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New Changes

4062867719_9f5c6b581f_oChange is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

If you travel from Galilee up into the Golan Heights, you will notice a natural spring alongside the road. Tradition holds that this spring was the site where Jesus and the disciples retreated from the crowds in Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asked them the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus focused his ministry on the villages around the Sea of Galilee before he led the disciples south toward Jerusalem.

Banyas, which is the name of the spring, is to the northeast. It’s not a place they would have just happened upon. They would have to decide to go there.

So it must have been in our lesson today. Jesus and the disciples frequently tried to get away from the crowds, but were often pursued in their efforts to rest. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, allowing them to have a moment to themselves, a retreat of sorts. It is, in short, an opportunity to have an open and frank conversation about where they are, what they are doing, and what is coming next.

The crowds have been speculating on Jesus’ identity. Much like Herod and his advisers, the folks that have been coming out to see him think he might be a prophet in the mold of the ancients; or perhaps John the Baptist, head miraculously re-attached to his body. Or maybe, they think, he’s Elijah. To understand why this idea would matter, let’s take a step back into history.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah was second only to Moses. The great Moses, of course, was the one who led the people out of their Egyptian slavery. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, spending forty years in the wilderness. In the early days of their sojourn, Moses encounters God at the top of the mountain. But before they could enter the Land of Promise together, Moses dies and his buried in an unknown location.

Elijah encountered God at the top of the mountain, too. He spent extended periods of time in the wilderness, and crossed the River Jordan on dry ground. And his death was also surrounded in mystery, as he was whisked away into heaven by a fiery chariot.

Such was the legend that had grown up around Moses and Elijah that the tradition emerged that they would return as harbingers of the Messiah, the great savior of God’s people. And like most legends, this tradition brought its own set of expectations.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

At the retreat by the spring of Banyas, Peter is the one who names the truth right before their eyes: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the expected one. In other accounts of this story, this is the moment that Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter. And Jesus takes it as the opportunity to clarify what it is they have signed up for.

He tells them that the Messiah’s destiny is rejection, execution, and resurrection. The clear implication is that the same fate awaits those who follow him: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus is not speaking of a metaphor of inconvenience. He is clear that following Jesus means the very real possibility that your life will be on the line. And that, Peter says, is not why they enlisted.

The interpretation that had built up around the coming of the Messiah was that of power. The Christ would ride into battle, overthrow the hated occupiers, and take the throne for himself and his people. In this scenario, those who followed him would soon take their own seats of authority around him. As you may have noticed, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus has just informed them.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Churches are notoriously difficult when it comes to change. Part of that is just human nature: once an institution is founded, it is embedded with its own kind of DNA; anything that seems to run counter to it meets resistance. Part of that is the extra weight that religious institutions carry. After all, our stories stretch back into ancient times, and as such everything we do feels like it has sinews reaching back into the beginning of history itself. It’s why churches have major conflicts over things like worship music, how we serve communion, paint and carpet colors, as though Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying those little tiny cups on golden trays, carpet samples draped over each arm.

We know that’s not true. The problem is when we live like it is. If we, as people of faith, aren’t willing to grow and change, then our faith will fail to do so as well.

I am fortunate, as your pastor, to serve a church where flexibility seems woven into our DNA. In the last ten years, we have weathered changes to our worship order, the addition of technology into the sanctuary, experiments with communion, diverse styles of music and instrumentation. There is, I have seen, a willingness to try new things, and to do so with grace, recognizing they’re not all going to work, and we can learn from those moments when they don’t.

Such an approach to church is not only vital, it is critical in a world that has already changed and continues to do so. Because change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Let’s be honest. For all of our flexibility, we are still a traditional church. I wear a robe. Most of our music uses the organ, and many of our hymns we sing date from the 1800s. The Scripture may be read on paper, projector, or tablet, but we still consider it the Word of God, handed down and translated from ancient scrolls. Our pulpit has moved in the time I have been here – from the center, to the left, now to the right – even though I rarely use it to preach from, but we have a pulpit. We worship on Sunday mornings, and other than special occasions, we worship only on Sunday mornings.

I want to be absolutely crystal clear with you: I have no agenda here today. I am not proposing specific changes to the way we shape our lives together. Neither am I trying to lay the groundwork for specific changes that I am holding back from mentioning today. I have never done that, nor do I intend to do so. What I am saying is this: we must hold this thing, this church thing, this faith thing, loosely. And we must open it, and ourselves, to the possibility that it will be transformed right before our eyes. Because as it transforms, so do we.

Which brings us back to our lesson. Less than a week after Jesus clarifies to the disciples what discipleship means, he takes his inner core of Peter, James, and John up to the top of a mountain.

And there, the moment happens from which our day gets its name. Jesus is transfigured, more or less taking on the form of embodied light. And there, standing with him, are Moses and Elijah, the great luminaries of the Hebrew Bible. Peter was right: Jesus is the Messiah, the expected one. And Moses and Elijah have come to make that point abundantly clear.

This is the scene that puts flesh on our central point today. Jesus transfigures, transforms, changes. Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult. Peter, once again, plays the disciples’ straw man. The discomfort of it all is so palpable that Peter breaks the awkward silence with the suggestion to build monuments to it all. No one seems to take him seriously; he doesn’t get any kind of response to his statement. Instead, the incident passes, and life moves on.

Following this bizarre encounter, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.

We cannot emphasize the significance of that decision enough. For almost three years, the disciples have been at home in the pastoral setting of the Galilee. Their ministry of teaching and healing has slowly built up a following. The Galilee is the countryside. There is room. There is nature. You can breathe.

Jerusalem is the big city. It may be the holy city, the site of the ancient Temple, but it is dirty. Crowded. Corrupt. It is everything the Galilee is not. And even more than that, Jesus knows that going to Jerusalem means the very things he told his disciples are about to happen. He will be rejected and betrayed. He will be sentenced and executed. And he will rise again. Rather than saying Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, perhaps we should say Jesus “accepts his fate” in Jerusalem.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Here’s the thing: we don’t change for the sake of change. That’s not change; that just makes us untrustworthy. We change when it is the faithful thing to do. And doing that involves both wisdom and courage.

