I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter: The Sermon

Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 2.06.10 PM.png
Yeah. You know the stuff.

Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-11

When you’ve got to drive a long way, how do you keep yourself awake and engaged?

I never thought I would know more than one person who stays awake on road trips by listening to and yelling back at hellfire and brimstone radio preachers. One of those people is me. The many others are everyone from seminary friends to people from my home church.

Those loud, angry radio preachers seem much more common in the South, but as you know, they’re naturally everywhere, including here, usually on the AM stations or the lower end of the FM dial. They draw their inspiration from passages like the Isaiah passage — “here am I; send me!” They volunteer to go preach the Gospel. To become, as stated in the Gospel passage for today, “fishers of men,” as the King James put it; the Gospel is the bait, the line is the radio waves, and the listeners are the fish. 

In those cases, I’ve always been one angry fish, doing nothing but shouting at the “bait.” 

Because by and large, it isn’t very good bait. It’s supposed to be Good News (the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”), but all I ever remember hearing is about what God would do to people who don’t follow the very narrow plan that God wants. It always seems less like Good News and more like bad news. It was as if someone told you that you were in grave danger and then said “wait, I have good news!” then gave you a ten thousand bullet point checklist for survival and told you that you had ten minutes to complete it. Well, they would say when you protest that this checklist is impossible: as the Good Book states, “narrow is the way, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). 

Narrow is the way indeed, but I daresay not in the way that these preachers think. This sort of thinking — that we must be good in order for God to love us — is, in its final theological product, missing something pretty key that changes everything. Namely, God’s love. Namely, that this sort of thinking makes the Gospel into a story about how good Christians are for our herculean efforts to be “good” instead of a story about how good God is. That is a poor substitution indeed.

Let me continue to explain by way of cookies. 

My best friend from my hometown, Samuel, and I have been friends for years and years. One day, when Samuel was but a tender sophomore in high school, he set out to make homemade cookies.

The recipe he found, as most chocolate chip cookie recipes do, called for butter. Young Samuel opened his parents’ fridge and found none; his parents were on a diet, or something. Pushing aside some other condiments, however, Samuel found the hope of his young baker’s career: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. 

And so my dear Samuel used I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in the cookie recipe. Everything seemed fairly normal, as it were, until the cookies were pulled out of the oven. 

What Samuel pulled out of the oven was, as the experienced bakers in the room already know, not cookies. The substance was charred and still liquid, which would lead to them running sideways down the pan when it was turned. If you ever need to know what happens when you use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, Samuel can tell you the answer: you get I Can’t Believe They’re Not Cookies.

I want to argue something very simple here: that when you preach the Gospel — which literally means “good news” — and substitute stuff we do for what God does, you’re going to end up with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News. Charred, burned, running down the pan. Not the Gospel.

Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing good things. We’re called to love our neighbors and help them out, to be generally good humans in the world, to be kind and trustworthy and loving people. But that’s not why God loves us. “Good humans” is who we tend to become when we know we’re loved. People who know that they are loved are more themselves, more secure, more honest, more trustworthy.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News gets that all backwards. 

God is exclusive in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News theology. Nothing about it seems very good, which seems strange for a God who, as we read in our Genesis study this morning, created everything and then danced over it exclaiming, “Very good! Very good!” 

I know, I know. Adam and Eve sinned and it messed it all up. (That’s next week’s study.) But over and over in the Bible, we’re reminded that God still loves us and calls us good and says what we are formed out of the dust in God’s own image. God still delights in us, so much that God became one of us and walked along the seashore calling not the best and brightest, but some ordinary fishermen. 

Yes, we are some messed up people. We, too, are pretty ordinary at best. What’s more, the world is sinful, but not in the way you might’ve heard on the radio. 

I can’t blame the radio preachers, really. The Isaiah passage ends with some pretty bad news, too. A frustrated God tells Isaiah that the people have been so unwilling to hear God’s voice of love that now they’re unable to hear it, and they’ve plunged into self-made destruction. That sounds familiar. The Bible calls us to “repent” — literally, turn around — for a reason.

But you see, I don’t think the world is sinful because there are gay guys and cusswords on TV sometimes. Besides not subscribing to that kind of spiritual violence, I don’t think God is so petty as to watch every moment of our lives for any sign of offense so that God can keep score and get God’s due later. No.

The world is sinful because people starve and have nothing — even clean water — because of the greed of others, and countless others die because of needless violence, both here in the US and abroad.

The world is sinful because we live in a culture that constantly tells us that we’re not created good, but that we need to earn our goodness by working hard enough and being good enough and being beautiful and thin and young forever. 

Never forget that in Hebrew, Satan, ha-satan, means “the accuser.” The voice that tells you that you are and always will be messed up and can’t ever earn God’s love — so you  either keep trying until you break and become angry and bitter, or you just give up on God and yourself.

Satan. The accuser.

