Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I find the word kingdom problematic. On the one hand, we have idealized pictures. How many young girls dream of becoming a princess? The Disney empire is built on such dreams. Little girls want to be Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White. There are movies made about young women finding their prince charmings. Think of the fascination our society has with Katherine Middleton who found her prince! There is an assumption that “princesses” will have lives of ease and privilege.
On the other hand, we see the flaws in the system of “kings.” Our nation was founded as a rebellion against kingly authority that fostered injustice. Kings seemed to claim for themselves the power and the wealth of their realms. We see the abuses in the world today. We know of despotic realms where authority is used to abuse and impoverish the people. Our nation has accepted the notion that absolute power corrupts and that it corrupts absolutely!
So, I find the word “kingdom” problematic! But so did God! We have to remember that Israel didn’t always have kings! They had prophetic leaders. Later, as they became a more cohesive group, they had judges who helped them find justice and live in peace.
But, the nations around them had kings. So, the Israelites, too, wanted to have a king. They begged Samuel for a king. “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” When Samuel asked God, God sent him to respond, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers….”
Kings were as susceptible to corruption and selfish greed in those days as some rulers/leaders are today! God was, therefore, reluctant to give them a king. But, the Israelites persisted. So God relented telling Samuel to “set a king over them.”
Yet, it is an ongoing Biblical theme that God did not accept earthly definitions of kingship. God expected that Israel’s kings would be guided not by the examples that they saw in the world around them, but by their faith in God and their commitment to God’s ways. Over and over, in the Biblical witness, we are to be surprised by what God valued in leaders and by who it is that God chose to lead. Even the great King David was an unexpected choice for king. He wasn’t the eldest son. He was the youngest – sent to the fields to be a lowly shepherd. God chose him to be the shepherd king – a servant of God and, thereby, a servant of Israel. Yet, David, too, was tempted by the power earthly kings enjoyed and abused his position.
So, what do we do with this familiar phrase, your kingdom come, your will be done? How are we to hear it? How are we to pray it?
Jesus’ message from the very beginning of his ministry was that the kingdom, the realm, of God was at hand – that somehow in and through him it had begun to emerge anew on earth and among human beings and in their societies. The gospel lesson for today is a collection of parables that speak of the kingdom. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed….The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”
These sayings are familiar – so, perhaps, they have lost their edge. Jesus lifted up unexpected things to begin to open their eyes to what God’s realm was all about. “The kingdom is like a mustard seed.” The mustard plant was a noxious weed – unwanted. “The kingdom is like yeast.” I grudgingly admit that yeast was often referred to as a contaminate. “The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field.” What kingdom hides its assets? “The kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. On finding one of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus pointed to something of more value than anything we have on earth. “The kingdom is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Judgment comes later in this parable, but there is a wideness to the realm that is described, a wideness that denies borders and divisions.
The parables, and Jesus’ life, work, and witness, do not point to our worldly expectations of what a kingdom looks like. In fact, they upend our expectations. God may have granted Israel a king, but God did not accept a worldly understanding of kingship or kingdoms. So, the prayer “Thy kingdom come” is a prayer for a different kind of world. We are reminded that this world does not live up to the ways of God. So we pray for God’s realm to come in its fullness.
Our second scripture passage this morning was Psalm 130. It is a lament. The psalms are the Jewish prayer book and, students of this book tell us, prayers of lament and complaint are frequent. Ellsworth Kalas says that “good faith makes us grateful people, always inclined to give thanks, always disposed to see reasons for gladness that other people miss. But good religion also teaches us to complain. We sense that the world is not what it should be because it isn’t what God meant it to be. Thus, godly people are dissatisfied with things as they are.”
Kalas is not inviting a faith that relishes personal gripes, personal complaining. He is advocating faith that has glimpsed the values of God’s realm and sees the gulf between what we know in our lives and in our world and the good realm, the good kingdom, that God intends for us and for all people. A vision of God’s realm gives us a starting point for working for and towards the values of that realm, to make those values real and accessible for all people in this world.
Kalas speaks of being “effectively dissatisfied.” I was reminded of the wonderful movie Amazing Grace which highlighted the work of a British abolitionist, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce spoke out against slavery and met intense resistance from members of the British Parliament who felt that the slave trade was necessary for the stability of the Empire.
Kalas said that effective dissatisfaction is what moves us forward. It has spurred advances in medicine and education. Life expectancy is longer. So he asks, “Do you think that some things ought to be better than they are? Are you troubled that crime statistics in America are measured by the minute? –so many thefts, so many rapes, so many murders every so many minutes? Does it bother you that in almost any American city acres upon acres of land are covered up by a jungle of ramshackle houses and poverty? Are you uneasy that the nations of the world spend literally billions – indeed, trillions--- of dollars every year developing weapons to destroy fellow members of the human race? Are you still able to feel shock that every day the newspapers report the mistreatment of infants and children by their own parents, stepparents, or foster parents? Are you content to live in this kind of world, or does it upset you and anger you?”
We could add, “Are we upset about violence in our schools, about mass shootings?”
Kalas says the Lord’s Prayer includes a phrase for us, “Your kingdom come.” It is a powerful phrase that reminds us of how short our world falls of living into the good that God intends and that God offers us. And it calls us to effective dissatisfaction, to a commitment to work for the realm that is always breaking into this world to offer hope and transformation.
“Your will be done.” God’s will being done is the true mark of God’s realm, of God’s kingdom, being present. Jesus did God’s will. Even when he was tempted to seek his own safety or to succumb to the lure of earthly power, he did God’s will. So the realm was present in and through him.
Kalas says that when God’s will is done, the kingdom is present. He describes the kingdom as having a “spot existence” in the world. “It exists,” he wrote, “wherever and whenever a single human being has given up fully to God and thus has entered the kingdom. And these spot kingdoms are often somewhat larger in size, too. when a family, a church, an institution seeks fully to do God’s will, the kingdom has come within that circle of life. The kingdom exists each time love conquers hate, peace triumphs over conflict, or fear and selfishness have been vanquished.”
This prayer reminds us that we are stewards of this world, this creation that God made. So, we have a responsibility and a role to play in seeking God’s will and making the realm of God present and visible. There is a lot in this world that is opposed, still, to the ways of God. We, even in our own lives, often choose the ways of the world over the ways of God. Kalas says that the “forces are legion – hate, sickness, fear, immorality, prejudice, lying, deceit, brutality, to name just a few.” We can recognize those forces in the world around us and in our own lives.
So, we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Kalas suggests we consider it a pledge of allegiance, an expression of our own intent to participate in God’s realm even when the world draws us to commit to its own brokenness. We are invited to be people of lament – those who see the gulf between what is and what God intends – and mourn, complain. But that is not the end. We also commit ourselves to work for the realm of God – to work to end hunger, to welcome the stranger, to be broadly inclusive, to minister to the sick, to topple systems and attitudes that perpetuate injustice. Kalas points out that this prayer does not whine, “Will you send your kingdom?” nor does it say, “We want your kingdom.” Instead, it proclaims our expectation that, ultimately, God’s kingdom will come. And we will pledge ourselves to its arrival! “They kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Amen.
I would guess that many of you learned the Lord’s Prayer at an early age. Maybe you learned it with different language. I have a decorative piece of pottery that was always on my dresser when I was young. It has the old language – “Our Father who art in heaven.” It, however, is not the version I learned in church. I learned to say debts and debtors whereas it says trespasses and those who trespass against us.
