Author Archives: maxgrantmg

Sermon: Two Cheers for the Demon

I once took a group of students on a community service trip to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. 

It was an amazing experience. 

The school where I was working put great stock in such trips as a way of getting students to imagine a world beyond the places where one could always hail a taxi if necessary, and although my world was probably larger than that, it wasn’t perhaps as large as I considered it to be.  

Being in the Dominican Republic showed me that.   

Just the list of required vaccinations was eye-opening. 

Another was the awkwardness of being among Christians who believed very very immediately in the constant presence – the clear and present danger – of demons.  

The orphanage was a faith-based place, and many of the other volunteers were there to do mission work.  

My group was a school group, and mostly understood our being there in different terms.  

Mostly, that was fine.  

But at one point, one of my students was trying to make conversation with the daughter of another group leader.  

“How old are you?” he asked pleasantly. 

“Ten years old,” she said.  

“So…I’m guessing you’re really into the Harry Potter books now,” he said. 

“Oh no,” she said.  “We don’t read those.” 

“You don’t?” said my student. 

“My father says they’re not allowed,” she said.  “They’re about Satan and make jokes about demons.”  

My poor student.  

He could skateboard without a helmet through Times Square at night and live to tell the tale, but for something like this, he had nothing.

“Hey, Revvvv…” he called over desperately, thinking he had to fix this.  

But he didn’t.  

The child smiled and happily wandered off to go refill her lemonade. 

Speaking about Satan and demons – or with a faith-based lens upon the world – was not awkward or embarrassing for her

That wasn’t a faux pas in her world.  Only in ours.  

Now let me say that it seems needlessly impoverishing of the imagination to deprive a child of Harry Potter.   To me, they’re actually some of the most acutely moral books around.

But even if they weren’t, I also believe that God can handle a whole lot of things that make the culture warriors start tut-tutting. 

There was plenty of tut-tutting about the things that Jesus said or did.  

You’d think that would make us more self-conscious about finger wagging as Christians.  

It doesn’t seem as if it has. 

But more to the point, it never ceases to amaze me how eagerly we try to make certain things unspeakable among us.  

If only banishing our demons were that simple.   

Silence is the thing that gives them life. 

II.

This morning’s story from Mark’s Gospel is the first of four early healings that Jesus effects throughout Galilee as his movement takes shape.  

They solidify his reputation – actually, in ways that he does not want at this stage.  

He seems to be profoundly aware of beginning his ministry under the shadow of John the Baptist’s arrest. 

This message of repentance and new life, of renewed hope in the possibility of a better world has powerful enemies at that time. 

Nevertheless, the healings happen.  

In this morning’s story, they begin because the demons can see what the average human eye cannot—that God is present in this man and in these words he says in the synagogue at Capernaum.  

The demon is the only one who really gets it. 

Capernaum was a small city as opposed to a village, like Nazareth, and the synagogue folks were probably in their way a bit like folks that we might know – fairly steady in their habits, fairly conventional in their dress, fairly aware of who the movers and shakers among them were and inclined to treat them with proper form.  

Maybe when someone finally retired in Capernaum, he stopped wearing a tie when he showed up for services, but believe me, in Capernaum, after the Prelude started nobody in that room was secretly checking their phone.  

That wouldn’t fly there. 

So on this day when the guest lecturer comes in, and along with him a different breed of cat arrives, I’m sure they smiled and handed out nametags, even as they noticed the workboots and the heavily tanned faces and the wind-chapped lips.  

Like it or not, company’s coming, so they’ve got their best smilers at the door to say good morning, and maybe at some point one of them turns to the other and said, “Well…coffee hour’s going to be…interesting.” 

But apparently it gets interesting way before that. 

Now, once the service starts, it’s the man with the demon who cries out, of course, but Mark is clear that he’s not the only one who’s been unsettled by what Jesus has said – and by whom it suggests Jesus is. 

We don’t know how far into the service they get, but however far it is, it’s abundantly clear that in addition to what Jesus says, he just sounds different. 

He carries himself differently than what they’re all used to. 

There’s an authority to this man who shows up with all these odd other folks.  

They knew about Nazareth, where he’d said he was from.  They’d looked at it, but you know, the schools.  

So when he speaks to them with authority…when he owns that pulpit like it’s his house, not theirs, they don’t really know what to make of it. 

And so when the man with the demon cries out, saying “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”, I bet at first the people of Capernaum didn’t hear a demon talking.  

Not at all.  

I think they looked at each other horrified for a moment that somehow they were the person who’d just come and said that right out loud in front of God and everybody.  

If you ask me, plenty of the people had been sitting there, asking themselves the same questions, more or less.  

“What is this?”  

“Where’s he going with this?” 

“If I did as he says, what on earth would happen then?” 

In a funny way, that demon has done them a great service.

That demon is willing to say things out loud that respectability would not dare to so much as whisper.  

III.

Because Jesus is pushing them.

Jesus does that.  

Jesus pushes.  

He pushes them, and he pushes us to ask ourselves questions that we’d rather not ask, and he helps us see things that quite often we would rather not see.  

There’s a reason that so much of his healing seems focused on blindness and unspecified disease: we are so often blind until, in him, we see; we are so often sick in our soul in ways that just show up in our lives like lumps that we’re very certain weren’t there yesterday.  

Jesus knows that if we’re going to banish our demons, to be healed in the way he wants to heal us, we need to able to name them—especially to ourselves.  

Along those lines, so often a demon isn’t an agent of evil so much as it’s our way of denying a truth we have not learned to live with.  

Maybe it’s stifling it…hiding it…denying it…that makes its power destructive.  

In that sense, a devil with horns and a pitchfork or a witch with a hat and a broom are paltry expressions of true darkness. 

Whom did Harry Potter ever turn astray?  

There’s a lot darker than that, out there.  

But closer to home, a lot of times, we don’t really want the truth to set us free.  We want it to go away…to go disrupt some other poor soul.  

That’s not good for anyone.  

Even in lives that are relatively blessed, indulging in things that aren’t good for us, working at things that don’t matter to us, surrounding ourselves with people who don’t care about us, chasing after dreams that cannot possibly fulfill us – these are dark paths to be led down. 

People we know and love are doing these very things all the time

We are doing them all the time

The part of us that would rebel against all that might well be the voice of reason.  

Because that’s the thing about what we might try to call a demon.  

It isn’t always evil. And it isn’t always wrong. (ed–Yes, I know that’s from a Billy Joel song.)

IV.

This morning, we get the sense that Jesus was pushing the people of Capernaum.  

It’s not because being pushy was his thing. 

It’s because the love of God pushes out things that aren’t true, and things that aren’t good, and things that don’t stand on the side of abundant life in the Spirit to which God calls us in Jesus.  

God puts up with an awful lot from us as we try to get it together.  

But God knows, and Scripture affirms, that a life that is serious about God has no patience for false gods and the things that don’t matter.  

And as we live into that, there are some things that start to come loose.  

It’s always interesting to see what starts flying around when a new breeze begins to blow.  

If we did as he says, what on earth would happen then?  

What demons might finally be laid to rest? 

What worlds will we finally have eyes to see?  

Amen.  

Sermon: Where Do We Go From Here? (Mark 1:14-20)

I spent much of Wednesday morning watching t.v. again, as I suspect many people did.  

The inauguration was very moving to me – particularly so because there were so many ways in which religious faith was part of its texture. 

For me, that hit an important note.  

There were other notes, too. 

Amanda Gorman—the poet at the end.   

Senator Roy Blount’s remarks as one of the heads of the Joint Inaugural Committee I found to be especially gracious. 

But the hands down winner of the nation’s attention turned out to be Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – a person who had no speaking role of any kind.  

You may need to be active on the Internet in order to appreciate it fully, but on the offhand chance that you are not, there was a photograph of Bernie Sanders at the inauguration that has launched 100,000 memes. 

On this day with so many layers and emotions and familiar faces gathered together, Bernie is sitting there, legs crossed, wearing his enormous puffy brown coat and some hand knit mittens and, of course, his mask, and yet still somehow conveying the exact look in his eyes that my Dad gets whenever my mom says she wants to duck into TJ Maxx.  

It has that same “o.k., fine, let’s just get through this” sort of quality that so many unrecorded human moments do.  

If you have not seen the picture, what you need to know is that over the next 72 hours, it began to appear everywhere.  

Here’s Bernie at your daughter’s dance recital. 

Here’s Bernie waiting for his number to be called at Zabar’s.  

Here’s Bernie sitting with FDR, Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.  

We even added Bernie and the mittens to a few pictures of life here at 2CC.  Those are on the church Facebook page, if you’re interested.  

Now, the way these things go, I’m sure the craze will not last long. 

Probably in another few hours, someone will decide that the joke is over, and it will become actually uncool to be keeping it going.  