Change is disruptive and even terrifying. Especially when it comes to those things that give us comfort, change is threatening. A change in home, family, job, school, even church…a change in life, where we are no longer able to do what it is that we thought gave us meaning and purpose…a change in opinion, in direction…These are the kinds of changes that can be downright scary. And yet, we know they are often right, even faithful.

Our whole tradition as Presbyterians is rooted in change. We were birthed out of the Reformation, when faithful people did crazy stuff like translate the Bible and liturgy into languages that the masses understood. The Church itself was borne out of change, as the fledgling Messianic Jewish movement left the synagogues, moved into homes, and then into churches. And even though we are centuries removed from those dramatic shifts, we must still be open to faithful change. And that is no less true, even when it means potentially putting our institutions and our lives on the line.

You see: in the end, faithful change is not actually as daunting as we think it is. We only fear it because we think that we are in charge of it. Which, as you may notice, puts us dangerously in the place reserved for the one we worship and serve.

This is the very reason we gather around this table. Every time we do, we remind ourselves of the moment that gave birth to this practice, when Jesus, facing imminent death in Jerusalem, brought his disciples together. They shared the most intimate of meals, as they shared bread and cup. What we share today is not historically accurate. For starters, our bread contains no gluten. Second, in addition to wine, we have unfermented juice. And third, we’re not lying down to share our meal. In other words, this thing we do has changed. And yet, even with that change, it is no less sacred. Because those these are simple things, grain from the field and fruit from the vine, they contain the spiritual substance of the faithful change we need.

Amen.

New Challenges

53-13943-7546-snowwhite-1394561591No matter what comes, stay faithful.

Our lesson this morning covers a huge swath of territory. It begins with Jesus and his disciples returning to Nazareth on the Sabbath. Jesus begins to teach, at which point he receives a couple of dismissive pats on the head; because as much as they should be proud of one of their own all grown up, this new, prophetic Jesus doesn’t fit their image of him. Their inability to see him as anything other than a child or a simple carpenter is what prevents them from recognizing the possibilities right there in front of them. Jesus, however, sees exactly what is happening: “A prophet is not welcome in his hometown.” And soon, he and the disciples are on the move.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

Jesus heads off to the outlying villages, where his message finds a more receptive audience. He then commissions the disciples to do the same. If they are welcomed in a village, wonderful; if not, Jesus tells them not to waste their time. They should shake the dust off their feet and go onto the next village. This strategy works. They don’t seem to be discouraged by the unreceptive villages. As a result, their ministry lands in fertile soil and takes root.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

All of this is enough to grab the attention of King Herod. We learn through flashbacks that his past continues to haunt him. While Jesus’ work had found an audience among those around the margins, his cousin John the Baptist’s fierce message of repentance landed most strongly in the halls of power. Herod, despite his position, became John’s fan and protector. But as we discover, John’s forthrightness and Herod’s arrogance brings John’s life to an untimely end.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

It is one thing to be faithful in the face of hometown rejection and unreceptive strangers. It is another thing altogether to remain steadfast when death is on the line. We can imagine the shock John’s beheading sent through the region, and especially through Jesus and his followers. After all, their stories are intimately linked. It was John who baptized Jesus. John, for all the intensity of his preaching, let everyone know that he was just the opening act for Jesus, the headliner. The two of them were united in their message about the dawning of a new era, of the intrusion of the kingdom of God. So when John is arrested and murdered, there is no doubt that the news gave Jesus and the disciples pause, if not outright terror.

And yet: no matter what comes, stay faithful.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to resonate more with the first two parts of the story – the rejection of Nazareth and the surrounding villages – than the third part – the impending death threat. Much of the time, the challenges to my faith largely come in the form of small things. Some of my friends treat faith like a disease, a delusion. Popular culture might use church as a trope, the punch line of a joke. I am hard-pressed to think of a moment in my life when faith was an absolute matter of life or death.

And maybe it is because of this relative cultural comfort that we tend to domesticate the gospel when it comes to how it takes form in our lives. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies”, we are inclined to talk about how hard it is to love those people that annoy us – rather than the people that might actually pose a threat to us. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me”, we tend to interpret it as, “being a Christian means people might not like you” rather than “being a Christian means you might be nailed to a couple of pieces of wood.”

Are we really, really willing to stay faithful, no matter what the cost might be?

Don’t get me wrong. I know that many of us face difficult, painful realities in our lives. We fight to overcome the demons of self-doubt and annihilation. We struggle against addiction and abuse. We get buried under the weight of the world while well meaning but misguided people tell us, “God never gives you more than you can handle!” And while some of these challenges may not be so dramatic as to be life threatening, they are still very real and they take a very real toll on us.

After all, the number one fear of people isn’t death – that’s number two. Number one is public speaking. There’s a reason that performers who have a bad gig talk about “bombing” or “dying out there”. Our survival may not be at stake, but when we are vulnerable and wounded, it feels like our lives are on the line!

Don’t get me wrong: death is way worse than public speaking. Threats to our life are of more consequence than hurt feelings. And yet, if we think hurt feelings don’t have any impact, we really are delusional.

As people of faith, we have to hold these two things in tension: the fact that the deep wounds aren’t only the ones you can see; and the fact that there are people in the world who lose their lives because they follow Jesus. As people of faith, our call is to work so that these wounds come to an end; and our call is to persist, even when these same wounds might visit us.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

There is no doubt in my mind that the two moments that tested the disciples’ faith the most were the deaths of John and of Jesus. When Jesus is arrested, Peter lies about being connected with him. When Jesus is killed, the disciples barricade themselves up afraid that the same fate might meet them. And yet, we also know that their behavior was not always honorable, even when the stakes were much, much lower. In one episode, they come across another group of healers. But since the healers are not doing their work in the name of Jesus, the disciples send them away – much to the disappointment of Jesus himself.

