Living Baptismal Vows

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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.

A Call to Remember

Exodus 16:1-18 CEB

The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Sin desert, which is located between Elim and Sinai. They set out on the fifteenth day of the second month[a] after they had left the land of Egypt. The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction. On the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice as much as they collected on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the Lord’s glorious presence, because your complaints against the Lord have been heard. Who are we? Why blame us?” Moses continued, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning because the Lord heard the complaints you made against him. Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole Israelite community, ‘Come near to the Lord, because he’s heard your complaints.’” 10 As Aaron spoke to the whole Israelite community, they turned to look toward the desert, and just then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared in the cloud.

11 The Lord spoke to Moses, 12 “I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What[b] is it?” They didn’t know what it was.

Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Collect as much of it as each of you can eat, one omer[c] per person. You may collect for the number of people in your household.’” 17 The Israelites did as Moses said, some collecting more, some less. 18 But when they measured it out by the omer, the ones who had collected more had nothing left over, and the ones who had collected less had no shortage. Everyone collected just as much as they could eat.

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

            The word “remember” marks many pages of scripture and the call to remember echoes from many pulpits and the walls of many churches. I was curious to see how many times a variation of the word occurs in scripture and here what I found (these statistics of course vary from translation to translation.) In the Old Testament the word remember occurs roughly one hundred and twenty-five times and occurs about thirty-four times in the New Testament. Both our text from Exodus and Matthew call us to remember.

            In our Exodus text, the Israelites though they had recently escaped the grips of Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt, succumb to bringing forth various litanies of complaints to Moses and Aaron. The crowd even goes so far as to saying, ‘we would have been better off staying with the oppressive Pharaoh in Egypt, at least we had food there. How could you bring us out to the wilderness to die?’ They were well past the point of becoming what you may call a combination of hungry and angry—they were hangry– and in need of a Snickers to reset them. But let’s not be too harsh on them. We know folks are not at their best when they are hungry, angry, or tired- and the Israelites were all three of these things.

             Sometimes we complain just to complain—I know I’ve been guilty of this, and I suspect at one point or another in our lives; we all have been there. It is easier to complain than to regroup and take steps forward. However, sometimes our fears come out of our mouths as complaints. I think this is what is going on with the Israelites. They are in the wilderness, hangry, worried about all the unknowns, and scared for their futures. Can you relate? When fear is driving complaining, people make non-healthy choices. It would have been ridiculous for Israelites to retrace their steps back to Egypt.  

            As a response to complaints, God calls them to remember. To remember God brought them out of Egypt, to remember that no matter what God is with them, in the glorious cloud.  To remember to trust that God will provide as resources are scarce. God provides them with daily quail and manna. God sees their fear and sends bread.

            Theologian Amy Erickson observes, “God acknowledges not only the Israelites’ need for assurance but also God’s desire to shape them as a different kind of people, a different kind of community. In the ritual practice of daily gathering of food that falls from the sky, they learn with their very bodies, to come to trust their God.” Through the daily collections of manna and quail, the people are reminded that they belong to God. The daily gifts of manna not only provide hope in fearful times, but also reminder that God is with them, inviting them to draw closer, trust more, teaching always enough manna for daily needs, always replenishing the supply.

            What has been your daily manna these days? What little nuggets of nourishment and reminders might God be placing in front of you to remind you that in all things—you belong to God? Cards or phone calls from loved ones? Glimpses of green leaves exploding with brilliant colors before our eyes? Warm cups of coffee or tea? These gifts are enough to keep us going another day, our daily bread. All of these “manna’s” remind us of God’s presence.

            This week brings us that incident from Matthew 22, wherein the Pharisees, along with supporters of Herod, try to trap Jesus by asking if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. They once again seek to trap Jesus in his words, but once again Jesus’ answer outsmarts them.

            They know, as does Jesus, that for Jesus to say no puts him in direct opposition to the government, and for him to say yes breaks the hearts of the poor who have no money to pay. He would also anger the Pharisees and the crowds. A conundrum indeed, worse than being at a family dinner table talking politics and religion. So in typical Jesus fashion, he provides a “both-and” answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He not only to responds to a challenge with an even greater challenge, but takes a step further and insists that the relationship between faith and politics is too complex to reduce to platitudes. He looks at the coin given to him and basically takes a step further- Caesar’s face is on the coin so then give back to Caesar, however He also poses a harder question: What belongs to God? What do we owe to God? To be overly blunt- everything belongs to God- we are made in God’s image—but What (or Whose) image is really stamped upon us? This is what makes the difference.

