Sermon: “Mary’s News” (Luke 1:26-38)


Last week, I tuned into the concluding episode of a five-episode reality t.v. show called, “The Sisterhood.”

I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t think it’s destined to be a big network phenomenon, like, say, “Survivor” or “Honey Boo-Boo.”

You see, “The Sisterhood” chronicles the ups and downs of a group of young women who are thinking of becoming nuns.

Now, I can’t say for sure just how much reality there is to this reality t.v. show.

It seems to me that it must be hard enough to find five young women who are actively considering becoming nuns; however, finding five particularly telegenic young women who are also interested in becoming nuns must be even harder.

Some had clearly been feeling a pull toward religious life for many years, while for others it was a more recent feeling, and so they began this period of close discernment in very different places.

Almost all of them came from large, close, and deeply religious families—the kind of families where dad stood and offered a formal blessing when it was time to drive to the convent, and the parents shared their long-held hope that God would call at least one of their children into formal religious life.

My favorite part of the whole thing was watching each—contestant doesn’t seem like the right word…but…well, contestant—arrive at the convent, and having the sisters come out to greet them.

The sisters were unfailingly kind and welcoming. And they sized up each young woman in about ten seconds. Charitably, of course. But dead-on accurately.

In the end, as the sisters clearly anticipated, some of the young women decided that being a nun was not for them. More than one felt in all sincerity that Jesus was asking her to come and be his bride. And some realized they still needed more time.

But what was fascinating was watching them return home to share the news, whatever it was, with their families.

And I was actually quite surprised that the ones who had the very hardest time were the ones who felt the clearest call.

One mother burst into tears and blurted out, “But now you’ll never live down the street and let me take care of your babies!”

And one father, after responding to the news with a prolonged, and ominous silence, finally said, “It seems to me that this is all pretty sudden, wouldn’t you say?”

These reactions were surprising, and yet: what parent doesn’t understand, at least a little bit?

Because teaching our children to love and follow the Lord is one thing, but seeing them love and follow the Lord right out the door and out of our lives is something else, entirely—and it calls for a very different kind of faith.


The Bible doesn’t tell us how Mary’s parents responded when she told them the news that she was with child, and that the child was not the product of some youthful indiscretion, but rather a unique sign of divine favor.

But it isn’t hard to imagine her father responding a little bit like the father I just mentioned…responding with a prolonged, ominous silence and then saying “It seems to me that this is all pretty sudden….”

Because it is sudden.

It must have been sudden for all of them.

We often forget that—we who live on the other side of the resurrection, when the great role that God asks this young girl to play in His plan seems like the ultimate low-risk/high-reward kind of proposition.

We forget how suddenly Mary is thrown into this whole thing.

Generations of artists have treated her with kid gloves – depicted her as a renaissance lady, with a royal blue cloak and alabaster skin and a great open, oval face, and a serenity about her that is as deep as the ocean.

According to Luke, the angel appears and says to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

And then Luke says, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

And that sounds so…grounded…doesn’t it?

But if you look a little closer, it’s clear that this moment is way beyond “perplexing” for Mary, who would have been in mid-teens at this time—in our culture, she would be considered still very much a girl.

Luke’s word for “perplexed” is diatarasso, and it means, actually: “agitated greatly” or even “troubled greatly.”

And while we’re looking up words, it’s important to note that when Luke says that Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be,” the word for ponder, dialogizomai, means “bringing together different reasons, revolving something around in one’s mind.”

It’s not a word that particularly suggests serenity—it’s more of a word for a mind that’s suddenly thrown into overdrive—a word for those arguments you have with yourself when you’re trying to get to the bottom of something and don’t know quite where or when it is you’ll come down.

And yet, the remarkable thing, of course, is that for all her agitation, for all her mind spinning, for all the suddenness of this breaking news from the messenger of God, this girl Mary doesn’t say no, and she doesn’t say that she needs more time to discern.

She says yes to God.

For all her questions, for all her doubts, for all the sheer surprise of the whole thing, for all her youth, she still says yes.


And yet: don’t you wonder what her parents said when they found out?

I do.

I just can’t help but ask: how was it for them to learn that the God they had taught their daughter to love and follow was telling her to love and follow him right out their front door?

Did they think that God worked that way?