I think I’ve heard Satan on the radio. And in my own head. I wager you have too. You’ve probably heard Satan in church at some point, too, telling you that you need to earn your way to God.

Listen to me and see what’s right here in front of us, as clear as the image of God imprinted in each of our hands and faces and feet and breath: the Gospel is good news, but not because of what you do. The Gospel is a story about God. The God who brought you into this world and gave you your first breath and the God who will see you safely into eternity still calls you good. 

God still calls you to see what’s right there: that you are beloved and you are called, not because you earned it, but because you were created from the dust and given God’s breath of life. You are beloved and you are called because you breathe. The real Good News is right there, as close as your next breath. 

As close as Jesus was to Peter when he tells him to cast those nets down one more time. Peter scoffs. That doesn’t make sense. He protests: we’ve been working so HARD! 

Just listen to Jesus, will you? And they cast that net on the other side and they got so many fish it was comical as they and the folks in the other boat struggled to get it all to shore. 

And that’s how it all began, this church thing.

I know, it sounds lazy or too good to be true, or something. Surely we have to do something. It’s not easy to believe — narrow is the way, because most people want to earn it. They logically think we have to do something to earn it. That’s how the world works, after all.  

But the road that says “work harder” is broad and leads to destruction and self-loathing. It’s why both Peter and Isaiah tried to scare God away by telling God how sinful they are. Every prophet in the Bible tries to scare God away somehow.

But God don’t scare easy. 

So here’s the bottom line: the next time you run out of butter, just step out to the store and get more butter. And the next time you’re on a road trip, or any other time you doubt God’s love and your own goodness, find something that helps you feel more you, more created by God, more beloved. You can believe this is good news, because it is.

Accept no substitutions.

Amen.

Advertisements

Love Your Haters

Screen Shot 2019-02-04 at 10.20.53 AM
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Luke 4:21-30

If you’re not a New England Patriots fan, I’m a little sorry. There is good news in this for you, too, but this sermon right here is what you might call Patriots-heavy. 

Because beloved, we have reached this, a holy day.
Today is Super Bowl Sunday. I came here to preach the Gospel, take the Eucharist, and pray for the church, the world, and Tom Brady’s arm. Anybody with me?

If you’ve been watching any of the Super Bowl coverage this week, you’ve probably seen that there have been several really fun, really good stories about the Patriots. There was the girl quarterback from New Hampshire who wears #11 in honor of receiver Julian Edelman. She’d been bullied in school for playing pee wee football, and when Julian got wind of it, he wanted to meet her. He got her tickets to the Super Bowl, too. 

Another one is this — during a press conference this week, they let kids ask questions, and one young Pats fan had a question for Tom Brady. The little boy asked the GOAT: “How do you concentrate when people say mean stuff about you?”

Brady smiled at the boy. “You mean the haters?” He said, laughing as the Pats-friendly crowd jeered the haters. “What do we do about the haters?” The quarterback paused and took in the crowd’s reaction, then he turned back to the young fan. 

“We love ‘em. We love the haters, okay — ‘cause we don’t hate back. That’s not who we are.” 

I was recounting this story to a friend this week, who despite all his good traits, is an Eagles fan, and he said, “I mean, I know sometimes Patriots fans mix up the two, but you know Jesus said that first, right?” 

Yeah, yeah, I know. The original GOAT, as we will call Jesus on this holy day, had his own set of haters, and you’ll find some of them in the Gospel text this week. I know that it’s easy to let your mind drift off during the Gospel reading — I know, because I used to do that before I had to read it myself — but did you miss Jesus almost getting thrown off a cliff by his haters?

What did Jesus say to make them so mad? Well, in a nutshell, he says that he doesn’t have to prove to them that he is who he says he is, and that God is ever active in the lives not of the powerful, or even those you would expect, but that God is most interested in the lives of outsiders — this one particular starving widow, and a Syrian — and a Gentile — named Namaan. You know, the usual good Gospel stuff that earns Jesus more haters.

Then Luke tells us that they were “filled with rage” and drove him right out of their synagogue, right out of their town, right to the brow of the hill that their town was built on, then they tried to throw him off. This is like if someone said from this pulpit that they were rooting for the Rams in the Super Bowl and it wasn’t enough to throw that person out of the building, but y’all ran them all the way to the bridge to Holyoke and tried to throw them off. 

Again, for the record: go Pats. 

So they try to throw the Son of God off a cliff. That’s generally a bad idea, I think. A Son of God, I imagine, has got to have some wicked cool superhero judo tricks up his sleeve. 

But what does Jesus do to his haters? He walks away. Jesus chooses love instead of hating back.

Luke just says he “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Two thousand years before New England’s GOAT would express the same sentiment to a kid at a press conference, the original GOAT, Jesus, will go on to preach, two chapters after this story in Luke and tell everyone what to do about the haters: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Instead of choosing to hate back, Jesus says to choose love. 

