We’ve All Got a Story

Prayer of Illumination: Risen Lord, who never runs out of Easters, you constantly walk through locked doors and meet us where we are at. You reassure us when we need to see for ourselves your work in the world. You enter all rooms and breathe your peace into our hearts. By your Holy Spirit you put stories on all our hearts and send us out to share them. Open our ears and guide our feet this day and always, amen.

Friends, we’ve all got stories. Today we will begin Eastertide season by taking a closer look at just part of Thomas’ story as well as just part of the early church of Acts’ story.

Acts 4:32-35

32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. 33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, 35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

John 20:19-31

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus,[a] one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name

Raise your hand if you have ever been given a nickname. Some nicknames may not bother you as much as others.  For example, when I was working as a sonic car-hop, my boss gave me the nickname “stretch” because my height…this didn’t bother me that much because I cannot deny my height. Sometimes nicknames are more bothersome.  It seems when someone gives you a nickname, the name sticks to you like glue and follows you through your life– even when you outgrow it.

Biblical characters also tend to be ascribed nicknames. Today in our first scripture lesson, we take a closer look at the gospel of John’s account of Jesus appearing to the disciples and then appearing to Thomas the Twin, who is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas”, a nickname he would probably dislike.

Joshua Harris, a comic strip artist, released a simple comic strip in 2010 that accurately captures part of Thomas’ plight. In the comic strip, Thomas, labelled “Doubting Thomas” is drawn distraughtly speaking to the other disciples explaining, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter; ‘denying Peter’ or Mark; ran away from the garden naked Mark. Why should I always get saddled with this title?” (Joshua Harris, 2010.) Harris’ comic strip offers insight because after all, is curiosity and questioning such a bad thing in regards to our faith?

Poor Thomas. Usually when he is mentioned in church, he is referred to as doubting Thomas and it’s all because of this passage. Why does he get this label? There’s so many people in the Bible who doubt. I actually think it is harder to find someone who didn’t.

We have many examples: Sarah and Abraham, two of the pillars in our tradition, doubted that God would bring them a son. They both laughed at God. Moses doubted that God could use him to free the Israelites from slavery. Gideon doubted in God’s ability to help him win the war against the Midianites so he prayed for God to give him proof. Many of the disciples doubted throughout their journey with Jesus, just think about Peter.

Despite his nickname, earlier in the gospel of John, Thomas the twin, makes a bold, courageous statement which he is not often remembered for. Jesus and the disciples learned that Lazarus had fallen ill to the point of being on his death bed. Jesus began to prepare to make the trip to Judea to be with Lazarus and his sisters. As plans were being made, the disciples remember Jesus’ last trip to Judea…the people in Judea thought Jesus was completely crazy and wanted to stone Him. Clearly Jesus’ disciples thought it would be wise for their group to stay away. However, Jesus is not one who is afraid of conflict. Yet, when it becomes clear that Jesus is set on going to Judea, Thomas, the twin states, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (John 11:16) But Thomas is not remembered for his brave claim of loyalty.

So why is it that Thomas is labeled as the Doubter of the Bible? Before I continue…I do want to say that there is nothing wrong with doubting. I believe that doubt is a critical part of our faith journey. Usually it is when we are unsure that we seek deeper questions…. and often when we give voice to the lack of faith that we experience that we’re able to find Jesus in new ways. Never be ashamed of your doubt; we always welcome ones questions and struggles. Doubt can play a part in our faith stories. And Jesus meets us wherever we are at along the way.

I appreciate our text from John, perhaps because it is relatable. Perhaps today, even with scripture and the Holy Spirit, sometimes we too, long to “see” Jesus with our own eyes and touch Jesus with our hands. Thankfully, Jesus continues to meet us where we are and be present with us, even though we can’t see Him…..He is present in our times of unbelief. Thomas reassures us that our glorious Easter hymns are not always withstanding.  Thomas reminds us the week after the resurrection has always been murky, messy, and complicated. We’re not the first human beings to struggle with it, and we won’t be the last. Struggle is intrinsic to post-Easter life—but the story doesn’t end there.

Pastor Jill Duffield states, “Jesus does not condemn our struggles to believe in God’s power and God’s goodness when all we’d imagined or planned gets upended…Friends, God in Christ makes his way to us, wherever we are, to reassure us of the trustworthiness of God’s creative, living word. He allows us to see him, touch him, stare at him in awe filled wonder, and study him, recognizing our fragility and shock….as we huddle anxiously in secluded places, how have we seen and heard, touched and felt, experienced without question our Lord and God, Jesus Christ?”

Jesus enters and says, “Peace be with you.”  The Spirit shows up and is given to each Jesus’ early followers and to us in order to help guide us and to help us live into God’s love and grace.

Which brings us to our scripture from Acts. The book of Acts chronicles the beginning of the church. The book is heavily Holy Spirit driven. We are told at the beginning of Acts 4 that the community of believers has grown to about five thousand members. Then, after a confrontation between Jesus’ disciples and religious leaders we are told, “When the followers of Jesus had prayed….they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31.) With boldness they spoke and told their stories of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the source of authority which apostles have bestowed upon their preaching and witness. The Spirit’s power births the church, a new movement, seeks to bring order to chaos and defines the church’s mission. Not only to proclaim the resurrection gospel but also to embody its redemptive truth by caring for others and sharing stories of how God meets us in our lives. However, as you might imagine the early followers had moments of fear.

A fear well described by Walter Brueggemann: all people fall into two categories, those who fear the world they treasured is crumbling all around them, and those who fear the world they dream of will never come to be. I have found in declaring this that people, even if only for a moment, find some common ground. There is no fear near Jesus – but this doesn’t mean you can relax.

Elie Wiesel famously said, “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” Jesus comforts with one hand and then sends his early followers out into hard labor and challenges them to share His resurrection message with others. These disciples, and us today, have work to do. Work which requires courage and some peace. How lovely and fitting that Jesus doesn’t criticize or judge them for their fears and doubts. He loves. He reassures, turning their confusion into friendship, their fear into trust. Calling all of His early followers and us today, to rise up with the Holy Spirit.

May you allow it, to help mend, to help weave together the torn pieces with in you. May we allow this Good News to help weave together our community. Now friends let us not allow such news, peace, and presence of spirit to stay here. We cannot keep all this Good News to ourselves. Instead may it strengthen us, and encourage us, to be the people who meet others where they are, meet them in their shock, in their grief, in their struggle, pulling them in, and reminding them of the love and peace that God offers to all of creation.

May we all be encouraged—like the early followers of Christ—to tell our faith stories and how God meets us where we are. Stories that show we are all connected, and that “the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center”- as Rachel Held Evans states.

 In this post-Easter season, perhaps our efforts are best spent directing people to help people see concrete glimpses into the power of God’s transforming presence in the world- within each of our own stories. Perhaps we can allow the Spirit to help us- see it. Share it. Live into it. May it be so. Amen.

What Wonderous Love is this?

Prayer of Illumination: Loving God, by your Word and Spirit, you have given us a new commandment: to love and serve one another in Jesus’ name. Let the good news of your liberating love be sealed in our hearts and shown in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

          In many ways, the powerful words of tonight’s scripture readings, speak for themselves. As I read this evening’s texts, which may be all too familiar to us, I invite us all to imagine we are gathered at the table, as one of Jesus’ disciples, hearing these words and witnessing these humbling events for the first time. I invite you also to listen for a word or phrase that jumps out the most to you as I read text. (Scripture)

John 13:1-17, 31-35           

            Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.

Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”

“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”

Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”

12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.31 When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Human One[a] has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One[b] in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’

34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

            A basin filled with water. Blessed bread. A cup poured out. An intimate dinner with friends reclining around a table. A towel. Ordinary objects filling a holy night. This year, I was most struck with the phrase, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully to the end.” This includes his most intimate friends who would deny, desert, and betray him. Those who even though they had been by his side for three years still did not understand his words. They aren’t quite sure how to understand him and they weren’t by his side when he needed them the most. Yet, he loves them fully to the end. A deep abiding love.

