Christmas Eve: Love is Here

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 1.20.20 PM

Luke 2:1-20

Unless you are brand new to Christianity and had no idea before this evening what this Christmas thing was about at all, or unless you were dragged here against your will, the story I just read is the story you came to hear. It was a compelling story for a lot of reasons long before my great great grandparents were born, so don’t worry: I won’t try to add much to it. We’ll be back to singing carols in a moment, and then we can part peacefully into this night on Christmas Eve. 

But I’m also aware that the story is, like a lot of things religious, both so familiar you might’ve spaced out during the reading and it’s entirely foreign to our brains.

It happened in a Palestinian town on the West Bank whose name means “house of bread.” There weren’t any lights or candles or presents. It probably wasn’t even winter, really, at the time.

These shepherds — the ones on the front of your bulletin — they’re herding sheep in the region nearby. It’s nighttime, so chances are they’re sleeping or lounging by a fire, talking about nothing, you know, like you do I guess when you’re herding sheep. 

Then, the most alarming thing happens. It would seem that the world exploded into light and an angel appears before them. And the angel talks and says the oddest thing:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

This is where Shepherd #1 immediately stares at Shepherd #2 to make absolutely sure that that guy is also seeing what he’s seeing.

Because you see, none of this makes sense. 

Surely the shepherds would think about it just like you might: angels, if there are, in fact, angels, don’t just appear to people. And if there are angels and they were to just appear to people, they’d probably go appearing to some high level government official and calling them favored — not some random lower class laborers. It seems hard to believe.

Let’s be honest: this ancient story can seem pretty removed from us, here, in western Massachusetts in the twenty-first century. Even if you believe it was real, it probably doesn’t feel real. At least not as real as maybe it used to. 

Bethlehem seems a little far from here. 

Besides geography, we make it clean in our minds — Christmas is such a shiny holiday that there’s a whole genre of literature and advice columns and worship services dedicated to those who are not happy on Christmas. People who have lost loved ones, people who are getting divorced, people who are sick, people who are addicted, and people going through any number of hardships can feel even more awful this time of year than you normally might because everything around you is shiny and green and gold and red and telling you to be joyful. 

If that’s you, or if you’re just not feeling it this year, or maybe even if you are, Bethlehem seems a little far, I know.

You may have been with us every Sunday since Easter, or we may’ve not seen you since Easter or we may not have even seen you before now, or likely, somewhere in between. Maybe you’re visiting us from far away because you’re visiting your family. 

No matter what brought you here — from across the country or down the street, and whether we saw you in worship yesterday or whether we’ve never met you before, welcome to Our Savior’s. 

I know it seems a little far from Bethlehem, but this is our place. 

This past year, we’ve seen our share of life, and we know you have, too. 

We’ve driven through snow and we’ve driven with our windows down. We’ve worried about our loved ones. We’ve visited each other at hospitals and hugged one another at gravesides. We’ve also felt joy: we’ve sung at the top of our lungs. We’ve clinked glasses with our friends. We’ve laughed until we cried — sometimes during council meetings.  

And we’re still here. 

And we bring you tidings of great joy, because God has put on flesh and we’ve seen it. 

If Christmas is about God breaking through to us, and this year, we’ve broken through to each other. This year, God put on flesh in the faces of our members who have showed up for each other and for me. 

And if we haven’t seen you much this year or if we’re just meeting you for the first time, chances are, in some way, somebody this year has broken through for you, too. Because you see, whenever we find love, whenever we enjoy love, whenever we remember love, the holy is born in us again. It’s always there, as close as our next breath; love is here, in the spaces between us, if you know how to look. 

It turns out that Bethlehem is not so far from here at all. 

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Whoever you are, and wherever you come from, we bring you tidings of great joy, for love just keeps breaking through. 

You see, [as I said yesterday], the best thing about Christmas is that, unlike most other things, we’re never let down at the last minute. Not one Christmas in the history of the Church has the congregation showed up only to hear some church authority go, “Sorry, we’re not doing it this year.” The last candle, the one in the middle, always gets lit. 

As my Episcopal priest friend Joseph says, the baby Jesus never doesn’t get born. It doesn’t matter how much pain the world is in or how much pain we are in or what you believe or don’t believe about what “really” happened or where this holiday actually came from.

The candles get lit and the carols get sung and love breaks through. Every year. 

Whenever love breaks through, the Palestinian town on the West Bank whose name means “house of bread” is close. 

Love has broken through again, in our very own House of Bread, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. Here we break the bread baked by our members and we become part of a ritual two thousand years old. The ancient meets the old meets tonight. Love breaks through again. 

Bethlehem is not far from here, because love has broken through again, in every time love has shown up in the spaces between us and every time it will again. Thank God. Amen.

Advertisements

Advent 4: Sing Loud

Screen Shot 2018-12-23 at 1.11.54 PM.png
Corby Eisbacher’s depiction of Mary & Elizabeth.

Luke 1:39-55

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t remember, or if you weren’t even at Our Savior’s back in 2015 — but Advent 4 is when I first officially met you all as a congregation. Advent 4, in 2015, is when you voted to call me as your pastor. It’s the first time we gathered around the table and the Good News together.