I have to say what everyone here already knows: that is not easy.

The theme for today, kids, is love. The Gospel in a word is love. And it’s easy to love here, at Our Savior’s, surrounded by people who love you too. It’s easy to love your family when they give you what you want and generally treat you nicely. It’s easy to love strangers when they are kind to us. It’s easy to love your children and/or your significant other when they always pick up their socks and behave well. It’s easy to love the fans of other NFL teams when they don’t talk trash about your team. But New England fans know that that’s not always the case. 

Paul wrote some of the most famous words in Christianity, and we read them today. Most people, even if they haven’t been to church in years or ever, can recite them: “Love is patient; love is kind.” And if everyone in the whole world could be patient and kind, love would always be easy. 

But the truth is that everyone isn’t patient or kind. I’m not always patient or kind, and neither are you. I know that not because I think you’re bad people, but because I know you’re human just like me. And when I’m not being patient or kind, what I really need down in my soul is for somebody to love me in that moment — to see through the bitterness and anger and see the hurting person underneath, even when I make it nearly impossible. I heard a story on the radio recently about a woman who had had the worst day imaginable: everything in her world was falling apart. Then she went to the pharmacy to pick up her prescriptions and the employee was needlessly rude to her. Then another customer was rude to her. And something in this woman snapped. She flew into a blind rage, even pepper-spraying a fellow customer. 

She wasn’t a bad person. It’s just that everything boiled over all at once, and she couldn’t handle it anymore. What finally stopped her rage, she said, was a kind man who came towards her when everyone else had backed away. 

“What did he say?” The interviewer asked. 

The woman replied simply, “He just asked me what was bothering me.” 

That, my friends, is love. Fearless love. The kind that silences rage. 

Love is a choice. It’s a choice to see angry people as just people, and to choose to treat them better than they treat you. 

(A brief aside: this doesn’t mean that you have to be quiet about abuse. You’re not required to be quiet about someone who constantly acts destructively towards you. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to speak up against abuse.) 

But for the everyday haters, we can choose love. We can choose love because we’re all human. We’re all haters sometimes. And we deal with angry people all the time. But the haters are people, just like us. And people need love.

So before you get on social media tonight after we win the Super Bowl and start to fight with that random Patriots hater, and before Monday when you’re in traffic and someone cuts you off and then flips you off, and before Tuesday when a family member or friend or significant other pushes your buttons just right — before anyone else acts like a hater to you, just remember what Tom Brady and Jesus Christ told you. 

What do we do about the haters? “We love ‘em.” Because even haters are humans, and humans need love. And so do we. So choose love.

And go Patriots. Amen.

Synagogues and Cell Phones

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 4.33.26 PM.png
Or, “When simple things mean everything and post-church theological diatribes are merely annoying.” 

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

In case you’re pretty new here or you’ve just never thought about it — no, I don’t pick out what text I’m preaching on every week. Most of you probably know by now that our texts are on a three year cycle following the church year, and that I love that the texts that I preach on are not pulled from my own personal favorites or whatever I happened to land on that week, but something that we tackle with Christians all over the world. (1)

There are drawbacks to this three year cycle, however.

Well over ten years ago now, renowned New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine said at a conference I was attending: “Oh, the lectionary. God bless the lectionary. Sleep in one Sunday and you miss the story for the next three years.” 

Dr. Levine isn’t a pastor; she’s Jewish, actually. This gave me a great perspective, however, on how people in the pews — that is, you — might see the lectionary. You see, because from this side of the pulpit, after a few years, it can all begin to feel awfully repetitive. It only takes three years of preaching every week, after all, to get what I like to call the “complete set” – a sermon from each Sunday of the whole church year. And after that, every Sunday brings memories of sermons you’ve preached before.

I admit that I had a hard time sermonizing this week, so I decided to let the memories take me where they will and trust that the Spirit is working in them.

This story comes up quite a lot in the lectionary, too. Sleep in this Sunday and you won’t miss it for three years. It makes sense that we read it a lot: during this time of year, the season after Epiphany, we’re telling the story of Jesus’ light being revealed to the world bit by bit. Last Sunday, we heard about him turning water into wine in his first miracle. And this Sunday, we’ve got Jesus in his hometown, preaching, sort of, to his home congregation.

MEMORY ONE
This is where my memory takes me back to my second sermon ever. 

Let me pause briefly to say that way too often, the Church makes preachers out to be Saviors, and we preachers are often happy to play along. The cardinal rule that I was taught about preaching, however, is that if you look at a Gospel story and the character that you most strongly identify yourself with is Jesus, you probably need to look a little more closely at what the point of your sermon is. So by way of preface, I will remark: while this story includes me preaching “at home,” in a sense, I’m not Jesus in this story. In fact, I’m not Jesus at all. 

Moving on.

