Stumped in the Vineyard

Sermon by Laura, 11.17.19 Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

What’s your favorite broken-hearted break-up song,  Or just the first one that comes to mind? (take a few suggestions). 

When I crowd-sourced this question on Facebook, I was amazed to realize just how many textures and flavors of break-up songs and heartbreak pain artists have tried to express: from “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt, to “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan; from “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor to “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers. There’s the I’m-leaving-you songs and the I’m-being-left songs. There’s the wistful goodbye, the angry goodbye, the power-anthem goodbye, and the humorous I-won’t admit-it-hurts goodbye. 

What they seem to have in common is that they all narrate a decisive moment. Each relationship began with high hopes of love or friendship, some form of the intimacy humans long for. But those hopes have not come to fruition. 

As the relationship ends, each song sings out whatever feelings need to be expressed so that the ground can be cleared. And each song leaves us wondering, what new life could possibly emerge in this landscape of loss? 

This question also lingers at the conclusion of Isaiah 5’s Love Song of the Vineyard, which is a strange sort of break-up song.  I agree with Beth Moore, who says that she hears it in “pure country.” She writes, 

“..a country-western song can start you out at a family picnic eating buttermilk fried chicken and watermelon on your great-grandmother’s quilt, with butterflies flitting about, and before it ends, your daddy’s gone to prison, your momma’s run off with the preacher, and your little brother’s blowing butterflies to dust with a BB gun.”[i]

That’s just the sort of turn the story takes in the Song of the Vineyard, which begins well enough. We hear all the detailed ways the prophet’s beloved friend has given meticulous care for the vineyard, clearing the land, digging out stones, planting the best vines, setting in place the tower and vat where the harvested grapes would be made into wine. But abruptly, the song twists, dashing any hopes for a fine vintage to be shared in communal joy. In spite of all the care lavished on it, the vineyard yields only “wild grapes;” a better translation of the Hebrew might be “rotten grapes.” 

Then we are confronted with a question: “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:3).

Can you hear the plaintive cry of this question?  What more could I have done? How many of us, suffering heartbreak in our lives, ask ourselves the same question? 

But this question not only voices heartbreak; it also draws its hearers into a trap,much like the prophet Nathan does after King David’s affair with Bathsheba. Nathan tells David the story of a rich man who abused his power to steal from a poor man. And when David rushes to judge, “The man who did this must die!” Nathan replies, “You are the man!” 

You are the vineyard!” sums up Isaiah’s message, trapping the people in their own judgment. Of course, they would say that a vineyard yielding rotten grapes should be given back to nature, its hedges and walls torn down so that wild beasts can roam and brambles take root. A diseased garden must be plowed under, and the land remain fallow for a time, until healthy new growth can take root. The destruction and fallow time are natural consequences of the vineyard’s failure to bear good fruit. 

But once their judgment is made, God’s people discover the bereft lover of the vineyard is God, and they themselves were God’s “pleasant planting.” But instead of the fine vintage of justice and righteousness, they have yielded the stinking spoils of violence and oppression, and the consequences of judgment are coming due.  

In a nutshell, this is the prophet Isaiah’s message throughout the first 39 chapters of the book. It is a message of judgment, naming Israel’s rebellion from right relationship with God, other people, and God’s land. This rebellion is most evident in the oppression of the poorest people, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. There will be consequences. 

This is an uncomfortable message. Judgment always is, whether it’s two lovers recognizing the end of a relationship and experiencing the fallout of breakup, or a whole nation, descending into chaos when their leaders have led them into acts of oppression and violence. 

So I’m tempted to jump quickly to Isaiah 11, where, after pronouncing judgment, the prophet offers hope, “comforting the afflicted” as well as “afflicting the comfortable.” 

But before we zip forward through the centuries to remember how God brings new life out of death, let’s stay present a few more moments in the aftermath of judgment, in the wasteland of brambles and stumps. For here we can learn an unexpected grace: The grace of the fallow lands, the conditions for new life encountered at rock bottom.

Now, I don’t use the word “grace” lightly here. When the catastrophe Isaiah predicted took place, and the empires of Assyria and Babylon conquered the land, thousands of people were killed, some were taken captive, and others were left in starvation and poverty. Some have called this catastrophe the first holocaust. The pain and suffering in Israel’s story are real and profound. 

And yet. And yet

The people who came after Isaiah recognized his words as true prophecy, as his words helped them find meaning in senseless destruction. Isaiah saw God’s judgment as a form of grace, righting the course of the people from the corruption which had rooted so deep in the landscape of their nation.  

Eugene Peterson writes that the prophets “…worked to get people to accept the worst as God’s judgment—not a religious catastrophe or a political disaster, but judgment. If what seems like the worst turns out to be God’s judgment, it can be embraced, not denied or avoided, for God is good and intends our salvation.”   

Judgment is how God sets things right, when the disease is diagnosed, the reality of rupture is seen with clear eyes, and decisive action to face the consequences can now be taken.

Now, in the popular imagination, I think we often picture God in judgment as a lofty being watching everything we do with a disapproving frown and his hand on the Smite Button. But let’s be clear: It is not Isaiah’s vision. It’s  more the image of Zeus than it is God in Jesus Christ.  

Let’s not forget, from start to finish, this is a love song! From start to finish, God desires our blessing and wholeness. That’s why God created us with free will, the means by which judgment comes for us as God allows the natural consequences of our freely willed choices to play out. 

That said, I must note that in Isaiah’s world and in ours, humanity’s collective choices create systems and cultures. And when together we create cultures of violence and oppression, the consequences may fall on the wicked, but all too often, the innocent and vulnerable suffer most. It breaks our hearts; I believe it breaks God’s heart most of all. 

What more could I have done? God asks in Isaiah’s song.  I hear in those words a tone which is kin to Jesus’ lament from the cross:“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His words are the cry of all innocent people who suffer the consequences of sin, even as they are the cry of the God who suffers our wrong with us and for us,  then and always. 

My friends, in our lives, we all experience the ground-scoured landscapes of heartbreak and loss. We all go through our seasons of dashed hopes and lost love. Whether it’s a divorce, a job loss, a devastating diagnosis, or the death of our dearest ones,  there will be times when it seems like our lives have become a landscape of chaos and despair. 

So, what are we to do in these fallow lands? 

We might take some direction from Twelve-Step recovery process, written down by people who knew a thing or two about “rock bottom.” The first step we take in the fallow lands is recognize and accept how unmanageable life has become. From there, we can remember that we are reliant on God’s care and provision for life itself; so only God can save us!  We make the decision to return ourselves into God’s hands, and with a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” we ask God to remove our shortcomings and restore us. 

Second, in the fallow lands, we look around and see who is there with us.  Just as good heartbreak song lessens our pain as it reassures us that we are not alone,   we take heart from those have gone before us, who have survived the fallow lands and met a new life on the other side. And we sing our own heartbreak songs, expressing the pain and clearing the ground, holding onto hope and holding out for the new future God is already bringing to life.

Isaiah picture this future in chapter 11, a tendril of hope to hold onto, a wisp of green amidst the charred stumps of devastation: Hear it now: (read Isaiah 11:1-5). 

We often hear this scripture during Advent, the tender hope of a righteous leader, a hope we believe God fulfills in Jesus the Christ. So I wonder, when did a painful upheaval in your life ultimately result in new and righteous fruit?

My family has a few stories, which they have given me permission to share:  

My mother tells how the seven difficult years in which she gave care to her father after his stroke bore the fruit of reconciliation and new friendship with the two sisters she’d got along with least in her childhood. They are now each other’s closest support. 

My sister Beth tells how our father’s death was the catalyst which finally motivated her to act on her dreams of teaching overseas, revealing to her how short life really is. 

And my sister Julie now tells how the injuries she suffered when her car was rear-ended by a semi cleared the ground this past summer to bear unexpected fruit. As her whole family slowed down to care for her, they experienced a time-out from their normally hectic lives in which intimate, quality time deepened their love for each other. 

You, too, have a story of how God brought a new shoot from a barren stump in your life. I challenge you to remember this story. Name the heartbreak even as you name its unexpected fruit. 

And let us, God’s people in the church, hold fast to hope even in the landscapes of heartbreak and despair. Let us listen, there, for God’s song of grace, still and always singing new life from the places of death, a love song, start to finish, which never ends. Amen.   

Benediction: The following poem comes from one of the darkest periods of recent history. It was written by anonymous prisoner at Ravensbruck, found beside the body of a dead child.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women

of good will, but also those of ill will. 

But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;

Remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to

This suffering–our comradeship

Our loyalty, our humility, our courage, 

Our generosity, the greatness of heart 

Which has grown out of all this, and when

They come to judgment, let all the fruits

which we have borne be their forgiveness.


[i] Beth Moore, Chasing Vines, p. 62.

Deeper Love Than We Can Imagine

Sermon by Keith, 11.10.19 Mark 10:13-14, Hosea 11:1-9

Either to their joy or consternation (I won’t know for sure which until after we get their bill for therapy) we have referenced our children in our sermons over the years.  I think there was a disclaimer in the delivery room when they were born that said, “Welcome to the world, PK! Everything that you say and do from this moment on may be used as a sermon illustration.” 

Which in some ways makes perfect sense. You are bound to see all aspects of the human condition–the good, the bad, and the ugly–come out in such close knit relationships, including between a husband and wife, parent and child, and between siblings.  I can say that for the most part, what I have seen and experienced with them has been so joy-filled that when they say or do something that speaks to a scripture text I’m working on, I want to share it with you.