Happy anniversary to us, you guys!

Often, when I’m preaching for one of these important days, I look back and see what I’ve said before. This is especially true for anniversaries like this.

I realized earlier this year that that sermon really affected me. You see, I was asked to write a sermon for an Episcopal Church program called Sermons that Work, which provides professionally written sermons to congregations without a priest. These sermons are then read by a layperson in the congregation.

So while other congregations around the country might be hearing this sermon for the first time as they wait for a pastor, I invite you in to hear an edited version of it for sort of, maybe, for some of you, a second time.

Once you heard it from your soon-to-be new pastor. Today, you’re going to hear it again, if you were here three years ago, at least in part — now, three years into our time together — because I think it still works. I’ve edited it a bit, well, because it’s mine.

Here goes.

Liturgical seasons are worthwhile because they reflect the rhythm of life itself. Advent reflects seasons of our lives that are filled with hope and anticipation. We often associate these with happy times: waiting for a baby to be born, waiting or waiting for the arrival of a loved one who has been away for a long time.

But the first Christmas wasn’t exactly happy and bright, and the readings of Advent itself aren’t particularly happy, either. Advent speaks of awaiting God’s help in the midst of desperation, reminding us that we can find echoes of Advent as clearly in the homeless shelter as in the maternity ward. 

Advent calls to us in the midst of the weight on our shoulders and speaks hope. As we watch the news and see the pain in the world, we are faced with our own powerlessness. As snow and ice and cold weigh down the landscape of many northern climes, we, too, feel weighed down: by our ever-extending holiday to do lists, by the suffering in the world, and by our own personal struggles.

Advent is here to remind us that we cannot save ourselves, but that there is yet hope.

Today, with four candles lit, a the song of Mary soars through the Gospel reading and into our hearts again, as it does every single year. 

Mary, the unwed mother, the fiancé of a poor carpenter. Mary, who knows depths of desperation that many of us will never have to know. Mary, who felt herself powerless but sang to God who was about to save the whole world. 

We often think of Mary as gentle and meek, but today, Mary is brave and bold, singing loud and strong.

Everything — the very shape of human history — is about to change. The world is about to turn. The new dawn is on the way, and Mary sings out to greet it. The weight lessens; hope is born.

We’ve been talking about apocalypses and dystopias during our time together on Wednesday nights in Advent. One of my favorite dystopias came up on this past Wednesday night: The Hunger Games.

In the first installment of the three-part series, there is a scene in the movie that is not in the book, but it well sums up the theme of the books. President Snow, the dictator of the dystopian futuristic country of Panem, is walking in his rose garden with the chief “game maker,” Seneca Crane. Crane is the man responsible for creating a game that pits young people from the twelve districts of Panem against one another in a highly publicized fight to the death each year. The winner of the Hunger Games is then held up as a brave, strong hero that represents the spirit of Panem.
President Snow asks Seneca Crane why the games must have a winner. If the Capitol simply wanted to show its power and to instill fear and control, he says, why not simply execute people? Why the games? Why a winner?

Seneca Crane does not understand. He stares back, confused. 

“Hope,” President Snow says simply. “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. There’s nothing wrong with a little spark, as long as it’s kept contained.” 

A little hope, says Snow, would allow the games to entertain the people, and would allow them to have a hero to root for, while also keeping the Capitol firmly in control. A lot of hope would topple Snow’s oppressive regime entirely. The books and movies, as you either know or can probably guess, are about that spark of which Snow speaks not being contained. The second installment of the story is called Catching Fire as hope — a lot of hope — is revived in the country of Panem.

Hope is more than mere optimism. A lot of hope can shake the foundations of everything that weighs us down. A lot of hope can change the course of history.

For Mary’s part, she doesn’t initially greet the news of her pregnancy with her soaring song and blazing hope. When Luke’s Gospel first introduces us to Mary, she is more like the traditional image of Mary — young, meek, seemingly timid but ultimately faithful. When the angel tells her the news, she consents, but she’s not singing yet. 

As she’s absorbing the news from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child, he tells her, perhaps even to console her: Elizabeth, your relative, is pregnant too, even in her old age!

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 to see her.

Mary wants to be near to someone who understands. Elizabeth is also pregnant by a miracle. Elizabeth, Mary knows, 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. Not ordinary optimism, but great hope. The kind that catches fire. The kind that sings loud.

Today, Mary sings as she invites us into the vulnerable territory of daring to hope big. Optimism looks behind us to find comfort in what we’ve experienced before. Hope — the big, world-shaking, musical hope of Mary — looks ahead, knowing that we cannot imagine what God is able to do.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with optimism. Optimism hopes for good fortune, for fun with friends and family during the holidays, for a blessed and happy new year, and for love and warmth to surround us. There is nothing wrong with a little optimistic Advent cheer.

But if you have experienced the depths of despair, if you have seen the pain that exists in the world, you know that optimism is not enough on its own. It is too difficult to sustain. The world is too broken, too violent, and too divided, and we alone cannot fix it. Our one spark of hope is that God has spoken and told us that someday, all things — all things — from our personal struggles to the weight of the world’s pain, shall be made right. That hope is why Mary sings.

