights: “That I will be asked by a farmer to participate in a rice harvest.”

“That I will get too tall and become the TOWN JOKE”

“That I will get stuck in the blood pressure machine at Rite Aid and just have to become part of the store.”

“That I will lose my nose in a war”

“That I will be left for dead in a room full of ukuleles”

“That I will have a big, splashy panic attack in the YMCA pool,” and finally, we see @Lord Birthday’s penchant for ending with a veiled but serious existential crisis:

“That I will go gently into that good night.”

All of us have a mounting list of worries, some ridiculous, some legitimate. For most people, things related to death rank high on the list.

Jesus people gather on Ash Wednesday to begin Lent by talking about death. Our own mortality, to be specific. We cover other things, too, as you can tell by the readings, but the most personal part of the entire service is receiving the ashes and hearing the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” which echoes some of the last the words that will likely be spoken at our funerals: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Everyone dies, no matter what they accomplish. You cannot be good enough to dodge death. Death makes us humble, so that is why we begin Lent this way.

Seems like a bit of a joke, doesn’t it, to come to church on Valentine’s Day to be reminded of your own mortality. Weirdos.

I read in The Atlantic about an app whose sole purpose is to remind you five times a day that you’re going to die. It’s inspired, apparently, by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” asserting that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” This app pings your phone at unpredictable intervals, recalling the unpredictability and suddenness of death, with sometimes incredibly morbid quotes about death along with a terse message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” It’s called WeCroak and it’s supposed to bring you inner peace.

I read the article. I did not download the app. (1)

Then there’s TurboTax, which has been running a new series of commercials lately. There’s one where a woman breathes hard and weeps in fear for her life behind a slatted closet door, the light in the room illuminating her tears and her terrified eyes.  Sinister music in the background plays as she tries to get a better view of what waits behind the door. We see a rocking chair. We hear squeaks. We see a shadow move in the room towards the door and the terrified woman.

The woman screams as the door is suddenly pulled open in front of her.

In the room stands a singular adorable teddy bear, which beatboxes, hums, and dances… for an uncomfortably long time.

A single line fills the screen: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” (2)

The commercial’s about our fear of taxes, but I sometimes wonder if the same is true of our fear of death. If you’re like me and most people, every now and then you have an existential crisis where you deeply fear death, for ourselves and our loved ones.

Though churches have, over the years, offered sure and certain answers, the Bible is much more concerned with how we live in this world than what happens in the next.

All we know officially is death and resurrection, but I have some hunches.

The end of the Monty Python movie Life of Brian includes a song that I’ve always wanted played at my funeral. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” includes the gem: “Life’s a laugh, and death’s a joke, it’s true.”

Don’t get me wrong: I know that death is not actually a joke. It is a scary, ugly reality that looms over all life everywhere. There is a reason we say that the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

But I’m also well aware that not only is Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day, but Easter this year, some forty-something days from now, is on April Fool’s Day. Kind of appropriate, I think, considering it’s the day we celebrate Jesus making a fool of death, pulling off the universe’s ultimate hoodwink. I imagine him winking back at the deep, dark tomb, knowing everything is different, now.

April fool. 

But today, my job is to be your version of the WeCroak app. We will all die, and so will everyone that we love. To some of us, that’s obvious, because we think about death all the time, whether we’ve witnessed death our whole lives or whether we’re coming to terms the passage of time. Others, for whatever reason, find ourselves living above the fear of death, rarely thinking about it until it crashes into our world through the death of someone else.

Either way, we will all die, so Ash Wednesday reminds us that while we’re here, for whatever time we have left, we’d better learn to live.

So live.

And here, on Valentine’s Day, love. If you don’t have a significant other, reach out to someone else to say hello. If you’re estranged from everyone, we’re glad you’re here and we’ve got love to spare and plenty of Jesus bread to go around.

Give thanks that while it is true that WeCroak, we follow the one who came that we may have life, and have it abundant, the one who offers himself to us here, and the one who played a giant joke on death.

You are dust. Technically stardust, most specifically. You were created from dust to be part of the earth, to live and love and for God’s sake, laugh, on the earth. You are dusty and holy and woefully imperfect and completely beloved.

And when the time comes that all of us, no matter how rich or smart or talented or good, meet the great enemy Death, may we wink like Jesus, realizing that Love has hoodwinked death, realizing that when the door is thrown open, there’s nothing to be afraid of. And may we “go gently into that good night,” having lived, and returned, to Love. Amen.

1. Read more about WeCroak in The Atlantic here.
2. If you want a chuckle, you can watch the whole commercial here.

Transfiguration: Christian, Breathe Now

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Selfie Kid and one of the countless memes he generated.

Mark 9:2-9

This isn’t like last year, when when a Patriots Super Bowl win produced a thousand good sports-related sermons.

Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it either.

But there was one moment in the halftime show that caught a lot of people’s attention: selfie kid. As pop star Justin Timberlake climbed up into the stands and danced along with the crowd, lots of people started noticing the one kid who looks to be about 13 or 14 who kept looking at his phone. Everyone else in the stands was dancing like a crazy person on national TV, but that kid: phone.

Finally, when Justin Timberlake got near him, we learned why he’d been messing with his phone — setting up that once in a lifetime selfie with a pop star. (I’d like to note that, for me, this still isn’t a satisfying answer, since most phones allow you to swipe to camera mode with one flick of the wrist.

: demonstrates by taking a selfie :

Anyway.)

This, of course, made Selfie Kid into an instant sensation with everyone using the still of him looking at his phone side by side with screen shot representations of what he might be looking at. My favorite: a Google page with the simple question “Who is Justin Timberlake”.

Selfie Kid captivated the nation for a minute because of the national conversation around, I think, two related things: first, people’s general distraction in looking at their phones during big moments, and second, people wanting to capture big moments rather than just enjoying them.

An episode of the Netflix show Black Mirror takes this concept, as Black Mirror often does, to an extreme in order to show us what’s up. Black Mirror is an intense, often disturbing series that details humanity’s relationship with technology by constantly looking forward to a dystopian future. It takes where technology and our relationship to it are right now and pushes it to an extreme to show us what dystopian future could be someday.

The episode “The Entire History of You” tells of a future where nearly everyone has a chip implanted into their brains that records everything that they see and hear. The chip is called a “grain,” and it can play back your memories either in front of your eyes or on a screen — they call those playbacks “redos.” You can zoom in, zoom out, re-hear what people said to you, and relive big moments in your life. You can replay a redo of an interview for a new job for your friends so that they can relive it with you, give you feedback, or laugh at how awkward you were.

Like just about everything in Black Mirror, your reaction is meant to be “this is horrible — and it came from a really amazing idea!”

What would it be like, we’re meant to wonder, to be able to go back to precious moments in our lives — moments like your first kiss, your wedding, the birth of a child — and relive them in front of our very eyes, or watch them on our computer screens like it was Netflix? Of course, it might be wonderful to relive joyful moments, but what about painful ones? Of course, characters in the show demonstrate how unhealthy such technology can be, too, as they relive, over and over, the most painful moments of their lives, or memories of a person who has died or broken up with them, rendering these characters utterly incapable of living their lives forward as they watch the past happen again and again. (1)

Obviously, the disciples lived long before cameras were a thing and before anyone could conceive of re-living moments, but of course, humans haven’t actually changed all that much in our psyches. People still wanted to capture amazing moments and make them last. And this is when I have to say that Peter was the Selfie Kid of the first century.

Jesus, Mark tells us, has gone up a high mountain with select disciples: just Peter, James, and John. I assume that they assumed that they were going up for prayer time with the mysterious new rabbi. They must have felt special, getting special prayer time with Jesus. They hike up a mountain with the Lord in their tunics — as my friend Joe said this week, “Can you imagine hiking up a mountain without pants?! — and get ready to pray.

Then things turned dramatic when they reach the top of the mountain and all of a sudden Jesus starts actually glowing. Then Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear to them too. The disciples are terrified and speechless with the wonder they see all around him.