           As I researched for sermon, I came across several questions that keep me up at night. Questions like, what does it mean to give God what belongs to God in these hard and divisive days?  How do we bear forth God’s image while our families, communities, and churches splinter over political and cultural differences that seem unbridgeable?  How do we live into the all-encompassing reign of God while a scorched-earth, ideology-driven, “the end justifies the means” divisiveness reigns within American Christendom? How are we able to interact and play nicely with our brothers and sisters we disagree with around the world?

            To reflect deeply on such thoughts and questions, Debi Thomas goes on to say, “When I read the Gospels, I don’t see a Jesus who cares more about the end than the means. If anything, he privileges the means: the one who calls himself the Way understands that the way we go about achieving our goals — the language we use or abuse, the stories we privilege or silence, the people we protect or oppress, the sins we confess or indulge, the truths we proclaim or deny — these make all the difference in the world. When I look to Jesus to think about how to practice my faith in the political realm, I see no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. I see no permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another person’s suffering, no evidence that truth telling is optional. I see no kingdom that favors the contemptuous over the brokenhearted and no church that thrives for long when it aligns itself with power.”

            In the “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God” remark God always surpasses Caesar. Always. We are called to bear the Imago Dei, the image of God. We won’t always get it right, but we are called to try as everything belongs to God.  One commentator observes, “We are beloved children, able partners in the ongoing work of creation, people who are living daily into our baptismal identity by giving God what is God’s: our lives, ourselves, our energy, our everything.” (Theodore Wardlaw)

            So friends, what are we called to remember this day—-what do we need to remember? We belong to God. And in God we find belonging.

            We belong not to the Caesars of our world, or to the names on our political ballots–we belong to God.

            We belong not to the partisan political claims we make in election seasons–we belong to God.

            We belong not to our possessions and things that keep us comfortable—we belong to God.

            We belong not to the list of demands of our vocations or our seemingly never ending and rapid changing to-do lists—we belong to God.

            We belong not to the charms of our secular world—we belong to God.

            We belong not to our insecurities, grades, or perceived social standings—we belong to God.

            In life and in death,

            In times we shed tears of sadness and tears of joy,

            In financial abundance or financial scarcity—-we belong to God. 

            We belong to a God who hears our joys and complaints—and provides life giving bread.

            A God who journeys through the wilderness alongside us, who sends us daily nudges of care, and supplies us with daily quail and manna, enough to nourish us and lift our spirits.

            May we remember every day, we belong to God. God’s image is stamped on our hearts and the call to live accordingly is a journey.

            May we work towards being bearers of God’s image, and conduct ourselves accordingly. Until we become living sacraments of God’s love, grace, and mercy—of God’s call to ‘go out into the world in peace, to have courage, to love justice, do acts of kindness, even for people we disagree with, and to walk humbly as God’s children.

            Friends, may it be so. Amen.

Precious Beyond Reckoning

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.

36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ 39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?[a] 43 Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.

            Today we are wrapping up the Season of Peace. A season when we are reminded, peace is active not passive, and peace is in doing and not waiting. As we’ve followed the daily devotionals over past four weeks we have examined the ways God calls us to peace within, peace in relationships, peace in community, and holistic peace. And, then today we come to this text that rings of everything that is opposite of peace, we have murder, stealing, greed. All of which go directly against God and God’s creation.

            There are many important points Jesus uses this parable to teach us but today I want to focus how Jesus uses this parable to remind us of two very important things.

            The first is God has immense love and provision for creation. Tenants of creation are invited to enjoy and love creation as well.  In marching band, we always had a saying, “leave it better than you found it,” meaning pick up your own mess, as well as make sure the space is left better than it was when you arrived there. In today’s text, God, the landowner in this parable gets his land in proper order, with all that the tenants could need for producing a fruitful, abundant harvest.  God has trust in them to care for what has been provided. Because what has been created is sufficient the landowner can step away and trust the actions of the tenants.  And all does go well until it comes time for the landowner to receive the part of the harvest that is due to him, and then the tenants don’t want to let it go.