The Lord’s Prayer has been translated (with variations) into about two thousand languages that represent about 98% of the human population. Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples. Perhaps they had seen Jesus’ prayer practices and wanted to know how they themselves could pray. Jesus cited prayer practices that were not helpful. Ellsworth Kalas quotes Matthew’s gospel, the lead in to the prayer, “In your prayers do not go babbling like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard.” Yet, the familiarity of this prayer invites a kind of misuse. It is often said without thinking. We are lulled into a complacency by its familiarity. The words come quickly –not even requiring us to think. Martin Luther said of this prayer that it became the church’s greatest martyr because it has been tortured and abused.
So, I thought it might be good to look again at this prayer during the season of Lent.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed is your name.” So the prayer begins.
Kalas points out that the prayer begins with relationship. We are in a relationship with God. The Aramaic, which would have been Jesus’ language, is not necessarily male. The beginning of this prayer could easily be translated “Our Divine Parent.” I find that little piece of information freeing.
I mentioned, a few weeks ago, a young boy who found the idea of God as father terrifying – so, the teacher suggested he pray, “Our Aunt.” It is true that we use our human experiences to inform our understanding of God as Father. But, that could work out the other way, also. Perhaps we can begin to see that calling God Father can inform what human fathers are to be.
Kalas points to the story of the prodigal son – or, as Ken Bailey says we should hear it, the story of the father with two ungrateful sons. In that story, we have a powerful image of who a father is to be. Ken Bailey says this image of father breaks every convention of Jesus’ day. He welcomes the prodigal son with a feast. He tells the older son, who shames him just as the younger did, that he could have a party whenever he wanted it. This father forgives, extravagantly!
Does this mean that “Father” is the only way we can address God? No. The Biblical imagery for God is diverse, expansive. God is the mother eagle, or the mother hen. God is the creator, defender, deliverer, protector, ruler, sustainer, provider, sovereign. God is Love. God is a fortress, light, a rock, strength, shield.
It may be that we need to diversify our language for God. Kalas noted that our culture likes “chumminess.” The term “Father” invites a loving familiarity, but should not invite a presumptuous familiarity.
When I was in seminary, people were beginning to talk about the limitations of human language when applied to God. I quickly learned that papers in which I referred to God as he would be marked with red pencil. We had to learn to refer to God in gender neutral ways. The easiest way to do that was by writing God instead of he. It was awkward. Sentence structure was difficult. It didn’t flow.
But, one day, as I was writing a paper, using the expected protocol, I had an overwhelming sense of the otherness of God. God was transcendent, above and beyond our human categories. So, even as we use the word “Father,” we are to remember that this “Father God” is not limited by our human understanding of fathers. This God transcends that.
We are reminded of that in the latter part of this opening phrase: “hallowed is your name.” Kalas describes this as speaking with awe. There is a tension between speaking of God the Father – the familiar one who loves us and speaking of the God of heaven – the holy One, the Other. Theologians speak of this as the issues of immanence and transcendence. Sometimes we acknowledge God who is as close as our breath. But we have to remember that God is beyond us. We do not have God in our own corner, serving us. So, this prayer, in its opening, reminds us of this tension that is part of our faith.
Before we get to the word Father, we have the very first word of this prayer, “Our.” “Our Father…” Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray, “My Father.” He taught them, and us, “Our Father.” We pray to “our Father.” Kalas says we are not alone. We are, at the very least, with the one who taught us this prayer, the one who called God Abba, Daddy. Jesus prays this prayer with us. We have become his sisters and brothers – so we share one Father.
The word “our” calls us beyond ourselves. It calls us to recognize the world – God’s beloved world to whom and for whom Jesus came. This cannot be a selfish prayer. I am reminded of Bonhoeffer who wrote that we pray with an awareness of those who stand before Christ with us.
Christianity is never a me and my God kind of faith. It’s a we and our God faith. And what “our” means should be stretched—always. We are frequently tempted to narrow the focus of God’s concern. We are frequently tempted to claim God and God’s favor for ourselves or for a small group of those we have deemed worthy. I am uncomfortable when someone or a team prays for God to give them victory – or credits God with the victory after a win. God is claimed to be on one side and not on the other. "Our Father in heaven…” Jesus taught us to pray. Kalas says that God wants the entire human race to seek God. We remember “for God so loved the world…” Praying “Our Father” reminds us to look beyond ourselves – to remember Jesus and the entire human race.
As we begin a Lenten journey, I invite you to focus, this week, on this opening phrase, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed is your name.” Explore it. Deepen your awareness of it as you use it in prayer. Savor each word – our, Father, heaven, hallowed. Accept the tension that is in this opening – remembering the God who loves us dearly as the father loved the prodigal son and the older, resentful one and remembering the God who is beyond our knowing, before whom we bow down in awe, with fear and trembling.
Mark 9:2-9, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. We have this very odd story about Jesus, Peter, James and John on a mountaintop. Suddenly, Jesus was transfigured. Moses and Elijah appeared. Then a voice identified Jesus as the Beloved Son. Moses and Elijah disappeared, leaving the disciples with Jesus alone. This transfiguration story appears in approximately the middle of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In a sense, the veil is pulled back and the disciples get to see Jesus more clearly.
The Christ’s presence is often veiled in this world. That was Paul’s message to the church in Corinth. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” Shawnthea Monroe-Mueller suggests that Christ’s light disappears because of the excess of light. She wrote of taking inner city kids on a canoe trip in northern Minnesota. On the first night, one young woman looked at the starry sky and asked, “Where did those come from?” Monroe-Mueller explained that the stars were always there; the problem was that city lights masked them.
She suggested that there are different “lights” in our world that mask the light of Christ. One of those is human reason. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for reason. But, it often becomes an idol that displaces God. For years I’ve thought that the modern insistence that the Bible is scientifically true means that we have made “reason” and “science” the judge of all things. We forget its limitations. The very people who rail against science, proclaiming concepts such as intelligent design, are those who have given it an idol’s power. Monroe-Mueller says that faith needs to transcend our reason.
There are other bright lights that prevent us from seeing the light of Christ – that veil his presence. We might think of the entertainment industry or economic success as a goal.
I’m going to come back to the stars and think a little about astronomy. Nicolaus Copernius was an astronomer during the 15th century. He is remembered because of his assertion that the planets revolved around the sun rather than the sun and other planets revolving around the earth. His heliocentric focus started a renewed interest in science that is often called the Copernican Revolution. Now, you may have heard, as I did, that the church rejected his teaching, preferring the ancient Ptolemic assertion that the earth was the center of the solar system or universe. Initially, however, the Roman Catholic Church was receptive to his discovery. However, the Protestant Reformation challenged his views, and, in response, the Roman Catholic Church rejected them as well. Protestants eventually accepted his theory when other scientists backed it. The Roman Catholic Church lifted the ban on Copernicus’ teachings in 1822.
Ptolemy was a Greco-Roman mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer and poet. He died in 170 AD. Although, he was not a Christian, his understanding of the way the universe (or solar system) was organized became the accepted view – in society and the church. Theologically, there was something appealing in the Ptolemic view that the earth was the “stationary center of the universe, with the planets moving in epicyclic orbits.” It seems to echo the Pslamist who wrote: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
“A little lower than angels!” If earth is perceived to be the crowning jewel of God’s creation, wouldn’t one expect that everything would revolve around it?