Or were they more like the kind of people who expected religion to be about tartan skirts, and not wearing makeup, and obeying your mother and father? Or about cultivating a kind of unobjectionable goodness, or acquiring a confirmand’s knowledge of the basics so that religion would, well, have its rightful place in her life, and her life would have its rightful place in the eyes of all the neighbors, going forward?

Is that who they were?

If so, then what was it like to see God leading her right out of the respectable world of Nazareth and forward into who knows what?

Luke’s gospel never explains it, but Luke writes this in the very next two verses after this morning’s lesson: “Soon afterwards Mary set out and hurried away to a town in the uplands of Judah. She went to Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 39-40).

And we’re never told if this is was because Elizabeth was also with a child, conceived under miraculous circumstances…or if the reason was simply that Mary’s parents could not handle what God had handed them. Could not handle the sidelong looks. The smirks. The lively conversation among the neighbors that suddenly went silent as they walked by.

So, in the wake of Mary’s news, it seems all but certain that there would have been plenty of agitation in addition to hers, and at least two other people in her house whose thinking was also suddenly thrown into overdrive.

I’ve mentioned before the quotation from the philosopher William James, who once wrote, “…in some individuals religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever” (from The Varieties of Religious Experience).

What was it like for Mary’s parents to discover that, thanks to the intervention of God’s own angel, their daughter had caught religion like an acute fever?

Don’t you wonder what they thought? I do.


To me, that’s also why it’s so important that we tell this story now, just before Christmas Eve—just before the great celebration of God’s coming to be among us so that He might reach us, once and for all.

So that our redemption in his undying love would be secured at last.

With everything that has sprung up around Christmas, the way it often speaks most deeply to us is not in its festivity, but in its traditions, in its serenity, and in the eloquence of a silent night.

Silent nights are so powerful, and especially evocative to a people trying to make it through so many screeching days.

We are to be forgiven, I think, if part of what speaks to us so deeply about Christmas is that image of Mary in her royal blue mantle, silently…serenely…taking in the wonder of it all.

But it’s supposed to be something much deeper, and if we would truly journey to the heart of Christmas, we need to go beyond that healing silence, however much we may need, or even crave it.

We need to say yes to God, who comes to us at Christmas, who calls to us to follow him, and to help build his Kingdom—who dreams for us that as we near the end of our lives, we will be able to look back with a clear conscience and a full heart, and the sense that, when it mattered, we did our very best to follow His rules and nobody else’s.

God came down at Christmas so that you and I, and those we love, and those we seek to serve—and in the fullness of time, all people and all Creation—would catch that acute fever that Mary had.

God came down at Christmas so that for all our questions, for all our doubts, for all the sheer surprise of the whole thing, we might say yes to Him.

Take us where it may. Ask of us what He will.

God came down at Christmas so that whether our faith leads us out the door or right back in, off to the convent or onto some entirely different stage, among the respectable or the downright scandalous, all our paths would lead us back to Him.

At Christmas, we celebrate the beginning of that journey.

And we pray for the grace and courage to set out in search.

“The Grace of Last Minute Shopping”

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Hard to believe that we’re one week away from Christmas Eve. Time to start my shopping.

I know, I know.

Some of you have been done for weeks. Months. You’re feeling anxious because you think some of your wrapped presents might look even better with different colored bows on them.

I admire you.

As someone who has had to wrap presents in the old newspaper next to the fireplace, using duct tape, because the more customary supplies had not lasted, I admire you.

I love your careful systems, and the time and effort you have dedicated to finding the perfect gift and presenting it in the perfect way.

But that’s not for me.

You may disagree, but by starting my shopping so close to Christmas, I like to think that I have allowed more room for the Holy Spirit in my own gift-giving.

It’s also true that, now, with every store’s supplies depleted, the “obvious gifts” have all been taken.

Yes, I suppose I could just go “expensive” and be done. Instead, I look upon all of the picked-through and passed-over things with eyes of love, trying to discern which ones among them will speak to someone’s heart, maybe starting out by eliciting compassion, but in time become things loved for their own sake.

O.k., so there was the year I got my mother a “Salad Shooter” for the second year in a row.

That wasn’t so great then. But isn’t the story priceless now? Isn’t that really the reason for the season?

Permit me to suggest that the suffering you endured by going to the mall at noon on a weekend in December seems more like an Easter thing than a Christmas one.