            Imagine the amazement and emotions of the disciples as they heard Jesus’ words for the first time how amazed they would be to witness their friend and teacher, humbling himself and willingly washing each of their dirt encrusted feet. Once again Jesus does something which is profoundly unexpected. Not even a Hebrew slave was expected to wash other’s feet. Foot washing was a form of hospitality but water typically was brought out so that guest may wash their own feet. As their host and their teacher, the last thing Jesus is expected to do is this immense act of servant love. Though some would deny and betray him, Jesus washes and dries every one of his disciples’ feet, even Judas’. What wondrous love is this?

            Sometime last year, New York Life Insurance released a powerful commercial which show cased the ancient Greeks variety of words for “love.” First there was “philia” love and affection felt between friends. Next “eros” or romantic love. Then, “storge”, love felt for grandparent or sibling.

            The fourth kind of love kind of love, agape love is described as the most admirable. It is important to note that the Greek base word agape, is used everywhere in tonight’s passage when we see the word love. Agape is described as the most admirable form because agape love is love as an action. Love that requires courage, sacrifice, and strength. The commercial goes on to tug at the heart strings and show specific scenes of agape love as an action. We see a group of boys shaving their heads completely bald as an act of agape love and solidarity as they facetime with their friend who is in the hospital and lost all his hair from cancer treatments. We see an adult child lovingly washing an aging parent with soap and water, perhaps reminiscing of past adventures together.

            We can add our own scenes. A spouse bringing hot tea to us when we have migraines. A parent’s love of tending to scraped knees and broken hearts. Love in action as communities gather to house and feed the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

            A Savior who invites followers to a new mandate, a new commandment, a new way to love. Where before we were called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even if we wanted to follow such a call by loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are far from knowing how to properly love ourselves at times- never mind knowing how to properly love our neighbors. Now, a new call to love because of and the way our savior loves us. With agape love- love as an action. A Savior who calls us to love as he loves.  A savior who not only calls us but shows us how to love as he loves.  

            Jan Richardson writes beautiful blessings for this holiest of weeks. Tonight I want to close by sharing her words. She talks about the blessing of Christ washing feet and showing us how to love, a blessing Peter tried to deny himself, but Christ gave him anyway. A blessing is not finished until we let it do its work within us and then pass it along, an offering grounded in the love that Jesus goes on to speak of this night. Yet we cannot do this—as the disciples could not do this—until we first allow ourselves to simply receive the blessing as it is offered: as gift, as promise, as sign of a world made whole.

            I invite you to her words and receive this blessing:  Blessing You Cannot Turn Back

As if you could

stop this blessing
from washing
over you.

As if you could
turn it back,
could return it
from your body
to the bowl,
from the bowl
to the pitcher,
from the pitcher
to the hand
that set this blessing
on its way.

As if you could
change the course
by which this blessing
flows.

As if you could
control how it
pours over you—
unbidden,
unsought,
unasked,

yet startling
in the way
it matches the need
you did not know
you had.

As if you could
become undrenched.

As if you could
resist gathering it up
in your two hands
and letting your body
follow the arc
this blessing makes. May it be so. Amen.

Hey JC, JC, You’re Alright by me!

Mark 11:1-11 Common English Bible

11 When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![a] 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

            A childhood friend would always say,” don’t ever have any expectations- if you have expectations in life you are setting yourself up to be disappointed.” Whether you agree with this or not is up to you. We may have expectations as to how we will collectively leave 2020 in the rearview mirror. Our expectations may differ from one another.  In my personal experience, I haven’t quite figured out how to not have high expectations- especially around important events- holidays, vacations, first dates, new job, you name it. I also have expectations of people. If I send off my taxes to be done, I expect the person to know more about numbers than I do. I expect certain characteristics and traits from family members. Our expectations are normally high and often hard to live up to.

            Take Palm Sunday for example. What might you expect on Palm Sunday? Palm branches? Songs with Hosanna in the title? A party-like atmosphere? You probably expect to hear some version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as scripture reading and not the Christmas narrative. Growing up Palm Sunday always felt like a party. As kids we would get to walk in waving palm branches as enthusiastically as possible, occasionally too enthusiastically as we snuck a few palm hits in a sibling’s direction. We know the story and expect certain buzz words to be mentioned.

            Now imagine you are present in the dense non-socially distanced crowd ready to take a look at this promised Messiah, perhaps for the first time. The crowd might be ready to cheer on Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem. Some in the crowd might be skeptical.  Most in the crowd as desperate for good news and to be saved as they chant “Hosanna! Save us!” You’ve come to take a look at this ragtag prophet and teacher who can make a change for your people. The one who can take down emperors and unfair rulers and who can give you and your people a fresh start. The one everyone keeps talking about, the one who heals the lame and blind and who cleanses lepers. You see him riding in and are so excited. You join the crowd in gathering leafy branches to help make his trip smoother. The air is heavy with expectation and expectations are high.

            What is the crowd expecting of Jesus? What are we expecting from Jesus? What are we expecting from Holy Week?

            The gospel of Mark describes the infatuation that many people had with Jesus- as if he were a rock star. Many people spread their cloaks on the road and others spread leafy branches they had cut from the fields. It is not hard to imagine the Woodstock scene from 1960s or a concert scene when thinking about Palm Sunday. The screams of joy and expectation ringing in Jesus’ ears.  His disciples having sense of anticipation that this surely is the moment they are finally able to reveal Christ as the Messiah, and still not understanding Jesus’ mission. 

            While film adaptations of Christ’s life are not as good as the book, as I prepare for Holy Week, I must confess the soundtrack to the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar typically plays in the background. Some versions include paparazzi like scenes with cell phones or cameras in Jesus’ face as listeners expect certain answers from him. The infamous song, “Hosanna” from the musical tends to play into the high expectations of the crowd as Jesus enters the city. The lyrics range from saying- “Hey, JC, JC won’t you smile at me?” to the political rebel rousing, “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me?” to the non-solicited stamp of approval from the crowd, “Hey JC, JC, you’re alright by me!”, as if the son of God needed an extra stamp of approval.  Jesus, you’re okay as long as you preform, as long as you deliver miracles, as long as you give people want they want and not always what they need.

            One commentator observes, “The problem was not in a lack of love for Jesus…the problem was that it was the superficial kind.” Perhaps the crowd’s love and even our love of Christ spurs as not a love which understands who people actually are but a love blinded by expectations. A love that is only truly complete when our expectations are met. Yet the crowd and our expectations are met with Jesus. In Jesus, the world challenged to recognize how different it’s kind of love is from God. The many people gathered and excited to see Jesus may still have something to learn about the sort of king who comes in the name of the Lord and into their midst. Perhaps we do as well.    

            In their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry.  You see, every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west. Why? To be present in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000. The governor would come in all of his flashy, imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. They could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to.  But real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile.

            As Pilate pompously parades his imperial way into Jerusalem from the west more than likely on a war stallion, Jesus approached from the east, looking by contrast ragtag and absurd.  Unlike the Roman emperor and his legions, who ruled by force and terror, Jesus came defenseless and weaponless into his kingship.  Riding on a donkey, he all but cried aloud the bottom-line truth that unlike Pilate, Jesus’ rule would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, long-suffering, and sacrifice. Yet some might say that Jesus’ triumphal entry was holy resistance, even though it did not look exactly how people pictured it.

            So what happened in Mark after Jesus enters the city? Mark’s ending to episode is by far the most underwhelming. Jesus enters the temple, but simply looks around at everything and returns to Bethany, which is about two miles outside Jerusalem and served as home base during week. He just looks around with his disciples because is it already late in the day.  I have to wonder Christ looked around—at what? Was he planning their next move? Looking around or calling it a night are far less likely to be considered world-changing behaviors than condemning rampant corruption or calling out hypocrisy on no sleep? If folks expected a political uprising, he had already disappointed them.