            I once again appreciate Pastor Debie Thomas’ words on this text. She points out: “What the tenants in the story neglect to understand — or very deliberately choose to ignore — is that they are stewards rather than owners of the vineyard.  When the landowner asks for his rightful share of the harvest, the tenants take offense.  As if the vineyard belongs to them, and it is the landowner who is in the wrong for making a claim on the land at all.  Somewhere along the way, the tenants have forgotten their place.  Their vocation.  Their standing in relationship to both the land and the landowner.  To put it bluntly, they have forgotten that they own nothing — nothing at all.  Everything belongs to the landowner.  Theirs is not a vocation of ownership; it is a vocation of caring, tending, safeguarding, cultivating, and protecting — on behalf of another.”

            It’s worth noting here that Jesus does not describe the evildoers in the story as thieves or bandits.  They are not outsiders — they are the landowner’s trusted tenants.  He chose them, and granted them creative license to steward the vineyard for the benefit of all.  How much more tragic, then, when they abuse the landowner’s trust so cruelly. Debie Thomas compares this to how humans mess up when it comes to being stewards for the gift of creation, citing fires, raging hurricanes, and climate change.

            As a Christian, I do believe that the earth will be renewed and restored.  That somehow, God’s coming kingdom will bring healing to all — even to all of creation.

            But I don’t for one minute believe that we — the stewards — are somehow off the hook because the landowner will ultimately reclaim his vineyard.  Our vocation is lifelong, and our relationship to the landowner is eternal.  Unfortunately, reclaiming the vineyard will always meet with opposition from those who have a vested interest in keeping the vineyard broken.  So our calling isn’t even close to over.  When we hoard, exploit, abuse, or ignore the work of God’s hands, we wound and reject God’s heart.

            This week, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, commemorating the life of a 12th century monk who cared deeply about creation.  On Sunday, at 4pm off the Old Town walking mall, we will “Bless the Animals,” recognizing God’s care for the creatures that live among us and the valued companionship these creatures often us. We will confess that we are not always the best tenets or stewards of creation. We may also pray for what the Book of Common Prayer calls, “this fragile earth, our island home.”  This year, perhaps more than ever before, I think many of us will flinch at that adjective.  Fragile. We are reminded of how fragile our Earth is as we watch the west coast engulfed in fire. A pastor friend from California laments reading this text in her context of fire which has destroyed Napa Valley’s grapes.  Friends, so much around us is fragile.  Our time is fragile. Our lives are fragile. People who surround us with community are fragile.  And the very Earth we live on is fragile.

            If nothing else this week, friends, perhaps we just sit with the possibility that we own nothing — not this planet, not our churches, not even our own lives.  All of it is God’s, and all of it is precious beyond reckoning.  But the fact that God trusts us to steward any of it?  Us?  That is pure miracle.

            Which brings us to Jesus’ second point: we can be our own worst enemy. We will talk ourselves out of the best things that are right before us. I can imagine that over the year as the tenants are tending the land, caring for the vineyard, they begin to talk amongst themselves bemoaning all the labor they are pouring into the success of the vineyard, getting themselves all worked up, deciding they will defend themselves and the harvest against anyone who might come and lay claim to the fruits for which they have labored so hard. And, so when the slaves are sent to receive what is rightfully the landowners, they beat, kill, and stone the slaves.  Not only the first set of slaves that come, but the second, and then they become even greedier and as the landowners son approaches they see the chance at receiving not only the harvest they have produced this year, but the sons inheritance, so they kill him.

            Jesus’ point is that the people (the chief priests, the Pharisees, us), God’s chosen tenants of creation, for whom God has prepared a beautiful, abundant, living creation, will destroy it, we will disrupt the peace provided when at all possible, to the point of killing the prophets whom God sends, and to the point of even killing God’s son, Jesus. We try desperately to make creation our own, to reject the stone that is offered us for our foundation.

            What do we do now? How do we ensure we are bearing the fruit? How might we live as faithful stewards?  Will we embrace those in need or shun them? Will we use our privilege to work for greater equity and justice for others or to secure our own future? Will we extend the peace of Christ to our neighbors in need, or quietly turn our backs on beloved children of God? Caring for the kingdom of heaven is not only being good tenants, the kind of tenants who tenaciously and faithfully tend to the call of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Caring for the Kingdom of heaven is being tireless in our resistance in others and in ourselves to leadership which works to undermine the Beatitudes. Tenants who exercise justice, to work for a world where the Beatitudes are not aspirational but actually possible.