We’re people of the 21st century! We don’t hold to such outdated notions! We know the truth. We know that the earth revolves around the sun – as do the other planets – and one Tesla with Space Man in it!
Mark Spence was saying the other night that there are Christians who refuse to believe that God could or would have created life on other planets – in galaxies far, far away! No, no, no, no! We are the crown of God’s creation! We were created a little lower than angels!
We may have accepted the Copernican understanding of the universe’s structure, but we still have a human centric view of creation. This earth is God’s crowning achievement. In fact, oftentimes, our view is even more limited – it is a self-centric understanding of creation.
If you go into a bookstore, you can find an entire section of self-help books. Self-actualization is a term that gets used, somewhat frequently. The goal of life is to be the best self you can be, to find success and happiness. Monroe-Mueller says that “apparently, the road to contentment is paved with the right diet, the perfect mate, and a well-organized closet.” That message finds its way into the Christian faith. I heard an advertisement for the Joel Osteen channel, and out of curiosity, I tuned it in. The entire message that I heard was how God will help you find success in your life. A colleague, years ago, said that he had changed the way he preached. “People want to hear about how they should handle finances or home life,” he said. “So, my message is how you can live a better life.” The gospel becomes another “self-help” message whose focus is on human beings. Again, Monroe-Mueller says, “Even popular religious writers have come to the conclusion that we (not God) are at the center of all things, and once we understand that, we can have our best life now.”
It’s a popular message. You can see that in Joel Osteen’s success. I could see that my colleague had many members who loved his message. He gave the people what they wanted. The focus was on them.
Monroe-Mueller says, “Unfortunately, it is hard to see the glory of God when you are standing in the spotlight.” She goes on to say, “Despite what some modern evangelists proclaim, God is not some cosmic butler, some omniscient Jeeves sent to cater to our every need.”
We need that Copernican Revolution that allows us to step out of the spotlight and look for the glory of God in our midst. Church is not the ultimate self-help center where God will serve our every need. This is where we come to seek the God who created all things and the God who came to dwell among us in Jesus, the Christ.
Paul said to the Corinthians, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’”
That calls us to what Ronald Allen called a “holy discomfort” with the world today. If Christ is the center, we must see the ways in which the world and we, ourselves, are out of step with the ways of Christ, the ways of God. Paul always reminded those to whom he wrote that Christ’s followers are to “be discontent with brokenness, injustice, scarcity, exploitation, violence, and death, and to believe that God seeks to increase community, wholeness, justice, abundance, peace, love and life.”
Now, the personal message we do need to hear is that we are God’s beloved, each of us, all of us. That love does not make us the center of the universe – either our own or God’s. It does invite us into the fullness of God’s presence and into God’s redeeming, transforming work. Our best is not some worldly definition of personal success. Our best is living into the knowledge that God’s love for us is from everlasting to everlasting – and that love has called us and empowered us to be participants in God’s work. The church, God’s people, must guard against seeking a god who serves us. No. We seek to put Christ at the center – and live as those who have heard the good news.
I Corinthians 9:16-23
I was thinking, as I looked at the lessons for today, that the author of the gospel invites us to enter a story that is moving quickly. This gospel has no birth stories; this gospel has no lofty prologue. It starts with John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the Messiah as he calls people to repentance. Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then he started his public ministry, proclaiming the good news that God’s realm had come near.
The word proclaim occurs frequently in the beginning of Mark’s gospel. So, I think we are to see that his proclamation of the good news was in both his words, that is, his teaching, and in his actions. Last week, we heard that he taught in the synagogue in a way that was unlike the scribes’ teaching. He also cast out an unclean spirit. This week is a continuation of the events of that day.
He went to Simon’s house. And, Simon’s mother-in-law was sick. Now, I have to admit, that I find this story a little difficult. Jesus healed her. And then she served them. It’s easy to get angry at the ways the church has, through the centuries, treated women. She got up and served the men. But, Mike Graves suggests that there is a different way to read and hear this story. She is a positive example of service. Throughout Mark’s gospel, even those closest to Jesus, the disciples, got it wrong. They rejected the notion of the “servant” Christ, the One who came not to be served, but to serve. So, the goal of Jesus’ healing is not selfish – that he wanted someone to serve him. Jesus heals her so that she has the ability to serve. And she used that ability. I’m guessing it was an act of thanksgiving and praise. She knew in her body that this man was unlike the teachers she had known. He had restored her.
P.C. Ennis notes that teaching and healing ministries are not separate. They are manifestations of Jesus’ call to proclaim the good news of God’s realm at hand. Scholars of ancient languages tell us that healing could easily be understood as “salvation.” Simon’s mother-in-law’s illness isolated her. She had no value in her society. When Jesus healed her, he restored her to the community. And, in that community, she was able to express her thanks by serving those who had gathered in the house.
Paul’s words to the church in Corinth also focus on proclaiming the good news. It is typically Pauline in style. It sort of goes around and around. “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!...To the Jews I became as a Jew…to those under the law I became as one under the law…To the weak I became weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
“I have become all things to all people.” Paul, it appears, was deeply sensitive to the notion of context. For the most part, Jesus’ context was the culture in which he had been raised. As the early believers began to take the gospel into the world, they had to learn how to proclaim that gospel in different contexts. And that is not always an easy thing.
Consider how it is the church sometimes treats the Biblical witness. For many, it’s tempting to think the Biblical witness speaks directly and clearly to the world in which we live. When that happens, we are ignoring the context of the world in which the words emerged and the context in which they are being heard. Sometimes, thoughtless appropriation of ancient words and assumptions does more harm than good.
Years ago, a woman told a story about a young boy who had been invited to attend Vacation Bible School. During that particular VBS, children were asked to learn the Lord’s Prayer. The teacher began, “Our Father,” and the boy became visibly upset and angry. His experience with a father was filled with violence. If God was a father, he wanted no part of God! Fortunately, someone knew this child’s context. She knew of the boy’s father. She also knew that an aunt had welcomed him into her home and showered him with love. “You can pray, ‘Our Aunt,’” she told him.
What Paul describes is hard work. It’s easier just to have a message that we blurt out and expect people to hear and understand it. Much more is asked of us if we are to strive to learn the context in which we share the good news. It’s often been noted that the church is, frequently, out of step with the culture around us. Perhaps we see that as providing a solid rock in the midst of the roaring seas of change. Instead, we become isolated – celebrating a message that speaks little to the world in which we live. I remember a colleague, in the early 1980s, said that he had finally decided it was OK to drop thee and thou from his liturgy. Since no one had been using thee and thou in regular conversation for years, that seemed like an appropriate decision. I still keep in mind what one of the denomination’s worship experts said, “Worship should draw help us develop strong connections between what happens here and our everyday lives.” (Something to that effect!) When our communal life ignores the context in which we live, we do not serve ourselves, the world around us, or God well.
Finally, I think Paul’s words are a reminder that the complexities of the world require many gifts. Today, we ordain and install our elders. This formal rite celebrates the fact all of us are needed to fulfill God’s call to proclaim the good news. It is a shared obligation and responsibility. And in responding, we are blessed.
I Corinthians 8:1-13
Years ago, I was a mediator in New York State. Oftentimes, a complainant would say to me, “I just want to go before the judge and let the judge tell this person that he or she is wrong!” They wanted an authoritative voice to settle things. (I would have to point out that there was no guarantee that the judge would see things as the complainant did!) But there is something in us, as human beings, that wants the authoritative voice that will agree with us, that will settle things.
