Isaiah 61:1-4, Luke 1:46b-55
When do we know joy? At the birth of a child? Or in seeing a child succeed? In a relationship where love blossoms? Do we know joy when we are surrounded by beauty, when we hear music that stirs the heart and the soul? Does joy come when everything in life is good, when it seems that all the pieces in this chaotic world have suddenly found their place?
This is a season that speaks often of joy, more than at any other time of the year. “Joy to the world,” we sing. “How great our joy,” another carol declares. And, in response, we seek that joy in all the festivities that world offers. We take a break from the mundane — to gather, to play and party, to be joyful together. “Yes, we are believers in joy!”
But, sometimes that declaration is out of step with the world some know — and even with the world we inhabit. It is difficult to feel a sense of joy when one’s world has been shattered by life’s circumstances. How many people dread the season because it reminds them of the loss of a loved one? How many people struggle each day to capture some sense of joy when it seems that everything in life works against that joy?
An old carol has been in my mind this season. I know it was in some hymnals because I remember singing it church. It is a setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” (The language is dated. That, perhaps, is one reason it doesn’t find its way into modern hymnals.) It doesn’t speak specifically of joy, but it does capture the sentiment of the season. “I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” It begins with the seasonal message we often glibly proclaim — hope, peace, joy and love! The power of this carol is in the verses that follow. “And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.’”
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth…”
The poem speaks of peace, but we could think just as easily about the way the world and life seem to mock our proclamations of joy. How can we speak of joy when so much is wrong — in the world around us and maybe in our own lives? “Hate is strong and mocks the song of joy to the world!”
Our two scripture passages for today are Biblical songs — a song from the third part of the book of Isaiah and Mary’s song. They are songs of gladness and joy. “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 broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” it says in Isaiah. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Mary sang. Her song echoes the song in Isaiah, proclaiming God’s deliverance and God’s justice.
How often do we live in the world of “If only”s. “If only I had a better job.” “If only I had a better house, or car.” “If only I weren’t sick or older.” We’re told over and over again that we don’t quite measure up to what the perfect life is. Maybe it’s marked by bank accounts, by appearances, by possessions, social status, or abilities. “If only…then I could be completely happy.”
We don’t escape that in the church. We’re accustomed to measuring ourselves over and against others — including other congregations. “If only we had more young people.” “If only we had a wealthier congregation.” “If only we had a fancier building, or a youth program, or a praise band.” Then, then we could know God’s joy.
Let’s remember when Mary sang her song. She didn’t wait until Jesus was born. The gospel tells us that she was in the sixth month of her pregnancy. We might be able to sympathize, a little, with the stigma associated with being pregnant out of wedlock. It hasn’t been that long in our society since single pregnant women were disdained, condemned, and, oftentimes, hidden away. When I was a teenager, my high school allowed a pregnant classmate to attend school. It created quite a stir. She was the first. Many parents were upset — she set a bad example!
We have to remember that during Jesus’ life, a woman caught in adultery was brought to him. Her accusers threatened to stone her. A pregnant unmarried woman had no safe place in that world. That intolerant culture remains in some areas in our modern world. We hear of the “honor” killings.
In many ways, nothing was right in Mary’s world. She was a powerless female. Without a husband, she had no security. She lived in a poor, occupied country. We might expect that she would sing, intone, recall and voice a lament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But, Mary rejoiced. Mary burst forth in a song of praise — even when her world was in disarray. Longfellow’s poem continued, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead: nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep.” The joy the song proclaims is deeper than the circumstances of life. The joy is God centered, God based. The joy of the Christmas message is not that everything is alright —even for a few moments. Such an assertion denies the painful realities that imprison so many. The joy of this season rooted in the knowledge that God is present, incarnate, and intimately involved in the messiness of the world. Mary rejoiced because she knew God’s presence in the chaos of her life — a chaos that would continue. But the joy of God’s presence gave her the ability to say yes to what God intended to accomplish through her. This joy is bound with hope — the hope that God’s redeeming presence will ultimately defeat the “wrong” of which Longfellow wrote. The message of Easter is God’s great affirmation of that defeat, for even death is conquered, freeing us from great fear so that we may live as God’s joyful, joy-filled people.
Mary’s song celebrated her role in God’s good intent. She saw that God was with her and that her faithfulness would make a difference. Future generations would call her blessed.
Future generations would call her blessed. God invites us into that same joy — the joy of knowing that God is present even when everything seems to say the opposite. God is incarnate in this world, continuing the presence we proclaim in this holy season. We are to be people of joy, not the fleeting joy that is dependent upon the circumstances of life, but the joy that is rooted in the knowledge of God’s great love and faithfulness. Mary looked far forward. I wonder, do we do the same? Do we think about how God may be using us to be bearers of the good news to a future yet unknown? How are we involved in God’s work of righting wrongs?
Mary said yes to God’s plan. God’s work though her was a manifestation of the very promise she proclaimed. She was one of the lowly. God lifted her up to be the mother of the Christ. She was fed with the presence of God.