            In the same way we do not own Christianity, we do not own the table of peace that is offered to us through Jesus Christ, we are not the landowners, we are not God. Thanks be to God! We are invited to partake in the harvest and join in the good works of God and even in our good works as stewards of God’s creation.

            These days are hard, many days feel like being shaken up in a snow globe with no way out. You’re be challenged by the world and you’re being challenged in worship. So let us not be stirred up and left without hope, let us look to the landowner, let us welcome the son, let us share in the fruit that is God’s creation so that all of God’s creation can flourish. I encourage you to take a moment, in the midst of all that is swirling around you to stand still. To plant your feet firmly on the ground, outside or near a window, at a place where you can take in more than just what is in your possession, and take in the world. Invite God to show you the expansiveness of God, invite God to remind you of the ways God is working in the world and how you can be part of that, tending to the creation which God has entrusted to you.

            God has immense love and provision for us.  Jesus is extending the path of peace to us, today and every day, an internal peace, peace for our relationships, peace for our community and a holistic, all-encompassing peace, all we need to do is come to the table of peace and receive from the harvest.  Amen.

2020: It is Okay to Take Naps

Friends, it has been since February 9!!!! That I last stood before a congregation and not a camera to preach!!! And I’m so excited to preach in person today that I thought I would try an experiment to make our sermon today a little more conversational than usual. I’ve set up a number for you to text during this sermon….and yes, a pastor may NEVER again encourage you to text during a sermon again! Kids are encouraged to share with their parents. J  I’d like us to consider and jot down the following questions to reflect on together and I encourage you to text me your thoughts. 540-225-2973. 1) one thing I learned about relationship with God during 2020. 2) What I learned about Sabbath keeping in 2020 and any thoughts on spiritual growth this year.

Prayer of Illumination: God of rest and naps, we come before you weary and in need of the rest you alone can offer. Remind us to be still. Remind us to rest in your presence. Lord, our rock and redeemer, amen.

Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11 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. Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.

On Sunday, January 5th, 2020, those gathered for worship had the opportunity to draw star words, a word to reflect on throughout the year. Do you remember your word? Friends, when I drew “still”, I thought to myself, alright, well this year I’ll reflect on being still and observing Sabbath. Little did I know how much “stillness” would take place this year—but we will hold onto that thought as we think through the questions together, but first let’s think through what Sabbath is throughout Bible.

The Hebrew word for Sabbath, “Sha-bbat” literally means to cease or to desist. Sabbath, at its core means stop working…to slow down. God reminded Moses and the Israelites the importance of rest and renewal.

Our text also points out Sabbath rest goes all the way back to the very beginning of creation. God reminds Moses and Israel that for six days God worked and created but on the seventh day, God abstained from work and rested. Now, if God needed to rest, why should humankind think they are exempt? The intentional Sabbath rest is for all; male, female, slave, or free, and animals.  Sabbath is intended as a time to refresh and to be renewed by God and not to focus solely on productivity.  It turns focus away from how much we as human beings can do and produce and turns our focus towards our dependence on God. Even in the time of Exodus, Sabbath rest was counter cultural.  Sabbath is also a sign of the continuing covenant between God and humankind. It is part of the Mosaic Covenant, and a sign between God and God’s people after the giving of the Ten Commandments. 

Throughout various places in the Bible, Sabbath is mentioned, maintained, and set aside as holy.  In 2 Kings, Sabbath is marked by visits to the temple to hear prophets and teachers speak about God. In Nehemiah, Nehemiah locks Jerusalem’s city gates to stop trade and allow the Sabbath to be a time of rest and a time of worship.  The Sabbath day is holy day, a day set apart from other days.  Followers of God are reminded to observe the Sabbath because God is holy, and Sabbath is a special day set aside for God- a time to give thanks and worship God. Saturday was a holy day.  Sabbath, for Christians occurred on Saturday point until the point of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday; Saturday still remains Sabbath for our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Sabbath rest is also a gift given by God. Unlike the oppressive Pharaoh who forced the Israelites slave away and toil every day in work, God gives the Israelites the task of building the tabernacle but also reminds the Israelites about the importance of and mandate of Sabbath rest. Even in the days of Exodus, Israelites needed rest from the world as a place of endless productivity, ambition, and anxiety.

