A breakthrough? Compelling vision and common values

Isaiah 43:16-21

The people faced a challenging time. It was not a time simply that

one generation faced, but generation upon generation. Their families

were separated, some remained in their homes under brutal rule while

others were forced to relocate to the city of their conquerors to live not

as second, third, or even fourth class citizens. Hope felt in short supply.

Trust in even shorter. It was a time where trusting in God, even believing

that God had not abandoned them, was foolish. The only thing certain for

the people was uncertainty.

This is the basic scenario into which the prophet Isaiah proclaims his

words. Not just these words we just heard, but the entire context of his

prophecy. There is little or no historic interaction in this collection of

Isaiah. It’s mostly a combination of prophetic scolding and pep talk.

Isaiah’s challenge? How could the people hear a vision for the future

when they could not imagine a different one? How could a breakthrough

be realized in the face of such oppression? How could they seek a way

through when every conceivable path was mired in uncertainty?

The Church of the Brethren denomination, of which Beacon Heights

is affiliated, faces an uncertain future. Those of you who are plugged into

denominational happenings are at least somewhat aware of this and those

who are not plugged into denominational happenings really don’t need to

be. The presenting concern is often portrayed as a debate over inclusion

of the church’s members who identify as LGBTQ, but while our LGBTQ

members have been the target of abuse and mistreatment by some in the

denomination, I believe the root of the denomination’s struggles are

deeper and more systemic, and have absolutely nothing to do with

sexuality orientation and gender identity.

The deeper cause also has little to do directly with the Bible and

how we read it, although the Bible does get pulled into these debates.

The deeper cause is the framework or worldview that forms our

understanding of how to be church. In my estimation, there are three

primary worldviews that exist within the Church of the Brethren. One

worldview, formed by the denomination’s predominant views from the

1880’s through the beginning of World War II, is still largely followed by

conservative churches and groups with strong ties to the denomination’s

identity of that period. The second worldview, formed by the

denomination’s predominant views from World War II through the early

1980’s, is still largely followed by progressive and many moderate

churches and groups with strong ties to the denomination identity of that

period. The third worldview, formed not by the denomination, but largely

by American evangelical fundamentalism, has few or no ties to the

denomination and comprises a group of theologically ultra conservative

churches and groups.

While there is overlap among the groups, especially the first and

third, there is stark distinction as well. As our culture has gotten more

polarized and as the third worldview has gained strength within the

conservative side of the denomination, the denomination’s structures and

system have started to break down. Part of that is because the Brethren

have never adopted doctrine or dogma or a hierarchal structure to keep

order, but have instead relied on relationships. With increased

polarization and failing leadership structures, we have seen an increased

drive to define what behaviors are and are not permissible by the church.

Last year, our friends at the LaVerne CA Church of the Brethren

studied Annual Conference statements from the end of World War 2 until

2017. From the period from 1946 to 1978, there were ten different

categories of statements adopted, and the denomination made official

positions on the environment, racism, sexism, peace, nuclear

disarmament, indigenous rights, and other important matters. Until 1978

there was one category that never showed up, but then was the only

category that appeared for the past 40 years. That category? How we

govern ourselves, our churches, and our pastors. What does that say?

Moreover, for those who think all we need to solve the problem is clarity

on the church’s treatment of LGBTQ members, I would note that every

conference for the past 12 years and nearly every conference for the past

36 years has had business that directly or indirectly involves LGBTQ

sexuality.

Even though the contexts are far, far different, the Church of the

Brethren has had to navigate its own 40 year period in the wilderness. It

is interesting that we often tie this particular text of Isaiah to creating a

vision, but that’s not exactly what Isaiah has in mind. Isaiah instead

offers images of a God who finds a way, a path, to find its way through an

uncertain time. The God who makes a way in the sea and a path in the

mighty waters will be the same God who is doing a new thing, who will

create a path in the wilderness or a river in the desert. Isaiah’s primary

focus was to remind the people that the God who was a partner with

their ancestors remains a partner with them and will bring them out of

their uncertain present, no matter how long it takes.

The Church of the Brethren has been in its own uncertain wilderness

for many years. But over the past year or so, the denomination decided,

wisely I believe, to pursue a different course. The denomination began

what it has called a ‘compelling vision’ process. The rationale? Instead of

focusing on the areas we can’t agree on, let’s spend time focusing on the

areas, if any, where we can agree. It’s a reasonable response, from a

structural standpoint, as long as the right questions are asked.

Thus far, the focus of the questions has been on uplifting our

common values. Again, that’s a reasonable place to start. If people are to

move forward out of the current impasse, finding and naming the

common values we hold together should be part of it. That was the focus

of the sessions at last year’s Annual Conference, at gatherings around the

country last fall, and is likely to be the same focus this week. It is

reasonable to believe that by reminding us of our common values, of

what we are at our best, the denomination can offer a way forward.

At the same time, there are also deep flaws with that line of

thinking. One is that it’s not the values that were forgotten, but how we

interpret and understand those values. Another is overlooking that how

some of those values were interpreted led to oppressive and mean

spirited decisions in the life of the denomination. And a third is even

more basic, and leads to an important question that I’ve not heard asked

yet. That the denomination does not share the same values any longer.

That the worldviews I mentioned earlier are so distinctive and different

from one another. The question: Should the focus be not just on common

values but also on whether those different worldviews can or should

remain together? If all we are doing is spending time fighting one another

in the denomination, how does that serve anyone, especially God?

This was a difficult sermon to write. On one level, any sermon that

focuses on the themes of uncertainty, vision, and a way forward is a

challenge. There’s always the question of whether the way forward is

accurate or speaks to or for the people to which it is intended. The way

forward often seems like it should be provocative enough to make its

hearers feel comfortable, but not so provocative that there’s a line of

emails in my inbox tomorrow morning. Its purpose should be to reveal a

truth or an idea that others have not yet seen, but at least have some

openness to receiving. That’s the key – are we ready to receive a vision

when God offers it to us or places it before us? And are we ready to

proclaim and embody that way forward?

In your bulletins this morning is a copy of a document called

‘Guiding Principles.’ This was a document crafted in a meeting that took

place here at Beacon Heights, by leaders from inclusive congregations in

the Church of the Brethren. It clearly and boldly offers a way forward, by

reminding us of who we are at our best – a people whose welcome is

wide, whose commitment to all communities, especially those who are

marginalized, is deep, and who are grounded in the teachings of

scripture, particularly the words of Jesus. These principles have been

given to denominational leaders over the past two years and will continue

to be a beacon for how we imagine God is leading our paths forward

together.

This has been a very denominationally focused sermon. To an

extent, I apologize for that. That’s something I try not to do often. With

this Annual Conference coming up, it felt important to address these

matters in a sermon. Despite our struggles and concern with the

denomination within the past decade or more, we must acknowledge the

formative role of Brethren identity in our belief and practice. It shapes

our ethos of peace, service, and justice. It encourages our community

and our understanding that church is not a place where I tell you what to

do as Pastor, but that we are all in this together. It shapes the lessons we

offer our children, our youth, and our adults in Sunday school, in Love

Feast, in Simple Suppers, and so on. And that’s ok, because we can be

shaped by the beliefs and practices of an institution while we strongly

disagree with some political decisions within that institution, and even

while we pray for a breakthrough that offers a way forward for the

denomination and its churches.

In my Council reports over the past couple of years, when talking

about the denomination, I have included these three points: the Church

of the Brethren faces an uncertain future. Its current systems and

structures are struggling or failing to address the conflicts. Beacon

Heights will be just fine. I believe those three points as strongly now as

when I first uttered them. I believe that not only because Beacon Heights

lives into the guiding principles outlined in the SCN document, but also

because we diligently, faithfully believe together, that God will create

our paths forward, not into an uncertain future, but one filled with hope,

trust and possibility. We have embodied that belief. We have lived that

truth. We, literally and figuratively, are called to be a beacon, in this

city, in this denomination, in this world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Title

June 23 2019

Luke 1:39-45

A few months ago, one of my spiritual direction clients returned from a week in Taize France,

at the Taize community. She had been looking forward to this week of singing, silence and

worship for a very long time. She brought back a small token for me. A wood plaque with a

replica of one of the stained glass windows. This one was of the moment when Mary goes to

visit her relative Elizabeth, and John leaps with recognition of Jesus…from inside the womb.

Pictured here like toddler beings in their becoming. One woman is reaching wide, the other

woman is reaching out, and the two enwombed figures reaching toward. The gift giver said that

this was how she saw spiritual direction; a recognition between two souls of something deep

within, holy connection.

Our text today, normally a December text, reaches backward to Zacharia, a priest, on duty in

the temple, setting the incense to smoke and scent. And wouldn’t you know it, the Angel

Gabriel shows up. The word spoken by this cosmic being is powerful and fearful. First, the

angel gives us its name. Maybe to ease the fear? The news is an answer to Zachariahs

prayer. A son is to be born to old Zachariah and his old wife, Elizabeth. Unbelievable, really.

And he will be for a purpose. A purpose that will have weighty implications for the people of

Israel, and his upbringing will not be normal.

The texts lets us know that not only is Zachariah a priest, but Elizabeth is from the line of

Aaron. From a priestly line. I want to read between these lines. I want to read the possibilities

of what it means for the text to record that Elizabeth is from the house of priests. And not only

that, but of Aaron, who Moses tried to foust his call onto because he himself could not speak

well, so let Aaron speak. And here we have the angel Gabriel, announcing something

spectacular, and then silencing the recognized priest Zacharia.

But not his wife Elizabeth, the decendent of priestly lineage of Aaron.

We dare not miss this. It is easy to do. We read these well known and well worn texts, which

beg us to slow down, and explore word for word anew. We go from Zacharia to his silence, to

Elizabeth, to Mary, then to our text today. It is easy to stay on the broad surface and see the

greeting of Mary and Elizabeth as a couple of women visiting during pregnancy, going about

their day to day.

There is a bit of connecting happening in this text. Larger to the particular. The scholars from

the new interpreters commentary make a bid deal that Mary traveled from a region to a town

the home of Zachariah and then to Elizabeth. Like links in a chain or a funnel to guide our

focus. And then there is both Mary and Elizabeth, carrying Jesus and John. And then, I can’t

help but wonder about what is within John and Jesus.

The larger story nests the next, and the next, down to their very atoms and hopes.

It feels important to notice the layers, or the elements within one and another. Like striations in

the earth, telling stories of even more ancient realities of earth experience, soil to coal to oil

and dinosaurs, striations within us telling stories of even deeper essential parts of ourselves.

What was it that caused John to leap at the presence of Jesus? It caught Elizabeth by joyous

and maybe giddy surprise, like a catch of breath, causing her to proclaim the elements of the

moment “blessed”. Elizabeth is the prophet. A prophet in her home. She is the proclaimer of

blessedness. Her son will be the prophet in the wilderness, the proclaimer of repentence that

turns us to what saves us. Both turn our faces in new directions, to see God where God will

show up.

John, who is still in formation, recognizes Jesus, also still in formation. Elizabeth recognizes

greatness in this young girl, who we know from other extra canonical stories, may have been

being prepared her whole life for this role in the world. And Mary. Mary recognizes God and

the lowly and the irony. Mary recognizes her own greatness. Each recognition goes deep

into the essential core, becoming rich fuel for the next revealed layer.

These images of women gaining their voice, of raising the next generation to their own

greatness, is happening in this text. And it is happening all around us. Our biblical text is a

shared story, and when we open our eyes, we see it being played out again and again, in

recognizable ways and in new ways. Women are being seen and heard as proclaimers that we

might wake up.

In many Orthodox churches, iconography surrounds sanctuaries as larger than life murals of

the patriarchs of faith. Yet, rising from behind the iconistasis, the holy of holies half-wall of the

alter where only the male priests and deacons enter, is the image of Mary, known as

Theotokos. God bearer. Larger than all, looking down tenderly over every woman, child and

man, priest, deacon and cantor in that sacred space.

Women of today, like Elizabeth, are proclaiming an arrival of sorts. This past April, a 22 year

old female student named Alaa Salah in Sudan, stood on top of a car, in her white cotton dress

and flashing full moon earrings, arms raised amidst protests of the harsh regime of President

Omar al-Bashir. She sang the word for revolution, connecting a moment with a movement

toward something better. All of this has been caught and documented on hundreds of cell

phones. From many websites, including the BBC, we read that these women who were leading

the protests are being called Kandaka,' which is the title given to the Nubian queens of ancient

Sudan whose gift to their descendants is a legacy of empowered women who fight hard for

their country and their rights."

Closer to home: This week, Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscokee Creek Nation, is named our

national poet laureate. Her poetics, filled with images of cigarette smoke, whiskey spills, loss of

identity and the erasure of indigenous culture in the United States, tells a revolutionary story

that we might set what has been tilted, upright. If we listen with a holy listening, we will connect

in silence and allow the indigenous voice to proclaim.

And closer still in Fort Wayne is Sally Segerson. I was tuned into Sally and her foundational

work with Street Reach for the Homeless by Sid Gauby, former pastor of the Agape Church of

the Brethren. Every week Sally scans the Goodwill bins for boots, socks, sleeping bags, tents

and winter coats, and feeds 100+ gents and ladies several times a week with nourishing, belly

filling food. I follow her revolutionary seemingly one woman show on facebook. I don’t know

the full story of funding or founding or volunteering, but her agenda is clearly to proclaim the

good news that each person fed is loved.

Elizabeth proclaims the moment blessed.

Mary, like these women of today, takes it one step further: for she knows who she is, who she

has been raised to be, and what upside down, turning, revolutionary message she now sends

out into the world:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all

generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is

his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown

strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has

brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry

with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in

remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham

and to his descendants forever.”

In our today news and in our scripture scene of Mary and Elizabeth greeting one another,

silent father Zachariah, of John recognizing Jesus, is a rising of what has been deep in the

human story and what is yet to be. There is a rising in your own spiritual journey from before

your birth, through your upbringing, to this very moment. What is within you to proclaim?

These are stories of Theotokos. God bearers, bearing God, again and again and again with

silence, with exclamation, with leaps, with food, with poetry, with full moon earrings. From large

exclamation to the tiny particular, we see the holy born.

The Universe bears God

The planet earth and her moon bear God

The waters and land bear God

The plants and animals bear God

The humans on each continent, unified and without borders bear God

The Miami Nation of Kekionga/Fort Wayne bear God

We are God bearers

You are a God bearer

This scriptural scene, these scenes all around us are awakened examples that have been

happening through all time. The voice of the lowly rising.

We who already have a voice,

can flip the message of being a voice for the voiceless.

And like Zacharia, stand aside in attentive silence and hear those

once silenced voices,

once dismissed voices,

once erased voices….

proclaim a holy moment,

to voice wisdom that has waited to be heard,

to rise up and proclaim the arrival of the Gospel

And when they do, oh, how our whole insides will leap with joy. Amen

Real Peace

Romans 5:1-5

I have a confession to make. I have a real struggle with one part of this

scripture text. I like the emphasis on the peace of God and the grace of God. I like

the progression of suffering producing endurance producing character producing

hope that does not disappoint us. I like the notion of God’s love pouring into our

hearts through the deepening of our faith. There is much in portion of Paul’s

letter to like.

Where do I struggle? Paul’s notion that we boast (the NRSV translation) or

even rejoice (the Inclusive Bible and NIV translation) in our sufferings. That’s hard

for me to accept, let alone justify. I think Paul is wrong. We understand what Paul

is trying to do here. He’s trying to not only explain the suffering we experience in

life, but also help us to understand how it can be beneficial to our faith.

There’s a degree of truth in that logic. Separating out the notion of rejoicing

or boasting in our suffering for a moment, I think we can generally agree that

there are unique lessons in our lives and faith that we learn through our struggles

and hardship that we do not learn otherwise. We know that we will experience

times of suffering, struggles and hardship, just as we know we will experience

tranquility, joy, and peace. Each of those experiences is part of what it means to

be human.

We know we learn from our failures – that often it is how we pick up

ourselves and learn from our mistakes and failings that define who we are as

much as, if not more so than our successes. But that’s not what Paul is saying here

either. He doesn’t address mistakes or failings or sin. He specifically cites that we

should rejoice in our suffering. He doesn’t even say that there are lessons we

should learn from our suffering, like the following progression that leads to hope.

If he cited the phrase in that way, I’d not struggle with it, as I believe it

acknowledges a truth that we all experience in our own ways.

Instead, he tells the Romans to boast or rejoice in their suffering. And quite

frankly, I have a problem with that. It could be that phrase is one intended

specifically for the Roman church, to help know that they are experiencing

tremendous suffering and persecution for their faith, and to put that suffering in

context. Maybe. But left as a broader lesson for us, I think it sets up a dangerous

paradigm that either justifies bad things that happen to us or encourages us to

race to be the ones who suffer the most and boast about it.

I have shared with some of you that I struggle at times with small group

clergy conversations when those conversations are centered on the ‘state of

one’s congregation and the clergy’s ministry.’ Far too often in those

conversations, the sharing results in the clergy either sharing how great or how

terrible her or his congregation is. Neither is particularly honest or life giving. Both

feel boastful in ways that are not especially helpful. In many instances, the clergy

are fine people themselves, but the sharing offered is lacking and doesn’t feel

authentic.