So my second sermon ever was delivered on this particular Sunday sometime around 2009 in a tiny church in rural Alabama. I was in seminary, and a friend and first year pastor who was out of town that Sunday and asked me if I’d be willing to drive from Atlanta just over the state line into Alabama to preach for him. I agreed, although what they paid me would barely cover the fuel to get there, because I did need more preaching experience. I was only one sermon into my preaching life, after all, and my first sermon two years earlier, while theologically sound, had lasted a total of three and a half minutes. 

So I took the pulpit in this tiny church and began my sermon. I wasn’t two sentences in before I felt a tug on my sleeve. “Use the other microphone,” a kind-faced woman said; “that one doesn’t work so good.” 

I switched microphones and continued, preaching a sermon on this story that was indeed longer than three minutes and thirty seconds and was also, I thought, my okayest sermon yet. Feeling pretty good about the whole thing, I exchanged pleasantries with members of the congregation and began to pack up my things to drive the two hours back to Atlanta.

That’s when I noticed the tall and lean bass player from the praise band sidling up to me. He was about my dad’s age, with a long gray ponytail and several leather accessories telling me that he took his role in the praise band seriously. He had a hard look in his eyes, but I could tell he was trying to look kind but stern, in a fatherly way. As a young woman finding her way into church leadership, I had already learned to recognize that look and brace myself. 

As I remember, he got right to the point.

“I’m a member of an organization that seeks to bring Jews to Christ,” he said, “so I know a thing or two about synagogue services. I just wanted to let you know about what you got wrong about how they go.” 

I resisted the full body cringe that those two simple sentences were bringing on, and I and politely smiled as he told me how the liturgy of a synagogue service generally runs.

There hadn’t been any such details in my sermon, so I was unsure about what he thought I got “wrong” that wasn’t just me reading from the Bible itself, but I let him go on, smiling and nodding in that way that everyone, especially women, are pretty accustomed to doing when we’re being polite to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but doesn’t know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

When he finished, he handed me a brochure for the organization. I’ve kept it an entire decade later, and it stays in my Bible because — well, I’m not sure why, but it does.

One of the life skills I think we all learn fairly quickly is to know when someone is just doing what they think is right and being patient with them when they aren’t actually harming anyone. Sure, you can make a good argument about this organization doing harm, but I somehow doubted that he was willing to listen to my opinion on evangelizing our Jewish neighbors. He was following Jesus as best he knew how; that was for sure.

MEMORY TWO
Years later, I found myself at the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive Christian outdoor festival in North Carolina that loves talking about proclaiming release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind — the things Jesus finds himself reading about in the synagogue in this passage. Many kinds of Christians come to the Wild Goose Festival, not all of them progressive, but most all of them willing to get along with everyone and live in community for a week. 

Typically, several outlets throughout the campground are dedicated to power strips set up so that people can charge their phones. The campground is happily situated in a part of the Appalachian Mountains that doesn’t have a lick of cell service, but there is a cafe with WiFi nearby for people who want or need to contact the outside world, so we all had reason enough to want to charge our phones.

I had had a problem previously with my phone not charging, and I stood at the charging station muttering curses under my breath before the volunteer manning the station noticed me. He appeared to be at that age where you don’t know whether to call him a boy or a young man, but since I’m a terrible judge of age, let’s assume that he was probably at least in college. He, too, had a ponytail. He had kind brown eyes and an easy smile.  Seeing me struggle, he said humbly: “Can I help? I’m pretty good with these things.” 

Desperate, I handed him the phone and the charger and watched as he carefully cleaned off the charger with his shirt and blew a puff of air into the port. Then he carefully placed the charger into the port, and BAM. Charging.

These years later, I still mimic that kid who was probably my age whenever my phone charger won’t work, and it usually gets it working.

Those two stories stood side by side in my consciousness this week as I contemplated what it means to follow the Jesus who proclaimed “release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Those things seem big, and cosmic, and daunting, but I think it’s no real mistake that right next to this text, we also read Paul’s little diatribe about the Body of Christ, and how we’re each parts of that body.

I think Paul’s whole point is that we are parts of Christ’s body, and that can get us feeling like we have to save the whole world — including evangelizing everyone and making sure that young preachers get all the details of synagogue services right. It can lead us preachers into thinking that we’re the Saviors. It can lead us all into convincing ourselves that we have to save the world.

But we’re not, and we don’t.

So instead of trying to be the boss — the head — all the time, I’ve taken to thinking that I prefer to be a strong arm, or a hand, or a calloused but experienced foot, ready to kick butt and take names.

I know — that can go off the rails pretty quickly, so I’ll stop. But take this to our annual meeting, and then take it home: we are not the Saviors. We are not the brains of the body of Christ. Those jobs are taken.