Today, the Gospel story invites us, like Mary, to seek out others in order to find our song of hope. It wasn’t until Mary was with Elizabeth in the Judean hills that her hope burst into song. And maybe, whether we know it or not, that’s what we’ve done today, too. We have made haste to seek one another out, to gather together so that we, too, can sing songs of hope.

Our song is one of extraordinary hope. Hope that has seen the broken and divided state of the world and knows that it cannot afford to hope too small because we cannot repair the world on our own. Only God can, and only God will. In the meantime, we are called to make our corner of the world that God so loves a less divided, more trustworthy, more hopeful place. We are called to sing.

The best part about Mary’s song of hope is that it is never hope unfulfilled. Every year, we remember her bold song to remind ourselves that God has already broken through. Even in the darkness, even in the deepest disappointments, even when we are betrayed, and even when the world looks most broken, we keep this crazy hope alive that God has and God will break through. And today, we make haste to find each other to sing that hope again, to fan that spark into flame again.

The Reverend Joseph Peters-Mathews, an Episcopal priest in Washington state, puts it this way: “That’s why I love Advent …Jesus never doesn’t get born. We long, hope, wait, anticipate, and we are never let down at the last minute.” Every year, Christmas always arrives. Even if we are exhausted or brokenhearted, the Light of Christ always comes to the Church. Always. The final candle is always lit.

Advent and Christmas are here every year to remind us that God has already broken through. Despite the world’s pain and despite our own pain, the dawn is still well on the way.

And that is why Mary finds Elizabeth and sings her heart out. So let us, today, find one another and sing our hearts out to the God who breaks through, who sustains our lives, and who dares us to hope big — and beckons us to sing loud. 

We’ve been together for three whole years. We’ve sung loud — in church, in bars, in homes. Here’s to three good years. And here’s to many more songs of hope.
Hey hey! Amen.

Advent 3: Adventures in Linguistics & Judgement

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 10.54.01 AM
The anecdote about double negatives is from one of my favorite podcasts, Lexicon Valley, hosted by linguist John McWhorter. See the bottom of the page for link.

Luke 3:7-18

Let me sum up that Gospel reading as you probably heard it: “Brood of vipers, you’re terrible, do better, this is the Good News. 

I don’t need to tell you that there’s a long tradition in language of cross-ups between the speaker and the audience. Sometimes it’s an intentional thing, sometimes not — but it’s always possible, and the results can be terrifying, insulting, or amusing, or some combination, depending on what’s said and what’s meant. 

As an example, there’s a story among linguists that once, a professor was doing a talk and commented that, in informal English, double negatives are common in most all dialects, as we all know — though I don’t got no idea why we use ‘em so much. However, what we don’t realize is that double negatives often unintentionally equal positives, even if that isn’t what a speaker intends. The most classic example of this is the classic rock lyric “I can’t get no satisfaction” — if you’re unable to get no satisfaction, then it would seem that you’re getting satisfaction, which is contrary to what the Rolling Stones might’ve meant to say.

Or it could be intentional, such as if you said, “Well, I don’t want nothing for my birthday!” (Indicating that you do, in fact, want something for your birthday, making it a positive statement.) So, while a double negative can equal a positive, the aforementioned professor remarked, also remarked that he didn’t know of an example of the opposite — where a double “yes” equals a “no.” 

From the back, another professor, eager to give her colleague grief, let out a sarcastic, “Yeah, yeah!” (A quintessential negative statement if ever there was one.)

Or take this one: a sister asks her brother, “What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?” 

Without looking up, the brother replies, “Don’t know; don’t care.” 

How often do we encounter little gems like this? Where someone says something that initially offends us, but then we realize that they were participating the whole time, and that their meaning was obvious if we’d only gotten past our initial defensiveness? 

Yeah, yeah. 

Luke’s account of John the Baptist is something like this. We think of John as harsh and judgy — the Word in Season devotional even described him as “screaming,” though there’s no evidence of that. John does come across that way, though, and he has a serious tendency to fire up any religious trauma you might have with his calls for repentance. And it’s true — John is not exactly kind and gentle at the outset. 

But read a little closer with me and let’s risk giving John some kindness he might not even deserve. It’s okay — he’s not going to get a big head, because he’s been dead for at least 2,000 years. 

John begins with a traditional Advent greeting, which is different from a traditional Christmas greeting:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” 

I saw a suggestion online recently that offered this jokingly as an alternative greeting to “Merry Christmas” for those who wish to fully observe Advent. Or imagine it as what I said instead of “The Lord be with you” on the Sundays of Advent. I’d want to do it in my native tongue, in the words of the play Cotton Patch Gospel, which sets the life of Jesus in rural Georgia: 

“You sons of snakes! Who warned you to flee the wrath ‘bout to [CLAP] smack over y’all’s heads?!” 

It would be a little harsh. I doubt any first-time visitors would come back. I wouldn’t blame them. 