And then Peter does the most human thing: he tries to capture the moment and make it last. He offers to build houses or shelters for the three men, to make a shrine to this. He assumes that this is it, the moment that must last forever. He’ll build shelters for them and they’ll be able to come to the top of this mountain and visit God and Moses and Elijah any time they want.

But the Revolution, then as now, will not be televised and cannot be captured.

They have to live their lives forward after this.

They can’t come revisit this moment, because moments, even amazing ones, are fleeing.

Mark tells us that Peter is so overcome with the moment that he did not know what to say, so God bails him out and shuts him up at the same time. As Peter is jabbering in stream of consciousness form his instincts about building a shrine, a cloud overshadows them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved — listen to him!”

Stop trying to capture the moment, Peter, and listen. Just listen. Take all of this in.

Put down the hammer. Put down your phone. Stop dreaming about being able to visit this scene any time you want.

Listen.

You cannot capture this.

You will not pass this way again.

And you’re about to go through times so amazing and difficult that you could not possibly imagine now. So listen! Listen to Jesus.

Of course, they won’t listen. Not really. This little episode in Mark is bookended by Jesus telling about his death and resurrection on one end, and at the end of this passage, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about this moment — that means no Facebook or Instagram, James — until Jesus is raised from the dead. In short, he told them twice that he’d be resurrected.

But when he’s captured and crucified? They flee.

It would seem that “Listen to him!” fell on pretty deaf ears as the disciples, especially Peter, were distracted by trying to capture the shiny stuff for posterity.

The Good News is that all the disciples’ inattention didn’t stop Christ’s death and resurrection. Despite all our distraction, God still accomplishes the work.

Today, despite all our distraction, despite our inability to move forward, God still gets to us. In real things that can’t be captured — bread, wine, water, words.

In real palms turning to real ashes. Events that we better enjoy, because we cannot relive them, no matter how many photos we take.

Note: this isn’t a call to stop taking photos, at church events or elsewhere. I still will — it’s a good thing, even, for a bunch of reasons, including being able to show other people what we do here.

This is a call to put down our distractions and realize when we are in the presence of God. This is a call to put down our worries and meet God in bread and wine and water and words and pre-Lenten sugary treats and burning palms and other people. It will not happen exactly this way again, and we do not know when the hardest times of our lives are coming, just like they came for the disciples.

This is where we meet Christ, the Beloved — stop for a moment and listen!

One of my favorite poems was written by a teenage slam poet from Chicago named Adam Gottlieb called “Poet, Breathe Now.”

In it, Adam talks about how he’s unable to write a poem, distracted by everything from his life to his dog until finally he hears his dog say to him, “Poet, breathe now. ‘Cause it’s the last thing you’ll ever do for yourself.” Adam’s poem calls the poet to breathe into the moment and listen, and from there, the poet may write.

Over the years I’ve returned over and over to Adam’s poem thinking, “Preacher, Breathe Now,” trying to cut through all of the distraction in my brain and the notifications on my phone to figure out what God is saying to the Church right now, and Adam’s call to breathe is nothing short of a call to stop trying to capture everything and just… listen.

Adam writes,
“[Poet, breathe now, because], when you take a breath the universe rings out like circular beats – 

landing planets are seraphim storms are spit – stars are soulcandles!

and you breathe like chest rebounds even when all hope seems lost, our sounds pound mics like hope-stars like “we’re still here!” — holla!

we make angels of our nightclubs,

bards of our bums,

outlooks of our outcasts and infinity of our sums,

we are the children of empathy, the pathos of slums,

we heal like helios, like cyclical drums

we enlist life from listless and sometimes even get things done.”

And I edited the end of Adam’s poem so that I can leave you with this: 

“Preacher, breathe now because once you start your piece

you can die behind that microphone and death may be breathless,

but the Gospel is deathless so breath, be our savior eternal.

Preachers with your lives, Gospel bearers:

breathe once with me now.

[Inhale… exhale.]

That’s one sermon we all wrote.” Amen.

1. “The Entire History of You,” Black Mirror, Series 1, Episode 3, originally aired in December 2011.
2. Watch Adam’s poem in its entirety here.

Stories of Family: “Shameless,” Simon’s Mother in Law, and a Guy Named Andrew

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Older sister Fiona (left) and Ian from Showtime’s Shameless.

Mark 1:29-39

I started watching the American television show Shameless last year. The show is kind of a re-up of a British TV show by the same name, and it details a family with six kids on the south side of Chicago who lives in poverty and has to do all kinds of things — including dealing with an alcoholic father and an absent mother — to get by.

Full disclosure: I stopped watching it when I started to find several elements of the plot line unbelievable. And now, I can’t explain why — maybe it’s just winter and I’m coming to terms with football season being really over soon — but I’ve started watching it again.

There’s a poignant moment during one particular episode that I watched recently that’s stuck with me. Ian, the bright, hot tempered red-haired brother who looks most like the family’s bipolar mother, has not come out of his boyfriend’s dark room for days. He stares at the wall. He refuses to talk to anyone. He cries a lot.

Without explanation and without warning, he won’t sit up or move.

Ian’s boyfriend, Mickey, tries to get Ian up, but he refuses. He won’t respond other than yelling at him to go away. Finally, in desperation, Mickey calls Ian’s family to help. 

Mickey, a tough guy also from the south side of Chicago, guides Ian’s siblings into his house and shows them through the door where Ian is lying. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he says. “Do you know what this is?”

Ian’s eldest sister Fiona, in her early 20s but wise well beyond her years after caring for her siblings alone for so long, looks at the others meaningfully, then she looks towards Ian, still lying motionless in a heap of blankets on the bed. 

“Yeah,” she says, “we know what this is.”

“This” is, of course, bipolar / depression, an illness that runs in their family. But the meaning in her voice conveys so much more than that: it also says “he is ours, and we understand him.” She and her siblings spend the next few days checking in on Ian, leaning over his body to hug him, trying to convince him to go for a run or go outside. Eventually, of course, he relents and manages to pull himself up again, as the family will then begin to go through what so many families have: trying to get Ian to take his illness seriously and get help so that he can be healthy and whole.

And it begins with that one line: “Yeah, we know what this is.”

He is ours, and we will help him.

The Gospel passage for today, just like last week, follows directly on the heels of the passage before it. Last week, Jesus healed a guy with a demon and we talked about how Jesus was getting more and more popular as people began to demand more and more of him.

They seek the same things from him as we often seek from our leaders even today: charisma, speaking directly to their lives, recognizing them, and helping them. In the process, most of them miss his point entirely. Today, they continue to press in around Jesus, exhausting him, going to find him even when he’s gone up to rest and pray.

But there’s one seemingly tiny part of this story besides people pressing all around the doors to Simon’s house to find Jesus.

They arrive at Simon’s house, and here’s the situation in case you forgot. Jesus has just picked these guys up along the seashore only days before. They’re still new at all of this. They’ve just been at the synagogue where Jesus drove some demons out of a guy as the demons taunted him. From there, they come to Simon and Andrew’s house.

As you might when a guest is entering your house for the first time, they went ahead and told Jesus that one of the family is sick: Simon’s mother in law. Like many women in the Bible, she doesn’t get named, and her episode is brief — but meaningful.

Jesus comes into her room and takes her by the hand. I imagine her, a little confused, thinking “doesn’t this guy know that I’m sick? Does he want to catch it?”

But my liturgy professor in seminary showed me something that was pretty cool as he was explaining how liturgy should work. He reached out his hand to me as he was explaining intuition. Without thinking, I took his hand, presumably to shake it.

We humans have a tendency to take a hand that’s reached out to us in a friendly way. Something’s hard-wired into us that way. In this gesture, Jesus seems to say, “Yeah, I know what this is.”

He reaches out his hand and touches her and lifts her up. The fever leaves. She serves.