What we can be instead is like that guy at the Wild Goose Festival: humble, helpful, practical. We can be hands and feet, following the directions of the brain, taking the callouses, and the pain, and the joy of work and the joy of moving things and making a difference in the world. Believe it or not, that is enough — enough to save someone’s life and enough to make sure they have a charged phone. Either is helpful, and either is enough. 

We like to imagine ourselves as important pieces in this cosmic struggle between good and evil, putting all kinds of pressure on ourselves and other people, finding ourselves deeply bitter and critical before we know it. 

But you don’t have to be the Savior, or the brains of the operation. Position already filled. What you have to do is what’s painted above the coats in our narthex: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. 

So love someone however you can. Help someone, even if it’s in a small way. You might save a life — or, you might just teach them a trick that they can use to charge their cellphone for years. Either one is worth it. Either one is enough. Amen.

1. An easy-to-use “what’s next in the lectionary” site can be found here, complete with the passages themselves as well as related art and prayer.

Jesus Brings the Good Wine

Screen Shot 2019-01-20 at 1.36.09 PM.png
Ever feel nagged by your parents? You’re in good company. Just look at the Lord’s face. “MOOOOOM…”

John 2:1-11

1913 Nobel prize winning Bengali poet, musician, and general renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore said, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” 

That sounds so nice, but really, the future is terrifying, usually, at least on some level. It’s a thing that fills us with anxiety these days and always. Up until last night, I had my own worries about whether anyone would make it to church tomorrow. But look at you: here you are.

Jon Lovett, host of one of my favorite podcasts, said something pretty profound recently: it was something to the effect of, “What’s with everyone trashing ‘looking back on the past’? It’s the only way we can look!” For sure, the future is always unknown and today is no different. How will the roads be when you leave? More, what’s going to happen with this government shutdown? What’s happening with the future of our country? What’s going to happen in Syria? And it’s not just the news, either: it’s personal. Are the kids alright? Many of you worry about your children and grandchildren, no matter how old they are, and you always will. Whether you have kids or not, you probably worry about things like long term finances, getting older, your general health and the health of your loved ones. The future is scary, and it always has been.

Along with that, here in the church we’re worried about the future too. As we talk about our upcoming retreat, I’ve sensed a little bit of anxiety from more than a few of you: what will the future look like for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church? We all see the numbers falling and we know it’s not just us: the church in all of New England and in the United States has started to take hit after hit as people find plenty of other things to do with their Sunday mornings. 

I still think it’s an amazing opportunity that we have, don’t get me wrong. I think that pastoring and growing a church was quite different in the South, where most people still feel some obligation do the church thing, even in the cities. I’m happy to be here, though, and not just because by this point I’m practically allergic to religious obligation, far preferring people who are here because they want to be here — even when the roads are icy or they have to tune into some silly Facebook live thing. 

I love being here, you see, because the church in New England is exactly where the Church in the South is going, but like many cultural things from region to region, it’s on a delay. I’d rather be part of figuring out the future than trying to preserve a status quo that certainly won’t stay.

Even when you frame the problems of the future as an opportunity, though, it makes sense that the future would cause us anxiety, and no romantic quotes from Nobel-prize winning poets about trees are likely to make us feel much better about it. 

And here comes Jesus in today’s Gospel text. He’s doing a remarkably mundane thing for a Savior of the world: he’s attending a wedding. Along with new births and coming of age rituals, weddings are about the future, too, and they tell us something about how to approach the future. Namely, that we don’t know the future, so we might as well have wine and dance and celebrate the love that is.

Along with that, I have to tell you: of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like the one contained in these eleven verses the best.

Sure, there’s Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons and decrying the abuse of the poor. There’s Jesus the good shepherd, Jesus the playful, Jesus the sharp-witted. There’s Jesus the gentle, cradling children in his arms, and there’s Jesus the wild and political, flipping over table after table in the temple and making an actual whip (don’t miss that) out of cords. That Jesus will show up about three verses after this text is over, actually.

But for right now, he’s at a wedding, and there’s no whip, only wine.

Yes, my absolute favorite Jesus is the Jesus of John 2:1-11. First of all, he’s relatable. He’s the one who gets nagged by his mom then saves the party immediately before he turns the party. The Jesus of John 2:1-11 is like a good best friend, specifically, like my best friend Samuel: I love him and relate to him and I remain a little in awe of him, even after all these years. It also helps that he always shows up at just the right time with the good wine in tow.

Times were hard in first-century Israel, though, and they worried about the future in ways that we can’t even fathom. Their world was far more unstable than even ours. Rome had them conquered and suppressed. Jewish folks like Jesus and ostensibly the other wedding guests often feared for their lives. 

They lived as the very definition of a minority: those who had power were very different than they were, and like minorities often do, they often found themselves on the wrong side of violent actions, state-sanctioned and otherwise.