We have a tendency, after all, to stop listening when we get insulted. Oh, and we have some issues with religious wrath – in addition to our American mainline Protestant politeness, we even some locally-sourced regional issues around wrath, in true Pioneer Valley style. Can’t say I blame us — New England has come a long way since Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on July 8, 1741 less than 25 miles south of here, in Enfield [, Connecticut].

But I also think that getting past our gut reaction is part of being a grown-up. It’s always hard, but I often find that it’s worth it. So despite our initial misgivings about John’s language, let’s dive in.

First, the brood of vipers thing. Yes, it’s usually rude to call someone a snake. But also, we Lutherans are pretty solid on that whole saint-sinner thing, and I think it’s important. You see, according to Luter, we are all saints — we have an incredible capacity for good. A healthy sense of self includes knowing that: that I am capable of good things, and capable of being kind, loving, and generous. We are all saints. 

We also believe that we’re all sinners — we have an incredible capacity for destruction, of both ourselves and other people. A healthy sense of self includes knowing that, too: that I am capable of being a bad human, and capable of being mean, catty, and destructive. We know that we all have deep flaws. We are all sinners. If you question this, I’m guessing you should pay closer attention to yourself while driving in traffic.

Greetings, brood of saintly vipers. I’m pretty saint-ly and snake-y myself.

Okay. So what about the wrath? We tend to preach about a loving God, and we leave the angry God buried with Jonathan Edwards and the other hellfire & brimstone preachers of old. That kind of God hates us, lashes out like a petulant child — that kind of God, at least to some of us, feels deeply wrong.

One of the most groundbreaking things for me in faith has been the realization that the phrase “the consequences of sin” isn’t about what God does to us because God is mad. It’s a theological way of telling us that destructive actions often have destructive consequences, which is much more difficult to argue with because we see it all the time.

In our Advent Wednesday night series on the apocalypse, we talked about the movie The Day After Tomorrow, a movie from 2004 which deals with a fictional projection of the most extreme effects of climate change. On a less apocalyptic and more personal level, we all struggle daily with tendencies within ourselves that hurt either ourselves, others, or both. We’re familiar with the cycle: if you drive your car too fast because you’re mad, you might crash, and other destructive actions & reactions. One way of being saved, I think, is to be saved from that cycle of destruction.

As Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “I kept thinking about how sometimes born again Christians will ask me, ‘when were you saved?’ and how I like to reply “gosh, I guess it was over 2,000 years ago now.” Either that or when asked when I was saved sometimes I like to answer ‘just again this morning.’” We’re saved from the wrath of our own destructive actions whenever we break that cycle by learning to do better and leaning into grace. We’re saved whenever we acknowledge that we’re forgiven — forgiven by others, by ourselves, or by God — and we’re free to accept that grace by being more kind, more loving.
Don’t believe me about this text? Check the rest of it. After describing the destruction to come, the crowds cry out to him just as anyone who was still standing there would today: “Then what should we do? 

You can read his full answer, but let me sum it up for you: be a good human. 

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Be kind. Be loving. To family, friend, and stranger.

Then the tax collectors came. The tax collectors were the people in society that everyone wanted to call wrath down on — and not only for the reasons folks don’t like the IRS. They lived in a country conquered by a hostile foreign power, Rome, and the tax collectors were usually Israelites who worked with Rome to take their neighbors’ money. Tax collectors were also known for skimming some off the top. I don’t know that even we, in divided America in 2018, can fathom resenting a neighbor that much for what they stood for.

Or maybe we can. I don’t know. 

So even the hated tax collectors started coming. Instead of telling them they were hopeless, or that they had to leave their jobs — which definitely would’ve been popular with the crowd — John told them, “Just collect taxes, and that’s it.” No more extra for you. 

That’s it. Just “stop robbing people and be decent.” Stop harming others. That’s it. 

It was the same for the Roman soldiers — the occupiers themselves — that came after them.

He so amazed people that they wondered if he was the Messiah. We know how that story ends. 

No, John isn’t the Messiah. The Messiah is coming soon, and it’s time to get ready. 

Get ready, John says, because he’s about to gather the wheat and burn the chaff. Traditionally, we’ve said that this means that Jesus will gather the good people and fricassee the bad ones. But here’s why I can’t get my head around that: Luke calls it good news. 

Here’s the thing — the chaff is part of the wheat itself. To separate the wheat from the chaff is to make the wheat useable. Dearest brood of fellow vipers, I don’t think that some of us are wheat and some are chaff. I think we’re all wheat that has chaff, because all wheat does. 

We all know that we’re capable of good and evil. We all know that we’ve got both awesome and destructive tendencies. We’re so aware of it that most of us are pretty constantly trying to improve ourselves, to get better at something. This, too, is part of growing up and continuing to grow up for your whole life. 

What I find to be Good News, though, is that growing up — which is a lifelong process, by the way — doesn’t mean that the goal is to make ourselves perfect. That though learning to be a good human benefits us and saves us and others from the consequences of destructive actions, getting better isn’t what saves us. Ultimately it’s the farmer, not the wheat, that makes the wheat into something useable. 

That’s a relief. Life is a journey of death and resurrection, and resurrection always has the final word. No matter how much we screw it up. Thank God.