I can’t help but wonder what temptations faced the disciples in the villages that rejected them. I’m guessing that some of them wanted to push the ministry that much harder; and that others felt like scorching the earth behind them as they left. But Jesus’ message is clear: the mere act of shaking the dust off your feet is condemnation enough.

No matter the slights, the wounds, the threats, the insults, the dangers, we are always, always called to faithfulness.

We take stands for what is just, even if doing so risks us our hometown. We stand with those who are threatened, even if doing so threatens us as well. We speak the truth in love, even when the room is full of lies. And we do all of this rooted in the one simple, binding principle of faith: that every single person is worthy of dignity, of being loved, no matter what they might be or do. This, at its heart, is what the faith of our Scriptures points towards: God creates humanity in God’s own image, no exceptions. Christ’s love is for the world, all of it. It’s not that we don’t hold people accountable for what they do; it’s that we still love them, no matter what.

That is what makes us vulnerable. And we do not like vulnerability.

Vulnerability flies right in the face of our cultural identity. We have this vision, I fear, of a “happily ever after” world. We live with a pervasive mythology that setbacks are only temporary, that they are always trumped by victories, and that all we need in between is a good montage. And this simplistic narrative can also leak its way into our faith lives. We can be fooled into thinking that the bad things we encounter are temporary, and that good things are always just around the corner. Sometimes life does turn out that way; but living as though that assumption is well founded is misguided, at best.

Life does not always turn out like we planned. The dying person does not always get well and recover. The market does not always self-correct. The broken relationship is not always mended. The bad guys do not always get caught, and the good guys do not always win. The short-lived setback might have a long life after all. There is, for us, a temptation to wrap everything up nicely and neatly, when life is often quite messy.

And even so, no matter what comes, no matter what challenges we might face, we are called to be faithful. And we do so not because that faithfulness will be rewarded with the happily ever after we really want, but because we truly believe in the hope that God hopes for us.

And that is the hope we know through Christ. Because at the end of the day, the tomb is vacant; the cross stands empty; hope has the very final word. We do not give up on God, because God never gives up on us.

You see, I do not believe that there is always a perfect finish to every story. Just ask John the Baptist. What I do believe is that God is at work anyway.

Let me put it this way: I do not believe that God made King Herod kill the John the Baptist for some higher purpose. Rather, I believe that John’s death broke God’s heart, such that God was able to bring some hope out of that hopelessness. Perhaps it made the disciples realize what the odds they were truly up against; and in so doing, it refined them and their choice and resolve to follow Jesus.

Do we have that kind of resolve? Are we willing to follow Jesus, no matter the risks at stake, even if it requires us to put our public speaking on the line?

New Chances

taylor-swift-kanye-west-2009-vogue-12feb15-pa_bLook for the interruptions.

In our lesson today, Jesus is returning from the far side of the Sea of Galilee. No sooner does he step off the boat than he is met by Jairus, a man of great importance, a synagogue leader, who implores Jesus to heal his daughter.

It is clear that Jesus’ fame has spread in his time away, as crowds crush in on him. And that’s when the interruption comes.

A woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years pries her way through the crowd to touch the hem of his robe, trusting that even this moment on the fringes will be enough to heal her.

Jesus stops, sensing that someone has drawn his power. The disciples are insistent: “Haven’t you seen the crowds? Of course somebody touched you!” They’re anxious to keep going. After all, they’ve got a mission: to heal the important woman’s daughter. But Jesus takes his time. He finds the woman. He blesses her before turning back to the matter at hand.

Look for the interruptions.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for interruptions. If I’m in the middle of an activity, I much prefer to focus on what I’m doing. An interruption is a break, and not in the good way. It’s a rupture, a fissure that appears in the middle of life. It’s unwelcome, disruptive, derailing.

And yet, an interruption can be a holy moment, a crack through which living water can pour into our lives. Sometimes we just have to stop long enough to pay attention to what is going on around us.

In some ways, it is all about our perceptions: do we see them as interruptions? Or do we welcome them as potential opportunities, chances, new chances to recommit ourselves to the God we know in Christ? We only allow ourselves these opportunities if we are paying attention in the first place.

So: look for the interruptions.

The thing about interruptions is that you have to be doing something in order to be interrupted. We all know people, or might be those people ourselves, who simply wait around for interruptions so that our life might have some direction. We jump from emergency to emergency as though it might give us some purpose. If you happen to work in an Emergency Room, that makes some sense. But otherwise, if you’re just waiting around, there’s nothing to interrupt.

It is only because Jesus and the disciples are headed toward Jairus’ house that they can be interrupted. That’s the whole point of what makes his response so telling. He has to change directions in the middle of the journey in order to respond to the need at hand. The interruption is an inconvenience. It was not on the agenda. It’s a distraction from the main objective. And that’s what makes it worth our attention. Jesus’ destination is toward the home of a powerful man. The woman who detours him is everything that Jairus isn’t: she’s unimportant – so much so that she doesn’t even warrant having a name. And yet, that was exactly where God’s attention was drawn, where God’s people needed to be.

Look for the interruptions.

Here’s the thing about interruptions – just because it’s an interruption doesn’t mean that it is something that God desires. There are times when I’m working on the computer, researching this or that subject online. And that’s just when the rabbit hole pops into view, those “click bait” links with intriguing enough information to lure me in: “He sets a pile of leaves on fire. You won’t believe what happens next!” What happens next? It must be amazing – otherwise they wouldn’t have said so!

Two hours later…

Maybe we should say, “Look out for the interruptions.”

There is a deep need for wisdom in the Christian life. As Jesus says, our calling is to be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The invitation to follow Jesus is not an invitation to naïveté or to suspicion. The call to faith, instead, lives in the tension between trust and testing. There are times when the interruptions that come can sway us from the faithful path we are meant to follow. And there are times when they can call us to the other path that is, at least for the moment, the more faithful one.