As always, however, life went on in the first century as life tends to do; people were born, people died, people got married and sometimes people even fell in love. But times were hard and the future was unknown. The text doesn’t even tell us why the hosts of this wedding ran out of wine. Maybe they were poor, maybe the harvest was bad that year, or maybe they were just bad planners. The Gospel writer doesn’t think that’s an important detail. The point is, they ran out of wine. And Jesus’ mom, a guest at the wedding with her son the Son of Man noticed.

I imagine that she whispers her dialogue to him across the table at the reception. Back then, receptions could be days long, but for our purposes, just imagine it like any reception today. It would seem that Jesus’ mother knows that he can do something about this little wine shortage. And you know how the story goes: Jesus’ first miracle is one of his most famous, after all. With a good dose of motherly cajoling including Jesus never actually verbally agreeing, Jesus instructs the servants to get some water and he turns it into wine, and not just any wine: good wine, and a lot of it.

(As my adult ed students from last fall will remember from our study of John, in John, wherever Jesus is, there’s a lot of everything good: food, wine, perfume, spices.) 

Now, arguably the best part about this wedding wine: in the story, only the servants, Jesus, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ disciples ever actually knew what happened. It’s the hosts of the wedding that get the compliments for bringing out the good wine. As readers, we are privy to knowledge that characters in the story aren’t; specifically, as one of my seminary friends used to say, that “Jesus kept the party going.” What’s more, this is the first time that John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ disciples “believed in him” (v. 11). Jesus turns the party, and they believe.

These days, most of us are feeling tired and anxious about the future.

The news moves at a pace that even professional journalists have a hard time keeping up with. Many of us worry about the state of the nation and the state of the world and the state of the church.

What’s more, this season of Epiphany always contains some of the worst weather New England has to offer. We worry about what storm will be next and how bad it will be. And many, many more people in New England and elsewhere live under conditions so difficult that the weather is the least of their worries.

In the midst of all of it, this text finds us, in the middle of January during yet another year in a universal church with an uncertain future, in furious America and in a furious world. This is where Jesus shows up to the wedding, brings the good wine, and toasts to the future.

John 2 is a text so full of joyful abundance that if you listen, you can hear the characters giggle in tipsy glee and newfound belief. They dance, even as they are in the midst of a furious and violent world and an uncertain future. They dance because they are at a wedding, and because God showed up. In the midst of everything, they find something to celebrate: each other, and Christ’s presence among them.

Yes, of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like this Jesus best. So don’t forget to dance at the wedding. Even in the midst of your worries, find the time to toast to the future as we continue to build all our futures and our church’s future together.

Rabindranath Tagore said, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”

I agree. I also think that when we think of the future, we shouldn’t forget to toast to whatever may be, if we are to let Jesus be our guide: we shouldn’t forget to dance at the wedding, either. So bring out the good wine and put the bread on the table. We have a future to celebrate, this Sunday and every Sunday. Amen. (1)

1. The basis for this sermon was an article I wrote for the lectionary blog Modern Metanoia. You can find it here.

Baptism of Our Lord: Enough, Beloved

Screen Shot 2019-01-14 at 4.09.07 PM.png

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

When the new year turns over, some people make new year’s resolutions. And then other people trash the very concept of new year’s resolutions.

As for me, I stopped making vague new year’s resolutions a long time ago: you know, the ones where you promise yourself you’ll read more, or exercise more, or be more kind. Those might work for some folks, but they’ve never worked for me; by January 3rd, I’ll have read nothing but Instagram posts while I sat on the couch feeling as unkind as the year before. 

No, if I’m going to have new year’s resolutions, they have to be specific and measurable and actually realistic: I’ll read four books this year, I say, because despite what you might think, reading actually doesn’t come naturally or easily for me. I’ll sign up for a three month program at a local gym. I’ll try going for a whole week without yelling at someone in traffic. (Okay, that’s probably not realistic.) 

Even then, though, some fall by the wayside, and I join the chorus of people who like to make fun of new year’s resolutions.

So, if you make resolutions, how are yours going? Or did you give up on the very concept of resolutions long ago? (Honestly, many years, I’ve thought, “I can’t do resolutions and Lent, and Jesus only asks me to do the thing for forty days and not three-sixty-five, so I choose Jesus.”)

I’ve lamented the way that we’ve started to increasingly trash the very concept of resolutions as a culture, but recently, I’ve been rethinking the whole phenomenon. Maybe we’re not so much trashing other people’s resolutions to be better. Maybe we’re just being more realistic about ourselves and other people. 

Because you see, it’s a really common human thing to assume that everyone else has it more together than you do. As we age, I think, we start to realize that just about everyone around us is faking it and just doing the best they can with what they have, but even then, our tendency to assume that other people are more on top of things than we are is pervasive. 