Even worse, I know someone whose mother, years ago, nearly got into a fistfight with a tough little grandmother at the “Toys R Us” in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in over a Cabbage Patch doll.

By contrast, when you start your shopping on Christmas Eve, there is always room at the inn–friends, the mall is your oyster.

Better yet, there is the deep camaraderie of other shoppers on which to rely. All ages and conditions of men are as one at Crabtree and Evelyn on Christmas Eve: “Hey, what’s ‘verbena’? Is she gonna want that?” “Is scented talcum a thing?”

In its own way, it is a foretaste of the Kingdom.

Theologically, let us allow that my approach is arguably more in the Spirit of Protestantism itself.

After all, whose Christmas shopping is a thing of “works-righteousness,” designed to make some claim on holiness, some human-based righteousness, and whose shopping can be said to rely solely on the Providence of God?

Ahem. That’s what I thought.

Finally, you cannot know what is in my heart as late afternoon becomes evening on Christmas Eve, and the lights and noise of the world diminish, and I drive home quietly with such as I have to offer those who love me, thinking of them and of these days, and with my heart full.

No gift could ever repay, nor words express the depth of my gratitude that God has chosen them to journey with me, and it is only with His help that I find ways to live out that gratitude.

Whatever else Christmas is or isn’t, and whatever else I plan for well-ahead or do only at the last minute, I always discover that gratitude anew. And I rejoice.

For those who journey elsewhere this week, Godspeed. For those who remain, hope to see you Christmas Eve.
See you in church,

Sermon: “The Great Tear-Down” (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)


In January 1980, my parents bought a sweet, but unprepossessing little house in Brooklyn—the former carriage house of a church that was itself limping along at the end of our block.

On the day we moved in, the ground floor of the house was a three-car garage.

When my father pleasantly told one of our new neighbors that we had big plans for the house, and that we were going to fix it up, and convert the garage into our living room, the neighbor started arguing.

It turned out he had one of the three parking spots, and wanted to convince us that the place was better off being left exactly as it was.

That turned out to be a minority view.

Over the next year or so, my parents began talking with architects and others about their plans for a major renovation. And time after time, the architect would arrive and try to talk them into changing everything—into tearing the house down and starting over.

The most memorable to me was the one who arrived, flashed a big dramatic smile, looked at my mother and said, “The moment I saw you folks, I could tell you were land people.”

I’m still not sure what that means.

But I can tell you that, to him, it mostly meant a new three-story house on the front of the lot, with our little carriage house becoming a mother-in-law apartment and laundry room at the back.

Eventually, of course, the plans came together and what emerged was a wonderful place—thanks almost entirely to my mother, who could see potential that nobody else could see.

But it was an education for all of us.

And it’s no exaggeration to say that at almost every step of the way, the idea of renovating an old house—of repairing what was broken and giving it new life—seemed downright crazy to many.

It was then I learned that repairing what is broken can be a radical act, indeed.

Throwing it away—tearing something down and starting over simply because, well, why on earth wouldn’t you just do that?—makes a lot more sense to a lot more people.

This past summer, as Tony Izzi was putting the finishing touches on a car he had been lovingly restoring for several months, Grace asked me if his car was broken.

“Not really,” I explained. “He is fixing his car for fun.”

“Why doesn’t he want a new car?” was her response.

…How early it starts….

Time will tell, I guess, if Grace comes to understand this particular kind of fun.

As I said, repairing what is broken can be a radical act, indeed.


 This morning’s Scripture from Isaiah is also, at its heart, a promise about rebuilding.

“They shall build up the ancient ruins,” he says, “they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4).

And what he’s talking about is the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

He is imagining the day when God’s people, exiled in Babylon when these words were written, will be freed to return home—freed to get about the work of rebuilding their lives—rebuilding their civilization—rebuilding the walls of their city, and of the Temple, which had become the center of their faith.

What Isaiah is imagining is a new start, of course, but not a tear down. It’s an act of renewal, a renovation—a faithful process of bringing new life to old stones.

We tell it at Christmas because of its opening lines, which read, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” (61:1-2).

It is a reasonable job description for Jesus, of course.

In fact, Luke’s Gospel even tells us that it is these very words that Jesus reads in his home synagogue at Nazareth, before he shocks them all by adding: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4).

The hometown crowd doesn’t like that.