            Today, we begin a journey that holds within it the fullness of the human story — the highs, the lows, the hopes, the fears.  Pastor Debie Thomas observes, “In the span of seven days, we do it all: we praise, process, break bread, wash feet, make promises, break promises, deny, betray, condemn, abandon, grieve, despair, disbelieve, and celebrate.  This week, we see the light at the end of the tunnel, lose our vision of it entirely in the grimness of death, and then find it again, drenched in glory and put back together again through the cross.”

            Palm Sunday is a complicated Sunday in which perhaps more than any other, this festive, ominous, and complicated day of palm and hosanna banners warns us that paradoxes we might not like or want are woven right into the fabric of Christianity.  God on a donkey.  Dying to live. A suffering king. Good Friday.*

            These paradoxes are what give Jesus’s story its shape, weight, and texture, calling us at every moment to hold together truths that seem bizarre and counterintuitive.

            Friends, I challenge us not to go into Holy week with expectations of who we think Jesus needs to be, but with our eyes open to who Jesus actually is. Let’s live a bit in the paradox and not rush to Easter morning. I challenge us all to read the story of Holy Week in each gospel- to let the story fester in our souls, to look Jesus in the eye and see how he comes to each and every one of us.

            He comes not with pomp and circumstance, but as one who identifies with the poor.

            He comes not as a mighty warrior, but as one who is vulnerable, one whose eyes are fixed on Jerusalem and the cross. He comes as one who invites people to see and live in the world in a new way.

            He comes on an animal ridden when riders wish to signify peaceful intentions. Jesus then, comes in peace- not to conquer but to teach ways of peace, hope, and agape love.

            The day Christ rode into Jerusalem, he may not have been the kind of Messiah the crowd, or us for that matter, expected to encounter.  But he is the kind of Messiah who is much more than our expectations. He is so much more than human projections placed on him. He is the exact Messiah we actually need. Amen.

Holy Havoc

Prayer of Illumination: God of holy disruptions, as we continue through the wilderness of our Lenten journeys, we pray for your Holy Spirit to move among us and to guide us along the way. Use whatever means necessary to keep and hold our limited attention, even if it means overturning tables. In Christ name, we pray, amen.

Exodus 20:1-17

20 Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before[a] me.

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 Do not kill.[c]

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

17 Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

John 2:13-22

13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.[a]

18 Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

20 The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

            So in between preparing this sermon throughout the week, I’ve been in several ZOOM conference webinars. The expression in most introductions, here are some housekeeping rules, almost always comes up before we begin. You know the usual: make sure you are on mute, raise your hand to speak to avoid interruptions, make sure your cat filter is turned off. This got me thinking about housekeeping rules, that is, how to act when you enter a person’s space. Coming from Eastern European descent, it has always been ingrained upon me the importance of taking shoes off before coming into someone’s home. My Mom always said, take your shoes off when you enter house, its sign of respect. There are just some things you don’t do in other people’s spaces, like leave muddy shoes on while walking through living rooms.

             Old Testament listing of Ten Commandments might be looked at as a form of housekeeping rules. Promises and ways how we can best relate to God and how we can best relate to our neighbors. Trying to follow the commandments found in Old Testament text are a tangible way humankind can try to uphold our end of the covenant with God.

            The first several commandments are laid out to help us keep right relationship with God and the rest promote ways to be in right relationship with others. These housekeeping rules also say, you must have no other gods before me and remind worshippers that God is a passionate, zealous God. They also remind us God is awesome but an encounter with God is also awe-filled…worshipful. And sometimes as in our New Testament text…fearful.

            Next we turn to John. The story of Jesus unleashing holy havoc in the temple before the Passover is one of the few stories told in all four Gospels.  Placement of the story differs between gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all situate today’s gospel lesson during Holy Week as Christ’s final strike and the action which pushes religious authorities to their wits end. John, however, places Jesus overturning tables towards the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

             In John, tables are turned almost immediately following the miracle and sign at the wedding in Cana of turning simple water into exquisite wine. Some may say, John placed this so close to the beginning of his account to help readers understand how profoundly crucial this event was to Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what he was supposed to do.  But friends, I’ll confess right off the bat, it is a hard text, and a Jesus this angry can be hard to look in the face.

            So what do we know about our gospel text? Today’s scripture reading from John marks the very first Passover Christ spent in his first year of public ministry. Like any Jew, Jesus would have gone to the temple to celebrate Passover before, but this time was different. Maybe this time, Christ had a clearer sense of purpose, of what he embodied, as Christ a new dwelling place of the Lord.

            After all, later in our text, Jesus alludes to his death…saying destroy this temple and in three days it will be raised up. Which clearly confused not only religious authorities but Jesus’ own disciples until after the resurrection.

            Perhaps Jesus had even seen such money changers at temple before. We don’t know…but this time something struck a nerve with Jesus. Something made him pause, take time to make a whip out of cords, flip tables, and drive out animals. Something made him raise holy havoc.

            Why is Jesus SO angry? Is it because exploitation was taking place? Is it because people were profiting materially from faith and people’s desire to be in relationship with God? Is it because unnecessary barriers were being put in place to keep people from worshipping God? Because the temple had become a marketplace? All of the above? After all, all of these things were bad housekeeping….signs of disrespect in his Father’s house.

            Just think about all this happening in the most holy of places.  The noise, smell and dust in the temple’s outer courtyard would be overwhelming.  The temple full of weary travelers needing to exchange shekels for temple coinage – at a cost; trading their own animals often made unclean through the long journey, for certified unblemished animals and birds – at a cost. Buying animals if they’d made the pilgrimage without an animal – at a cost. The money-changers would be paying a percentage to the temple authorities, who would charge for space, taking a cut on the turnover. 

            It is very possible that the prices were inflated – that the system was unjust – that those who could not pay for sacrifices or who had no money for the tax could not worship in the temple. That barriers were put up by those wanting to make a profit off people during Passover to keep the poorest out. But this was, “business as usual.”

            Rev. Debie Thomas observes: “Jesus interrupts “business as usual” for the sake of justice and holiness.  He interrupts worship as usual for the sake of justice and holiness.  His love for God, the temple, and its people compels him to righteous anger.  What would it be like to work, as Jesus does, to preserve and protect all bodies, all holy places, all temples, from every form of irreverence and desecration?  What would it be like to decide that our highest calling as Christians is not to niceness?”

            Friends, when faced with the popular question of ‘what would Jesus do?’ let’s remember that we worship a God who overturned tables if necessary. I’m reminded of the Martin Luther King Jr quote, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Or the “good trouble,” John Lewis spoke about.

            Jesus overthrew tables…sometimes raising a little holy havoc is not always a bad thing and can be productive. Sometimes it is the only way to get people’s attention, or to teach a lesson. In flipping tables Jesus knew the ramifications behind his actions. He knew his actions might tip scales and leave a few if not all religious higher ups reeling.  Christ knew this temple encounter might leave folks with a bad taste in their mouths.

            Friends, to be clear, I think there is a difference between holy havoc angry and just being upset because your spouse doesn’t empty the dishes from the sink or someone cuts you off in traffic. This type of angry displayed by Christ is much deeper.

            There are things that make my blood boil. Communities not having affordable housing for people and families who work hard. The knowledge that so many go to bed hungry in our own community. The sheer number of violent acts and overdoses that threaten to take lives far too soon. The lack of mental health care and the stigma behind such care. Bullies who relentlessly tease and tear down others. The grief from lives and memories lost over the past year.

            There are things that make me furious as I am sure there are things that make you furious. But as we are in the season of Lent, a season to evaluate and do a bit of spiritual spring cleaning, we have to check our own hearts and openly acknowledge a deep need for renewal and clean hearts. We have to not only ask ourselves, what makes our blood boil? What are we zealous for? But also ask ourselves, what we might do that creates barriers between God and our neighbors. As we go through the season of Lent, we have to create room in our journeys for self- reflection and humility. We have to turn our pointer fingers back towards ourselves and do some soul searching and self-examination.

            With this in mind, I also want to pose a question which as a pastor produces a bit more anxiety than sometimes I care to admit…I asked myself this question all week as I sat with our text and ask to you all now….what tables do I sit at that Jesus would overthrow? What tables might Jesus overthrow within our community?