That last word is the key. Paul’s encouragement to rejoice or boast in our

sufferings doesn’t feel authentic. It feels like a slippery slope that is strangely

intended for us to somehow hope that we suffer so that we ultimately are filled

with greater hope. That seems like counter-productive, circular reasoning to me.

While Paul is correct that our suffering can produce endurance, which can

produce character, which can produce hope, there is no guarantee that will

definitively happen. And the dangerous thing with this progression is the fall out

when the progression does not lead to hope, but instead leads to shame and

greater suffering. Would we dare say to other people in that situation that they

have not learn enough from their suffering to gain endurance, character and hope

respectively? I would hope not.

Paul frames this entire section of text under the notion of gaining peace

with God. That peace is gained through a deepened understanding of and faith in

Jesus’ teachings. It’s important to remember that Jesus did not want to suffer for

the sake of gaining hope. He understood the nature of his suffering for the good

of humanity and the world, but when he spoke of the looming suffering he would

experience at the end of Holy Week, he did not boast or rejoice in it, but instead

said to God, ‘If by your will this cup would pass by me without my drinking of it,

your will be done.’ In other words, I will suffer if I must, but I’d really prefer not to

do it.

Can we blame Jesus for that? Would any of us feel differently? And yet,

Jesus gains the peace of God he so critically needs at the time in which he needs

it. Perhaps that is the broader lesson we learn about the peace of God from this

text. The real peace of God is modeled for us in the person and example of Jesus –

not just in what he said, but in how he experienced adversity and suffering in his

own life. Jesus did not go looking to suffer, nor did he shy away from suffering

when it came to him. He responded by seeking peace, God’s peace, real peace,

that would sustain him in the struggles and suffering he faced.

If we don’t have real peace, then we’re stuck with one of three things: fake

peace, crippling anxiety or numbness. Fake peace is the kind of peace that we

know is not really real, but that we can get by pretending. We can do this because

we’re so successful at amassing expensive computers, cars, recreational vehicles,

vacation homes, club memberships and smartphones that should make any

normal person a happy, contented and peaceful person. Except they don’t.

If we’re not even trying to fake peace of mind and heart, then we may be

suffering from crippling anxiety. This might be caused by the stress of trying to

succeed at fake peace — getting all the stuff we wanted in order to fake peace.

Or, the anxiety may be a result of professional stressors or difficulty in

relationships. Until our anxiety is resolved, no peace, real or fake, is possible.

Finally, we might simply be numb. We simply don’t care anymore. So many

people are yelling. So many people are outraged. Righteous indignation and anger

becomes a cottage industry in our politics, culture, and church. So, we go numb.

And I’m not clear that Paul’s instructions in this text have any application or

helpfulness towards finding real peace for when we are numb or anxious or

gravitate towards false peace.

The late actor actor Robert Mitchum had a difficult and challenging

upbringing that included everything from growing up in New York’s “Hell’s

Kitchen” neighborhood, to being a hobo riding the rails, to spending time on a

Georgia chain gang and even doing a stint in the boxing ring before becoming a

Hollywood star. Mitchum defined the peace of God as, “becoming the person I

always wanted to be.” No matter the circumstance, Mitchum recognized that

peace of mind is the result of an internal orientation. It’s not dependent on what

one accomplishes or accumulates. He may be onto something. Finding real peace

is the result of cultivating an intimate knowledge of oneself, knowing and valuing

the person you are and want to be and living fully in the present moment.

Let’s think about this notion in a different way. Many of us have some

awareness of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s often used ‘Serenity Prayer.’ “God,

grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change

the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Few of us know and are

aware of the remaining lines of that prayer.

“Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting

hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this suffering world as it is,

not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to

his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him

forever in the next.” Those additional lines change the meaning of the whole

prayer? If you end with the first sentence, serenity can become a kind of goal we

can achieve, perhaps even rejoice in or boast about.

Even though the prayer says, “God grant me the serenity,” it’s easy to skip

over that. Serenity is an important step, but not the only step. The peace we

crave is not achieved solely through a kind of persistent psychological self-

discipline like that of an athlete training for a race. The focus is peace with God

when suffering is upon us, not the absence or avoidance of suffering.

Peace with God leads to the peace of God, and that is a peace that

produces actual peace of mind within us. It’s not a peace that is dependent on

circumstances but a peace based on faith that God is at work in us and is caring

for us. This kind of real peace offers resilience that makes us stand out in contrast

to an anxious world. It’s a real peace that is life giving and life sustaining. It’s a

real peace that allows us to care for others with a love that is deep, restorative,

and abiding. It’s this real peace, a peace with God leads to the peace of God which

leads to peacemaking with the presence of God that can offer hope to the world.

Amen..

Call and response- Lydia's story

Acts 16:9-15

I had a pleasant surprise after boarding the first leg of my flight to Virginia a

couple of weekends ago. I had just found my seat and gotten settled when I

looked up to see my uncle Mark walking down the aisle. As it turns out, quite

serendipitously, his seat was next to mine. Perhaps it was not surprising. He’s

living in South Whitley now, with his new wife, Anne. He was planning to attend

the funeral and weekend with the extended family. There are relatively few flights

that originate in Fort Wayne and can connect easily to Charlottesville, where we

were both ultimately heading.

But still, it was a pleasant surprise. And after Mark settled into his seat and I

named the happy coincidence that brought us together early that morning – it

was a 6:45 flight after all – he offered an expression I’ve heard before – ‘I don’t

believe in coincidences.’ Our flight passed quickly, partly because the first leg was

from Fort Wayne to Chicago, and partly because he’s an easy conversationalist. It

was a welcome diversion from the solitude of traveling solo for that weekend,

and we talked about a number of things we had not discussed before.

Still, I kept coming back to his statement – ‘I don’t believe in coincidences.’

His response reminded me of that Albert Einstein quote – “God does not play dice

with the universe.” These reflections imply that God leaves nothing to chance, or

at least, nothing important to chance, and to their greater extent, that God is in

control of everything that happens around us. Perhaps that is true. There are also

some who believe that everything happens by chance, that everything is a

coincidence, that all of life is random and when an unexpected blessing happens,

we simply should recognize it for what it is, and be thankful for it.

Which are you? Or are you somewhere in between, believing that there is

equal parts chance and design that weave together the happy surprises or

unexpected encounters of our existence? I don’t think any of these perspectives

are entirely wrong or right, or bad or good, for there are elements of faith and

hope whichever of those outlooks works for you. We sometimes find ourselves

needing to reflect on how we engage the encounters with God and the ‘beyond

us and our understanding.’ Because no matter which of these perspectives is truly

true, we won’t know for certain, unless we can get an answer from God directly

and definitively. And that’s not the way that God typically responds to us.

This encounter did cause me to think about our text from Acts today. This

story continues a series of texts we’ve studied from this history book about the

early adventures of the early church. One of the parts of Acts that I love is that

the book gives us the stories of people beyond those who are widely known.

Saul/Paul, Peter, Timothy, and Barnabas are several of the focal people in these

stories, but it is the encounters they have with faithful people like the Ethiopian

eunuch or Dorcas or Ananias or in this text, Lydia, that offer inspiration to the

church, then and now.

The story of Lydia is one that is not often told from the Christian scriptures.

It is a story of openness, of faithfulness, of willingness to follow the leadings of

God’s Spirit, without a clear and definitive direction of where following God’s

Spirit may take her. The way that Luke the writer of Acts introduces Lydia offers

us a clue to her importance in the story. ‘There was a certain woman called Lydia

who was listening to us.’ Luke is notable as a writer for his inclusion and notation

of women, both in his gospel and in this book.

Yet I was also struck by the second part of that phrase. The story notes that

Lydia was ‘listening to us.’ That phrase carries extra meaning, due to the fact that

there were some leaders in the early church who would have been resistant to

Paul preaching to Lydia at all, both because of her gender and because she’s a

Gentile. Listening is an important attribute of faith, no matter who you are or

when you lived. Not the physical act of listening, but the spiritual act of listening.

Jesus’ primary fault with his disciples was that they did not listen to him. Peter’s

primary struggle with the church elders is that they did not listen to him. Paul’s

primary struggle with some of the churches to whom he wrote letters was that

they did not listen to him.

But Lydia listened. And interestingly, listening is the second step. The first

step is opening our hearts, spirits, and minds to the possibility of God doing a new

thing in one’s life. That observation takes even greater precedence in today’s

world than in Lydia’s. There is so much more to distract us, and so much that we

allow ourselves to be distracted by. Lydia must have prepared herself to listen, to

be open to what God might be doing in her, and then actually listened to what

she was being taught.

The final step we witness in this story is response. It’s one thing to prepare

oneself for God to enter our lives. It’s another thing to listen to the call God has

placed upon us. But it takes a strong degree of courage to step out in faith and

respond to that unexpected call. Vicki McGaw is the director of Christian

education at a church in Cleveland. One day, she was attending a church meeting

and struck up a conversation with a woman. Vicki learned that the woman’s

husband, Bob Fortney, was in dire need of a kidney transplant. As they talked,

both became teary-eyed. 

And then Vicki asked the woman, “What do I need to do to be

tested?” Vicki had a clear sense that this was what she needed to do. Although

she had never met Bob Fortney, she immediately made the decision to donate

one of her kidneys to him. She was tested for compatibility, and ended up being

more of a perfect match than any of Fortney’s family members. The surgery took

five hours, and was a complete success. Vicki returned home in two days, and

resumed her job in five. The following Sunday, her pastor told the congregation

about Vicki’s generosity. It was an “ultimate act of hospitality,” he said. 

Bob Fortney has also recovered well, and he is enormously grateful to Vicki.

His family calls her a “miracle from God.” The entire experience has had an impact

on Fortney’s congregation, and the pastor of the church has observed, “I’ve

witnessed something unexpected. People are asking, where is God in their lives?

They know it was no coincidence Vicki was a match for Bob and the generosity

and compassion she displayed were extraordinary. They know God was

involved.” 

Vicki McGaw chose faith over fear, and practiced extraordinary hospitality

instead of ordinary self-concern. “I really felt this is what God put me here to do,”

she says. “A person can find 20 million reasons not to do something, but there is

usually one reason that sticks with you as to why you should.”

We have our own Beacon Heights version of that same story, except with

Kathy Fry-Miller, a former long time church member in Vicki’s position, and Dave

Kiracofe in Bob’s. Kathy donated her kidney to Dave not long after I arrived here

at Beacon Heights, and I remember being so inspired by a congregation and

families who would offer that kind of Christ-like love to one another. It’s one thing

to pray for each other – most churches do that; but it’s another to put that prayer

into action by giving literally of oneself to save and prolong the life of another.

It’s been 11 years since the kidney transfer, and I asked both Dave and

Kathy to share their memories and reflections about it. Dave wrote, ‘There are

really two main feelings that I had and still have. The first was not seeing or

believing how things could possibly work out for me and wondering what was

going to become of me. The second was that when things did come together, just

not believing that so many people would care so much about me to offer to

donate their kidneys, and that Kathy actually did it. I am tearing up with gratitude

even as I think about it.’

Kathy wrote, “One thing I'd say is that I, too, am deeply grateful for the

experience of giving a kidney to Dave. It was an amazing time in my life, truly

trusting in God for the well-being of both Dave and I. I feel like I received such a

wonderful gift also. It's profoundly humbling to have been chosen to donate a

kidney. It's been such a pleasure to see Dave and Sandy's enthusiasm and the

many compassionate gifts they share with others. It's fun to share our numbers,

our creatinine levels, each year! I will always cherish this experience.”

So, what is it that God has put you here to do? Where is God at work in

your life … right here, right now? Whether you believe in coincidences or God

moments or are somewhere in between, how do you open yourself to the

possibilities that you encounter? It’s not only being open to the possibilities, of

course. It’s also centering our minds, hearts, and spirits to be prepared when

those moments take place. For God moves in our lives in often surprising,

unexpected ways. We are not only called to respond, but also called to have the

courage and faithfulness to do so. Amen.

Beyond our blinders

Acts 9:1-20

When I was a child and early teenager, my family lived just outside of a

small town in Virginia next to two old order Mennonite farms. Because of the

abundance of Amish in this area, we may not notice the old order Mennonites in

Allen County, but they are present here as well. There’s a lot of similarities

between the groups – both in terms of general style of their clothing, their

choices to disengage from the broader ‘English’ culture, as they call it, and their

choices to not use some variations of modern technology.

You may or may not know that there are also old order or German Baptist

Brethren, although a smaller number than the Mennonite and Amish. You may or

may not also know that there is no uniform set of rules for which modern

technology that all old order Amish or Mennonites use. It’s completely

determined by the bishop of their church. Some are allowed to use electricity, but

only as part of their business. Others can use cell phones, but not land lines. And

still others can drive, but their vehicles must have certain color exteriors or

interiors or bumpers. It’s complicated and confusing, but very, very interesting.

Growing up with Mennonite babysitters was great for my siblings and me.

Since they didn’t have TV’s, the babysitters were often distracted by whatever

show was on, which gave us free rein in the house while my parents were gone.

One other ‘perk’ of our neighbors was the occasional offer to take a horse and

buggy ride. That was always so much fun for my siblings and me. It was also

educational. Our neighbor would bring the horse and buggy down the road to our

house to pick us up, and then talk with us about the horse, the buggy, the

differences between driving a horse and a car, and the extra things they have to

watch out for while traveling.

I remember talking with our neighbor about the horse’s blinders. That was

fascinating for me, to see that the horse should only set its gaze and attention on

what was right in front of it. The driver could direct the horse to turn its head and

see what was happening to its left or right, but it could be dangerous for the

horse, and by extension, the riders in the buggy, if the horse used its peripheral

vision while out on the road. That’s not the case for a rider on horseback, just in a

buggy. A horse looking beyond its blinders increased the potential for harm.

For humans, looking beyond our blinders requires a different point of view.

Like the horse, there are times when we can only absorb so much information at

one time. Life can feel overwhelming. We cannot imagine trying to comprehend

all of the challenges, stressors, and general bad news that enter our lives at one

time. I worry about that for our children, quite frankly. We live in such an

interconnected world that it becomes difficult to filter out the news and

information that our children can wait to hear, learn and process when they are

more able to absorb it. One of the challenges of being with children is discerning

exactly what they can and cannot handle. And often, the news seems so

overwhelming for us that it is difficult to know the difference.

At the same time, looking beyond our blinders can also be a gift. Observing

a situation or life challenge from a different perspective can be a blessing.

Sometimes, when we have struggled with figuring out the answer to a long time

problem, just a brief moment of inspiration from a point of view we hadn’t

consider can help us overcome whatever obstacle is in our path. Those moments

of divine intervention or coincidence or discernment or prayed for wisdom or

whatever you wish where we are able to view life from beyond our typical

blinders can be life changing.

The story of Saul the Zealot is the classic biblical text for this subject. So

often the narrative surrounding this story is one of a conversion experience. This

is one of evangelical Christianity’s favorite scriptures, and with good reason. It is

filled with redemption, grace, and evangelism. And so often that’s where we leave

this text; as this familiar, yet unapproachably mystical moment where Saul

encounters Jesus and is left blinded by the experience before becoming known as

Paul – which incidentally doesn’t happen in this story – Saul just becomes known

without explanation in one ‘blink and you miss it verse’ in chapter 13.

Yet it is important to note three important, yet often overlooked elements

in this story. First, Saul decides to follow Jesus, but is not converted from one

religion to another. At this point, the followers of Jesus, which Acts references as

‘the Way,’ are still nominally Jewish. The missionary journeys of Paul to the

Gentile world will not commence for a year or more. These disciples generally

practice Jewish traditions, but follow the teachings of Jesus. Saul does not

repudiate his Jewish heritage, nor is he baptized by immersion in a river, nor does

he transfer his membership. He remains a pious Jew, but one that is guided and

influenced by Jesus.

Second, Saul is changed because of his encounter with the living Jesus – not

immediately but over time. He heads for Damascus with authority and purpose,

but is led into the city helpful and humbled. This one time enemy of the church

becomes its champion. The persecutor of Jesus’ followers becomes persecuted

himself for proclaiming him. None of that happened immediately. Saul himself

was extended forgiveness and grace and then taught more about Jesus by

Barnabas, Peter, and others, before he began to teach others about Jesus. He was

transformed, more than he was converted.

Third, Saul’s transformation is not intended to be an example for all of us to

embody in our own way, but instead the personal means for a specific call. The

fact that we observe Saul the Zealot’s personal transformation into Paul the

apostle happening not after this encounter with Jesus, but at the exact point

when he emerges as a teacher and missionary is no coincidence. His blinders are

off. He has learned the teachings and the essence of Jesus’ message and ministry.

It is only once he has grasped the fullness and depth of God’s love reflected in

Jesus that he becomes known as Paul and is ready to take his place in the story of

the young and growing church.

We also cannot overestimate the openness of Saul to having his worldview

radically changed. While I would suspect that having an encounter like the one in

this text might affect any of us similarly, it is important to note that this zealot

was not so rigid as to allow the presence of Christ to work within him. I wonder if

our modern church and culture could say the same thing. Often it seems that so

much of our American life is locked into belief structures that fit our worldview.

So many choices before us appear binary or either/or. Red or blue, White Sox or

Cubs, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or other, so often we link ourselves deeply

to the familiar, even if we believe ourselves to be open to the Spirit’s movement,

wisdom and insight.