Sometimes it’s hard to see how we are connected to God’s work, a vital part of God’s redeeming presence. It is easy in a world that values wealth and size and glitz and glamour to count ourselves among the lowly. We may hunger for God’s affirmation of our value and worth. But God does not look at us the way the world looks at us. God does not judge us in the same way. God invites us into Mary’s joy — the joy of knowing that God is present, and active; God is not sleeping, not dead, not indifferent. We aren’t to be the “if only” people who wait for that perfect day or those perfect circumstances that will allow us to rejoice. We rejoice, instead, in the middle of the chaos — where and when it seems everything is falling apart. For we know that God is there, with those who suffer and with us. And, not only is God there, God invites us, as God invited Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, to participate in God’s presence, in mercy, and justice. God invites us. God invites us — to join continue the work of Christ, to be Christ’s presence in a broken world.
Joy. What if God’s people learned to live in that joy? Not just at Christmas, but all through the year! What if the world heard from us joy instead of judgment, grace instead of condemnation? What if the world saw in us not self-righteousness, but gladness? Would they not call us blessed? And would we, could we, then be a blessing?
Advent reminds us that we should not merely remember Mary’s song; we should make it our own.
God Will Speak
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” These are familiar words for Advent. They begin the second section of the Biblical book Isaiah. The words were good news for a people in exile, far from the Promised Land. Returning home meant traveling through inhospitable land. “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!”
I was privileged, this year, to travel through wilderness areas in the west. The picture on the front of the bulletin is one of those areas, Goosenecks State Park in Utah. Our tour stopped there for a picnic lunch. That place has stayed with me because it was a place, at least for me, of utter desolation and danger. We pulled into a spot where seven goosenecks surrounded the parking area. My impression was that the terrain was lifeless. (Of course, that is probably not an accurate assumption.) I also couldn’t imagine bringing children to that park. There wasn’t a guardrail in sight. One could, it seemed, easily walk right off the edge and plummet to the river far, far below.
Yesterday morning, as I walked, I listened to Rick Steves’ conversation with Terry Tempest Williams, an author and college professor. She recently published a book about our National Parks. She talked about those set aside wilderness places being necessary for human beings. They provide, she suggested, a place for us to breathe. At the same time, they have the power to instill in us humility.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition— breathing and humility. Breathing sounds, in some ways, self-serving. Humility is not. Humility calls us to see beyond ourselves.
Yet her recognition of the wilderness’ ability to give breathing room and foster humility is very Biblical. The Hebrew slaves left the oppression of Egypt and found breathing room in the wilderness. It was also in the wilderness that they learned their need for God. They were dependent on God’s providence. They recognized the gift of water and food as God’s loving gift.
Tempest Williams acknowledged that access to the National Parks is not possible for many. Those of us who have been to any of the parks need to recognize our privilege. She noted that many, many people in this world have little or no access to places that have not been transformed by human hands. We are becoming an increasingly urban world. Some cities are conscious of the need for green spaces, for glimpses of the natural world. Others grow and grow and grow, building upon building, with people crammed together.
Our world today knows a different kind of wilderness, a different kind of desert landscape. And, in this wilderness, it is hard to breathe. When I met with Lakeview’s session a few weeks ago, they spoke of the community garden they are re-establishing. One reason for the garden is that the area around the church has been declared a food desert. There is no grocery store that is easily accessible to those without transportation. People have little access to good, fresh food. The church is hoping that the community will embrace the idea of the garden and use the food that it produces. In our area, we could speak of the education desert and wilderness, those schools that chronically underperform because of poverty and the unwillingness of the larger community to provide adequate resources. We could and should recognize the wilderness and desert we experience in our lives when everything falls apart: health, the health of a loved one, job loss, relationships fracturing, financial stresses, grief. It’s hard to breathe.
There is humility, but it is the humility of despair and powerlessness. It is the humility of a sense of utter insignificance.
“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other,” the Psalmist said. “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” the prophet proclaimed. It was not a command, it was a declaration that God’s comfort was at hand. It was the word of peace and hope that the exiles needed to hear. They were not in the natural wilderness, but they were in the wilderness of captivity.
Karoline Lewis wrote of Advent: “The wilderness is a critical context for Advent… As soon as we find ourselves comfortable in an Advent that simply sits around in anticipation and waiting, that comfort will quickly turn into complacency. As soon as we treat Advent as nothing other than looking forward to and toward the big event of Jesus’ birth, we have bypassed the wilderness for the sake of easing our own consciences and placating our constituencies.”
We see the wilderness as a place where God is absent, where we are forgotten.
But, we can’t bypass the wilderness. We might strive to deceive ourselves and proclaim that all is right in this world, but we know that such a proclamation is naïve at best. Oftentimes, such a proclamation does more harm; it denies the pain and the suffering that surround us. It even silences our own cries.