And yet, if we are not paying attention, we won’t even recognize the opportunities when they come. So we should still look for those interruptions, looking closely enough to know the difference between those that clarify our purpose and those that simply distract.

In our lesson from Mark, at first, the interruption seems to be more of a distraction. The crowd presses in on him as he tries to follow Jairus back home. The intervening conversation with this unnamed woman is long enough to delay him from arriving at Jairus’ house. By the time he gets there, his daughter is already dead. If not for the interruption, Jesus might have made it to the house in time to do another miracle.

Of course, that’s not how the story pans out. After all, this is Jesus we are talking about. Instead of the lesson being one of “either or”, it is one of “both and”. The fact that Jesus delays his journey long enough tells us something about Jesus, and what it means to follow him. And the fact that he arrives “too late” also gives the story added depth, miracle, surprise. The girl is no longer just deathly ill, but flat out dead. And that gives him the opportunity to show the power he contains. Two people are ill, and two people are made whole.

That’s the wonderfully absurd thing about God: there is no limit to grace. Scarcity, in the kingdom of God, is a myth. Abundance, instead, is the way God chooses. Healing mercy overflows any kind of bounds we may try to set for it. God cannot be contained.

And that is an important distinction for us to remember. God cannot be contained, because God is infinite – but we are not. It is one thing to pay attention to the interruptions that may come, recognizing the faithful distractions from the unfaithful temptations. It is another thing altogether to think that we can do it all. We can’t. We’re not Jesus. Which is why we need Jesus.

Because of that, there will be times when the choice to follow the detour means we may not get to our initial destination. And that is where both wisdom and trust come into play. If we are paying attention, we will know enough to recognize when the interruption is truly the thing that demands our focus. And when we make that choice, we can also know that God holds that which we had attempted to accomplish in the first place. We may be limited. God is not.

God cannot be constrained, no matter how hard we may try. We may act otherwise, as though God is limited to nation, race, political affiliation, religious creed. But if we are followers of Jesus, if we look to the Lord of all, then we ought to be willing to put all of our biases and assumptions aside for the sake of faithfulness.

And that, in the end, is what faith in God calls us to recognize: that we are, all of us, connected, one to another. It’s there in the very beginning of our Scriptures, where God creates all of humanity in God’s own image. There are no caveats, no asterisks to that divine stamp. This very root of our faith points, unequivocally, to the inherent dignity of each and every person on this Earth.

It’s right there in our morning’s lesson, too. First, as we have already noted, the woman who interrupts Jesus, would have been of little or no consequence in that time period. But she is worthy of God’s attention. And the girl, though only a child, is worth weeping over – not because she is the daughter of an important man, but because she, just like the woman who touches Jesus’ robe, is God’s own child.

The story tries to put an even finer point on it by linking the woman and the girl even closer. The woman had suffered from her blood disorder for twelve years, which just so happens to be the girl’s age at the time of her death and revival. Whatever that might have meant to an ancient people hearing this story, for us, the very heart of it is that there is a link between the two of them – a connection that Jesus alone recognized.

Yesterday, the four Sanders attended an event called “Visit a Mosque Day”. With all of the rhetoric around Muslims in the United States, a number of mosques throughout Georgia decided to open their doors yesterday as a gesture of welcome, of hospitality. We ended up at the Al Farooq Mosque down on 14th Street. It was truly heartening to see the crowds that were there – crowds of non-Muslims who had come to learn more, to experience, to show their solidarity in a time of deep division.

For me, along with everything else, it was a reminder of how important moments like that are, moments that humanize us all. It is these moments that remind us how intimately intertwined our realities are – it’s just a matter of choosing to believe what is already true.

Can we take this truth to heart? In a world that seems more and more divided, where we feel more and more at odds with each other, it is critical to remember that we are truly and ultimately connected at our core. And when we do, it will make us more likely to see those Godly interruptions for what they truly are: calls to discipleship in a world that might be too busy to notice otherwise.

Amen.

Waiting for the Gift

ultramanThe best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

When I was maybe about four years old, my parents told me some exciting news: some Japanese are going to come over to the house tonight! I knew by their tone that I was supposed to be thrilled; but I wasn’t. The fuller story, which I didn’t know at the time, was that my grandmother’s best friend had spent most of her adult life working in Japan as a missionary. She was back visiting the States and had brought along a couple of friends, and they had a speaking tour planned. Our house was a simple social call along the way.

But I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that some Japanese, whatever that word meant, were coming over to the house. And since I didn’t know what “Japanese” meant, I filled in the blanks with fear and dread. Maybe those early Saturday mornings spent watching the Japanese monster series “Ultraman” had put ideas in my head – but whatever it was, I was terrified. I thought my parents were trustworthy, and yet here they are bringing “Japanese” into the house? As soon as the doorbell rang, I sprinted for my parents’ bathroom and locked the door.

It took some coaxing, but I finally emerged and headed downstairs to find these two Japanese…people?!?…sitting on the couch. They were smiling and holding my baby sister! “Well, why didn’t you say they were people? That’s a whole different story!”

They ended up giving me a little wooden toy, called a Kendama, one of those little cup and ball games. Winning that game occupied my attention for the better part of the next few months.

The best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

Our lesson from the gospel of Matthew today highlights this very point, that the best gifts can come from the most unlikely of places. The magi, in bringing their honor to the baby Jesus in the form of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are the most visible manifestation of this truth. And yet, there is more – so much more.

For centuries, the Israelites have been waiting for the birth of Messiah, the promised one of God. The yearning of that promise has deepened with the weight of years and the prophecies left unfulfilled. And now, the people are expecting nothing less than total revolution. The Romans occupy the land, and the current king Herod is nothing more than a puppet, carrying out ceremonial duties and bloating his own coffers while allowing the Romans to do as they please with the general population.