Years ago, a Johns Hopkins professor gave a group of graduate students this

assignment: Go to the slums. Take 200 boys, between the ages of 12 and 16, and

investigate their background and environment. Then predict their chances for the

future. The students, after consulting social statistics, talking to the boys and

compiling much data, concluded that 90 percent of the boys would spend some

time in jail.

Twenty-five years later, another group of graduate students was given the

job of testing the prediction. They went back to the same area. Some of the boys -

by then men - were still there, a few had died, some had moved away, but they

got in touch with 180 of the original 200. They found that only four of the group

had ever been sent to jail. Why was it that these men, who had lived in a breeding

place of crime, had such a surprisingly good record? The researchers were

continually told: "Well, there was a teacher ..."

They pressed further and found that in 75 percent of the cases it was the

same woman. The researchers went to this teacher, now living in a home for

retired teachers. How had she exerted this remarkable influence over that group

of children? Could she give them any reason why these boys should have

remembered her? "No," she said, "no, I really couldn't." And then, thinking back 

over the years, she said musingly, more to herself than to her questioners: "I

loved those boys. And I tried to help them to see beyond what was right in front

of them. It may not have seemed like much, but maybe, that was enough."

What does it take for our worldviews to be opened just enough to allow

new insight to enter in? What are the blinders that you and I need to look

beyond? These are questions that are difficult to answer, but it seems to me that

the important thing is not figuring out the answer, but instead to ask the question

and to let ourselves be vulnerable, open and courageous enough for God to

reveal the path for us to explore. We may not have an encounter with Jesus like

Saul, but we can be open enough for the possibility for our own moments of

receiving wisdom and insight to happen. May it be so. Amen.

Faith creation

John 20:19-31

I was a track and cross country runner in high school. I was not an elite

athlete, but was solidly competitive in many of the distances I ran. Track and cross

country are strange hybrids. On one hand, track and cross country are individual

sports. A runner competes against other runners, but the primary competition is

oneself, or at least one’s personal best times. A runner is constantly trying to run

faster times than in previous races and while there were often medals or prizes

for placing first, second, or third in races, those honors were secondary to

improving a race time.

At the same time, track and cross country is also a team sport. In cross

country, a low team score indicates success. The first runner to cross gains one

point, the second runner gains two points, and so forth. Conversely, in track, the

highest score indicates team success. First place gained five points, second place

gained four, and so on. Any finisher beyond fifth place did not earn any points.

Keeping points in track in particular never made much sense to me, but I suspect

it was a way to keep the whole team engaged in the success of individual

members.

There are a few truly team races in track, however. One of my favorite

races was the 4 x 400. That’s the race where four persons consecutively run the

same distance – 400 meters or one loop around the track. There is a strategy to

the order in which a team places its strongest or slowest or most competitive

runners. Usually, the runner that can handle the greatest amount of pressure runs

in the last or final leg.

Midway through my junior year of high school, just before track season

began, one of my friends who ran in the 400 came up to me at school with

excitement. A student had transferred to our high school who was a strong track

runner at his former school. One of his best events was the 400. Somehow, my

friend had learned about what the personal best for this student was in the 400,

and spent most of the rest of the school day combining his personal best with our

team’s existing personal best times, and comparing them to the best times from

other schools. I’m not sure what that says about his priorities or the quality of the

classroom education, and mind you, this was all well before smart phones and the

internet, so it was impressive to see the time charts he had created.

Bursting at the seams, my friend eagerly showed our coach what the

addition to our 4 x 400 team could help us do. I’ll never forget the coach’s

response. It’s a response born of experience, having dealt with overly eager

runners in the past. He studied the time chart, smiled, gave it back to my friend,

then reached in his pocket, and took out a stop watch – and yes, those were the

days when stop watches were still used. The coach remarked, ‘I need to see his

time here,’ he said while waving the watch,’ before I get too excited about what

we can do.’

That’s not a surprising response. It’s common for us to want to see

something, to experience it ourselves, before we believe it. Part of that is at the

core of our basic humanity. We are taught that our most effective tool for

learning is our own cognitive reasoning. It’s more difficult for us to learn if others

are doing for us, just as it is difficult for us to learn if we just accept something as

true without testing it ourselves. Seeing is believing. Believing is seeing.

That’s the basic lesson we often take from our gospel story for today.

Seeing is believing. Believing is seeing. This text from the gospel of John takes

place in the immediacy after the women discovered the empty tomb, as well as a

week after the events of the Resurrection of Jesus. The first appearance of Jesus is

a confirmation of the women’s story. The disciples are back in the upper room –

the same place where Jesus had given them his last lesson, the last supper.

Interestingly, they choose to be locked in the upper room, out of fear of

their own religious leaders and the Roman authorities, even though Peter and the

beloved disciple had seen the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene had already

seen Jesus outside. Were they not only fearful of the authorities, and that the

authorities had taken his body away as additional punishment? Or were they

afraid that Jesus had fulfilled what he had been telling them, and they had no idea

what it meant? Or were they locked in to create greater drama for the story, to

give Jesus a supernatural ability to enter locked rooms without being seen?

That part is unclear, but what is clear is the disciples’ uncertainty about

what was happening and would happen to them. I suspect they were shocked,

terrified and bewildered, experiencing a feeling worse than doubt. Their faith in

Jesus was tested. Perhaps not tested as much as shifted and shaken. They seemed

to understand Jesus in one way – as a teacher or a revolutionary or a prophet –

and when he died the way he did and then when he was resurrected the way he

was, not only did they not understand what happened, but they didn’t know how

to think or feel or believe.

I have previously mentioned that my extended family asked me to officiate

the memorial and committal services for my late Grandmother in February. It was

a powerful and positive experience, with my more theologically conservative side

of the family expressing tremendous gratitude for the thoughtful care I offered in

preparation and the meaningful words I shared during the services.

There was only one small instance where I got some push back, and I found

it interesting. As part of the call to worship, there was a phrase where I wrote,

‘Let us trust that Mary Jane has reunited with the one who has prepared the way.’

Pretty standard stuff, right? Can anyone guess the objectionable word? Trust. The

word my aunts and uncles wanted. Know. Let us know that Mary Jane has

reunited with the one who has prepared the way.

The difference between those two words was fairly inconsequential to me,

so I didn’t object to the change, but I was curious about what the difference

meant. I asked, and never got a clear answer, but the impression I got was that

they needed the certainty of knowing Grandma was with God rather than the

faithfulness of trusting. I’m not dismissing their faith. Faith is very important to

them. But in crisis situations, many of us struggle to let faith be enough.

Enter Thomas. In my mind, Thomas doesn’t embody doubt as much as he

craves certainty. Faith is not enough for him. He wants to know that Jesus is back.

Not to believe or trust, but to know. To really know that he is back. Really back.

Strangely, Thomas was missing for that initial visit by Jesus. We don’t know why.

Again, it may have been for dramatic effect to make the resurrection more real

upon his return, but let’s take this part of the story at face value. Thomas doesn’t

believe what his friends have told him. He doesn’t believe Jesus is resurrected.

At the moment Thomas craves certainty, Jesus appears. He lets Thomas

touch his hands and side. Why? Remember that just a few verses earlier, John the

gospelwriter tells us that Mary Magdelene, who in this gospel was the first to see

and talk with the post-resurrection Jesus, but could not touch him. Jesus

specifically told Mary not to touch him. Thomas could touch Jesus, but not Mary

Magdalene – why? Mary had doubt, but her faith was strong. Thomas had faith,

but he craved certainty. Mary didn’t recognize Jesus initially, but when he

revealed himself, she believed. Both had doubts, but Thomas needed more.

So what does that mean for us? We have doubts, about a great many

things. And we have faith, about a great many things. Doubt and faith are not

opposites, but are complimentary.  So often, we dismiss or discount doubts and

questions as the products of an immature faith. Sometimes we simply repeat the

same religious platitudes that we found unsatisfying in our own struggles of faith.

Sometimes in our conviction that we possess some of the answers, we act as

though we have all of the answers. The three least used, but arguably most

important words in our religious vocabulary are, "I don't know." 

Patricia Gillespie writes, ‘I once had a Sunday School teacher who told me

that it was wrong to ask questions and have doubts. So I asked yet another

question: “Is God afraid of my questions and doubts?” I came to realize that God’s

not afraid but my teacher sure was.’ Or as author and modern mystic Frederick

Beuchner puts it, ‘Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a

God, if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.’

They keep it awake and moving. Our faith does not grow because we lack

doubts, but because we embrace our doubts and let the questions that emerge

from them guide us to new insights on God and on life. May we be ever open to

the opportunities our doubts provide us to fuel and create a deeper and more

meaningful life of faith. Amen.

The towel of Jesus

John 12:12-16

What did Jesus look like? It’s an interesting question. We assume we know.

But what do we know? The Bible tells us about Jesus’ character. It contains what

we believe to be many of his teachings, his miracles, and healings. It reveals his

humanity, in several of the texts that we have studied in recent weeks. It offers us

a glimpse of who he was and why he walked among us. But it doesn’t really give

us a description of his physical attributes and characteristics.

It doesn’t really answer my opening question, so I’m going to pose it again,

and let you reflect on what you envision in your own minds. What did Jesus look

like? Was he a laughing, short-bearded Jesus with dirty blond hair and blue eyes?

Did he have darker skin and brown eyes? Was he a clean-shaven Jesus, arms

outstretched at the Last Supper? Or an Asian Jesus with his Asian mother at his

side? Take your pick.

Picture the face of Jesus in your imagination. What do you see? Does he

have a round button nose or a long hooked one? Does he have hair the color of

walnut wood, parted in the middle, hanging straight to the ears, maybe turning to

waves down to his shoulders? Does he have a beard, tanned olive skin, high

cheekbones, a narrow face filled with passion and kindness, and in his dark eyes,

fire and compassion? How do you picture him? What is his true likeness?

Many centuries ago, an icon of Jesus was painted with these very familiar

features. It is called The Mandylion Icon, from the Greek, meaning The Towel.

Orthodox Christian tradition claims this icon as the first painting of Jesus. It is

believed to be an accurate representation of his true likeness. Among early

Christian writings, there’s a story of how The Mandylion Icon came to be:

The fame of Jesus, the wonder worker and healer, had spread far beyond

the lands of Judea, where he taught and worked and walked. Across the

Euphrates River, in the city of Edessa — believed to be a city with a different

name in modern day Turkey — lived a governor named Abgarus who suffered

from an incurable disease that neither herbs nor doctors could heal. Hearing of

Jesus’ miracles, Abgarus wrote him a letter, as recorded by Eusebius, a noted

early Christian historian: 

To Jesus called Christ, Abgarus the governor of the country of the

Edessenes, an unworthy slave. The multitude of the wonders done by you has been

heard of by me, that you heal the blind, the lame and the paralytic, and cure all

the demoniacs; and on this account I entreat your goodness to come even to us,

and escape from the plottings of the wicked authorities who hate you. My city is

small, but large enough for both of us.

Abgarus convinced Ananias to deliver the letter and, while in Judea, to take

an accurate account of Jesus — his appearance, his stature, his hair and his words.

Ananias delivered the letter to Jesus, then stared at Jesus, trying to fix in his mind

the face of Christ. Try though he did, Ananias couldn’t memorize the countenance

of Jesus. Jesus, knowing Ananias’ heart, asked a disciple for a wash towel. A wet

cloth was handed to him. He wiped his face on the towel, then gave it to Ananias.

On the towel was the very image of the face of Christ. A miracle!

“Take this towel to Abgarus,” said Jesus, “and tell him I cannot come, for I

must fulfill my destiny here, but later I will send my disciple, Thaddaeus, to heal

him.” Ananias fell to the ground and worshiped Jesus, then returned to Abgarus in

Edessa, who was healed by means of the miraculous towel long before Thaddaeus

arrived. Orthodox tradition claims that it was from this Towel of Edessa that the

first ancient icon of Jesus, The Mandylion Icon, was later painted, which became a

prototype for the faces of Jesus down through the centuries.

Since the time when Ananias delivered the Towel of Edessa, thousands of

icons, western-style paintings and sculptures have been created with Jesus as the

subject. In the early 2000’s, an art show collected more than 100 paintings and

icons of Jesus. While it was not a depiction directly from that show, the image on

the screen behind me captures the same essence. This collection investigates the

image, or true likeness, of Jesus in art over time. From the symbolic images of

Early Christian catacombs to modern interpretations, iconic as well as narrative

images have served as objects of education, edification, devotion and aesthetic

appreciation.

These collected works illustrate how artists, especially in the Renaissance

and post-Renaissance periods, tended to use an established prototype for the

portrayal of Christ. Whether he is part of a story or an isolated figure, Jesus is

recognizable by virtue of his recurring facial features. Differences and variables,

obvious over time and style changes, only contribute to emphasizing a certain

“family air.”

It isn’t just his features we re-imagine. At times we re-imagine and

misunderstand his character, too. We aren’t the only ones who do this. His true

likeness, his character, has always been difficult to capture — even for those who

knew him personally. When Jesus was with his friends, teaching, laughing,

drinking wine and eating bread, visible, touchable and knowable, even then, he

was rarely seen or understood for who he was.

On the day of the big festival when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of

a donkey, everyone present seemed to misunderstand who he was and where he

was headed. Thus began a week in which the world, finally gaining a true likeness

of him, finally understanding him to a certain degree, decided they didn’t like

what they saw, preferring to put him away, permanently. The adoring crowd

expected a conquering king who could restore Israel’s ancient greatness, throwing

off the weight of Roman servitude. What they got was a humble servant Savior.

The religious authorities thought he was a dangerous, riot-rousing rebel

who’d lead the people astray. Little did they know that by killing him, he would

become far more powerful, leading generations to God. So what is the character

and true likeness of Jesus? Scripture teaches that we are made in God’s image,

but often enough we remake Jesus as a reflection of our own image — projecting

ourselves onto him. And so long as we don’t claim our version, our image of Jesus

to be the only correct one, imagining him in different ways is actually a healthy

thing.

Is this your image of Jesus? A kindergarten teacher was observing her

classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see

each child’s artwork. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she

asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher

paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a

beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

Or is this your image of Jesus? New Testament scholar John Dominic

Crossan suggests that as Passover approached, Jesus came to Jerusalem

intentionally “to make twin demonstrations, first against Roman imperial control

over the City of Peace and, second, against Roman imperial control over the

temple. … In other words, against the (sub) governor Pilate and his high-priest

Caiaphas.” As Crossan explains it, Jesus intended his very public entry into

Jerusalem on the donkey as not only criticism of Roman power but a lampoon of

it.

Or is this your image of Jesus? Author Timothy Merril notes that

“throughout the week to come, we’ll see Jesus righteously indignant at the

materialism of the temple. We’ll witness him overturn tables while

simultaneously turning the table-owning merchants against him. We’ll watch

Jesus challenge his disciples while he faces their betrayal. We’ll see him prayerful

in the garden, in a very human moment, waiting, waiting, waiting, for the

proverbial shoe to drop, for the next and last phase of his earthly journey to

come. This and more is the likeness of Jesus.”

The truth is that the image of Jesus is each of these and so much more. It

was true in his day, just as it is true in ours. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into

Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. People saw him and believed what they

wanted to believe about who he was and why he was there. In today’s church and

world, we don’t see Jesus, but we read his words and witness his compassionate

acts in ministry. But more than that, we bear his image through our own

compassionate acts of ministry, our own spirituality and faithfulness, and our own

calls for justice and peace. In doing so, we join the metaphorical cheers of those

who lauded him by proclaiming, ‘Hosanna in the highest. Blessed in the One who

comes in the name of God.’ Amen.

Even Jesus has his limits

Mark 11: 15-17

A few months ago, Kimberly and I attended a clergy luncheon at the

Parkview Mirro center. Parkview Health and Associated Churches have been co-

sponsoring these sessions quarterly, and they generally have been good efforts to

build greater relationship among faith leaders in northeast IN. I have been

appreciative that these luncheons have invited and included local leaders of other

faith traditions, including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh.

At this particular luncheon, the question was asked of how we engage in

conversation with people with whom we disagree and find ways to build bridges

and common ground with one another. The broader question was how we as

faith leaders can be a positive influence of breaking through our often polarized

culture to have real dialogue that is at a person level, not an issue level. In their

own way, the leaders of the session were trying to focus on some of the same

themes studied in the ‘Bigger table’ book we’ve been studying in the Beacon

Heights Connects classes.

Back to the luncheon – our table had a pastor who seemed to have a pretty

high opinion of himself. It was clear that he was not used to actual dialogue, to

listening to others. He spoke often, always the first when a new question was

asked, with assumed authority, and also assumed that we all held the same

opinions and views that he did. Whether that was because he assumed we were

all Christians or all clergy or that anyone of faith would believe as he did was

unclear. What was clear was that his demeanor bordered on arrogance, which I

immediately found troubling.

At the point when we were asked the question about how we find common

ground with people who hold different views, he immediately launched into his

response – about his relationship with his neighbor, who holds very different

views than him, but they were able to be in dialogue anyway. On the surface, that

sounds fine doesn’t it? The problem was the way that he characterized his

neighbor and the neighbor’s positions. His characterizations and side comments

were demeaning, with no real understanding that his neighbor’s convictions were

as strong, reasonable, or well discerned as his own.