            I can imagine some. I imagine every time we place a barrier in someone’s way of coming to Christ, a table is overturned. Or every time we give a second overly suspicious look when someone who look doesn’t just like us enters our building, another table, overturned. One commentator observes “Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn not only in his own day, but in our society too.” If we think hard there are others. No matter how many times it is prayed, the prayer “Lord, forgive me for the times I desired a seat at a table, you would’ve flipped,” can be a daunting, eye-opening, and humbling pray.

            God may speak in still quiet moments and sometimes in our lives, perhaps more times than we care to admit, Jesus needs to flip some tables to get our attention. Jesus needs to remind us to be barrier breakers not barrier builders. The question for us is are we listening? Are you listening? Amen.

What’s This?

Old Testament Reading: Deuteronomy 18:17-20

17 The Lord said to me: What they’ve said is right. 18 I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will hold accountable anyone who doesn’t listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. 20 However, any prophet who arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.

            As we continue to move through the gospel of Mark, you may notice that the gospel of Mark doesn’t waste any time. Scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the first one written, it is also the shortest gospel. Perhaps you have noticed that the gospel of Mark doesn’t offer any sort of birth narrative. There are no angels to foretell the birth to Mary and Joseph, no manger full of hay in a stable, no heavenly hosts singing “glory the God in the highest!” No, that’s not the gospel writer’s style. Instead the writer just begins by telling us that this is the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. We meet John the Baptist briefly, Jesus is baptized, he calls some disciples and then he gets to work. Our scripture this morning comes from the first chapter in Mark and is an account of Jesus’s first official action in his ministry. And it’s quite a story. There’s a lot to wrestle with in this morning’s scripture, so let’s begin by hearing from Mark 1:21-28.

21 Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. 22 The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. 23 Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”

25 “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” 26 The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

27 Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” 28 Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

                Friends, I want to be up front with you from the beginning. This scripture has been a struggle for me this week. First of all, there’s a lot going on here. It’s the first time Jesus really teaches in Mark’s gospel and he’s teaching in the synagogue. There is so much to unpack in that one little statement in verse 22 that says he taught with authority unlike the scribes. There is the amazement and confusion of those who were listening to him as his fame begins to spread. And then, of course, we have this business with an unclean spirit. Then we can think back to our Old Testament texts speaking of a prophet who speaks with great authority.

             I heard my preacher professor’s voice screaming, “you don’t have to preach everything at once!” But I’ll admit that I wrestled mightily this week with this situation with the unclean spirit along with the question of what we give audience and authority to? Friends, scripture is rarely about making us feeling comfortable. The gospel isn’t about comfort but about wrestling with the Word of God, wrestling with what it means to be in a follower of Christ, wrestling with discomfort and disease. And so, I went to the mat with this man with the unclean spirit.

            Our first inclination in this day and age is to explain what might have “really” been going on with this man. Having all the medical knowledge that we have now we want to add our modern sensibilities into the story. You might hear people say that this man was probably dealing with severe mental illness. Or that he had epilepsy and was having a seizure. The trouble is that when we do that, we do a disservice to the people who deal with mental health issues or disorders like seizures every day. We run the risk of making it seem like their struggle is a moral or spiritual failing, which it is not. Yet we do this because it might make us feel better. It might mean we don’t have to address and figure out what is really meant by a demon or an unclean spirit. But if we don’t address it, we might miss something.

            In his book, Binding the Strong Man, Theologian and New Testament Scholar Ched Myers writes, “Do we demythologize it according to the discourse of modern medical anthropology, so that the exorcism becomes a cure for epilepsy…?” This is the typical modernist approach, preoccupied with concocting rational explanations for actions that appear to transgress natural laws. But it is also historicism at its crudest, and does nothing to address the socio-literary function of miracle stories…. Miracle stories of Mark go to great lengths to discourage the reader from drawing the conclusion from these stories that Jesus is a mere popular magician… Instead, the meaning of the powerful act must be found by viewing it in terms symbolic reproduction of social conflict.”

            So, we have to face these demons head on. To say that we can’t explain this unclean spirit away with modern considerations of medical conditions is not to say that the what of it doesn’t matter. On the contrary, it matters a great deal. Because the truth is that we also face unclean spirits, demons, evil – whatever name they might take on – in the modern world today, they just manifest differently. Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz Weber says, “Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them, and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And those are the lies that Jesus cannot abide.” (from her book Accidental Saints)

            We want to think about evil as something out there, something we try to avoid coming into contact with. We don’t want to admit that perhaps we may be facing some unclean spirits, some demons, some sort of evil that is much closer to home. In order to combat them, we must name them.

            I don’t know if any of you are into horror movies, but if you are you might notice that when the monster isn’t shown, it makes the movie so much scarier. Once the monster in the movie is revealed, it loses a little bit of its cinematic power. And so we, too, must name our monsters. These things include anger, jealousy, greed, arrogance, labeling people as “less than,” and apathy.  This list can go on—you might be able to add other evils as well.  Friends, it’s important to admit that sometimes these things are difficult to even name. We don’t want to talk about it, we would rather ignore it. But not naming unclean spirits, not naming and addressing demons or forces of evil just gives them more power. But the truth is that we live in a broken world, so these things plague us for sure. We have to name them, face them but we cannot let them take over.

            One of the things that is most interesting to me in this scripture is that the man with the unclean spirit sit and listens to Jesus teach. He doesn’t reveal himself right away. The unclean spirit didn’t stand up and make himself known until after Jesus taught. Sometimes these demons in our world can be tricky, they can masquerade as well-meaning and pious so we must be vigilant and not feed into them. And friends, the good news is, we are not facing and wrestling them alone- one who has authority is with us always.

            Consider how Jesus handles this unclean spirit. He doesn’t engage. He doesn’t try to reason with the unclean spirit, he doesn’t try to negotiate, he doesn’t try to hear it out. He simply shuts it down, “be silent and go!” He doesn’t try to justify or explain it. He doesn’t give it power.

            It reminds me of the old Native American story of the elderly man who tells his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is the perfect storm of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?  His grandfather simply replied, “The one that you feed.”

            This story of Jesus in the synagogue is forces us to ask the question, what are feeding? Are we feeding inside ourselves and in the world around us? Are we feeding the unclean spirits of fear and selfishness, jealousy and apathy? Or are we feeding a spirit of kindness, a spirit of love, the spirit of hope, the spirit of compassion? Are we giving authority to Christ or to evil?

            After the unclean spirit is casted out we aren’t told much else about the man the unclean spirit was in.  We do read the crowd is so astounded by what Jesus’ power and actions; they turn to one another and ask, “What is this? Who has this kind of authority?” Friends, who should we give authority to? This scripture requires us to ask hard questions, it can make us uncomfortable.  It compels us to take a look at difficult things. When the unclean spirit tries to engage Christ with heckling and demanding, “What do you have to do with us? Are you here to destroy us?” Jesus doesn’t bother to answer. Jesus, son of God, dismisses this unclean spirit, does not feed it, and does not give it power.

            It’s true that the gospel of Mark doesn’t waste any time. The gospel of Mark gets right into the heart of our lives as followers of Jesus. Friends, living our lives as followers of Christ won’t be easy. It does require us to do some wrestling. It won’t always make us feel comfortable. It will make us confront the things we are not proud of. But what we can be sure of is that it will be holy work, and that it will deepen our faith.

            My hope and prayer is that we will each find blessing and grace as we wrestle with these hard and holy things. Who are we giving authority to? Amen.

Living Baptismal Vows

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God createdthe heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:1-11

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”[a]

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

            I still remember one of my favorite teachers in high school, my creative writing teacher, telling us beginnings are meant to be memorable. Perhaps you may recognize some of these beginnings? “Four score and seven years ago…” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom…it was an age of foolishness.” “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” “Call me Ishmael.” “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?” “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.” “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house.”  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Hopefully you were able to recognize at least one of those memorable beginnings.

