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.

Those who sow with tears shall reap with songs of joy

Guest message by Anna Lisa Gross and The Global Women’s Project Steering Committee

Global Women's Project.jpg

Did any of you see the Nigerian women's choir on tour in the US a couple years ago, or at AC, singing and dancing with joy?

We learned stories of our Nigerian sisters and brothers as thousands were murdered, as churches and homes and schools burned, as hundreds of thousands fled in panic, refugees, away from loved ones, tears upon tears upon tears.

 

Many in the CoB turned toward Nigerian as violence and fear escalated. We remembered Jesus' call to turn the other cheek, which Nigerian Brethren are following, literally. Amid tears of grief, fear, anger, despair.

 

By the time the women's choir came they were singing songs of joy. Not because their grief was healed, not because the fear or violence or anger was gone. These women sang songs of joy because it is how we survive. We are divinely designed to create new possibilities, to collaborate with one another, to choose life, to find small reasons for hope and to string them together like little Christmas lights, and suddenly, we light up one corner.

 

Created in the image of God, we are divinely designed to be creative. To adapt. To collaborate. To heal. Doesn't mean we always live out of that divine part of our nature. Women might be a little better at this - our bodies teach us that pain is often mixed with creation, with making new life, with growing and caring and nurturing.

 

That doesn't mean it the pain is worth it, or meant to be, or justified. And I don't mean that every person can always choose creativity or collaborate with others or find reasons for hope. But we are divinely designed - all of us, of all genders - to adapt, to heal, to flourish.

 

For 40 years GWP has been an ever-changing group of volunteers working on two things:

 

Raising our own consciousness of our relative wealth and privilege and building relationship by connecting our resources with the essential needs of others.

 

We share money with women around the world because nearly all of us have more than we need. Maybe a lot more than we need. Maybe just a little. But a little can go a long way in so many parts of this world, supporting a peace project in India, a sewing cooperative in Sudan, girls' education in Uganda, a jail and post-jail ministry in Indiana, women's health in Mexico, Togo….

 

Some of us are born into poverty, abuse, struggle, and can't find our way to creativity. Many of us can't move from sowing tears to singing songs of joy. The women that GWP partners with are the ones who lead, the ones with compelling vision and the grit to try to make a difference.

 

Global Women's Project began 40 years ago when so much in this country was changing. 1978. Anyone remember 1978?

 

Second wave feminism, or the women's movement as people would have called it then, was sweeping the US, much of the world - it was even in Indiana! Even in the Church of the Brethren!

 

Though the CoB had "officially" been ordaining women for 20 years by then, women were not welcomed or called into leadership equally to men. So in 1976, Beth Glick-Rieman, whose niece Tina has been serving on GWP, was hired part-time by the denomination to address equal participation by women and men in the church. One thing Beth did was organize a conference of women, down the road in North Manchester. This was 1978, two years into Beth's work. She invited Ruthann Knechel Johansen to give the keynote.

 

Then, on the eve of the gathering, Beth found out that her position was being eliminated. Tears. Anger. Grief. Sowing tears.

 

And these women despaired together. And Ruthann spoke. And Ruthann shared her vision for women's liberation in the US to be intimately connected to liberation of all women and all people throughout the world. She called women of the CoB to raise our consciousness of our relative wealth and privilege and to build relationships by connecting our resources with the essential needs of others.

 

And the women were compelled by this vision. And Global Women's Project was born!

 

Today our country and our world is changing - at least as deeply and quickly as in 1978. Tears. Anger. Grief. Fear.

 

And in the midst of so much suffering we are collaborating better, we are finding more creativity, we are choosing life, we are getting to know our neighbors, we are writing more letters and getting out the vote.

 

We are sowing tears and harvesting songs of joy.

 

And we have a lot of tears ahead. So we need each other's stories. We need each other's small reasons for hope, like little Christmas bulbs that together, when we string them up, can light up this corner.

 

 

 


Shock value- Jesus' 100 percent rule

Mark 10:17-31

            It’s been a hectic and full past month, in both my personal life and in the life of our church. Between Andrew’s resignation and Kimberly’s surgery, the already typically busy period of September and early October has only gotten crazier. I am grateful for the congregation’s support for our family, before, during, and after the surgery. We celebrate the good news of Kimberly being cancer free this week, and it was so powerful, mostly because it was not surprising to feel the love and support from the congregation. As I said to Kimberly’s parents on her surgery day, it felt like a cloud of witnesses was uplifting us. We felt your presence and your peace that day.