If the pink candle means to rejoice, and that’s worth doing a little happy dance for — here we are seen, and we are loved, not because of what we can make of ourselves, but because of what God can make of us.

You might think that all you’re capable of is destruction and exhaustion. You may think that you’ve slid so far that you’re unusable. You may’ve heard message after message about how God is angry at you and if you don’t make yourself perfect you won’t ever be welcome in the kingdom.

To those people, I say: yeah, yeah. 

Come to the table of grace, where you always have been and always will be welcome. You’re not only useable, you’re family. Amen.

You can listen to the Lexicon Valley podcast here.

Advent 2: There’s Something About …John

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 8.32.19 AM.png
If you want an irreverent, funny, occasionally course take on the story of Jesus (and John the Baptist) – this book’s for you.

Anybody wanna try this tongue twister?

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonotis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Ananias and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John.” 

Ah, John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, if you want to use the clearest terminology (since “Baptist” these days means something pretty specific to us). Our old, weird buddy John is introduced to us in this way in Luke’s Gospel, placing him in a particular historical context that would’ve been pretty familiar to his early readers. 

I think Luke’s doing a little more than that by introducing him this way, though. You see, you’ve got all of these names that people would immediately recognize. If they didn’t recognize the names, they’d recognize the places and institutions. And then, after that long list, you’ve got this incredibly common name. 

It’s as if you said of someone who lived fifty years ago: in the fifth year of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, when John Volpe was the governor of Massachusetts, when Pope Paul IV was the pope and Nathan Marsh Pusey was the president of Harvard, the word of the Lord came to Bill. 

Immediately, we’d be irritatedly asking, “Who is Bill?!”

Luke breaks the chain of familiarity by talking about this common guy. Not a priest, though his dad was — not even a scribe, just a guy, and guy who might be a little off his rocker, at that.

In Christopher Moore’s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, tells the story of Jesus. Biff calls Jesus “Joshua,” saying that’s what they actually called him. Biff is a goof, and the book is irreverent and hilarious as Biff tells the stories of the young Messiah. Biff claims that the other Gospel writers got things all wrong, trying to make his best buddy Joshua sound all pious and stuff, and that they leave out the struggle and the funny and crazy things — including Jesus’ entire childhood and teenagerdom. So, long story short, Biff fills in the gaps. 

When it comes to John the Baptist, Biff describes young John as a 13 year old. Sure that he, John, is himself the Messiah (John the Baptizing Kid yells at young Jesus, “My birth was announced by an angel too, you know!”), John nearly drowns some of the other children trying to wash away their sins. Though he would indeed grow up to preach baptism and point the way to Jesus as Messiah, in this book, at 13, John is an obnoxious, pious little punk.

Of John, Biff says, “If there was anything I learned from John the Baptist, it was that the sooner you confess a mistake, the quicker you can get on to making new and better mistakes.” 

Wisdom, I guess.

One evening when the boys are all 13, Biff, John, and Jesus (or Joshua, as Biff calls him), have dinner, along with Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Joshua’s and John’s parents, who are cousins). 

Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s proud elderly mother, goes on and on about the encounter with the angel, talking about it as if it had happened yesterday, beaming with motherly pride.

Biff tells the story: “When [Elizabeth] paused to take a breath, [Mary] started in about the divine announcement of her own son’s birth….
After supper, Joshua and I built our own fire, away from the others… and John joined us. 

‘You are not the [Messiah],’ John said to Joshua. ‘Gabriel came to my father. Your angel didn’t even have a name.’

‘We shouldn’t be talking about these things.’ Joshua said.

‘The angel told my father that his son would prepare the way for the Lord. [That means I’m the Messiah.]’ 

‘Fine. I want nothing more than for you to be the Messiah,  John,’ [Joshua said].

‘Really? John asked. But your mother seems so, so…’” 

Just then, Biff, the good thirteen year old best buddy, interrupts John to brag about the miracles that Joshua had performing, including raising the dead. John grabs Biff by the tunic, calling him a liar, but eventually, Joshua admits that indeed he has performed a miracle or two. Biff continues telling the story:
“John released me, let out a long sigh, then sat back in the dirt. The firelight caught tears sparkling in his eyes as he stared at nothing. 

‘I am so relieved.,’ [he said.] I didn’t know what I would do. I don’t know how to be the Messiah.’ 

‘Neither do I,’ said Jesus.

‘Well, I hope you really can raise the dead,’ John said, ‘because this will kill my mother.’” (1)

John the Baptist, you see, isn’t a prestigious figure. He’s described in the Gospels as the kind of guy you’d probably try to avoid if you saw him on the street. He’s the kind of guy that you’d definitely think was a little off. He would likely smell a little funny, wouldn’t be dressed right, and you’d probably wonder if he was drunk or otherwise intoxicated by the way that he was talking. John isn’t just ordinary. He’s less than ordinary. He’s the kind of person you dismiss using words that we use to dismiss people: “He’s weird. Crazy. Kinda scary.” 

And the Word of the Lord came to that guy.

Do you ever think that God just has the oddest personnel or nominating committee? I mean, really. 