Funny, isn’t it, how this is how God comes to us, often through other people: reaching out a hand, lifting us up, claiming us as their own.

You might roll your eyes a little when you think of the gender dynamics of the newly healed mother in law of Simon immediately serving the men upon her healing. But if you look a little more deeply, it’s much more than that, as a friend of mine pointed out in a sermon years ago.

The Greek word Mark uses to describe what Simon’s mother in law does, you see, is the same one from which we get our word for “deacon,” a position in the church. It’s the same one that Mark uses to describe the angels attending Jesus after his time in the desert. Jesus heals her, and she undertakes not woman’s work, but the work of the church, and the work of angels.

Nameless though she is, she is one of ours. She is significant. She is healed for a purpose much higher than the one we might give her on our first reading. We don’t know her name, but Jesus did. As he was forming his community around him, she became one of them.

It’s as if he said “I know what this is. I know who you are. You are one of mine.”

Your church council is currently reading a book by Rachel Held Evans called Searching for Sunday. The author, Rachel, is a little older than myself and comes from a similar background. She tells the stories that helped her rediscover the power of the Christian faith in her life through the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments of the Episcopal church: real things like the water of baptism or oil on her forehead when she’s sick or bread and wine at communion — are what made faith real to her.

In her chapter on baptism, she tells the story of Andrew, a nineteen year old who couldn’t wait to be baptized. “Just thirteen more days!” Andrew sang out as if he were counting down to his graduation or wedding day.

Andrew, whom Rachel describes as being “a dimpled, sandy-haired college student,” went on to tell Rachel, whom he knew from her blog, about how he never thought he’d been good enough to be baptized. When she asked him what sort of church he grew up in, he pulled up an editorial on his phone that described same sex relationships as “disgusting.” Next to the editorial, Rachel saw on Andrew’s cracked screen, was a photo of a man with silver hair and a suit and tie who was described as a pastor.

“That’s my dad,” Andrew said, “and he published that right after I came out.”

But even before that, he says, “I was always denied baptism and communion growing up. My dad told me I wasn’t manifesting enough fruits of the spirit in my life. He wanted me to wait until I was good enough, holy enough.”

When he went to college, Andrew did manage to find his way to a church, but this one accepted him as he was.

When he told them his story, they said the equivalent of, “Yeah, we know what this is.”

Andrew was accepted as their own. He was baptized. That church took his hand, and lifted him up so that he could serve, too, and tell every other person, rejected for whatever reason, the same Good News that he heard. Andrew learned that he didn’t have to wait until he was holy enough or good enough; as he puts it, “God’s grace is enough.” 

And that was the clearest picture of healing that I found this week outside of Shameless and the Bible.

So may we be a family that is healed to heal. May we reach out to others in understanding when they come to us in pain: yes, we know what this is. We know that you are hurting. And you are one of God’s, and one of ours. Let’s take more people by the hand and lift them up, because the church historically has, for too long, done the opposite.

Last week was Thomas Merton’s feast day. Merton was a Trappist monk born in France who would travel all over the world as a monk and a theologian. He said many amazing things, among them, “We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with [one] another.”

He also wrote about being claimed by God in this simple story with which I end today:

He says, an elder was asked by a soldier if God would forgive him, a sinner. And he said to him: “Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is torn, will you throw it away?”

The soldier replied and said “Of course not — I will mend it and put it back on.”

The elder said to the soldier: “If you take good care of your cloak, and continue to use it, how will God not mend and use you, God’s own image?”

This is why we are here: to remind each other, constantly, because we need it — we are loved. We are healed. We can serve. We know what you are: you are one of ours, one of God’s own. Amen.

Whistlestop Jesus

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John McCain rallies supporters ahead of the Presidential primaries of 2000.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28

“He taught them as one with authority.”

Authority. Who do we give it to, and how do they earn it?

Well, in American politics, we have a thing called the “beer test,” which comes around every campaign season. Of the candidates, we’ve asked each other for years, who would you rather have a beer with?

Along those lines, one of my favorite things to listen to or read is John Dickerson’s Whistlestop series (1). John Dickerson is the now just-former host of the NBC Sunday show Face the Nation, and Whistlestop is his nerdy little project that journeys through presidential history. As a former history major, I know that it helps everyone’s sanity, no matter the season, to take a long view.

I remember driving through rural Virginia on my way South and listening to Dickerson recount John McCain’s presidential run in the election of 2000. The McCain he described was one that many of us, no matter how old we are, probably do not readily remember — folksy, charismatic, energetic, hopping around campaign stops and his campaign bus, joking with reporters and staffers. The now 81-year old and very sick McCain was back then, after all, a spry and healthy 62. People often said of him what they would also say of George W. Bush and many candidates both before and after: he’s charismatic, friendly, helpful, down to earth — the kind of person you want to have a beer with. McCain, like many before him, passed the “beer test,” and that would bring him authority.

Lin-Manuel Miranda describes the same thing in Presidential history when he has the company describe Aaron Burr in his musical Hamilton — in the number “The Election of 1800,” we overhear some voters — and, you know, their wives — talking:
I don’t like Adams
Well, he’s gonna lose, that’s just 
defeatist
And Jefferson—
In love with France!
Yeah, he’s so elitist!
I like that Aaron Burr!
I can’t believe we’re here with him!
He seems approachable…?
Like you could grab a beer with him!” (2)

Many of the people voting for the current President cited something similar — usually in the form of, “He tells it like it is.” They also cited his business skills, power, and perceived willingness and ability to help people like them. His voters gave him authority based on those things.

I confess that I had a similar reaction to our last President: part of his appeal to me was that I thought he could do good for people, sure — and that he was charismatic and funny. He seemed to me as one who spoke with authority, as they say.

An aside: do I think the two are equal? I do not. (Unless you think they’re both awful, you probably don’t think they’re equal either.) My point is simply thus: charisma, likability, and the ability to help / save us are reasons that we confer authority onto other humans, President or otherwise. We like those who speak to us with authority, you know, and not “as the scribes.” 

And in the midst of our current and previous political situations strolls Jesus, someone whom most of us, no matter whom we voted for, have also conferred some authority or we wouldn’t be here in church. Even if you’re just at church because you think there might be something to this Jesus thing, or because someone you love also loves Jesus and you’re attending for them, the authority of Jesus holds a lot of sway over this crowd.

The story about him today follows directly on the heels of last week in the Gospel of Mark. Last week, the ordinary fishermen threw down their nets and followed him. Because the Gospel of Mark moves almost as fast as today’s news cycle, they immediately head off to Capernaum together: the strange new mysterious teacher and his brand new disciples. When the Sabbath comes, they do what Jews often do, then as today: they go to the synagogue. And, like teachers do, the new teacher begins to teach. Mark tells us that he taught the synagogue crowd “as one having authority, and not of the scribes.”

I have to stop here to ask what Mark means, exactly. That none of the scribes taught with authority? Surely not, right? Does Mark mean that he taught with “confidence”? That it made sense to people? What does he mean by “authority”? 

Whatever it was, it was most certainly more about the crowd’s perception of Jesus than anything. After all, Jesus also preaches in places where they almost throw him off a cliff or stone him. Crowd mentality isn’t the most trustworthy thing, in the Gospels or elsewhere. Sure, they may be right here, but they could also be wrong tomorrow.

But today, whether they just like him or feel like they could grab a beer (wine?) with him or whatever, this crowd confers authority onto him. Whatever it is, they’re really digging Jesus and what he’s saying. Jesus no longer has to go out and recruit fishermen to follow him — people are about to start following him everywhere.

We usually think of all of this as a good thing, but as my colleague John Stendahl said this week, this authority they’re heaping onto Jesus will lead him down a path of exhaustion and, eventually, death.