But yes, we have an almost teenager in the house.  Things are changing. The dynamic of the relationship is changing. And that probably means you will also hear some different type of sermon illustrations. But no matter what the dynamic of the relationship I’m having with Lucas or Ben, or even with Laura for that matter, the constant will always be love.

And that is the point about God love that the prophet Hosea is trying to make.  Now if you think that we use stories from our familial relationships in our sermons, especially of our kids, Hosea takes it to the next level.  Early in his prophetic writing, his children become living sermons and the deep messages tied to their names are then used to teach us deeper lessons about God and God’s people. 

In Hosea, you find the prophet marrying a prostitute and having children. And their names become important messages. His first son he names Jezreel to talk about the death, destruction, and murder that took place in the city of Jezreel.  His next child he names Lo-ruhamah, which means “not shown pity” as the people feel that the love of God has left them. And the last child, a boy is given the glorious name of Lo-ammi, “Not my people” because of the separation and rejection God felt because of his people.  Just think of what their playground experience had to be with names like that!

But Hosea, through poetic prophecy about these close familial relationships, teaches us that these names are not looking at the relationships from God’s perspective, but from our perspective.  I feel like God has left me, I feel like I am no longer part of God’s people. These names are about Israel’s unfaithfulness, not God’s undying faithfulness.

The names change, or at least the understanding of the names change.  The living sermon changes to a message of despair to a message of grace. Trouble to grace. Jezreel’s name doesn’t change, but instead of being a reference to a place of destruction, it changes to the literal meaning of that name, “God’s sows.”  God will sow God’s own self in the land so that no one will miss his bountiful love and presence. Lo-ruhamah becomes Ruhamah, because the people will come to know God’s love and grace. And finally, Lo-ammi’s name is transformed to Ammi, because God’s claim on the people as his people has not been changed, but only reaffirmed and strengthened.

Outside of talking about the psychological damage this may do to his kids, this name game makes us ask the question of why would Hosea do this, make his children into living sermons?  As we continue to read Hosea, I think we see why this is important for this prophet. Even in their rebellion and waywardness, Hosea wants to stress that the living God of Israel and Judah loves his people, loves us, more deeply than humanly love can be explained or expressed.  But the closest he can come is relating it to the love of a parent who has loved relentlessly and fiercely a child who kept running away from his or her parent’s love. Hosea gets personal with the names of his children because he wants to stress that we have a relational, personal God.

And I love how Hosea shows that love in chapter 11, a piece of scripture that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says is “among the most remarkable oracles in the entire prophetic literature.” And biblical scholar , HD Beedy said, “In Hosea 11 we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”  What Hosea has us do is pull ourselves up the kitchen table with God and a hot cup of coffee and go through the family photo album.  

How many of you have a family photo album? They are fun to look at.  Pictures of either when you were a child or pictures of your children.  Maybe there are pictures of you in your highchair with spaghetti all over the place.  Or a picture of your daughter playing with dolls. Your son on his first bike. The vacations and family gatherings.  The birthdays and holidays. Now think about what might be in God’s photo album. For the people of Israel, there had to be a picture of them crossing the Red Sea.  God shares the pictures of teaching them to walk, leading them with cord of kindness and bands of love. Can you picture the photograph that would go with these lines:  “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Wow!

What would be in God’s photo album of you? What about the church?

Sometimes we go back through the old photos because life has hit a rough spot, like maybe when a rebellious adolescent child has done something so horrible that we need a reminder of just how much we love that child.  God in this story has hit a difficult time. And God is responding to Israel’s rejection. Israel ran away from God to pursue other gods. Some of the Israelites in fact went back to Egypt–the very place from which God brought them out of slavery.  Even after God kept them alive during those years in the wilderness; it was God who gave them a beautiful land to call their own, but they mistreated it all, abused their land and its people, ultimately discarding their relationship with God. God lamented, “You want to go back to the place that nearly destroyed you?  Fine, go! I’m done this time. You are on your own from now on!”

Not too unfamiliar behavior for a parent of an unruly child.  My parent’s closest words to this were, “if you choose to go out partying with your friends, when you get arrested for doing something stupid, don’t call me until the morning.”  

But then we see God’s internal anguish and self dialogue.  It appears that God cannot even escape the pain that people can inflict on someone they love.  And there is a dramatic twist in the plot of the story, a twist that would have shocked the people who heard these words.  God’s heart recoils within God’s own being.

The word we translate “recoil” is the same word used in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to describe how God overthrew those cities.  In Hosea’s words, God overthrows God’s own heart. Instead of punishing the child, God takes the punishment upon himself. The consequences of the child’s painful actions are taken into the heart of God. 

And God’s tender compassion is rekindled. They are God’s children after all. They didn’t ask to be chosen by God. God has different eyes to see them. God holds their yesterdays in pictures no one else remembers:  waiting for them to be born, the moments of their childhood, first steps, first words, smiles and cries, and all the big thresholds of their journey–in wilderness, in the promised land. In life and in death, they belong to God as God’s children.

I share a story, not of our kids, but what may be looked at as the infancy of our time as your pastors.  It had to have been within the first month that we were here that one of the members of this church walked up to me after a Sunday worship and said, “You are this church’s last hope.” 

Well, needless to say, that freaked out this fresh out of seminary new pastor. I got over pretty quickly the weight of that statement because I realized that at some point or another, I would mess up things up.  Thank goodness you are a forgiving people! But most importantly I came to see that this church knows that its hope isn’t in the pastors, the programs, or the music played on Sunday, but our only hope is on God in Christ and in his fierce love and compassion that goes beyond our human comprehension. 

That love was made most visible when God bent low and became one of us in Jesus Christ, entering the fray of humankind. God went to the depths of anguish, like a lion roaring out from the cross, giving voice to a painful love for all humanity.

And in his resurrection, Jesus calls us to be living sermons with and for him, because we take on a new name, Children of God, lifted high in the arms of God’s grace and love as a new family.  And it is there we find we are connected to one another, our unknown neighbors, and all of creation to share that message of love, invite others into God’s family, work for justice, and glorify the One whose love we cannot escape. Because it is a love that calls us back home to God’s fierce, loving embrace. Amen.

Everyday Saints

Sermon by Laura, 11.2.19 Luke 4:25-30, 1 Kings 17:1-24

When we first encounter her, she is gathering sticks. I imagine her, hunched over, feet scuffing the dust just outside the town gate, eyes scanning the withered landscape for any small wood that will serve her small, small need. She herself is small in the eyes of her world; if we saw her at all, we’d likely forget her immediately. She is a poor woman of no consequence, bereft of a husband, eking out a bare-bones existence for her son and herself. Her only hope is in keeping them both alive long enough for her son to grow up and become the patriarch she needs. But right now, the world offers so little for a widow and an orphan whose personal names the story does not even deign to remember.  

In the ancient Near East, widows and orphans were a byword for poverty; along with strangers, they are the voiceless and vulnerable of their society, which organized itself around male power and honor. With no family patriarch to stand for a woman’s well-being, widowhood was a sentence to a life of poverty and misery, even in the best of times.

But when we meet this widow, it is the worst of times. The land has dried up. Streams no longer flow. Harvests are paltry, and everyone is relying on what they’d been able to store up. She had so little to begin with. Now the drought has made her scarcity into a death sentence. She can see no future beyond today’s meal, a morsel made from the last of her flour and oil.

That’s the morsel that Elijah has the audacity to demand when he shows up to meet the widow at the edge of Zarephath. Crashing into her life out of nowhere, how terrifying he must appear to her! He is a ragged wild man with the wild Word of God on his lips, who has thus far survived the drought on the trickle of a brook and the leavings of ravens!

I always imagine Elijah as a tall brute of a man. When he shows up in scripture, he dominates.[1] And he’s always a disturbance, stealing the focus of 1 Kings from one of the kings for which it is named.

Elijah is a prophet. We often think of prophecy as predicting the future, but the prophets were not so much seers as they were “covenant watchdogs,”[2] barking out the Word of the Lord,  snarling critique at unjust governance and false religion. They speak truth to kings whose rule has succumbed to the temptations of idolatry, “self-aggrandizement, acquisitiveness and exploitation.”[3]

King Ahab is considered a chief example. 1 Kings introduces him with this statement: “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” In scripture’s view, Ahab’s primary evil was in embracing the worship of Baal in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Baal was a Canaanite fertility god, the bringer of rain. His home territory was Sidon, where Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel, was born.

The drought begins when Elijah bursts like lighting into their throne room with his announcement: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives…there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” It’s a direct hit in this theological and political conflict between Yahweh, true God of Israel, and Baal, a weapon in a sort of “cold war” to clarify which God truly has the power of life and death.[4]

But every war has “collateral damage.” People who were already vulnerable, without resources to flee to safety, are the hardest hit by wars and natural disasters. We see it every day in our world.

Now, as Elijah encounters the widow of Zarephath, he gazes directly into the face of a woman whose suffering has been magnified by the theological-political conflict he’s ignited.[5] And there’s also irony here: The Lord sends Elijah to Zarephath, located in the heart of Sidon, Jezebel’s county. The story of the rich Sidonese queen’s exploits are interrupted to tell the story of a poor Sidonese widow.  And Elijah comes to dwell deep in the territory of his most ferocious enemy, fleeing a Baal-worshipping woman to seek help from a Baal-worshipping woman.[6]

But theology is little concern now to the widow. Hopes and prayers do not seem to be enough. As one author notes, “The delicacies of theology mean little when caught between survival and death.”[7] So when Elijah arrives to meet her, God’s appointed provider, she apparently has no idea she’s been picked for the job.