It was clear that he had no real respect for his neighbor’s views or possibly

even for his neighbor himself. And I had had enough. I was already frustrated

listening to him try to dominate every question. But that he had taken a question

about respectful dialogue and listening to another in order to find common

ground and shared an answer where he really did the exact opposite was a bit too

far for me.

So with as much restraint as I could muster, I responded to him that it really

didn’t feel like he was listening to or respecting his neighbor, that I in turn

disagree with 75% of what he had already said, but that the point was we were

tasked to be pastoral and try to find common ground. When I finished, he looked

stunned. He didn’t seem to know how to respond. And didn’t really talk much

during the rest of the lunch. Part of me felt guilty about that. Part of me didn’t. It

wasn’t my intention to shut him down, but his sharing was often toxic and made

sharing by others difficult. I did not follow up with him afterwards, either to

apologize or to explain my response to him. Perhaps I should have. But there was

part of me that felt it best to let him reflect for himself about what he had said

and why it was offensive, if he chose. We all left the luncheon.

It was clear that I had reached my limit in that table conversation. We all

have our limits, whatever they are. Sometimes they are strong personal

preferences on admittedly minor things, like the ways we set the table or fold

laundry. Sometimes, they are deeply held beliefs, passions, or ways of being. I’ve

known that hypocrisy, especially among pastors, is one of mine. I think the

challenge of our limits is both in knowing what they are and also responding as

clearly and respectfully as possible once they have been reached. And that was

what I struggled with at that luncheon.

It is also clear that Jesus has his limits. We don’t often read about them in

the Gospels. But they are there, in his frustrations with the disciples, especially

Peter, at various points or in selected encounters with the Pharisees. Today’s text

is probably the best known about Jesus reaching his limits. But before we explore

that text, I want to highlight the verses right before it – verses 12-14.

In that text, Jesus appears to be ‘hangry’ – anger as a result of being

hungry. He and the disciples are leaving Bethany, near Jerusalem and Jesus sees a

fig tree in the distance. He goes to the tree, hoping it held fruit to eat, but found

none because it was not the season for figs. Instead of accepting and

understanding that, Jesus offers a seemingly petulant response – ‘May no one

ever eat fruit from you again.’ Wow. That’s pretty harsh and certainly not what

we expect of Jesus. But it also gives us a clue about how Jesus is feeling and what

happens next in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t think it is coincidental that the fig tree text is next to the cleansing

the temple text. On one level, there is symbolism in a barren fig tree and a temple

filled with money changers, but empty of actual spirituality and faith. When Jesus

and the disciples return the next day to find the fig tree withered and die, it’s

intended to suggest the Temple will suffer a similar fate. It no longer fulfills the

purpose for which God intended it and would eventually fall.

At another level, it is likely Mark is setting a progression of Jesus’ humanity

in this final week of his life – that Jesus enters into what we know as Holy Week

willingly, but also with some degree of anxiety, even fear. The text does not tell us

that explicitly, but we infer his anxiety from our own emotional experiences. Our

limits, our outbursts of anger or frustration happen most often when we are

physically worn down, emotionally feel overwhelmed, or find our deeply held

beliefs pushed or challenged.

In this text, Jesus probably feels all of the above. He had been traveling for

days from Galilee to Jerusalem and he had some awareness of the events that

would be unfolding in his last days. So when he encountered the temple and

witnessed the chaotic scene before him, he snapped. Why? Devout Hebrew

peoples came from all over the region to the Jerusalem Temple several times per

year. When they came, they needed to fulfill the ritual animal sacrifice they

believed that God commanded from the Torah.

It was impractical to travel with animals to sacrifice, so vendors sold them

to travelers who arrived. It was also forbidden for coins bearing pagan deities, like

Greek or Roman gods, to be used to purchase the animals for the ritual. So before

they could buy the animals, they had to exchange money. It’s a logical result of a

religious need. But Jesus is offended. On the surface, he’s offended by the

exchange of money in the holy temple. Beneath the surface, he is likely frustrated

by the act itself. Repeatedly, Jesus is most frustrated with tangible religious acts

that serve the religious establishment and not the people. Feeding his disciples or

healing on the Sabbath and getting confronted by the priests, for example. Seeing

this display of commerce in the Temple pushed Jesus over the edge. He had

reached his limit. And he responded forcefully.

This text opens an opportunity for us that churches don’t often take – an

opportunity for us to reflect on our own limits, our own biases, our own pet

peeves, our own deeply held beliefs. We each have them. We know that. We each

have our limits. We know that too. Personally, I’m relieved to know that Jesus

also had his limits, his breaking points. It makes the human side of him more

human.

We are often fearful of reflecting on our limits, almost as if we believe

having them makes us less perfect, less acceptable to others, perhaps even less

acceptable to God. That’s another gift of this text – for if Jesus has his limits, then

it’s okay for us to have ours too. It’s what we learn about ourselves when we

reach those limits that is important. It’s also that we learn more about what those

limits are and how we choose to respond when they are reached that is equally

important. So often, our culture seems to teach us to either run away from

exploring our limits or to explode with righteous indignation when they are

reached. Neither response is effective or necessarily helpful. Just as at its core, it’s

unclear how helpful Jesus cleansing the temple turned out to be in that moment,

other than providing an object lesson for us to consider later in our faith lives.

And that’s ok. Because part of what it means to be human is to grow and

learn about ourselves and about God in those moments when we have reached

our limits, when we are not always at our best. God loves us in those moments

too, and encourages our growth in compassion and empathy, for ourselves and

for others, when our limits are reached. Thanks be to God for God’s presence with

us, wherever we find ourselves on the journey. Amen.

Who am I?

Matthew 19:13-14

Who am I? I don’t think there’s a more fundamental question than that.

The notion of identity and of calling is at the heart of the biblical narrative.

Repeatedly, when God identifies God-self in the Hebrew scriptures, it’s not the

name ‘God’ that is used, nor specifically ‘Lord’ or even “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.”

It’s ‘I am.’ Who am I? ‘I am.’

The notion of identity and of calling is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and

definition of discipleship. In other gospel texts, Jesus is constantly quizzing the

disciples with questions of identity - Who do people say that I am? Who do you

say that I am? It is unlikely that Jesus was having a crisis of identity himself, so

much as he was interested to learn whether his teachings and miracles were

taking hold with the larger population or even with his own disciples. There had

been numerous false prophets and false messiahs in recent Jewish history to that

point, so Jesus was wary of being linked with those individuals and of having his

message confused or distorted by their actions. Guess that ‘fake news’ was

prevalent in Jesus’ time as well.

The notion of identity and of calling is at the heart of the church’s

understanding of itself and its purpose. The Church of the Brethren denomination

is currently in the midst of a compelling vision process. Ironically, it is not the first

vision process the denomination has utilized in the 21 st century. It’s not even the

first vision process this decade. There was one in the early 2000’s, and there was

one that resulted in a solid, but forgettable vision statement adopted by the 2012

Annual Conference. If a denominational church cannot identify its vision by

repeatedly engaging a visioning process, then perhaps there are deeper questions

of identity and call that it is overlooking.

What is clear is that we know calling and identity when we see it. I’m not

talking about identity politics and socialization that we see in our social media and

cable news, although examples of that dynamic are also pretty clear. I’m talking

about when individuals, congregations, and organizations whose identity and

calling are reflective of gospels values at their best. These are inspiring and

invitational. They are ministries that people want to engage, because they make

the world a different place.

In two weeks, our friend David Radcliff from New Community Project will

be here as our guest preacher. For many years, David worked as the Director of

Witness for the COB denomination. Due to budget cuts about twenty years ago,

David was released from his position, and chose to start up a new organization -

New Community Project. I think anyone who has heard David speak can tell that

he is clearly passionate about his work and has a clear calling to partner with

marginalized communities and address climate change and environmental

degradation.

Earlier this week, those who attended the Simple Supper program heard a

passionate presentation by Angie and Carrie of MadeStrong ministries. These two

women clearly have a calling and a heart for ministering to women in our city who

work at local strip clubs. Due to the overwhelming amounts of trauma that bring

people to those establishments or happen while there, I don’t believe this is the

type of ministry that anyone would enter into without a deep sense of call. It is

the type of ministry happening in places that most of our city would prefer not to

see. But it is exactly the type of ministry where Jesus himself would go.

Sometimes, the little children are the ones who lead us. At Weisser Park,

the school where Jacari, Oliver, Maya, and Loreli attend, and where Henri,

Garrett, and other Beacon Heights children in the past have attended, the

children and PTA worked together on a project called a ‘Buddy Bench.’ It’s a

simple, yet profound concept to help prevent bullying and child alienation. A

‘Buddy bench’ is a special place in their playground area where a child who is

feeling lonely or isolated can go to sit. When another child or children sees the

classmate sitting on the buddy bench, the children are encouraged to invite the

isolated child to play, talk, or simply sit together. It’s a powerful way of building

community.

Our scripture is one that is very familiar. Jesus is preaching. His listeners are

engaged. The disciples are protective of Jesus’ time, energy and space. After his

speech, the crowds do what crowds do – they want to interact with him, touch

him, and talk with him. Parents of young children want their kids to experience a

moment with Jesus. We do not know all of the details, but we can imagine the

situation is already or could easily become chaotic. It is unclear whether the

disciples are preventing the whole crowd from getting close to Jesus or whether it

is just part of the crowd. It is clear that the disciples are keeping the children away

from Jesus.

This decision is not surprising. As we’ve noted before, children would be

part of the overlooked and marginalized class, alongside women, widows,

Gentiles, the infirmed, eunuchs, and others. In this moment, as in others, Jesus

embraces his identity as one who welcomes all and affirms the important identity

of children as among God’s beloved, with value and worth beyond what his

society has determined. This is not the first example of Jesus seeing those whom

the dominant class has missed. There are countless others. The important detail

here is that Jesus not only welcomed children, but embraced children for who

they are. He reveled in their presence. He found as much joy in the interaction as

they did. He embraced their identity as part of his calling. And his identity as One

who loved and welcomed all of God’s children, was re-affirmed in doing so.

Last year’s movie musical “The Greatest Showman” about the life of P.T.

Barnum is almost entirely a story about identity. It is a story about seeing those

who have been marginalized, and not only creating a space for them to shine, but

also celebrating them for who they are as people. There is one song, perhaps the

most known song from the movie, where the characters that have been hired to

perform in Barnum’s show are shut out of a reception of a famous singer by

Barnum. In this moment, these people claim their own identity and self-worth,

and claim their own solidarity and family with one another.

The song, ‘This is me,’ is one that speaks powerfully to the concepts Jesus

taught and the ministry he embodied. We will be listening to the music, but also

pay attention to the lyrics that will appear on the screen. Play video of “This is

me.”

Identity and calling are such important parts of church life and ministry.

They are such important parts of who we are as individuals and how we claim our

self-worth as well. Fortunately, we follow One who sees our self-worth, who

invites us to claim our identity as children of God, and who encourages us, as

individuals and as a congregation, to continue our call to welcome those who

would be the marginalized ‘children’ in our society today. Amen.

A time for conversation: Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. In

the spirit of the Irish gift for gab and love of ‘craic’ or conversation, we will spend

a few moments in conversation. During this time, I invite you to reflect on the

memory scripture that will be listed on the screen behind. Reflect on who the

little children are today that Jesus would invite but others would deny. Reflect on

your own identity, as a believer of God, as a follower of Jesus, and/or as a child of

God. Reflect on what wisdom God is leading you to discern during this year’s

Lenten season. Join with 2-3 other people and converse together for about 5

minutes. The band will call us back together with the song “Seek ye first.”

The shortest verse, Lent Week 1

John 11:1-45

“When Jesus wept, the falling tear, in mercy flowed beyond all bound.

When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear seized all the guilty world around.” This

simple round was written by William Billings. Billings was proficient and popular

hymn and song writer in the US in the 1770’s, one of the first in American

Christianity. In order to more widely distribute his hymns, he and another

hymnwriter developed a series of public ‘singing’ schools, where they would

travel the country and teach people how to sing, with many of the songs they

taught being songs they had written.

As a result, Billings’ music became very well known. This song is one that

combines references to two scriptural stories. The first two lines are connected

with our gospel text for today, while the last two lines are focused on the

experience of Jesus on the cross. ‘When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy

flowed beyond all bound.’ We do not have any notes on what Billings was

thinking when he wrote this music and lyrics, although I think it’s safe to say that

the song speaks for itself.

‘When Jesus wept, the falling tears in mercy flowed beyond all bounds.’ The

phrase reflects the deep feeling that Jesus expresses here. We can picture the

falling tears of Jesus over the loss of his friend, Lazarus, a friend who was almost

like family. The falling tears that were not only an expression of mercy, but also

heartache, grief, and love – this is truly what flowed beyond all bounds. By that

phrase, Billings insinuates that both the tears and the love of Jesus flow far

beyond what we would expect of the divine son of God. It’s Jesus’ humanity that

emerges in this text, and his divine actions spring forth from the very human love

that he feels for Lazarus and for his family.

It is a tremendous irony that one of the contiguous stories in the Bible,

verse-wise, also contains the shortest verse. As I’ve mentioned previously, the

annotations of chapters and verses were added to the Hebrew and Christian

scriptures much later than the actual texts were written, but it IS significant that

the person who later affixed the verse numbers also sought to emphasize the

importance of this moment by crafting the shortest verse. Jesus wept.

How do we measure, capture, or fathom the enormity of that verse? Jesus

wept. Jesus, the divine expression of God in the Gospel stories, wept. This is a

facet of humanity that has not previously existed in the Hebrew scriptures. It is a

manifestation of the presence of God that goes beyond the voice in the heavens

or the tablets given to Moses or the visions given to prophets. The Hebrew

scriptures showed God’s instructions, God’s wrath, and God’s love. In this text, we

witness God’s compassion, God’s mercy, and God’s empathy.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is the final and most spectacular of the

seven most fully described public miracles or “signs” Jesus performed in the

Fourth Gospel. The others are the miracle of the water turned to wine in John 2,

the healing of the official’s son in John 4, the healing of the paralytic by the pool

in John 5, the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water in John 6 and the

healing of the man born blind in John 9. The gospels of John and Mark take very

different approaches to miracles. In Mark, Jesus often orders others to be silent

after he has performed a healing or an exorcism, or he swears them to secrecy

after they have witnessed one of his miracles. In John, the miracles are always

done in public and are said to have been done so people would believe in Jesus.

The story of the raising of Lazarus, then, being the last miracle in this

sequence, follows this same pattern we’ve seen before. Whereas in Mark, Jesus

quite often tolerates his disciples misunderstanding him and misinterpreting his

parables, in this passage, when the disciples take Jesus literally when he says

Lazarus has “fallen asleep” and think this means his condition isn’t serious, Jesus

just tells them outright, “Lazarus is dead”. Once they’re at the tomb, we’re told

that Lazarus has been in the tomb so many days that he would have begun to

decompose. Lazarus isn’t simply sleeping, nor is he in a coma from which he

might awaken. He is verifiably dead. And Jesus weeps.

What does it mean for us to follow this divine man who weeps? We cry

tears of joy and of sorrow. Sometimes, we laugh so hard that we cry. Sometimes

we sneeze or cough so hard that we cry. Each of these are physical responses to

something happening inside us – for the latter, it’s something our bodies are

trying to release and for the former, it’s something our spirits are trying to

release. Perhaps that’s a key part of this text – the release that we feel when

Jesus breaks down and allows himself to experience his own sorrow and the

sorrow of others.

That’s a part of our faith that we tend to overlook – the heart centered

part. We live in such a head centered society and we transfer that over to our

religious life. Or people in churches go the exact opposite direction and instead

make their faith solely an emotional experience. I don’t think God had either in

mind in its totality, but instead a blending that reflects a full expression of heart,

of mind, of soul.

As a young boy, I remember an image from a commercial that deeply

troubled me. It was a “Keep America Beautiful” ad with pollution, littering, and

environmental degradation happening as far as the eye could see. The

centerpiece of the ad was a native tribal American who simply stood without

movement, other than a single tear sliding down his face. That powerful,

evocative image captured a dual message – that European settlers who

devastated the people who lived on these lands now had descendants who were

devastating the land as well. It was powerful.

The ad was also controversial, but not for the reasons you might expect. It

turns out that the actor who portrayed the native American had Italian heritage,

and no tribal ancestry at all. The man whose screen name was Iron Eyes Cody was

actually named Espera de Corti. Moreover, the Keep America Beautiful

organization was managed and funded by the leading beverage and packing

corporations at the time. These were not environmental groups, but instead were

among the companies most opposed to environmental regulation such the then

recently passed Clean Air Act. The message of the ad and the man’s tear was

powerful, but was also complex.

Likewise, we struggle with the notion embedded in this text that Jesus

purposefully waited for Lazarus to not only die, but to remain dead for several

days until he came, so that the resurrection of Lazarus could happen beyond all

reasonable doubt. That seems unacceptably harsh, a punishment to his family and

friends who did not know Jesus’ intention, and simply just a strange thing to do

for someone who you love. We are left to wrestle with this facet of the story, and

of Jesus’ actions or inactions in the story.