But I’m interested that it took off at all.  

I’m interested that this is what so many people did in response to a day with so much emotion – so much history. 

I can’t help but wonder if future generations will even notice that the Internet was just awash in these photoshopped images of Bernie Sanders, his wonderful gloves, and his wonderfully grouchy eyes. 

After all, at the same occasion, Lady Gaga sang the National Anthem, and when she sang the line “that our flag was still there,” she pointed to the flag flying over the Capitol itself…. 

The symbolism of that is hard to miss.  

But I wonder if somehow, deep down, what is speaking to us now is an image of life at its most gloriously ordinary.  

There’s a story about another Vermonter, Vice-President Calvin Coolidge, who was back home helping his father during hay season on their small family farm when he received word that President Harding had died. 

It turns out that Coolidge’s father was also a federal judge, and the story circulated for years that Coolidge took the oath of office standing in the barn with his mucking boots on. 

That isn’t actually true, and yet, again, people loved the story.  

They loved how gloriously ordinary it somehow was — how “on brand” it was for the no-nonsense Coolidge, just like all these recent images of the rumpled and irascible Sanders were on brand for him. 

They remind us that somehow, humanity in all its idiosyncrasy, has a way of enduring. 

Those little foibles that make us who we are just seem to cut through all the other noise and static. 

They interrupt the dull scriptedness of so many momentous occasions, reminding us who we are – daring us to pretend that we are otherwise – even pushing us to embrace it. 

They show us that life would be better if it involved less pretending.  

II.

Certainly, Jesus seemed to think so.  

When his public ministry began, and he started talking about God and what it was to find a place in God’s kingdom, things seemed to take off pretty quickly. 

It wasn’t long before he began to draw listeners, even crowds.  

In Mark’s Gospel, it isn’t the pyrotechnical stuff that gets things started – there are no initial healings or exorcisms that bring a little street theater into the picture.  

There are just words…just this one sentence he says, in what is a four-point sermon all by itself.  

He says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news” (v. 15). 

It’s not unlike what John the Baptist had been saying, and there’s no question that Jesus is picking up the mantle of that proclamation in some ways.  

Mark tells us that Jesus starts his career after John has been arrested.  

Like John the Baptist, Jesus would have a tendency to get under a lot of people’s skin. 

They both made a lot of people remarkably uncomfortable, especially people in high places.

I’ve always felt that John the Baptist seemed to enjoy that more than Jesus did.  

It seems to me that John was almost daring people to come and admit that they were sinners in need of a new start. 

The higher up you were, the harder that was to do, and John was not prepared to soften that for you.  

Jesus seems to extend his hand a little more.  

Jesus calls us out of the boat to walk with him, where John sees us by the bank and wonders if we have the guts to jump in.  

But neither one of them has much time for pretense or showy expression of status.  

Who we are inside is what matters to them.   How we act out of our hearts is what gets their attention.  

Our humanity wasn’t something they wanted less of.  They wanted more of it.  

They wanted a world where there was more space for everyone’s humanity to come into its own, which is what Scripture tells us God wanted for us when we were created and placed in the Garden of Eden. 

Their ministries were about saying that there was still a way to build a world that worked like that.  

The way to the Garden might be foreclosed, but the vision of it – all that it stood for – was not gone forever – at least, it didn’t have to be. 

Our humanity was and is a glorious gift that we must not mistakenly squander. 

It’s strange to put it this way, but our humanity was far too holy – far too sacred – to treat that way.  

That’s what they understood.  

Sometimes, the Church has seemed to suggest that being human was something from which people need to recover

That’s not what Scripture teaches.  That’s not what Jesus shows us.  

They both saw something nobler in us—something nobler than we might well see in ourselves.  

The work of the Church is to offer the world its own chance catch sight of some of what God sees when God looks into our hearts. 

When that happens, that’s when the Kingdom of God is at hand.  

III.

In this morning’s Gospel, we see that as Jesus begins to call his disciples to join that work. 

He sees something in them that nobody else seems to have seen.  

He recognizes the difference they might make, and the depth of their hearts.  

Heaven knows they were far from perfect.  

That doesn’t bother him in the slightest.  

The point is that he sees more than the world typically sees, and he invites them to do the same.  

And the journey begins.  

Into the dull scriptedness of a fallen world, Jesus invites them to step out of their boats and live as people who could hold their heads high. 

How gloriously ordinary they all were – and how glorious the ordinary world would appear as some of their hope, their faith, and their love began to shake things up.  

IV.

The world has changed a lot since then, of course. 

But that part hasn’t.  

Hope, faith, and love still have the power to make our lives glorious. 

The Church sometimes gets in its own way—sometimes it seems to side with the Pharisees of its age—but it always comes back to these central truths about our hearts. 

It always finds its way again, hearing Jesus call us to come out of our boats and follow, to lay hold of our own capacity for good as we come to see ourselves and our neighbors as God sees us.  

That always makes a difference.  

It’s especially important to remember that now. 

But it’s also especially important to acknowledge how hard we will have to work for it.  

Shutting down a Twitter account or changing administrations can’t shut down divisiveness.

They can’t repair what the oldest fears of some of us and ugliest history of all of us have seen fit to keep breaking long before now. 

What got us here required the collusion of all parties and almost every institution all along the way.  

That history hasn’t changed.  This is all our work. 

Remember: even the Devil knows how to lie low and wait for what Scripture calls “an opportune time.” 

He has before.  To pretend otherwise is silly.  

Loving one another right now…holding one another accountable right now…finding ways to build trust with one another right now…challenging those we consider our friends to do better, as well as those we don’t…this will not be for the faint of heart.   

It is an opportune time. 

As the worst in us takes a moment to regroup, as it takes a breath to wait and see, it is an opportune time. 

An opportune time for what’s best in us. 

It’s an opportune to claim who the Gospel tells us that we are.  

It’s the moment to get out there and do this work that we know needs to be done so desperately. 

“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “…the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news”

Anything else is just pretending…another show.  

There is no script for where we’re going. 

God has no use for scripts like that.  

All along, God has been telling us that there is more to us than falling back on those.  

We know what it is to hunger for something so much more real.  Authentic. Personal.  

It delights us when we see it even for a moment. 

That should tell us something.  

It shouldn’t matter that getting there is going to be hard. 

What matters is remembering what Jesus shows us—that this is what new life is. 

This is the life that God knows it is in each of us to live, in all its glorious idiosyncrasy – with room enough for all good people. 

It’s a tall order, yes. 

But in our willingness to be nothing less than human…in our willingness to see nothing less than the humanity in one another…in our willingness to love and learn and serve and to move forward from this place, God is at work.

Yes, God is at work…and grace is nothing less than grace, glory is nothing less than glory, and once again, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  

Come out of the boat.  

The Lord has need of us.  

The time is now.  

Amen.

Sermon: The Cup of Life

In the summer of 1984 as I was preparing to enter 9th grade, it was an Olympic year and an election year, and I had better luck with rooting for my preferred Olympic team than I did with speaking up for my preferred presidential candidate. 

Looking back on it, I don’t remember talking politics with anyone but my grandmother that summer, and we agreed, so there wasn’t that much to say. 

But I must have.  

And I must have done it awkwardly, because while I don’t remember saying anything, I remember very clearly some of the response I received. 

I was sleeping over at a friend’s house, and when I rolled up on my ten speed just before dinner, my friend’s dad motioned me into the living room. 

“I want to talk to you,” he said.  

His face was concerned.  Sad.   Not the face of a dad when you were in trouble for something, but the face of someone sharing bad news.

“I understand you’ve been talking about the election,” he said.  

“I hope you realize how important it is.” 

I nodded.  

He nodded back.  

“I really think you should take the time to do a little more research,” he continued.  “I thought this might help.” 

And he handed me a campaign pamphlet for the other person, which I guess he’d gotten somewhere.  

I could feel the hot prickle of my face getting red. 

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.  

I don’t remember saying anything else political to anyone after that, but I must have.  

A few days later, I went back to my bike after spending the day at the beach with my friends, and it was covered with bumper stickers for the candidate I was not supporting. 

That’s not so bad, I know.  

It was just a prank, and a pretty harmless one at that, done by people whose concern for me was real enough.  

But it was hard not to feel that something deeper was at stake than my opinion about an election in which I was not even eligible to vote.  

On some level, I felt like I was being given a very quiet kind of warning—not that anything was going to “happen” to me—but somewhere in it there was, nevertheless, a caution (however quiet) that somehow, I was beginning to suggest that I might not entirely belong.  

That I might not be one of them.  

And I came to see the world a little differently because of that. 

I began to wonder about my place – what it meant to have one.  

For that matter, I began to recognize that some places were safe ones in which to disagree, but others were not.  

And I began to notice who was allowed to talk and who wasn’t, and how that worked.  