They don’t like that the carpenter’s son, who was a nice enough kid but always a little out there, is suddenly looking at the old, old promises of Israel’s prophets and acting like he’s looking in the mirror.

They don’t like to have the ancient promise of the messiah mocked in this way, which is, for sure, how it sounds to them, because Jesus the carpenter’s son isn’t anyone’s idea of a messiah – except maybe for his mother’s, and there were plenty of rumors about her in her own right, and about that convenient little out of town trip down to Bethlehem all those years ago….

The people of Bethlehem, the hometown crowd, doesn’t like hearing these words from Isaiah quoted back at them—not by him—not by Jesus—not when he says that today these words have been fulfilled in their hearing because, Lord, look around: how could that be?

The messiah they were hoping for was a lot more like your typical leading man.

To hear Jesus claiming the mantle? That was like sending in Ryan Gosling to star in a John Wayne movie, and…just…come on….

And that’s true because, on some level, they are seeing what’s ahead, what’s on the horizon, as a massive tear-down.

That Rome’s unjust occupation will be torn down. That the misery of the people will be torn down. That the power and influence of the faithless collaborators among them will be exposed and torn down.

That a great general, a military commander will come from among them, somewhere, and yes, maybe he would be as improbable as King David himself had been at first, or even Moses…but wherever it was he would come from, he would be tough as nails and destined to win.

And that’s what they were looking for.

Because that tearing down was going to be glorious. Truth be known, they could hardly wait for the messiah to show up with his wrecking ball.


 And so when Jesus reminds them about Isaiah, reminds them about rebuilding, and calls them to renewal, maybe the real issue isn’t even that Jesus suggests that he is the fulfillment of that Scripture.

Maybe the real issue is that what Jesus says, and what Isaiah says, is that the real work is the work of rebuilding. The work of repairing.

Much as we dream of starting fresh, starting over—of sweeping aside what’s broken and moving on—the fact is, we can’t.

And we can’t because most of what’s really broken in our world is in ourselves.

We can’t just throw away our own brokenness, however much we might like to.

By way of analogy: a story caught my eye this week about how Atlantic City is falling on hard times, again, with many of its casinos already closing or soon to close.

It has gotten so bad, in fact, that not only has Donald Trump pulled up stakes from Atlantic City. He sold his casinos there about two years ago, before things got bad.

But now, he is apparently suing the people who bought his casinos so that he can have his name removed from the buildings entirely so that his name won’t be associated with their seemingly inevitable bankruptcy.

Now, in fairness, most of us don’t have to think of ourselves as a brand the way Donald Trump does.

And yet, on some level, it comes across as if he’s trying to wipe his fingerprints off of the city and simply sneak away.

Who wouldn’t?

Whether it’s a bad investment, or a bad marriage, a bad career choice or a bad attitude, in general, who wouldn’t want to sneak away?

And yet, however much we might like to, we can’t just throw away our own brokenness—and though it is hard to admit, so much of what’s broken in our lives comes from within us, and not from outside us.

The real bankruptcy is us.

As a result, even when we succeed in sneaking away, so often we find that, wherever it is that we gravitate to next, the same old problems return.

Because the real problem is that we have not changed.


Christmas is a way to acknowledge the coming of a new and better world.

A new and better you and me.

The language of the Church in these weeks before Christmas is often the language of the end of the world—the language of tearing down, of a raging fire that will destroy all that is unworthy and refine all that is worthy in us and in our world.

But today, we are called to remember that the real work—the real message of Christmas—is not pointing to a work of destruction, but rather, toward a labor of love…toward a patient rebuilding….toward a dedicated repairing of all that is broken in the world…beginning with all that is broken within us.

The Messiah comes, not as a general who will sweep away all oppression, but as the Holy Child, whose vulnerability will teach us to see the vulnerability in all of us, ourselves included, and teach us to become, not warriors, but peacemakers.

The Messiah comes as one who will destroy all that is false in the world, and in our lives, not with the might of his hand, but with the depth of his truth and the wonder of his love.

He comes not to tear things down, but to lift us up, because he sees potential in us that maybe nobody else has ever quite managed to see.

He comes because he knows that there is life in us yet…and, namely, that there is life in us, if only we will come to recognize the life that is in him.