“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, all all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
The prophet’s words speak of God’s presence in the wilderness— a presence that leads toward an unknown future that embodies God’s promises. These words were first spoken to those in exile who knew not only that particular wilderness, but the perceived obstacle of the wilderness between them and the future, between them and the promised land. The prophet’s words reminded them that God was and would be present. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
Advent is not a time to flee the wilderness, but to know that God is present in the wilderness, offering comfort, proclaiming peace. God’s people are not asked to escape or deny our own realities or the realities of those around us. We are asked to listen for and to God who is speaking in the midst of the world we know. We look for the ways of breathing deeply and finding the humility that comes not from despair, but from living in the knowledge and the presence of God who refuses to abandon us.
And, as we live, intentionally, in that wilderness, we are to listen and look for our God who has never stopped speaking our working in our midst. There are the seasonal signs — all those who take time to remember the less fortunate, giving gifts and visiting and feeding the hungry. Our Advent time is practice time. We practice an awareness to carry us through the year so that we don’t miss God’s presence. Lakeview has seen the food desert — and is creating a vegetable garden. The paper called attention to our education deserts; and folks are striving to hold those in charge accountable, creating the necessary changes so that the poor are given opportunities to learn.
Sometimes, we don’t recognize God’s voice. We don’t see God speaking in the machinations of human life. We forget that God speaks through advances in science and medicine. We forget that God speaks through the vulnerable of this world who cry out for justice. We forget that God speaks through those who take risks, who stand up against the arrogant and the greedy who claim the world’s riches for themselves and ignore the plight of others. We forget that God speaks through the voices of friends and family who sit with us in our grief and in our pain. The Advent news is that God chose and chooses to come into the midst of the world in which we live, with all its sorrows, with all its injustice, with all its pain. God has not promised not escape, but presence — loving, transforming, comforting presence.
A colleague’s Advent post yesterday said, “Just breathe!” He then quoted Anne Lamott who said, “I think this is how we are supposed to be in this world — present and in awe.” That’s what Terry Tempest Williams found in the wild places of this earth. The natural wildernesses may attune our senses to awe — the humility that comes in God’s presence. It’s more challenging to find it in those human wild places. Advent reminds us that God is present there, too. “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people….steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
“Restore us, O God.” We hear that cry in our own nation these days. “Restore us!” We dream of past days of glory when it seemed that everything was right in our world. “Restore us!” It is a national cry.
And it is a cry in the church. The Psalmist cried, “You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
How tempting it is to look to the past. And, this season invites us to do so. People look to the traditions and wish, hope, dream of celebrations that recapture a distant past. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion in this season. We expect particular events and particular feelings to “restore” us to a sense of joy and wonder.
Years ago, I read a critique of nostalgia. The Christian author said that nostalgia and faith are not compatible. Nostalgia invites us to look to the past — and place our trust in an idealized picture of that past. Faith calls us to trust God in the present — and hope for the future.
Ah, but the people cried to God, “Restore us!” Why should we not do the same? Why shouldn’t we dream of days gone by when life was, perhaps, easier and more manageable?
God’s restoration never repeats the past. God’s restoration is always a new creation. In Isaiah we are given that beautiful imagery of God as the potter who shapes and reshapes God’s people. I asked Michelle, our resident potter, for pictures of her at work and she sent me a beautiful series of pictures. From a lump of clay, she fashioned a beautiful pot. It’s, at times, a messy process. Many potters tell of starting a project and having to stop and go back to the very beginning and start again.
Today we start our journey through Advent. The world around us is already celebrating Christmas. For the secular world, Advent means little or nothing. If people have heard of it, they may think of an arcane tradition with little meaning. I always find it hard to explain that this isn’t the season of Christmas carols. Christmas, for the church, begins on December 25th (and lasts 12 days!)
But this Advent season is a gift to us. Even as we get caught up in all the busy-ness and chaos of the season, we are invited to remember that God answers our prayers for restoration — not with a return to the past, but with transformation in the present and hope for the future. The Advent/Christmas season may seem to center around a long ago event, the birth of a child, but we, God’s people, need to find God’s presence in the world we inhabit today. We need to proclaim hope and work for a world that knows the good news of the season not as a long ago event to be recaptured with nostalgia, but a present reality because the Potter is present, reshaping and re-creating a troubled world. Amen.
Matthew 25: 31-46
This is probably one of my least favorite liturgical days, Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. The name of the day immediately conjures up images of royalty and power. We think of riches and privilege. We think of the distinctions between those who have power and those who have none.
I found a reading by Stanley Haurwas and William H. Williamson: “Imagine a sermon that begins: ‘Blesses are you poor. Blessed are those of you who are hungry. Blessed are those of you who are unemployed. Blessed are those going through marital separation. Blessed are those who are terminally ill.’”
These words echo Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. He spoke to those who had no sense of having been blessed by God. He spoke to those who thought that God had forgotten them.
Hauerwas and Williamson went on. “The congregation does a double take. What is this? In the kingdom of the world, if you are unemployed, people treat you as if you have some sort of social disease. In the world’s kingdom, terminally ill people become an embarrassment to our health-care system, people to be put away, out of sight. How can they be blessed?”