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of trying to navigate the red tape of bureaucracy. It seems that no one has the authority to give an answer or to make a decision. There was a story, some years back, about a father who took his young son to a baseball game. He got a lemonade for this son – not realizing that it was hard lemonade. He just didn’t know. He wasn’t a drinker and it was, for him, an unfamiliar concept. He was arrested and charged with child abuse. He was forced to move out of his house. He was given no access to his children. Everyone acknowledged that this was, had been, a terrible mistake and that he was not a child abuser. But they also said, “It’s out of our control.” Even the judge apologized, saying, “I know you didn’t purposefully do this. But I have no choice.” No one seemed to have authority.
“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”
Authority. That aura of authority set Jesus apart from the scribes who taught the people. They were careful, in their teaching, to cite sources – to footnote everything! Teaching was derivative. It looked back to interpretations through the years. Now, it is not that Jesus ignored the past. On the contrary, he knew the scriptures. He cited the scriptures. He had been shaped and informed by them. Perhaps the difference was that he spoke from the depths of his being rather than presenting a careful, scholarly interpretation.
Jesus’ authority was evident not only in his teaching, but also in what he did. He cast a demon out of a man. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” This part of the story is difficult for 21st century followers of Christ. Mike Graves says it doesn’t help that such stories are loved by Hollywood! But, all “exorcism” stories in the New Testament are about the whole story – not the exorcism.
So, what is the point of the story? The exorcism is another way for Jesus to announce his authority. The demon named him. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of Israel.”
“Have you come to destroy us?” Graves says this story sets up one of the conflicts that will be a part of Jesus’ entire ministry. His ministry is in an occupied land. And, all those with “authority,” with power, will fear him – just as the demon does. He has come to destroy the powers that enslave. His ministry is one of freeing those who are captive – both individuals, communities, and even nations.
If we begin to hear this story as a harbinger of his future ministry, we might remember that the world thought it had silenced him with his death. It appeared that he could not or did not destroy the evil powers. Yet, in the resurrection, the authority that Jesus had was given to the Body of Christ. And the Christian Church has toppled empires. It has confronted the powers that enslave. What was impossible for one person, even the Holy One of Israel, has been done through the work of the faithful.
The story is a reminder that entrenched powers still react with fear. It is no easy thing to speak out against that which demeans, that which enslaves, that which displaces God’s good intent. The story reminds us, as well, that those powers are not merely outside the community faith. They are within. We, ourselves, struggle with that which enslaves us, that which separates us from the love and the ways of God.
So, where are the voices of authority today? Whose words can we, should we trust? There are many who are willing to speak for and about God. How do we find what is true? How do we find what is authoritative?
Paul wrote to a congregation that was struggling with authority. There were competing voices claiming to be in possession of the truth. Some were sure that idols had no power. Therefore, the food offered those idols was merely food, and, therefore, could be consumed without guilt. Others were concerned that consuming food offered to idols was, somehow, honoring those idols, an unacceptable act for the faithful.
Paul, generally, agreed with those who saw no problem with eating the food offered to idols. He agreed with their “knowledge” that idols didn’t exist. However, knowledge was not the same as wisdom. Wisdom required something more than the knowledge. Paul asked the Corinthians to move beyond an intellectual discussion about idols and food. He asked them to look for the “healing” way that would bring the different sides together. “When you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their failing, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fail.”
Authority is not having superior knowledge. When we seek those who claim to or might have all the answers, we indulge our own idolatry. Even Jesus’ authority was not in being the one who spouted answers. His authority was deeper – rooted in following and demonstrating the ways and the love of God. Perhaps that’s why this early appearance in the synagogue includes authority expressed in word and in deed. And that authority leads to the release of captives, to the healing of those who are sick or oppressed.
Sometimes people are surprised to learn that Presbyterian ministers don’t have a lot of authority. Leadership and power in our system are intentionally shared. In one way, that provides a check, a balance. It also recognizes that authority in the church is a communal gift –one given to the Body of Christ rather than to particular individuals. So, authority resides in our shared theology, (a broad theology), and in our system of governance. At its best, that means that we look collectively for the ways in which we nurture community and work for the healing and wholeness of God’s world.
Ronald J. Allen noted that this goal is not always achievable in a world that still knows division. He wrote, “..a congregation may find itself in a position in which the mission of the church is immobilized by one group’s limiting its freedom for the sake of another. I think of issues such as attitudes toward biblical authority, supporting war, termination of pregnancy, and same-gender relationships…Groups sometimes believe that their integrity is at stake and that silence is complicity with evil.”
That is a human reality. I remember a church cartoon that showed a big church surrounded by smaller and smaller ones. The big church was “First Church.” The smallest said “Sixteenth Church.” I’m guessing the cartoon was poking fun at the church fights that, too often, are trivial. But it is also true that larger issues divide. Presbyterians split, long ago, over the issue of slavery. Nowadays, churches leave over other issues. Allen wrote, “[They] may need to separate in distinct communities and trust that the God through whom all things exist can ultimately bring about the eschatological resolution. Even so, all participants should treat one another with respect in both public and private settings.”
I found that helpful. He reminded me that human beings always fall short. It was also a reminder that, sometimes, forced community works against the ways of God when a segment of the community finds it to be dismissive or injurious.
Jesus’ ministry was not always easy. It set him against the powers and the idolatries of the world in which he lived. It challenged those who would hear him and those who were comfortable in the systems that he confronted. Godly authority was not always welcome. Nor is it. It challenges those of us who still seek to hear it. And it challenges the very systems that often enslave us, even without our knowing it. We often seek the easy answers, the knowledge that puffs up, without looking for the deeper transforming presence that sees, speaks to, and offers healing for our and the world’s ills. God’s authority is revealed in our midst and in the world’s midst as we seek the ways that bring wholeness, and healing, and peace, especially for those who know only the world’s brokenness.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The story of Jonah is just one of those great Biblical stories. And it is a story. It’s a theological story – a sort of extended parable. Jesus used parables. His tended to be shorter. But he was accustomed to theology being couched in stories that were easily remembered and told—stories like this one! Theology was not a dry, scholarly treatise – but accessible to all through drama.
It is, therefore, unfortunate that we don’t get the full story in our lesson today. Granted, it’s not short. But it is worth remembering the entire story – not just a little snippet.
“The Lord had called Jonah. ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” That introduction sets in motion the familiar parts of the story. Jonah paid for passage and boarded a boat headed to Tarshish. But God sent a great storm. Jonah finally confessed to everyone on board that he was responsible for God’s wrath and suggested that he be thrown overboard. So, with great reluctance, they threw him overboard. The storm ceased. And God sent a large fish (not a whale) which swallowed Jonah, saving his life. In the belly of the fish, Jonah repented and praised God. So, God had the fish spew Jonah out onto the dry land.
That’s the lead-in to today’s lesson. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” So, Jonah went. He went to proclaim God’s anger and wrath. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And, Nineveh listened. They repented.
Well, we miss the last part of this story. Their repentance did not sit well with Jonah. We find out that he was perfectly willing (the second time around) to proclaim God’s wrath. He didn’t want them to repent. He didn’t want God to be merciful to them!
I’ve been re-reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints. It seemed to be an appropriate book to read during this season when we remember God’s call – to Old Testament saints and to New Testament saints. Bolz-Weber is a less than typical Lutheran pastor. Her tattoos are one indication of that! Maybe, in today’s world, they’re not that odd. But, her openness about her history as an addict and alcoholic is a little different.