I doubt Elijah’s insensitive approach does much to warm the widow’s heart toward him. “Bring me water,” the wild man commands.  This she retrieves willingly enough, but as she’s on her way, he calls out again, “Bring me bread.”

Hospitality demands a response, but she’s at her limit. “As the Lord your God lives,” she begins—and notice the phrasing—your God, not mine— “I have nothing but a handful of meal and a little oil. I am gathering a couple of sticks to prepare a last meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”

Everything about the widow’s statement emphasizes scarcity: a handful of meal, a little oil, a couple of sticks.[8] Scarcity is a psychological state which comes over human beings when a sense of lack pervades our lives. Not only scarcity of food or money, but scarcity of time, companionship or sleep, can all set off a kind of tunnel vision. Over-focus on the immediate problem reduces our decision-making bandwidth and capacity to imagine longer-term solutions.[9]

The widow is clearly a woman of initiative, who has kept herself and her son alive this long. But extreme scarcity now tells her there is no future beyond this meal.  So maybe Elijah’s brash style is exactly what’s needed, crashing into the scarcity vision with a bold word. “Do not be afraid. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 

This is one of those moments in scripture where we might breeze through this text as if what happens next is obvious. Of course the widow just gets up and does what Elijah commands, with only his promise to go on.

But really, what would you do in her circumstances? Would you feed an overbearing, wild man stranger the first meal from your dwindling stores, unable to know for certain whether or not there would actually be anything left afterward for yourself and your son?

This is a big turning point for the widow! Somehow she brings herself to do what he asks. I think her choice is as much of a miracle as the unfailing jar of meal and jug of oil! With high stakes, she leaps into the unknown, allowing herself to hope, just a little, in the outrageous faith of this ‘man of God.’

And amazingly, there’s enough. The jar of meal and jug of oil last for many days to feed Elijah, the widow, and her son. There is a confirmation here that the Lord is the living God, a Lord who loves life, the God who replenishes life even in the midst of deathly conditions. Alleluia!

But I also want us to notice how subtly God’s abundance reveals itself, not all at once in some big showy give-away, but gently, day-by-day, in nourishment which never fails. The miracle of the meal and oil, the miracle of the widow’s faith, is the miracle of enough, just enough for this day, just enough for the next day, and just enough for each day after that.

I have to admit, this bugs me a little. I want to secure the provisions in a more permanent way. I want a bigger, more noticeable display of God’s abundance-making, life-giving power. Like crowd with Jesus at his prophetic debut in his hometown of Nazareth, I want to corner the market on God’s miracles.

But while such self-aggrandizing, acquisitive hoarding might be the ambition of King Solomon’s heirs, like Ahab, or the pinnacle of capitalist aspirations in America today,it has never been God’s vision for human life. God’s way has always been best seen in small people making small daily choices, relying on God for their small sufficiency: Give us this day our daily bread.

In the changing conditions of each day, faithful people choose to trust God anew to provide what’s needed for life in each circumstance we face. Abundance comes when we trust God to provide enough for today, and when receive more than enough, we share. God’s provisions feed us one day at time, and when one source runs out, God provides another.  The life of a saint is “the difficult and joyful life of trusting God again, and again, and again.”[10]

The widow’s life is transformed as the tunnel-vision of scarcity is shattered when she takes the risk and hosts the wild Word of the Lord, leaning with radical trust into God’s inexplicable abundance. At the end of her story in scripture, she sees and affirms the life-giving truth of Elijah’s Lord.

This little woman’s story may seem small, but faithfulness has an unaccountable ripple effect. In the heart of Baal’s country, her trust in the Lord resounds the doom of this false god; it is a tiny hinge on which the grand story of God’s purpose, presence, and power turns, continuing on, transforming the world in the new life of God’s creative Word.

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. We celebrate the small, everyday people through whom God’s life ripples out to bless the earth. Everyday people who are kind and generous, who are brave and brash, who step out in unaccountable daily acts of faith, to share the hope and courage they have experienced, in the unfailing love of Christ.

So, I want to close by teaching you my new favorite song, which has these words:

“Even though the day be laden,

and my task dreary,

and my strength small,

a song keeps singing in my heart.

For I know that I am Thine,

I am part of Thee,

Thou art kin to me,

and all my times are in Thy hands.”

This verse, written down by Alistair Maclean, was composed by small people graced with huge faith, God’s saints who lived in far-flung island communities of the Hebrides, stalwart crofters facing daily weather and poverty as they eked out an existence on windswept isles.

May this song remind you, when you feel small, powerless, or lacking, that you are truly part of something vast and ongoing beyond imagining, that you are kin to the God of Life whose song sings on. The song which keeps singing is the wild Word of God, the song which breaks through scarcity and breaks us open to transforming trust, creating new possibilities for peace, hope, joy, and love, just enough for today, just enough again for tomorrow, just enough for each day after. 

Alleluia! Amen.


[1] Walter Brueggeman, The Word that Redescribes the World, ed. Patrick D. Miller. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006, 27.

[2] https://thebibleproject.com/podcast/what-prophecy/transcript/

[3] Brueggemann, as above, 26.

[4] Steed Davidson, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2611

[5] Steed Davidson, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2611

[6] Corrine Carvalho, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1681

[7] Davidson, as above.

[8] Kathryn Schifferdecker in “I Love to Tell the Story,” Narrative Lectionary Podcast #238, Oct. 30, 2016.

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/07/scarcity-sendhil-mullainathan-shafir-review

[10] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2987

Pinky Strength

Sermon by Keith, 10.27.19: Mark 10:42-45; 1 Kings 12:1-17

The party has ended.  If you were here last week, you will remember that David was having a huge celebration, a dance party, as he brought the ark of the covenant to the new capital of Jerusalem.  David has been made king of the twelve tribes and it appeared to be the beginning of a time of prosperity and hope for God’s people.

But a lot has happened since then. Things start falling apart quickly.  You start seeing a change when David commits his affair with Bathsheba and has her husband killed by placing him in a vulnerable spot in battle. Jealousy, greed, and selfishness in David’s household and among his descendants have led to coups, rape, murders, and rebellions. 

Royal projects and policies have placed a heavy tax burden upon the citizens to supply crops, animals, and other materials. Both King David and his son King Solomon implemented systems of forced labor. But not of everyone. They both favored certain cities and tribal affiliations, which means their tribe of Judah was let off easy.  The other tribes saw this favoritism and resented it.

Both developed strategic international alliances through marriages to the daughters of foreign rulers. Solomon built cities to store the chariots, horses, cavalry, and other goods he amassed. He made shields and goblets of gold. On a good note, he built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem and led another massive procession, with innumerable sacrifices, to transfer the ark to the inner sanctuary of the temple.  A new glorious temple where all the people could come to worship God. But then Solomon turns around and built worship sites for the gods of all his foreign wives, and “walked after” and worshiped these foreign gods.   

What happened?  Things looked so promising, so hopeful for the covenant people and their king.  Scripture says that Solomon turned away from the Lord. You could compare it to an open hand slowly getting tighter and tighter until you have an iron fist choking off the people.  He was wise and prosperous, but he used his wisdom for self gain. He used and misused people, the people God had called him to serve and guide, for his own benefit. In his power-brokering with foreign leaders, he made alliances not only with the kings and ambassadors, but also with their gods. 

The conditions for civil collapse and division started with King David. They became more amplified under Solomon, coming full steam ahead to the breaking point when Solomon’s son, Rehoboam became king and we find with today’s passage with the confrontation between him and Jeroboam.

A quick note on Jeroboam’s story.  The R-named dude is Solomon’s son. The J-named dude was actually a faithful servant of Solomon, not related to him at all and no royal lineage.  One day, while he is working, along comes a prophet who tears his clothing in 12 pieces and gives 10 of them to Jeroboam. The prophet then says that the kingdom will get split and Jeroboam will lead 10 of the tribes.  This is all that happens. Nothing in scripture says Jeroboam led a rebellion nor even bad-mouthed Solomon. But word gets to Solomon about this prophecy and he sets out to kill Jeroboam. He flees to Egypt until Solomon dies and had now returned home. And because of the prophecy and the harsh rule from Solomon, Jeroboam had a big following when he returned.

Here, Rehoboam had an opportunity to keep the nation united.  But he had learned the ways of power, or you could say misuse of power, from his father. The people let him know that if he will lighten the burden that Solomon had put on them, they would follow him. And he did what might be considered the smartest thing in the whole story: he asked for advice.

The older advisers who had served under Solomon council him that if he serves the people, they will serve him forever.  I find it interesting that these advisers are the ones who recognize that Solomon may have been a bit too harsh on his people and see the precarious situation the nation was in. It makes you wonder just how much Solomon may have actually listened to his advisers. 

But when these elders offered the advice to Rehoboam to be a servant leader, Rehoboam was too worried about being weak and losing his grip on power. So he disregarded their advice and moved on to others, the men that had seen and experienced the fun of having power with the prince as he grew up.  They tell Rehoboam what he wanted to hear: Close your grip tighter upon the people. Give them the iron fist, a fist so strong that its pinky finger is stronger than the waist or thigh of Solomon. And that iron fist, instead of holding the kingdom together, rips it apart.

The question this passage asks of us is, “How is power to be understood?”  Our culture says that how you get and use power is that you rule others with an iron fist.  That’s how Rehoboam understood power.