I got that it was my place to receive pamphlets but not to give them.  

I got that I could take the bumper stickers off my bike but not alter or deface them, not use them to mock or poke fun or signal disrespect, even though it was my bike and I was not the one who had not put those stickers there in the first place.  

I suspect that if I had and something else had happened, it would have been scored as my fault for escalating the whole thing. 

I am certain that if I’d complained, I would have been told that I couldn’t take a joke.  

This is how bullies work.  How points get made – at first.  

In any case, for the rest of the summer, they won my silence.  

II.

Now I know that when it comes to disagreement and the consequences of speaking out of turn, my own experience in the summer of 1984 is the smallest of sips from a cup that many have drunk from deeply. 

There are so many in our country’s past and present who have not had the luxury of choosing whether to drink from that particular cup.  

All too often in our nation’s history, it has been considered somewhat of an affront for many of us simply to be in the bodies God gave us, much less to speak up about things like our rights or needs or dreams.  

All too often, that’s been dangerous to do—in fact, lethal—as we remember so vividly on this weekend, when we particularly remember Martin Luther King, who did just that. 

It wasn’t necessarily obvious that he would. 

The weight of moral obligation that he felt might have found expression in any number of important ways.  

It wasn’t obvious that Jesus would feel it, either.  

These were choices. Decisions.  

Actually, I’m not sure either one always felt up to what was being asked of him.  

In fact, I’m quite sure that there were times when even Jesus did not. 

“Lord, if it is thy will, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The sound of the marching soldiers coming to arrest him is already growing louder. 

He is not up to where he knows events will take him now.

It’s a dark moment.  

He had been up to the challenge of so much. 

Jesus was so brave so much of the time – so able to name where he was coming from, and to name how he saw things. 

He was so eager to engage in the rough and tumble disagreement of a vibrant faith and find the light on the other side.  

We see him doing just that so often throughout his ministry.

He’s so brave. 

Or rather, he is until he’s there in the Garden of Gethsemane, when for a moment, he isn’t.

It’s strange to wonder if maybe was harder for him, harder on him personally, than it had ever looked, than he had ever let on. 

They ran him out of his own boyhood temple back home – his own neighbors nearly threw him off a cliff.  

Later, he’d been preaching a powerful sermon, a scorcher, to one of his very first crowds, and his mother and brothers show up because he is embarrassing them, embarrassing himself, and they’ve come to take him home.  

So maybe Jesus, for his part, knew a thing or two about a beloved elder taking you aside for a thoughtful chat, or being left beet red with embarrassment, suddenly unsure of what you were supposed to say, much less what needed to be said.  

Most of the time, he plows through, anyway.  

Until the Garden.  

Until the moment when he wishes that the cup might pass, after all.  

But here’s the thing about that cup: it doesn’t pass. 

It doesn’t pass for Jesus. 

It doesn’t pass for Martin Luther King. 

It doesn’t pass for our beloved country. 

And it doesn’t pass for us. 

I do not mean the cup of death. 

I mean the cup of witness to a greater truth — God’s truth – the cup for which God has trampled out the vintage, as the old hymn says. 

III.

The moral leaders of our nation and our risen Lord, himself remind us that getting there is costly.  

Injustice overreacts.  

Where it cannot find assent, it seeks to enforce silence.  

Where procedure serves it, all well and good, but where not, not.  

It sees violence and fear as tools for getting the job done. 

It lifts up people who find a perverse joy and purpose in being its perpetrators, rewarding their commitment to its cause…for as long as that remains expedient, when even they are cast aside.  

This week, I was particularly struck by a photo of a man charging the Capitol police as the crowd first stormed and overwhelmed the barricades, which he did while carrying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag.  

And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a parable.” 

For all its posturing, all its slogans and rallying cries, the only cause injustice has is itself.  

“Don’t Tread on Me” – don’t make me laugh. 

Because what is it that injustice isn’t prepared to tread on? 

We’ve seen this so many times before.  

But that’s not how truth works, is it?  

That’s not how hope works.  

That’s not what builds a future.  

Time and time again, God shows us that we grow and find renewal in our capacity to listen for new voices, to make space for their needs and their dreams, to discern new claims upon us.

What lifts us is our willingness to learn from our prophets, to harness the energy of new insights – to take a fresh look. 

At the heart of loving our neighbor is the recognition that we share a common destiny. 

Loving our neighbor starts with recognizing that we both have a right to be here, and that we have certain claims on one another.   

Because we need each other.  We need each other to find our way forward — to find our way to God and to anywhere else worth going.  

It is not obvious, and it is not easy.  

So much of the ground seems like it’s forever shifting beneath our feet. 

It asks so much of us.  

No wonder we hope that the cup will pass from us, as even Jesus hoped it might. 

IV.

But Lord, it is holy work.

Those moments when you feel like you have come around the corner or out of the long, dark tunnel, and what you see before you is a new, undreamed of vista, you know…you don’t even need the voice to tell you to take off your shoes…because you know that where you’ve found your footing is holy ground.

Because you’ve lived a little more fully into being God’s people. 

You’ve made some of God’s goodness more visible. 

The light shines that much brighter.  

Sadly, this is what so many in the crowd outside the Capitol seem to have lost.  

I’ve lived in the mildest version of that world. 

Let’s not rewind that old movie. 

Even then, it wasn’t a world entirely worth having. 

It certainly isn’t now.  

We’ve been called to much higher and holier work. 

The work of this moment.  

The work that flows from being the people we now recognize ourselves to be, thank God. 

The work of faith and of democracy both get harder as we strive to make them more perfect. 

This is the cup from which we must drink – not a cup of death, but a cup of witness to God’s truth.  

A cup of life.  

We have that choice.  

Humbling as it is, we get to say what that means now. 

If we don’t, our silence will say it for us. 

May God grant us the strength to keep working for a better tomorrow, hand in hand.                             Amen.  

Sermon: Wednesday in the City on the Hill

About two weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, I was invited to Washington, DC for a working session with a mostly Evangelical Christian NGO that works, among many other things, on improving conditions in refugee camps around the world.  

I had just been in Washington, actually.  

Liz and I had gone down for the Women’s March on the Saturday after the Inauguration, which I remember as one of the most moving and hopeful experiences I’ve ever had.  

It had been an unusually warm day, particularly so for late January. 

The streets around the Capitol and the Mall had been full – so much so that it took us literally the entire day just to get to Washington Monument, which is where the March was supposed to start.  

We got there and had to turn right around so we could get back to our bus.  

But we didn’t feel as if we had missed anything.

We didn’t because we had come to bear witness to our values, and that is what we did.  

It was a really powerful day. 

As it happens, two weeks later, I was back in Washington.  

And it was then that they told us that after some coaching, we would be going to Congress, and meeting with members in their offices, and trying to speak up for foreign aid in the 2017 Federal budget.  

Some of you have done things like that.  

I never had.  

Actually, it was my first time actually going to the Capitol building, and I was going with another pastor, from a megachurch in Savannah, to call on his Senator, David Purdue. 

It turns out that they knew each other—because, of course, they did.  

It was not unrealistic to imagine that back in Savannah, that pastor might have had a framed picture on his office wall of him shaking hands with the Senator after a Sunday service.  

But after a short time of pleasantries, Senator Purdue said, “Look, I’m going to bring in Sarah from my office on this.  Fill her in on what you’ve told me, and she can take it from there.” 

I thought it was a brush off.  

It wasn’t.  

Sarah was his Legislative Director, and it did not take long to see why the Senator, for all his genuine delight at seeing his friend the pastor, had directed us to her.  

She was phenomenally knowledgeable.  

In a few minutes, she asked deep and probing questions that a full day of working with experts had not entirely prepped us for. 

Moreover, she wanted to hear from everyone, even the short pastor in the bowtie from Connecticut who didn’t know anyone and mostly was just happy to be there.  

It was amazing.  She was amazing.  

For us, this was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime moment.  

For her, it was ten minutes on a Tuesday.  

I suspect that if we’d spoken for any length of time, she and I would have found plenty to disagree about.  

Nevertheless, I left that meeting deeply grateful to know that the work of democracy, people’s business – my business – was in such capable hands.  

It was late afternoon as we headed back to our bus.  

Behind us, the Capitol dome was lit, and for the second time in about as many weeks, I felt this deep sense that here in Washington, I had been a part of something—that I had made my voice heard, that I had come to bear witness to my values—and that, while it was only one voice, and only one among many, it mattered.  

I also left with the sense that the people working in the building understood what it meant to stand up for something you thought was important, and to come talk to them about it.  

That’s what the Capitol represents to me.  


Whether you are liberal, conservative or something in-between, our Capitol is the place where, at its best, the hopes and needs of a nation come to be received. Heard.  Named. 

In the years since then, I’ve thought of that a lot. 