Crafting Something Deeper at Christmas

craft fair

Yesterday afternoon, I was trying to get Grace to her guitar lesson, which happens to be held at another church nearby. To avoid the pouring rain, we detoured through a long hallway connecting the sanctuary to the Parish Hall.

Big mistake.

It was a whirlwind of tables, tupperware crates, and talking on cell phones — as an army of vendors was frantically setting up for a Christmas Craft Bazaar, due to start in 90 minutes. They eyed us warily at first as we moved through, as if they wondered if we were early-birds who had somehow snuck in, two experienced craft-show-goers looking to close a few quick deals before the hapless vendors were really ready for wheeling and dealing. I tried to hold the guitar a little higher, as a token of our purposes, but it was hard to notice–maybe it was just too out of context for them to offer any helpful explanation.

It made me grateful for the relative civility and easy passage through the halls here at our own Craft Fair last month.

But I was also reminded of some of the perennial hazards of the Christmas season. Because like those vendors, at Christmas, we often end up doing so much rushing around, don’t we? Busy as we are, sometimes we become blind to the true purposes of others we encounter–that shopper in the parking lot who finds a spot in the nanosecond before we see it, that grandparent who calls to discuss “The Plan” before we’re quite ready with the details they’re seeking, the coworker who lost her mother last summer and is inconveniently needy and not-together, even though she is not talking about her grief.

It’s a sad irony that during a season in which we are called to notice one another with particular diligence and affection, we can become too busy to see one another clearly, much less warmly. The context of our own rushing can give us tunnel vision for everything and everyone else.

I hope that in the next few weeks, you’ll seek out moments where you can for slowing down and asking God who it is you need to be noticing, and where it is you need to be looking. And I hope you’ll feel the delight of being seen…and maybe even found, too.

Sermon: Breathing Room (Isaiah 11:1-10)


For me, personally, over the last few days, it has been so very strange and so particularly unsettling to see t.v. coverage of the streets of New York filled with people, weary and hurt and baffled…and marching peacefully through places that I know well.

They have been marching in places like Times Square and Grand Central Station, and even the 79th entrance ramp to the West Side Highway.

That last one is hardly a cherished landmark, but, as it happens, it is a block away from a school where I used to work, and so it was strange to see cameras and crowds and news happening in a place that feels so powerfully familiar.

Last week in this time, I preached about weariness, and about how strange and yet fitting it is that the weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, might begin on that note.

Weariness comes from many different directions these days, and we acknowledged that. We did not acknowledge Michael Brown or Ferguson, by name last week, but I also had them in mind, and maybe you did, too.

And now this week, we have another situation, surrounding the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island—a situation that voices as different as Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly have both said they find troubling.

So, seeing those pictures on t.v. was a reminder to me about how we are all caught up in these questions, and how we are all surrounded by the challenge of how to respond.

If we are inclined to think that what’s happening on the ground elsewhere need not be on our radar, well, it seems fair to say that the ground might just be shifting underneath our feet.

Of course, some of us here today can remember another December 7th …December 7, 1941…when it also must have seemed as if the ground was shifting underneath everyone’s feet, and the problems surrounding people in other places suddenly became not so nearly far away.

It is heavy, indeed, to think about all that. Confronting it daily is, of course, much, much heavier.
“WE CAN’T BREATHE” said a headline in the Daily News. So many people feel as if they can’t.

And yet, as we return to the words of Isaiah this morning, it’s clear that Isaiah can. That Isaiah is not weary.

Isaiah is talking about new life this morning—about trees that were cut off at the root, leaving only the stump behind, suddenly growing new branches…suddenly showing signs of life—and it’s an image of old, abandoned promises being rekindled, re-inhabited.

And instead of looking around and despairing about everything that is not right, Isaiah talks about the remarkable one who is to come, in whom God’s people will find a way to make things right, at last.
His eyes are on the future, and what Isaiah sees is good.

The bad marriage of God’s people and the world, which seems to bring out the worst in everyone, will be transformed, and a second honeymoon will one day come.

Liz and I were once at a dinner party where another couple we didn’t know began squabbling right in front of everyone.

It was all very subtle at the beginning. One of them would tell a story or make a point, and the other would smile at the rest of us, and then politely correct some detail.

But as the evening wore on, the smiles were fewer, and the corrections grew more pointed in both directions, and I began to wonder what would happen the minute they got in the car to go home.