She has a wonderful chapter in her book about her Nineveh experience. The Lutherans invited her to speak at the annual Youth Gathering in New Orleans. She said, “No.” She was not comfortable with that request. She wasn’t comfortable with teens. And she was pretty sure that the teens’ parents wouldn’t be comfortable with her as a main speaker. She found out that was true! “Parents had been warned that their children would be exposed to dangerous ideas from scandalous women if we weren’t uninvited.” She goes on to note that without scandalous women there would be no gospel! Her own teenagers were less than impressed with her speech when she tried it out on them. Her good friend suggested she was writing a speech for their parents, not the kids. Another friend said, “Oh, honey, you should be scared. Teenagers are a rough audience.” The superdome in New Orleans was her Ninevah. “I spent most of that night (the night before she went) fantasizing about ways to miss my plane, become ill, or have a nervous breakdown.”
Last week, I said we’re not called to be someone we’re not. But, we are called in ways that stretch us and challenge us. For Jonah, in this wonderful story, that challenge was the Ninevites! He didn’t consider them worthy of God’s grace. Maybe he was afraid of them, afraid of how they might react to his message.
I wonder how often we prejudge our message –especially in this society where Christian proclamation is often perceived in negative ways. Can you imagine being asked to go proclaim God’s judgment on a particular group of people? We know that too many hear such words. People know what it is to be prejudged and condemned because of their race or religion or sexuality. People know what it is to be prejudged and condemned because of where they’re from or what they look like. We live in a label obsessed world that classifies and rates people, that considers their merit.
What’s missing? The thing that’s missing is what sets Nadia Bolz-Weber apart from Jonah. Jonah was OK with proclaiming God’s judgment – finally! But, he was not OK with the Ninevites’ repentance or with God’s grace. He wanted to judge and relish God’s punishment. In the final chapter, after God relented, Jonah complained, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah knew of God’s grace. But he didn’t really want others to know of it. Bolz-Weber accepted the invitation when the organizers said to her, “We seldom have actual Lutherans on the main stage, and we want the kids to begin this even by seeing a different image of what a Lutheran looks like, and with a strong message of grace.”
“A strong message of grace.” Is that not what’s missing in the public discourse about Christianity? Even when grace is proclaimed, it’s often conditional. “God will love you when…” “God will love you if….” The thing is, God’s love is always there. That was true in Nineveh. God loved them. Judgement was for their benefit – not God’s. Judgement was a manifestation of God’s love for them.
In Bolz-Weber’s story, God sent a “fish” to help Nadia fulfill her obligation. The fish was a young teen who sat next to her on the plane. This girl had “dyed pink bangs hanging over her face like a protective visor, at once inviting and rejecting attention.” She, without making eye contact, commented on Bolz-Weber’s tattoos. Bolz-Weber noted, without commenting, the scars on the girl’s arms – not tattoos. As they travelled to New Orleans, the girl began to open up and speak about her life – a restraining order against a sister, the special ed classes that denied her intelligence, and how she didn’t fit in. Bolz-Weber wrote, “’So, are you on your way to the Lutheran Youth Gathering?’ She looked at me, stunned. ‘Yeah…wait, are you going to the Lutheran Youth Gathering?’ I smiled and said, ‘Yeah…ends up, I’m a Lutheran pastor and I’m doing a thing there tomorrow night.’ ‘Shut up!’ she said, and I laughed.”
She hadn’t wanted to come on the trip. She didn’t fit in with the youth group. Bolz-Weber said that she, too, didn’t fit in where she was supposed to.
“Sometimes,” Bolz-Weber wrote, “I’m so thick that God has no choice but to be almost embarrassingly obtuse. Like sending me a hurting kid with glistening lines cut in her arm—a kid with protective pink bangs, a kid who doesn’t fit, a kid who in her own way said to me, Oh hey, God told me to tell you something: Get over yourself.”
I think that was God’s message to Jonah – several times. “Get over yourself.” He needed to see the Ninevites as God’s children, loved, and, therefore, deserving of God’s grace. Jonah should have known about God’s grace – evident in the fish that swallowed him and spat him out on dry land. And, maybe he did know that grace. But he made that grace small. He saw it as his – his right, his possession. He was unwilling to share it.
Bolz-Weber, on the stage of the superdome, said, “Somebody with my past of alcoholism and drug abuse and promiscuity and lying and stealing shouldn’t be allowed to talk to you. But you know what? Somebody with my present, who I am now, shouldn’t be allowed to either. I am a sarcastic, heavily tattooed, angry person who swears like a truck driver! I am a flawed person who really should not be allowed to talk to you. But you know what?” I asked. “That’s the God we are dealing with, people!”
And, like the Ninevites, the kids responded – with applause and yells. I think we might picture a rock concert! She continued to speak of God who doesn’t make worldly sense.
She concluded by speaking powerful words of true, real, deep grace. “..this God will use you, this God will use all of you, and not just your strengths, but your failures and your failings. Your weakness is fertile ground for a forgiving God to make something new and to make something beautiful, so don’t ever think that all you have to offer are your gifts.”
Called. Jonah, in this wonderful story, was called. He was imperfect. But still called. Bolz-Weber said, “We come dangerously close to spiritual self-flattery when we say, ‘God used me to do something.’ But perhaps the opposite is true, too. We flatter ourselves just as much when we claim that we can’t do the hard things God sets before us. Without higher-quality material to work with, God resorts to working through us for others and upon us through others. Those are some weirdly restorative, disconcerting shenanigans to be caught up in: God forcing God’s people to see themselves as God sees them, to do stuff they know they are incapable of doing, so that God might make use of them, and make them to be both humble recipients and generous givers of grace, so that they may be part of God’s big project on earth, so that they themselves might find unexpected joy through surprising situations.
Nineveh is within us and all around us. It needs grace!
I Samuel 3:1-10
Call stories can be rather intimidating. We hear the stories over and over – and, we hear them through filters. Artists have portrayed call stories, with visual drama. More recently, films have given us the drama. So, we hear and read stories like the one from Samuel and think of God’s voice thundering in the temple – some deep, basso profundo. We would picture the young boy, overwhelmed by the presence of God.
The stories about the calling of the disciples are equally dramatic in the way that we think about them. Jesus calls and they leave everything to follow him. We picture them walking away from their lives – families and livelihood. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
“God has sent me.” That’s what the pastor of another local church – not Presbyterian – said to me one day when he came to talk with me. “I’m on a mission from God to oust Satan from the pulpit.” It was clear that, in his eyes, I was Satan in the pulpit – and he had received the message that I was to be ousted. He, and others who felt the same way, had already interfered in another colleague’s ministry, driving a wedge between him and the congregation. The colleague’s health was destroyed and he lost his job. I, apparently, was next on the list.
He was called. That was his proclamation to me – and, I guess, to those who agreed with his theological outlook or accepted his assertion that this mission was godly. I suppose I could have meekly accepted his assertion – after all, he was a minister! His word, therefore, was to be unquestioned!
I suspect that the assumptions and filters that we apply to our understanding of Biblical call stories have allowed for gross abuses of the notion of call. So, we need to rehear these stories, striving to let them speak to us in fresh ways.