It is in the midst of all of this, visitors arrive in Jerusalem. The lesson refers to them as magi, a Persian word, pointing to their origins in modern-day Iran. The three gifts they bring are uniquely grouped together in Nabatean culture, suggesting that they come from modern-day Jordan. In other words, wherever they come from, what we know for certain is that they are foreigners.

It is the stars that have led them to Jerusalem, pointing their way to a promised king. Herod, wily enough to know when his power is threatened, receives the foreigners and consults the religious scholars. He then sends the magi as unknowing scouts to Bethlehem, to root out this infant rival for the throne so that he can then come and eliminate the competition. But like a Greek tragedy where fate is already set in stone, they go home without stopping in Jerusalem while the child’s father seeks temporary refuge for the family in Egypt. Herod, recognizing he has been duped, vents his murderous rage. And yet, none of this is able to stop the child from growing up to claim the promises for which he had been born.

The best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

Do you notice anything peculiar about this story? The ancient Near East was a tribal place – not that different from our modern world, mind you, but exaggeratedly so. And yet, in this amazing tale, the roles of good and evil are reversed, and pointedly so. Persia, the land of magi, had once been the land of exile for God’s people. And though they had found favor in King Cyrus, Persia was also the land where royal intrigue had almost led to the genocide of the Israelites.

Egypt, where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph found refuge from Herod’s slaughter, had once sheltered Abraham and had provided sustenance to Jacob and his family in a time of Canaanite famine. But it had also been the land of slavery for God’s people, where only the otherworldly intervention of seas parting could save them from another megalomaniac’s rage.

And Nabatea, the land of gold, frankincense and myrrh, may have figured less in Biblical history, but it had its place in the political and military maneuvers of the ancient world – warring with Judea at times. And it was most often referred to in Scripture as “the wilderness”, a dreaded, barren place.

Judah and Jerusalem, on the other hand, play the villain. The King is a heel straight out of central casting, conniving to try and undermine God’s desires and promises so he can keep his grip on his little fiefdom. His plan is so violently over the top as to seem cartoonish: slaughtering everyone under the age of two – which, if you may have noticed, is the exact opposite of “thou shalt not kill.” Up is down, left is right, good is bad, countryman is traitor.

These themes rise up throughout Scripture again and again. On the one hand, where we want to draw the lines for our tribe is rarely the same place that God would draw them. And, at the same time, our expectations for the way God desires things to be are likely to be flipped on their head. It’s almost as if God is trying to tell us something…

As we turn the page on the calendar, we know there’s nothing magical that happens as we move from 2015 to 2016. The dates are arbitrary. It may mark another circuit around the sun, but the idea that something critical happened two days ago just isn’t true. And yet, it is one of those moments that gives us an opportunity to root ourselves in the present as we look toward God’s future.

What are you looking for in 2016? What are your hopes? Your fears? Your dreams? Your expectations? And, more importantly, how do they point you toward what it is that God desires for you?

After all, the best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

I would like to suggest a path forward for the coming year, and it is simply this: be open to the surprises of God.

In our lesson from this morning, enemies turn out to be friends, and allies become oppressors. In our reading today, though the priests and scribes recognize God’s wisdom, its path does not come by way of rulers or tribes, but through stars and dreams. If we think we know who is against us, if we think we know how it is that God will speak to us, we have already closed ourselves off to God. We might as well lock ourselves in the upstairs bathroom until the strange visitors go away, taking their gifts and their warmth with them.

Instead, I want to suggest that we spend time on God’s possibilities, God’s new hopes for us and for our lives. And I think we are likely to find them in two places: in relationships and in disciplines.

The first is in relationships we would reject out of hand. I’m not talking about building intimate trust with those who have wronged you before; that’s a whole different conversation for another day. What I am talking about is building trust with those whom you don’t know but have decided to reject out of hand anyway. Or, to use Jesus’ pointed question about our expectations, who is your neighbor?

Who is that person who is, at first glance, very unlike you? How can you begin to build trust and hope with them? Perhaps it’s the literal neighbor, the new family down the block. Maybe it’s the new co-worker, or maybe you’re the new co-worker. Perhaps it’s the new kid in school, or the person you see in church every Sunday but haven’t yet gotten to know. It is in these relationships that we might find our assumptions challenged, which is the surest way to find God’s surprise. So in 2016, I encourage you to put yourself out there, to nurture a new friendship, with eyes wide open to God’s wisdom at work.

And the second place we are likely to encounter God’s gifts is in new disciplines. Many of you have a spiritual practice that works well for you. Your daily prayer, or your morning Bible study, or your afternoon walk or jog, or your evening meditation – maybe you have already found your intimacy with God. If your practice continues to surprise you, if you consistently find new revelations and insights, then there is no need to alter course. But: if all you end up doing is reinforcing what you already know, then it’s more than time for a change.

It might be as simple as a different route, or a different time of day, or a different mindset of open and willing reception. The point is that if all we are doing is meeting our expectations, then we’re just not doing it right. And if you don’t plan any regular way of encountering God, well, now is a good as time as any to start. But unlike the gym membership or the treadmill you purchase, make this one doable, winnable, achievable. Start with five minutes a day of prayer, or ten minutes on a daily Bible reading, or increasing your worship attendance, or starting to come to Sunday School.

Friends: the gifts of God are already here. And they’re not what we expect. They are on this table: cup and bread. So come to this table. And as you do, commit yourself to the newness and openness this new year can bring to you and to God’s desires.

Right here, at this table, is where the surprise happens. What is on this table is simple. The wine and juice are made from simple grapes. The bread is made from – well, it’s not made from wheat, but it’s still simple. But even so, they contain promises beyond their mere appearance. Because when we are at this table, and when we share this bread and this cup, we encounter Jesus himself. And it is in our relationship with him that we will find ourselves always changed, always transformed.

Amen.

Waiting for the Child

12321306_10156268032385384_71960257306583309_nNo matter how hard it may be to see, there is always light.