We never did see that couple again, and it seems like mere curiosity on my part to ask the host from that evening about what has become of that unhappy couple in the years since then.

But I’ve always hoped they were able to find a way forward from where they were. Some way to be transformed together. To fall back in love.

Isaiah might jump in here and remind us that, in fact, the road forward is a winding road, a road that loops backward into the past before it turns and heads over the horizon into the future.

For Isaiah, transformation, becoming something new, is also a process of un-becoming, a kind of dismantling of the person we have learned to be in order that we might be free to become a new person.

Many years later, the Apostle Paul would say, “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

And Isaiah imagines a world transformed by the Holy One, and gives his vision of the peaceable kingdom that will unfold once the Holy One, God’s messiah, at last arrives.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,” he says, “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isaiah 11:6-8).

It is a stunning vision, that peaceable kingdom. A vision of new creatures, indeed.

But let’s be real.

If the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling shall learn, one day, to lie down together, it is not because they simply decide that, going forward, they are going to love one another.

The peaceable kingdom will only come as the old nature gets patiently dismantled, and the old antagonisms of the way things are enter a process of un-becoming, a journey backward, and then forward, that will slowly lead beyond the horizon to a new, transformed Creation.

Why does Christmas have the power over us that it does?

Maybe it’s because it has power like no other time of year quite does – a power to take us back, to remind us of the people we once were – to put us back in touch with the hopes we once held, and the visions that moved us.

Whatever we have become in the years since, whatever life with all its challenges and indignities has done to us, at Christmas we find a way back—a way back to a moment when our joys were more pure, and our loyalties less divided.

If we want, we can let this be a short, nostalgic little breather before we get back to the grind.
But Isaiah seems to point to another possibility.

Isaiah seems to suggest that in these days, as we reconnect with old promises, and old dreams, we might find the energy to un-become some of what we’ve let ourselves turn into—that we might dismantle some of what we have constructed, and if we have somehow become a wolf, or a leopard, or a lion, we might yet be part of a new Creation, a part of the peaceable kingdom that is coming, and which will be running along different lines.

But in a very real way, the peaceable kingdom depends on how we learn to un-become the people our petty shortcomings and our grievous sins have turned us into.

And the peaceable kingdom depends on how we dismantle the world that our brokenness has taught us to build.

More and more these days, I’m feeling that call to dismantle what is broken. What’s broken in the world and what is broken in me.

More and more, I find myself honor-bound, conscience-stricken, and just plain ready to try to see those things clearly.

I love Christmas. But maybe it’s time we gave up our hope of a future without coming to terms of what it is in us and in our world that got us to this place where we are.

Because only as we take account of such things that we can expect to see the road turn toward a place of wholeness, a place of peace and justice and hope, a place where the shalom of God will permanently dwell.

These are days when, in so many different ways, it seems as if the ground is shifting beneath our feet—days when so many of God’s children choke to say that they can’t breathe.

Perhaps Christmas seems like a temporary antidote to all that unpleasantness.

But this morning, Isaiah, at least as the Church has read him, says that Christmas is not just a temporary antidote, but a permanent solution.

It’s not a breather. It’s a call to action. And especially, it is a call to action for those of us who can breathe in these days to come to the aid of those who cannot.

Isaiah promises that:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

And at Christmas, the part that jumps out at us is the part about the child.

That child leads us to un-becoming, so that we might learn to conduct ourselves aright.

That child leads us into the patient dismantling of all that has lead us astray.

That child comes to guide us, so that in Him, we might finally become the people of his way.

That child comes to begin a whole new era, when the old divisions will be no more, and peace with justice will reign and you and I will be transformed with all Creation.

That child comes so that we all might breathe again.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…and a little child shall lead them.”

Lord, may it be so. May it be soon. May there be a place for me there…and one for you…and one for each and every one.

Newsletter: What can we learn from an Advent calendar?

advent calendar

Dear Friends of Second Church,

…My devotional book for Advent this year is Rev. Quinn Caldwell’s “All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas,” and he has a lovely reflection about Advent calendars…which has helped me to do a little reflecting of my own…

Grace and Emily are enjoying their “chocolate a day” Advent calendars, a gift from Grace’s magical godmother, Laurel.

Finding the correct number for the day seems like the hardest part, especially for Emily, because honestly, who cares about the technical difference between the number 1 and the number 11 when you are not even three years old, and there is chocolate on the other side of each little paper door?