If we take out the assumption that God called Samuel with a booming bass voice that shook the temple, we might see other things. Samuel heard the call – and thought it was an old, frail, man who was calling him. He ran to Eli and declared, “Here I am!” He did that three times. “Here I am.” “Here I am.” “Here I am, for you called me.” John’s gospel tells about Jesus calling disciples very differently from the other gospels. The call stories lack the dramatic, sudden impact of the synoptic gospel descriptions. Andrew and Peter weren’t encountered out of the blue and called. No. Andrew discovered Jesus because of John the Baptist’s testimony, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Two of his disciples heard this and followed Jesus. One of them was Andrew. He went, found Peter, and invited Peter to come and see Jesus.
That’s the lead into today’s gospel story. This story seems, at first reading, to be closer to the synoptic stories. “Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
What I think we need to begin to see is that others are always involved in hearing, discerning God’s call. Samuel didn’t understand the call until Eli was able to interpret Samuel’s experience. John the Baptist told Andrew. Andrews told his brother, Peter. Now, we might say, “Ah, but Jesus, the next day, called Philip!” That call seems much more in line with the stories we know from elsewhere. But the gospel writer is careful to tell us that “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” City is a very generous description. I think we should assume that Philip, too, had heard about Jesus – through the grapevine! – or even more directly. Perhaps Peter and Andrew told Philip about their encounters with Jesus.
What of the stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke? Well, maybe we need to let go of the notion that the gospels are newspaper type accounts. The gospels are theological documents, interpretations of the stories of Jesus. It may be that the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke wanted to stress the importance of God’s call, so they emphasized the immediacy of the disciples’ response. We don’t know if there had been previous contact. John’s gospel could indicate that there was. We do know that the inclination to believe that the disciples walked away from their lives to follow Jesus may be a misinterpretation. After Jesus’ death, those who were fishermen are portrayed as fishing once again. They were still connected to the life they had always had.
So, Samuel thought he was hearing an old man cry out. Eli told him that it was God who was speaking. Andrew heard Jesus from John the Baptist. Peter heard from Andrew. Philip may have heard something about Jesus. Then, Philip told Nathanael.
There is a very human component to these call stories. There is a communal component to these stories. Samuel could not understand what was happening until Eli helped him. Eli discerned that God was speaking and he shared that wisdom with the boy. John the Baptist fulfilled his role as one who would bear witness. He directed his disciples to recognize Jesus – and so, they followed him.
When we think that God’s call has to be some astounding, earth-shaking, temple-shaking event, we are likely to discount the way God calls us – through the voices of others. And, all of us are called. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the variety of gifts, spiritual gifts, and how important they are. Each gift is necessary for the health of the body of Christ. One of the sins of the institutional church has been that, too often, the church has lived with the notion that only those in the profession are called. That notion has done damage to the body. We forget that everyone’s gifts are needed to be the Body of Christ in the world.
I loved a periodical that is no longer in existence. It was titled “Faith at Work.” It emphasized the need to take one’s faith into the world. So, the phrase “faith at work” meant living in a way that demonstrated as fully as possible God’s grace and love. It also looked at ways to make faith a reality in work places. They wrote about companies that hired “chaplains” who were available to workers. They wrote about less formal ways that people made their faith accessible to those around them. It was a wonderful reminder that on Sundays we gather together, to nurture one another. Then we scatter to serve. There are churches that intentionally don’t call their pastors ministers. The congregation members are the ministers – the ones who take the good news into the world through their lives. The thing is, that doesn’t mean looking like some crazy street preacher. It means finding ways of using one’s own skills and talents and interests to bring God’s light into the world. All of us, each of us, is called. Peter, Andrew, James and John, the fishermen, were called to “fish” for people.
One of the roles of the church family is to be “Eli,” to look at those around us and see, identify, lift up and encourage the gifts that others have. “Listen, for God is calling you through this skill, this talent, this passion!” We also have to be Samuel, willing to hear those observations. Sometimes, that means we have to be stretched, nudged out of our comfort zones. I always think, looking back at my entry into ministry, that God has a sense of humor. This is the last place I expected to end up! I had thought I’d be working away in some lab, fiddling with numbers, not words! It was those around me who said, “We see something else.” I accepted that wisdom, grudgingly….and slowly. Yet, I don’t think God ever calls us to be something, someone, other than who we intrinsically are! We are God’s beloved children – created with various gifts, talents and interests. The body of Christ needs all of us, each of us, for it to be whole, for it to be effective in this world.
Now, there is one call story this morning that I didn’t really mention, the call of Nathanael. Philip called him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael did not jump up to go and see for himself. Instead he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a tiny town in the middle of nowhere! “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip invited him to “come and see.”
Nathanael tested the news he had received. He wasn’t going to jump in and believe what had been told him. He needed to confirm the good news with his own encounter.
One of the things I appreciate about the Presbyterian system is that it has a Nathanael bent to it! It “tests” faith; it “tests” call. Someone who senses a call to ministry must have that call confirmed by others – by the person’s session, then a presbytery committee, and then the presbytery. It is a process that involves education and a continuing conversation about that sense of call. Not everyone makes it through! Then, a call to serve a particular church is also tested. There must be a three way agreement that a relationship should exist – between pastor, congregation and presbytery. Our church rulers, elders, are chosen by the congregation – not the pastor. Through nominations and votes, we declare that “God is calling you!” Our denomination’s policies arise after questioning and debate. They are made and re-made, and, sometimes, rescinded. God’s voice, God’s call, is discerned in the midst of the community struggling to work things out, struggling to be faithful.
If we expect the thundering revelation, we will be, more often than not, disappointed. But, perhaps we can learn to listen to others and know that God is speaking through them. And, we can remember that God also uses us to help others hear God’s persistent voice. Eli said, “Listen.” John the Baptist said, “Here is the Lamb of God.” Andrew sought out his brother. Philip found Nathanael. They shared what they knew and what they had experienced. That was enough!
Yesterday was Epiphany. The Christmas season officially ended on January 5th. January 6th marks the arrival of the wise men. It is called Epiphany because God’s presence in the child Jesus is made known to the larger world when the foreigners came to pay him homage.
The wise men have made it into our nativity scenes and pageants. One church had the wise men arrive at the stable before the shepherds. (I guess that was because Matthew’s gospel is first in the New Testament, so the creator of the pageant thought that meant they had to arrive first.) The Biblical story tells us, however, that they came to see the child in a house – not a stable. Moreover, they did so after a long journey that included a stopover in Jerusalem.
What we often neglect, as we recall this story, is the gritty, frightening reality that is present. We either gloss over it or ignore it. The wise men speak with Herod – who is troubled – go to Bethlehem and return home “by another road.” We stop the story there. I can think of only one carol, the Coventry Carol, that tells of Herod’s rage and the slaughtering of the innocents in Bethlehem. We tell, we hear, and we celebrate the G rated version of the Christmas story.
In the past, the story of the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem was acknowledged. It was the subject of paintings and sculptures. Artists portrayed the violence in Bethlehem in ways that connected to their own setting. It was a way of commenting on the violence of their own time – a way of acknowledging that such violence was a rejection of God’s redeeming presence.
We may prefer a G rated Christmas story, but we live in an R rated world. Fortunately, for most of us, the violence of the world is something we see on TV or read about in papers or online. It doesn’t touch us directly. But it is real – way too real for many, many people. Innocents are being massacred daily – not only in distant lands, but in hotel rooms where destitute families live and in homes where violence is a way of life: boy beaten to death by mother’s boyfriend; girl dropped off bridge by her father; a child is discovered in a freezer, put there by her mother. Innocents are still being massacred in our own community, in our own nation.