Crowds will begin to gather, especially after word of the healings really gets going, but by and large, it won’t generate a lot of kingdom talk about how we can treat one another better or seek God more closely. Rather, the crowds will confer authority on him and seek him out because he “speaks as one with authority” and because they believe that he can help them and their loved ones — the same reasons humans always confer authority. You can almost hear them saying: “That Jesus really tells it like it is,” and “Jesus is going to bring us hope and change,” and “It’s morning in Israel!” Soon, crowds will follow him everywhere, stirring up quite a ruckus, putting him in danger with Rome and the religious authorities, and never letting him rest.

This is a beginning, this moment in the synagogue. This crowd is really digging Jesus, and it’s eventually going to kill him.

Just then, there’s a commotion in the synagogue because someone who is not well has come in and is ranting and raving at the new teacher. Given what I’ve just said, Pastor Stendahl says that in that light, the demons could be seen as not fearful, but as defiantly mocking Jesus: “Have you come to destroy us?” Good luck with that! This road you’re going down is about to destroy you, Jesus of Nazareth. There are, after all, few burdens as heavy as fame or an entire nation looking to you to save them.

You know the rest of the story even if you weren’t listening when we read the Gospel. Jesus drives the demons out, as he always does. Everyone is super impressed, as they always are.

Mark leaves the scene with a line that now sounds foreboding to me: “At once, his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (v. 28). Jesus is getting famous. The die is cast.

We always confer authority on powerful people, which we define as the charismatic and the strong and the skilled. Those who can stand up for the little guy and drive out demons. We follow those leaders anywhere. It’s no real wonder that the crowds will expect Jesus to eventually overthrow Rome in a military coup — that’s what any other charismatic, powerful Jewish leader of the day might seek to do. They don’t get it. Not yet. The crowds don’t. The demons don’t.

Forget Rome. Forget exhaustion. Jesus is more powerful than death itself.

And he is willing to walk this difficult road to show us what “authority” really is, and it isn’t found in charisma or strength, but in a willingness to die.

We live in an age where we do not trust institutions, and we haven’t for quite some time. We live in an age of accusations of fake news, where we typically only believe what fits with our preconceived notions of reality.  As always, it’s all about authority, who you like, and who you believe. We humans really haven’t come all that far in 2,000 years.

The Deuteronomy reading is distracting for its ending where false prophets get offed, but it’s the beginning of the reading which caught my eye in light of this conversation: when the text says “a prophet like me” it refers to Moses, who’s credited for receiving the Law from God. “Prophet” throughout the text can also be plural, and in the context of talking about priests, it seems to be. Generations of priests and prophets will stand in the place of Moses to talk to God. And Moses is clear about why they need priests: “this is what you requested of …God” (v. 16). The flames scared them. God’s presence scared them. They didn’t want to die. They said, “You go talk to God,” over and over again.

So a new class of people was created — prophets. Priests. Those who stand in for the people to talk to God and carry God’s words back to the people. Those with authority.

Of course, we know that some of them were legitimate, spoke God’s words, and led the people with care, while others abused their power, and still others did both — not too different from leaders today. And despite the penalty of death that comes along with being a false prophet, I’ll wager that many got away with it because they were charismatic and powerful. Because the Israelites were humans, just like us — drawn to those who “speak as one who has authority.”

The Good News is that God broke through, even though according to Christianity, it took “making God come down here.” We didn’t want to approach God, so God came to us, got famous, died, and rose again.

We humans tried to make Jesus into just another leader we could have a beer with, but he wasn’t that, and he still isn’t. Instead, knowing where this road leads, he sets the possessed man free, the demons fly away from him, and the die is cast. Jesus is famous. God is loose — Love is loose in the world.

“God has spoken to the people — alleluia!”

Christ came to rip the curtain that separates us from God. Christ came, knowing the cost,  so that we do not need to depend on finding leaders we could have a beer with to save us.

Christ is loose, and love flows freely.
Christ is loose, and all kinds of demons flee.

Christ is loose, and so are we.

This week I read a poem by Michael Toy called, “The Entire Bible in One Poem (The Good Parts).” As we tell the story of Jesus through this year, like we do every year, I thought it was an appropriate way to end my thoughts today. Here we go.

“contrary to all evidence
we are not an accident

we are not a meaningless coincidence

despite what it seems like

you are not the first to feel despair

nor the first to find hope,

you are therefore, never alone

find love

make love

be love

but you knew this, didn’t you

so don’t forget to tell the stories.” (3)

Jesus is not just a leader you could have a beer with. He is the story that changes everything.

And so, as we gather at the table and for annual meeting and for Lent and for Easter, let’s remember that love is loose.

But you knew that, didn’t you? So let us tell the stories. Amen.

1. You can find John Dickerson’s new Whistlestop book here.
2. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton, 2015. Listen to “The Election of 1800” here.
3. You can find this poem and more of Michael Toy’s work here.

Evangelism is What Happens While You’re Busy Doing Other Things

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Put away the sandwich board, Homer. I’ve got a better idea.

Jonah 3:1-5
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Picture it: Galilee. First century. A beach. You’re there.

You’re out fishing with your brother, and together, the two of you are just casting your net into the salty sea, with the wind coming off the water, when you hear a voice.

“Follow me,” a man you’ve never seen before, but who has knowing eyes, says. He finishes, “I will make you fish for people.” You drop the net. So does your brother. You follow immediately, and your lives are changed forever.

Oh come ON. You know it had to be much more awkward than that.

We think of this as a romantic story — Jesus at the seashore, calling the disciples, who follow him without question. Really, it probably went more like this:

Picture it: Galilee. First century. A beach. You’re out fishing with your brother, not because it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon, but because it’s your job. The net has already broken once today and you just got done mending it. You’re praying it doesn’t break again. You’re just casting it out onto the sea. You work with your brother. He’s a doofus and has just said something dumb, and you’re irritated with him. Your wife isn’t happy with you, either.

Your country is currently occupied by the most powerful army in the world. This army does not share your faith or your values. Your neighbors are routinely beaten or even killed. You live in fear for yourself and your family and you pay taxes to this foreign power.

With all of this on your mind, you watch as the net flies towards the sea and hits the salty water. Just then, you hear a voice: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Dude. What?

You turn and look at him, ready to say “what the.…”

But before you know it, “what the” becomes just “what?,” you get to know him, and you and your dumb brother are swept up in the origin story of what would become the world’s biggest religion.

Life, as they say, is what happens when we’re doing other things.
Or, as my friend Joe puts it, when you’re caught up in your own nets.

We want some things to be romantic, though. Two things in particular. The first is obvious: romantic love. We all tend to imagine when we’re younger that there’s one person out there for all of us, and that we’ll meet that person, marry them in a storybook wedding, and everything will be perfect from then on out. There will be no tragedy or conflict or grossness. You’ll never get mad, fight, be sad, or pass gas.

Let me know if that’s worked out for any of you.

No, most often happiness comes in romantic love in much messier, much holier ways: in sharing an ordinary breakfast. In asking for their help. In saying, and in hearing, “I’m sorry.”

The other thing we expect to be romantic is our spiritual lives. We expect to hear voices from above, or still, small voices inside our hearts. We expect meaningful experiences that change our lives forever.

In expecting this kind of stuff, we get caught up in our own nets and miss the holiness that is.

Our first reading today was from Jonah. I love Jonah. He’s my favorite prophet by far. Why?

Because when God calls Jonah, it starts to follow the same formula as every other prophet or holy figure, from Abraham to Jesus’ mother, Mary.

Prophetic calls are supposed to be romantic, too. They usually go like this: God announces that God’s got plans for the person. Then the person says “No, no, not me — how can this be, because [insert excuse here].” Then God reassures the person that it’s all going to be fine and God will be there the whole time, the person grudgingly agrees, and the world is changed forever.

But that’s not how it works with Jonah. Jonah stops God at step 1. At the point where Jonah’s supposed to be saying “No, no, I couldn’t possibly be your prophet because x,” Jonah instead just cuts and runs. Cloud of dust. Gone.

I resemble that.

That sets up, of course, Jonah getting swallowed by a big fish as God has a whale of a time just messing with the guy.