We are not the only ones. Jesus seems to wrestle deeply with it, especially

in the moment when he encounters Lazarus’ body. Even though the Gospel of

John explains the broader motivations at play, Jesus is moved and the flood of

tears bursts forth. It’s a flood that is borne of the conflict of love and duty that has

been placed upon him, creating a tension that may have been too much to bear.

And so the human side of Jesus came out in that moment, as did the tears. Like

for many of us, those tears represented more than one thing. And all Jesus could

do in that moment is exactly what many of us would do. Jesus wept.

Last week, I shared a story of officiating my grandmother’s funeral. Here’s

another. I have shared with several of you that this was the first funeral that I’ve

officiated for any of my four grandparents who have died. Kimberly and/or I have

participated in the service for several others, but this was the first that I planned,

coordinated and officiated. The reasons for why this was the only one are

complex, but the primary one is that I wanted to be fully present for the others as

a grandson, not as a minister.

As I mentioned, for a variety of reasons, I agreed to officiate my

grandmother’s service. And I was able to hold my emotions in check through the

services. At least until the very end. When Kimberly and Maya joined me to walk

out with the rest of the large extended family at the end of the service, I wept. As

with Jesus’ tears, the weeping was complex, filled with the pent up nature of not

being able to be fully present to my own emotions, along with the complex

relationship I had with my mother’s parents and the reality that my

grandmother’s death marked the passing of a generation, as she was the last

grandparent for either Kimberly or me. There was so much represented in my

tears that I could not hold them in. I wept. Amen.

Moment of silence - This year’s Lenten theme is entitled ‘Reflections of Jesus.’ As

part of weekly focus, we will have a ‘memory scripture’ that will guide us. The

memory scripture will be incorporated into the service in a variety of ways, in

order to increase our ability to reflect and absorb the power and wisdom of its

teaching. This morning’s memory scripture is ‘Jesus wept.’ In a few moments, we

will have a time of silence. During this time, I invite you to prayerfully reflect on

the nuance and the emotion of Jesus in this story, how the story impacts you, and

what new insights it might reveal in you. We will end this time of silence with

______. Let us enter this time.

He'll be coming down the mountain

Luke 9:28-36

It was a typical childhood food aversion experience. It just happened to

take place at my Grandma’s and Pap’s house. I think it was a family Christmas

dinner, but can’t remember for certain. I don’t even remember exactly how old I

was, but I think I was about the age that Maya is today – around 8 years old. The

table at Grandma’s house was filled with food. It needed to be, considering the

numbers of adults and children who were there. I had already gone through the

line once, but as I walked by the table a second time, there was a food item that

caught my eye. Red grapes. At least, I thought they were red grapes. I grabbed

one and popped it into my mouth. Not a red grape. A black olive.

As an adult, I love black olives. Can’t get enough of them. But as a kid, I

didn’t like them. I especially didn’t like them when I had my mind set on red

grapes – when you put something in your mouth, expecting one flavor, and

discover, to your horror, something completely different and a flavor almost

exactly the opposite. That type of experience is not foreign to many of us. In fact,

I imagine many of us have a childhood story like that. But ‘now, for the rest of the

story.’

After my red grape/black olive fiasco, somehow my Grandma found out

about it. I’m not sure how she did. I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell her. Maybe she saw

it. Maybe another adult saw it and reported to her. In any case, the next time

there was a big family meal, Grandma pulled me aside and handed me a little

bowl. What was in the bowl? Red grapes. Of course. The Myers Christmas

gatherings at Grandma’s and Pap’s were always full of activity and busyness, so I

expected my food experience to escape notice. But in her house, nothing escaped

Grandma’s notice. Not even black olives thought to be red grapes.

I told that story at my grandmother’s funeral service last weekend. I told it

in the context of the behind the scenes, unconditional love that she shared with

us, and tied into the expansive types of unconditional love that God shares with

us. As I thought about the story in the context of our scripture for today, I also

thought there was kinship between the two. Not that I’m comparing my Grandma

to Jesus on the Transfiguration Mount. That’s an unfair comparison. More in the

context of the actions in both stories, at the big picture and at the detail level, and

what those actions demonstrate about the people at the center.

So what’s happening in this text? At the macro, big picture level, this text

marks an important shift in the direction of Jesus’ ministry. This story appears in

three of the four gospels, in those called the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark,

and Luke, which use much of the same material to tell their stories. In each of

these gospels, prior to the Transfiguration, the focus of Jesus’ message and

ministry is on the region around the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus spends a short and memorable amount of time in his hometown of

Nazareth, but much of the focus of where he teaches, calls the disciples, heals,

and performs miracles is in towns and cities like Bethsaida, Capernaum, Tiberias,

and others around Lake Tiberias, also known at the Sea of Galilee. His focus is on

the people in these places, trying to help them understand the scriptures they

have heard their whole lives in the synagogue and how God has sent him to clarify

those lessons for them. Jerusalem, the Romans, King Herod, and the temple elite

are seemingly nowhere on his radar screen at this point. In the first part of Jesus’

adult life and ministry, the focus is all local.

That changes with the Transfiguration. We don’t know exactly why it

changes, but there is a clear and demonstrable shift in his focus before this event

and afterwards. Before, it’s all local. Afterwards, it’s more universal. Jesus still

focuses on the people and the needs in front of him, but there’s no question that

the endgame has entered into his thinking. He begins to make references to the

Jerusalem establishment as part of his parables and teachings. Ultimately, he

knows that is where he is headed. We do not know how much he knows. But we

know that he is heading towards a confrontation with the powers that be in

Jerusalem, the city of peace.

Let’s take a look at this text from the micro, detail perspective for a bit. It’s

no coincidence that Jesus would take Peter, James, and John with him, as they

seem to have emerged as three of his most known, most trusted disciples. But it’s

no coincidence that he only took three disciples, instead of twelve, for another

reason. In Hebrew culture, three is a holy number, just as it became for

Christianity through the trinity. God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Peter, James, John. Jesus,

Moses, Elijah. The fact that there are three disciples and three figures in the

Transfiguration would have been a clear sign to Luke’s readers that something

incredibly important would be taking place here – not just in the symbolism of

what happened, but also in the details.

Also interesting are the details we know. We know that Jesus took the

three disciples up on a mountain – another place that symbolizes holiness and

encounters with God. Our text from Exodus underscores that point. In this story,

Moses was the one emerging from the mountaintop to share God’s wisdom. The

face of Moses was under a veil, due to his facial brilliance after encounters with

God. His visage was so bright, the Israelites around him couldn’t see his face. This

dynamic is reflective of the Hebrew scripture texts where humanity was unable to

gaze upon the face of God, or else they would be blinded. For Moses, even being

in God’s presence, even if he didn’t look upon God’s face with his own eyes, was

enough to extent the power of God onto himself.

In the Luke text, we find a similar event. We read that once they arrived on

the mountain, Jesus was transfigured. We don’t know exactly what that means,

but Mark describes Jesus’ clothes as becoming ‘dazzling white.’ It’s likely this was

understood as another sign of holiness, not the white as much as the dazzling

brilliance of Jesus’ clothing and body. We also know that Jesus appears with

Moses, who represents the law, and Elijah, who represents the prophets. These

two Hebrew figures are also significant, as the first five books of the Hebrew bible

are attributed to Moses, and Elijah is arguably the best known example of a

Hebrew prophet. So, the details of the story remind us over and over again of its

importance.

These details offer a brilliance in that matches the brilliance of the

Transfiguration. The beauty of that moment must have been so awe inspiring that

the disciples were overwhelmed by it. In other gospels, there is a phrase that

indicates that the disciples fell asleep during the bulk of the event. But in Mark’s

version, the disciples are fully alive, alert, awake, and terrified, not enthusiastic.

They are focused on the events unfolding before them, so much so that the

unnecessary details of the story fall away and we’re left with what’s most

important.

At the same time, so often in this telling, we ridicule Peter for breaking into

this divine moment with his humanity. The inference is that Peter should have

kept silent, not interrupted the Transfiguration and focused solely on what was

happening before him. While the text seems to indicate that Peter is talking but

doesn’t really know what he is saying, I believe there is a deeper meaning to

Peter’s suggestion.

Repeatedly, in the Hebrew scriptures, when there is a divine encounter

between God and a human, the human marks the exact site with a structure.

Sometimes, it’s a well. Sometimes, it’s like a memorial. Sometimes, it’s a shrine.

And sometimes, it’s a dwelling. While terrified, I also think it’s clear that Peter

recognizes the significance of what is happening before his eyes, and his only

mistake is assuming that the proper way to honor it was the traditional Hebrew

way of doing so. It is telling that God responds to Peter, by telling him to listen to

Jesus and then the divine event concludes.

Unlike Mark’s version of this story, Luke says that ‘they’ kept silent. The

text doesn’t identify, but presumably the ‘they’ included Jesus. The silence here

says as much as the miracle. Silence is an important tool used in moments of

reflection and prayer and meditation. Often we read the silence through the

context of the frequent prohibitions by Jesus in Mark’s gospel. But the silence

among these four as they came down the mountain may have been awe inspired,

divinely inspired, rather than dictated by any practical concerns.

The Japanese word for silence, roughly translated into English, means ‘the

positive beauty in the in between.’ The positive beauty in the in between. The

silence of the Transfiguration event itself marks the positive beauty in the in

between, where the in between marks the transition of Jesus’ ministry from

Galilee to Jerusalem based. The positive beauty of the in between marks the point

where the Transfiguration ends and the descent down the mountain begins. The

positive beauty of the in between silence provides the disciples time and space to

ponder the meaning of the Transfiguration and to truly listen to Jesus’ words,

actions, and behaviors.

That’s an important, often overlooked part of this text that holds deep

meaning for us, especially as we frequently engage a noise-based society where

silence is in shorter and shorter supply. Yet it is often the silence that we crave

and also fear, because it forces us to stop and ponder the depth of our own spirits

and the impacts of God’s presence within it. So perhaps that is the biggest

takeaway from this text for us – to notice, marvel, and deeply ponder the silence

in our lives, and to encounter the positive beauty of the in-between within it.

Amen.

Scouring our deep waters

Luke 5:1-11

            In the original Mary Poppins, one of my favorite scenes is a conversation between young Michael and the iconic nanny. They have just concluded one of their marvelous, imaginative adventures, and the children are just getting ready for bed. In the midst of that process, one that goes much faster than the normal children getting ready for bed process, I might add, Michael and Jane are talking about the wonderful things they will see the next day when venturing on an outing to the bank with their father.

            The children are getting more excited about the outing, a first for them with their father, and Mary Poppins strives to encourage their joy while also tempering their wild enthusiasm. To one of the comments made by Michael about the things they will see, Mary Poppins responds, ‘Well, most things he can see. But sometimes our loved ones, through no fault of his own, cannot see past the end of his nose.’

            Michael does not understand this idea, until the very next day, when he and Jane are on the way to the bank with their father and the two children see a sight they were so excited to witness – a homeless lady, selling bird seed, with flocks of pigeons and other bird friends flying around her. The children are transfixed and call attention to their father. Michael asks if he sees the bird lady, which of course he does, but then he sternly calls their attention to continue their walk. Michael and Jane walk away slowly and sadly. They realize, in that moment, that their father may have seen the bird lady, but there was so much more he didn’t see, including their excitement and wonder. He missed the obvious and couldn’t see past the end of his nose.

            This snippet of story has some parallels with our gospel story. In the fifth chapter of Luke, Jesus is standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd is pressing in on him to preach. At the shore of the lake, he sees two boats — empty because the fishermen had left them to wash their nets. Jesus gets into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asks him to push the boat away from the shore. There Jesus keeps a safe distance from the smothering press of the crowd and is able to teach them.

When Jesus finishes his speech, he decides to extend his lesson with a dramatic illustration. He says to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” You can imagine the response from the fishermen. Frustration. Fatigue. Feeling unappreciated. They are the experts in this field. Not Jesus. They are the ones who would sail these seas and cast their nets every day. Not Jesus. They are the ones who know the best and worst places and ways to catch fish. Not Jesus. They are the ones who just spent the night out on the lake and are exhausted from the physical effort and lack of sleep. Not Jesus.

So, imagine if you were in the disciples’ sandals? You had just brought in your boat, and didn’t expect to take it back out, much less to the deepest part of the waters, especially after not catching anything the night before. What would you do? What would you say? A stark ‘no way?’ Roll your eyes? Fall over from exhaustion? Or offer a tepid affirmation, which is exactly what Simon said and did?

The result? Simon and his fellow fishermen catch so many fish that their nets are beginning to break. They call for their partners in the other boat to come and help, and they end up filling both boats to the point that they’re beginning to sink.

It’s an unexpected, amazing and overwhelmingly abundant catch. All because they’re willing to follow Jesus’ words and scour the deep water. That’s the challenge for us today: to venture beyond our comfort zones and put out into the deep water in of our spirituality. Too often we stay close to shore, safe and comfortable, when the Holy Spirit invites and encourages us to be active, adventurous and willing to explore new territory. That’s where the fish are. That’s where the growth happens. That’s where we can make surprising discoveries about ourselves and the world around us.

There is an ancient Greek legend that when the gods made the human species, they fell to arguing where to put the answers to life so the humans would have to search for them. One god said, "Let's put the answers on top of a mountain. They will never look for them there." "No," said the others. "They'll find them right away." Another of the gods said, "Let's put them in the center of the earth. They will never look for them there." "No," said the others. "They'll find them right away."

Then another spoke. "Let's put them in the bottom of the sea. They will never look for them there." "No," said the others. "They'll find them right away."
Silence fell .... After a while, another god spoke. "We can put the answers to life within them. They will never look for them there." And so they did.

There is great irony in not being able to find the question that eludes us within us. But it happens far too often. How frequently have you been puzzled by a problem and stepped away from it for a day, then returned and found the answer sitting right in front of you? How often did you worry and stew over what you need to say or meant to say to another person, in order to resolve a conflict, only to find out that often what matters most is not what you say, but that you cared? How quickly do we find ourselves so focused on what’s right in front of us that we miss the joy, wonder, heartache, peace, love and messiness of a world all around us? That we, like Jane’s and Michael’s father, through no fault of our own, cannot see past the end of our noses?

Even with this text, the Christian church often misses the point. Too often, the takeaways from this text are summarized as the miracle of the fish and that Jesus is making the disciples fishers of people. The story becomes an object lesson for evangelism, which has become a focus on saving souls, which becomes more about the person doing the encouraging than the person in the spot of being encouraged or coerced.

But what if instead of trying to build bigger church membership, as many churches interpret this text, Jesus is really encouraging his disciples to build a bigger table? Does that sound familiar to many of you? Over the past several weeks, a number of us have scoured the deep waters of John Pavlovitz’ book on his own faith and life journey. We continue to ponder his wisdom and insight, as we seek to model our own path as a congregation and people of faith.

But the heart of John’s book, at least what I’ve read thus far, is in perfect alignment with the lesson Jesus intended from this text. The focus of our following Jesus is not creating the latest and greatest innovations in church ministry, but is intentionally crafting Christian community. Building a bigger table doesn’t mean we build a table because so people are taking up space at the old one. It’s building a bigger table so that when people do come, the table is not only ready for them, but the people who stand ready to welcome them are already there too.

We are challenged to build bigger tables, not for our own sake, but for the sake of those who have found previous tables to be an unwelcoming, unforgiving, uncompromising space. The food may taste fine, but the spirit around the table is poisonous. The fish may be plentiful, but they are not biting on this side of the boat. But the other side, in the deep waters, where we meet ourselves in one another, who knows what promise and possibility may lie there? We know that Jesus is there. And that’s enough to scour our deep waters and start building a bigger table together. Amen.

The calm in the storm

Mark 4:35-41

            I am deeply appreciative of the work done by Megan Elizabeth Sutton with our PowerPoint displays during worship. Even though my view of the screen is not as good as yours, I have the privilege of making a weekly ritual of looking through the PowerPoint twice. Why twice, you may wonder. The first time through, I look for an errors or corrections to suggest. The second time through, I spend time marveling at the art she has chosen, reflecting on its creator’s intent, and soaking in the meaning and the purpose I can divine from the art. It’s a momentary prayer practice for me, one that I appreciate, especially on an intensely full week like this past one.

            Art has a way of connecting us to the world around us. The crafting of Michaelangelo’s David or Monet’s water lilies or Van Gogh’s sunflowers helps us to look at the ordinary and witness the extraordinary. We see life through the creativity of another person…and in the process, we learn more about ourselves. What do we notice – in the big picture or the small detail? What did the artist see that we have never noticed? And since there is a fair amount of art devoted to images of God and stories of the Bible, what does art teach us about God and the role God plays in our lives?

            A few months ago, my spouse Kimberly and I participated in a continuing education event hosted by Timbercrest Retirement Community. Bethany Seminary president Jeff Carter was the guest presenter. The audience was clergy from the two Indiana Districts of the Church of the Brethren. The topic focused on the symbolic storms of our lives and where we find calm, reflecting the scripture that Kimberly read for us a few moments ago.

            However, this was not a traditional Bible study. Jeff used an image of this piece of art as a focal point for our discussion. The piece is “Jesus in the storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. I’ve seen this painting before – it’s a fantastic piece of art. It captures a snapshot of the pinnacle moment of this text – the point where the storm is at its peak, the disciples are freaking out because the boat is about to capsize, and frantically wake Jesus, who somehow was able to sleep in the midst of this chaos.