But as we look at Christ and his life, death, and resurrection, we as his followers ask a different question, “How is God’s power understood?”  Power takes the form of service. Power takes the form of emptying one’s self for the other. Power takes the form of sacrifice. Power takes the form of serving those more vulnerable than yourself.  It is using the resources and skills that we have in the direction of easing the burden of the oppressed and not adding to it. Power looks a lot like a cross.   

Think about the power God has, the power to create the universe.  And God used that power to become a flesh and bone human, not to be exalted on a throne, but to be lifted up a cross.  In that vulnerability, God has now lifted us up to be a new creation in relationship in him and win our salvation by the Holy Spirit.  Power, God’s power, Christian power is going like this (tight fist) to like this (open hand).

I have a friend that when he finished college, got a job at a camp for troubled youth.  Many of these kids were in this camp because they did some pretty serious bad stuff. And from day one, my friend was told that to get these kids to listen to you and respect you, you had to rule them with an iron fist.  And that is what he did. He ran his group of boys like they were in the military, constantly on their case, screaming at them for the smallest infraction, not giving them any grace.

This camp had a policy of not letting the campers know what was called “No Future Information.”  NFI’s for short. As they were out on a hike in the late afternoon and one of the campers asked “What’s for dinner?” My friend just shouted, “NO NFI!” This kid looks at my friend and said, “Dude, do you have to talk to me that way?” It kind of took my friend back and made him think about how closed off he had become to these youth because he was supposed to be strong, tough, and controlling.  Iron-fisted.

That night he had a long talk with his campers and ended up apologizing for how he had been treating them. From that day forward, even though he still ran a pretty tight ship, he never had any problems with the boys. Other counselors asked him what he did, and he told them he became vulnerable, working with the boys instead of trying to control and lord over them. This shift from being iron-fisted to vulnerable ended up having a profound effect on the entire camp and how the counselors worked with the campers.

Today is the Sunday we celebrate the reformation.  We could talk about the abuses of the church that Martin Luther was protesting when he nailed those 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and how the split that caused is similar to the split with Rehoboam and Jeroboam experienced.  But, we will save that for a Sunday school lesson sometime.

What I want to do is share a quote from Luther about the Christian life that speaks to this idea of understanding what power looks like for those who follow Christ. “A Christian,” Luther said, “is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

That’s the paradox that we live into on a daily basis. Lordship takes its expression in service. Luther’s paradoxical teaching of Christian freedom and power, following Christ, joins lord and servant into one person. By faith alone, God sets a person utterly, completely, free in Christ to share in Christ’s presence, purpose, and power.  But love binds that person as an utterly dutiful servant, subject to everyone. And it is with this love that we discover that our hands outstretched have more power than any iron fist. Amen.  

Dance Like God is Watching

Sermon by Keith, offered 10.20.19, Narrative Lectionary Year 2

Scriptures: Psalm 150, 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5

When was the last time that you danced? 

This morning’s passage finds us with a huge dance party going on.  So big that the scriptures tell us it was David and the whole house of Israel dancing. And boy did they ever have a reason to celebrate!  

To truly appreciate this moment of unity and hopefulness, it is necessary to recognize the costs of division that preceded it.  David, as a boy, rose in power and prestige under the rule of King Saul.  The story presents David as protective of Saul as God’s designated king and loyal to him in life and in death, while recounting the terror and bloodshed of Saul’s campaign to eliminate David and anyone considered loyal to him.  The strife and bloodshed that followed because of Saul’s hatred for David was great.  The war was long, and during that war, the house of Saul grew weaker and David grew stronger.  Saul and his son Jonathan are killed and David is made king over Judah, which is the southern half of the region.  After more conflicts with another son of Saul’s, Isbaal, and Saul’s former general Abner, David is made king not only of Judah, but the rest of Israel.  War and conflict had been a normal way of life for years.

No wonder it was a time of celebration.  Truly for the first time the twelve tribes of Israel are united under a king and peace and prosperity is in the land.  David has taken over the Jebusite city of Jerusalem which will be the new centralized capitol of the kingdom. 

But something is missing.  The Ark of the Covenant has not been in a fully permanent resting place since it left Egypt.  Yes, it had temporary stays in Shilo and Abinadab’s house, but it is time to move it to the united empire’s new capital, a visible sign of the Lord’s presence and dominion in the new capitol. 

And this moving of the Ark becomes a dance party of the new era of David’s rule, a celebration of the monarchy assuming a new role in protecting and promoting Israel’s religious life.  This procession is a form of religious pageantry; a noisy and joyous profession of people celebrating with all their might God’s protection and blessing, and of God’s residing in the midst of God’s people.  The scene must have been raucous mayhem as people danced and played instruments as the ark made its way to its new home.  There is no indication that this was done “decently and in order.”

And this celebration scene begs the question of us, how do we celebrate God’s presence in our lives?  How would you describe how you recognize and rejoice in God’s blessing? 

For us Presbyterians, we typically do things pretty quietly, going about our times of prayers gently and softly, maybe setting aside some quiet time to read a devotional.  At church, we have two liturgical movements, stand up and sit down.  And if you forget which one you are supposed to be doing, we put little stars in the bulletin to help.  Hands are meant for holding the hymnal and not clapping.  If we feel an “Amen” welling up inside us, usually we can do a good job of stuffing it back down as not to cause a scene.  But do you notice that when someone lets out one “Amen,” several others join in?  It’s OK to make a little noise.  It’s OK to make a lot of noise when it comes to praising God.  It would be OK if you wanted to get up and dance in the aisle!

Besides David, let’s look to Jesus for some help here.  We don’t know for sure if he danced, but chances are he did at the wedding in Cana.  In Jesus’ time, dancing was customary at weddings—although men danced in a group with other men and women danced in a group with other women.  So besides working his first miracle at the wedding feast, Jesus probably also danced there.  And in the gospel of John, this is where Jesus worked his first miracle for what seems to be for the sole purpose of preserving the young couple from embarrassment and to prolong the party!  But I think we can also use our imaginations to picture Jesus dancing, stomping his feet to the beat, clapping his hands over his head, swaying, laughing, and singing along to the songs that were part of his cultural upbringing.  If you only thought of Jesus as this serious teacher, open your minds to a picture of him dancing and laughing in celebrating God’s blessing on a newlywed couple.

But also many a theologian has described the relationship between Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit as a divine dance.  The description of this divine dance comes from a kind of dance from Greek weddings called perichoresis.  There are not two dancers, but at least three.  They start to go in circles, weaving in and out in this very beautiful pattern of motion.  They start to go faster and faster and faster, all the while staying in perfect rhythm and in sync with each other.  Eventually, they are dancing so quickly, yet so effortlessly, that as you look at them, it just becomes a blur.  Their individual identities are part of a larger dance. 

The early church fathers and mothers looked at that dance and said, “That’s what the Trinity is like.”  It’s a harmonious set of relationships in which there is mutual giving and receiving.  This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about.  The perichoresis is the dance of love.

But that dance of love isn’t just for our Triune God to dance in isolation some where off in a corner of heaven.  It is for us, too!  Through Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, and by the regenerating action of the Spirit, we have been brought home and embraced by our Father.  Gathered into the household of faith, we are invited to participate in the dance party of the Trinity.  In this way we exemplify the reality and nature of God and bring his good news to a world that has forgotten how to dance.

So dance!  Dance because David danced.  Dance because Jesus danced.  Dance because God’s very nature is a dance.  Dance because of the goodness of God in your lives.  Dance because Christ is with you.  Dance because the Holy Spirit takes you by the hand and pulls you into that divine relational dance of God. 

Now, I know that some of you may not be physically able to dance and that’s OK.  This invitation is to find some way to celebrate what God has done in Christ in your life that others can see and experience.  Our faith is not always meant to be a quiet faith.  Let it out.  Make a joyous ruckus to God from time to time.  Sing or bang some noisy instruments together.  Praise the Lord in a way that you know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will hear it, see it, experience it.  And when you do, you will find yourself in their divine dance of love.

I close with a poem.  Now, most of you know the story or poem “Footprints In the Sand.”   I came across what is titled “A New Version Of Footprints In the Sand.”  Here it is:

Imagine you and the Lord Jesus are walking down the road together.  For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace.

But your footprints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures, and returns.

For much of the way, it seems to go like this, but gradually your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s, soon paralleling His consistently.

You and Jesus are walking as true friends!

This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: Your footprints that once etched the sand next to Jesus’ are now walking precisely in His steps.

Inside His larger footprints are your smaller ones, you and Jesus are becoming one.

This goes on for many miles, but gradually you notice another change.  The footprints inside the large footprints seem to grow larger.

Eventually they disappear altogether. There is only one set of footprints. They have become one.

This goes on for a long time, but suddenly the second set of footprints is back. This time it seems even worse! Zigzags all over the place.   Stops.  Starts. Gashes in the sand.   A variable mess of prints. You are amazed and shocked.

Your dream ends. Now you pray:

 “Lord, I understand the first scene, with zigzags and fits.  I was a new Christian; I was just learning.  But You walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with You.”

“That is correct.”

“And when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps, following You very closely.”

“Very good.. You have understood everything so far.”

 “When the smaller footprints grew and filled in Yours, I suppose that I was becoming like You in every way.”

“Precisely.”

“So, Lord, was there a regression or something? The footprints separated, and this time it was worse than at first.”

There is a pause as the Lord answers, with a smile in His voice.  “You didn’t know?  It was then that we danced!”

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: A time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance. 

Amen.