            Friends, beginnings matter. Beginnings are telling. Today’s scripture readings are two stories marking beginnings. Our Old Testament text begins the very canon of Biblical literature as we know it and our text from Mark captures the beginning of earliest gospel within the Biblical canon. During this season of Epiphany, we are encourage have epiphanies, to pay particular attention to the ways God reveals more and more of who God is. We are invited to look for and see glimpses of God sightings each day as Dan mentioned last week.

            So what might we learn this week? In Genesis, we have God making order out of chaos and giving boundaries to sweeping waters. We see a God who makes good and wondrous things. In Mark, we see the good news begin in the wilderness of all places. We see God revealed in Christ who is not distant or apart from us but who in radical solidarity steps into the same waters of baptism, who desires an intimately messy relationship with humankind.

            Our beginnings are important as well. Baptism also often marks the beginning of our own faith journeys.  Journeys that are filled with the highs and lows of life, journeys where sometimes we get things right and other times we get things horribly wrong. We are called to remember our baptisms every time we wash our hands or interact with water. We are called to remember God’s claim on our lives, to repent daily and continue to learn.  But what might this look like?

            Baptism and faith are by nature risky. Pastor Debie Thomas observes, To embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the wild truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, one.  Whether we like it or not, the bond God seals by water and by the Spirit is truer and deeper than all others.  It makes a stronger claim on our lives and loyalties than all prior claims of race, gender, tribe, nationality, politics, preference, or affinity.  It asks that we bear all the risks of belonging.  The risk that others might hurt us.  The risk that others will change.  The risk that they will change us.”

            Baptism creates a bond, a common thread, and also declares no group is better than or superior to the other. ALL are equal and beloved by God. Our Book of Common Worship does a good job at listing what baptism is. “Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place. In Christ barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the church and the world in Jesus’ name.”

            Baptism connects us to each other and holds us together in God’s transformative love. Reminds us we are all called to sit at the same table, invite others, and make room for more. Baptism is a bond that binds us as well as individual challenge to repent and turn from evil; it represents God’s call to justice and righteousness and reminds us of God’s immense love.

            So friends, a question we can ask ourselves today is how do we imagine, claim, and express our role as baptized believers? What difference does it make in our lives? What are some ways we can live into our baptisms? Friends, I am not going to pretend I have all the answers about this—or that I have any answers on what happened last week. But these are a few examples of what I’ve come up with.

            We live into our baptisms when we show radical hospitality and love of neighbor. When we buy work shoes for a neighbor in need. When we serve our neighbors at Jubilee Kitchen and partner with other churches in our area to make sure WATTS runs smoothly.

            We live into our baptisms as we do the hard work of being a Matthew 25 congregation: to work towards building congregational vitality, towards dismantling racism, towards eradicating poverty step by step and day by day.

            We live into our baptisms as we strive each day to pray for our enemies, as we hold space and conversation for those who are different from us, but still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we seek and pursue peace.

            We live into our baptisms when we lead by example, when we show our children the world can do better and be better.

            We live into our baptisms when we point to the broken places of our lives and world and look for God’s love among the brokenness. When we point to God’s helpers- to those who offer a hand up, clean up after others, or provide comfort and hope.

            We live into our baptisms when we offer love and support to those who are grieving, those who are lonely, and those who are depressed…when we call, take meals, or send cards.

            We live into our baptisms when we renounce the evil in this world and try our hardest to point to all that is wonderful and good. When we build bridges instead of walls. When renounce our biases and all the “ism” of life. When we renounce times violence wins over peace, when hatred wins over love, and when division wins over unity. When we pick up pieces and work towards a better way of reconciliation.

            We live into our baptisms when we renounce evil in ourselves and others- when we do the hard work of allowing our baptismal vows to open us to transformation and when we work for change.           

            Friends, we were made for more, made to live as God’s beloved children, made for goodness. Our Wednesday morning women’s faith study group recently read “Made for Goodness” by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. If you haven’t read, I highly recommend. I invite you to hear this poem from “Made for Goodness” by Desmond and Mpho Tutu:

“You are my child,

My beloved.

With you I am well pleased.

Stand beside me and see yourself.

Borrow my eyes so you can see perfectly.

When you look with my eyes then you will see

That the wrong you have done and the good left undone,

The words you have said that should not have been spoken,

The words you should have spoken but left unsaid,

The hurts you have caused,

The help you’ve not given

Are not the whole of the story of you.

You are not defined by what you did not achieve.

Your worth is not determined by success.

You were priceless before you drew your first breath,

Beautiful before dress or artifice,

Good at the core.

And now is time for unveiling

The goodness that is hidden behind the fear of failing.

You shut down your impulse to kindness in case it is shunned,

You suck in your smile,

You smother your laughter,

You hold back the hand that would help.

You crush your indignation

When you see people wronged or in pain,

In case all you can do is not enough,

In case you cannot fix the fault,

In case you cannot soothe the searing,

In case you cannot make it right.

What does it matter if you do not make it all right?

What does it matter if your efforts move no mountains?

It matters not at all.

It only matters that you live the truth of you.

It only matters that you push back the veil to let your goodness shine through.

It only matters that you live as I have made you.

It only matters that you are made for me,

Made like me,

Made for goodness.”

            May we remember that in our baptisms we are beloved children of God, may we remember the beginnings of our lives with Christ, and that whether we like it or not, the bond God seals by water and by the Spirit is truer and deeper than all others. Friends, may it be so. Amen.

The Work Of Christmas

Luke 2:22-40

Friends, I invite you to imagine with me, Mary’s story.

            He is 30 now. My son has grown and become quite strong, loving and compassionate. I know I’m probably bias but he has always seemed wise beyond his years. I’m so proud of him. Looking at him now as he goes about his work, it is hard for me to imagine him being so small…and yet I remember dedicating my newborn son to God at the temple like it was only yesterday.

            The nine months of my life before he was born were a whirlwind. You see when my husband Joseph and I were engaged, but not yet married, I found out I was with child.  An angel came to me and told me that I was to have a baby and the baby is to be named Jesus – he would be Immanuel– God with us.  I was surprised and startled by the news.  I learned a bit later Joseph thought of dismissing me quietly – not wanting to disgrace either of us over this change in circumstances.  But then an angel came to him at night and said don’t be afraid to take me as his wife for the child conceived is from the Holy Spirit.       

            We began to prepare for the child’s coming and while we were both stepping into the unknown, we trust God was with us. Our families would be there to help us so we thought. Yet as it turned out we did not have the child surrounded by family.  No, because Emperor Augustus had ordered a census, we had to travel the long journey by foot to Bethlehem where Joseph’s family originated from.  Right at the time of my due date. I trusted God was with us, but I was still fearful about where I might have this child.

            We both, trusted in God, and took this step into the unknown.  Having our child in Bethlehem. Many came to see our newborn child and worship him.  As new exhausted parents it was a lot to take in. A magnificent and wondrous sight.

            After a few days we made yet another journey with Jesus. We took the journey from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem, going with Jesus, who was only eight days old. As I guess is the case with all first time parents, looking back at it, I think we were a bit overwhelmed and sleep deprived. This tiny little person can change things so dramatically!  If any of you who are parents or grandparents perhaps you can understand this. Jesus traveled a lot his first few days and cried just like any other child. Yet it was the custom to bring the first born son to the temple to have him dedicated to God as holy when he is 8 days old and that was what we did.  We were so earnest about doing what is right, doing all that God is expecting of us.

            While in the city, my new little family encountered a variety of peoples. The ones, I think who made the greatest impact were the faithful crowd of older saints in temple. They sat on steps watching and waiting, dreaming and longing to see what God is doing. Their witness matters and like the adoration of the shepherds the night Jesus was born, I carried the witness of these elderly saints and their words in my heart. Anna, a prophet, praised God and talked about how our son would bring redemption.

            One man named Simeon said, “for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” and blessed us. He ended by saying that the child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel – he will be opposed and a sword will also pierce your soul.”  He said this looking right at me. 