The world certainly does not see them as blessed. Our society does not see them as blessed. The unemployed are a drain on society’s assets. Isn’t that what we hear? And health care? Well, who wants to get into the midst of that debate? What is appropriate care? Should we treat at all costs? What if the medical experts can’t cure? Then what? Blessed are the sick? Blessed are the dying? And, what in the world does this have to do with remembering Christ the King?
Again, Hauerwas and Williamson wrote, “The preacher responds, ‘I’m sorry. I should have been more clear. I am not talking about the way of the world’s kingdom. I am talking about God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, the poor are royalty, the sick are blessed. I was trying to get you to see something other than that to which you have become accustomed.’ …We can only act within a world we can see. Vision is the necessary prerequisite for ethics.”
“Vision is the necessary prerequisite for ethics.”
The problem with Christ the King Sunday is that our vision can be easily tainted by our worldly understanding of how a king relates to others in the world. Kings are, usually, set apart, distant from the most vulnerable. When we think of kings or queens, we think of those set apart, those untouched by the harsh realities that so many face. Even those who work on behalf of the vulnerable go home, at night, to palaces or places of safety. They live with the knowledge that their needs will be met.
It’s interesting that the Christian Church has a Sunday called Christ the King Sunday. We have to remember that when Israel wanted a king, God was reluctant. Why? Because kings — and those in positions of power — can so easily abuse the privilege that they have. But,Israel wanted a king because the other nations had kings. So, God relented. They were given kings.
The image God lifted up for them, however, was the image of the shepherd. Shepherds were among the lowliest of the society — far from kings. But God used the image of the shepherd to describe the role of kings — and, even, to describe God’s own role. This morning’s passage in Ezekiel speaks of God’s work as the True Shepherd. “I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them…I will feed them with good pasture…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
This assertion of what God, the true shepherd will do, followed a critique of the leaders whose focus was self-serving. “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?...You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought out the lost.”
We hear a lot in our society about the privilege that the Christian Church and its people have lost. My fear is that we have taken the idea of Christ the King and understood that to mean that we are to be given a place of prestige and privilege in this world. Christians are the “kings” in our society. We have been granted seats of power. Society was organized around our calendar. So, as our nation goes through change, becoming more multi-cultural and religiously diverse, we want our rights protected. We want our attitudes and morals given the weight of law. We want society’s calendar to honor our sacred times. We want the language of the marketplace to call attention to our holidays. We want to be the royalty in our own society, reaping all the benefits thereof.
When that is our goal, we become the shepherds who are concerned only with themselves. We are blind to the most vulnerable. Isn’t it noteworthy that Jesus never qualified his sermons saying, “Blessed are the poor — who believe as you do? Blessed are the meek — who believe as you do?” Another pastor was on call when a family traveling through our town sought help. I called him to ask that he respond. He said, “Are they Christian? I’ll only help them if they’re Christian.” His compassion had limits. And they didn’t fit within those limits. I don’t see those limits in Jesus’ ministry. He ministered to those within his community and to outsiders: lepers, Gentiles, and even Romans.
Perhaps it’s hard to get it out of our heads that the very thing we crave, as God’s church, public success and prestige, doesn’t matter to God. What matters to God is how we’ve taken on the role of shepherd. Have we seen those in need? We forget that Jesus defined his own ministry using the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah that speak of the suffering servant’s job. We might remember that powerful Palm Sunday hymn that connects Jesus’ triumphal entry to his impending death. “Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp ride on to die. O Christ, thou triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.”
One of the challenges during Jesus’ lifetime was that his people were looking for a king and got a servant instead. He was the king who washed his disciples’ feet. He was the king who noticed the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, and the sinners — and invited them into his community. Many couldn’t see the Messiah in the person of Jesus.
Anna Carter Florence wrote of this Sunday: “Aren’t we supposed to be talking your life, and death, and all the places we’ve seen the risen Christ this past year? Well, forgive us, Lord—please don’t be upset—but we think we may have missed you!
We’ve done what you said: we’ve kept watch. We’ve been looking for you, day and night—I mean, when we weren’t busy with other things, like stocking the food pantry and the clothes closet and visiting the hospitals and the prisons and meeting with the support groups and the prayer groups—so, yes, we’ve been keeping watch, and keeping our lamps filled, but the days are just so busy and there are so many hurting people, and I’m sorry, Lord, but I think you must have slipped past us…
Please tell us, Lord. How did we miss you? Where were you? Then he will say to them,
I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
I was naked and you gave me clothing.
I was sick and you took care of me.
I was in prison and you visited me.
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
We didn’t miss him. He’s been here all along: our ragged, beloved King. He’s been in every single face. But you won’t find him if you go looking for the sparkly crown…”
We won’t find him if we look for the sparkly crown. We won’t find him claiming the places of power and privilege. On this Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the servant who kneels at our own feet and offers us his love — and in doing so, calls us to look beyond ourselves and offer his love to others.
“The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land flowing with streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.”