Yet, John becomes a prophet, a truth-teller. Luke pulls a poem from the prophet Isaiah to help him describe John: 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 

make his paths straight. 

Every valley shall be filled, 

every mountain and hill shall be made low, 

and the crooked shall be made straight, 

and the rough ways made smooth; 

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” 

This is in Isaiah 40, in the same poem where God says, “Comfort, comfort, my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” 

Mind you, this was in the age where travel was a difficult thing. You had to go on the back of an animal or on foot. It often involved camping, if there was no town or city in sight when night fell. There were no cars, no interstate highways. Trips of more than several miles could easily take days, not minutes or hours like they do for us today, and you had to climb all the hills yourself.

Lots of people died while traveling, either from the elements or from robbers along the way. So when Isaiah says that every mountain and hill in God’s way shall be made low, and every valley lifted up, and every crooked way be made straight, Isaiah is saying nothing less than all the barriers between us and God are about to be removed, which would’ve seemed like even more of a miracle to Isaiah’s original hearers. 

How fitting that a weirdo like John would carry that message. 

How fitting that Luke would use this song from Isaiah to talk about John, the kinda scary, kinda crazy person of very little fame who will point the way to God, who comes in flesh as the son of a poor carpenter. 

The barriers are gone. Nothing is going to stop God from getting to you. Not anxiety or depression, not grief or shame, not your sexuality, not your broken relationships, not your disappointments in yourself and other people, not your political views, not your addiction, not even your theology. Not even death itself. 

Perhaps the most powerful message of Advent is that nothing is powerful enough to keep God away. You’d have better luck convincing the sun not to rise in the morning. 

Advent reminds us that hope is always on the way. Always. And it never fails to reach its destination — even if it’s eventually. 

The word of God came to John, and everything changed.

It changed because this message of hope isn’t best conveyed by the powerful. Comfortable people don’t do well in spreading messages of hope, because the natural response is, “Easy for you to say.” 

No. Hope speaks most clearly to and through the broken, the grieving, the sick, the lost, the outcast, the mentally ill, the forgotten, the anxious, the depressed, the addicted, the people who are just trying to make it to the next paycheck and the people who couldn’t find work if they tried. People who have seen the lowest lows — which is most, if not all of us, at some point — know exactly how badly human beings need hope in our lives. Only by having been through pain can you possibly assure someone in pain that everything will be alright. Otherwise, we’re back at “easy for you to say.” 

And so, in 2018, in the second year of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, when Charlie Baker was the governor of Massachusetts, when Michael J. Sullivan was the town administrator of South Hadley, when Elizabeth Eaton was the presiding bishop of the ELCA and James Hazelwood was the bishop of the Lutherans in New England, the Word of the Lord came to Our Savior’s. 

It does. Every year, without fail. The arrival of Christmas never has a last-minute letdown. It is the word of love, of newfound hope, of trust, of God. It is love found in bread and wine and water and words. It is the love found in this building and in all the relationships that have formed here over the years. In you. 

Never underestimate your own power, for nothing can stop God from getting to you.
The word of God, the word of hope, has come, is coming, will come, to you. Sho’’nuff. Amen.

1. Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Harper Collins, 2004, p. 88-89.

Advent 1: Sho’Nuff

Screen Shot 2018-12-04 at 1.50.53 PM

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

There’s a wonderful little book out there that’s been turned into a musical about the life of Jesus. Now, I’m not really often one for the documentary-style PBS specials about the life of Christ, to be honest with you. I find that the material is a little too well-worn to say much that’s new, and that most of them depend more on the audience’s confirmation bias than anything else. In other words, they tend to preach to the choir.

That view entirely flips, however, if you want to talk to me about books and musicals and Jesus memes. Books like Lamb (a book written from the point of view of Jesus’ very goofy childhood friend) have lit up my life, and I do love a good (funny, please) Jesus meme. 

Now back to that wonderful little book: it’s written by Baptist pastor Clarence Jordan and it’s called The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. It tells the story of Jesus as if he’d been born close to where I was born: specifically, in Southern Jesus’ case, rural Georgia. It was turned into a musical in the early 1980s by Tom Key and Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin. It’s called, naturally, Cotton Patch Gospel. It’s a one man show performed with a quartet of bluegrass musicians. So in other words, we definitely did a version of this bluegrass musical about Jesus at the first church I pastored in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Now that happened to lead to an entire sermon series for Advent that year based on the song of John the Baptizer, a song called “Sho’ ‘Nuff.” (For the one to two of you needing a translation, that would be “Sure enough,” or a thing that Southerners say almost interchangeably with “Amen.” It’s an affirmation, a call of support, a declaration that what has been said will surely come to pass.) 

And it goes like this: “If I told you he was comin’ to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho ‘nuff? If I told you he was comin’ for the losers and winners, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho ‘nuff? If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho nuff?” 

Seriously. When you get home from church, go and search YouTube for Cotton Patch Gospel. (1)

I need your help, though. You see, you’re in for a little Southern treat. It’s like grits, but better. 

I’m revisiting one of those little sermons from 2012. And in the musical as in the sermons as in my home culture, if someone says, “Sho’ ‘nuff,” you should say it back. It’s the liturgy. 