I think about it whenever Kevin Longino of our church mentions he has to go down to Washington on behalf of kidney donation or funding for research into kidney disease.  

I thought about it when Gordon Hartogensis of our church was being confirmed by the Senate for his role at the PGBC, which guarantees pensions, including, as it happens, the pensions of some of our church members.  

It has heartened me to know that these good and dutiful people I know are being received – heard – by other good and dutiful people. 

That’s how it should be.  

And of course, I thought about that on Wednesday afternoon. 

Watching CNN on my laptop here at the church, I was afraid of the violence and the chaotic unspooling of the crowd. 

But what was more heartbreaking to me was their sheer glee, the utter delight they were taking in trashing this place that, to me, represents so much of what is best in us.

Since then, we’ve seen indications that their intent may have been even more serious.  

I’m sure we will hear more about that in the coming weeks.   

There are many who wonder how it could have happened—how the police could have been so woefully unprepared. 

Some have wondered if those guarding the Capitol were not, in some cases, actually sympathetic to the crowd.  

I’m sure we’ll hear a lot about that in the coming weeks, too. 

On Wednesday night, our Congressman, Jim Himes, said that he’s been working in the building for over ten years, and he’d always assumed that, if it came down to it, there had to be some sort of button somewhere that could lock down everything in an instant.  

Turns out, there isn’t.  

What does it say about us that now there probably will be? 

I am afraid that still more might be yet to come.  

My understanding is that chatter on some platforms has called for an aggressive presence at the coming inauguration.  

For myself, I am deeply grateful that what we have already seen was not far worse—that there was not some sort of colossal response that birthed a generation of home-grown self-styled martyrs. 

You may also have seen the altered campaign signs in the crowd outside the Capitol building, reading “Jesus 2020.” 

You could take that in any number of ways, I guess, but no matter how you slice it, they were, collectively, as clear a sign as any that there were Christians, and loud and proud ones, too, who were right there, taking it all in.  

I truly don’t know what to make of that. 

In any case, the point is this: the crowd outside the Capitol on Wednesday came to bear witness to their values, and that is what they did.

These are not the values that have made our nation great.  

Might does not make right.  

Extremism in defense of liberty breeds extremism, not liberty.

And the power of our ideals to lead not only our nation, but the world to a more excellent way is only as strong as our virtue as a people. 

I don’t know where in America people were cheering as they watched.  

But I bet I can name the places around the globe where they were.   

And believe me, they were.  

We sometimes forget that the world is watching.  We must not.  

It is clear that those who came before us did not. 

If you go back and actually read the Puritan John Winthrop’s famous words about our nation as a “city on a hill,” which I encourage you to do, you’ll see that part is abundantly clear.  

These words, some of the most famous words to come from the Congregational tradition, our church’s tradition, are especially important for us now.  

Because Winthrop’s point was not only that, at our best, we would be a beacon to the world.  

There was more to it than just that part.  

Winthrop was also anxious to caution his community that our worst would now be in plain view, as well—that, like it or not, our sins would be a scarlet letter which we wore before the world.  

The hypocrisy of our leaders, the emptiness of our promises, the wickedness of our impulses would condemn us.

It always has.  Not just on Wednesday.  

But that is what we take on when we choose the challenge of life in a democracy, and even more dangerously, when we take upon us the yoke of Christ.  

Because the yoke of Christ is not some sort of get out of jail free card. 

The yoke of Christ is not VIP access to an eternity without consequences.  

If all salvation means to you is Heaven on the other side of death, and permission to walk tall now with all of God’s blessings yours to use as you see fit, well, friend, you have not truly been convicted by the fiery love of Christ.  

When Christ commands us to be peacemakers and justice-seekers and healers, this is not a suggestion.  

Christ is not hinting that our movement would probably benefit from having some of those.  

Christ is telling us about the world he expects us to build.  The direction our institutions are to go. 

And each of us is a part of that work.  

Each of us is called to put our shoulder to the wheel in service to the kingdom and its king.  

That is what it is to be a Christian.  

We have taken up residence in a city on a hill. 

Not as occupiers.

Not as self-styled defenders, which is a mantle easily claimed and rarely kept. 

We come as those who bear witness to a light that is greater than any of us. 

It’s a light that can only humble our own plans, pretensions, and needs. 

That light always calls us far beyond ourselves to new frontiers and new commitments and new voices. 

To come to the Capitol to speak your mind, to bear witness to your values and to our God, is surely Christian.   

But destruction, violence, fear and delight in the face of chaos are not.  

Mobs are not the ones who bring freedom.  

They’re the ones who work with Pilate.  

They chose Barabbas.  

They choose Barabbas every time.  

So this morning, I am praying for justice. 

I’m praying for accountability, which is the only way for genuine healing to be possible.  

I am praying for peace.  

I am praying that hope will flood the streets of the city on a hill once again.

I haven’t forgotten that it has so many times before, making us better than we were. 

I haven’t forgotten how hope equips us to rise to the moment. 

I haven’t forgotten how hope is always what finally shows us the way. 

Change is gonna come.  

It is the voice of sin that calls on us to try stopping the waters God is stirring.  

It is the voice of the Gospel that tells us to greet them with joy.  

May it be so. 

May it be soon. 

Amen. 

Sermon: The Passing Season

Just before Christmas, the Wall Street Journal printed a review of the new movie, “Wonder Woman 1984,” which just came out.  

I loved the first one; sadly, the new one doesn’t sound all that great. 

The plot apparently centers around some kind of stone that makes all your wishes come true – sort of 80’s materialism in a nutshell. 

On the offhand chance you missed that symbol, though, a lot of the story takes place in a shopping mall, that place where wishes all converge and bounce off one another and do whatever damage it is they do. 

Apparently, that damage is serious enough that undoing it requires a superhero.  

Anyway, the Journal found it pretty thin, and seems to have captured the plot well with its headline for the review. 


“Wishfulness Run Riot,” was their title. 

I bet they’re right about that.  

Even so, I probably wouldn’t have kept it in mind for long, except that, oddly enough, a few days later, the Journalhappened to review a new book by the sociologist Nicholas Christakis. 

He’s a guy who studies social responses to epidemics, and he is predicting that if historical patterns in Europe and America hold, on the other side of the pandemic, we may well see an atmosphere like the Roaring 20’s. 

I thought to myself “wishfulness run riot.”  

I guess we’ll see.

II.

For what it’s worth, as a new year begins, I do think that people are starting to wish again.  

For so long, planning for the future, at least the near future, seemed sort of pointless.  

There were too many unknowns.  It was all so murky.  

It seemed like the world was stuck in an angry present rather than a hopeful future.  

This past summer, someone in town wrote an irate letter to the Greenwich Sentinel about wearing masks, dismissively telling each of us, “Get that diaper off your face and live.”

I didn’t recognize the name of the person who wrote it, but wherever I went, I found myself sort of keeping an eye out for him.  

I felt like I would know him right away.  

On line at the pharmacy at CVS. there he would be, glaring and muttering, mad about the plexiglass and mad that the phone that kept ringing.   

Maybe he’d be at the barbershop, complaining about they’d been closed for too long to suit him, and now they were open again but with all kinds of new rules that anyone could see were totally stupid.  

I’d go to the grocery store, and every time there was someone ignoring those arrows made out of masking tape they have on the floor, I wondered if it was that guy.  

I imagined him everywhere.  

There’s no question that learning to manage Corona has been full of frustrations for us all.  

But isn’t it true that some of us came into this new world frustrated to begin with? 

Sometimes, I have wondered if some people aren’t weirdly gratified—even glad.   

Corona has offered them so many opportunities to declare themselves angrily against all kinds of things—especially fools and laziness and shakedowns and incompetence and excuses and chaos.  

I’m not saying those things are good.  

I’m not saying those things don’t get on our nerves. 

But some people have elevated their response into an art form. 

They seem to thrive on that kind of energy, don’t they? 

In that sense, when Corona changed everything, they hardly had to change at all.  

In point of fact, they knew just where to put all that. 

And in that same spirit, if it turns out that in a post-pandemic world, wishfulness does, indeed, run riot, they’ll know just where to put that, too. 

III.

 At first glance, the world-weariness of Ecclesiastes has some of that same tone. 

“Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity, saith the preacher.” 

“There is nothing new under the sun,” it says. 

People never change, it seems to suggest. 

Life is just an enormous cruise to nowhere.  

The words of Ecclesiastes used to be attributed to King Solomon, who was renowned throughout the ancient world for his wisdom.  

The nineteenth century poet Edward FitzGerald built on that reputation, imagining an Eastern king who came before King Solomon in search of wisdom. 

The king asked Solomon for even a single sentence that would always be true, and which would offer perspective both in good times and in bad. 

Solomon paused for a moment, and then said, ‘This too shall pass.” 

You can read his magnum opus, “Ecclesiastes” in that spirit. 