There are also many examples of Jesus in the New Testament speaking out against the legalistic nature of Pharisees enforcing Sabbath for all the wrong reasons. The Pharisees were too caught up in the law and their own righteousness in keeping Sabbath, they missed the point of focusing on God’s great work.  If keeping Sabbath becomes work then it is not true Sabbath. Jesus attends worship at synagogues on the Sabbath, but Jesus also heals on the Sabbath.  In Luke, before healing a man with a shriveled hand, Jesus says, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to destroy it?” Sabbath is God’s gift for God’s people but God in Christ is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus shows us even though the Sabbath is a day to rest, be renewed, and worship; Sabbath is not an excuse to ignore the needs of those around us.  We should continue to share the love of Christ with them.

What does Sabbath mean in the trying and busy days of 2020? According to the National Gallup’s survey of work and education, the average American work week is about forty-seven hours.  Approximately half the participants of the survey said they work more than the traditional forty hours a week and four in ten people work at least fifty hours a week chasing after the American dream (and this was also pre-Covid BEFORE the lines of home and work became more blurred.)

Sometimes our lives just feel frantic and we become like hamsters running persistently on a hamster wheel, unable to get off the wheel.  We become bombarded with busyness, with technology, with a world filled with noise. Our to-do lists can become our only sense of identities. We can focus too much on what we “do” and not enough on who we are called to be in Christ.  We can also focus too much on ourselves, our own goals, and to-do lists and in our busyness forget all about God, who created and sustains us in spite of our busyness. One positive that came from the weirdness of 2020, has been recognizing just how much we need God. As I’ve talked to many people, the great pause button of 2020, has at the very least allowed more time to be still and to be in a closer and more regular relationship with God. 

In many ways, the life giving rest of the Sabbath is still counter cultural in our society. In the preface of his book, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now,” Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann presents Sabbath as both resistance and an alternative.  He writes: “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, and pervasive presence of outside noise. The alternative (of Sabbath) is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” Sabbath calls us to resist glorifying busyness and ourselves and as an alternative “glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

Sabbath challenges us and calls us to resist relying solely on ourselves and our accomplishments and turns us back to God. It reminds us we are not holy, but God is holy. One way we have Sabbath in a busy world is to be intentional about worshiping God and even this has looked and felt different this year. Earlier this year, we missed communal gatherings as worship took place around breakfast tables, living rooms, or outside on our porches. We’ve all had to adapt our worship. For me, worship became more along the lines of taking a long walk with my dog on Sundays and spending time in prayer…but friends, I have missed you! Regardless of how worship may be altered from what we are all use to, God is with us in our worship. God is with us now in our parking lot…encouraging us to take a deep collective breathe and be still. To look for and listen for ways God is already at work in our midst and encouraging us to get in on what God is already doing in our neighborhoods.

Busyness and noises of the world can be overwhelming, especially when we want to be productive, and we want to be known.  But in the midst of our busyness and in the midst of our work and activities, God often tries whispering to us to be still. In our culture, it is hard to be still, it is hard to listen. One think I’ve been doing to sustain sanity during 2020 has been chatting with pastor friends every Thursday. A few Thursdays ago, we did an exercise that I’d like us all to try. Invite you to close your eyes and imagine a place you feel most at peace. Once you are there, imagine God is in that space with you. What do you talk about? What do you do? I know for me, I feel most at peace sitting on the beach at sunrise so my image is sitting on the beach’s lifeguard stand watching sunrise and chatting with God. What concerns or joys do you chat about with God? What does it feel like to just be your unique self in God’s presence? Go to this place, daily, several times a day and rest in God’s presence for a few minutes. Observing Sabbath and going to this place reminds us that we are not only what it says on our resumes, or the grades we receive in school; Sabbath reminds us we are known, called, claimed, and loved by God. God, who calls us into relationship with Him also calls us into embracing a Sabbath.