Your People, My People

A Sermon offered by Laura on 10.13.19, Narrative Lectionary Year 2

Scriptures: Ruth 1:1-17, Mark 3:31-35

“I have five grandchildren, and none of them have my DNA.” Pete Wells, the former Stated Clerk of Eastern Oregon Presbytery, once used these words to introduce himself at General Assembly. El Rae, Pete’s wife, shared the story of this moment with me. She reflected that it marked a transformation in Pete’s picture of “family.” He’d been raised with a traditional sense of kinship as biological, but El Rae came to their marriage with a more expansive idea of what family could be. Years later, Pete had come to see how God can create “family” in less conventional ways.

In their family, El Rae says, “We have four children, two biological and two by circumstance.” Two adult women became “daughters by circumstance” when El Rae’s dear friend, their mother, died, not long after one of her daughters had given birth. El Rae immediately decided that the new baby would now be her grandchild, and that was that. She had the opportunity to nurture a child and a mother, and she took it. “I want people without biological grandchildren or people whose grandchildren live far away to see how God can give you grandchildren, right where you are now.”

I asked El Rae’s permission to tell this story, because to me, it resonates deeply with the story of Ruth. Ruth’s vow of companionship to Naomi is a true marvel of scripture, a blazing gem of fierce, impassioned loyalty whose words even now people speak to bind their lives together:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

The surprise is that Ruth makes this vow to her mother-in-law, Naomi. There are enough “mother-in-law” jokes in our culture to recognize how remarkable this is. Ruth has no so-called “blood” ties to Naomi; and now that Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, has died, she has no further kinship obligations.

Even more surprising, Ruth makes her vow to a woman from an enemy tribe.  Ruth is a Moabite; Naomi is an Israelite. Overall, the scriptures depict the Moabites as “shameful, inhospitable, and dangerous.”[1] Genesis 19 tells us that the Moabites are distantly related to the Israelites, by way of Lot—and Lot’s daughters. (Ugh). Numbers tells us how the Moabites tried to curse the Israelites as they passed through Moab after escaping Egypt. And Deuteronomy 23:6 instructs the Israelites about the Moabites in these words: “You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”

So it’s actually shocking that Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, made the decision for his family  to take refuge in Moab, of all places. We should anticipate things will not go well. Throughout this story, the names of places and characters emphasize ironies of fullness and emptiness. The family leaves Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread,” because of famine—no bread in this house. They migrate to Moab, a name which signifies the “descendents of a father;” but in Moab, all three potential fathers die with no descendants.[2] Places where fulfillment was sought turn out to be empty of hope.

Names of people in this story are also insightful, hinting at nuances of character. Elimelech means “my God is king,” though God seems absent, there’s no king in Israel, and Elimelech’s leadership fails his family. He leads them to a place where his sons, Mahlon and Chilyon, meet up with what their names signify: disease and destruction! Yet in his name there is a foreshadowing that kingship will ultimately result from his story.

Naomi’s name means “pleasant,” but her life, with famine, migration, the deaths of husband and sons, has been anything but. She renames herself Mara, “bitterness,” to better fit the “plot of her life as she reads it.” [3] Naomi’s daughter-in-law Orpah’s name means “back of the neck,” and that is what we see when this Moabite woman turns back to her biological family. Orpah takes Naomi’s advice, but Ruth “clings” to Naomi.

And Ruth? Ruth’s name means “friendship.” So let’s talk about friendship. What an amazing kind of relationship it is! It seems more fragile and tentative than what we think of as biological kinship. Our culture protects biological kinship with all sorts of policies and social norms, guarding its procreative potential;  but, as writer and pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler notes, friendship is non-procreative, a “fertility…that yields only flowers that never turn to fruit—beauty without production, without possession.”[4]

I think we take friendship somewhat for granted in our culture. In the United States, it’s not uncommon for children and parents to live states away from each other. Many of us grow up developing circles of friends with whom we spend much more time than our parents or siblings. We are less concerned about loyalty to blood relatives than most cultures throughout history.

But such an attitude was unthinkable in the Ancient Near East of Naomi’s and Jesus’ times. Children lived close to their parents, perhaps sharing a house and a business. Furthermore, as N.T. Wright notes, “for Jews, the close family bond was part of the God-given fabric of thinking and living. Loyalty to the family was the local and specific outworking of loyalty to Israel as the people of God.”[5] Recall again how God’s promise of blessing to Abraham is made manifest through plentiful ancestors—as many as the stars in the sky.

Jesus’ words in Mark would be heard as scandalous: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus challenges the family loyalty at the heart of Jewish identity, opening up a vision of a new kind of family, a people belonging to one another quite apart from conventional means, by way of his body and blood.  “I have called you friends,” Jesus says to those he has called away from their blood-kinship bonds to follow him in doing the will of God.

So it is that Melissa Florer-Bixler writes that “the friendship of Ruth and Naomi is the cipher through which I understand the church,” in “an elusive interconnectedness as an earthly body of Christ, not a constant and fixed institution.”[6] True church is experienced where God’s life sparks in companionship, “unexpected, unplanned, and uncalculated.”[7] Florer-Bixler continues,

“Church is often trust in that which I cannot control, the shared life of another without institutionally mandated promises or production…We grapple with the fragility of what is possible, that we will come in and out of each other’s lives, that we will find ourselves failing at overcoming our otherness and, perhaps, trying again. Along the way we may come to discover that this love grows and extends outward beyond our biological kinship, into a beloved who is strange and similar, all at the same time.”[8]

Ruth’s vow to Naomi sparkles with God’s life. It is a spontaneous outflow of grace in friendship’s loyalty and loving-kindness transcending, in that moment, differences of ethnicity, religion, and generations. Ruth’s story reveals the quality of hesed, a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate, synthesizing the meanings of faithfulness, kindness, mercy, and commitment to do what is right.[9]

Hesed begins in God’s covenant love with God’s people; but it is also attributed to human beings in scripture. Ruth’s vow exemplifies hesed, as she steps up to do right by Naomi, refusing to leave the older woman to journey alone. Later in this story, Boaz also exemplifies this quality as he steps up to right and kind action, taking Ruth, and with her, Naomi, under his wing as a kinsman-redeemer. Hesed is faithful love that enacts righteousness.

Ruth is the heroine of hesed, which is all the more significant because she’s a Moabite. While the book of Ruth is set in the chaotic times narrated in the book of Judges, scholars think it was written much later, in the days when Israel was returning to the Land of Promise. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the stories of these times, and the policies of separation from “the people of the land.” The people craved stability, certainty and clarity about their geography and identity.[10] A Moabite heroine, who reveals God’s covenant-love, who turns out to be the grandmother of King David, would be a provocative reminder that God’s friendship and faithfulness knows no conventional boundaries.

My friends, this is good news! In Jesus Christ, we are brought into what some have named the “Kin-dom” of God: a family which transcends DNA, which is drawn together in the powerful bond of God’s covenant-love. And there is a call, here, not so much to reject “blood” ties, but to experience the “expansiveness of friendship,”[11] by which we open our lives to others in unexpected, unplanned, and uncalculated ways.

I invite you to spend this week contemplating the treasures of your friendships, especially those you’ve experienced at church. How has God drawn you into unexpected kinship with brothers and sisters-in-Christ? How has God given you children and grandchildren who do not share your DNA? How might God be asking you to covenant-love, to hesed faithfulness which steps up to care with kindness and commitment?

May God bless you with insight and inspire you to action as you dwell in gratitude for  God’s faithfulness. In the name of the Triune community of overflowing love. Amen.

Sources:

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4212

[2] http://www.lookstein.org/resource/ruth_literary.pdf

[3] http://www.lookstein.org/resource/ruth_literary.pdf

[4] Melissa Florer-Bixler, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, 172.

[5] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 39.

[6] Melissa Florer-Bixler, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, 172.

[7] Florer-Bixler, as above.

[8] Florer-Bixler, as above.

[9] http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Hesed%20Routledge.pdf

[10] https://shelovesmagazine.com/2012/sheponders-ruth-the-moabite/

[11] Florer-Bixler, as above.

Consenting to Change: Sermon by Laura

We are preaching from the Narrative Lectionary these days. Text: Matthew 3:1-17

Recently, Tara Tucker (who gave me permission for this story) shared her desire to delve deeper in Bible study. During Advent, she and her husband Gary had read a chapter a day of Luke’s gospel (there are 24); and now, she said, “We want to know more.” So Tara asked me to help them find appropriate study resources.

A simple request. But I tell you, if Hollywood was portraying how I felt with Tara in that moment, you would have seen the sky opening up,  the beams of heaven shining down, and the heavenly choir singing: “Ahhhh!”

Tara was offering me the opportunity to shower her with a measure of the riches I’d been graced to receive in Bible study. She was telling me how she and Gary have become more receptive to God, willing to open up to studying God’s Word and allow it change their world. I live for these kinds of moments in church ministry!

There is also that glorious feeling when finally, finally, someone asks of you what you are actually prepared and competent to do, what all your schooling set you up for. If there’s one thing we were taught in seminary, it was Bible study!

Do you know that feeling? It can be rare these days when everyone is struggling to adapt to the rapid pace of change. Our days are often filled with tasks and interactions which require us to step out into the unknown, which confront us with the fact that nothing up to this point has prepared us for the actual demands and risks we are facing, in our jobs, families, health, or the world’s problems. Establishing ourselves in a job, raising children, caring for aging parents, trying to live well with new health concerns—all of these situations can bring us face to face with the truth, that reality is utterly different than we anticipated. In such dissonance, doubt, and confusion, how might Christians respond in faith?