“Do not forget.” The Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. God’s promise of living in the land of milk and honey had sustained them through the difficult years of living in the wilderness. We might expect that thankfulness would be the foundation of their living in this new land that offered security through its bounty. But, they were warned. Bounty and security were potential threats to their relationship with God.
“Do not say to yourself: my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” It would be tempting, in the new land, to let the security and bounty displace God. Our prayer of confession today began, “Holy God, you have given us many good gifts. Today we thank you for all of them, but we also confess that sometimes we love those gifts more than we love you.” Things, success, and the busy-ness of life all have the power to distance us from God.
I have a violin piece for thanksgiving that combines the hymn “We Gather Together” with the song “Count Your Blessings.” I suspect that our national observance of Thanksgiving has a lot of “counting” in it. We’re conditioned to look at our lives and take stock — of what we have and of what we don’t have. It leads us to that “There, but for the grace of God go I” attitude that sets us up for comparisons. It can also lead us toward that “sin” of always wanting more. “God, I’ll prove to you that I’m not spoiled. Let me win the lottery!” Have you heard that prayer? I read an article, years ago, by a woman who became obsessed with the idea that God planned for her to win the lottery or Publishers Clearing House — something like that. She was convinced that God intended to bless her with wealth. When she didn’t win, she suffered a crisis of faith. For her, blessings were something to be counted.
Now, it would seem that both the Hebrew Scripture reading and the Gospel reading would invite us to see thanksgiving as something that arises when we have received specific things. The Israelites were receiving the Promised Land. The lepers received the gift of healing. They could “count their blessings, one by one” and therefore give thanks to God — although nine of the lepers did not acknowledge God’s presence in their healing.
But, what happens when life doesn’t live up to our expectations of God as the great Santa Claus who gives us what we want? Do we then begin to count blessings and see that we are better off than some? So, we have to be thankful?
If we read the story in Deuteronomy and the story in the Gospel at a deeper level, we are reminded that thankfulness is not based on the things of this world — not food, not success, not security, not even health. Thankfulness is based, first, on the knowledge that God is present, God is active, God is redeeming, and God is calling us.
And God calls us into the Body of Christ, into community with one another. I often hear people say that they worship God in their own way. So they have no need of church. Well, I will admit that church can be a messy, sin-filled, awkward, misguided institution at times, But the Body of Christ, the community of believers is God’s good gift to us so that we don’t have to do faith alone. The Israelites came together, disparate tribes, to become the nation of Israel. They needed each other to survive. Oftentimes, the prophets reminded them that a communal awareness was central to who they were to be.
I went to a cookbook with stories — because the stories, from around the world, are a great reminder that, too often, our idea of thankfulness is based on the wrong things. So, I’d like to share a couple of these powerful stories.
The first is from Brenda Hostetler Meyer. “During the first three years we lived in Lesotho, in Southern Africa, we were disturbed by children who came to our door on Christmas Eve, chanting, ‘Give me Christmas!’ Since we lived and taught in a vocational school compound, we thought they were singling us out as white people who had a long-standing reputation of giving handouts. When we moved to a rural village, we found the entire community taking part in this activity. All had prepared extra food and were gladly sharing it with those who came to their door. ‘Give me Christmas’ was not an expression of begging, but of identity with the clan. People who belonged to one another had the right and the confidence to ask for food or assistance. The children at our door had not singled us out as white people, but had treated us as members of their community. Sometime later I was carrying water home from a spring when I met two women I had seen, but never personally met. They stopped me, saying, ‘Give us water.’ I was elated. I felt like I belonged…You only ask for something of those to whom you belong…These women didn’t know me, but they were saying I was part of them.”
Mary Yoder Holsopple wrote: “One of the things I enjoyed most about Uganda was the opportunity to walk on meandering paths through gardens, up and down hills, and along streams…One afternoonI came across my friend Ruth, busy pulling weeds. After chatting a while, she took me to one corner of her garden to see what she had grown. She was excited because she had planted eggplant for the first time and they were just beginning to bear; two lovely fruits dangled on the stem. Later that evening two unexpected visitors arrived to spend the night in my home. Word soon spread that we had guests, and before long, Ruth appeared at the kitchen door. In her hands were the two eggplants. She gave them to me, saying, ‘Please prepare these for your friends tonight.’ I wanted to say, ‘No! No! You must keep your eggplant. We have plenty of food and you have so little.’ But I could not do that. I could not deny Ruth the opportunity to give of her literal firstfruits. She was giving so joyously. So I accepted the eggplants with much gratitude, a tear in my eye, and a new humbleness, for once again a Ugandan had taught me a lesson of generosity.”
There is thankfulness in these stories. It is not rooted in the things of this world. It is rooted in community, in being connected, both with other human beings and with God. There is a trust in these stories. Ruth could share her eggplants with someone because she knew that her community would always be there to support her. The children and adults could say, ‘Give me Christmas’ because they trusted the community.