But friends, I would like to share some of your thoughts now. 1) one thing I learned about relationship with God during 2020. 2) What I learned about Sabbath keeping in 2020 and any thoughts on spiritual growth this year. (Read responses)

As we continue this odd time of being church, let’s remember that God is always with us. No matter where we are, calling for us to sit and rest. Remember even in the craziness of 2020, to, “Be still and know the Lord is our God.” Amen.

We Need to Talk

Matthew 18:15-20 CEB

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16 But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.[a] 17 But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18 I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19 Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

          I had just walked through the door of my college apartment that I shared with three other friends and as I dropped my backpack filled with heavy English major books, I was greeted by my roommate with the four words that induce anxiety spills everywhere, “we need to talk”, she stated with a look of discontent. Her tone and body language screamed that I had done something to hurt her. Since we were such good friends, my shoulders tensed up and my heart jumped in my chest as we sat down. It turns out that what I had viewed as an off-handed comment really hurt her feelings. Her words were hard for me to hear—but I knew reconciliation needed to happen to repair a broken relationship.

            With these four words, tone along with facial expressions also play an important role, as I tested with my quarantine buddy, my husband Josh. There’s a difference between we need to talk with a smile on face and we need to talk with a blank expression and slightly harsher tone. How does your body and mind respond when you hear the words, ‘we need to talk?’ Perhaps you enter the conversation with an extra sense of anxiety and are leery of your word choices. Perhaps you respond by tensing up, shutting down, or with heightened sense of worry or apprehension. Perhaps you think, ‘ugh—what did I do wrong now?’ What person’s words and tone usually convey in that sentence is, “something is broken between us and we need to sort it out.” A relationship is in need of tending and repair and reconciliation needs to take place.

            So as followers of Christ, how are we charged to address conflict? Not just as individuals but in our unique Christian community of First Presbyterian Church in Winchester in this odd year of 2020? Today’s scripture looks closely at such questions.

            I don’t know many people who enjoy conflict. I do know a lot of people who would much rather avoid conflict, sweep it under a rug, disengage and long to put their heads in the sand. Even people I know who face conflict quickly and head-on refer to this technique as ripping off the band aid, which if you’ve ever ripped off a band aid, still isn’t pleasant experience. When we become stuck in conflict, it is like we are stuck in a canoe with two paddlers trying to paddle in different directions, we aren’t going anywhere. This a reality that Jesus is speaking into in today’s text from Matthew. Jesus is realistic when it comes to two hard truths; one, people sin and two, communities and yes, even churches are made up of these sinning people. Jesus starts with the baseline assumption that conflict within the beloved community is normal and natural.

            Despite not enjoying conflict, it is unavoidable, and Christian communities are not immune to brokenness. Friends, I have been in Christian communities who were horrendously inept at facing the crucial, ‘we need to talk’ situations. In these places, we were spectacular at gossiping about the conflict or at shoving it under the rug. Or wonderful at passive-aggressive actions which only intensify the problem. Friends, my guess is these types of brokenness are prevalent in numerous churches. The question therefore for the church is not whether we will wound each other by our words and actions but how we need to proceed when we do wound each other.

            Thankfully, we worship a God who provides a blue print in Matthew’s text of how to react in such situations and the principles of mutual love and respect that should undergird such, ‘we need to talk,’ moments.

            As hard as it was when my roommate confronted me, I knew I needed to listen, to make space for listening for where I messed up and to be open to how I offended in order to begin to repair the relationship.  Friends, good active listening is hard. Four times in just the first three verses of today’s text, Jesus makes reference to listening or refusing to listen. The repetition suggests that the call to hear one another, to truly listen closely to another’s truth, is a vital component of a community grounded in the ways of Jesus.

            I greatly appreciate how pastor and blogger Debi Thomas reads our text from Matthew. She sums up the several principles laid out and that are needed to follow Christ’s words and keep beloved community in today’s passage.

            The first principal is choose depth. “If another member of church sins against you, go and engage them in honest conversation.” When we experience conflict, we need to go deep and name it. We should not put on a smile and act like everything is okay when conflict is festering like a wound in our midst. We should strive for authenticity and not allow the severed relationship be lost and work towards genuine healing and not just fake harmony. However, often times, we like to think of ourselves as the reconciler but the door goes both ways. We should also ask ourselves if we are willing to listen to those we have offended. Can we stop shielding ourselves behind our ‘good intentions’ and think about the impact of our actions on others? Do we long for and care about reconciliation, justice, repentance, and restoration as much as Christ?