John the Baptist is a significant figure in all four gospels. We’ve heard his story many times, usually during Advent. Matthew portrays John as a prophet who himself fulfills prophecy. His appearance and character express the fulfillment of Isaiah 40, which joyfully announces to Israel, captive in Babylon, that their exile is at an end. They are going home!

The details of John’s bizarre clothing and diet are code words which evoke the prophet Elijah’s style, also point to the fulfillment of scripture: the concluding statement of Malachi, at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, promises God will send the Elijah as a forerunner of “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Here, in Matthew, Elijah has come again, now embodied in the man John, who baptizes people in the River Jordan. At the threshold of a new age, he has come to prepare God’s people for the Messiah. A millennia has passed since Israel crossed the Jordan to enter and conquer the promised land. Passing through the Jordan again with John, the people signal their readiness for a yet greater conquest, God’s decisive defeat of evil and the establishment of God’ kingdom, on earth as in heaven.[i]

John’s incendiary preaching lights the people up with hope and fear. The “more powerful” one is coming, he says, and “I am not worthy to carry his sandals… “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s catchphrase is “Repent!” a word which means, literally, “Turn around!” or more broadly, “Change!”

John’s baptism is for remorseful people, those willing to admit how they have missed the mark of God’s righteousness, how they have alienated themselves from God. Confessing their sins and plunged into the water, the people are cleansed and made ready to enter the kingdom God’s anointed one brings.  Because, John warns them, no one can assume they can enter this kingdom on pedigree alone. It’s not enough to be children of Abraham. Bear the fruit of repentance, he says, the visible evidence of changed lives, to be spared “the wrath to come,” the ax chopping barren trees, fire consuming useless chaff.

You get a feeling about the kind of Messiah for whom John prepares his people, a terrifyingly mighty leader, arriving in heat and light, transforming everything in one fell swoop.

But, as N.T. Wright puts it, “Instead, we get Jesus.”

We get a “king” who arrives in Matthew’s gospel as “a baby with a price on his head.” All grown up now, this humble carpenter simply comes to stand with the line of broken people facing judgment, waiting patiently among them to receive John’s baptism.

Surely John is as surprised as we are.  John is confused. “What’s happened to the agenda?”[ii]

What’s more, John’s propriety is offended. He’s just said he is not worthy to carry this One’s sandals, but now John finds himself asked to do a lot more than that, the lesser man plunging the greater man underwater in what amounts to a symbolic drowning!  “I need to be baptized by you!” John tells Jesus.

Nothing in John’s training could have prepared him for this. What an irony! The one sent to prepare the way finds himself so unprepared! The one preaching repentance finds himself called to a radical change of mind and heart.  Face to face with the truth,  the Son of God standing before him, John discovers that God’s purpose, power, and presence are utterly different than he anticipated.

Jesus wants John to baptize him. “Let it be so now,” replies Jesus, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Only in Matthew’s version of this story depicts this interaction between John and Jesus. “Righteousness” is a theme which will come up repeatedly in Matthew’s narrative, showing us that in Jesus, God’s righteous ways are different than we expect.

From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry initiation here at this baptism, God’s righteousness is not about separating or excluding people, winners or losers, right and wrong, in or out. Instead, God joins together what has been too long separated, immersing the divine into human suffering, plunging God’s energies into compassionate solidarity with flawed and broken human beings.

None of our training in a culture which imagines power as violent or economic domination could prepare us for a “more powerful one” who sheds all superiority. We cannot anticipate the Savior who rescues us, not by wiping out our suffering or limitations, but by entering into our condition without reservation, coming alongside us in our pain to share it with us.

My favorite part of Matthew’s story is a tiny moment. It comes at the ragged edge of everything John has hoped for and everything that is to come. The Messiah has arrived, requesting baptism, overturning everything John expected. But it seems that John still has a choice.

Keith and I considered how the Rowan Atkinson (British comedian of “Mr. Bean” fame,  who does funny versions of scripture, such as this one here) version of this scripture might go: “But Jesus sayeth unto John, ‘Let it be so, for it is proper to fulfill all righteousness,” and lo, John did crosseth his arms, stompeth his feet, and respondeth… “No.” Can you imagine? The whole gospel might have come screeching to a halt if John had refused to baptize Jesus.

Now, I truly believe did John have a choice! He could have said no. John could have flat out refused to change, until Jesus—the more worthy one—compromising to protect John’s puny propriety, baptized John instead.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, Matthew’s gospel says, “Then, he consented.”

In a split-second of grace, John chooses to release all his preconceived ideas, allowing a total paradigm shift, and willingly adding his energies to the direction of God in Jesus Christ. John consents to change, gives permission for God to have God’s way with him, wholly transforming his perceptions and preoccupations. John chooses to accept God as God is, not as he wants God to be.

The opportunity to consent to change arises numerous times in our lives. It’s an invitation to pass through a threshold and enter a new realm of faith and trust where we can receive yet more riches of God’s grace and mercy. The threshold can look like a happy occasion an accomplishment, a wedding, a birth. That threshold can look also look like a misery, the loss of a job, health, or a loved one.

Whether the change is longed for or dreaded, by God’s grace, one choice always remains. Will we choose to dig our heels in, refusing the change that arrives in our faces, denying the grace of God’s purpose, presence, and power revealed in its wake? Or we consent to let God be God in this moment,[iii] allowing ourselves to receive the grace always available to us?

Mark Twain noted that “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” But like it or not, my friends, change happens. We can try but never be fully prepared to face its demands. It can feel uncomfortable and risky, but consenting to change, “letting it be,” as Jesus invites John to do, frees our energies to partner with God in co-creating a whole new world.

When one world ends, in our Triune God, a new one always begins, one more beautiful, free and vibrant than we could have previously imagined. Jesus comes up from the water and the sky opens; the Spirit alights on him like a dove and we hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Dear friends, God daily showers us with invitations to pivot yet more in God’s direction. But the God we know in Jesus does not coerce, shame, or guilt us to make changes. He invites us to let it be, he waits for our consent, he joins us in the tension of decision until we are ready and willing.

And when, by grace, we consent to receive God’s transforming Spirit, God’s heart surely breaks open in beams of light with that heavenly chorus, “Ahhh!” so pleased to finally able to shower upon us the riches of grace and mercy, the beautiful wholeness and self-giving power God’s been longing to give each and every one of God’s Beloved children from the beginning.

Thanks be to our Triune God, Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining us forevermore. Amen.

Sources:

[i] [i] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Pt. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 18.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Pt. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 21.

[iii] “Consenting to God as God Is” by Thomas Keating p72-73

Walk Humbly: Sermon by Laura, 1.29.17

Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-31

Even if you rarely crack open a Bible, the final verse I just read from Micah is likely familiar to you: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” One of the most-quoted verses of the Hebrew Scripture, it’s like a bumper-sticker summary of what faith is about. But, even if this is one of your favorite verses, I’m guessing that, like me, you may know little else about Micah or the context of his prophecy.

And context, my friends, is important. It may be an awkward metaphor when our local soil is still blanketed with thick snow… But context is the ground on which all our arguments stand, the earth from which ideas sprout and spread seed in the winds of a particular era of history. To examine the meaning and implications of any thought or ideology, we must get as close as we can to the contextual soil in which it is rooted.

So who was Micah? When and where did he live, and how do his powerful words grow out of the fertile mulch of his context?

Micah was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, a Judean man who lived in the days after the descendants of Kings Solomon had divided the promised land into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Samaria and the Southern kingdom of Judah.  These were also the days before the Assyrian empire invaded, conquered, and carried a large portion of Israel’s population off to captivity. This was a time of wealth and prosperity in Samaria and Judah. The Temple in Jerusalem flourished, and people demonstrated their religious loyalties with extravagant gifts.

Yet Micah perceived that all was not well. His view was shaped by his upbringing in a small rural community named Moresheth, which was about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem.[i] He surely witnessed firsthand how local farm workers struggled in an economic system that exploited their labor to the benefit of rich, urban-dwelling landowners. “They covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away,” says Micah in chapter 2, where he also notes how people who don’t like what he’s saying try to shut down his prophetic warnings: “Do not preach” they tell him, “one should not say such things!”

And it’s a little ironic to share this, seeing as our congregation is having our Pizza, Beer, and Gospel gathering tonight, but Micah even says, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher this people could accept.”

Later, Micah denounces the rulers of both nations as corrupt, saying they “abhor justice, pervert all equity;” they “give judgment for a bribe;its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us!’”

“Surely the Lord is with us”—how often throughout history have those in power assumed that their attainment of power somehow signifies God’s approval of all their decisions? The divine right of kings or the popular mandate of elected officials—Micah denounces these assurances as falsehoods which have separated rulers from real grounding in the ultimate truth of God.

The question of ultimate truth was just as live a question in Micah’s time as it is in ours. He prophesied God’s word to God’s people, people who desired to walk the way of covenant-faithfulness in a pluralistic world, in which Yahweh was far from the only option for religious devotion. Neighboring cultures worshiped all sorts of other gods and goddesses. As one commentator notes, “Sometimes [Israel] responded by destroying their neighbors, and sometimes they bought some of their idols just to be safe.”[ii]

In Micah’s time, there were conflicting claims about what it meant to be a worshipper of Yahweh or a loyal Judean, just as in our time there are conflicting ideologies about what a true Christian or a true American says, does, and stands for. Struggling to be faithful as God’s people

in our time and place, we also flip-flop between two strategies. On one hand, we try to wall from our presence those things, ideas or people we perceive as a danger to what “true” and “right, ” exercising fearful suspicion against anyone whose belief or practice doesn’t fit our tribal criteria.