Don’t fret too much – this too shall pass. 

Don’t get too excited – this too shall pass.  

Don’t waste time trying to change things – this too shall pass. 

As for the changes you worked so hard to make – they too shall pass.  

You can make Ecclesiastes out to be the world’s greatest poem on the futility of change, as if it’s a hymn to accepting the angry present rather than a vision of a redeemed future.  

But I don’t read it that way.  

I love it for its invitation to a much richer faith.  

For if, as it remembers, so many things must eventually pass, then what endures? 

What matters in the eye of eternity?  

Faith affirms that, actually, there is a lot that does.  

What we choose to be a part of.  

How we respond when change is thrust upon us.  

Years ago, MTV had an early reality TV show called “The Real World,” in which strangers with very different everything had to live together – to find a way to make it work.  

At the start of each episode it would ask the question “…What happens when people stop being polite and start getting real?” 

I think as we look back on 2020, we will find we have some answers to that question.

And not all of them are bad.  

It seems clear to me that with so many of the familiar supports kicked out from under us, we have seen that what endures is our love for one another. 

Or we have learned that some of our deepest relationships are on shakier ground than we realized, and we have had to ponder what that asks of us. 

In so many ways, we have a clearer sense of work that needs doing. 

We have had to choose our commitments rather than just shoehorning them in and walking through them.  

We have had to get real.  

The great bet of faith is that God’s truth will skewer our illusions, not our hopes.  

For all the world weariness of “Ecclesiastes,” and there is some, that is its deepest message. 

IV.

At some point this fall, I stopped keeping an eye out for the diaper guy.  

Now especially, we’ve come into a new year, and glory be, some of the darkest of the doom and the glummest of the gloom seem to be passing at last. 

When I think about him now, mostly I find myself just hoping he made it, that the Universe was merciful in the face of his initial bravado, even if that meant he has come through with many of his illusions intact, and much of God’s truth still yet for him to discover.  

The same might well be said of any of us.  

But as light returns to the world, may we pray that the glimmer of a deeper illumination will guide us all.  

As far as the next season goes, now we are so close

Just 100 days from today, it will already be the week after Easter.  

The crocuses on the hill will have come and gone.  

Sunrise this morning was at 7:19; sunset tonight will come at 4:38. 

100 days from now, with a little help from Daylight Savings Time, sunrise will be at 6:18 a.m., and sunset at a far more civilized 7:32 p.m.

Of course, no matter what, those things would still be true. 

But they remind us that things march along even as the days themselves can seem as if they’re standing still.  

Faith teaches us that we must not stand still.  

It says: “Let’s not just indulge our old illusions, or look to the permanence of superficial things, no matter how comforting it may seem to do just that.”  

To everything, there is a season. 

God is trying to tell us something there.

As we begin to look ahead again, however tentatively, will our wishfulness run riot? 

Will a new roaring 20’s begin? 

Or will it be something far more meaningful? 

May these days teach us as much as we are ready for and prove to be a blessing through all the seasons of our lives.

Amen. 

Sermon: Christmas Monday

In our reading this morning, you may have caught the mention of the two turtledoves that Joseph and Mary offer at the Temple as a way of dedicating their first-born son.  

If you go by the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” this morning, we are on technically on the third day, which is when our true love is supposed to give us three French hens.  

I’ve never been entirely clear if that means I’m also supposed to be getting two more turtle doves and a third partridge in a pear tree today, or if each day is meant to be its own thing, but no matter.   

Some of you may be aware that since 1984, PNC bank (which I think is in Pittsburgh) has maintained what it calls the “Christmas Price Index,” an economic indicator that graphs the cost of the items listed in the song, cumulatively, through the 364 items to be delivered on the twelfth day. 

Business school graduates, fear not.  

The index takes into account that all the people mentioned are, of course, independent contractors, presumably filing some version of a 1099.   

In fact, along those lines, you will be glad to know that this year, according to the Christmas Price Index, the cost of the twelve days is down an eye-popping 58.5%. 

This is because all the live performances are out – this year, no lords leaping, ladies dancing, pipers piping, drummers drumming, or maids milking (to me, that last one was always more on the performance art side, anyway).

Your true love is going to be saving a bundle. 

And yet, of course, as I suspect the folks at PNC bank know full well, who can really put a price on Christmas? 

The whole point is that it represents something beyond calculation.  

It asks us to see the world in a very different way.  

This is what Ebeneezer Scrooge could never understand before his conversion.  

It’s something we are in danger of forgetting, ourselves.  

For us, just barely on the other side of Christmas, calculation in its various forms is the way of a world that’s poised to come roaring back as early as our first Zoom call tomorrow, like the Red Sea roared back into place as soon as Moses lowered his arms, unaware of whom it would drown.   

It’s the world that roars back every Monday morning. 

II.

If we take the story of Jesus seriously, it seems hard to believe that there is so much detail about his arrival, and then nothing after his dedication in the Temple a short time later.  

There was that star in the sky.  

It set astronomers from foreign lands in motion for months. 

It terrified Herod and all Jerusalem with him, eliciting ancient prophecies about the true king of Israel—even a protracted, armed house to house search for the child through Bethlehem.  

It led shepherds to abandon their flocks and to come into town, bearing accounts of angel choruses bursting into song.  

All these powerful testimonies.  This big deal stuff. 

Then, at least as far as Scripture is concerned, nobody mentions it ever again.  

How could that be? 

The answer is Monday.  Another Monday came.  

Just as it will tomorrow.  

And even with everything that’s happened, the calculating world roars back to life, and though they paused and gazed at that star for a moment, after that moment, most people simply move on.  

One month later, when Joseph and Mary bring the baby Jesus to the Temple for his dedication, you might think that Herod would have the place on high alert, but you’d be wrong. 

To most of the people there, baby Jesus is just another little peanut in a blankie, brought by parents doing their religious duty.  Nothing to notice, one way or the other.  

A savior might be born, but Visa’s still going to be due in a couple of weeks, I can’t work at home and run school at my kitchen table for two kids, and my mom still has no business driving that car.  That’s my focus.  

It’s going to be a while before that savior gets around to saving me. 

Well, we all know Monday.  

III.

Except that some do see. Some hearts are changed.  

In our story this morning, Simeon and Anna, these old and faithful denizens of the Temple, see that particular peanut come through the gate, and they know immediately.  

For them, waiting for a savior has not been the passive thing it is for most of us.  

It has been the focus of their attention, literally, for years.  

For these two, there is no calculating “Monday world” that always seems to come roaring back—for them, what always roars back is the hope they find in God.  

For them, every day was the day before Christmas. 

And then at long last, Christmas arrives, as they had hoped and dreamed it would for so long.  

The story comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. 

Bear in mind also that Luke wrote his gospel around 85 A.D., in a world that was already very different from the world into which Jesus had been born.  

By the time Luke wrote, Jesus was long gone.  Most of the apostles were long gone.  Certainly, Simeon and Anna were long gone.  Even the Temple itself was gone, and Jerusalem in ruins.  

For Luke’s first listeners, this vision of dedicating a first-born son by bringing him to the Jerusalem Temple was like gazing at a sepia-toned photograph of your great grandmother as a young girl.  

A vision of a world that used to be.  

But those listeners knew about waiting, too. 

Waiting for Jesus to return was already taking so much longer and asking so much more than anyone had ever expected. 

Those things he had said about taking up the cross to follow him were not exaggerations. 

Yet it was possible to wait with joy and hope. 

The Apostle Paul had learned how, as, indeed, Simeon and Anna had learned how while they awaited the Messiah’s first coming. 

They knew how to keep ahold of Christmas.  

IV.

What sustained them into Monday and beyond? 

Some would shrug and remind us that these are the saints, people God chose to love exceptionally well and to grace with exceptional clarity of vision.  

By that logic, of course they’re hopeful.  

They were built that way. 

I don’t think so. 

To me, that makes it sound more like exceptional luck than exceptional faith.  

I believe they understood that love and care, attention and devotion are not things we squeeze in between appointments or save for the weekend.  

I think they understood that holiness, like life itself, is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.  

They were able keep ahold of Christmas because, unlike so many of us, they never stuck it back in a box and took it back down to the basement until next year.  

They didn’t let that happen. 

What price will we put on Christmas? 

The Christmas Price Index is one way to answer the question.  

The love and attention of a lifetime is another. 

May we remember it today, and especially tomorrow, and for all the Mondays to come.

Amen. 

Christmas Eve Sermon

Christmas has a kind of heavy lift to do this year, doesn’t it? 

The church, of course, has a particular understanding of what the Christmas story means, and the rest of the “Santa, Baby” world has a somewhat different one. 

Either way, it’s tricky to navigate what that ought to look like in this particular year.  

If you think about it, there might even be a certain defiance in celebrating. 