One more story from the cookbook, and again, this is a story from South Africa. It was pumpkin harvesting time and Brenda was visiting her friend Me Malebohang. “More than half my pumpkins rotted in my field,” he said. “These eight are the only ones I have to keep for winter.” Pumpkins are the main vegetable for the people in that area because they keep well. When Brenda was ready to leave, Me Malebohang reached for the largest pumpkin and gave it to her. “You can’t give me this pumpkin,” Brenda protested. “You just told me that these are all you have!” Me Malebohang laughed. “We know that this is the way to do it. Next year I may have nothing in my field, and if I don’t share with you now, who will share with me then?” She took the pumpkin and cut it in half. “Here, you take half and give the other to your neighbor.” Brenda recalls what she learned. “No matter how much food you have or how many guests you have, food will go around. When you share it, it goes around. It always does.”
The Israelites, in the new land, would face the danger of being secure enough to not see the need for each other or for God. The lepers were those who had been abandoned by the community — isolated out of fear. When Jesus healed them, he was restoring them to the community, to that connectedness that gave life meaning. But his healing was not only for the lepers, but for the community that had forsaken them in their need. The community suffered when it ignored the plight of those who were sick.
Did you know that you can spend thousands and thousands of dollars to be trained in gratitude? There’s a gratitude institute that will train you to become a grateful, a thankful person. There are websites that will do the same. Many of them are focused on the individual — making one a grateful person. A few websites I visited suggested keeping gratitude diaries — writing down the things — and maybe the people — for whom one is thankful. Cultivating gratitude, it has been suggested, is a great self-help program.
The New York Times had a rebuttal to the popular gratitude movement a few years ago. “…there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table. Only it should be a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now. Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.
The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, ‘solidarity’ -- which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.”
“Do not forget the Lord your God.” When we remember the Lord our God, we are invited into a broader vision. We see others and our need for them and their need for us. Our gratitude needs to be more than words, but a willing participation in God’s vision of wholeness and justice.
Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25: 1-13
“Now if you are unwilling to serve God, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve God.” That was Joshua’s message to the Hebrew people as they established themselves in the promised land. Some describe the moment as the gathering that created the nation of Israel. The Hebrew tribes came together and, in response to Joshua’s question, agreed to serve God.
“Choose.” There’s a lot of rhetoric in our society that tells us we are without choice — that circumstances prevent us from choosing. I heard someone reflect on the shooter at the Baptist Church last Sunday saying that he might be indicative of those who feel that someone — or everyone— else is responsible for the bad things that have happened in life. Finally, that anger erupts in destructive ways. A colleague who had a track record of abusing — not physically — employees by demanding only his perceptions and approaches be determinative in the church’s life responded to challenging criticism, saying, “That’s the way I am!” He didn’t see that he had a choice in how he would relate to his staff. His patterns were long-established and could not be changed. There was no choice. His employees had to accept him as he was — or leave.
The Hebrews had entered the promised land — the land of the Amorites. Now, the Amorites had their own set of gods. And, in that day, it was assumed that the gods were connected to the land. Joshua alluded to that notion when he spoke of the gods their ancestors had worshiped in another region. It would have been a natural thing to start worshiping the local gods when they entered the Promised Land. The idea that God was not bound by geography was still being tested.
“Choose!” Joshua said. Would they, could they worship the God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt and been with them in the wilderness? Could they believe that the God of who had called their ancestors to leave their home was more powerful than the gods of the Amorites? Could they believe in God not bound by geography?
“Gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan says in one of his songs. “But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes, indeed. You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
“That’s the way I am,” said my colleague. “I don’t have a choice,” people often declare. “That’s the way things are,” say others. It seems that we are powerless against the entrenched powers of the world around us — or even against the ghosts of our past or our very genes.
“Choose!” Joshua challenged the people. “Choose whom you will serve.”
You have a choice! That may be one of the most powerful messages we can learn for ourselves. God has given us the gift of free will which allows us to choose God’s ways. Years ago I read an article about baptism. The author said that we should really educate parents who are bringing their children for baptism about what the promise they are making means. “It means when you have a stubborn teenager, you drag that teenager out of bed on Sunday morning for church. It means you choose the commitment to bring that child up in the church no matter what the world tells you matters more.” I can see the Sunday, drag the child out of bed thing. But, the other conflict is more difficult. It is no easy thing in the culture in which we live that sees Sunday morning as a sort of free/available time for anything and everything. We live in a multi-cultural society that has a variety of “holy” times set aside. How do we choose God and God’s ways among all the competing demands? What matters to God? Being in church? Or finding a way to live out one’s faith in an increasingly secular society? Does the church have a responsibility to make itself accessible for those who cannot be included in our traditional gatherings?
Dylan’s song points out that even if we don’t actively choose, we still have made a choice. “Gotta serve somebody.” How often do we choose to serve the status quo? ..to not make waves? … to be nice, Christians?