Two nights ago, we invited friends over for supper. That’s hardly newsworthy information, except for the fact that they are Muslim and we are Christian. Again, not a particularly shocking revelation; and yet, in our current cultural and political climate, it is something that is sadly unheard of.

No sooner had they arrived at our house than I got a call: the cleaning crew smelled smoke at the church and fire fighters were on their way. I apologized and left. As I mentioned earlier, fortunately, the damage was relatively minor in the scale of things, and I was able to go home and continue our planned social evening, although a bit shorter than anticipated. Our friends were relieved to hear the news, but made it clear in no uncertain terms: if there was anything they could do to help with any clean up or recovery, just say they word and they would be there to lend a hand.

No matter how hard it may be to see, there is always light.

We seem to be in a particularly divided time, one that can feel as though it is marked by hopelessness. And yet, all around us, is proof of hope, evidence of unity. We just need to be sure we are looking in the right places.

I wonder if any of this would resonate with Joseph and Mary on that ancient Christmas Day. The taxation of foreign powers forced them to relocate temporarily. They were strangers in their own land, relying on the kindness of those they did not know. And in the midst of all of this, their son, Jesus, was born. This child, for whom they had waited, was a sign of hope to the young couple in a bleak time. And yet, he was so much more: a hope for the nation, a hope for the whole world!

Jesus was not born for the sake of one tribe. That’s not how God works. Jesus was born for the sake of all. And that is the hope God makes real – not just on Christmas Day, but each and every day of the year.

What is it that you are doing to make the hope of God real? It’s lovely to come to a Christmas Eve service, to sing familiar songs and take part in familiar rituals and practices. And yet, if that is all tonight means to you, then you’re probably not looking in the right place.

As we have for many years, we will close tonight’s service by singing “Silent Night”. As we do, the lights in the sanctuary will darken, leaving only the light of candles to illuminate our worship. And out of that moment grows my prayer for you this year. I pray that this image will be seared in your memory. And I pray this not just so that you’ll come back in 365 days, but so that whenever it comes to mind, you will reminded and challenged to make this statement manifest, tangible, real: no matter how hard it may be to see, there is always light.

And that light – God’s hopeful light – is given to you so that you might carry it into the world. What does that look like for you? Maybe it takes the form of creating relationships across those supposed cultural or religious or economic or racial boundaries. Perhaps it is through a commitment to support a worthwhile organization with your time or money for the coming year. Maybe it is in the shape of new or renewed disciplines of faith: being part of a church, regular prayer, intentional silence, a promise to pay more attention to the world around you and to be a part of those things that make for hope and wholeness, not despair and division.

These walls we construct? They are not of God or God’s desires. They are ones we build ourselves. It’s time to take them down and to connect with God’s children we have relegated to the other side. May this be God’s hope made real, today and always.

Amen.

Waiting for the Promise

post-office-line_6Waiting is prayer.

Here we are, five days before Christmas, still waiting. Thanks to our commercial culture, where Christmas decorations are put up some time in July, that waiting period seems longer than ever. As the holidays near, the waiting in traffic gets longer and longer. We’ve been waiting for the break from work, from school, to finally arrive. Some of us have been waiting for the new Star Wars movie for months, even years.

And none of that waiting compares to the waiting of our Scripture lesson this morning.

The story of Elizabeth, Zechariah, and their son John is a thorough summary of the prophetic and priestly traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron, Moses’ brother, whom tradition considers the first of the priests. Zechariah himself belongs to an ancient priestly order, each order getting their turn to preside over the sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.

This time, Zechariah is chosen to enter into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred portion of the sanctuary. It was a once in a lifetime experience, ones that priests wait for their whole lives. And this is the moment when God chose to visit Zechariah with the good news: his prayers have been answered, and he will become a father.

Our reading skips over a crucial part of the story: Zechariah is skeptical that this will really come to pass. Because his skepticism causes him to question the angel, he is left unable to speak until his son was born. And at that moment, he lets forth with promises for God’s people: the role his own child is to play in the long story of salvation. His son, John, will usher in this Messianic era, where the long wait will final be over for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

A people waiting for the promise…A priest waiting for his turn at the altar…A father waiting for his child…A man waiting to speak…Waiting is prayer.

We have become a people unaccustomed to waiting. The ubiquitous presence of the internet and the power of microprocessors in our pocket have made it such that we have become convinced that there is no longer any need for waiting. Things like memorizing trivia and shopping at the mall are becoming relics of the past. TVs with fixed schedules are becoming as obsolete as rabbit ears or black and white sets.

There are not many places we still wait, but there are a few: traffic, the post office, the DMV, and the doctor’s office. And I’m not sure many of those are places we would identify as places of prayer, where waiting can take on a spiritual element. But maybe that’s because we haven’t been going about it the right way.

I have some thoughts about how to adjust…but you’re gonna have to wait.

There is a parallel to this conversation about waiting and patience in the world of psychology. Psychologists have tested around the concept of delayed gratification, the idea of saying “no” to an immediate, small reward in order to say “yes” to a more distant, larger reward. There was the so-called Stanford Marshmallow experiment in the 1960s and 70s. Preschoolers were offered a marshmallow along with two options:

  • Eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted
  • Wait 15 minutes until the experimenter came back and get two marshmallows

They then followed up on the children when they were teens and adults, observing that there was a strong correlation between the ability to wait and emotional and physical health. Recent technological developments have allowed researchers to determine that these differences are not simply manifested as behavioral differences, but are also borne out in differences within the brain itself.

In other words, waiting is healthy. And waiting can be learned, no matter how old we are.

We can learn a lot about waiting from Zechariah.

For centuries, God’s people have been waiting. The priests, in particular, would have known the prophecies promising of God’s return, of a Messiah, an anointed leader, who would come and bring them their hoped for salvation. In Zechariah’s time, there would have been a particularly urgent-felt need to shrug off Roman occupation to restore self-determination and order to their corner of the universe.