            These types of life moments offer opportunities to clarify what is really important and what is not. That’s humbling. Whether it’s simplifying our possessions or taking news fasts or connecting more with friends or less with the annoying little parts of life, a moment like this provides clarity for who we are and who and what we surround ourselves with. I’ve heard that clarity from some of you as well, especially those who had a health scare or are bravely in the midst of or survived a journey with cancer or some other serious disease. It’s not that the details and debates of life aren’t important any longer. Those will always be there. It’s just that some things become more important. And it’s often those things that remind of who and whose we are, and what we value most.

            I think of that lesson in the context of this text from the Gospel of Mark. So often when we hear this text and series of stories, we make the primary lesson about money. And fair enough, Jesus has his say on the dangers of money in the context of faith. So it’s clear that money is an important part of how we reflect on our relationship with God and with one another. But I also think there’s a bit of what we would today call ‘shock value’ in Jesus’ words and example here. That shock value is directed towards money in these texts, but in reality, it’s more about priority. What do we prioritize in our lives? What do we put ahead of the things that are most important? What do we put ahead of God?

            All of this is relevant because in today’s gospel reading, a would-be disciple — identified only as a rich man — approaches Jesus. He’s interviewing to join Jesus’ group of 12. He has an impressive resume. Jesus looks at this guy – let’s call him Jake -and likes him — a lot. In fact, the text says Jesus loved him. Jesus would love to have him join the team. And why not? Jesus would be smart to add this discipleship candidate. He’s young. He’s reverential (he knelt before Jesus). A background check reveals that he has no rap sheet and is an upstanding citizen. He follows the Law of Moses, so he’s religiously observant.

And — best of all — he’s a potential angel investor, a man with standing in the community and financial resources to fund Jesus’ mission for a long time!

So Jesus gives Jake the good news: he can be a disciple. But first, Jake must give 100 percent of his possessions to the poor. Not 10 percent or 20 percent, but 100 percent.

After Jake has disposed of his possessions, he can then, and only then, return and follow Jesus. The Jesus team will then be known as the Thirteen instead of the Twelve. But Jake is “shocked.” He felt he had done enough to be a disciple already. He wasn’t prepared to do it all. He’s genuinely disappointed. But he can’t do it. He turns away and we never hear of Jake again.

So what do we see here? Is the issue Jake’s money or is it his priorities? He’s willing to do a lot, but is money still the most important thing to him? Six things jump off the page:

1.    Jake wants to inherit eternal life.

2.    Jesus gets a little touchy about being called “good.” Why?

3.    “Entering” the kin-dom of God is all about what we do — not what we believe.

4.    Jesus says it is difficult for the wealthy to get into the kingdom of God.

5.    Jesus doesn’t really explain this comment, but only says that “for God all things are possible.”

6.    Jesus says that “many” (not all?) who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

This sounds pretty stark for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus, whether then or now. Our American affluence makes us understandable unsure and uncomfortable about how to apply this type of teaching to our lives and to our faith. If we were to take this text literally, there would be few of us in Fort Wayne who live up to the standard Jesus sets here. That’s why it’s important for us to view this text in the context of other teachings of Jesus.

Jesus offers a similar shock value statement when the disciples bring his mother and siblings to him while he’s teaching. He tells the crowd that his biological family does not receive any favorable treatment or perks. In fact, his true family is those who embody the type of discipleship he describes in today’s text. Pick up your cross and follow me, says Jesus.

So what is Jesus saying in these two examples? Many of the teachings of Jesus, these two included, point towards spiritual wholeness. Not spiritual holiness. Spiritual wholeness. So what does that mean? To Jesus, it means living a life with God at the center. Often, humanity falls into the same trap as Jake, and makes that quest into a ‘to-do’ list to check off, rather than a way of simply being in the world. I don’t think Jesus wants us to do any of these things he cites in this text in a formulaic, ‘check the boxes and you’re on the way’ to spiritual wholeness type of discipleship.

It’s much deeper than that. It’s about how we live, even more than what we do or even what we believe. In these texts, Jesus encourages us to examine our lives. Our very lives. What are our priorities? What is most important? And once we discern and name what is most important, the follow up question is equally challenging. Do our priorities point us towards a life of spiritual wholeness with God?

 I found an unattributed quote that captures this sentiment well. ‘Perhaps the most ‘spiritual’ thing that any of us can do is to look through our own eyes, see with eyes of wholeness, and act with integrity and kindness. Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly. It’s not something we achieve. It’s something we must simply become.’