None of that appears in today’s reading, though. In today’s reading, Jonah is simply portrayed as an effective prophet and preacher, so effective, in fact, that God changes God’s mind about destroying a whole city. In a Christianity where we often say “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” today in the Bible, God changes God’s mind. But of course, you don’t get that depth just from this one short reading.

Even the lectionary seems to want to keep spiritual things simple and romantic.

I think we wanted that in church when I was growing up, too. As many of you know, I grew up in a deeply conservative, evangelical tradition that valued what we called “witnessing” or what most people call evangelism. The idea was, usually, that evangelism was a time when you created a special moment with a person or people in which to explicitly share the Good News of Jesus and have them convert, preferably in a rush of tears.

For example, when I was in youth group and our van broke down on a mission trip, I remember being hustled by our youth director with another student leader to the guy who was taking a look under the hood of the van. I don’t remember what our youth director told us, but I remember that the effect was that we understood our mission to be to “witness” to the man, or to tell him about Jesus.

This was, of course, assuming that as a rural Louisiana resident, he didn’t already know about Jesus.

I remember feeling awkward. I remember not knowing what to say. I remember looking awkwardly at my friend as both of us tried to figure out how to strike up a conversation about Jesus right on the spot. We’d certainly taken enough classes on it. We could get you saved with Roman Roads and our own handprints, both tricks that we used to remember the path to salvation.

I know you Lutherans just remember the name “Jesus” and that’s enough, but that wasn’t a way of thinking with which I was yet familiar.

In the end, we bailed. We didn’t talk about Jesus. We made small talk. And we felt terrible, like we had missed our moment. As if teenagers don’t have enough to think about, we were feeling guilty for not helping to save someone’s immortal soul. It was hard out there for a Baptist kid.

And so, to make up for my failure in Louisiana, I started a witnessing group at my high school. I had a vision of recruiting people to go and tell everyone at our school about Jesus before the first bell. Over only a few weeks, I racked up a total of one helper and one very confused convert who I suspect really just wanted to take a nap in the computer lab. I was a little obnoxious.

But, I thought, this was urgent! We needed to create as many moments of salvation as possible — as if saving people was our job and not God’s.

You see, we were all about texts in the Bible like our Corinthians text for today. Jesus is coming back SOON, said Paul. That was the expectation of the early church and it’s the expectation of some traditions still today: live like Jesus is coming back in five minutes. It’s the “carpe diem” of Christianity, and it’s not bad advice, provided that you don’t take it absolutely literally. Otherwise, if you’ll go back and re-read that Corinthians text, those of you with wives are going to have a bad time living like you don’t.

Instead, think of it this way: what would you do if you thought you had only a week to live? What would we do if we thought our church was going to close next year?

Urgency, you see, helps us weed through the distractions to find what’s important to us.

Life, as they say, is what happens while we’re distracted by stuff that doesn’t matter. Urgency cuts through all that, which, I guess, is why “follow me” worked as well as anything on the new disciples. Jesus’ urgency untangled them from their own nets.

It wasn’t until years after my fumblings in “witnessing” that I realized that evangelism in the truest sense isn’t coercive or obnoxious and it isn’t usually awkward and it isn’t usually about summoning up the courage to make a moment wherein you share the unassailable and certain truth that God has revealed to you and not the other person.

It’s more about seizing the day, actually, and letting your faith change you and the way you live with other people. It’s more about having this thing that’s impacted your life and not being afraid to talk about it. It does usually take some courage, yeah. But it’s not the crazy scary thing we’ve made it out to be. In fact, it usually happens while you’re caught up in other things.

The very not-romantic moment that changed my spiritual life forever happened in February when I was a freshman in college. My world religions professor in my first Monday-Wednesday class of the day asked if any of us knew what day this particular Wednesday was.

We did not. She chuckled. Of course we didn’t, as residents of Low Church country.

It was Ash Wednesday.

Since this was a college course on religion, she said, any of us who wanted to learn about Ash Wednesday were welcome to come to the Episcopal church in town – her church – that night. She made clear that we were not expected to go and would not get extra credit for going and that she absolutely was not proselytizing.

So the first thing I did was to look up “proselytizing” and to discover that I had taken actual church courses on how to proselytize. Intrigued that this was apparently something Episcopalians wanted to avoid, I decided to go. I brought a friend.

Coming up on fourteen Ash Wednesdays later, I have not missed observing a single one since. The rest, as they say, is history, and it happened mostly while I was busy doing other things.

I didn’t go because she created a moment or carved out time to talk to me about Jesus or the Episocpal Church or liturgy. There were no lights from heaven or music or tears.

I went because she was my favorite professor and seemed like a really cool person. I went because she seemed to care about me and how I was doing. I went because I knew her. I went because I was just going about my day and heard about a cool thing that I could do with first, my evening, and later, the rest of my life. I was caught up in my own net when Jesus found me, just like those four surprised guys by the seashore.

Life, as they say, is what happens when we’re doing other things, when we’re caught up in our own nets, like the disciples.

So after this feast, after this movement that we call liturgy, where we tell the whole story of creation and Jesus and new life in about an hour, after we meet Jesus and each other at this table as we do every week, as recording artist and liturgical Christian Derek Webb once sang, “may the bread on your tongue leave a trail of crumbs to lead the hungry back to the place you are from.” (1)

Get out there and share the Good News.

And, as Francis of Assisi is rumored to have said, if necessary, use words. Amen.

1. Find the song “Take to the World,” an anthem for the kind of evangelism described in this sermon, here.

Baptism of Christ: On the Voice of God

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The Baptism of Christ. Painting by Dave Zelenka, 2005.

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

I think there are things involved in every job that no one ever tells you, the kinds of things you only find out once you’re actually doing the job.

I also think this is especially true in the caring professions.

I find that teachers, pastors, healthcare workers, therapists, social workers, and the like have the most entertaining answers to these questions. Those answers are usually amusing — like a pastor friend this week imploring his seminary to include a class on toilet repair. For sure, most pastors never knew that their jobs would require them to have knowledge of plumbing, or landscaping, or, for that matter, the intricacies of various physical or mental illnesses.

Sometimes, these things are as heartbreaking as they are ultimately uplifting.

No one ever told me how often chaplains would be called on to do more physical work than simply talking someone through a crisis. By this, I mean that when a patient’s loved one is acting out physically because of grief and is a threat to the medical staff doing their work — usually by throwing themselves onto the patient — and calling security would be insensitive, the chaplain stands in the breach between insensitivity and chaos.

I found this out one day when I was called to the large ICU in my hospital for a code blue. A code blue, as lots of folks especially in medicine know, is a life-threatening situation, usually a cardiac or respiratory arrest. When I arrived on the floor, I could already hear screaming and commotion.

I made my way to the back of the unit where the code was taking place. The patient lay lifeless in his hospital bed while the medical staff tried to intervene to save him. Next to the bed was the patient’s spouse, understandably beside herself, attempting to throw herself onto the patient. This is when I discovered that I was not the first chaplain to arrive. My colleague was already there.

She already had a relationship with this family. She held the patient’s wife, gently restraining her with her arms in what was more like an embrace than a security measure, allowing her to stay in the room while not allowing her to interfere with the medical staff’s work. I could see the chaplain speaking softly to her. Within a few seconds, she collapsed into the chaplain’s arms, and she held the woman up, continuing to speak to her while the staff worked away on her husband.

Wanting to make sure she didn’t need any more assistance, I looked through the glass of the door and caught my colleague’s eye. She gave me a nod.

When I checked back later, it was to relieve this chaplain so that she could go home. The patient had died, and his wife had arrived at the kind of grief most of us in leadership roles in our families have been familiar with at one time or another — the kind of grief that has clear eyes out of necessity: she knew that a lot had to be done, a lot of arrangements had to be made. By the time my own shift ended, the rest of the family had arrived and begun grieving, and the family’s pastor had arrived, and they were all together. The chaplain’s work of accompaniment was done.