On the other hand, we uncritically embrace every religious or spiritual idea as equally valid, without really taking the time to listen and learn either our own tradition or the others’. Neither strategy honors the wideness of God’s mercy or the particularity of God’s love.

Yes, God’s love is for everyone, everywhere, at work bringing justice and mercy in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. The idea that God’s grace is only for the relatively few people in the world who think, act, and worship like we do is an insult to God.

At the same time, the idea that all religions are equal, the tolerance of “all truth is relative,” can be a lazy excuse to avoid the necessary hard work of deep listening for God’s scandalously particular truth.  One author notes, “Tolerance by itself is apathy. To say that all religions are equal is to say that no religion makes any difference.” [iii]

So, where does this leave us? How do we discern God’s will and align with it for faithful action in such a confusing world?

Of course we crave clarity. Of course we crave simplicity. Who doesn’t love three-step-formulas which promise unequivocal rightness? Who doesn’t want plain-spoken practical guidance we can rely on to get us from where we are, with whatever we feel is lacking in our lives, to where God’s people desire to dwell: where God abides with us in beauty, goodness, and Truth with a capital T.

But any rush to “simple truth” may stampede over deeper falsehoods. Premature clarity may be merely a knee-jerk fear-triggered reaction to something we’ve not taken time to understand. And shrugging relativism misses the incarnational wonder of God’s sharp and specific Word. One reality of human sin is that we are biased people who would rather put our trust in the devil we know than in the Christ who confounds us with the foolishness of the cross.

In Micah’s time, the Temple was crowded with people who showed off their “rightness” with God; yet Micah saw how the systems they’d created demonstrated an arrogant, uncaring attitude toward the poor and marginalized. Where, he asked, was true worship of the God who loves and protects the widow, the orphan and the stranger, the most vulnerable in the land? We face similar questions in our time, as we struggle to discern and navigate a clear path of faithful action amidst a deluge of biased information on all sides.

But by the grace of God, my friends, we have been given prophets, courageous truth-tellers like Micah. Micah’s words to God’s people then cut right through to God’s Truth for us now, reminding us of what we already know, offering us a clear measure by which to discern our own and others’ faithful words and actions: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here we are reminded that God has already spoken, God has already shown Israel and us in numerous mighty acts of deliverance and grace who God is and what God desires. God’s people are created to speak and act in God’s image, the God who is consistently named as compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, and overflowing with gracious love.

Our God is a God of justice: alert to the voices of oppressed and vulnerable people—any person at risk of being treated as less than God’s child by whoever holds majority power.

Our God is a God of loving-kindness: a mercy that surpasses our imagination, a forgiveness that seems foolish to the powers of this world.

And what our God most deeply desires, my friends, is for us to walk humbly with God.

What does this mean? It means returning to our heart-knowing, getting close to the foundational ground of our existence, remembering the humus from which we humans were created and remembering the One who created us from it. From that vantage point, near to the muddy earth on which every human being stands at the foot of the cross, I understand that I am infinitely precious to God… and so is every one else. I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of the life I have been given to share with others; I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of life shared by all the others who inhabit this Earth beside me.

My friends, I believe that to “walk humbly with God” is the most important spiritual practice for Christians to focus on in our confusing and frightening times. Let’s make humility the virtue of this year! Practicing humility does not mean abdicating your convictions. By all means, stand up for what you believe is right! But do so, always ready to turn around, to fall to your knees, to return to the Ground of All Being and say, “Forgive me, I was wrong.”

Humility refuses to make “being right” an idol which substitutes itself for a real encounter with the surprising God in Jesus Christ, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, whose weakness is stronger than human strength. Humility stands with trust and love upon the humus from which human creatures are created,  and, I would add, humility regards everything—especially oneself—with a sense of humor.[iv]

Lastly, as another preacher notes, “…To walk humbly is not to be above someone or below someone, but rather with someone.” [v] My friends, we do not walk alone through the muddy paths of faith. Whatever burdens we carry in this world, we carry them together, all of us upheld by the unending grace and mercy of the God who walks with us and gives his life for us, the God whose power enlivens and empowers us, this day and always.

Amen.

 

[i] http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1251-micah-prophetic-critique-and-pastoral-comfort

[ii] Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 293.

[iii] Younger, 293.

[iv] Though it should be noted that “humor” does not actually have the same root as humus, human, and humility—it comes from a root more related to “humid”—having a quality of wetness rather than earthiness.

https://therandomcatholic.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/human-humble-humus-hum/

[v] http://day1.org/722-god_requires_what

 

Come and See: Sermon by Keith, 1.22.17

Scripture: John 1:35-42   

Let’s just say that the “philigopper” on your car breaks.  You go out one morning, put the key in, and nothing happens.  You open the hood and notice the philigopper is leaking gop, so you know this is serious.  Your car has always run like a dream, and besides regular maintenance, you have never had to go to a mechanic before.  But this isn’t a job for any regular mechanic; you need one that specializes in philigoppers, a philigoptimist.  You open the Yellow Pages or Google “philigoptimists” in La Grande, OR.”  Wow, there are six different philigoptimists in the area!  You know this will be an expensive job that is very detailed and time consuming and you want it done right.  What do you do next?

Well, I know what I would do; I’d start calling my friends.  I’d call some of you and ask you if ever had your philigopper go out on your car, and if so, who did the repairs.  (pretend to call one of the members of the church.)

There is an issue of trust in the midst of all of this.  If your friend tells you which shop took good care of him when their philigopper went out, you are more than likely to go to there, too.  If your friend says that the new movie showing at the theater is awesome, you have a better change of changing your schedule and go see it.  It even counts with restaurants.  We are making our plans to travel to Arizona for Spring Break and trying to decide if we are going to go through Nevada on the back roads or stick to the interstate through Utah.  We may have been swayed to go through Nevada because Linda Fratzke said there is this little restaurant in Wells that has awesome homemade food.  Our trust and friendship in Linda may have swayed how we travel in March.

But what about when comes to church?  Or even talking about God for that matter?  I’ll be the first to say that we live in era and part of the world that you are probably more likely to be asked about where you get your philigopper fixed than you are to have someone call you up and ask you about what church you go to.  In some ways, this seems almost counterintuitive.  Spirituality is at an all time high, people are looking for God, people are looking for answers to life’s questions, but for some reason people want to find that path on their own, as an individual without a community.  It’s like fixing your philigopper without a manual or help from someone else who’s worked on one before.  But on the flipside, it can be hard to talk about God, our faith, Jesus, and church.  If the phone did ring and a friend was asking you about who this Jesus fellow was, you might be apt to say, “Let me have you call my pastor.”  You know, call the expert, even though you have everything you need to talk about what Jesus is doing in your life.

I believe our scripture from the Gospel of John offers up to us what any of us can say, a simple invite to those times when we haven’t been asked about our faith, because I believe it goes beyond waiting for someone to ask us.  The invitation is to “Come and see.”   And I think the entire gospel is a “come and see” gospel.  Do you remember the very beginning of John, where the Word was God and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?  God didn’t wait for our invite.  Jesus is God stepping across the cosmos right into our lives, right in front of us, inviting us to “come and see.”  Why would God want to do this?  Because God wants to be known by us and has become known by us in Jesus Christ.

It begins when John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by, points to him and says to his disciples, “Look, there he is—the Lamb of God!”  They follow Jesus and he says, “What are you looking for?”  A simple question with profound implications.  Everyone is looking for something: salvation, identity, love, to get out of church soon enough to get to their favorite lunch spot.  Some are looking for fulfillment, purpose, answers to life’s question.  Their reply may seem odd, “Where are you staying?”  But I think their question points us to a deeper meaning, they want to know if this guy is legit, if he really is the Lamb of God.  “Come and see,” is Jesus’ response.  Come and get to know me. Come and find out for yourself.  Ask questions.  See me at work.  Come to the conclusions on your own.  Live with me.  Be in relationship with me.  Simply, come and see.

Even the interaction between Philip and Nathanael shows how uncomplicated it is.  We don’t know their relationship, but they must have been friends for Philip to go share this good news.  Philip comes and tells Nathanael that the one scripture has promised is here!  And he is from Nazareth.  Now, Nathanael’s response can seem a little snooty, but it is a legitimate question.  “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael knew his scriptures and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  It seems like an unlikely place for the Christ to call home.  But do you see what Philip does?  He doesn’t try and convince or cajole.  He doesn’t even answer Nathanael’s question.  No, he invites Nathanael to join him on this faith journey and answer the question himself.  Here is a friend inviting his friend to come have an encounter with Jesus himself.  Come and see and have your own experience of and testimony to God who has come to him in Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for us?  Well friends, first and foremost, it means we invite our friends to come and see.  It isn’t our job to answer every question.  Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious venture into the ranks of those who are willing to come and see.  Our job is not to think for people; it is only to invite them.  This means that those you are inviting to “come and see” are those who know you and trust you, whether family member, friend, or neighbor.  In this day and age when people are looking for authenticity in every aspect of their lives, an invitation from someone who they already know and trust will go further than anything anyone can offer.

But I also believe these “come and see” invitations are to be given to those who haven’t called you up to ask you about God.  God came across the room, so to speak, in Jesus Christ so he could live with us and we could live with him, to be in a new, whole relationship with him.  And in that relationship, God is inviting us to walk across the room to invite people to “come and see.”  I think Philip was excited to invite Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus.  And it is something we need to be excited about, too.  Now, I’m not saying stand on a street corner and scream Bible passages at people.  I’m not saying clobber your friends and family with Jesus.  What I’m saying is pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Those times for invitations will come.