Next weekend, I’ll be traveling to Elgin, IL on Saturday and Sunday to participate in a presentation to the denominational Mission and Ministry Board on behalf of the Supportive Communities Network of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. In talking with Carol Wise of BMC in preparation for our presentation, we noted that one of the often overlooked and unexpected blessings of the journey towards inclusion is that it is also a journey towards authenticity and wholeness. Loving a neighbor as ourselves means something differently when our definition of neighbor expands. As we have resided with those whom society has pushed to the margins, we surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly, find ourselves at the heart of the Gospel, exactly where Jesus himself resided, exactly where we are called to be. Our congregation sought to be more inclusive, but we have discovered so much more – what it means to be authentic people of faith, offering a spiritual place for everyone, seeking to make our lives filled with wholeness and meaning.

That’s what Jesus is demanding of the rich young man. That’s the core of the lessons he offers his disciples. And that’s at the core of what he invites and challenges us to embody today as his followers. Nothing more or less than being authentic people of faith sharing lives of spiritual wholeness together. Amen.

Who do you say that I am?

Mark 8:27-38

Who do you say that I am? That Jesus question is one that we confront over

and over in life. It’s a question of identity. Not self-identity. Perceived identity by

another. This question strikes at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, at the heart of his

relationship with his disciples. It doesn’t start that way. Jesus is gathered with his

disciples at Caeserea Phillipi. That should give us a clue right away. This place is

one where the great Roman Caesars, Julius and Augustus, are both deified as

gods. Or as god. Or as Messiah.

It seems fitting that this would be the place where Jesus is asked this

question. Who do you say that I am? That’s not the first question he asks,

however. He begins with a more generic approach. Who do people say that I am?

It’s a strange question in some respects – it almost reminds me teenagers acting

catty and wanting to know what others think of them. Who do people say that I

am, especially as we gather in this place where Caesar is proclaimed in Christlike

ways. It may have been particularly dangerous to even ask that question in that

place, but the Bible is filled with symbolism, with location playing a huge role.

So, who do people say that Jesus is? John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the

prophets? People don’t know. Which is in keeping with Mark’s gospel to this

point. The importance of this text is especially clear for Mark’s version of the

Jesus story. Prior to this story, the Markan Jesus is masked in secrecy. Peter’s

declaration of Jesus as the Messiah marks a shift in the narrative. After this text,

Jesus becomes bolder and clearer in his identity. He’s more open in who he

proclaims himself to be.

Given the next part of this text, it’s interesting that Peter is the one who

answers Jesus’ identity. Author Eugene Peterson notes, ‘Among the apostles, the

one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling

failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: He was

successful both financially and politically. … And Peter was a failure in ways that

we most dread: He was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of

Jesus, he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of

his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision

on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate

things.

“Time, of course, has reversed our judgments on the two men. Judas is now

a byword for betrayal, and Peter is one of the most honored names in the church

and in the world. Judas is a villain; Peter is a saint. Yet the world continues to

chase after the successes of Judas, financial wealth and political power, and to

defend itself against the failures of Peter, incompetence and ineptness.”

Peterson’s observation reminds us that the disciples have their own

identities. Beyond Judas and Peter, there’s doubting Thomas, there’s Nathanael

who believes nothing good can come from Jesus’ hometown, and there’s James

and John, the sons of Zebedee, who tried to be the top dogs among the disciples.

We develop these identities for this biblical figures, because there’s little more we

know about them.

If Mary Magdalene were to ask us the question, ‘who do you say that I am?’

we would often hear the answer of prostitute. But the Bible never specifically

names her as such. If Nicodemus were to ask us the question, “who do you say

that I am?’ we might say he was a typical Pharisee who was skeptical of Jesus.

And we would forget that he was believed to be one who provided the tomb for

Jesus’ burial and resurrection. If the Apostle Paul were to ask the question, ‘who

do you say that I am?’, depending on when it was asked, much of the Jewish

Christian world would call him a persecutor of Christians, while the Gentile world

later might call him the founder of the church.

This question becomes even more potent when turned to us. What if Jesus

were here and asked it? Who do we say that he is? I attended a conference

several years ago where it was noted that there were countless terms and

phrases for Jesus in the Bible. The person leading the discussion was going to start

naming many of those phrases and asked us to raise hands or stand for the one

that was most meaningful for us.

He started with the usual suspects – Messiah, Lord, Savior, Son of God. But

quickly he moved to others – Light of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of Man, the

Living Water, Bread of Life, just to name a few. I could see on the faces of other

participants that many wished they could raise their hands more than once. We

so easily get stuck on these common notions of Jesus’ identity that we miss out

on the deeper reflection of what these titles say about Jesus…and about us. What

does it mean to us for Jesus to be the ‘light of the world’ or the ‘living water?’