The other part of this story that we often overlook or ignore is the story of Jesus and his family as refugees. We see it as a little blip – a way of saving Jesus’ life so that his ministry could happen. But, maybe we need to let this “refugee” God speak to us. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us much. They fled to Egypt because they were threatened by Herod. And they stayed there until the threat was gone.
We could just dismiss the story as an interesting factoid about Jesus’ early life. But, I don’t think we can or should do that. In many ways, this story foreshadows his very life and ministry. At the beginning, we are presented with God’s appearance in unexpected places. First, he is born, not in the beloved capitol, Jerusalem, but in a small town – and almost insignificant town, Bethlehem. Then, this new “king”, a mere infant, is driven from his homeland by a tyrant’s rage. He and his parents are homeless refugees. We, looking back, see the seeds of the ministry that was feared by the insiders even as it emerged on the margins of his own society. Even in this story, we encounter God who is most profoundly present in the places and people who are the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and even the most despised.
Our God is a refugee God. That, for me, is a powerful concept for today.
The Borgen project notes: “refugee statistics are appalling. The last few years have seen the highest levels of refugees on record.”
The project went on to note:
We get caught up in all the fears and the divisive attitudes towards those refugees. We struggle with that sense that there is never enough to go around, that refugees drain our resources and take needed jobs. We can add to that the fear that their different cultural norms, their different faith traditions, and their different values will disrupt and upset the societal norms we know.
How does our attitude change if we begin to recognize that God is found among the refugees? We remember Jesus’ words that what we do to the “least” is what we do to him. We remember that those who welcome strangers welcome “angels” and the Christ. How tempting it is to put limits on our welcome. One pastor said to me when I contacted him to help a family in need, “Are they Christian? We only help Christians!” Or, “Charity begins at home!”
Refugees are those who have no home. Jesus spoke of himself as a refugee, even within his own country. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” If we are to serve Christ, we need to look beyond our homes, even beyond our kith and kin, beyond our culture – beyond the limits of our faith. We follow the one reached out beyond even his own faith community. He spoke with a Samaritan woman and made a Samaritan an example of faith. He healed a centurion’s servant. He cast demons from a Gerasene.
There are powerful stories of the new life that emerges when welcome is extended to those who are displaced. I have to tell you about Utica, NY. Utica is a place that I frequented. It was where the presbytery was located. It was also had the nearest hospitals. It was, however, a tired, old city. But, they began welcoming refugees.
The Tampa Bay Times had an article not too long ago about what’s happened there: “Though still struggling, Utica today has signs of hope, built largely on refugees who have stabilized the population, rehabbed homes and started businesses. An abandoned Methodist church downtown that faced a wrecking ball was transformed into a lively mosque. Another mosque sits across the street from the old Marino restaurant…. 24-year-old Irfet ‘Fetty’ Covic, arrived in Utica with his refugee parents at age 2. ‘At first there were a lot of insults, they called me ‘onion’ because Bosnians eat a lot of them,’ said Covic, whose grandfather was killed in the Balkan war. ‘Now I don’t even classify myself as Bosnian as much. I feel American.’”
The article went on, “Today, nearly a quarter of the 62,000 Utica residents are immigrants, providing a stabilizing force. Between 2000 and 2015, the U.S.-born population in Utica dropped by 3,100 but the foreign-born population grew by 3,500.
‘It’s very cheap, not like Boston,’ said Jafar Mohamed, 30, who as a boy fled the civil war in Somalia and grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya. He saved up money as a cab driver in Boston and this year bought a small market in Utica called Golden Halal. He is working on a GED.
The transition has not been easy. The school district struggles to keep up with an influx of students, many of whom arrive with little or no English and varying degrees of education. Last year the district settled a lawsuit that accused it of diverting refugees from the city’s lone public high school to alternative programs.”
Out of the welcome has come new life. It is not an easy transition or an easy job to make room. But, I wonder, what kind of welcome did Jesus and his family have in Egypt?
There are refugees in our area. I read that Florida leads the nation in the number of refugees coming to our state. Statistics from a few years ago say that since 2013, 43,184 refugees settled in the state. One out of ten comes to the Tampa Bay area. Many are from Cuba. But, we know, that we have also had an influx of people from Puerto Rico after the hurricane. There are also refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
We have sisters and brothers in Christ who are striving to respond to their needs. The presbytery is supporting a new endeavor that the Palma Ceia Church has undertaken to provide support for a few families. The need is great – the need for housing, for education, for appropriate work, and for friendship and acceptance. Our prayers and our awareness are vital.
Finally, the CROP Walk is a way for us to support the most vulnerable in this world – including those who are struggling to survive in refugee camps in various parts of the world. We remember, we walk for and on behalf of those who live on the margins. For our Christ is with them.
“On Christmas night all Christians sing, to hear the news the angels bring.” It is a familiar story, one remembered in pageantry and song. For as we re-tell the story, we hear the angels’ message. And in our gathering, we share that message, proclaiming it anew to each other. Even our gathering is a proclamation. The world notices and, so, in a way, it too hears the good news. We have heard of the news of great joy, great mirth — the news of our merciful King’s birth. This is a night when we seek and celebrate mystery. It is a night for wonder and awe. In prose and poetry, we lift our hearts in joyful praise.
Yet, in the midst of our joy-filled celebrations, there is also a holy hush — a quiet expectancy. For even as we sing and celebrate, we wait for the good news to break into our lives and into this weary world in new ways. “Then why should we on earth be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad?” We are in a time and place set apart— a sanctuary from the chaos and busy-ness of the world. Yet, that reality hovers. It is in our thoughts. This time gives us respite — that holy hush time. But we know that the world beyond us waits, ready to claim our attention and even stoke our fears. Yet, the birth story reminds us of the One who came so that we might know the true source of hope and life, for “from our sin he set us free, all for to gain our liberty.”
“When sin departs before his grace, then life and health come in its place.” The world tells us that life and health are measured by success and well-being. Tonight we proclaim the angels’ message that life and health are found in God’s grace, in the promise of God’s incarnate presence in this world, in our very lives and in our midst. “Heaven and earth with joy may sing, all for to see the newborn King.” This child was born long ago, but tonight we remember that birth as a harbinger of God’s rebirthing presence in our world. The Christ was born in an out of the way place, cradled in a manger, and welcomed by lowly shepherds. Heaven came to earth, touching a world many would say was without merit or hope. Heaven came to earth in a small town, in an occupied country. Heaven came to earth through a human baby. We tell the story so that the angels’ message may become real to us as we look at the places in our lives and in our world that seem to be without merit or hope. The Christ is born into all those places, today, tomorrow, and forever. Christ is born in the war-torn places of our world. Christ is born in the harsh political discourses that so often divide us. Christ is born in the sick and the dying. Christ is born in hospital rooms, nursing homes, and hospices. Christ is born in slums and households torn asunder by domestic violence. Heaven touches all those places we think God couldn’t possibly be.
Christ is born! We speak about the birth of the baby Jesus, but it is the Christ, the resurrected Christ, who is born and reborn in the world today. The good news of Christmas is about God’s indwelling presence, not as a helpless baby, but as the One whose faithfulness would conquer even death, the One who brings peace and hope, justice and mercy.