            Let’s look closer at the painting. You’ve got this boat, which I can tell you is nothing like the one that Jesus and the disciples were likely in. This one actually looks seaworthy. The actual one? Probably nowhere near as sturdy. You’ve got one guy at the bow, trying to hold one sail in place, while another just below him holds another part of the sail. I can’t tell what the two disciples near the mast are up to, and the one in front of them looks to be loosening the rope on a pulley.

            At least those guys are active. Look at the seven in the back of the boat with Jesus. There’s one disciple struggling with the rudder, three more trying to wake and explain to Jesus what is happening, two others – the one in the blue and in the beige, sitting back to back, seemingly doing nothing, and the last leaning over the side, perhaps seasick. Then there’s Jesus. Rembrandt paints Jesus, not with the medieval golden halo or even an all-knowing expression. No, Jesus looks like any of us would look if we had just been suddenly awakened. He looks groggy, confused, and coming to an awareness of what was happening.

            That’s the moment I see. What do you see? What is Rembrandt saying about Jesus and the disciples? And what symbolic ‘storm’ comes to your mind for our lives and world as you reflect on this image? Take five minutes, turn to several people nearby to you, and talk among yourselves about what you notice about this classic, scriptural piece of art.

            Return from conversation – Even though the event that focused on this work of art was intended for clergy, the text and painting has broader application, because we all experience storm times in our lives, whether a small gale or a hurricane sized catastrophe. Just as the disciples, the storms in our lives may catch us unawares. Just as the disciples, we may not know the best ways to respond to the storms we encounter. Just as the disciples, we are often in desperate need for calm in the midst of life’s storms.

            Our storms take many names - Cancer, heart disease, relationship heartache, job loss, an ‘ism’, school bullying, family dysfunction, and many, many others. Persevering through the storms in our lives is one of the most common and simultaneously most difficult parts of what it means to be human. We never fully know when the storms of life will hit us. And because they will hit us, like Rembrandt’s storm, we are often tempted to ask a very understandable question when they do – where is God in the midst of all of this?

            When the disciples suddenly show a lack of trust in God’s power working through Jesus as he sleeps in the stern of the boat, and even accuse him of not caring, we may find ourselves smacking our foreheads at first at their response, then nodding along with the disciples a moment later. The irony in this moment, of course, is that Jesus has to care. He’s in the boat with the disciples. They are all in this together.

            That’s an overlooked point from this story. It’s also a reminder of what Jesus represents. Jesus does not represent God from a distance. He is in the boat with the disciples. He is the calm in the storm with them. He is the calm in the storms we face, as well. That does not mean he will calm all of our storms. It does mean that Jesus offers us calm, an inner peace that surpasses all understanding, which helps us during life’s storms.

            In her book, ‘For the time being,’ author and photographer Annie Dillard writes, ‘God is no more blinding people with glaucoma, or testing them with diabetes, or purifying them with spinal pain, or choreographing the seeding of tumor cells through lymph, or fiddling with chromosomes, than he is jimmying floodwaters or pitching tornadoes at towns. God is no more cogitating which among us he plans to place here as bird-headed dwarfs or elephant men -- or to kill by AIDS or kidney failure, heart disease, childhood leukemia, or sudden infant death syndrome -- than he is pitching lightning bolts at pedestrians, triggering rock slides or setting fires. The very least likely things for which God might be responsible are what insurers call "acts of God."

            The miracle story of Jesus' calming the storm at sea testifies to two truths. First, there is nothing Jesus cannot do to keep us from ultimate harm. Second, as Jesus' disciples living in an imperfect world, we are in for some rough times. This gospel story confirms that the boat in which Jesus and his disciples found themselves went through a real storm, a real threat.

            The storm doesn't blow around their boat just because Jesus is on board. It hits them full force. Nowhere does Jesus promise his followers anything different. A peaceful voyage is not the journey we embark upon. But a peace-filled journey is available to us, even in life’s storms. Jesus' promise is not to sail us around our storms but is to be with us in the midst of all storms -- still in one peace. Amen.

Claiming a purpose

John 2:1-11

One of my favorite parts of my position as your Pastor is to connect

the spiritual gifts found among people in our congregation with volunteer

ministry opportunities that serve our church, community and world. It is

remarkable to me. It seem whenever we have a transition in volunteer

leadership, whether on the Board or the partner church committee or

Staff Relations or operating the powerpoint during worship or any other

opportunity to serve, we can celebrate both the person who faithfully

serve in that role, as well as the person stepping in to serve anew.

It is humbling and inspiring to marvel at the ample skills, passions,

and abilities that each of you bring to this community of faith, and then

to discern with many of you the ways in which you feel called to serve. I

am constantly amazed at the open spirit with which those conversations

happen. Sometimes, you say ‘no’ when asked. Often, you say ‘yes.’

Almost always, those requests to serve are taken seriously, which is

something I deeply appreciate. It helps me to believe, no matter your

answer to the request to serve, that you have spent time thinking and

discerning whether you are able to serve, as well as whether you have

the gifts to serve in the role being asked. These conversations become a

partnership, one built on trust, grace, and call.

In using that last word, ‘call,’ I recognize that’s a biblical term that

we use in the church, but with a meaning that may not translate well to

our modern age. Part of that is due to the fact that calling stories from

the Bible often involve the voice of God or the invitation of Jesus. I am

neither one, nor is anyone else in the church. I think that’s part of the

reason why church and society has moved to other words to replace call,

but carry nearly the same meaning. Words such as mission or passion or

purpose. There was a book about 20 years ago written by Rick Warren

called ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’ that focused on finding and distilling the

key areas of purpose and passion in one’s life and pursuing them.

The book raises questions that Jesus encountered in his life. How do

we recognize a call, a purpose, a mission or passion within our lives? How

do we know what is a call and what is a fleeting interest? How do know

when is the right time to pursue our calling? And perhaps most

frightening? What do we do when we fail or when our calling changes?

Those are the hardest questions we face in claiming a purpose in our

lives, because all of those questions are based upon a lot of trust and a

good bit of faith.

In our Gospel text for today, we find the story of Jesus, his mother

and his friends attending an unforgettable wedding in Cana. Often, this

story of Jesus turning water into wine focuses solely on the miracle. It is

a pretty great miracle. Yet it’s important to note that coming into the

story, Jesus is perfectly content to stay in the background. He had called

many of his disciples to join him in ministry, but felt his ministry would

truly begin at the time of his choosing.

That would make sense for why he didn’t want to act. Perhaps he

wanted a launch party or a specific showing in the local synagogue to

announce his arrival on the religious scene. Perhaps he didn’t want to

upstage the wedding party. After all, a first century Jewish wedding party

was a big deal. It lasted for nearly a week. If Jesus performed a miracle

there, then what would people remember – the wedding or the miracle?

It’s also possible that the human side of Jesus had not yet determined

what he wanted his ministry to look like. Perhaps it would be a teaching

ministry alone or one focused on healings and miracles or some other

focus entirely. It is implied in Jesus’ words to his mother that he was not

yet ready to embrace his calling, to claim the purpose for his ministry

call.

His mother has other ideas. It may not have started that way. It

likely began as your typical, traditional wedding celebration with an

average and pleasant reception — until the wine gave out. Customarily

the better wine was served first at Galilean wedding receptions. This

makes sense, when you think about it. You serve the good wine first,

when the palate is fresh and expectant, and all of the guests are present

and honored. After a few days, when fewer remained, the lesser wine

could be served.

But to run out of wine before late in the celebration — that was an

unforgettable hospitality indiscretion that would have caused minor

humiliation for the host if the problem was not hastily fixed. In short — it

could have been a social disaster. Picture a stressed-out host trying to

find more wine while quietly badgering his servants. Picture the servants’

fear.

For whatever reason, Mary, Jesus’ mother, got involved in the wine

problem. We don’t know why. Maybe it was the wedding of a relative.

Maybe Mary thought that marriages were worth celebrating. We can

almost hear Mary saying, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll talk to my son — he

can fix anything.” We have here an ancient version of the Kent family of

Smallville who have a teenage super-Clark around to help with the heavy

lifting.

So Mary tells Jesus, “They’re out of wine.” And Jesus faced a

choice. Would he respond to the need before him, even though it was not

a time of his choosing? Or would he wait? Like many of our parents or

elder figures, Mary plays the perfect role. She does not tell Jesus to save

the day. She does not guilt him into action. She merely names the need,

steps back, and has faith that he will make the best choice.

In a way, even though it was Jesus who performed this first public

miracle, it was Mary who saved that wedding day. She led Jesus to it. His

miracle was simple. Fill six large ceramic jars with water. Dip a cup. Take

the cup to the wedding coordinator. Let him taste. Suddenly there were

120 to 180 gallons of excellent wine. That was no doubt enough wine for

the rest of the reception. Jesus performed the miracle. His ministry

calling was launched.

Perhaps Jesus could have used Dan Cumberland’s thoughts when it

comes to calling – He identifies three myths to avoid when trying to

discern God's call: Myth 1: Your calling is a job -- "It's much, much bigger

than a job. Your calling is a direction and an impact. It is about using your

agency to bring about a specific and meaningful kind of goodness in the

world and in the lives of others. ... Your calling can be expressed in

countless ways: In your job and outside of your job, but it is not the job

itself."

Myth 2: Your calling is somewhere out there, you just have to find

it -- "Calling ... [is] not somewhere out there. It's much more the

opposite. It's close to home. It's dangerously close to our hearts and what

makes us who we are. It's not in the wind, the fire or the earthquake. It's

in a still small and familiar voice. It's in who you already are and who you

are becoming. The real work is not in searching it out, but in learning to

be your true self, which is why there isn't a quick easy answer. It's a

process of growth."

Myth 3: Your calling is a place of obligation -- "Your calling and life's

work are places of freedom. If it's not freeing, then it's not yours. So

often the very word 'calling' is associated with feelings of obligation, guilt

and shame. ... If it's in line with who you are, and who you are made to

be, it will be always be life-giving. ... You pour yourself into it, and it fills

you back up."

You pour yourself into it, and it fills you back up. Or as the late Mr.

Rogers once said, "I'm not a character on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

What I do in the studio is part of my real life, and the person on camera

is the real me."I have been blessed, so deeply blessed," he went on, "to

be able to give one honest human being to kids. I felt that was my

calling."

That was his calling. What is yours? Amen.

Filled with awe

Matthew 2:1-12

            It seemed to be a parade just like any other during the holiday season. Only it wasn’t. The energy and the excitement built as each float and each person dressed up as a character made his or her way down the street. The music got louder. The streets were crowded with more and more people. Children who were running about started jumping up and down, up and down. Even the adults, who were largely watching the events unfold with a humorous disinterest, began to pay attention. For the featured guests, the ones upon which they all awaited, were soon to arrive around the street corner and make their way into the town square.

            Finally, they appeared. Was it Santa and Mrs. Claus? No. It was the magi, three men dressed in bright, lavish outfits threatening to outdo one another. The children screamed upon their entrance and surged towards them like they were celebrities. Which in this town, they were. These magi had a hug and a little gift for each child, along with a smile and warm greeting for each adult. They posed for pictures among the admiring throng. The joy and excitement surrounding their presence was palpable. It was unlike any parade experience I had witnessed before.

In the midst of it all, I had to shake my head and check my reality. I was not at an amusement park. I was not at a political rally. I was not even in the mainland United States. I was in Puerto Rico, attending a festival of the three kings in the small town of Juana Diaz. It was Epiphany, January 6, 1999, and I was there on a Bethany seminary intercultural trip.

It was a remarkable scene, one of those cultural experiences that stuck with me, that was transcendent, that meant a little bit more than all of the other wonderful parts of that trip. I must have looked a little goofy, having this blessed moment of self-realization. I was standing there, with an expression of wonderment, with a big, incredulous, bewildering, yet dumbstruck smile on my face. It was very hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere of it all. I was filled with awe.

In the midst of soaking in the scene I was witnessing, the look on my face attracted the attention of one of the men portraying a magi. He came over to me and greeted me with a big hug. He did not say a word to me, which was just as well, since as I have mentioned before, the only Spanish I can speak to this day is the Sesame Street variety. Our exchange was brief, but I remember his face and his eyes. The man was having the time of his life. I could tell that he loved being there, being a magi, being the one to spread excitement to the children of his community, being connected to the story of Jesus. It meant so much to him that I knew I wasn’t the only one filled with awe and joy.

There is much that we don’t know about the magi from Matthew’s birth story. We don’t know how many magi there were. We only know the number of gifts. We don’t know where exactly they came from. We only know they came from the East. We don’t know their names. We only know that the names of Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthasar appeared much later, in an Italian mosaic nearly 500 years after Jesus’ birth and made more popular by Gian Carlo Melotti operetta. We don’t know how they put together the prophecy of Jesus’ birth from afar, while so many people living nearby missed it entirely. We only know what the scripture tells us; that these travelers came to Herod, that he sent them forth as unwitting spies, that they brought their symbolic, mystical, and highly precious gifts to a young boy that they named the Jewish leader.

And even though we know more about the specific gifts they brought than anything, those also hold mystery and intrigue. Clearly, the magi did not expect to deliver such grandiose items to a child in such humble surroundings. The gifts are believed to symbolically reflect the three main leadership traditions in Judaism – gold for kingly tradition, frankincense for the prophetic tradition, and myrrh for the priestly tradition. But that understanding emerged later on, as a means of connecting Jesus more deeply to the history of the Hebrew people.

Because of our relative lack of familiarity with frankincense and myrrh, we Jesus followers of today who encounter this story may believe gold to be the most treasured among these gifts. But Mary and Joseph would likely have seen it differently. Myrrh was a staple of the temple, used by the priests for anointing and sacred functions in worship. It would have held little practical use for the family, but would have held great value as a trading commodity once they returned to Nazareth.

Frankincense, by contrast, has come back into prominent use by practitioners inside and outside of the medical profession for its healing properties. Among the essential oils that my spouse Kimberly purchases, frankincense is among the most expensive and valuable. Frankincense is a resin that has been used in healing practices for thousands of years across multiple cultures. There’s still much to be learned about why frankincense aids with the healing process, but for Mary and Joseph, preparing for a long journey home with a young one, it would have been a godsend. Even if they didn’t know why it worked or why these magi came, Mary and Joseph would have been overwhelmed at their presence and gifts.

Indeed, there is so much that we don’t know about these Magi and this story. We only know one thing for certain. It was the same thing the magi who caught my eye in Puerto Rico knew. Awe; an indescribable, unshakable, overwhelming awe. They were filled with it. The text in Matthew tells us that the magi saw where the star had stopped, the star they had followed for hundreds of miles, and they entered the house to greet Jesus with overwhelming joy. They had found what they were looking for. They felt awe. They felt awe.

Compare the magi’s joy with the other deep emotion expressed in this text. Fear. Herod felt great fright upon hearing of the magi’s quest. His response to Jesus is quite different than theirs. Joy versus fear. Openness versus secrecy. A search for the truth versus a mission sent forth with a lie. There is a very stark contrast between Herod and the magi, so much so that it offers us a reminder of how we choose to approach the divine encounters in our own lives.

Each New Year, many of us engage in the cultural tradition of setting resolutions, in an attempt to improve ourselves and our lives. Most of the time, those resolutions include things like exercising more, weighing less, eating more healthy food, eating less junk food, reading more, watching screens less. You get the idea. Here’s a question – how many of us have a resolution to experience awe in this new year? How many people have you ever heard make that resolution? Probably no one.

In a recent study, Pew Research discovered more people identifying as being ‘non-religious’ than any religious group. Sounds like a continuing pattern in American Christianity. But when Pew followed up with those who identified that way and asked some follow up questions, the researchers were surprised to learn that what the unreligious sought most in their lives was meaning and purpose, community, and to be inspired in their daily lives. It’s part of our humanity that we long to be filled with awe.

In one of my favorite sermons on this story, author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor aptly captures the essence of the magi, not only when they arrived or when they encountered the Christ child, but also upon their departure, when their hearts were filled with gifts greater than those they brought. Her words are such a gift, that they will mark the end of this sermon. She writes, “the wise men picked up their packs, which were lighter than before, and then they lined up in front of the baby to thank him for the gifts he had given them.

‘What in the world are you talking about?’ the baby’s mother laughed, and they told her so she could tell him later. ‘For this home and the love here,’ said the first wise man, who could not remember how to say it in runes. ‘For baby flesh,’ said the second wise man, who had no interest in living on herbs anymore. ‘For a really great story,’ said the third wise man, who thought telling it might do a lot more for him than walking on coals. Then, filled with awe, the wise men trooped outside, stretched, kissed the baby good bye, and went home by another way.” Amen.

 

 

When Jesus came, the world changed

John 1:9-10; Isaiah 35:1-2, 5-10

            I have been thinking about walls lately. The ongoing debate over the southern border started my musing, but the reality is that we witness walls being constructed everywhere. Some of those walls are physical, some are emotional, some are mental. We witness walls constructed between nations, but also among families, between neighbors, even within our own hearts, sometimes to protect us from ourselves.