What does it mean to us for Jesus to be ‘Lord’ or ‘Savior?’ What does it means to

us for Jesus to be ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of man?’ And how do we define the

difference between those two?

Too often, in a complex world, we may answer Jesus’ question in a fashion

more complicated than we need. In a tongue in cheek turn, author Timothy

Merrill sarcastically writes, ‘And Jesus said unto them, “But who do you say that I

am?” They replied, “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the

split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the

theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the

ground of all possibilities. You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your

children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming roughness in the

midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness, in the contiguity

and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships. You are my Oppressed

One, my soul’s shalom, the One who was, who is and who shall be, who has never

left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed

struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.” And

Jesus replied, “Huh?”

As the text continues, Jesus calls together the crowd with his disciples and

says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and

take up their cross and follow me.” That’s key to understanding who Jesus is: to

follow him. And this, unfortunately, is something the church hasn’t done a very

good job of teaching people to do. “A good church upbringing will do many

marvelous things for you,” write Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their

book ReJesus. But one of the unfortunate things it does is “convince you that

Jesus is to be worshiped but not followed.”

Think about that. The church does a better job teaching us to worship Jesus

than to follow him. But when you read the gospel of Mark, you discover that Jesus

is less concerned about people pledging allegiance to him than he is about people

following him. Frost and Hirsch continue, “Jesus never once said, ‘Worship me.’

He said, ‘Follow me.’ One of the cleverest ways to avoid following someone is to

worship him. It really works; it’s very clever. You just put him on a pedestal, you

make God out of him and you pay all kinds of homage to this God figure, and then

you don’t have to do what he did.”

Who do you say that I am? In this text, we are trained to think of that

question in the context of Jesus. But what if we turn the tables and ask that of

ourselves? Who would ‘people’ say that we are? Who would Jesus say that we

are? I have thought about those questions a lot these past weeks, as the saga of

the Supreme Court justice vote has unfolded. There’s so much that has been said,

and everyone has their own opinion of whose account is most credible or

trustworthy, between Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh, myself included.

Yet I also wonder what Jesus would think in this situation? Who would

Jesus say that we are, in light of this tragic episode of civic discourse? Would Jesus

say that we are a people who treat women with dignity, respect, or empathy?

Would Jesus say that we are a people who even know how to publicly disagree

without severing families or friendships? Would Jesus say that we are even able

to discern truth anymore, among the proliferation of alternative facts and fake

news? Who would Jesus say that we are?

That’s the basic question Jesus confronts us with daily. Who do you say that

I am? It’s not directed solely towards Jesus. It’s also directed towards us. When

we act rudely, who does Jesus say that we are? When we respond with

compassion, who does Jesus say that we are? When we follow our worst instincts,

who does Jesus say that we are? When we choose love, not hate, and gratitude,

not fear, then who does Jesus say that we are?

Believe

John 12:35-37

            This past summer, I attended a continuing education conference led by Diana Butler Bass. Butler Bass is a theologian and professor of Christian Education at a seminary in the Washington, D.C. area. The conference was focused on gratitude, the title of her new book, and I’ll be sharing more with you about some of her thoughts and reflections on gratitude in two weeks, as part of our Pledge Sunday focus.

The first part of the conference, however, focused on spirituality, religion, and belief. Specifically, she focused on the changing trends in American religious life. Those of you who attended the Sunday school class earlier this year on the ‘End of White Christian America’ were exposed to some of these trends and patterns, but Butler Bass elaborated on them through the lens of a Christian educator, which was equally helpful.

She began with a question, the same one I ask you now: ‘What is the biggest religion in the United States?’ No religion at all. To be fair, that’s not entirely true, as the survey she cited divides Christianity among Catholicism, Protestantism, and non-denominational evangelicalism. Taken together, Christianity is still larger, but as separate categories, no religion was the largest.

As supplemental evidence, she cited a different survey, where 31% of all respondents identify neither ‘spiritual or religious,’ 29% identify as both ‘spiritual and religious,’ 22 % identify as ‘religious, but not spiritual’, and 18% identify as ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ In this dialogue, she asked ‘what is OUR – the church’s – identity in this shifting cultural pattern? She observed that the beauty of our traditions and what we think our language in church communicates just isn’t being communicated any longer. She encouraged each person present to reflect upon what it is that we love about being who we are. And then to reflect on what do we believe? And, what is it that we love about what we believe?