            That last part, seemed ominous to me. Not your usual excitement over a new baby or your usual blessing from God.  It seemed to be a foreshadowing.  Simeon seemed to be saying this baby, our baby, is a gift that the world has never seen but it will be a rocky road.  I don’t think this means things like kids getting lost or rebellious teenagers, although Jesus did “runaway” to the temple once. But other things.  Perhaps he is destined to be a leader for his people.  But I believe he is going to shake things up and that some people will not like that and maybe even feel threatened. I think back now to when we had to flee to Egypt to protect him shortly after our visit to the temple. I was so afraid of what can happen when people are divided and don’t listen to one another but are staunch in what they believe to be true – things get polarized and I’m sure you know, that things can get pretty ugly.

            But back to my story of our temple visit when we dedicated Jesus to God. As we left the city, and headed back home to Nazareth, I remember looking down in wonderment at my newborn son and holding him all the more closely. What does it mean that this child would deliver all people? How will this good news of great joy play out? What mission lay before this child, my child, who I held so tightly against me? After embracing him with a kiss, I looked into his full of life and purpose, big, brown eyes and I thought of the words Simeon and Anna said. Of how amazing it is that they’ve waited their entire lives to see my newborn son. How they knew he is here to live an extraordinary life; how his actions will impact people for years to come. 

            Even today I’ll admit I am still perplexed by Jesus. I could have never imagined all my son would do….I can’t fully explain or imagine how he is still affecting lives today. I can only pray that people will come alongside him and continue the work—continue to invite others to follow Him, to participate in His mission. Because the work was just beginning, “To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations- to bring peace among the people.” (from Howard Thurman’s poem The Work of Christmas.) Will you join? Amen.

Mary, the Grinch, and Joy

Luke 1:46-55 : And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

            What songs do you need to sing this season? What song might we still need to learn? After all, this time of year is a time of songs. And while I love. “Rocking around the Christmas Tree,” as much as the next person, the songs I’m most often referring to are the songs or hymns that re-capture the coming of our Savior. The anticipation of Advent.  I love most of them. And while the song, “Mary Did you know?” is delightful, some critics say the song seems to disregard Mary’s song we read earlier.

            After all, Mary knew, “the child which she would deliver, would ultimately deliver her.”

            She knew, “the hungry poor shall weep no more”, AND “that God’s promises were being kept.”

            She knew, and she “pondered all these things in her heart.” She knew the world was about to turn.

            Though I also like to imagine perhaps a grandchild or a young family friend, curled up in Mary’s lap, several decades later, inquisitively questioning if Mary knew Jesus was going to be such a household name when he was born.

            Our scripture text today provides a window into the future; getting people ready for Christ’s earthly ministry throughout the rest of Luke‘s Gospel.  A foreshadow of Jesus’ mission statement, of why Jesus is who he is.  Mary’s joyful song of praise seems to be a preview of the great works of Christ. A song that looks forward to God’s transforming of the world through the promised Messiah. The humble being lifted up; the proud being brought low. God’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled. The song is important and should be one we know and sing; a song that we can remember as we dream and believe as we remember the holiness of this season and as we ponder just how much we need Advent, this year as much as ever.

            You may remember the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, after the Grinch’s heart grew, he still had work to do. One of my friends, The Rev. Emmy R. Kegler, wrote a bit of a parody about the importance of knowing the magnificat in a story called, “How the Grinch Learned the Magnificat”:

All the Whos down in Whoville loved the Magnificat,
but the Grinch, still learning his lesson, did NOT.
“I’m confused,” the Grinch said, “At first it seems sweet
That God looks at the lowly and thinks that they’re neat.

“But Mary says God takes the strength from the strong,
And sends rich away empty, and — well, that seems wrong.
I thought God loved us all, exactly the same.
Choosing some over others sounds like a shame.”

“This isn’t a song we should sing in this season,
This song is confusing and feels without reason.
Life isn’t fair, and I do wish it would be
But now’s not the time to talk about should-be.

“We’ve got to get ready for family and feast!
For singing, and joy, and cooking roast beast!”
Cindy Lou Who, the little Who whom you may remember
Listened so kindly to the Grinch’s grumps through December.

“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking a lot,
“There must be a reason for the Magnificat.
Christmas began with the birth of a child,
And while it sounds cute, the scene was quite wild!

“Rich men called magi, who studied the stars,
Packed up their camels and brought gifts from afar.
Expecting a new king to be born very soon,
They checked at the palace, as one ought to do.

“But he was born in a stable, filled with smelly old sheep!
His parents were homeless, had nowhere to sleep.
His dad was a carpenter — not very wealthy,
And I can’t imagine sleeping in hay is healthy.”

“But still,” the Grinch said, “I thought God was fair.
I thought God viewed each of us with just the same care.
If that’s so, why does God feed some and not others?
Shouldn’t we split it between all sisters and brothers?”

“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking a bit,
“That God’s idea isn’t unfair or unfit.
The rich Whos have money. They’re already eating.
But for those on the edges, there is no more seating.

“If God is ensuring the poor get some too,
God isn’t unfair — God’s thinking it through.
God’s evening out what is unfairly done,
Feeding the hungry and forgetting none.”

“This is called justice,” Cindy Lou Who reminded,
“Making things equal and right for all Whomankind.
Some Whos already have more than they need.
God’s concern is for those who are trampled by greed.

“Justice means when something goes wrong, God will right it.
And to that hard work of change we’re invited.
To fixing what’s broken. To righting old wrongs.
I think that is why we still sing Mary’s great song.”

“But still,” the Grinch said, “it doesn’t seem fair
To take from one person to even the share.
How can I buy gifts if God looks down on money?
Can we cook roast beast if God sends us off hungry?
Once I stole food, but brought it back to you.
Now when I make food, I buy it all new.

If I’m not the one causing any unfairness,
Why am I being charged to have such awareness?”
“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking quite quietly
“God worries how the mighty got so very might-i-ly.

“We’re all loved by God, but not all born the same.
Some Whos get a bonus in life’s complex game.
“I think justice,” said the wise little Cindy Lou Who,
“Is recognizing you’re not just a product of you.

“There are systems in place that we didn’t start,
And some without the tiniest shred of a heart.
The roast beast we eat — were they cared for and fed?
Who stitched the red Santa cap you wear on your head?

 “So I think,” Cindy said, after rubbing her chin,
“The challenge is for us to see the systems we’re in.
We have to ask questions. We have to keep checking.
If Whos do go hungry, it’s time for inspecting.”

“It’s hard to keep learning,” the Grinch grumpily said.
“This information feels like too much for my head.”
“That’s OK,” little Cindy Lou Who let him know.
“You don’t have to change everything by tomorrow.”

“The power of community helps us keep going.
We gather together to share questions and knowing.
By hearing our stories, we change and we grow,
And become a force of God’s love in this world that we know.”

“Hmm,” hmm’d the Grinch, his grinchy face wrinkling.
“This idea of community has got me thinking.”
He thought of how life had been pre-Cindy Lou.
How he grumbled, and grimaced, and hated the Whos.

He thought of how feeling left out made him feel —
Like he would never sit with a friend for a meal.
“I hated Who Christmas because I felt ignored.
I tried to ruin it and even the score.

“When you sang your Who songs, I was angry and rash.
I stole all of your presents, your gifts, all your stash.
I stole all of the food and the Christmas trees too.
I was so very angry, my dear Cindy Lou.

“But I realized the day when you all still sang songs
That Christmas is all about repairing the wrongs.
I wanted to fix all I’d broken and wrecked,
Even if you despised me for the mad thoughts in my head.

“But you didn’t!” the Grinch grinned. “You invited me in.
You gave me a seat, said I was for-giv-en.
The injustice of me being left out was repaired.
You welcomed me even though I’d been unfair.”

The Grinch smiled. “Thank you, little Cindy Lou Who.
It’s hard to accept, but I know what to do.
I’m part of a problem—that’s quite hard to see,
But you know what? I’m stronger than its secrecy.

“Justice is a word I want to keep hearing.
And knowing that fairness is a hope to keep nearing.
When I have been hurt, I want to declare it.
And when I am the hurter, I want to repair it.