So when Zechariah enters the sanctuary to carry out the sacrifice, he has been praying for his family, their desire for children, a sign of hope in God. And he has been praying for the sake of all of his people, his tribe, his nation, and for their sign of hope in God. So when the angel appears to him and tells him his prayers have been answered, his immediate reaction is…disbelief. Surely it can’t be this easy.

I don’t know about you, but I can sympathize with Zechariah. There are those times when I have been praying for something; and then, when it actually happens, I just can’t quite believe it.

Is it that answered prayer sometimes disappoints? Do we somehow relish being doubters, preferring the half-empty glass to the one that quenches our thirst? Are we more comfortable with hopes that are unfulfilled than the ones that are made real? Has the world become such a place of predictability that surprise seems out of order?

I think that’s the case for Zechariah. It’s not that he wasn’t a person of faith. The lesson tells us that both he and Elizabeth were exemplary religious observers. They were righteous, good folk who faithfully executed the demands of faith. And yet, I am quite sure that when Zechariah hears that his prayers have been answered – not just about the birth of his son, but that this same son will be a turning point in the salvation of the nation – that this surprising good news is such a deviation from his posture of waiting that it shocks him into doubt.

It is this doubt that leaves him speechless. He is unable to utter a word, to tell people about his encounter. And he stays that way until it is time to name the newborn baby boy, at which point his tongue is unleashed in a flurry of prophecy.

For Zechariah, it was this imposed silence that shifted him from a posture of waiting to a practice of waiting. And that shift made all of the difference. No longer was he simply used to the “way things are” – he was now forced into silence and solitude. It was such a dramatic turn that he would likely never take the gifts of God for granted ever again.

Which brings us back to the post office. I have actually gotten to where I no longer dread going to the post office – in fact, I now actually kind of enjoy it! Part of it is just a simple shift in expectation. I know I’m going to wait. No matter how many times I might sigh loudly and dramatically, the line never moves faster. No matter how many heat daggers I might stare into the back of the customers who act as though they’ve never left the house before, no matter how many times I stare in disbelief at the number of counters that are unstaffed, none of that will ever make time move faster.

The brilliant late author David Foster Wallace, in his beautiful commencement speech at Kenyon College ten years ago, talks about this very fact. The way he puts it, this way of thinking – that the world revolves around me and that I should be angry at the slightest inconvenience – is actually not thinking at all. It is, in fact, our default setting. We can choose, he says, to think yesterday. “I can choose,” he says, “to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the…checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do.”

In other words, we can transform the frustration of waiting into a spiritual practice of intentional thinking, of God’s desire, of prayer.

Now, when I know I need to go to the post office, I make peace with the fact that I am going to be there for a while. I no longer drum my fingers or pull out my phone to pass the time. Instead, I pay attention. I observe the people who are in line with me. I pay attention to the employees who used to be the object of my impatience. I notice things about them: the woman who needs a cane to walk; the man with a thick accent who is doing his best to make it through this transaction conducted in a foreign language and in a foreign culture; the couple with the kid who is more bored than I ever possibly could have been; the employee who hears the sighs and the comments about how long it takes and just absorbs or ignores it. And I pray for them: for comfort, for healing, for strength, for joy, for safety, for peace.

Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t completed the transformation into a paragon of patient virtue. Even at the post office, I sometimes still convince myself that I am in a hurry, and that my hurry is more important than the hurry of everyone else there. But what I have learned is that waiting can be a gift, that it can be prayer – if I let it be.

Today, in addition to celebrating this season of Advent, we are also celebrating our beloved Francisco Flores. For twenty years, Francisco has worked tirelessly as our custodian. And now, at the end of this year, he is retiring. For him, for all of us, there is a kind of waiting at work. And here is my word to speak into that waiting – or, indeed, into any waiting: let it be prayerful. Pay attention to what is around you. Take notice of those things that you can surround with prayer. Lift up those prayers: prayers of thanksgiving, of intercession, of passion, of sorrow, of joy, of hope.

And beyond all else, trust that, whatever this season of waiting might mean for you, that God is already there on the other side of it, preparing the promise and waiting patiently for us. May this be the trust which holds us all of our days.

Amen.

Waiting for the Light

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsBefore you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.

For several months now, our Biblical lessons have been following the slow, downward spiral of the Israelites. Their kings have failed them. They have ignored the pleas and threats of prophets. They have followed after and sacrificed to almost every single god except their own. Babylon has already come to town, leveled the Temple to the ground, and dragged huge portions of the people off into exile. There, they have withered away, pining for their homeland.

Then along came Cyrus.

Cyrus is my second favorite Biblical person, after Jesus. Ruling over the sprawling Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Now Babylon’s spoils of war were his, including the Israelites. And Cyrus issues a decree throughout his empire permitting the Israelites to return to their ancient kingdom and rebuild their Temple. Not only that, their current neighbors are to give them the supplies they need.

The people return, begin rebuilding the Temple, and though it causes some to mourn for the nostalgia of the way things used to be, it is a day of celebration.

All of this is very much in line with what we know of the Cyrus from history, the documentary 300 notwithstanding. The Persian religion was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that is one of the oldest in the world. At the time of Cyrus’ death, the Persian Empire extended from Turkey in the West all the way to Afghanistan in the East. What set Cyrus apart, however, was his approach to the conquered peoples under his rule.

As far as empires go, Cyrus’ was quite enlightened. You can get a glimpse of this even in the ruins of the ancient capital Persepolis. Carved into bas relief on the rock are images of the various nations bringing their tributes to the emperor. Great care was taken in these carvings to show the distinctive dress and valuables of the different regions. Cyrus ruled his vast holdings under the assumption that stamping out their individuality was unwise. Rather, he gave them limited autonomy to practice their religions and customs and traditions, which turned out to be in the best interest of the Empire.