Those are interesting questions, aren’t they? What do we love about being who we are? What do we believe? What do we love about what we believe? We’re going to take a few minutes during this worship time to discuss these questions together. Find two or three people sitting nearby to you and discuss those questions for five minutes. The questions are on the bulletin insert and will be on the screen. Please write any thoughts you’d like to share on the insert and put them in the offering baskets when they come around, and we’ll include the reflections in an upcoming church newsletter. A new song will call you back from your groups and then I’ll continue the sermon.

Question time – 5-6 minutes

Believer – Imagine Dragons – 3 minutes

In a setting like a continuing education conference, it’s perhaps easier to analyze why people do or don’t believe than it is to discuss why belief is important and how do we gain greater depth, breadth and clarity in what we believe. Jesus did both. Belief was important to him, perhaps the most important thing. He was an advocate for the marginalized, a healer of the ill, an effective teacher for many, and the primary example of God’s love. But his core mission was focused on belief. In many of his interactions, that was the point he circled back to.

Frequently, when Jesus performed a miracle, he didn’t dwell on the miracle, even though those around him did. He pointed back to God, to faith, to belief. His constant refrain to them – ‘Go, your faith, your belief, has made you well.’ He told Thomas after the resurrection – ‘Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.’ And in conversation with a man asking for his son’s healing, Jesus says, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’ In response, the man says, ‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’

Isn’t that the challenge many of us face? Help me overcome my unbelief. This text from the Gospel of John, ironically, is one where Jesus speaks profoundly of belief in the context of his own death. He moves from the previous direct speech about his death to a metaphorical description of his ministry. He never speaks of himself directly here, but instead cloaks everything in the metaphor of darkness and light. He gently reminds his listeners to actually listen to him, because they won’t have him physically among them for much longer.

But what Jesus is doing here goes even deeper than that. He is asking them to delve into what his listeners truly believe – about God, about themselves, and about him. His absence from there brings those elements of belief into stark relief. It’s one thing to ‘know’ God when the divine son of God is among them. It’s another thing to ‘know’ God when Jesus is gone. That’s our reality – to ‘know’ God, to ‘know’ Jesus when they are not tangibly here, but we still experience them nonetheless.

Richard Rohr offers some thoughts for us on this dynamic. He writes, “You cannot know God the way you know anything else; you only know God or the soul of anything subject to subject, center to center, by a process of “mirroring” where like knows like and love knows love — “deep calling unto deep”. The Divine Spirit planted deep inside each of us yearns for and responds to God — and vice versa. The contemplative is deeply attuned and surrendered to this process.

We are not so much human beings trying to become spiritual. We’re already inherently spiritual beings and our job is learning how to be good humans! I believe that’s why Jesus came as a human being: not to teach us how to go to heaven, but to teach us how to be a fully alive human being here on this earth.”

            How to be a fully alive human being on this earth. Our belief in God, in Jesus, in one another, these guide us in our quest to do just this. Belief is not something we can plan or build. It is something that is. It is something that does not emerge because of us. It is something that grows because of time we spend in relationship with God. To move towards spiritual peace and well being. To identify our meaning and purpose for life. To live in a state and expression of gratitude for God’s blessings. And to experience awe and wonder for the minute details and the grand designs of God’s creation.

            There have been so many influences on what I believe – more than I can count. I imagine the same is true for many of us. Reflections and conversations with family, friends and perfect strangers have moved me and challenged me. Places I have been where I have witnessed the beauty of God’s creation or the profound wonders of ancient and modern art and architecture have inspired and grounded me. The Christian church has offered a formational foundation for what I believe. This church has impacted what I believe and how I proclaim those beliefs in the world.

            Belief is a state of mind, body, and spirit. Belief invites investment and passion, in whatever inspires its formation. Investment and passion form the core of our stewardship and generosity. We give our time, talent, and treasure to the church, and to other parts of our lives, because we believe that doing so will be beneficial to us, to our families, to our community, and to the world. There is a symbiotic relationship that bears similarity to our relationship with God. Because our belief in God creates positive associations with other parts of our existence. Belief grows upon belief. Belief leads to powerful experiences of faith formation. Belief helps us to become who God calls us to be. Amen.

Sacred spit- Challenging our prejudices

James 2:1-8, Mark 7:24-37

            Colin Kaepernick. Some of you may know that name. Some of you may have heard it, but don’t remember its significance. Some of you may never have heard of him. But if I told you Colin Kaepernick was the professional football player who knelt like this – kneel – when the national anthem was being played, you probably knew whom I was talking about.