“I want to help others. I want to learn lots.
And I want to sing Mary’s Magnificat.
God remembers the promises and seeks out the lost,
God is righting the world, no matter the cost.”

            Friends, this Sunday we light the candle of JOY! During Advent, we reflect on the abiding joy that comes through Christ coming into our world.  This abiding joy may sometimes be hard to find—especially in dark days, but friends, it is there nonetheless. And Mary’s song is still a song that world needs to hear. Friends, we NEED to know God is turning the world around.

We need to know God’s joy and delight.

We need to know God is with us—and God fulfills promises.

We need to know that space can be made for all at God’s table.

We need to know God wipes away all tears and the draw will draw near.

We need to know the fires of God’s justice will burn.  

We need to still be invited and challenged to dream and believe Jesus’ mission is possible.

We need to know, just like the Grinch…that God is righting the world, no matter the cost.

Friends, we need Mary’s song of wonderment and joy, Mary’s Magnificat.

            Friends, let us remember this song and seek God’s abiding joy—a joy that comes when all are invited to the table. When all are welcomed. May it be so—–Amen.

  • “How the Grinch Learned the Magnificat” by The Rev. Emmy R. Kegler (www.gracenempls.org/grinch-magnifcat) slightly adapted to fit this sermon

Joy and Fear

Matthew 25:14-30 (CEB)

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins,[a] and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

            Whenever we turn to scripture, original context is key in guiding our interpretation. Today’s parable is challenging. It is not easy to dot all the I’s and cross all the t’s in one sermon.

            You see, parables are far more complex than that; they are enigmatic and messy. Imagine parables as kaleidoscopes, with two or more reflections shown and holding many meanings. When you are certain what parables mean you have domesticated them into pure allegories or fables. If you remember parables are like kaleidoscopes, you can always remember to approach them with new lenses, and that is okay.

            Theologian Amy-Jill Levine observes in her book: Short Stories by Jesus – the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi. “Parables are Jesus’s way of teaching……they continue to provoke, challenge, and inspire. Jesus’s God is a generous God……the parables help us with their lessons about generosity: sharing joy, providing for others…… His God wants us to be better than we are….those who pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ might want to take some responsibility in the process, and so work in partnership with God.  (the challenge) is an act of listening anew, imagining  what the parables would have sounded like to people who have no idea that he will be proclaimed Son of God by millions, no idea that he will be crucified by Rome. What would they hear a Jewish storyteller telling them? And why, 2000 years later, are these questions not only relevant, but perhaps more pressing than ever?”

            It might also be important to note that leading up to today’s text from Matthew, there is a strong sense of urgency in the gospel writer’s words and call to be watchful. In Matthew’s text this parable is told as part of Matthew 25 discourse or what might be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, part two. The lead up is right before the plot to kill Jesus and the beginning of the passion narrative. The need for investment, attentiveness, and watchfulness from Christ’s followers is strong. The importance of communicating what to do and how to live as followers of Christ is prevalent.

            But truth be told, the third servant haunts me. So friends, I confess this parable is just a hard one. There are two solid ways to preach it, and they contradict each other almost completely. I’ve gone back and forth all week, and am happy to talk to you about what I gleaned in each interpretation if you want a more academic conversation. But that’s not what I’ll preach today.

            Because when I’m that torn, I know what I have to do. I have to go with the feelings, as they are my wheelhouse. And there are two feelings in this text that leap off the page and reach my heart: joy and fear.

            All of us know joy and fear. Jesus’ audience knew joy and fear. We don’t need to understand the cultural differences present in 2000 years of time past to understand joy and fear. These are universal and timeless feelings. 

Joy.

            The first two servants take what they have received from their master and invest it, trade it, and double its worth. The one who had five made five more. The one who had two made two more. These are hyperbolic amounts. One talent was worth 6,000 denarii or 20 years of a day labor’s wages. So 5 talents is 100 years of pay just handed over and 2 talents is 40 years of pay and even 1 talent is a lot, 20 years of pay. 

            It is an extravagant, abundant, and over the top gift—more than one could ever imagine being given. The hyperbole of it hints- this isn’t a literal story, it is a parable—meant to turn things upside down, to provoke, challenge, and inspire, and then just when we think we understand, the parable provokes, challenges, and inspire us again. 

            I don’t think Jesus is actually condoning the kind of investing that would have turned so much money into so much more – because that would have been done on the back of the vulnerable people–the very people Jesus came to live with and minister to. This is still the same Jesus who preached blessed are the poor and the meek, who came to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to liberate the slave and protect the orphan. Jesus is still a poor, migrant preacher–not a wealthy slave master. 

            So what is he trying to teach us? An extravagant, unimaginable amount was given, and from that abundance the servants took risks, ventured out and added to what was as they created something more. And to these two servants, the master replies, “well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Enter into the joy. 

            The invitation to joy is an invitation to recognize the extravagance that has been given to each of us by God and then to respond with joyful lives. It is first and foremost about who God is – a God who gives extravagantly – and then about who we are – those who respond in gratitude and in joy, participating in the growing of God’s kingdom. 

            It isn’t about a future reward, like heaven, but about a current, lived way of being. We enter into the joy, here and now, because of what God has already done and provided. That’s one response to who God is.

            The other, modeled for us by the third servant, from verse 25: I was afraid. Fear, the kind of fear that stops us in our tracks. What was he afraid of? Afraid of not being faithful to the master? Afraid of displeasing the master? Afraid of who he thought he knew the master to be? Afraid of the amount that had been given?  Afraid of what to do with such extravagance? Afraid of losing? 

            It’s hard to say why precisely he was afraid, but we can relate to the fear. We get fear, and we understand, certainly, that when things seem too good to be true, we can become quite afraid. And we know how little we can accomplish when we are afraid. Fear will keep us from risk, fear will paralyze us, fear will make us small, fear will make us lash out against the ones who had our best interests in mind all along. 

            The third servant’s fear seems to be born from a misunderstanding about who the master was. Some call this the parable of the third slave, instead of the parable of the talents. Because the lesson here is really about what we lose when we live in fear. Fear leads us to the weeping, lonesome valley. “For Matthew, the God we face is the one we imagine.” (Douglass.) Perhaps, the servant misunderstood who the master was. He was not a harsh master, but rather a very generous one, who rewards richly.

            So how do we imagine God? God is a God of extravagance, not harshness. God is a God of steadfast love, who chases us down with goodness and mercy and forgives us time and time again. God gives freely. So the question of the parable becomes, how will we respond to the extravagance of God? In joy, or in fear? 

            It reminds me of the words of the Apostle Paul, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson’s The Message, from 2 Corinthians 6: 

Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!

            In response to who God is, we can choose to be small out of fear, or we can choose to be wide-open and expansive in joy. 

            Friends, how often are we motivated by fear? What are we willing to risk for the sake of love, grace, and forgiveness? Are we as a church community willing to take risks to love our neighbors deeply, to live into being a Matthew 25 congregation wholeheartedly? What are you doing with what you are given?

            Today is giving Sunday. Today, we’re invited to respond to who God is, and what God has so extravagantly given us, with the simple, powerful proclamation: I’m in. I’m in, God. I’m in, church. I’m in, neighbor. What will we do with this extravagant, extraordinary, over the top gift we’ve been given? Will we step out in joy, willing to risk it for the sake of love, grace, and forgiveness made known in Jesus Christ, or hold ourselves back in fear? Will we fully try to live our call to love and take care of neighbor in these hard days?

            Will we act with joy, or with fear? For the sake of the Kingdom of God made known–may it be joy. Amen.

Restoration

Genesis 33:1-17 CEB

33 Jacob looked up and saw Esau approaching with four hundred men. Jacob divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two women servants. He put the servants and their children first, Leah and her children after them, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went in front of them and bowed to the ground seven times as he was approaching his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept. Esau looked up and saw the women and children and said, “Who are these with you?”

Jacob said, “The children that God generously gave your servant.” The women servants and their children came forward and bowed down. Then Leah and her servants also came forward and bowed, and afterward Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed.