Let’s be careful how we talk about defiance, of course. 

Faith reminds us that all truth is ultimately God’s, and this year, some are taking God’s truth as it is known specifically through science and throwing it to the wind. 

Let’s not endorse that.  

I’ve always believed that, though they speak in different voices, true faith and good science are eternally friends.  

So if we acknowledge a certain defiance in celebrating Christmas, let’s be clear that the defiance I’m talking about is of a more private kind.  

Because there is a measure of defiance in decking the halls and all the rest, particularly when the audience for all that festivity…all that effort…might only be one or two people instead of the usual gang.  

As in Camus’ retelling of the myth of Sisyphus, there is something noble in our integrity, whether or not anyone else sees it. 

We may be tired.  We may be down.  We may be in a less-is-more kind of mode in any number of ways this year.  

But Corona cannot steal Christmas.  Not if we refuse to let it.  

That’s what I mean by defiance. 

II.

In some ways, it’s like we’re living in an odd, alternate version of that story about the Grinch.  

You’ll remember that in the original story, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the Grinch sneaks from his lonely mountaintop hideaway down into the little town of Whoville. 

With his own feverish zealotry, which is never a good look, the Grinch steals all the presents, and the decorations, and the contents of every icebox in town, all in a futile effort to keep Christmas from coming.  

Eventually he learns that, in point of fact, he can’t stop Christmas. 

Christmas doesn’t come from a store — because “Christmas, it seems, means a little bit more.” 

Despite all the Grinch’s efforts, the Whos down in Whoville still have one another, which is what matters at Christmas and at every other time. 

Of course, this has been in front of him all along, but it is only when he hears the Whos sing on Christmas morning, lifting their voices even in the midst of loss, that he finally understands. 

His old Grinchy heart finally changes, and as Dr. Seuss tells us, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes that day. 

Now, I did not see any Grinches earlier this evening, here on the church lawn, when we had our own version of a Wahoo Chorus. 

We gathered, bundled and masked and distanced and with great care, to sing a few Christmas carols together.  

To spend just a little while together.  

I can report that “Silent Night” is still beautiful when sung by the light of battery-operated candles, which looked like winter fireflies hovering in the darkness. 

The children of the church and their families have also put together a lovely on-line service of Lessons and Carols, which you can find on YouTube, and if you have not yet seen it, we hope you will.  

It is good just to have a glimpse of one another, and especially the kids, to help us remember and look forward to different days when it will be safe to gather again. 

But I felt the absences, too.  

Among many other things, Christmas Eve is a wonderful reunion of our church family – kids back from school, people back from other places, people with relatives visiting or with friends they’ve convinced to come along, not to mention others who just find themselves here.

One year, on the spur of the moment, a friend of mine from middle school flagged down a cab in Brooklyn and had it drive her all the way out here to Christmas Eve at 2CC.  

This is not the year for that kind of profligate gesture.  

With that in mind, even if Christmas doesn’t…shouldn’t…come from a store, that doesn’t change the fact that, by God, it needs to come from somewhere.  

Maybe the Grinch was wrong, at least as far as this year’s Christmas is concerned.  

If Amazon can send along the trimmings and the trappings and give us a nudge so that we might sing in the midst of loss, as do the Whos, God bless it.  

Whatever it takes to see to it that our hearts do not shrink has got to be worth it.  

III.

It may be hard to remember right now, but one way or another, this is always the challenge of Christmas. 

It was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. 

The shrunken-heartedness of the world is the condition for which Christmas has always offered itself as a kind of vaccine. 

And if we come into the season feeling especially vulnerable, in this or any other time, we would do well to remember that we are not alone in being so.  

For starters, let’s remember that the baby in the manger knew a great deal about vulnerability.

Born to a young girl, chased into Egypt by a deranged king, later turned out of the synagogue in his hometown and nearly thrown off a cliff by his own village, to say nothing of Good Friday, it would turn out that the one put in the manger was not immune to much. 

He was vulnerable, first to last.  

In point of fact, that vulnerability was no accident.  

The story is quite clear about this.  

From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, it is abundantly clear that Herod’s bluster and deep cruelty, his fixation on violence as a way to hide any sign of weakness, is the opposite of true strength. 

By contrast, this baby who so terrifies Herod empowers his own parents, who are already vulnerable themselves in so many ways.  

By the grace of God, the deep vulnerability of parenthood has made them strong but not hard.  

His mother, especially, has already been through so much.

If you know the story, you know that she has so much more ahead of her.  

But she will not close her eyes to need or her heart to God, even if it costs her dearly.  Nor would Joseph.  

In God, they find the strength to do what is right, even though almost any other course of action would have been far safer. 

The same would be true of the adult Jesus, himself. 

To Jesus, entanglements and obligations weren’t a form of diminishment. 

They weren’t a weakness or something to get over. 

What we owe one another, who was our neighbor, how we might bring forth God’s peace and healing into one another’s lives, where God would call us to mercy – these were the questions that shaped his days.  

His answers were made clear in how he chose to live, and in how we do, as we seek to follow in his footsteps.  

In a world made small by need and greed and fear, Jesus and his family show us what large-heartedness looks like.  

IV.

Tonight, we remember that the shrunken-heartedness of the world at its worst is no match for the large-heartedness of God’s own Son. 

For all the challenges of this past year, that is still true.  

Admittedly, it might not feel especially true.  

For many of us, the lights are not so bright this year. 

Our losses have been many.  

Jesus knew that what gives us the power to sing in the midst of loss isn’t that our losses are not real, but our trust that love is even greater. 

It may seem strange to speak of that on Christmas, which we tend to think of as uncomplicated.  As just sort of happy.  Pleasant.  Merry. 

Some years, it is. 

But speaking otherwise would not have been strange to the Whos down in Whoville, or to Scrooge, or to Rudolph, or Isaiah, or to Malachi, or to Micah, or to Mary or Joseph, and it would not have been strange to Jesus.

They all knew loss, fear and worry, too.

Nevertheless, they defied the power of those emotions and chose to grow where others thought it better to shrink. 

Tonight is a night to lift that up.  

Many years, we sing in the midst of blessings. 

Others, we sing in the midst of loss.

Either way, sing we can and sing we do because of what Jesus teaches us: that love is worth it – worth even the risk and the pain – for nothing can truly defeat love, not an unjust king, nor a terrible, new virus, nor even death itself. 

That is the defiant proclamation of Christmas. 

Tonight, God comes alongside us in love, carrying our burdens in the divine heart, and looking to the day when all that has been lost will be redeemed and all Earth’s people one.  

For all that might divide us, I’m sure that we are all looking to that day. 

Even though so much seems different and diminished this time through, we’re looking to that day.

God came when he did and where he did and as he did to show us once and for all that no place and no person can ever be considered God-forsaken.  

Tonight is the night when we especially remember that God’s love has not changed.  

It never will. 

As the hymn says, “Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.”

Tonight, may every heart grow three sizes, and may the world rise, healed.Merry Christmas. 

Sermon: “What Mary Knew” (Advent IV)

At no point in my life has a stranger ever told me that I’d be so much more attractive if I just smiled more.

So when I first began hearing that women hear things like this and worse all the time, or that shows like “Mad Men” were not simply describing the way things way back in the Dark Ages, I simply did not believe it.  

Sure, I was certainly raised with the expectation that I would be polite.  

It mattered to be polite.  Nothing wrong with that.  

But the notion of going beyond politeness and conjuring up my own friendliness to please someone else at his request, to perform emotional labor for someone else’s anything, be it his whim or his full-blown agenda, was not expected of me.  

Of course, it wasn’t.  That was beneath the dignity of a man in the world I grew up in.  Even a young man.  

I don’t know I “learned” that – how it was I saw it – which is just to say: nobody ever explained any of that.  

But learn it, I did.  Saw it, I must have.  

It was part of my understanding of what it was to be me. 

I thought it was what life was like for everyone

I don’t really know how my unlearning began. 

Seeing those assumptions when you look in the mirror isn’t one of those Damascus Road kinds of things, where you’re blinded by the light and everything changes in an instant.  

Even now, my unlearning, my turning from error and toward a fuller picture of the truth, is a work in progress.

Yet it is work that the Christmas story itself calls upon us to do.  

II.

This is a key theme in the story’s deep concern with Mary, the mother of Jesus.  

We don’t know where Mary, the mother of Jesus, grew up.  

If you look into it, you’ll see that people have wondered that since the early years of the church. 

Some say Nazareth.  Some say Jerusalem.  

There are legends that Mary grew up in the Temple itself. 

Others say she lived near it and was educated there. 

In fact, an early church and pilgrimage site was built 400 feet from the Temple itself, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, purporting to be where her parents, Joachim and Anna, had lived and were buried.  

Clearly, the Church has always wanted to affirm that there had to be some kind of sanctified backstory that the Gospels themselves did not include. 