When I asked my colleague what she had said to the woman to get her to calm down, she simply said, “We have to let them work. I am here. I’m here.”

“I am here.” It was the closest thing to actually being God’s voice that I ever heard anyone do. It still is.

The voice of God in our Old Testament text sweeps over the face of the formless void of the universe, the chaos, the darkness, and brings forth light and life.

In the psalm, God’s voice is so powerful that it breaks the cedars, the strongest trees that the psalmist knew.

In the Gospel, Jesus is baptized, and the voice of God tears open the heavens, the Holy Spirit swoops down, and God declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved — in you I am well pleased.”

And in Acts, the Holy Spirit appears again, only, it’s ordinary people who are declared beloved, and given the chance to speak for God.

Throughout history, some of the most famous humans who have claimed to speak for God have done so shamefully. They have declared others apostate, heretics, animals. They have held up institutions like slavery and condemned entire people groups to death, or worse. They’ve justified the brutal removal of peoples from their lands, declaring that God has given this land to them, putting together a smattering of Old Testament texts as justification. They have declared that some people are chosen while others are by nature contaminated or perverted or worthless. Speaking for God has led to brutal executions and unspeakable abuse.

Given this history, perhaps we should stop attempting to be God’s voice and well, let God speak on God’s own. After all, if the Bible itself tell us anything, it’s that God can reach whomever God chooses. In the Bible, God speaks to people through night skies and dreams and self-immolating shrubberies. Why, then, should we speak for God, especially given our uncanny ability to mishear and declare certainty instead of love?

I read an article recently about how, in many places, conservative evangelical Christianity has become more of a folk religion — something people appeal to rather flippantly to support views that they already have — than a faith that a person is dedicated to that fundamentally has the power to change how they view the world. The article did go on to describe another brand of conservative evangelicalism that was much more sincere, which drove politics rather than letting politics drive it.

This all made sense to me, but it wasn’t until I got to the part about us — mainline Christianity, or the Christian traditions largely imported from Europe — that I really got depressed. You see, the article stated that while conservative evangelical Christianity has become more conservative, mainline Christianity has let go of a lot of its beliefs because they did not line up with modern social views. In short, it claimed, we don’t believe things as strongly as we used to. As the article put it: “mainline Protestantism’s departures from historic Christian doctrine.” (1)

Us believing fewer things (or departing from Christian doctrine) was news to me.

It’s no fault of the author of the article. It would appear that we’ve lost our voice.

Because the last time I checked, my lack of certain condemnation of other people did not equate to my not having strong beliefs. In fact, when I look at you, I realize that your deep and abiding love for other human beings is precisely because you believe in things, and strongly. Things like love, new life, hope, and resurrection. Things like Jesus.

Maybe it’s about time we started some humble attempts at speaking for God again. Maybe the world needs that from us.

Because I don’t know about you, but most often, when I’ve heard God speak, it’s been through other people. When I’ve felt unlovable, it’s most often been another person who’s reminded me of my own belovedness. The times when I’ve actually felt like I understood this whole Gospel-as-actual-Good-News thing, it’s never been, in my case, because there was a burning bush nearby. My experience of God has been woefully postmodern — maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, and I’m certainly no Abraham or Moses, but God in my life has never been a plants-on-fire or speaking from the sky kind of God.

It seems to me that most often when God’s voice enters the world, it’s through the vocal chords of humans. And I don’t mean in a preach-y kind of way, which I realize is ironic coming from someone who’s currently giving a sermon. I mean in an unremarkable, “I am here and you are loved,” kind of way. In a vulnerable kind of way. In a Jesus kind of way.

Because it’s a well-worn sermon trope that Jesus could have come into the world as a powerful figure, but was instead born among the poor in a land that was occupied by a foreign power. God became a baby in a dangerous land just to show us what this whole thing was all about. We know this about his birth. Turns out the same is true about his baptism.

God could have pronounced Jesus beloved and pleasing when he was standing before some palace gates with wealth and military might all around him. Instead, God tears open the heavens and declares him beloved as he’s coming up out of a muddy river next to an eccentric street preacher as a member of a religious minority in an occupied land. From there, God’s beloved goes on to preach love and forgiveness and service and allegiance to God over any religious or political power that wants us to claim certainty. Then he’s arrested, tried, and doesn’t put up a fight. Love dies in agony with his arms spread wide, but three days later he proves that there is nothing to fear in love, because the only thing love can’t do is stay dead.

This was not a God who wants us to speak out with certainty that we are right and others are wrong. This is a God who is willing to be vulnerable and calls us to be vulnerable as well. Because the world needs it. Because your neighbor needs it. Because your students and your patients and your clients and your children and your parents and your siblings need that kind of love: the kind that isn’t afraid to spread its arms out wide, to wrap them around a grieving person and say “I am here.”

To say, You are not alone. God has put us here together. You are beloved.

That is how the voice of God still calms the chaos and tears open the heavens.

Because if you’ve ever been the recipient of that kind of love, you know that it is no less powerful than the cedars literally breaking in half, and no less a miracle.

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and we look at our own baptisms as proof of our belovedness. God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

How will we be God’s voice in 2018? How will you?

May God send the Spirit on us today, naming us beloved, offering us the courage to love, too. Amen.

1. Timothy Keller, “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” The New Yorker, 19 December 2017. Read the full text here.

The Nightmare Before Epiphany

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The Nightmare Before Christmas: Guided by the bright moon instead of a bright star, Jack begins his quest to find himself.

Matthew 2:1-12

Several of you know from conversations with me that I have one singular favorite movie: one about whom the debate rages on — “Is it a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?” A question to which I enthusiastically respond: YES.

That movie, naturally, is The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In the intro, we are told where holidays come from — we are taken to a forest where there are portals to worlds where each holiday is happening all the time.

(I’ve always been distracted by the St. Patrick’s Day door, which does not figure at all into the plot of the movie, but I’m both drawn to it by the promise of Irish beer and repulsed by it for the thought of green beer. Anyway. I digress. )

So there is a world for each holiday. In Halloweentown, a character named Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, rules his kingdom. He is the scariest ghoul, the best ghoul. He is, as you might imagine, a skeleton, and an insightful one at that. The very beginning of the movie leads us into Jack’s existential crisis: though he rules over his kingdom of Halloween, he longs for something more.

And so Jack sets out on a journey — first silhouetted by the bright moon — he gets lost and finds himself in Christmastown, where he is fascinated by the bright lights and the snow and the elves and, finally, Santa Claus.

Jack Skellington wants everything this world has to offer. He is transformed by this experience that is unlike anything he’s ever experienced before.

At first, he takes this transformation back to Halloweentown and attempts to make Halloweentown into another Christmastown. This goes as badly as you’d predict. Jack quickly learns that the Halloween creatures are terrible at Christmas —  children do not want to be greeted at Christmas with a skeleton in a Santa costume, and that children who find actual disembodied feet in their stockings are understandably upset.

While Jack and the other residents of Halloweentown are terrible at, as he puts it, “making Christmas,” the experience, in the end, does transform him. The exercise of his journey to another land and another identity changes his life and motivates him to be exactly who he was created to be — the Pumpkin King, the greatest ghoul of them all, the famous king of Halloweentown.

And that is my favorite Christmas movie.

Here at the end of Christmastide, just for fun, I named my Epiphany sermon The Nightmare Before Epiphany. Today is where we remember the wise men, or magi, who visited the baby Jesus in a house after he was born. Mary and Joseph welcome the magi, who bring their gifts, and so today we remember them by bless chalk to bless the door frames of our homes, hoping that we will offer hospitality and love to all who come through our doors.

The wise men find their way to the home of Mary and Joseph, famously, with the light of a star. As the light gets increasingly brighter outside day by day, the Church calls us to celebrate Epiphany, this season of light. And it starts here, with the wise men who, like Jack Skellington, went on something of a journey to find meaning.