A couple years into our time as your pastors, I was asked, “If I invited someone to church, what would I be inviting them too?”  It’s a good question.  If you hadn’t noticed, we are a little older, we don’t have a praise band like a cool church should, we don’t have a bunch of programs.  But notice what God’s invitation, Jesus invitation, and Philip’s invitation is all about.  Or what that invitation isn’t all about.  It isn’t an invitation to accept a certain dogma or doctrine, a certain music style, or even an invite to a church.  It is an invite to a relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  To dwell in God and have God dwell in us.

So, what would you be inviting people too?  Let me answer that question with a story.  Do you all remember Autumn and her two daughters? A couple of months ago, she was trying to sell her house and she called us to see if we were able to help her with a couple of things now that she is hundreds of miles away.  When I thought we were almost done talking, she asked, “Keith, why isn’t your church full of people?  It should be packed.”  I went on to ask her what she was talking about.  She shared that when she had moved to La Grande to go back to school at EOU, she checked out a couple of the “big” churches and felt ignored by the people.  Yeah, they had all the programming for the every age and whatever style of music worship service that a person could want.  But they didn’t seem to want to get to know her and her daughters.  So she took a chance on First Pres, mostly because she liked the architecture.  But she was shocked when she got here.  Never had she felt so welcomed at a church.  She said, “The church loved on me and my daughters like we were family.”  She didn’t find a program, she didn’t find a praise band, she didn’t even find a small group for divorced moms like they had at one of the other churches she checked out.  She got a glimpse of God.  She found the love of Christ in and through you.

And Autumn hadn’t been invited by anyone.  Just think what would happen if we all invited a friend to come and see and experience Christ here?  Because Christ is here!  Ultimately, he is the one doing the inviting, because he wants to be found by you, by your friends, by your family.  “Come and see” calls the Christ.  And his invitation becomes ours. “Come and see” is our invitation to the world.  Join the journey and invite others on the journey as well, for in the quest itself, there is life to be found in the one who journeys with us.   Because along the way, he promises that we will get glimpses in and through him of what every person is looking for:  the very heart of God.  Amen.

 

The Messenger: Sermon by Laura, 12.4.16

Scriptures: Matthew 3:1-12, Matthew 11:2-19

“Most people do not see things as they are, because they see things as they are.” Richard Rohr repeats this statement twice when teaching about spirituality, so I will, too: “Most people do not see things as they are, because they see things as they are.” Rohr continues, “Their many self-created filters keep them from seeing with any clear vision.” Rohr says that spirituality—life in the Holy Spirit—“is about seeing—seeing things in their wholeness, which can only be done through the lens of our own wholeness.”[i]

Rohr’s talk of filters and lenses makes me think of the tricks of light filmmakers use to convey atmosphere and symbolism. When a movie character is experiencing prison, literal or metaphorical, a filmmaker might zoom toward his face through a barred window. Or maybe the filmmaker suggest prison bars with lines of shadow on the character’s face, like that cast by light shining through prison bars. Perhaps in spite of outward appearances, viewers intuitively feel, that the character is experiencing some form of bondage.

That’s how I’d film John the Baptist in his prison cell, with lines of shadow over his face. How his circumstances have changed from our initial encounter with him! There on the banks of the Jordan, he seemed like the bright blaring light of a desert sun at midday. He was as expansive as the wilderness around him, confident in his message: Repent: now comes the Day of the Lord! Turn your life around and prepare! The people came to him and were baptized, cleansed for a new beginning inn the new era of peace the long-promised Messiah would bring.

In prison, the view is quite different.  The brilliant prophet, wild locusts-and-honey-eater, is now confined to a constricted cell. The messenger who “prepared the way” for the Messiah now sits in captivity, his own way barred. Likely he suspects he will not leave this cell alive.

But the prison bars cannot keep out the good news. Bright shards of Christ’s light filter through to John as he hears word of Jesus’ deeds, igniting his hope even as the bars remind him how his vision is bounded. Longing to know, longing for clarity, the Messenger sends his own messenger to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I’ve always thought John’s message and Jesus’ response sound like code—which makes sense, given how both are Jewish change agents, and as such, have a precarious relationship with the political powers. On one level, John is asking Jesus for basic assurance that his work hasn’t been in vain. But on another level, John is grasping at his last hope for rescue.

Jesus’ response is a paraphrase of Isaiah 61:1, which John would know well. It’s almost a job description for the Messiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”

But notice that Jesus’ paraphrase adds some things and leaves others out: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Notice Jesus says nothing about “release to the prisoners.”

As one scholar writes, “…Jesus’ answer affirmed he is the Messiah while clarifying that he would not rescue John from Herod’s prison. This royal Son of David would not overthrow the wicked human rulers over Israel.” [ii]

What a hard grace John receives in this Word. It dismisses one hope while it amplifies another. On one hand, the great longing of Israel is met! The Messiah has come! But on the other, John will remain in prison. John’s change in circumstances is permanent. John’s work as herald and messenger, forerunner and preparer has come to completion.

But John’s work as Christ’s disciple has just begun. As he speaks to the crowds, Jesus honors John’s faithfulness: no human being in history is greater than John. But with Christ, a new reality comes into being. John’s ministry was rooted in the old reality that’s passing away.That’s what Jesus means in saying John is “least” in the kingdom of heaven. “John who had preceded Jesus must now learn to follow him; the one who prepared the way for Jesus must now receive him.”[iii]

No wonder Jesus also says to John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” He knows his message and lack of action will likely disillusion those whose expectations he refuses to meet.

And the plain truth is that we are easily offended. When what we see does not meet up with what we expected to see, our resistance to seeing what is can be violent. As Jesus speaks to the crowds about John, he hones in on this point again and again.  “What did you go out to the wilderness to see?” Jesus asks us about John.

Did we see what we expected to see, did we see as we are, or did we see John as he really is, a frail human being with partial vision, yes; but also a prophet, more than a prophet, he is also Elijah come again—symbol of the Messiah’s imminent coming—to those who will accept it?

Jesus is asking us the same thing as we prepare ourselves anew for his life to be born within us. What are you here to see? What self-created filters come between you and true seeing?

Did you come here for the peaceful atmosphere, the beautiful music of bells and the tree full of lights? Well and good—but now that you’re here, prepare yourself for what else Christ might show you! Peace comes as the Messiah restores sight—and we learn to see as he sees. That is, to see things as they are, not as we are. But very few of us appreciate being disillusioned! And Jesus’ peace disturbs us before it brings clarity.

My friends, like John, our vision—of ourselves and others, of this world and the world to come, of who God is and what God is doing—is limited, partial, incomplete.

We see things not as they are, but as we are. But Jesus sees fully and clearly. He sees our world clearly, a world where the messengers of heaven’s kingdom continue to suffer the violence of those who resist and reject what Christ reveals. He sees each one of us clearly, all the ways we reject and refuse to depend on God’s grace.

But there is no easy grace for John in prison, or for so many we know who suffer the bondage of poverty or shame here and now. And what grace for grieving friends amidst the cheery brilliance of twinkle lights, the glitter of decorations, and the inescapable chirpy songs that only seem to accentuate their losses? What grace for families held hostage by one member’s unchecked addictions? What grace for people who appear to have it all, yet are forcing themselves into strait-jacket roles which do not fit the true shape of their souls, or people trapped in the tangle of treasures they’ve hoarded against the fear of future loss?  What grace for neighbors around the world, enslaved in human trafficking, or captured by systems which diminish their personhood?

It may not, at first, seem like much. But Jesus sees John, recognizes him, understands him, accepts him, just as he is, exactly where he is. Both the shadows of bondage and the spark of God’s image are visible to Jesus, who sees and accepts this world in all its beauty and brutality.

It may not seem like much, but in the light of Christ’s gaze in the intimate honesty of his regard, John is longer alone in his prison cell. He is accepted in all his complexity, honored for his contribution, and invited into still deeper trustin God’s will and ways.

Nothing has changed—yet everything has changed.

It may not seem like much, but Jesus sees us, each and every one of us, sees us as we are, in whatever circumstances trap us, the intermingled light and shadows on our faces. Sees us, accepts us, and invites us to receive him as our Savior in those dark places. He is the one who rescues us, not by forcefully taking a throne but by humbly taking up his cross.

The peace Christ brings does not magically melt our prison walls but changes our relationship to them; it does not whisk away the burdens of our lives, but changes the way we carry them.

We begin to see them the way Christ sees: obstacles, yes, but there are also opportunities in our life’s darkness for seeds of new life to gestate. We begin to see ourselves as Christ sees us, broken and beloved, forgiven and freed, and then we begin to see Christ within us, empowering us to forgive and free others.

The spiritual practice of Advent is learning to see things as they are.  But there are many tricks of light in this season! Do not be put off—do not let yourself be offended—if Christ’s light also reveals lines of shadow you never expected—or you never allowed yourself to see before. Notice the hard stuff. Notice your own un-freedom, the systems of bondage which steal your power, or relationships in which you give it away.

You can look and see these things with courage, because it is Christ within you who sees. You are not alone.

And Christ’s clear regard, Christ’s intimate honesty, is the light by which we can begin to envision a small wedge of freedom, opening up the possibility of new life right where we are; is the light we can begin to carry to others in bondage and captivity.

Alleluia! Come Lord Jesus! Amen.

 

[i] Richard Rohr, “Contemplative Seeing,” https://cac.org/contemplative-seeing-2016-12-02/

[ii] Bonnie L. Pattison, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. 1. Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 286.

[iii] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word. Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 70.