            The second is preserve dignity. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” In this call for kindness and discretion, Jesus stresses the importance of protecting dignity of the other as well as keeping conversation just between the two of you. He doesn’t say use the conflict as a chance to spread gossip or to drag them through the mud. He doesn’t say use the conflict as ammunition to try to divide the wider community. The goal of the conversation should be to do whatever possible to affirm and uphold the humanity of the person you are confronting.

            The third is guard the truth and lean into the body. If the person is not willing to listen, Jesus suggests taking one or two others with you to confront the person. Not to gang up on the wrongdoer but to make sure both sides are heard. If we are feeling hurt, it can be easy to exaggerate what really happened. When we hurt another, it can be easy to deflect, minimize what actually happened in order to build our defense. Jesus tells one more time that if the person still isn’t willing to listen, tell the church…as the entire health of the body might be a stake.

            The fourth is to lament the brokenness. If attempts to reconcile are met with failure, it is okay to grieve, to mourn, and to be broken hearted, for we have undergone a loss to community.

            And the last and perhaps most important is to practice hospitality. “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.” At first read, this statement may seem harsh but consider this…the text does not say shun or cast them aside. Imagine how Jesus treats tax collectors and Gentiles. He eats with Zacchaeus, speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, and heals the Roman centurion’s servant. Christ meets those deemed as outsiders with love, care, hope, healing, and compassion. We are also called to love this former offenders authentically. To extend compassion. To hold open the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. To never write people off because of conflict.

            Matthew’s text lays out steps to be taken when working towards establishing this beloved community. It would be difficult to read this text during these odd times of 2020 and not take comfort in Christ’s promise to abide in the midst of believers. The promise of when two…and I believe this could be you and God….or more are gathered….Christ abides with you. This is what is desired. Community. Interconnectedness. A beloved community to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God and one another.

            Friends, what are you willing to risk for the sake of having community? Theologian David Lose observes, “Authentic community is hard to come by. It’s work. But it’s worth it. Because when you find it, it’s like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; that is, it’s like experiencing the reality of God’s communal fellowship and existence in your midst. And, as Jesus promises, when you gather in this way — with honesty and integrity, even when it’s hard amazing things can happen because Jesus is with you, right there, in your very midst, forming and being formed by your communal sharing.”

            How powerfully such a text speaks to this moment we find ourselves in. In times we may feel so divided, so deeply entrenched in our own perspectives. As Debie Thomas says, “we can barely even hear each other anymore…..what would it be like to live into the high calling of beloved community, here, now, in this profoundly troubled moment of conflict and division? What would it be like for all the world to know that we are Christians- not by our rightness, but by our love?”  So friends, I invite us all to ask ourselves, am I prepared to talk? Am I ready to listen? Amen.

Unexpected Joy!

Sarah Laughed

The following situations all have an under-lying factor holding them all together:

Hearing an infant’s deep belly giggles. Having the privilege to teach children and seeing kids connect to God while watching church. Drive-by birthday parties and baby showers. New four-legged family members. Playing in rain puddles with kids. Slowing down and having long talks with family. Having someone send a text or call for a phone conversation out of the blue, just asking how everything is going. Watching rainbows after storms or sunrises and sunsets. Seeing a pod of dolphins jump up in ocean. Watching creativity happen out of necessity and people coming together to help neighbors and raise money for those affected by COVID.

Today our scripture text challenges us to be on the lookout for the gift of unexpected joy. The deep, abiding joy of God that lifts our spirits and propels us with strength in these odd days we find ourselves in. Joy that lives down in our hearts to stay, even when we can’t always see it; this joy that is not necessarily based on circumstances. The situations I just mentioned came from several of my Facebook friends when I asked them the same question I want to pose to y’all now: How have you experienced unexpected joy over the past several months? I invite you to ponder this question as we turn to today’s scripture reading.

Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 Common English Bible

18 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”

They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”

So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three measures of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.

They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”

And he said, “Right here in the tent.”

10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”

Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.

13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ 14 Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.

But he said, “No, you laughed.

21 The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac.[a] Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.”[b] She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old!”