That must be true.  What it was, we don’t know.  

Yet there is this sense that Mary had already learned a great deal about who she was by the time she appears in the Gospel.  

Was she a dutiful pleaser — the kind of kid who sat in the front row, got As for deportment and penmanship, memorized the proper answers quickly and got that school was mostly about sticking to those, whether you actually cared about the answers or not?  

Or was she a wisenheimer — a kid who asked questions the teacher didn’t know how to answer, who sat with the out crowd, who laughed and was awkward, who wondered what life was? 

We don’t know.  

Either way, she turns from error to truth, and from social conventions about her place in the world to God’s disruptive role for her in the drama of salvation.  

Whoever she was before, there would have been a lot of things she would have had to unlearn.  

She does just that.  

Around the time when older men in the neighborhood would have been trying to cajole her into smiling for them, when they were warmly or not-so-warmly calling her “kiddo” whenever she spoke up with ideas about things, something happened. 

The unlearning clicked. The line was crossed.  

Somewhere between heaven and her heart, something different and definitive intervened.  

However it might have been before, now Mary was through with pleasing, fully ready to claim her dignity as a person. 

The years of performing for any agenda other than God’s were over.

What are we supposed to make of her encounter with the Angel Gabriel?

I’m not sure the Church has ever given sufficient attention, much less appreciation, to the fact that God’s angel comes asking, not telling, and that the choice is very much Mary’s to make.  

According to the story, she answers immediately. 

To me, that still doesn’t mean that the choice is obvious.  

There is plenty to weigh in choosing the path she does.   

But she knows who she is.  

Clearly, coming into her role in salvation history, she came into her own.  

As Irenaeus of Lyons puts it, “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” 

Part of what makes Mary so remarkable is that she’s not afraid to be just that: fully alive.  

As Soren Kierkegaard observes: “There are two ways to be fooled.  One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” 

Whether it’s about what matters in this world, or about who she is, either way, Mary refuses to be fooled.  

She will not be misled by anything that would deny her life in all its fullness. 

III.

And isn’t that the deeper point of Christmas, if we think about it? 

Its rich imagery is trying to tell us that God, “the way, the truth, and the life” has become plain as day.  

In the Christmas story, the counterweight to Mary is King Herod, who is fooled in both senses, not believing things that are true and convinced by things that aren’t, particularly about himself. 

Maybe that’s an occupational hazard if you’re a king.    

It’s a hazard for anyone.  

Yet some are not fooled.  

Mary is not, of course, but she’s not the only one. 

Many of the other people around the manger are not fooled, either, be they holy family, shepherds, or magi.  

Moreover, on this particular night of nights, in this particularly humble place, they realize that to pretend otherwise is simply beneath their dignity. 

Now and forevermore, they know better.  

I can’t say if someone ever told a shepherd or a wiseman that they really ought to smile more.   

But in seeing Jesus, they come to recognize definitively that there is something broken in the world’s ways…something broken in so many of the things we are so told to do…something broken in so many of the things that we are told are true. 

And they have decided that they are done for good with all of that.  

They have unlearned a falsehood, and they’ve started to grasp for the truth.  

It is the holiest of moments.  

Similarly, whenever a person decides that for themselves again today, something of Christ is born anew.  

Life in something more like fullness stretches out before them, and there’s a little bit of God’s glory that shines brighter, radiant like that star hanging in the sky over the manger.  

IV.

The world is full of ideas about the lives we ought to lead.

There are things it wants us to notice and others it would just as soon we did not. 

There are even truths about ourselves we are in danger of missing, and worlds waiting to be born that never will be, if we do not learn to see.  

God would not have us be fooled.  

God’s hope is that we will come to be fully alive – as Mary dared to be – unlearning falsehood and committing to truth, wherever it may take us. 

This morning, we remember how it took Mary to a stable in Bethlehem. 

The Gospel reminds us that took a lot to get there.  It asked so much of her and so many others to get that far.  

This morning we remember God led her to that stable not as a conclusion, but so that her story, and ours, might truly begin.  

May it be according to that word.  

Amen.  

Sermon: The Comfort of Christmas (Isaiah 40:1-9)

Do you remember how last April, all those ring lights and other gizmos to help us look our best on Zoom were just flying off the shelves?  

Don’t just sit there looking like Jabba the Hutt, they said.  Raise your laptop to eye level.  

When you do that, don’t just use some random collection of coffee table books, they said – use a special laptop lifter instead so you can get it juuuust riiiight.  

At one point last spring, you may remember, the New York Times offered expert advice in setting up a good background for a life now lived on screen.  

Want to look thoughtful? Make sure you have a bookcase behind you, they suggested. 

Want to look classy and like you have it together? Go minimalist, they suggested. Have an empty room with a single orchid behind you, or maybe a Japanese print on the wall.  

These seemed like good ideas.  

Unfortunately, these suggestions quickly became minefields all their own.  

It turned out that people cared what the actual books were and pondered what your bookshelves said about you. 

How thoughtful were you, really?  What did your reading reveal to the discerning eye?  

Then people started critiquing the orchid, or your choice of print. 

I’m glad to say that it seems like we’re over a lot of that.  

Books? No books? Fancy ring light? No ring light? Print? No print? Whatever: it’s still Zoom.  Let’s do this.   Life is hard enough already.  

Lately, in particular, it seems as if things are pulling back, and we’re settling in for the long winter’s nap.  

A certain kind of striving is out.  Comfort is in. 

The catalogs have been saying so for months now—telling us that it’s time to stock up on everything fuzzy, wuzzy, cozy, and comfy. 

For the first time, accountants are letting people claim things like plush velvet jogging pants as a legitimate business expense. 

It’s a new world. 

It’s like that moment in the marriage when you stop trying to rush the other person and just try to find somewhere to sit and wait until they’re ready.  

These things take however long they take.  You might as well get comfortable.  

II.

Unfortunately, the Christmas story moves in the opposite direction.  

From start to finish, it is a story of people willing to put up with every imaginable kind of discomfort.

It starts with Jesus’ mother and keeps her constantly in view, but the centrality of discomfort extends well beyond her. 

There are the lowly shepherds terrified by an angel chorus that shows up—boom—out of nowhere. 

There are the mysterious magi who journey thousands of miles to follow a star and understand its meaning.  

The story of Christmas is deeply intertwined with the story of John the Baptist, a man who could have had a cushy life like his father’s – a life of occasional business trips to the capital and great respect all around, as Luke’s Gospel suggests.  

Instead, John opted for the wilderness, finding God, somehow, in that discomfort, with his greatest peace coming finally in a prison cell. 

Then there’s the moment, well into the ministry of Jesus, when one of the Jerusalem scribes seeks out the Lord for a kind of informational interview as he ponders giving it all up and following him.  

Jesus warns the scribe, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).  

Jesus seems quite clear that if what you’re after is a comfortable life, then the life of faith may not really be your thing. 

At Christmas, we especially remember that for Jesus, himself this had been true from the very beginning, going all the way back to that manger in Bethlehem.  

Paul reminds us that Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and because obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). 

If Paul’s exalted language is unfamiliar to you, what he means is that, in coming down here struggle and suffer with us, Jesus gives up nothing less than his equality with God, his exalted perch on Heaven’s throne. 

His point is that such is God’s great reservoir or love and hope for us, Jesus is willing to bet the farm that for all our brokenness, we might yet find it in us to be healers, if only someone truly decided to show us how.  

What a vision!

But as the Gospels remind us, it’s a vision that begins with disruption.

How could it be otherwise? Because things are going to be different now, starting with us.  

Believing in Christmas is about believing in change. 

We find it in ourselves to become disrupters of anything and everything that would disrupt God’s abundant vision for Creation. 

III.

This morning, we heard the words recorded by the prophet Isaiah in another moment of profound dislocation—words that God speaks to God’s people in the midst of their captivity in Babylon.  

“Comfort,” says God, “Comfort ye my people.”

It is not entirely clear whom God specifically intends to do the comforting.  

What is more important is that God speaks these words of comfort—the very first expression of the tidings of comfort and joy we would come to sing about at Christmas so many years later.  

It signals God’s intentions at a moment when they seem murkier than ever. 

For some, God had been silent for generations, unwilling or unable to rise to the occasion. 

You can hear them now, and understandably so. 

They held that God was a false hope…a distraction from doing whatever you could to get comfortable, to hole up and hold out in whatever way you could.  

It’s into this moment that at last, God speaks again. 

The comfort God offers has little to do with getting comfortable.  

What God offers instead is the comfort we find in getting ready.  

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord” says the prophet Isaiah.  

Centuries later, by the banks of the Jordan River, John the Baptist would take up Isaiah’s cry, sensing something urgent in it once again. 