So let’s try it. Sho’ ‘nuff!
If I told you he was comin’ to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff? (Sho’ ‘nuff!)

So, an obvious warning: today’s Gospel reading is probably not the one you wanna read at your Christmas dinner this year, unless you’re trying to call down judgment on your relatives, which — if that’s the case, you do you.

Point is, it’s not very Christmassy. That’s because it’s Advent. 

I know. Retailers have told us all that it’s Christmas 2018 since basically October of last year. But in here, it’s Advent. Advent is about waiting when we don’t have to wait for anything anymore, save, of course, for two day shipping. Sure, we’ll go sing carols everywhere this month, including in a bar tomorrow night.

But in here, in worship, it’s Advent. We’re waiting. And we’re reading about the end of the world. 

Merry… Christmas?
“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?”

Some Christians think this passage is about a final struggle. Lutherans are pretty firm that God doesn’t do much struggling, you know, being God and all, outside of that whole cross thing. According to us, the struggle between good and evil was won then. Love won over death. We don’t have to fear a struggle.

What happens in between? Well, yeah. That can get a bit scary. But you live in the world, and you already knew that. Everybody knows that we get scared sometimes. Some of us get scared of monsters in our closets; others get scared from reading news. You tell me which is better.
“Stand up and lift up your heads; your redemption is drawing near.” 

“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?” 

Jesus talks about this in our Gospel reading. Luke tells us that Jesus told them a parable about a fig tree. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” The kingdom of God is at hand. The leaves have already started to sprout. The Kingdom is breaking in already. Better keep watch — the time is near!

“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?”

Jesus tells them that this generation wouldn’t pass away until those things had taken place. And they did have their worlds shaken; probably less than fifty years from when Jesus said this, Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. This is the kind of event that would have you fainting from fear. 

But as for the rest of it? As for Jesus coming on a cloud? Is that a literal cloud? Lord, I don’t know. I’ll just be here with my Jesus memes. But I’ll tell you what I do know. 

The “kingdom of God” is kind of a bad translation since the word “kingdom” in Greek is active. It’s better to say “the reign of God.” When God reigns, God turns the world upside down and shakes it (in a good way). In the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, the first are last and the last are first. Every mouth is fed, and every tear is dry. There is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

“If I told you he was comin’ for the losers and winners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?”

The color that we use for Advent is blue. It used to be purple, you see, before some people decided that we need to separate Advent from Lent. And I like that idea, because you see, the new color they chose is the color of the sky. 

It isn’t just the color of any sky, though. 

It’s the color of the sky right before the sun rises. In that moment that the dawn is breaking, but you haven’t seen the sun quite yet — the sky turns this color of blue. But the sun is on its way, and nothing, it seems, will stop it. No matter how big you think that monster under your bed is or how scary the news got that night.

I don’t know about you, but I need Advent. 

Because every year, I come back to Advent with more pain. Every year, I have seen more death in the world. Every year, my memory is filled with new wars and injustices and terrible things on the news. Every year, I’m missing at least one new person, usually several, because a friend or family member or another dear saint of God has died. Every year. New signs of the brokenness of the world, new divides have ripped through our relationships and our nation and our world. Every year, I have seen more hungry people. Every year, we lose someone else to cancer or addiction or heart disease or mental illness or an accident or one of the many ways we lose people. Every year, we bring our tears in here during the literal darkest days of the year, and we wait for the light.

“If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?” 

Our ancestors weren’t dumb, you know. The ones from northern climates like this one gathered evergreen branches this time of year for a reason. We come together and we gather anything that looks alive outside and we light candles and we string up lights and we decorate this altar in blue to remind us: winter isn’t forever. The light is coming back. No matter how deep the darkness is sinking, the dawn is on the way. 

“If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?”

Sho’ ‘nuff?
Sho’ ‘nuff. Amen.

1. You can listen to a cast recording here.

Guest Post for Christ the King Sunday: On Being King – Speaking Truth to Power

This sermon was written and preached by Debbie Brown, current council president and faithful member of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, MA. 

John 18:33-38a
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38aPilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 11.14.55 AM.pngScreenshot from the game Civilization by Sid Meyers.

I hear a lot of complaints from parents about the amount of time their kids play on video games. And anyone who has spent more than a day with a gamer will understand why. Bill and I were fortunate enough to have our grandsons Jaleel and Tyrese living with us for a couple of years. While they were with us, both of their computers were on either side of the dining room. So I got a chance to watch them play a variety of games. Although some of the games were definitely cause for my concern, I especially enjoyed watching them play Sid Meier’s Civilization. 

The game involved creating civilizations and building cultures in historical time periods. Each of the boys had their own style of play with differing strategies. When they first started playing, Jaleel decided he wanted a civilization based on a form of socialism. He made sure everyone had an abundance food, water, a roof over their heads, and a meaningful job. It soon became apparent that this tactic wouldn’t work. Without challenges for growth, his people became lazy. They had no incentive or need to excel at anything. As a result, his civilization collapsed when stronger civilizations overpowered them. 