As an example, take this: every now and then, I catch a mood to watch an historical documentary. I especially like the ones from contemporary history, that is, history that I either remember because it happened within my lifetime or the lifetimes of people still alive today. It’s the history that I feel closest to, for obvious reasons: we can talk about the events that we all witnessed together. While all history is putting together a puzzle, we simply have more of the pieces from the most recent past, and we don’t have to do as much imagining as we do, say, when we talk about the American Revolution. When we think about the American Revolution, we often romanticize our brave forebears. We assume that they were brave and had it all together. When we talk about the 1970s, we do far less romanticizing. 

I watched a documentary a year or so ago about the 1960s. I had forgotten just how turbulent the 1960s were, and to this day I can’t imagine the seismic shifting that occurred during that decade: fears of nuclear annihilation, assassinations of key figures all over the place, including the President of the United States, hugely shifting social sands, the draft, and much, much more. After watching this documentary, I sat at coffee hour in our fellowship hall and somehow the topic came up. I asked three or so of you who can remember the 1960s a lingering question that I had, a simple one: 

How did you all not freak out for that entire decade?

The answer came swiftly: we did. 

Someday, thirty, forty years from now, I imagine some punk will watch a documentary and ask the same question of me: how did you make it through such turbulent times? 

I’ll be thinking about my answer until then, but for now, all I’ve got is prayer, good friends, and not a little whiskey. 

You see, just like we assume that other people around us have it together, keeping their new year’s resolutions, improving their lives, being good parents, having everything on track, we assume that our forebears in history and in faith did too. Whenever someone says to me, “Things were so much better in America when I was a child,” I can’t ever help thinking, “Of course they were. You were a child.” It was the adults who did the freaking out when you were a kid, and now the job falls to you.

Life is messy, and we’re all faking it, trying to do the best we can and improve our lives during turbulent times. This has basically always been true. A quote often loosely attributed to Mark Twain goes like this: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” 

We are always going into an unknown future, and we are all faking it. 

And today we’ve got Jesus in the Jordan River, baptized by John, at the beginning of everything. Just like we assume our forebears in history had all their stuff together, so we assume the same is true in the Bible. You can hold the whole story in your hands, and you know how it ends. It seems clean, finished, inscribed in religious history forever. 

What we forget is that all of history, including religious history, is full of humans who couldn’t see the future any better than you can and didn’t have it together any better than you do. 

Yes, one of the characters here is the Son of God. You can make a solid theological argument that he could tell the future and had everything under control. But I don’t need to remind you that none of us is that guy in the story, and that’s kind of the point of why we’re all here. 

It’s not a clean story: the Jordan River wasn’t, isn’t, a crystal clear stream. What’s more, people didn’t shower every day or wear deodorant. So here at the beginning of everything, the thirty-something Son of God plops his feet into the mud and wades out with John, John, the religious fanatic crazy person known for wearing camel’s hair, and is submerged below the cloudy water. When he comes out into the sunlight, muddy water flowing from his hair, the heavens open and he is declared the beloved Son of God. John didn’t know how all this would end, or that he wouldn’t live to see it end. The crowd didn’t know how it would end, either. But it began in the water with the word “beloved.” 

And that is why we welcome babies into the world and into the church with water and the word “beloved.” 

Because we do not know how this story ends; we only know that we do not walk alone. 

Maybe, despite everything, our worth isn’t in how much we produce or how much we have everything together or keep our new year’s resolutions or don’t freak out. Maybe being more fully human means admitting that we don’t have it together and that we need each other to make it through. God’s promise to us and our promise to each other is that we do not walk alone. 

Back in 2013, I was a hospital chaplain in midtown Atlanta for a year. Being a chaplain is a weird thing. You see, these days I go into hospital rooms and care facilities offering the same comfort and accompaniment, but nearly always these days, the person I’m seeing knows me and has often even asked to see me. 

As a hospital chaplain, you go into these waiting rooms and ER bays and hospital rooms where people are in crisis and you say “Hi, I’m a religious person you don’t know!” 

Just what everyone wants, let me tell you. 

It was always a wonder to me that everyone didn’t immediately throw me out. But almost no one did. 

To begin with, I never knew what to say, but quickly, I learned: I am powerless. I’m not Jesus; as yet, I’ve been completely unable to raise the dead or heal the sick. But what I learned is that that wasn’t what anyone was asking for. Those who wanted me to stay with them just didn’t want to be alone. I learned the lesson that my dog had been trying to teach me all along: we can’t change anything, we creatures, and none of us has it all under control. All we can do is be beside each other and let that be enough. 

So today, as we remember the muddy water and the Son of God, take this: in the waters of baptism we are bound together. None of us has it together; all we can do is be beside each other and let that be enough.

When I was the staff chaplain at Camp Calumet this summer, I had the pleasure of chatting with the mostly college student counselors for the summer. After having a talk with them that’s not dissimilar to this one, I ended with this poem that defines our baptismal promises to me. It’s by poet Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet born to a Palestinian father and an American mother in 1952, another turbulent time. It goes like this.

“A man crosses the street in rain,

stepping gently, looking two times north and south,

because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.