Such is the esteem with which Cyrus was held that the Greek word for Lord, Kyrios, is adapted from the name Cyrus. And in the Bible, Cyrus is the only foreigner to bear the title “Messiah” – that is, anointed by God.

Up to this point, the Biblical story of God and God’s people has been a pretty tribal. Sure: there are the notable foreign heroes, like Ruth and Uriah and Nathan and Rahab. But it’s not until Cyrus comes along that there is this explicit notion that God uses instruments beyond the covenanted people.

Before you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.

That does seem to be the common thread between the lesson of Cyrus and the Christmas season we await: God chooses the unlikeliest characters to anoint with the spirit. Whether it’s a foreign king who worships a different concept of god or a helpless baby born into a struggling family on the run, those who tend to make God’s desires real are usually not the ones we would choose.

If nothing else, the God we know in Christ is a God of consistent surprise. Jesus’ disciples were a ragtag bunch of misfits and outcasts. Even so, they would often take Jesus to task for hanging out with all of the wrong kinds of people: lepers, Gentiles, women! Even those who knew Jesus best still missed the point. That is why he consistently called them to account, especially when it came to self-righteousness. His parables and wisdom sayings returned to the theme of humility again and again.

Jesus asked the crowds, “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you do not see the log in your own?” In other words, before you go around criticizing someone else’s hypocrisy and shortcomings, take care of yours.

Do we do this? Are we honest about our selves and our values, even when they are hidden from the light of day? Or do we speak about God on the one hand, and behave as though it were all up to us?

Friends, I’m convinced we are at a moment of spiritual crisis in our nation. And that crisis is one of personal and collective self-righteousness we ignore at our own peril. This past week, everybody’s favorite hated narcissistic presidential candidate issued another outrageous statement about a religious litmus test for immigration. At that moment, it became clear that a line had finally been crossed. We vented our collective moral outrage. Politicians across the spectrum came forward with public denouncements. Everyone from Barack Obama to Paul Ryan to Bernie Sanders to Dick Cheney spoke out, each saying some version of, “This is not who we are. America is better than this.”

And this is what we always do at times like this. We distance ourselves from the whackos and the lunatics. We call them things like “whacko” and “lunatic” so that we can dismiss them more easily. We treat them as though they don’t belong, that the rest of society is just fine and decent and just and kind.

But the truth is that we are too busy picking at the speck and ignoring the log.

I don’t think our current national obsession is an aberration – not by a long shot. In 1968, George Wallace was a viable third party candidate, getting almost 15% of the popular vote while running on a platform of segregation. In 1944, nearly two years after we had rounded up more than 60,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps, polls showed that 13% of Americans favored utter extermination of the Japanese.

And these were not momentary lapses in judgment. The Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, and the near genocide of Native Americans are part of our history. As are slavery, the Middle Passage, Dred Scott, lynching, Jim Crow…

Before you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.

These may not be streams of our history that we want to remember. They are certainly not our finest moments. They may not even represent the core of who we are as a nation or what we value. But there is danger in pretending as though they never happened or, when they do happen, that they are not our collective sin.

I believe the same is true of every community – whether that is the community of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Americans, Chinese, Sudanese, you name it. We require an internal examination of reckoning of the collective sin that leads to brutality, injustice, and terror. And I also know that the first place I can start is at home.

Returning to our morning’s lesson: when Cyrus gives permission to the prophet Ezra to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, there is a danger – one that is right there in the story itself. Those in the crowd who are grieving as the Temple is being rebuilt, because it isn’t what it used to be, are those who are most likely to forget or misremember how it was destroyed in the first place.

The reason Cyrus is necessary in the story at all is that both Israel and Judah forgot the covenant God made with them. They forgot that they had been freed from brutal slavery. They forgot that they had been miraculously sustained in the desert. They forgot that they had inherited vineyards they did not plant, wells they did not dig, houses they did not build. They forgot – and they ignored every effort to be reminded.

Before the exile, before Babylon defeated Judah, while prophet after prophet after prophet warned of the price of unfaithfulness to the holy covenant with God, the reaction was a national, collective shrug. It is not hard to imagine people thinking to themselves, “Well, Solomon may have 700 wives and concubines, but at least the mule trains run on time.” Or, “I know I shouldn’t sacrifice here at this altar to Ba’al, but I don’t want to be rude.” Or, “We really should stick to those commandments, but we’re at war!”

But before we point out ancient specks, let’s return to modern-day logs.

Let me put a finer point on it: our candidate in question, whose name I will not utter so as not to feed the self-obsessed demagoguery, identifies himself as a Presbyterian. While he is not currently a member of any Presbyterian church, despite claims to the contrary, what is true is that he grew up in one. He is a child of Presbyterian Sunday School. Whether we like it or not, he is one of ours. And that is our reckoning.

But, preacher, before you point out the speck in your presidential candidate neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own. Amen to that.

I know that I have my own reckoning to do. I have my own past to come to terms with, my own hidden thoughts and fears that are not of God or God’s desires. I am fortunate that my youthful indiscretions happened before social media. And because I am not what I ought to be – or even what I can be – I need confession, forgiveness, and mercy. And yet, in spite of all this evidence to the contrary, God still thinks I am worthy to be an instrument of God’s grace.

That is true for each one of us here. Yes: we have to come to terms with our past. Yes: we have things in our life – past and present – of which we are truly embarrassed, ashamed, mortified. Yes: we are imperfect. Yes: we can be more, so much more. And even though all of this is true, God still thinks us worthy to be called God’s children, worthy of God’s love, worthy of God’s purposes.

That’s what waiting for the light is all about. It’s not that light is better than dark; it’s that God’s light that comes in Christ shines into the shadows where we think we can hide. It’s not to shame us or embarrass us – we do that well enough ourselves. It’s to warm us, to guide us, to let us see how truly beautiful we are not in our own eyes, filled with their forests of logs, but in God’s eyes, the ones that truly matter.

After all, despite the logs in our eyes, God is the one who does the heavy lifting. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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