            I think of the story of journalist Maria Said, who was excited when she first learned she would be spending some time in the African desert working in international development. She imagined living in a small hut of her own, with a palm tree to the side. Perhaps a little desk surrounded by mosquito netting where she could write and work, living not unlike Kristen Scott Thomas in ‘The English Patient’, or Meryl Streep in ‘Out of Africa’. She had a vision of the desert akin to today's Scripture from Isaiah, especially the opening lines: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”

The reality was much different. In her own words: "For two years, I shared my home with more than 30 children, four freedom fighters, a government bureaucrat, a wife-beater, a Red Cross worker with a taste for liquor, a number of prostitutes, a madman, and all the customers of the tea shop next door." When she first hit town, she found that no housing had been arranged for her, no private hut and no personal palm tree. A townsman showed her an empty place, a room with walls that reached only to the level of her head. A room with half-walls is a room with a view - of everything. It means lots of exposure, lots of community and lots of opportunities to connect. Maybe too many opportunities. This is the way Maria spent the next two years - celebrating half-wall holidays.

Maria quickly discovered that her lofty and idealistic notions of "community" and "neighbor" quickly came down to earth and took concrete form. In this kind of community, there were no time-outs allowed - no private moments to take a deep breath or smooth over loose ends. The rough edges of day-to-day life didn't get addressed in a half-wall world ... they became rougher. Maria was forced to recognize that she was neither as nice nor as neighborly as she had always assumed.

During the holidays, we often witness a false sense of community. We think we've lowered the walls of isolation, unconcern and disinterested privacy. Our sense of neighborliness is satisfied when we drop a few coins in the bell-ringer's bucket or catch up with our year end giving. But our walls are still firmly in place. Granted, this is tough for us. We love our privacy; we enjoy retreating to the haven of home at the end of a hectic day. That’s a good thing – vital and necessary for our health.

At the same time, we long for community and connectedness. And it is this tension between the need to be alone and together that God resolves in the Incarnation. God lowers the walls, and calls on us to do the same. In this text, Isaiah captures the dual purpose of God's coming, the dual nature of his involvement in human life. God is both a truth-teller and a healer, one who dispenses justice and offers extravagant love. In taking this approach, God provides us with a half-wall experience, stripping away our pretenses and helping us to bring together our public and our private personas.

Then comes the good part: The work of healing and peace. "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened," promises the prophet, "and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” This text proclaims good news to a people in bondage, in captivity, without hope, experiencing walls of separation from family and barriers to the peace they crave. This is not solely a physical exile. This text speaks today to those who experience emotional or spiritual exile from loved ones, those who pass through a wilderness period that seems to be unending, those who are weak or struggling to survive. Isaiah proclaims God’s ability to overcome the walls of suffering and despair to bring a glimmer of transformation and good news in our lives, no matter our situation.

Journalist Maria discovered that in her community united by half-walls, times of joy and transformation will emerge. One of the women who lived next door became her best friend. When the dust storms came and the lights blew out, the woman would place her candles on top of the wall so that the two of them could share the light. On nights when she worked late, Maria passed bowls of American-style food over the wall and listened as the woman and the tea shop customers tried to identify and swallow the strange meals. Each night, after they dragged their rope beds out of the hot rooms into the small courtyards, they would whisper over the wall and wish blessings for the next day. The woman called Maria "sister" and made her a part of her family.

I think of Jesus in this context. Jesus came into a world filled with walls. His birth story invited the ridicule and scorn of his family’s community. Joseph’s nationality required their family to travel to Bethlehem, quite a distance from Nazareth in those days, to be registered for the census. And upon their arrival in Bethlehem, the holy family had to overcome a lack of house space and hospitality to find warmth in the shelter of a stable. Walls emerged everywhere, and finally they encountered the half wall of an innkeeper who offered the only space available. But that was enough – there was enough space in that half wall offering for God to take control and change the world, for God to begin the work in Jesus of redefining God’s family.

I think of Robert Frost’s famous poem about walls. Most of us, perhaps nearly all of us, have heard or read selected parts of his poem. But I think his whole poem bears repeating and noting in our current context.

Frost writes, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that sends the frozen-groundswell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. The work of hunters is another thing: I have come after them and made repair where they have left not one stone on a stone, But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, to please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, no one has seen them made or heard them made, but at spring mending-time we find them there. I let my neighbour know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls we have to use a spell to make them balance: "Stay where you are until our backs are turned!" We wear our fingers rough with handling them. Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, One on a side. It comes to little more: There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder if I could put a notion in his head:"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him, but it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather He said it for himself. I see him there bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top in each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me, not of woods only and the shade of trees. He will not go behind his father's saying, and he likes having thought of it so well he says again, "Good fences make good neighbours.”

            Most people only know Frost’s poem by its last line – good fences make good neighbors. But that line is meant with irony, as we note from the rest of the poem. We catch a glimpse of Frost’s intent with the title of this poem, which most of us do not know. The title is not ‘good fences make good neighbours.’ The title, ‘Mending walls.’ Frost’s poem encourages us to look with suspicion upon the walls constructed in our world to keep people separated and to look with honest critique at the symbolic walls we construct to keep our friends and loved ones at arm’s length.

            And in this context, again, I think of Jesus. When Jesus came, the world changed. Walls and other barriers crumbled. The Prince of Peace reigned. The babe of Bethlehem brought together an unexpected crew of local shepherds and foreign magi, lowly barnyard animals and a heavenly host, son of a teenage mother and a carpenter with bloodlines to Israel’s kings. As an adult, Jesus of Nazareth brought together the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, the marginalized and the elite, formed into a band of disciples and followers who are our forebears in faith and examples for how to follow and not to follow Jesus the Christ. In his physical absence, Jesus inspires the church of every age to break down walls and to build bridges of relationship that bring peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing to the wounds and walls of our lives and world.

            Because Jesus came, the world continues to change for the good, as we seek to embody Christ’s peace in our relationships and world, while we also discern Christ’s peace within our own hearts to engage the tough work of breaking down the barriers we construct daily. But that is what Jesus came to do, and that is what he represents -  a hope, a beacon, a chance, to reach out across that wall, vulnerably, willingly, peacefully, to touch another soul and change the world. Amen.

When Jesus came, humanity changed

Luke 1:39-45

         “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The line, of course, is from a beloved Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a song we will be singing in worship next Sunday, in fact. What worshipper doesn’t cherish the image of light beaming upon the tiny town of Bethlehem, upon the ramshackle stable where the Christ child dozes away, oblivious to the drama of the world? Who doesn’t celebrate the joy his birth brings to a world where joy so often seems in short supply? But what about the fears mentioned in this hymn? What has fear to do with Christmas?

The history of the carol provides a hint. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written in 1868 by the famed preacher Phillips Brooks. The Civil War had ended only three years earlier. Generals Lee and Grant had signed their peace accord at Appomattox and shaken hands on the deal. Battle-weary veterans from both sides had laid down their arms and trudged home. But half the nation still lay in ruins, and the country struggled to rebuild and reunite. The peace was just as challenging and trying as the war.

On the home front, north and south, families had been decimated by the carnage of the most brutal war America had ever known. Families counted themselves lucky if their family members had come home lacking an arm or a leg or an eye or shivering with PTSD. They knew the family member could easily have not come home at all. In 1868, it gave Americans some measure of peace and tranquility to imagine the humble Bethlehem stable as the place where hope and fear meet each other — and where joy emerges the ultimate victor. It was a reminder from Brooks that if Jesus came, humanity would change.

At the same time, there’s more fear in the Advent and Christmas stories than most of us care to be reminded of. It’s unmistakably present in John’s fiery preaching, of course, but we glimpse it also in the angel’s repeated greeting: “Fear not.” Yes, the angel says not to be afraid, but the fact that such an exhortation needs to be voiced at all is an admission that fear is an ever-present reality — then and now. You just don’t get that in the secular version of the coming holiday. It’s all light and no shadow, all merriment and no malevolence. As for those who turn for a moment from the relentless yuletide cheer to acknowledge some all-too-human problem or difficulty, they might be accused of lacking sufficient “Christmas spirit.

Clearly, John the Baptist wants no part of such a world — nor do the gospel-writers, as they bookend the Christmas story with angels who preface good news with “Fear not,” on one side, and with the soldiers of a jealous king who threatens the lives of young children, on the other. We don’t get to Christmas joy by detouring around fear. We get there, as Phillips Brooks knew, only by allowing the hopes and fears of all the years to meet one another in that little town of Bethlehem.

            Prior to that moment in Bethlehem, we have another moment where the meeting of hope and fear resulted in deep and abiding joy. Mary has been ‘favored,’ chosen by God. But it may not have felt like it. The sheer excitement of the angel’s message to Elizabeth likely rested alongside the sheer terror of her predicament. A teenager, who is having a child out of wedlock and barely betrothed to an impoverished carpenter, who in turn is mulling a divorce to avoid scandal for them both. Mary, God’s favored one, will mother a child who will be later executed as a criminal. Not exactly a Hallmark movie. Not exactly the contents we’d include in a Christmas letter. The story is so familiar that we let its familiarity mask its scandal.

             Of course, the ultimate scandal is that God would enter human life with all its struggles, depravity, violence, and corruption. God had appointed prophets, kings, and favored ones before. But never before had God entered the human fray so directly, intimately, and vulnerably. If we were to envision the nature of God’s feelings in this moment, perhaps there would also be a combination of hope and fear. Hope for what the entry of Jesus would hold. Fear for how God’s Son might be received.

            And so it is equally remarkable that both Mary, and God presumably, meet this moment of equal parts hope and fear with joy. Joy is a recurring theme throughout Luke’s gospel. The joy of annuniciations and the births of John and Jesus recurs in the joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead, and receiving the marginalized and forgotten that occurs throughout the adult ministry of Jesus. Appropriately, at the end of this Gospel, following Jesus’ life, at a time when fear must have threatened to overwhelm hope, the disciples return to Jerusalem with joy and are in the Temple praising God. The gospels describe a God, embodied in Jesus, who brings joy to expression in human experience, and that joy is palpable, remarkable, inspirational, and never ceasing. When Jesus came, or even was foretold to be coming, Mary changed.

Viewing the television cartoon, A Charlie Brown Christmas, is a holiday tradition for many people. A favorite scene is when Linus, standing on a bare stage, recites the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke. That scene nearly didn’t make it into the show. TV network executives thought it too religious, and the reading from Luke simply too lengthy. But the producers persisted, the scene stayed and it became a cherished moment.

There’s one feature of that scene that not many people notice. During his recitation, at the moment when he quotes the angel saying, ‘Fear not,’ Linus does something unexpected. Have you ever noticed? He drops his security blanket. Anyone who’s familiar with the character of Linus knows he’s never without his blanket. Over the years of drawing his comic strip, Charles Schulz would occasionally deprive Linus of his blanket — such as when the mischievous Snoopy briefly steals it. Every time this happens, this otherwise cool, calm and wise-beyond-his-years character dissolves into frenzied angst. Linus simply cannot be without his blanket. Except in this moment, when he’s standing on stage reciting the Christmas story. With the Christ child on his mind and the angel’s call to release fear in his heart, he doesn’t need it. His body changes, his mind is engaged, and his heart fills with joy as he shares this centuries old story with his peers, who may be hearing it for the first time. It’s subtle, but clear – when the story of Jesus came, the character of Linus changed.

The 18th-century English painter and poet William Blake had a remarkable and transformative imagination when it came to possibilities of joyful change. All his life, Blake cultivated a naive openness to the world around him. He writes, “I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eye of a miser a gold coin is far more beautiful than the sun and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. As a man is so he sees. When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire something like a gold piece? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’”

Henri Nouwen writes a similar sentiment. “Advent does not lead to nervous tension stemming from expectation of something spectacular about to happen. On the contrary, it leads to a growing inner stillness and joy allowing me to realize that he for whom I am waiting has already arrived and speaks to me in the silence of my heart.”

Or consider the profound wisdom of chaplain Judy Holmes-Jensen, who writes, “I am a chaplain in a hospital where I serve folks in a unique cultural mix of urban and rural poor outside of a large metropolitan area. I am present for heartache, bad news, and end of life choices daily. As I have thought about the intersection of these things I find myself reflecting on how joy does not necessarily mean happy applause. Joy is a spiritual fruit, cultivated in hard soil, watered by hope and surviving when the sun has somehow scorched your heart. It takes root in faithfulness and community despite the environment, and the praise comes when -- unseen by those too far removed -- compassion, love, kindness and tenderness sing forth.”

Compassion, love, kindness, and tenderness sing forth. Much like Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her encounter with Elizabeth, with the song that bursts forth from her. Much like Linus, with the joyful news of Christ’s birth story tumbling out of his mouth to soothe the wailing hopelessness of Charlie Brown. Much like the church, in every age, as we are changed by the power of this season, and are invited to model embodiments of joy in a world where the ‘hopes and fears of all the years are met’ in the person of Jesus.

May sing joyfully let our lives sing forth with compassion, love, kindness, and tenderness, not just in this Advent and Christmas seasons, but in our whole lives. Amen.

When Jesus came, the messenger changed

Luke 1:11-25

Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la. Tis also the season to send

packages and letters. These weeks prior to and after Christmas are among the

busiest of the year for the unsung people who work to make sure that your family

letters are received and your packages are delivered. In 2017, between

Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the Postal Service delivered more than 15

billion pieces of mail, including 850 million packages. UPS delivered more than

750 million packages globally in the 25-day period between Thanksgiving and New

Year’s Eve. And FedEx deliver around 400 million packages. That’s a lot of

deliveries. And a lot of people that help to make it happen.

On Thursday during our staff lunch here at the church, our new office

manager, Melinda Long, shared some of her experiences working as a package

handler at FedEx over the past several months. She and her son Riley lived with

her sister and brother in law in Indy, near the airport, where the second largest

FedEx packaging facility in the country is located. Even though the house is only 7

miles away, and it takes only 10 minutes to drive there, it would often take

another 35 minutes to get to her position in the facility. Why? Taking the shuttle

to security from the parking lot, getting through security, and then on to the

warehouse where her job was located took a lot of time.

In addition, the employees are always instructed that taking vacation time

off during the Thanksgiving to New Years period is prohibited. And it was also

interesting to hear that while commercial airlines fly during the day primarily,

planes making deliveries for UPS, FedEx, and the Postal Service fly at night,

systemically and almost rhythmically taking and landing one after another. If your

phone tracks the location of your package on Amazon, like mine does, you’ll

notice the constant movement of the packages you’ve ordered, Melinda’s

experience can give you a small glimpse into the broader world that makes these

deliveries timely and possible.

Of course, in our culture, these aren’t the only types of messengers. The

means of our communication has multiplied in ways beyond our comprehension.

Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, WhatsApp, Tumblr, WeChat, Skype,

Zoom, Duo, not to mention the now ‘old fashioned’ email and text messages – all

of these are forms of sending messages or communication in nearly real time.

Ever stopped to think about how the biblical narratives would be different if these

forms of communication had been available back then? Moses would not need to

trek up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. He

could have pulled his mobile device from his robe and received a text from God,

then shown it to the Israelites.

In actuality, God was even more creative in the messengers of the Hebrew

Bible. God spoke through a burning bush, a cloud, dreams, dry bones, and a

simple, yet powerful voice. God sent messages through signs and wonders. And in

the Hebrew scriptures, God speaks through messengers that we call angels –

seraphim and cherubim. The prophet Isaiah provides the image of an angel

pressing a burning coal to his lips and pronouncing him as forgiven. The book of

Daniel features angels who rescue Daniel from the lion’s den. The book of

Zechariah probably features more angels than any other book, with angels serving

as symbolic healers and intermediaries of prayer, along with the traditional role

as messenger interpreting God’s intent.

The role of the angel in the Hebrew Bible sets the stage for this story at the

beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The angel comes in a surprising, yet familiar manner.

The plight of the Hebrew people is paralleled by an aging couple’s waiting and

hoping for the birth of a child. In both cases, the waiting is so prolonged that hope

seemed lost. That the angel came to the priest Zachariah in the temple, who was

only in the temple by chance, underscored the intention of God to do a new thing

through the birth of John.

The angel in this text offers a different message than those in the Hebrew

scriptures. In those stories, the angel came to directly speak to the needs of the

people in that moment. The people needed something immediately, whether

rescuing or a miracle or information, and the angel provided it on behalf of God.

This text is different. It sets the stage. Zachariah’s and Elizabeth’s waiting is over,

but the waiting of the world continues until the culmination of Jesus’ birth. Hope

is imminent, but not fulfilled. Not yet, but almost.

Fulfillment of this hope, however, required a response of openness from

Zachariah, who demonstrates that even the faithful may grow weary and tired in

their petitions. Here is the story of a priest who was praying without ceasing, but

was not prepared for his prayers to be answered. He was officiating in the temple,

in the holy of holies itself, the very place where the Hebrew people believed God

to reside, but he did not really expect to experience God’s presence. This very real

experience of life is humbling, because we can likely imagine ourselves in

Zachariah’s place – perhaps not necessarily with his circumstances, but with his

predicament of disbelief by the events happening before him that seemed

beyond his understanding. Zachariah’s faith was intact, but his hope had waned,

which left him struggling to comprehend the message of the angel before him.