But Grace is very dutiful about making sure she is only consuming the assigned chocolate for the day, and she always pauses politely to examine the little chocolate picture first.

“Look, Poppy…it’s a candle.” “Hey, it’s a…is that a ball or an apple?” She always wants to know.

When I was growing up, I found some windows in the Advent calendar more satisfying than others. I liked the ones that let you glimpse into a little room and imagine a whole little Christmas world. The tantalizing, big window that turned out to be nothing more than a picture of a big, steaming cup of hot chocolate or a teddy bear? Ho hum.

I didn’t realize it then, but those calendars were offering an important education about Advent. Because like those calendars, Advent is about discovery, and especially about discovering something holy and precious that might be very small: say, in a cup of hot chocolate, or a candle in the window, or an old bear pressed back into service for the season. Advent is about waiting and expectation, and about working through our own impulses to be disappointed when we don’t get exactly what we think we want–and about doing that working through so that we can discover the beauty of whatever it is we encounter.

Because focusing exclusively what we think we want is an inadequate way of living, and especially so for people who put their faith in a God who offers us more than we can ever ask or imagine.

I hope you will seek a renewed relationship to that God, our God, in these days before Christmas. Seeing the holiness of small things is a great way to start.

Sermon: “Weary, Not Cheery” (Isaiah 40:21-31)

This time of year, if you go to the mall and the conditions are right, you can encounter one version of what the Christmas story is—and it’s done beautifully.

Years ago, right around now, I was in the Williams-Sonoma at the Westchester Mall, and I heard a young man turn to the young woman he was with and say, “Don’t you wish we could just have Christmas here? Right in the store? Sitting at that table? With those plates and those napkins and stuff?”

I found myself trying to picture that, actually. Or what it would be like if we could open one of the beautiful catalogues and just sort of climb in to the alluring and unhurried world they teach us to hunger for.

Because whether it’s the windows at the mall, or the pictures in a catalogue, there is a picture perfect quality to those places that tells one version of the Christmas story, and of our hopes for what Christmas might be.

There’s power in that story. Power in cheerfulness, and gathering, and giving—in pushing through the weariness and the dreariness and standing for something else—power in remembering how magical snow is when you aren’t worrying about anyone driving in it, power in being together with those we love.

The cheeriness of Christmas is a great comfort to some, and with good reason.

But it’s important to note that throughout history, the Church has used these weeks before Christmas to tell a very different kind of Christmas story – and to position Christmas differently in our lives.

And it’s fair to say that, in the imagination of the Church, there is more of an emotional arc to the season, and that the festivity comes only at the end.

But we know in our hearts that the story of Christmas doesn’t begin with Williams-Sonoma.

In fact, as the Church tells it, the story of Christmas doesn’t even begin in Bethlehem or Nazareth or with angelic hosts proclaiming, or with the Spirit whispering to Mary that she would be God’s favored one.

The vision of that group around the manger at the first Christmas party, that remarkable assembly of all kinds of people–rich and poor, Jews and gentiles, angels and humans and animals, brought together to worship the newborn king—that’s actually the culmination of a whole story, even as it is the beginning of another.

Mindful of that coming culmination, the Church begins to tell the story of Christmas well before that, by invoking the memory of a world grown weary with waiting for its deliverance.

We begin the season of Advent, the season of waiting for the One who is to come, by remembering the words of the prophet Isaiah—words that were originally written in Babylon, among a people in exile.

And the fact is, Isaiah’s people are weary.

With their world, and with our own in mind this week, I’ve also been remembering the words of the famous Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously summed up so much of her own experience as a Mississippi sharecropper by saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Because that’s a fair approximation of how things stood for God’s people in the foreign city of Babylon, at the time when this morning’s passage from the prophet Isaiah was written.

They were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

By the time this morning’s reading from Isaiah was written, the people would have been captives in Babylon for 150 years. Jerusalem had been invaded, and essentially destroyed, and much of its population had been carried off into slavery.

But by this point, all that had happened a long, long time ago.

It was an important, and precarious time in their life as a people.

It was in these days when much of the Old Testament appears to have been written, or at least, written down, because it was in Babylon that it suddenly seemed very possible that the stories and the traditions of Israel could be lost forever.