Esau said, “What’s the meaning of this entire group of animals that I met?”

Jacob said, “To ask for my master’s kindness.”

Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what’s yours.”

10 Jacob said, “No, please, do me the kindness of accepting my gift. Seeing your face is like seeing God’s face, since you’ve accepted me so warmly. 11 Take this present that I’ve brought because God has been generous to me, and I have everything I need.” So Jacob persuaded him, and he took it.

12 Esau said, “Let’s break camp and set out, and I’ll go with you.”

13 But Jacob said to him, “My master knows that the children aren’t strong and that I am responsible for the nursing flocks and cattle. If I push them hard for even one day, all of the flocks will die. 14 My master, go on ahead of your servant, but I’ve got to take it easy, going only as fast as the animals in front of me and the children are able to go, until I meet you in Seir.”

15 Esau said, “Let me leave some of my people with you.”

But Jacob said, “Why should you do this since my master has already been so kind to me?” 16 That day Esau returned on the road to Seir, 17 but Jacob traveled to Succoth. He built a house for himself but made temporary shelters for his animals; therefore, he named the place Succoth.[a]

            Rivalry, especially in my case, sibling rivalry hits a deep nerve. You see, I am grateful to have a little brother and an older sister. Both are my best friends and worst enemies. My sister, Erin, and I are about twenty-two months apart. When my husband first was meeting my family, I warned him Erin was the one to be the most scared of as the protective older sister. She is the Elsa to my Anna, the Ying to my Yang, the one I always wanted to be like when I was in elementary school, the one with whom I shared all my teenage secrets and inside jokes, and the one who I can fight with like no one else. My preaching professor always said, don’t ever make yourself the hero of any story in your sermons, so I cautiously tell this story of one of our biggest fights that I started.

            While I was in seminary, my sister and I shared a one bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh. It was around mid-term time and I was stressed, not at my best. If my sister breathed wrong, I was up for a fight. Maybe you’ve been there with a friend or family member? At this point my sister was between jobs and had her own stressors to deal with. I don’t really remember how it happened, but I started yelling at my sister which devolved into a screaming match and we had just about the worst fight we ever had. It lasted a while and then Erin just stopped talking.  Maybe because Erin knew my words were coming from a place of deep stress, she just stopped me in my tracks, told me to shut up in a way only she can, and said, we are both stressed, let’s just put this behind us and go get Chinese food. The cure for all, a peace offering, and a way to restore a broken relationship.

             Our text in Genesis also delves into sibling rivalries between twin brothers: Jacob and Esau. These brothers have fought bitterly because of one deceiving the other out of his birthright and blessing. Jacob was a trickster, and a master manipulator. Jacob, when cooking one day, meets his brother who is famished. Jacob convinces his brother to sell his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew.  When their father Isaac is close to death and wants to give blessings to his sons. Jacob tricked his father into giving the blessing meant for Esau. Isaac sent Esau out hunting to get meat for his favorite dish. Then Jacob, with his mother’s help, kills two goats for Isaac’s meal, puts on Esau’s clothes, then wears goat skins on his arms and neck to imitate his brother’s hairy appearance. Isaac falls for the trick and blesses Jacob with the blessing intended for Esau.

            We are told, “Esau was furious at Jacob because his father blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘When the period of mourning for the death of my father is over, I will kill my brother.’” After hearing Esau’s plan, Rebekah sends Jacob away to her brother Laban to protect him from Esau’s wrath. Jacob leaves, years pass. He marries Leah, Rachel, and has children.

            Then something stirs in Jacob and he realizes it is time to meet Esau. To do whatever part needed to restore a broken relationship. However, Jacob is terrified Esau is still angry and will retaliate. Jacob divides his family and animals into two camps. Jacob is scared Esau will keep the murderous promise he made when their father passed away. He plans for this, sending gifts of goats, rams, camels, and donkeys.  Jacob thinks, “I may be able to pacify Esau with the gift I’m sending ahead. When I meet him, perhaps he will be kind to me.” He is scared, and prepared for the worst.

            Then comes today’s text. “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Instead of bringing retaliation and violence, Esau offers Jacob forgiveness and mercy. And isn’t that what brotherly love looks like?

            This text invites us to think about the role of restoration in our lives. Have you ever felt cheated? Or hurt by someone? Maybe even someone you love? And maybe, there have been times where you have hurt someone, either with your words or actions. Can you think of a relationship that needs healing or perhaps a memory that hurts to remember?  Those moments can be really hard and I realize not all hurts can be cured quickly with Chinese food. Esau does not forgive Jacob right away. Yet God imagines a world where all of these relationships can be whole and good and restored. The work of restoration is a response of grace. Restoration takes patience.

            In her article, Lessons on Community from Jacob’s Reconciliation with Esau, Julie Rains observes, “God is always working to build community and often intervenes so that we will forgive and be forgiven, and relationships can be restored. No matter how much he repents of his past, Jacob may not be accepted and embraced by his brother. In this situation, though, God has been working in Esau’s life. The previously defeated brother has not become bitter. Perhaps he has also made peace with God for his mistake of so easily trading his inheritance for a bowl of soup. At any rate, Esau gladly welcomes his brother Jacob. The simple lesson here is that I must avoid bitterness (no matter how well deserved), offer forgiveness, and seek reconciliation if I want to live in community.”  This is the type of community we are called in live into as Christians.

            As Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” I belong to my sister and my brother, the people I share DNA with. I belong to my brothers and sisters who I worship with at First Presbyterian Church. And I belong to my brothers and sisters outside these walls, in the community of Winchester and beyond.  And friends, you belong to God’s family too. It is our job to show God’s love and forgiveness to each other. To work towards restoring broken relationships and welcoming our brothers and sisters with a hug and tears because we are just so happy to be together again with the chance to restore what had been broken.

            Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu write in their book, The Book of Forgiving, “When we are uncaring, when we lack compassion, when we are unforgiving, we will always pay the price for it. It is not, however, we alone who suffer. Our whole community suffers, and ultimately our whole world suffers. We are made to exist in a delicate network of interdependence. We are sisters and brothers, whether we like it or not.” We are all connected. May we all have the grace to offer celebration instead of cursing, mercy instead of malice, and forgiveness instead of fighting. May we trust and have patience that God will ultimately bring restoration.

            When might God bring about restoration? Maybe a better question for us to ask ourselves is this one: that is…until God restores all relationships and all of creation, how can we keep our hearts ready to do the hard work of forgiveness without bitterness? How can we continue to do the hard work of sharing God’s love and grace with our neighbors? What relationships do we need to set right, do we need to restore? Rev. Sarah Are, from Sanctified Art, contemplates these questions in her poem, “Pocket-sized moments.” I invite you to hear her words:

“I wonder if we will know when restoration comes.

Will it feel big and dramatic like a summer rain?

Joyful and overwhelming, like an end-of-war parade?

Maybe.

Or will it be small?

Will it be pocket-sized moments, like wishing on stars?

The sun through the curtains, or lightning bugs in the yard?

Maybe.

I don’t know how God will restore this world,

Just like I don’t know how to make the summer rain.

But I do know how to say I’m sorry.

And I do know how to love with all of me.

And I know how to say, “This cup is for you,”

And I know how to taste grace in grape juice.

So on the off-chance that restoration will be small,

Pocket-sized moments of love for all,

I will bake bread and save a seat for you.

I will say I’m sorry and say I love you too.

I will plant gardens and look for fireflies.

I will say prayers on shooting stars at night.

And when the sun shines through my curtain windows,

Remind me to open them wide.

I would hate to miss God’s parade,

These holy ordinary days.”

            Friends, let’s continue to be on the lookout for the big and little moments in life where God offers restoration in relationships. Let’s be open to forgiving our brothers and sisters in Christ and meeting them without animosity but with love as Esau met Jacob with open arms. Let’s be open to little acts of repairing relationships, even if they are as simple as Chinese food. Because we need each other. It is all that easy and all that hard. May it be so, amen.