            This simple act, ironically held as an act of respect before royalty and humility in religious prayer, has caused a firestorm of debate over the past two years. The National Football League has struggled to declare a position, even though nearly everyone else has. Interestingly, standing for the national anthem is not a law or a requirement in most sports, but is a cultural norm, one of those traditions we do because we’ve always done it.

            I understand the anger and frustration of those who feel that the flag, and by extension, the military and country, are being disrespected by Kaepernick’s action. I do worry about the fragility of the country when one act of civil disobedience, and an exceedingly mild one at that, causes such rancor and divisiveness. Wouldn’t it be actual disrespect if Kaepernick and other players were yelling loudly or turned their backs or talked on their phones during the national anthem? I’ll add here that I have seen paying customers in the stands do all of these things at sporting events, and yet there’s no outcry.

            It’s equally unfortunate that the outcry over kneeling threatens to obscure what Kaepernick was kneeling against – excessive acts of violence against people of color, in a number of instances, but not exclusively, by white police officers. It’s unclear to me whether the number of incidences has grown or just our awareness of them, but there should be less question of the issue of implied bias that permeates American culture. The data is sobering and the stories are heartbreaking. Clearly Kaepernick and other athletes felt that not enough was being done and not enough awareness was being raised, so the acts of civil disobedience began, to make all of us see what only some of us experienced before.

            This is another situation where it’s easy to make quick judgments about whether a person is right or wrong. These past two years have given us numerous moments such as this to challenge our prejudices. We all have our prejudices. It’s part of our instinctive nature. The word itself means to ‘judge before learning.’ In the natural world, prejudging allows animals to survive. A deer doesn’t wait to see if a pack of wolves is friendly, after all. It sees the wolf, and based on its instinct and experience, responds accordingly.

            But what makes us different as human beings is our ability to reason, to use our frontal brain, rather than the instinctive part of our brain. What makes us different is our ability to move past our prejudices, whatever they are, and engage one another to determine the person’s quality on the inside. That’s a lesson we teach our children. It’s a lesson we continue to master throughout the course of our lives. It’s a lesson with which humanity has struggled for thousands of years.

            Our scripture texts reflect lessons on prejudice. The two stories of Jesus are mirror images – in one instance, Jesus appears prejudiced against the Syro-Phoenician woman, and in the other, Jesus heals a deaf man who the rest of the religious establishment has abandoned. Likewise the James text offers another tangible example that prejudice is a part of the human condition.

 I find it interesting that these two Gospel stories are back to back. In one, Jesus is the one who challenges and in the other, Jesus is the one who is challenged. There’s widespread debate over whether Jesus was testing the woman or his disciples, in his response to her. We can’t know what his motivation was for how he acted towards her. All we can do is interpret the behavior and in this instance, the behavior isn’t the loving and accepting Jesus we have come to expect.

With this woman, Jesus is curt and more than a bit rude. He calls her a dog and asks her why she should receive the same blessing that the Hebrew people does. By his words, and his words alone, Jesus is prejudiced towards the woman. Why is he rude? She is neither Jewish, nor is she from Judah or Israel. She is an outsider, a stranger in a foreign land. Ultimately, he ends up giving her what she wants, so our interpretation of his behavior is more nuanced and complicated. But we’re still left to struggle with his seeming prejudice all the same.

And then we arrive at the next story. With this healing story, it is easy to marvel as Jesus’ sacred spit and the randomness of this act in the midst of Jesus encountering another outsider – this time a man who was deaf. We know nothing more about the man than that. We know of no connections to anyone – the disciples or temple officials or Roman authorities. The main difference was the power imbalance. The woman took the initiative herself to come to Jesus, whereas the disciples brought the man to him. That implies that the man, in spite of his infirmity, was likely Jewish and was more sympathetic to the disciples than the woman, who was the wrong gender and the wrong nationality.

One biblical scholar notes another hidden dynamic that adds to the societal complexity. Jesus’ response to the woman may be an acknowledgment of the hardship of Jewish farmers, who often saw the fruits of their labors used to feed Gentile cities like the one that the Syro-Phoenician woman likely came from. This is another reminder of how real are the barriers that divide people. It would not be easy either for a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish teacher for help. But she reached out. Her love for her child had brought her across boundaries of gender, religion and ethnic origins. Even before she met him, she believed that the Jesus who would heal her child would never turn away those who seek help.

And yet, the discomfort caused by these stories, even in the midst of their healing nature, challenges us to examine how we treat the Gentiles in our midst. Similarly, James has a direct reminder to not judge on the basis of wealth. This was a particularly important issue for James, the brother of Jesus, who was known for his generosity, humility, and moral compass for the early church. James named power and privilege, not for those who already had it, but for those who did not.