Those stories were a source of identity and hope – and those stories were, in the end, almost the only thing they still had.

With that in mind, no wonder, then, why the story of Moses and the exodus from slavery in Egypt had become such a foundational story for Israel—that was one that they kept coming back to during those days in Babylon. That was one they needed to tell themselves again and again.

It was part of how they reminded themselves that their God was a liberating God – the God who had led their ancestors through the wilderness at least once before…and might again.

And yet, in this part of the Book of Isaiah, the people enslaved in Babylon have been telling each other that story for generations, and hope is running thin.

So indeed, they are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Have you ever been at the bedside of someone in the hospital where there are a lot of machines, and you can actually hear their heartbeat slowing down…the time between the beats getting longer and longer?

Maybe that’s how it was – this sense that it had been so long, and there had been no word from God, and that Israel’s heartbeat was slowing down, and that the silence between the beats was getting deeper and deeper….

But then something happens.

Because a new word gets through.

Isaiah offers words of comfort that God has given him to proclaim to the people.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Isaiah asks. “Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

“It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…who brings the princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

What he’s saying of course is, “Hear me, Babylon: our God brings your princes to naught….our God makes the rulers of the earth—here in Babylon, and there in Egypt, and everywhere else—God makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

Isaiah continues, “ ‘To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see.’”

Don’t believe who it is they say you are.

Don’t believe what it is they say is possible.

Don’t believe that the world you see is the only world there is, for you and for your children.

Lift up your eyes on high and see.

Much later, these are words that Jesus would have grown up with, and words that his contemporaries would have grown up with.

And so much of Jesus’ ministry was about affirming those same ancient promises, and about inviting people to find at last, in him, the source of strength and hope and identity as God’s people.

Jesus promises that, in him, they will find a way to hold onto the liberating truths that princes of the world were trying yet again to take away, first by discrediting them, and finally by making God’s people discard and forget them.

And that’s why it’s so important for us now, whatever our circumstances may be, and whatever our outlook on the world may be…whatever the future looks like to us—that’s why it’s so important that we begin to prepare for Christmas by remembering what it is to be weary.

Because the most corrosive thing for genuine faith is not grief, or despair, or even a great anger against God. Rather, it’s a kind of dull, unexpectant acceptance of the way things are, and of whom the world tells us we are.

That’s why it’s so important to remember, if perhaps we have forgotten, what it is to be sick and tired of being sick and tired.

So many of us don’t need any reminding.

So many of us are here at the brink of this season, wondering what good this Christmas could possibly hold.

There is so much personal grief, and so much worry that can cut even more deeply at this time of year.

And the world itself seems weary, too. Weary of its own divisions and its own bitter disagreements about justice and fairness and accountability, and about the persistence of challenges that just won’t go away.

I don’t know about your family, but mine is famous for epic political discussions around the Thanksgiving dinner table. By way of preparation, people bone up on the issues for weeks ahead of time.

This year we just didn’t have it in us.

But Christmas is a reminder, and Isaiah’s words this morning are a reminder, that God has made promises to the world, and that God intends to keep them.

And Christmas seeks to remind us, also, that you and I can live in the light of those promises even now, and build a world that waits expectantly for the day when at last, they will be fulfilled.

Just when we think we don’t have it in us, Isaiah shoots back that it’s in there, somewhere. That person God knows is in there, somewhere. That conscience God hears is in there, somewhere. That people God needs to help create the future—they’re in us, somewhere.

We may not be there yet, you and I. We may be many Christmases into our journey and still waiting. Or maybe life has made us question the truths we used to believe with such innocence and trust, and here we find ourselves, unsure of what Christmas or Christ ought to mean for us now.

And so we begin this season—we begin preparing for Christmas—by remembering what it is to wait for a new word, a fresh communication from God.

For some of us, that might be a stretch. For others, it may take no great effort at all.

But Christmas begins with learning to hope and dream again, because out of the capacity to hope and to dream come the capacity to work and to pray.

In learning to hope and dream again, we learn what it is to live into the promises of God, and to make a place for Jesus in our hearts once again.

In remembering what it is to be sick and tired, a new word gets through, and we begin to reclaim what it might be to be healed and renewed.

We learn what it is to set out for Bethlehem, seeking tidings of great joy, at the feet of the word at last made flesh.

Lift your eyes on high and see.