We don’t know who they were. We don’t know how many there were. (I know, we say three, there are three in your creche — but Matthew, the only Gospel writer to tell this story, doesn’t give us a number.) Truth be told, we’re not entirely sure what gender the magi were. All we get from Matthew is magoi, or magi, which some folks translate “wise men,” because it was more expected for men to be seekers at the time and we all got assumptions, but the word most directly translates to “magician.”

What we do know is that they came from the East on a search for meaning, specifically, for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”

Much like Jack, the magi were transformed, by hospitality, by welcome, and by the Christ child himself. However, though their search was religious in nature, they didn’t become Jews, at least not that Matthew tells us. Because the point of this story isn’t that Jesus made everyone the same — it’s that Jesus transforms all kinds of people from all kinds of places. That in Christ, people find what they’re seeking. And that God makes a way for everyone to find what they need.

When we find what we need, we’re secure. We’re not anxious. We become our best selves. We are free to love others in a way that is healthy, not clingy or needy or harsh, but calm, patient, and reassuring.

The point that Jack Skellington realizes that he’s far better off being himself is when he fully understands and meets the real Santa Claus. In the same way, we’re terrible saviors — we can’t save ourselves. But when we meet the real one, we give up trying to save ourselves and we begin to discover who were were created to be.

Catholic theologian James Allison describes being in the presence of God to being in the presence of someone you’re certain adores you. You’re relaxed, you’re more funny, you’re more yourself. You’re at peace, resting in the gaze of someone whose love you’re certain of. That kind of love transforms us.

That’s the kind of love we meet at the table every single Sunday: of a God who shows up for us and transforms us. A God we can be certain adores each of us. None of us is perfect, none of us is capable of rendering ourselves lovable — but here, all are welcome, and all are loved, not because we’ve saved ourselves and finally gotten it right, but because God saves all of us. Like Jack Skellington, we go on a quest trying to be something perfect, and through our transformative journey, we become more ourselves. 

It’s because we’ve been so welcome, so loved, and so transformed, that we’re blessed to bless others with the same kind of love, the same kind of welcome. To be bright stars pointing towards something transformative.

And so today we bless chalk and we put what looks like a ridiculous algebra equation over our doors in hopes that we’ll become what we seek — a place of love, of hospitality, of welcome. A place where everyone can be themselves. Where everyone can rest comfortably.

And, like the home of Joseph and Mary, where all can find God. Amen.

Christmas Eve: Love is Here

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Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-14

It’s here. Love is here. Christmas is here.

And I want to congratulate you. You got here. Some of you, in addition to getting yourselves here, which is an accomplishment in itself, got other human beings fed and dressed with their shoes probably even on the right feet, and not only that, you got those other human beings here too.

This time of year, we’re all exhausted, and it’s an accomplishment to get anywhere on time with even our own shoes on the right feet. And this is especially true these days, when we’re all feeling weighted down by tragedy and controversy on the news and in our own lives. And no matter which positions we occupy, this time of year, we worry about what our relatives will say at the dinner table this year.

You’d think that with this anxiety, we’d learn to let go of our high expectations for what Christmas should be — shiny, new, perfect.

That’s a cute thought, isn’t it?

Christmas is, as SNL puts it, the Hallmark Super Bowl, the high holy season of high expectations and visions of perfection and glistening snow and perfect trees and adorable, happy children who never get upset. We expect to celebrate Christmas with people we love and people who love us who, also, never get upset.

Every year, we expect everything to be perfect and for the kids not to cry in the Christmas card photo and for that one uncle to, just this one year, not go on a political rant at the dinner table.
You might be feeling lonely this time of year. Or you might be using the sermon as time to mentally scan through a to-do list a thousand miles long, hoping that everything will be perfect for tonight and tomorrow. Or maybe, both.

Maybe it’s because I was raised in the South, but I let go of the postcard vision pretty early because there was literally never snow like on television. I didn’t see snow fall from the sky in person until I was 19, though of course, we had plenty of fake cotton snow in all the mall displays.

You see, I should clarify that I was raised in the rural South, which is roughly equivalent to being raised in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens or Southern Living. Despite our yearly 60- and 70-degree Christmases, I know all about the perfect Christmas: my family, maybe like some of yours, had me running around cleaning and decorating up to the very last minute. My family also has a series of nativity scenes around the house. I would stop and stare at them from time to time as a kid, mentally comprehending that this was a stable scene and knowing full well the story we just read from Luke — Southern Baptist kids do know their Bibles, after all — but somehow it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the irony of making everything shiny and perfect on a holiday celebrating a birth that might well have happened with actual livestock present.

A birth where Mary and Joseph alone, with no family, are present — at least until some field hands show up. Unlike most babies, there’s no grandma or grandpa or aunts or uncles or, you know, doctor or midwife, there to welcome Jesus when he’s born: just some laborers from the next field over.

A colleague of mine describes how it’s been occurring to her lately that it’s not just that God was born into a mess — it’s that God kind of made a mess when Jesus was born. The ideal birth for the son of God would be, and in the lore of many cultures has been, a birth among the rich in a palace fit for a god. It seems reasonable, after all, that the son of God should want for nothing.

Instead, our God is born to an unwed young mother who is engaged to a man who initially freaked out — as a man is wont to do when his fiancé turns up pregnant and it’s not his kid — until he’s made okay with the whole thing literally by divine intervention. They’re not rich. Joseph, the aforementioned fiancé, is a humble carpenter who, thanks to the aforementioned divine intervention, decides not to abandon his mysteriously pregnant fiancé.

You’d think that’d be the end, right? Like all that drama should be the end of fate messing with these poor people. But no. Then, when she’s as pregnant as pregnant ladies can be, they have to go and register in the town of their family’s origin, because you see, this is an occupied land. So a very pregnant Mary walks with Joseph from Nazareth to the town where Joseph’s family is from: Bethlehem.

I know, you’ve probably heard that before and thought it sounded inconvenient and uncomfortable, but most us know that Israel-Palestine is a relatively small area of the world.

Well, yes, kind of like Massachusetts is a small state.

Now, consider that Mary’s walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem is roughly equivalent to traveling on foot from here to Boston. While very, very pregnant. We usually see Mary riding on a camel in depictions but chances are, they were not rich enough to afford such luxuries. There is no camel mentioned in the Bible.

They do those cross walks every year, where people carry the cross around Good Friday — but the biblical scene I want to see depicted in real life is a bunch of people walking with those fake baby bellies from here to Boston.

That’s not all, either. When they finally arrive, Mary’s in labor, but this isn’t the age of 24 hour emergency rooms and they cannot even find a hotel room anywhere, because people are crowding in to Bethlehem, trying to register like their forcefully occupying nation, Rome, told them to. So they end up in some structure for livestock. We know it was for livestock because it had a manger — commonly called a feeding trough — and that is where the Son of God is born, alone with Mary and Joseph, likely with livestock noises or at last smells all around.

At some point, Mary and Joseph had to assume that they’d just imagined the whole Son of God thing. Because all of this, all of this, was a hectic, messy, smelly debacle. Surely God wouldn’t send God’s only son into this mess.

And yet…

Naturally, though, just as they’re contemplating that, they find out that’s not the end of the weirdness for Mary and Joseph and their new son. They’re alone with the baby until random strangers — shepherds, seen as stinky laborers who were widely looked down upon by everyone else — they show up, bewildered, saying something about an angel speaking to them and telling them to come find them. Because that’s exactly what any woman who has just given birth wants to see: random strangers against whom they might harbor negative stereotypes describing visions of angels speaking to them.

So, to recap: this is the holiday where everything’s supposed to be perfect and everyone’s supposed to be well-behaved?

It turns out that, whether it’s a baby being born in a barn or your relatives fighting or the the Christmas ham getting hopelessly burned — if Christmas is indeed about love, we would do well to remember that love is messy and usually nothing close to perfect.