Emily Dickinson once wrote, ‘We tend to think of hope as a "winged thing,"

flying serenely above the storms, untouched by the mundane earth. But the value

of hope lies in its presence in our everyday lives, a constant earthly promise of

welcome to ultimate fellowship with God. And hope doesn't have wings - if we

choose to invite it, hope walks beside us as we travel. Hope means to keep living

amid desperation and to keep humming in the darkness.”

Author Henri Nouwen also adds, “Hoping is knowing that there is love; it is

trust in tomorrow; it is falling asleep and waking again when the sun rises. In the

midst of a gale at sea, it is to discover land. In the eyes of another, it is to see that

he understands you. As long as there is still hope, there will also be life.”

Or consider that in the British Museum there is a painting called "Hope." In

the background are the familiar outlines of the continents and oceans of planet

Earth. But in the foreground is a beautiful woman seated at a harp - a harp with

strings dangling helpless from the top or lying uselessly on the lap of her dress, a

harp with only one string still tautly strung. A curator of the museum tells the

story of two women who stood in front of the picture and commenting on how

little of the harp was still intact. One said to the other: "Hope - why do they call it

hope?" The reason is that from Moses to Mary Magdalene, the harp of hope has

always been a broken instrument. Hope is always almost lost or it would not be

hope. Hope is plucking that one string, knowing that.

God places messengers of hope before us each day. What are yours? For

Zachariah, it was an angel. For Elizabeth, it was John the Baptist. What are yours?

The Bible? Time spent in nature? A surprise encounter? Writing in a journal?

Spending time in prayer or meditation? Finding yourself immersed the wonder of

our own heart beats – bu-bum, bu-bum, bu-bum.

We go through the motions of prayer and worship, but do we expect to

meet God in the midst of this time, or in our daily activities? In Zechariah, we find

a kindred spirit, one who expresses the same surprise that we might in that

moment, the surprise of actually encountering a messenger of God who is

actually bearing a message of hope that actually brings joy and hope to his

constantly praying soul. In spite of all he did and all he was, Zechariah struggled to

open himself to the messenger God placed before him. Do we open ourselves to

the messengers God places before us?

Earlier this week, I preached at Timbercrest Retirement community in

North Manchester. One of the residents joined Wilma Anderson and Esther

Hamer from our congregation for breakfast following the chapel service. In the

midst of our conversation, he asked about my calling story to ministry. I’ve shared

parts of that story in worship before, but the part that came to me in that

conversation is the same that I was reflecting on as I pondered the question of

God’s messengers.

Leading up to Christmas break of my senior year in college, I thought my

future was clear. I had gathered graduate school applications for a degree in

history and would work at a museum or write books about historical figures. But

when I sat down the first time to complete an application during Christmas break,

I just couldn’t do it. I figured it was senioritis. The second time, however, the

same thing happened. I figured it was holiday busyness. The third time, when it

happened yet again, I knew something else was happening.

That experience didn’t immediately lead me to seminary and ministry. But

it set me on a more direct path. That path was clarified by messengers who were

already in my life, but who didn’t know one another. In that winter and spring, I

had conversations with at least 20 different people, from all parts of my life, who

would inquire about my post-college plans and then ask, ‘have you ever thought

about ministry?’ These were professors and classmates, church people and

friends since elementary school. There was even a complete stranger and a friend

who is an atheist, who each asked me about ministry. To the atheist, I asked if

there was a conspiracy. I realize now there was one and it was filled with human

messengers of divine intent.

We wait with hope for the messengers of this Advent season to inspire us

with awe and wonder found not only in Jesus’ birth, but in the divine messages

we receive from a God who created us, who loves us, and who journeys with us

on paths of hope in life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Need to know basis

Mark 13:1-8

How much knowledge exists in the world today? Have you ever wondered?

There is so much information in the world, and it’s constantly growing, perhaps

even faster in today’s world than in the past. A study published in Science

Express seven years ago attempted to calculate the world’s total technological

capacity, that is, the “information humankind is able to store, communicate and

compute.”

The conclusion of this study — which is now outdated — was that

“humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. That’s a number

with 20 zeroes in it. A lot of data and useless knowledge. And probably some

useful knowledge as well. Put it another way, … that’s 315 times the number of

grains of sand in the world. But it’s still less than 1 percent of the information that

is stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being.”

That is a whole lot of information. And that was seven years ago! That

number is now higher, likely much higher. No single human being is capable of

knowing everything. We are fed inundated with too much information as it is,

from any number of different sources. We see too much, we hear too much and

we talk too much. Hence the movement towards ‘news fasts,’ where people make

conscience efforts to unplug from the daily tidal wave of bad news. Knowledge is

power, says the old cliche. But knowledge also brings awareness. Awareness

brings responsibility. That responsibility feels overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong.

It’s important to be informed. But sometimes, unfettered information can be

more than we can bear.

From whence came the phrase “need-to-know basis”? The expression

probably has origins in government and military. When certain information is

deemed extremely sensitive, the files are placed under severe restrictions. Access

to the information is limited only to a few people who absolutely “need to know”

in order to fulfill their duties. In these cases, the government does not want

someone who is unauthorized or lacking proper security clearances to be privy to

sensitive data.

But “need-to-know basis” exists in other contexts as well. For

example, when authorized engravers work on a new set of printing plates to

produce government currency, each engraver receives only a section of the

finished design. In this way, no single engraver ever sees the entire printing plate,

so he or she could not be coerced into reproducing it for counterfeiters. Or

parents — to cite another example — do not tell their children everything. They

don’t want their children to be burdened or to worry about things children should

not worry about.

God, likewise, does not tell us everything, perhaps for similar reasons. But

just as there’s both burden and necessity in learning important information in our

lives, so does that tension also exist in the Bible. Repeatedly in Mark’s Gospel do

we find Jesus sternly instructing his disciples not to tell anyone about what they

have seen. Also repeatedly do we find Jesus saying that his disciples and followers

currently fail to understand his teachings, but will do so after his death. It’s clear

that in Jesus’ ministry, there is information publicly shared and information that is

‘need to know.’

In today’s text, the disciples need to know. What do they need to know?

They had been in the temple together. Jesus had alluded to some major changes

– that the temple would be destroyed. This actually happened, in 70 AD, after a

Jewish rebellion. The Romans quelled the uprising and destroyed the temple,

which is why most biblical scholars date the Gospel of Mark as being written in

the mid-60’s AD.

After the strange exchange about the beautiful temple ceasing to exist, the

disciples and Jesus continued on their way. But when they reached the Mount of

Olives, four of the disciples — Peter, James, John and Andrew — took Jesus aside

and away from the others “and they asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this

be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’”

Surprisingly, Jesus agreed with them — to a point. At the end of this chapter,

Jesus reminded them that “about that day or hour [when the heavens and earth

will pass away] no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only

the Father” (v. 32).

So Jesus begins to share what he knows and what he feels these four

disciples are ready to hear. What does he say, and what does it mean? Our

reading is only a small part of what Jesus says to them. So what do the disciples

need to know? What do we need to know? He tells us to be aware of ‘false

shepherds.’ In this era of complaints about ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ it is

perhaps not surprising that we might encounter false preaching or teachings. It is

amazing to me how foundational scriptures that are at the heart of the gospel

have been ignored or misinterpreted by preachers who are interested not in

sharing God’s love, but in expanding their power, personal wealth, and political

influence. The gospel confirms to fit the narrative of prosperity and a material

culture. These teachings run counter to what Jesus actually said and did.

What else does Jesus tell the four disciples? He tells them they need to

know that faithfulness to God is not about buildings, regardless of their size. The

temple was beautiful. No doubt about it. But the temple of stone and marble was

destroyed. All that remains is a wall. Yet, the church of Jesus Christ is alive and

well. We may worship in buildings, but God does not live in buildings made by

human hands. God dwells in the human heart.

He also tells them that faith is, as writer of Hebrews notes, the substance of

things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ In other words, life doesn’t

keep going round and round in meaningless and repetitious rounds of suffering

and despair. God is a God of history. God is also a God of deep and abiding love,

who accompanies us in good times and in bad. This is our hope. Jesus told the

disciples that when the temple comes down, it is not the end, but the beginning

of the “birth pangs” … the end is still to come, and then a new beginning.

Finally, Jesus tells the disciples that they need to know that there is no

cause for alarm. Sometimes when everything is falling apart, coming down, things

are really, ironically, coming together. Father Michael K. Marsh writes, “I

remember the morning of my divorce. I remember the afternoon my younger son

called and said, ‘Dad, I just joined the Marines!’ I remember the night my older

son died. With each of those events one of the great buildings of my life was

thrown down. Stones that I had so carefully placed and upon which I had built my

life no longer stood one upon another. Temples of my world had fallen. My world

had changed and my life would be different.” Marsh goes on to write that we all

build temples, and many of them come crashing down. Jesus reminds us that in

the midst of the rubble, God is standing there and prepared to help us rebuild.

Perhaps equally important as what we need to know is this - What don’t

we need to know? Well, for example: The Russians celebrated so hard when

World War II ended that the entire city of Moscow ran out of vodka. Don’t need

to know that. Or this: Each of you once held a world record when you were born

for being the “youngest person on the planet.” That’s obvious. Don’t need to

know that either. Or perhaps this - More people die while taking “selfies” than

from shark attacks. Nice factoid. Little application. Don’t need to know that.

This one’s fun - The world’s tallest building — Burj Khalifa — is so tall that,

after seeing the sunset at ground level, you can grab a lift to the observation deck

at the top and watch the sunset again! Sounds interesting. But don’t need to

know that. On a more serious note, we don’t need to know every bit of outrage

that permeates from our political system. Too much outrage is toxic, and there’s

enough toxicity and vitriol in our lives that seeps into our conversations with

family and friends.

We also don’t need to have every part of our lives figured out. It may seem

to make us feel comfortable if we do or if we try to, especially when coping with

an out of the blue diagnosis or financial hardship. But that quest to control every

part of our being has consequences of stress, anxiety, and constant fear. We

control what we can, and trust God will be there when we can’t. We can let go of

the burden of knowing and controlling everything. We’re on a need-to-know

basis.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. As we approach

a new year in the church liturgical calendar, and as we enter the Advent season

preparing for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, we will focus on the

many changes that the birth of Jesus brought and represented. So, let’s await

Christ’s coming with eager hope. Let’s prepare our hearts for the day-to-day

demands of living. Let’s open ourselves to the awe and wonder of what God has

done and will do again. Amen.

Invitation to communion - Here in this place, we seek to help people receive

their daily bread, both in spirit and in sustenance. Communion is not a ‘need to

know’ or exclusive matter, nor is it a task we take lightly, but one that has been

entrusted to us as a matter of deep faith, following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Here at Beacon Heights, we practice open communion. All who consider

themselves on the journey of faith with God are welcome at the table for this

spiritual feast. Once the music begins, you are invited to come forward to the

pew racks or the worship center, and kneel on the pads or sit on the chairs for

communion. If you are unable to come forward, please alert an usher or me and

communion will be brought to you. The feast is before us. Let us enter this time

of enjoying God’s rich abundance of spirit and sustenance together.

What's next

Isaiah 43:16-21

“God welcomes all, stranger and friend. God’s love is strong and it never

ends.” This song, and others that we sing in worship, come from the Iona

Community, on the Isle of Iona in the Hebrides in Scotland. If you’ve ever

wondered about whether a song is from the Iona Community, there are three

ways you can tell when looking in a songbook or on the screen. The song credits

may say ‘Iona Community,’ or ‘Wild Goose Resource Group,’ or list the names

‘John Bell and Graham Maule.’

Interestingly, these songs did not come from this community itself. The isle

of Iona had a ruined abbey that dated back over a thousand years ago. George

MacLeod, a minister in the Church of Scotland, organized his friends and other

ministers to rebuild the abbey, so that a new community of intentional worship,

peace, and justice could take root there. However, the community itself didn’t

really gain greater notice until the 1970’s, when John Bell and six other ministers

founded the ‘Wild Goose Resource Group,’ and began to craft music and collect

songs from cultures around the world for worship at Iona.

These songs are intended to reflect the global community. Their words are

lyrics evoke powerful images, whether the music has a more familiar style of

hymnody, such as ‘Will you come and follow me if I but call your name’, or songs

sung in solidarity with often overlooked peoples from all over the world, such as

‘If you believe and I believe and we together pray, the Holy Spirit must come

down and set God’s people free.’

Compare these songs with ones we also sing from the Taize community in

the Burgundy region of France. Unlike the Iona community, the Taize community

is much newer. It began as a ecumenical monastery of monks who sought to

provide refuge for Jews and other vulnerable peoples during the 2 nd World War.

Yet even though daily worship was part of the life of the Taize community for

decades, its distinctive worshipping style did not gain wider notice until the

community commissioned composer Jacques Berthier to craft simple chants that

could be sung with one voice, instrument, or language, or many voices,

instruments or languages. The genius of Berthier’s compositions is that they can

be quiet and contemplative or they can be orchestral and magnificent, and can

move from one extreme to the other quickly as a matter of musical preference or

worship necessity. We’ve used songs like ‘Gloria, Gloria, in excelsis deo’ as part of

our Advent worship, and alongside others in a focused Taize style worship service.

In both communities, there was openness to crafting music and worship in

a new way, to literally breathe new life into dry bones. The result was styles of

music and worship that continue to inspire and impact Christian worshippers with

their melodies, harmonies, and lyrics. Our worship evolves as a means to inspire

and deepen our soul’s connection with God in community. It always has been that

way, whether it was Benedictine monks singing simple chants to teach the Gospel

to illiterate masses, or Martin Luther crafting new lyrics for old bar songs to

rebuild connections for disaffected Germans. The American Christian church has

missed the mark with the now defunct worship wars, believing that all we had to

do was put coffee shops in our lobbies and rock music in our worship. Worship

cannot simply be another consumer focus group laden product. It must be a

means to connect with the mind, the body and the spirit.

The scripture from the prophet Isaiah reflects this sentiment. This text is

one that is familiar, yet not usually in the context of worship. As a quick refresher,

the people of Israel and Judah have been conquered by Babylon. Half of their

people are in Babylon, and the other half in their home country under Babylonian

rule. Isaiah is one of several prophets who speaks to this crisis, but does so in a

way that is distinct from previous Hebrew literature.

Prior to Isaiah and the other prophets, the Hebrew scriptures typically were

written with one of three varieties – a historical synopsis of their ancestors, such

as Genesis, Exodus, or the books of Kings or Chronicles; a recounting of the laws

of the temple, such as Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy; or a collection of

songs used in the synagogue, such as the Psalms. Rare was the work of Hebrew

literature that was poetic and inspirational, drawing upon themes that would

offer symbolic hope to an often forsaken people.

That is what the prophet Isaiah provides. The images of the prophet’s

writings are stark, honest, and powerful descriptions of the nature of Yahweh,

and God’s relationship with the Hebrew people. ‘Thus says Yahweh, who makes a

way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,’ begins our reading for today. Do you

see the message it sends? If Yahweh can create a path in the might of the ocean

and sea, then God can offer respite and hope in a time of chaos and despair, like

the one the Hebrew people are experiencing.

‘Do not remember the former things,’ say Yahweh, ‘I am about to do a new

thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ The honest answer from the

Hebrew people to Isaiah’s Yahweh question is ‘no, we don’t perceive it.’ We don’t

perceive anything. But the answer is less important than the question. The

question allows the people to begin searching, to begin seeking to perceive that

God may be doing something new in their midst. That God may, in fact, still be

with them and provide a way forward out of their exile.

And that’s exactly what Yahweh promises in the next stage – ‘I will make a

way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ The promise of a way forward

when there is no discernible way – the Hebrew people may hear these words with

skepticism, but they hear them, and those words take root like seeds blossoming

faithfulness, hope, and peace. And why would Yahweh offer hope? ‘To give drink

to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself.’ Yahweh reminds the

Hebrew people of covenant, the covenant Yahweh made in the Garden of Eden,

in Noah’s rainbow, and in the promise to Abraham and Sarah.

Isaiah’s words encourage the people of Israel and Judah to imagine a future

where they could witness God’s goodness and love upon them again. These ideas

dared them to hope in a time of hopelessness. It reminded the people that God is

also looking forward, looking forward to what’s next. Yahweh is a ‘what’s next’

God and the challenge and opportunity for any community of faith is to embrace

its call as a ‘what’s next’ people.

One blessing of our worship here at Beacon Heights is our constant

openness to change. It is rare to find a congregation that is so open to new

experiences within worship, and is so open to evaluating its own worship. A

couple of months ago, the Worship Team at Beacon Heights distributed a survey

for the congregation to offer its insights and input on the worship service. There

were 55 responses, and a wonderful assortment of opinions, reflections, and

suggestions.

The Worship Team has spent times at each of its meetings the past months

discussing and dissecting the survey results. The work is not yet finished, but will

be in the coming weeks. Overall, we as a congregation like the overall feel of our

worship service and appreciate many individual facets of it. However, there are

areas that we’re examining for change or improvement. This morning’s worship

offered some ideas for exploration, but you will also see other areas in the coming

weeks and months.

As we continue to work at improving our worship experience, it is my hope

that we will bring the same ‘what’s next’ attitude to other aspects of our

community life together. For we worship a ‘what’s next’ God and we are given the

opportunity and the challenge to embrace our call as a ‘what’s next’ people.

Amen.