No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo

but he’s not marked.

Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.

He hears the hum of a boy’s dream

deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.

The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.”

The times will always be turbulent, beloved. So wade into the muddy waters with me and remember the promises. We don’t have it all together, but we are all together, and that is enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Epiphany: Light Returns

Screen Shot 2019-01-06 at 3.00.06 PM.png

Matthew 2:1-12

When my now-teenage cousin was little, for a little while there, we all rued the day we taught her to turn on the lights. From that day forward, every time she entered a room, she turned the lights on. It sounds cute, I know. Until you’re in the middle of watching a movie or taking a long winter’s nap when suddenly the overhead fluorescent lights in my parents’ living room come on.

During the winters here in New England, I’ve noticed that I’m not all that different than that toddler version of my cousin. I wake up just after sunup most mornings in the winter, turn on the lights, put a morning news podcast in my ears, and go down stairs and turn on light by light ending, during Advent and Christmastide, with my Christmas tree.

The lights go out as the light outside gets gradually brighter, but in a few hours, I go through the same routine: light on, light on, light on.

Here in the dead of winter, we long for light. We adults watch the light wane at 2PM. We take Vitamin D and invest in full spectrum lamps.

I never understood before moving here why every winter photo in New England looks like it was taken at dusk: because it’s essentially dusk all day. Ever since December 21, we’ve been counting every extra minute of light. 

It makes sense, then, that our ancestors in the Church would have us begin a season of light just as we’re noticing the sunlight grow a little brighter each day. In the dead dark of winter, the Church starts speaking in earnest about light, starting with that star the magi followed.

Shine a little light.

That’ll preach.

The season of light kicks off with a little story about how people from across the known world — sorcerers or kings, doesn’t matter, point is, they weren’t Jews — but they still found Jesus and were welcomed into his house by Mary and Joseph. 

We don’t know who the magi were, really. We don’t know how many there were. (I know, we say three, there are three in your creche — but Matthew doesn’t actually give us a number.) Truth be told, we’re not entirely sure what gender they were. All we get from Matthew is magi, which some folks translate “wise men,” because we all got assumptions, but it most directly translates to “magician.” 

I need to pause here to say how crazy it is that after some fundamentalist-types today make quite a fuss of condemning such people — fortunetellers, magicians, Harry Potter — they are welcomed by the Holy Family.

By this point, you have to think that Mary was maybe almost used to random people showing up to see her young son. The night he was born, random laborers, shepherds, showed up. Now it’s likely a year or two or three later, and these foreign magi show up. Matthew doesn’t tell us about her reaction, but from both the culture and the rest of the story, we can infer that Joseph and Mary welcomed them right in. Ancient Middle Eastern culture (and current, in fact) places a high level of value on hospitality. If a guest shows up at your door, you are expected to welcome and feed and house them.

The magi follow the light, and they find light and welcome with Mary and Joseph and their little son. 

The magi do, in fact, spend the night there, where they have a dream telling them not to return to Herod. Mary and Joseph shelter them, keep them safe, and send them on their way. 

And so it’s also no wonder that our ancestors in faith determined that this would be the day that we bless chalk to bless our homes for the new year, praying that we may in joy welcome guests from near and far into our homes this year.

Being a guest and welcoming guests — you know that hospitality is part of making it through the winter, too. Most of us welcome guests aplenty into our homes: friends, family, and other loved ones may drop by just to chat or to stay for a few days. Welcoming a guest or being one yourself is a bit like turning on a light in winter. Rooms are cozier with company. Together, we shed the light of hospitality.

January sixth, the end of Christmas, when we remember how the magicians from far away followed a star to meet a baby Savior. 

These days, there usually aren’t any new bright stars in the sky. Epiphany is just a holiday of light and hospitality in the dead of winter. Light and hospitality – common things that mean everything. Common things that mean everything are what church is made of. Light, hospitality, bread, wine, water, words, love. 

We think of Epiphanies as these super rare moments when everything seems crystal clear. This year, I’ve been thinking maybe Epiphany as a holiday isn’t so uncommon and isn’t so specific. 

Light and hospitality. Bread and grapes. Love. Greenery. The familiar and the cozy. 

These are what Epiphany is about. 

Tradition holds that tonight is the night we’re supposed to take down all our decorations and bless our homes for the new year. Away goes the tree, away go the lights, away goes the wreath. 

As for me — I’m leaving up just one strand of greenery with simple white lights to remind me to shed a little light on others as the light returns to us in the sky, day by day, as winter rolls on. Because the winter will be cold, but spring is coming.

So go ahead and turn on all the lights as we wait together for winter to end. And let’s come to the table where all are welcomed with hospitality and love, because all are family. Even if you don’t welcome many guests these days, you can always be a guest here. 

Turn all the lights on and welcome all the guests and crank the music up loud. Epiphany is here, and the light is already returning. Amen.

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.

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.