Tyrese on the other hand decided to be a heavy-handed dictator. Any infringement on the law was rewarded with jail time and/or execution. Before he knew it, he had more people in prison than free. The prisoners soon violently revolted, resulting in complete anarchy. It wasn’t a pretty sight. His civilization rapidly collapsed and he was killed.

With each successive try, the boys learned more about what motivates human beings and how to be an effective leader. Jaleel built a strong economy, supported the arts and humanities, and provided for his people. But his brother had an even better idea. He created a strong faith-based civilization, sent missionaries into Jaleel’s territory and stole everything from him. Jaleel’s only recourse was to buy his own missionaries to convert Ty’s people who would then tithe, making him enough money to pay even more incentives to his missionaries.

Ty summed up his experience to me like this, and I quote, “Jaleel wanted to let me have some power while also maintaining his supremacy. I only had the leg up on him once in our many games. It always came down to me trying to kill him before he killed me. Any alliance with Jaleel was a ticking time bomb. We each wanted to win, but we couldn’t without breaking the alliance.”

Ty’s insight was spot on. It turns out the game is programmed to follow what is known as the 4X theory of power. Players achieve victory through four routes, “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.” 

Does this sound at all familiar? It seems to be the same story played out over and over again throughout history. Worldly power, both secular and religious, attempts to maintain itself, to win at all cost using any means necessary. It is manipulative and can even present itself as being altruistic and faith-based. 

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself on the wrong side of people with great power. The Jewish leaders see him as a threat to their fragile existence under the Romans. They want him gone, so they twist the truth about his teachings and accuse him of blasphemy. But they don’t have the power to put him to death. They plot to have him killed by taking his teachings out of context and making a case for him to be brought to Pilate as a traitor to the Roman Empire. 

We have to give some credit to Pilate. He doesn’t really buy their accusations. But this situation was turning into a political nightmare for him. He questions Jesus about the charges, asking him if he is the King of the Jews. But Jesus takes control of the conversation, putting Pilate on trial so to speak. Was Pilate wondering for himself or only repeating what others told him?  

Pilate avoids the question and asks Jesus what he did to deserve death if he isn’t a king? Jesus reassures Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and that he has no aspirations to become an earthly king… wouldn’t his followers have put up a fight if he were? Confused, Pilate scoffs…. oh, so you are a king?  Jesus reminds Pilate that HE is the one who referenced him as a king and went on to explain that his purpose has been to testify to the truth. 

Pilate then responds with the very famous line, “What is truth?”

I don’t know about you, but lately I have been thinking a lot about truth. With terms like alternate truths and claims of fake news, I have been left asking the same question as Pilate’s…. “What is truth?” 

We spent some time talking about this at one of our adult Bible studies on John. Like Pilate, I was focused on truth as it applied to statements, events or stories. But Pastor Anna reminded us that everything in John’s Gospel is meant to be a revelation of Jesus.

He is God’s word, originated beyond time and space, made flesh, and lived among us in human form. Throughout his life, he did God’s work as a healer and miracle worker. He is the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, good shepherd, and true vine. He is the way, the resurrection and the life. He IS the truth.

Jesus may be sitting in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the known world, but he is very much in control. His kingdom is not of this world, and his power does not manipulate and destroy like human power does. 

Pilate was all too familiar with the workings of kings and their power over the people. Kings used their wealth and knowledge of the human condition to manipulate them by invoking fear of punishment, hunger, isolation, and even fear of the other in order to motivate loyalty.

Conversely, Jesus’ power is evident at his crucifixion. In that moment, his love is displayed on the cross where he willingly gave up his life to free all people from the power of sin and death. HIS power is centered in love and self-sacrifice rather than in wealth and self-preservation.

We may not be governed by kings anymore, but we are still subject to the never-ending cycle of earthly power in our lives. Worries about safety, health, wealth, hunger, loneliness, unworthiness, and powerlessness are a result of fear – fear that threatens to snuff out the hope we have in the one who came to set us free from the power of sin and death. 

Jesus’ willingness to lay his life down for us is proof of God’s love. God provides us with an abundance of resources, a community of faithful followers, and the ability to reason and think creatively. Under Jesus’ reign the destructive cycle of earthly power governed by the 4X principle of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” is broken.

Instead, we are gathered into the kingdom of God, joined together in our baptism and at the table where we receive food for our journey. We are not motivated by fear or armed with wealth and weapons. Instead, we are armed with Jesus’ instruction to love one another as he loved us. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. This undeserved, unearned love has the power to transform all of life.

On this day, at the end of the church year, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and are reminded that Jesus loves us, freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom…..priests serving his God and Father.  

With Jesus as our King, we are freed to live a new life based on a principle that I call the 4V principle: serVe, loVe, forgiVe, and inVite others.     

Next week, we begin the season of Advent. Using Luke’s Gospel and the prophetic readings, we will be challenged to come face to face with our need for freedom from the earthly powers in our lives. 

This Advent, may you be fed in body and spirit, may you be freed to serve others and proclaim God’s love for all people, and may you be transformed by a greater power … the power that is TRUTH… 

Amen.

References to Sid Meier’s Civilization taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_(series)

References to Advent themes taken from: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1985