“Your descendants shall be as numerous as the stairs,” Abraham was told. Yet decades had passed and no children had come their way.  And, to rub salt in the wound, God had already changed both of their names in ironic ways, and names mean everything in Ancient Near Eastern culture. The husband had been called Abram, which means father.  He was now called Abraham, which means father of many.  The wife had been called Sarai, which means princess.  She was now called Sarah, which means mother.

In today’s text, Sarah overhears what is to come. She will at long last give birth to a child. When she hears such news, she laughs. Now, I imagine this particular laugh to be a more laughter of disbelief. An: ‘oh really?’ laugh, if you would. As if to remind God of context: ‘oh really?? God? Do you not remember how old I am? Is this some kind of a joke?’ In all fairness to Sarah, though, can you blame her? She had become accustomed to the idea of never having children of her own. She had become use to promises just beyond her grasp. And how many 90 year olds do you hear about having children?

Yet the Lord responds to Sarah’s laughter of ‘oh really, God?’ by posing a question. “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The Hebrew word, pala, used in this translation as difficult, can also be translated, wonderful, extraordinary, marvelous, or impossible. And a couple having children when mother is in 90’s would be all of the above—marvelous, impossible, and extraordinary. What wonderful news the Lord shares with Sarah. An unraveling of disbelief is promised, along with an heir, the promised child of Abraham and Sarah, the one they’ve waited so long for.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann describes this unraveling. He observes:

“Once again, this story shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness is ‘normal.’ The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness…. Beyond the etymological explanations which link Isaac to ‘laugh,’ beyond doubtful embarrassment, Sarah laughs because, ‘God has made laughter for me.’ By God’s powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness. The joyous laughter is the end of sorrow and weeping. Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. The newness is sheer gift-underived, unwarranted. Barrenness has now become ludicrous. It can now be laughed at because there is ‘full joy.’”

Sarah laughed because just when she thought her life had become unraveled to the point of no return, God knit her back together in a way that she could never have foreseen. The long awaited promised child would be born!

Fast forward approximately nine months later and I imagine Sarah’s laughter takes a completely different tone. While Sarah first ‘oh really God?’ laughter was in disbelief, now I imagine she belly laughs joyfully watching her son do just about anything. Isaac’s name is also significant as it means, “laughter.” Sarah is over the moon. I imagine she laughs when Isaac first smiled and took used his tiny fingers to reach for her hand for the first time.  “God has brought laughter for me, everyone who hears will laugh with me.” She says. Laughter and joy can spread like fire.

So what might this promise of unexpected joy mean for us today? Friends, it can be so easy to look around and see all that is wrong and broken around us. So where might God be surprising us today during these odd days? While it can be challenging to experience unexpected joy during times such as these, it is important to try. Even the little things matters.  Laughter, love, and joy are all constructive and connecting. All things that multiply when shared. These days when hope might be hard to find, when we are overwhelmed by the degree to which our world is so different from God’s intention for creation, where might we be surprised? Where and how can we create space for laughter, love, and joy? Is anything too wonderful for God?

Laughter is our natural response when we find ourselves with unexpected joy and surprise. The saying that laughter is the best medicine holds a lot of truth. Laughing releases endorphins, increases blood flow and oxygen and reduces blood pressure, it relaxes the body and reduces pain and tension. Laughter and joy are God given antidotes to the heaviness of the world.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when someone who has experienced trauma finds joy again.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when two friends are finally able to have a safe and distanced visit after months of quarantine.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter of baptism which reminds us we are loved and claimed by God over and over again.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when churches come together in creative ways during the season of COVID. When church members gather to write letters to one another, or to collect school supplies and donations for the Laurel Center. When we look beyond our walls and out into ways we can help our community through the struggle of this year.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when we discover that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.

May we all be surprised by laughter, joy, and love, and may we carry that gift of surprise into our community. May the gift of God’s joy and laughter sustain us for the days ahead and the work to which we are called. May we trust in the promises of a faithful God who continues to work in surprise and delight! May we be seekers of deep, belly laughs. And may God’s love swell up inside us and bubble over as laughter which can be shared with others. So laugh, my friends.  Laugh in such a way described in of one of my favorite songs from Mary Poppins, I love to Laugh: “loud, and strong, and clear.” May it be so, amen.