Love is here — and love is messy, especially where humans are involved. And the Good News is that Jesus still shows up in the midst of the whole mess. In fact, for love, God isn’t above making a huge mess to get to us.

God always shows up. There is no Christmas where Jesus doesn’t get born. Even if you have nowhere else to go tonight but you got yourself here: love is here for you too. God is here for you too.

Here, where we always gather and God always shows up, in bread and wine and people.

This morning, I described the end of Advent like waiting at the arrivals gate for a loved one to show up. You scan face after face, looking for the one you love, and finally, they arrive. In the same way, we come here looking for love, and God always shows up in bread and wine and people. It isn’t perfect, and over the centuries it’s sometimes been downright ugly, but it always happens, in churches all around the world. And God always shows up at the gate, waiting to greet us, even when everything’s a mess. Always.

In an age when we’re all weary from the 24 hour news cycle that moves too fast for any one person to keep up, in an age when we’re all a little scared and tired and defensive, the opening monologue from Love, Actually has never rung more true for me:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends…If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” (2)

Love is messy, but it’s here. Love actually is all around. And in this weary world, all any of us can really say once we recognize it is to send that love right back to everyone around us, and say — thank God.

And when folks misbehave this holiday, just ask: what were you, born in a barn?

‘Cause Jesus, apparently, was. Amen.

1. Black Art Depot
2. Love, Actually (movie, 2003)

Advent 4: Giving Hope

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A depiction of Mary and Elizabeth.

Luke 1:46b-55 (Magnificat)
Luke 1:26-38

Yesterday the ice weighed the trees down as I steadily and near simultaneously prepared for Advent 4, Christmas Eve, traveling across the country, and for what will happen here at church when I get back from my Christmastide break.

Seeing the pine branches outside my window nearly touching the ground called my attention to the weight in my own shoulders as I listened to the New York Times’ The Daily podcast do their 2017 Year in Sound.

And I began to seriously identify with the pine branches outside my window, weighed down by a cold, steady force over which they have no control: the freezing rain falling from the sky.

I think we’re all feeling a little weighed down in one sense or another: even if you’re lucky enough not to have personal troubles and heartaches, national and international news is one, long, sad stream of facts and fake facts and accusations interspersed with tragedy.

And just as the pine branches are sinking low, Advent 4 and Christmas Eve fall on the same day, a day which puts anticipation and anxiety in tension as churches everywhere, and the tired, weighed down people within them, tried to figure out what to do about it.

“What are you doing about Christmas Eve this year?” was the question that burned through clergy Facebook groups for the entire fall.

For me, the question seemed pretty simple: there are four candles on the Advent wreath, meaning that we have four Sundays in Advent. The festival of Christmas begins at sundown on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve is a Sunday, making Christmas Eve itself the fourth Sunday of Advent.

When I shared this with a friend, he responded, “Yeah, but this is New England. I feel like only people who really love Jesus will show up on Sunday morning.”

So congratulations on really loving Jesus, according to a theologically off and offhanded not-to-be-trusted comment by a particularly snarky member of the clergy.

Or if you showed up thinking this would be a Christmas service… sorry.

I get the hesitation. It almost seems too close to still be waiting.

Especially when we’re all this tired and weighed down. If I told you that this year has been the longest year on record, you’d probably believe me for a second. The news cycle moves ever faster and faster in a carousel of 24 hour cable news and tweets and podcasts and phone alerts. Usually, for the left and the right, the message is something to the effect of: a critical foundation of what makes us America is in jeopardy and we must save it!
And you’ve come to church in the middle of a day when you’re no doubt spinning a to-do list around the back of your mind in an age when mortal peril more than occasionally seems pretty close at hand. And what do you get for it?

You get the angel visiting Mary, and between thing about your to-do list, you might question once again the science of a virgin giving birth. That’s always the point in the story when we miss the forest for the Christmas trees.

Because I’m no scientist, but I was a history major tasked with putting stories from the past back together using verifiable facts, and based on that training, I’m a thousand percent sure that zero research can be done on the actual facts of this case, but the theologian in me says that you can get at the point of the story, which is this: humans alone didn’t make it happen.

The point of the story, I think, is that though Mary had her role, human beings alone didn’t make God become flesh, because humans have proven that if we’re pretty incapable of one thing, it’s saving ourselves in any way that lasts. And while that knowledge frequently weighs us down, the whole idea of this faith thing, as least as far as I understand it, is that maybe we’re not the saviors, but the saved.

An image I heard once was that waiting for God’s reign of peace is sometimes something like waiting at the arrivals gate at the airport for someone you love to arrive. You can do nothing but wait. You can’t do one thing to speed the process or to make your loved one show up in your vision. All you can do is to scan face after face, waiting to recognize the face you love.

Human beings are bad at saving themselves and pretty incapable of manufacturing hope within ourselves, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.
You see, we can’t save ourselves, but we’re are pretty dang good at giving each other hope, just by showing up, because we trust that if we all show up, maybe God will too. And so we go to the arrivals gate — well, the table — and we meet God there every single time.

Advent 4 was the Sunday, two years ago, when I met the entire congregation here. Advent 4 was the day you called me to be your pastor. On that day, just like today, we read the Magnificat and we heard about the angel visiting Mary.

We were all, perhaps, a little less weighed down then, though our world was arguably just as divided and scary as it is now. But that Sunday morning, in here, we met and we gave each other hope. And just for kicks, I revisited that sermon — the first sermon I ever preached here.

For some reason, you see, it stuck out to me that Mary doesn’t start singing when the angel gives her the news that she’s pregnant with God’s baby. She’s actually pretty human about it: she has lots of questions and a little bit of ambivalence. And Gabriel the angel says, “You know, your relative Elizabeth is pregnant via divine intervention too.”

Maybe it’s my pastor ears, but I think this move is pretty pastoral. It’s like when a pastor says, “Hey, so-and-so has been through something similar to what you’ve been going through recently; maybe it’d be helpful for you guys to talk.”

Gabriel doesn’t tell her to go to Elizabeth; he simply mentions that she’s in a similar situation: an unexpected pregnancy via divine intervention. As in the first century Holy Land as now, that is a very tiny segment of the population.

Gabriel doesn’t actually tell Mary to go to Elizabeth, but Luke says she still “made haste” to go to the Judean town in the hill country. Elizabeth, who is also pregnant by a miracle. Elizabeth, who will understand this thing that has happened to Mary, and who won’t think she’s crazy. And here, with another human being who understands that God works in really weird and unexpected and direct ways, Mary is able to find the courage to sing her song of hope.

And so here we are, two years after I first pointed that out to you who were here, and we’re all pretty bewildered and tired and weighed down with a thousand things to do this afternoon. And we have, once again, on Advent 4, just like Mary and Elizabeth, gathered together to sing songs of hope. 

May this day when Christmas is so close that we can practically taste the sugar cookies, may we long for a day when peace on earth will be this close, too. We can’t bring it about. We can’t make it happen. But we can watch for it, pray for it, work for it, and continue to tune in to this crazy hope that it’s possible. We can keep coming to the arrivals gate — the table — to meet God.

My friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in the Pacific Northwest, puts it this way: “That’s why I love Advent …Jesus never doesn’t get born. We long, hope, wait, anticipate, and we’re never let down at the last minute.” Even if we are exhausted or broken or weighed down when we get there, the Light always comes to us. Always. Christmas never fails to arrive, because God has already broken through. Christ was born in Bethlehem those many years ago.

We cannot save ourselves, but just like Mary, if we say yes, we can have a role in the coolest things. And just maybe, that can melt the ice that weighs us down.

I close with a prayer honoring Mary, posted by a clergy friend this week.

Let us pray. 

“God of impossible love,

you needed Mary

to give consent,

to bear the scandal,

to carry the word within herself:

may her courage give hope

to all people

who yearn to sing new songs of justice

and find the world a dwelling place for God,

through Jesus Christ, the one who is to come.” (1) Amen.

1. Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Steven Shakespeare