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 
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)