For the church, whether in James’ time or in ours, a key part of the mission is to bridge the barriers that separate, in whatever form those barriers are made. Whether by gender or wealth or infirmity, we witness examples in these texts of God’s love overcoming human made constructs of prejudice and the imbalance of power. This is not an easy task for the church. And sometimes the church gets in the way of itself as it strives to do this work. We all have our prejudices that need to be overcome.

I know of a church that received a tangible lesson in prejudice during its worship one Sunday morning. The pastor was preaching on this text and had asked for one of his members to dress in disguise as a homeless person and come to the church for worship the next Sunday. This was a small congregation, located in a suburban town just outside of a large city, and prided itself on being welcoming to anyone who came in its doors. The woman took the assignment to heart, and was so convincing in the changes to her hair, clothing, and persona that no one initially recognized her.

She came in, and only one or two people approached her. She entered the sanctuary and sat in a pew alone. It wasn’t until halfway through the sermon that the pastor asked her to reveal herself. Several members of the congregation suspected her disguise, but most were surprised. It was a valuable lesson for that congregation, to remember that we never know who is among us, in our midst.

How we confront our prejudices, as individuals and as a faith community, is crucial in ground ourselves in sharing God’s love with others. We may believe we don’t have prejudices, but they tend to surprise us in unexpected moments. Even in our advocacy for marginalized peoples, we are called to not to be prejudiced against those who actively work to marginalize others. For a congregation like ours, that may be the most difficult task.

Extending grace with justice, love with peace, is something that Jesus was remarkably good at, and even he struggled at times. The good news for us is the same as the challenge – to recognize our prejudices, not let them dictate our motivations and actions, and continue to serve the world, just like Jesus. Amen.

Mind the gap

Ephesians 5:15-20

            Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas. Those of you who speak Spanish will understand that phrase, but may not understand its context. Those of you who speak Disney will understand that context, but may not understand the phrase. As a child, my family of origin’s big vacation every 4-5 years was a trip to Disney World. We have lots of memories of the place, but also of the preparation for the trip. It was fun to plan the trip with my parents, to count down the days until we left, and to pack the car. Well, maybe not packing the car. But even the trip down to Florida from Virginia, over the 17 hours as it took, was filled with familiar landmarks that meant we were getting closer and closer to our vacation.

            Like many familiar family vacations, the place holds memories, but the family memories hold traditions that are even stronger. Little things stand out, that have little or nothing to do with the theme parks at all. It was the experience of being there with family, several times over our respective childhoods, that built those experiences that we still talk about, even as my siblings and I have our own families and my parents are several years into retirement.

            One of those fun traditions was the Spanish phrase I mentioned earlier. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas. It means ‘Please stand clear of the doors.’ It’s the friendly warning that is repeated every time that one of the Disney monorails is ready to leave a station, which means it is a phrase that is repeated quite frequently. So frequently that as a child and teen who only spoke Sesame Street Spanish, I was determined to learn and mimic the phrase for my family whenever we rode the monorail. My parents got sick of it, but my siblings loved it, so much so that they still mention it from time to time. ‘Please stand clear of the door. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas.’

            Another example is the infamous phrase that accompanies the London subway, also known as the ‘Tube.’ Clearly, at some point when the subway trains came into use, people must have tripped, fallen, or gotten stuck in the space between the train and the platform. In a typical, understated British fashion, the term ‘mind the gap,’ became a constant refrain whenever the doors of the subway are set to open.

            We encounter these types of friendly warnings frequently, more often that we likely notice at first glance. ‘Watch for falling rocks,’ ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.,’ ‘High voltage – keep out,’ and ‘Watch your head’ are just a few. Likely, each of you can think of others. These signs serve a dual purpose – while they don’t prohibit a person from entering explicitly, they do clearly inform a person of a dangers in those areas. The signs encourage us to exercise caution and to be more mindful of our surroundings.

            This text in Ephesians 5 is Paul’s version of a friendly warning, his way of telling the Ephesians to ‘mind the gap.’ To understand this text better, we first need to be more aware of the dynamics faced by the church in Ephesus. The city of Ephesus is in modern day Turkey. Ephesus was a major port and trading center in what was then known as Asia Minor. With its proximity to the Middle East, Ephesus was a constant stop on each of Paul’s missionary journeys, a place he traveled to and through while also going to start and visit churches in other parts of modern day Europe.