One Sunday morning, when I was a teenager, the service was very, very different. I guess the pastor had invited elders to suggest and take part in planning worship. On that particular Sunday, one of the elders sat down front, with the pastor, in folding chairs. And they talked about Mary. (I’m guessing this service was either in Advent or close enough to Christmas for Mary to have a significant role.) They talked! It was a conversation. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in church — and I thought it was great! The elder spoke about Mary being a pregnant, unwed teenager, and what that might have meant. The “sermon” was relevant in a new way. It was accessible. It was in language I understood. The young people were amazed and energized! It was church re-invented. We loved it!
But, most of the congregation did not love it. That minister spent days and weeks dealing with the aftermath. Much to my surprise, the biggest complaint was not the format. What upset folks was that the elder noted that Mary was pregnant — pregnant. It would have been okay for him to say that she was “with child,” but, apparently the word “pregnant” was unacceptable. Or maybe it was the combination of the word pregnant with the description of her as an unwed teenager. I guess people were afraid that lifting up that reality would promote bad behavior among young people — particularly young women.
It’s so easy and tempting to sanitize the Christmas story — and, perhaps, the faith story in general. Our Christmas cards portray sweet scenes of an immaculate family in a stable with clean animals surrounding them. The shepherds that come look like they found showers on the way. One French carol speaks of the sweet aroma surrounding the Christ Child. So, we took the Biblical story and cleaned it up. We made it a sweet fairy tale — without the hardships of poverty or the threats of a tyrant king.
Pregnant — Mary was pregnant. (Or she would soon be pregnant.) Our world has changed. We don’t hide or deny pregnancy the way society once did. It was a big deal when I Love Lucy showed the world that Lucy was pregnant. I guess network executives had long discussions about whether or not they should show her pregnancy — and she was married, both on TV and in real life!
So, we use euphoniums: she has a bun in the oven; she’s in a motherly way; the rabbit died (that one’s dated!); and the Biblical, she is with child. It struck me as odd, when informed of the angry reactions to that service, that there would be an objection to speaking clearly about Mary and what was happening to her. The fairy tale was preferable to reality. The word pregnant was too real for worship.
Hmm. For some reason, we avoided the word pregnant—when applied to women. The word got used in other ways — a pregnant pause, a pregnant moment. The word points to possibility, to potential, to a future that is full of life.
The angel Gabriel came to a young woman, the story tells us. He told her about God’s plan, about God’s intent. This was a pregnant moment, filled with potential and possibility. The Biblical account emphasizes what God will do. But it also seems to indicate that Mary had a choice in this. She might have said “no!” She might have heard the news and thought of all the obstacles to being part of God’s plan. Actually, she named one. “I am a virgin. How can this be?” No complete answer was given to her — only the assertion that God doesn’t see the obstacles human beings see. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Time and again, the Biblical witness speaks of pregnant moments — of God’s intervention in ways that promise hope, in ways that offer life anew. There are many stories that highlight actual pregnancies. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah — the list goes on and on in the Hebrew Scriptures— all experienced barrenness until God intervened and gave them children. The Hebrew Scripture also speaks of life emerging anew in deserts and of a nation being restored. In the beginning of Luke’s gospel we are told of Elizabeth’s barrenness. Her unexpected pregnancy came first. Mary’s unexpected pregnancy was not because she was barren, but because she was a virgin.
That service, so long ago, taught me that our faith conversations need to connect to the world we know. I still don’t object to the conversation that lifted up the plight of an unwed expectant mother; I do know that we continue to struggle with speaking of faith in ways that ground it in the realities of the world we inhabit. It’s always tempting to look for a fairy tale message that’s all sweetness and light, yet has little connection to life.
Yet, when reality—when what we can see, know, touch, manage, control and predict—is all we will accept, we miss God’s pregnant presence.
It is the season of gift-giving, of presents. The angel Gabriel offered Mary a present — a child. But the gift was not just a child. He offered her the opportunity to participate in God’s work. He offered to her God’s very presence in her life and in her work of raising the child whom she would bear. The encounter with Gabriel was filled with that presence of God — it was pregnant with possibilities. And Mary said “yes” to all of them. She knew the realities of her world. She knew, probably, how people might or would react. But, she embraced God’s promise. She embraced that pregnant moment in and through which God offered new life.
Mary saw the reality of her situation. She saw the potential obstacles. Yet, she said “yes,” because she also saw the possibilities, the potential — God’s life-giving presence. In the church, we get caught up in the realities. We’re very good at seeing obstacles — size, budgets, a changed and changing world. Perhaps, Advent offers us the opportunity to see — to see— our world differently. I don’t mean that we ignore or deny the realities of this world. But, we begin to see, in the midst of them, that God offers us pregnant moments — moments that are filled with potential, with promise, with life. We are offered, each and every moment, the gift of being more fully involved in God’s work, of bearing God’s presence so that it may be born again and anew in a world that needs that presence.
Each year, as we hear these stories, we are challenged to hear them afresh in ways that connect to our own lives and to the world in which we live. The Christ child came — in history —in a particular time and through the willingness of a particular woman. But, we can continue to embody and emulate Mary’s willing “yes.” That yes invites us to see the realities, to know and name them, yet, at the same time, trust that the world’s assumptions and consequences are not the last word. In the midst of all the harshness of our world, God offers pregnant moments. God continues to break with transforming hope, peace, joy and love.
Mary’s story tells us that embracing those pregnant moments is not, nor will ever be, easy. The gospels don’t tell us much about the rest of Mary’s journey. We are given glimpses. Matthew’s gospel speaks of being a refugee in Egypt. Luke’s tells us of a lost child in Jerusalem. Matthew’s gospel tells of the time that his mother and brothers came to see Jesus, but he focused, instead, on the crowd. John’s gospel tells us that she was at the crucifixion. We might guess that saying “yes” to the angel led her not to some Disney-esque happily ever after ending, but into the midst of difficult times and circumstances. That is always the way.
Let’s be honest, there is an aspect of the story of Mary that is offensive. We don’t expect God to act outside of the norms that we carefully construct, the norms that give us a sense of power and control in our world. There is still something that is troubling about the story of an unwed mother being called by God to accept a pregnancy that could and would change the world. So, we tidy up the story by re-phrasing its central element. But God’s pregnant moments do disrupt our norms. They topple assumptions. They upend conventions and traditions. For God’s transformation confronts the brokenness of the world. There is still something scandalous about what God does, because it defies what the world thinks is acceptable and best. So, if we are to say “yes” to God’s pregnant presence, we are to understand that we are saying “yes” to the scandal of being God’s people who name and confront the ways of the world that work against God’s good intent. We see and celebrate those saints who have gone before us who did just that — those who said yes to God’s transformation, and, often, suffered consequences. We could think of those who spoke out against slavery and worked for its abolishment. There are those who spoke out against child labor in the west, and worked for not only its end, but for educational opportunities for all. We should remember those who see injustice around us, speak out against it, and work for new systems that are fairer to all. Voices still cry out, as they should, against racial bias, calling society to eradicate it. Our society has been hearing and responding to the outcries about sexual misconduct and harassment.
The reality is that these cries for change are not always met with joy. In fact, they are often resisted and condemned. Many who cry out pay a price. They are condemned by those who say that speaking out upsets the carefully constructed ways of our society that keep an uneasy peace or support an economic system. The world and its societies still resist the ways of God, and those who embrace God’s ways, proclaim them, and work for them may find themselves disdained and rejected.
That’s the reality. But the promise of Advent, the promise fulfilled in the Christ child, is that God chooses to be present in the midst of that reality. The world’s obstacles may appear to have the power to deter God, but they, ultimately, do not. God’s pregnant presence offers the fullness of life. Amen .