Neither Isaiah nor John the Baptist understood waiting on the Lord as an invitation to sit back and relax.  

It was a call to do nothing less than lower the mountains and raise the valleys, to make a highway in the desert for the Messiah, the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  

They wanted us out there with our bucket and our shovel.  

They understood that the very things that offer us true and lasting comfort have little to do with the things that make us comfortable. 

IV.

That’s especially interesting to ponder right now, in this year when every catalog in our mailbox, and many other voices besides, say we should be trying to figure out how to get comfortable. 

There are days when getting comfortable sounds really really good.  

Yesterday, I read that the lines for nice-smelling hand cream at Bath and Body Works are out the door and down the block this year.  

There’s nothing wrong with hand cream. 

But in its own way, Christmas reminds us that we shouldn’t settle for being comfortable when what we actually need is comfort.  

Christmas says: let’s disrupt each other’s pain.  Let’s disrupt each other’s loneliness.  Let’s disrupt each other’s worry. 

The world is busy wringing its hands and trying to find its hand cream. 

Meanwhile, there are people who are still focused, still out there, still making calls, still double checking the numbers on a spreadsheet, still helping a kid with her 3x tables, still worrying about the folks who can’t afford heating oil with winter coming.  Still bringing forth the Kingdom. 

People are taking care of other people – not just the ones that God has particularly placed in their lives, but many others besides. 

We need to be among them.  

So go get your bucket and your shovel, and let’s do this.  

The old Heidelberg Catechism captures it well. 


“What is your only comfort in life and in death?” it asks. 

Its answer is this: 

“That I am not my own,1
but belong—

body and soul,
in life and in death—2

to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…3”

I think that’s it.  

Seeking to be comfortable is what happens when we imagine that, in the end, the only possibility is that we belong to ourselves.  

It may well be harmless.  But it’s also pointless. 

By contrast, to be comforted is to remember that, in truth, we all belong to God.  That we always have and always will.  

Comfort is focused on the things that can never be taken away. 

Instead of moving inward, comfort moves outward, seeking to love what God loves, and to disrupt anything that would seek to deny that love.  

So when Isaiah and John the Baptist call us to “prepare the way of the Lord,” this is what they’re talking about.  

That’s what they want for us.  

In the time of Corona, maybe at last we have finally come to the end of appearances and merely seeming. 

There we are on Zoom, watching one another, wondering who it is we really are – what those books on the shelf behind someone might reveal, why we went with that print instead of another one.  

Christmas is calling us to a different, disruptive vision—a very different answer.  

This morning, it beckons to us once again.   

The God who brings a new heaven and a new earth is coming to be born, so that you and I and all the world might be reborn.   

May it be as Isaiah writes: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:5)

May it be soon.  

Amen.

Sermon: The Miracle of Kindness (Isaiah 64:1-9)

It will be interesting to see how we all end up doing Christmas this year, won’t it? 

Back in the 70s and 80s, well before our current circumstances, there were these two brothers-in-law somewhere in the Midwest who had a Christmas joke of regifting the same pair of moleskin pants back and forth year after year, with the twist that each year, the pants themselves became harder and harder to get to.  

One year, one of them put the pants in the trunk of some junker car, which was then taken to a junkyard, tightly crushed into a metal cube…and then, you know, wrapped, ribbonned, and festively bowed for Christmas. 

Mind you, we didn’t have the Internet back then. 

This was covered by the Associated Press.  

I don’t know what those brothers-in-law are up to these days, but you know that the restrictions of Coronavirus are nothing in the face of that kind of resolve. 

God bless them for that. 

But not everything translates.  

Try as we may, the Gross Domestic Joy will be down. 

I’ll miss some of the craziness of Christmas. 

But even more than that, what I’ll really miss are all the little human moments that seem to happen in the midst of all that craziness. 

At Christmastime, the world looks a more festive.  I love that. 

The world is also a little kinder, and I love that even more.  

The little courtesies between us seem to mean more. 

Jesus always described the Kingdom of God as something that was already breaking into our world. 

It was always popping up, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere.  

At Christmas, you can see that happen.  

Have you ever been waiting on the checkout line at a store, and it turns out that you’re the customer who comes right after someone horrible…somebody mean, impatient, rude…

And then it’s your turn and you’re like, “Well, hello! How are you doing?”  

…And the person behind the register looks at you like you should get the Nobel Peace prize.  

Have you ever been to one of those potluck Christmas parties where it turns out everyone is a gourmet cook except for one person, and they just kind brought a bag of Tostitos they grabbed on the way, and the look on their face is just “Ohhhhh.” 

But then someone else shows up and is like, “Tostitos! I’ll take those! Is there any cocktail sauce by any chance?”

At Christmas, in all kinds of ways, we remember to make a little room at the inn for other travelers.  

These little things we do add up, and when they do, life in the world genuinely starts to feel different.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once asked, “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”

It’s a question that hovers over all of us at Christmas.  

This is not to say that Christians have cornered the market on kindness. 

Far from it. 

But the Gospels make some distinctive points in the story of Christmas.   

They tell us to look for the presence of God as somehow, mysteriously, here among us.  

They tell us to find God’s love made visible among those who are largely invisible.  

They tell us that, in Jesus, God walks the path of being human so that humanity might learn to walk the path toward God. 

So in these quiet gestures of solidarity and sympathy we offer, Christians understand that the presence of God is somehow, mysteriously among us once again.  

This is precisely what the Christmas story is trying to say.  

II.

You would be forgiven if that’s not quite what you think you heard in this morning’s Scripture.  

The texts of Advent, these weeks before Christmas, are strong on the longing for a new and better world. 

They may not know precisely what is to come, but they are very sure about how it will feel.

You can hear it in the prophet Isaiah’s words. 

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” he says, “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.” 

His vision of God in this particular moment is majestic—kingly. 

Isaiah sees God’s great entrance in the world as something that will thrill those who believe and terrify everybody else.  

“When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, [and] the mountains quaked at your presence.”  

It’s emphatically fire and brimstone.  

There are moments in our Gospels that pick up on this, and there are some who seem to live their faith in something of that spirit. 

But it’s one to be on fire for love or on fire for service, and something very different to become a self-righteous pyromaniac.  

When you read about most of the earthly ministry of Jesus, it seems clear that he would rather have us light a candle than a bonfire. 

Over and over again, Jesus makes point that what matters to him is what we do within our sphere to bring forth the kingdom. 

He is forever healing people he meets, then sending them home…in some sense, back to their lives, back to some small corner of the world where God will use them to silently transform everything around them, kindness by kindness, gesture by gesture, candle by candle.  

What makes something a miracle isn’t the degree of difficulty it requires, but what it means to the one receiving it—how it makes them feel the love of God.

The specific gesture is not the thing.  

But to make the gesture is at the heart of what it is to live as Jesus teaches.  

This is what true obedience to God requires.  

III.

This is what takes hold of us at Christmas, if we let it. 

It still can. 

We may be constrained in many ways, but we there is still ample room for kindness, and there are many situations when a gesture, even a small one, would still feel nothing short of miraculous to someone else.  

Keep a lookout for those moments.  

If the Devil couldn’t stop them…if King Herod couldn’t stop them…then certainly neither can Zoom.  

Neither can quarantine. 

Neither can worry, whether it be imagined or all too real.  

However you do it, make a little room at the inn for someone.  

In closing, I want to leave you with a memory from one of our culture’s great love letters to Christmas—a particular moment in the movie, “Miracle on 34thStreet.” 

It’s a moment when someone does just that: makes a little room at the inn.  

In the movie, you’ll remember that the idea is that the real Santa Claus ends up taking a job as the Santa at Macy’s in Herald Square.  

Surprisingly or not, Macy’s turns out to be an important perch from which to proclaim the true meaning of Christmas. 

The moment that always gets me, though, is when one day on the enormous line to go see Santa, a woman brings her adopted daughter to come see Santa. 

A great deal is left unspoken.  

The daughter has only recently arrived in New York. 

She doesn’t speak a word of English – just Dutch, a language it turns out that her new mother does not speak. 

The movie leaves it for us to infer that the little girl has been orphaned by the war and could not be cared for, with no choice but to seek a new life in a new place. 

Her well-intentioned adoptive mother is tearfully trying to explain…well, some of this, anyway…when Santa looks at the little girl, who is sitting on his lap, and starts chatting with her…in fluent Dutch. 

It is the smallest of things. The briefest moment of respite. And the greatest.  The deepest reminder of the love that holds us all.  

So it is that in the midst of our confusion and loneliness, Christmas intervenes, speaking our language in a foreign land, prompting us, in turn, to speak its language of kindness and peace, hope and wonder.  

The language of miracles.  

Don’t lose that in these days.  

Find a way to live it once again.   

Offer it in every way you can.  

And may the world become a little more like Christmas because you are a little more like Christmas.  

Amen.