There is a classic prayer of confession that begins, “Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.” “By what we have left undone…”
Culturally we have been conditioned to think of sin as a litany of things we have done wrong. We miss the larger picture of sin (not sins) as that which separates us from God’s ways and from God. In confession, we’re invited to look at our lives and acknowledge that we fail to live God’s call with all of our hearts, our minds, our souls. Sometimes the sin is not an active deed. It is a willingness to be conformed to this world, accepting its ways. Sin is passive. When we do so, we are distancing ourselves from God. “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul wrote to the church in Rome. “But be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Choosing to follow God means that we are set apart from the world—in a way. We look at this world through the lens of God’s loving intent for us, for our families, our friends, our neighbors, fellow citizens, both friend and foe, for other nations, both friend and foe. The Israelites were soon to discover that it was no easy thing to worship God in the midst of a new culture with different values. They struggled again and again to remain faithful in the midst of the challenges. Sometimes they succeeded. Sometimes they failed. They needed to be renewed in their commitment over and over again.
Part of our faith journey is, therefore, to make our choices conscious and active. How are we to live as God’s children in this world? What things in our lives challenge that call to be God’s redeemed and beloved? What values do we choose, the world’s or God’s? We have a choice! That, no matter what the world says, cannot be taken away from us. I always have to laugh when I hear the complaint that prayer was taken out of public schools. Laws can’t prevent us from praying! They might prevent us from participating in prayer that is for public display and for public coercion. But, we can pray at any time! Jesus condemned the Pharisee who made his prayer a public display of his own sense of self-righteousness. He commended the sinner who stood far off and was honest before God.
I read a facebook meme this week that said something like the church wants to change the world without making waves. That’s just not possible. We know from the Biblical witness, we know from the stories of all the saints who went before us, that faithfulness, that choosing God’s way, challenges the “sin” of the world. And, whenever there is critique or challenge, the world fights back. God’s ways disrupt. God’s ways topple the mighty and lift up the lowly. God’s ways fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away.
We can hear today’s gospel lesson as one where Jesus challenged his listeners, and, particularly, his followers to consider their choices. The foolish bridesmaids chose the easy path. They went with what they had. They didn’t choose to be prepared for possibilities that would delay the bridegroom. So, they ran out of oil.
Perhaps, when the church just goes along doing whatever we have always done, we are like those foolish bridesmaids. We don’t prepare for the challenges that come when the world around us changes dramatically. We don’t prepare for the challenges that come from a world that seems, often, to be plunged into chaos. We wait and wonder where the “bridegroom”, the Christ, is. Why is he, seemingly, absent? The church lives, always, with the possibility of running out of oil. We have to choose to be attentive to God’s call in the midst of the world in which we live. We have to choose to live as Jesus’ followers who trust that God’s ways are born out of God’s deep and abiding love for each of us, for all of us, and for the world itself. That love will not be conquered, even if and when the world responds with death.
Poem/prayer by Paulo Solari
Choose, choose, choose
to fight or run
to sleep or read
to study or play
to be faithful or promiscuous
to obey or rebel
to yield or resist
to create or destroy
to repent or deny
to forgive or resent
to save or spend
to take risks or be cautious
Who will I trust?
Who will I serve?
Who will I please?
The crowd, the fashion, the neighbors?
For what will I sacrifice…?
Choose this day….
Matthew 23:1-12, Micah 3:5-12
Basketball player, Gordon Hayward, who suffered a season ending injury— and maybe a career ending injury— during the first game of the season said, on the Today Show, “I knew that God never gives us more than we can handle.” That’s one of the ten clichés that Mark Sandlin said Christians ought to quit saying: God never gives us more than we can handle. I had planned to focus on that cliché September 10th, but Hurricane Irma interfered.
God never gives us more than we can handle. It sounds so faithful, so pious. After all, isn’t faith about handling the burdens that come our way? Isn’t it about being responsible and capable? So, if we follow the rules, God will give us only what we can handle.
Jesus denounced the scribes and the Pharisees who had reduced faith to an elaborate form of rule-keeping, rule-abiding. Those rules became a burden which they imposed on others — both the burden of trying to keep the rules and the burden of being unable to keep the rules. Religion was used to keep people in line or to condemn those who couldn’t — for whatever reason — live within the rules of faith. An underlying message is that those who live in the rules will know God’s favor and God’s blessing. And, nothing will be given to them that will be too hard to bear. God’s people can handle anything and everything.
Anna Carter Florence wrote:
“When your leaders tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but don’t do a thing to help carry them—be careful.
When every good deed they do is designed to be noticed—be careful. When every seat they take is the best seat in the house—be careful.
When they expect first-class treatment wherever they go—be careful. When they parade their titles and accomplishments—be careful.
When you notice that they never take backseat to anyone—be careful. When their sermons are more about them than about God—be careful. Follow their teachings, not their actions. Do as they say but not as they do.”
We may not have the rules that the scribes and Pharisees had. But, we embedded attitudes that lay burdens on others. “People get what they deserve.” That attitude allows us, as a culture, to turn away from those in desperate need. Or we might think of the push of sectors of Christianity to enforce particular understandings of morality on our nation’s population. Christianity today has a reputation as the judgmental rule makers or rule enforcers — who lay heavy burdens on people.