            So what’s happening in Ephesus that causes Paul’s friendly warnings in this text? Much like other places where early Christian church emerged, Ephesus was a place that fluctuated between dismissive toleration and outright hostility towards Christians. As such, Paul’s writing was filled with these types of friendly warnings. In fact, if you compare this section of Ephesians with part of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, you’ll see nearly identical emphases. And it makes sense, as Paul has formed a mentoring relationship, a teaching relationship, with these churches, so they are looking to him for guidance on how to function as a faith community.

            But it gets more challenging than that. Nearly all of the early churches established by Paul are in non-Jewish or Gentile areas. For the Jewish Christian churches, the disciples used the communal and worship structure of the Jewish synagogue as a framework for their emerging congregations. But the Gentile Christian churches had no such framework. Paul was literally helping them to not only learn about the teachings of Jesus, but also the history of Yahweh and the Hebrew people that was the foundation of the Christian way they had chosen to follow.

            The church in Ephesus, like many others, had no framework for ‘church.’ The religions of those regions were cultural, but not communal. They were polytheistic or had many gods, not monotheistic, with only one god. Humans are communal creatures, so it is highly likely that the Ephesians and other Gentiles gathered together for mutual advantage. But they likely did so for growing and gathering food or for business or for family functioning, not for faith expression or religion. These letters from Paul must be read with that important caveat in mind.

            So what does this text mean for us today? That’s part of the challenge we face here. Are Paul’s friendly warnings intended only for the Ephesians and others who face similar struggles? Or are these friendly warnings expected to be used by the future church as dogma, doctrine and commandment? Or is it somewhere in between? This challenge is not new. In fact, it’s one that we encounter repeatedly, as we grapple with ancient texts that are between 2000 and 6000 years old. Some scriptures reflect the culture in which people lived. Some scriptures reflect the specific dynamics that people faced. And some scriptures hold timeless truths – or at least truths that have lasted since their inceptions – with wisdom and faithfulness that continue to serve us today.

            In my estimation, this text contains both. Clearly, part of Paul’s warning can be summarized as ‘don’t call attention to yourselves.’ That’s good advice for any of us when we are in uncertain or potentially unsafe situations. We see that in Paul’s focus on living as wise, rather than unwise people. So what does that mean? Again, the details matter, but so does the context. The challenge is that we get stuck on behaviors, rather than motivators. Truthfully here and elsewhere, so does Paul. Parsing through those behaviors to determine what is and not allowed, and more honestly, who and who is not allowed, is where Paul’s encouragement on wisdom falters due to the human tendency to judge one another.

            Yet notice where Paul ends in this section of text. Not on what shouldn’t be allowed, but on what the community does together. Notice that his description of singing songs and giving thanks to God points back to the church being a formative community, which, as I mentioned earlier, these people had no religious experience with. Also notice that Paul’s encouragement is based in love, as part of that community building experience.

            Paul points the church back to Jesus. Jesus points his followers towards love and towards God. More specifically, that we love God and we love one another. That we revere God and we respect one another. That we honor the being of God and we honor one another. This is the criteria for determining which of Paul’s friendly warnings still apply to us today. When we read them, do they point us in the direction of love, reverence, respect, and honoring one another? Or do they point us in the direction of judgment, division, confusion, or uncertainty?

            Perhaps this visual demonstration will help further. As I mentioned earlier, the church in Ephesus face dismissive toleration at best and outright hostility at worst. Because the church members never knew what they were going to face, they had to be covert in their public greetings and encounters. When they greeted one another, they marked the dirt or pebbled ground in front of them with an arc. The person they were greeting, if also a Christian, reciprocated with an arc. The arc formed the shape of a fish, a symbol of the early church.

            This greeting was a way of showing honor and respect to a fellow Christian, of demonstrating public faithfulness wisely, and of encouraging community with another believer. It was a way of sharing their mutual love of Christ, of living their newly form faith, in solidarity with each other. If someone came up to you and offered a gesture like this today, it would be confusing and meaningless. But to the Ephesians, it meant something important.

            Similarly, if we told First Century Christians to ‘mind the gap,’ they would be confused. If we told them to ‘watch for falling rocks,’ they might turn that into a requirement of faith and a form of division. If we told them that ‘objects in a mirror may be closer than they appear,’ they may be unclear about what a mirror even is. Similarly, our context for interpreting the scriptures may not be how the church in 100 or 500 years interprets or understands them. All we can do is our best in this moment. And to use love, reverence, respect, and honor as a benchmark for understanding what these scriptures mean to us, and how they point us more clearly towards a relationship with God. Amen.