It becomes easy to “blame” the victims for not being able to “handle” what comes their way. We hear such rhetoric. If they can’t handle it, they must be lacking — faith, initiative, a drive for self-sufficiency. Faith is about having the gumption to take whatever life gives you — and handle it.
Let’s look honestly at our world. We, in this area, handled Hurricane Irma pretty well. Yay, God didn’t give us more than we can handle! But, let us remember that there were some who were not spared. In Miami, residents of a nursing home died because of the heat. Or, we can look at the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. People of deep, abiding faith live there. Are we to tell them, “You can handle it!” And then walk away? Over and over, the world tells us that there are circumstances that overwhelm people.
God never gives us more than we can handle. That’s just not true. We know that people are destroyed by the tragedies of life. Men celebrating the anniversary of their high school graduation are suddenly killed—by a terrorist. Are their families handling it? It is possible to die of a broken heart. It’s possible to starve to death. It’s possible to lose one’s career to injury. It’s possible to die of an incurable disease.
We see the signs all around us that people just can’t handle life. Opioid addictions, alcoholism, depression and despair are all around us. Our superhero expectations become burdens that overwhelm many.
“Oh, they just don’t have faith,” we might say.
But, let’s unpack that statement. One of Jesus’ critiques of the practice of faith was that its focus had become what people did to keep faith. One was set right with God by living within the rules, scrupulously. It led to a works righteousness. It was the individual’s responsibility to do everything right in order to be acceptable to God. And that work of faith was, for many, centered only on the self — on rigid observance of God’s laws. When faith practice was consumed by a self-focus on righteous practice, concern for others was limited —or became judgmental. “You should be observing God’s law as we are!”
God never gives you more than you can handle — than you can handle. Is the message not, “It’s your responsibility. Prove that you are a person of faith by handling this situation!” It promotes or reinforces our very American notion that faith is supposed to make it possible for us to be self-sufficient, capable people who have no need for anyone’s help or support. I see that notion in the church. We’re hesitant to express a need for help, for prayers. We’re hesitant to confess our fears or our weaknesses. Those, society tells us, are a sign of a lack of faith. We haven’t made it to that stage of righteousness that makes us capable of handling whatever the world throws our way. It is our modern works righteousness. One of my husbands co-workers told him, years ago, that he thought the church’s role was to help people become self-sufficient so that they would no longer be a burden to anyone or to society as a whole. Of course, he saw himself as already self-sufficient. He had no need of the church. He also, like the scribes and Pharisees, was perfectly willing to judge those who were not self-sufficient, but felt no need to help them.
The church, in our culture, has contributed greatly to this abuse of the good news. The church has been willing to proclaim self-sufficiency as God’s intent for culture. Those who fail to live up to that ideal are then judged and, often, maligned.
There was a great little video clip on Facebook that I saw a few weeks ago. It was designed to help teenagers understand the role of privilege in achieving success. All of the teens were lined up to start a race. Before the race began, the coach started making statements, inviting the runners to respond. “Those who grew up in a two parent home can take two steps forward.” “Those who never went to school hungry can take two steps forward.” He had many such statements. Finally, he stopped. Some of those teens were still on the original starting line. Others had almost reached the finish line. And the race hadn’t even started. “This is privilege,” he said. Too often, the position of privilege leads to a self-righteousness that condemns those without. In Jesus’ day, many of those who couldn’t live up to the standards that the scribes and the Pharisees set were caught by their own circumstances, the need to survive. There’s a wonderful line in the “Fiddler on the Roof” song “If I Were a Rich Man” where Tevya sings, “If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray.”
How many in our world are condemned for not living by the standards that get in the way of our ability to show compassion? How many live with burdens that we fail to recognize or that we declare to be theirs to bear, theirs to handle?
The prophet Micah called for justice. True justice can never be selfish, self-centered. It looks at the whole picture. It sees those who start from a position far, far back and says that the responsibility for their success is a shared responsibility, a communal responsibility. Justice that is self-centered, self-focused too often burdens the vulnerable and is not, in God’s eyes, justice.
A Duke divinity professor, Kate Bowler, is a young mother who was diagnosed with stage four cancer. She is public about her battle — and wonderfully reflective in it. In one of her recent blogs she wrote: “There are some days when we feel we will drown in the exhaustion of trying to stay afloat. Days when we’re teetering on the edge of the world and the weight on our shoulders just might tip us over. Days when blood and blessing are being drained from our limbs and hearts.” She recognizes that sometimes it’s not possible to handle things. She then shared a beautiful poem by Jan Richardson titled, “Blessing for When the World Is Ending.”
Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
it has gone
it has ended
with the gun,
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the hospital room.
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
this blessing means
to be anything
It has not come
to cause despair.
It is simply here
because there is nothing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.
It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
as the world begins
“It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards…” When the world falls apart it is not because we haven’t lived the righteousness that will protect us, like some insurance policy. Sometimes the world falls apart. We are powerless to prevent that. We need to recognize that in our own lives and in the lives of others. Then, we can receive— and be— the blessing that the world desperately needs.