Category Archives: Sermon

2CC Sermon “In God We Trust. All Others Pay Cash.” (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

ingodtrust

Last week, I was reading online about a controversial new start-up venture in Brooklyn, called “Bodega.”

Bodega is a vending machine, of sorts, filled with a little bit of everything you might suddenly run out of in your apartment–from Campbell’s Soup to salsa to toilet paper or tums.

You know–the kind of little things that if you actually from Brooklyn you might run out and grab from an actual bodega.

It made me remember the bodega in my neighborhood when I was growing up. It was called Dom’s.

There’s a lot I could say about Dom’s.

But what I am particularly remembering today was a little faded cardboard sign that Dom had on his cash register.

It said, “Hoy no se fia, manana si.

Hoy no se fia, manana si.

I didn’t know Spanish then. In fact, I still have not gotten to that yet.

So for a long time, I did not know what that meant.

Until one day, I noticed that someone else had written on the sign with a fresh, blue marker.

And what they wrote was this: “In God we trust. All others pay cash.”

II.

Our Scripture this morning is asking the question of what it is to trust in God.

You may not have recognized it right away, but the story comes from the Old Testament account of the prophet Jonah.

It was written likely sometime after 500 BC, but it seems to remember a time at least a century earlier, when the Assyrian Empire, in modern-day Iraq and Iran, was powerful and a very dangerous adversary to the nations of Israel and Judah.

Nineveh was the largest Assyrian city, located on the Tigris River, where the city of Mosul now sits.

And the prophet Jonah was profoundly concerned with the threat of the Assyrians, and felt called to warn the people of Jerusalem that if they did not follow God, the Assyrians might well become the instrument of God’s judgment.

This had happened before.

So you can imagine Jonah’s shock when in the midst of this campaign he hears a new message from God.

God has a mission for him.

God wants him to go, but not out into the streets of Jerusalem.

God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh. To convince them to repent. To save them from the full fury of God’s judgment.

It’s worth noting that Jonah’s best work as a prophet would turn out to be saving the people of Nineveh–which is to say, saving the sworn enemies of his own people.

Jonah sees that coming from the moment he hears God’s message.

The whole thing about the whale–you probably remember that Jonah’s story has a whale in it–the whole thing about the whale is about how Jonah sees God’s mercy coming for the people of Nineveh and tries running the other way.

But to no avail.

In the end, in part thanks to a whale, Jonah convinces the people of Nineveh to repent of their sins, which is something he never achieves with his home audience, back in Jerusalem.

So it’s a strange story, even as stories of Israel’s prophets go…and there are some strange stories when it comes to the prophets.

Jonah takes the whole idea of being a reluctant prophet to a whole new level.

If there’s a lesson to be learned that God is bigger than one people or nation, or that God’s mercy is overflowing and can touch lives even in the most unlikely places and circumstances, well, unfortunately, the prophet Jonah has no interest whatsoever in hearing about any of that.

God seems to have a bigger picture in mind, somehow–and usually prophet stories are about how one person feel called to proclaim that bigger picture to a skeptical audience that’s fallen out of tune with God.

Not here.

Prophets push us to engage morally in ways we don’t find easy to do, but which prove right in the end.

But on this particular occasion, the prophet has no feel for God’s bigger picture.

And actually, this has a lot to teach us.

Because note this: it’s not that Jonah doesn’t believe in God.

God is very much alive in Jonah’s life.

Yet their relationship is a strange one.

When Moses came into the presence of God, he took off his shoes. He had to go up mountains.

Not Jonah.

He treats God’s marching orders like a message from his bossy older brother.

Bring your word to Nineveh, God? Really? You can’t make me.

Get me swallowed by a whale and spat out three days later on the shores of…Nineveh? Fine. I’ll say what you tell me. But even you can’t make me mean it.

Make me watch as the people of Nineveh repent and change their ways? Well, God, I hope you’re happy because now you’ve gone and ruined everything.

In the Scripture we’ve heard this morning, we see Jonah’s anger, even misery, at being the human instrument of God’s great love and mercy.

And so again: Jonah knows that God is utterly real, utterly compelling, utterly powerful, and utterly interested in what’s happening in the world.

But what I want to suggest is that, on a deeper level, Jonah doesn’t have that much faith in God.

III.

Actually, the story of Jonah tells us something about faith.

Because faith isn’t just about knowing that there is a God above.

That part is important. It’s really important.

But it’s only a small part of it to think of God as actually “up there” somewhere.

Really, faith is more about trusting in God.

And maybe this is where we aren’t as different from Jonah as we might like to think.

Because how hard would it have been for Jonah to trust in God if God had said, “Jonah, I’m going to send you on a mission to destroy Nineveh–to speak the words that will rain down my justice upon them”?

I suspect Jonah would have liked that just fine and would have found that easy to trust in.

Trusting God when God tells us to rest in our own familiar assumptions is not a particularly hard sell.

But to hear the voice that calls us out to a distant, even hostile place…to go out in pursuit of a goodness that looks strange to us…to act in the name of hope and life…to do that demands genuine trust in the One who calls us.

It demands a profound confidence in the vantage point of a bigger view.

Not everyone gets there.

As that sign from my childhood cautioned us all: “In God we trust. All others pay cash.”

The story of Jonah cautions us that it doesn’t take much for us to become the kind of people who want even God to pay cash, just like everybody else.

IV.

Despite that, every day, there are people who hear a voice–the voice of God…who feel the wind of the Spirit moving across the face of the deep in our own hearts…who cringe at the unexpected record scratch of conscience.

Every day, there are people who hear the voice and decide to trust in it, even though they may not want to.

Even though it asks something very hard of them.

Let’s not forget that such trust is all around us, too.

Every person in recovery will tell you that they’re there because they’ve decided to trust that voice….

There are those young people who decide that someone else’s definition of who they are and what they might achieve no longer resonates with the voice they hear inside…and they decide to trust that voice….

There are those arguments we have with the people we love, and those times when we just don’t think that we are wrong…not this time…and yet we slowly recognize that we still feel sorry, that perhaps the issue is bigger than just one particular point or principle…or that, just maybe, something very different is what’s actually at stake…and hard as it is, we decide to trust that voice.

We know the voice.

We may not always like it. But we know it.

And the question we need to ask and to keep asking is what we will do when we hear it.

When that happens, we particularly need to remember: such a moment is the very kind of moment to which the prophet Jonah could not rise.

Yet it is precisely in such moments that Jesus calls us to come, take up our cross, and follow him.

V.

We do not always get it right.

Part of life is learning from our capacity to misplace our trust, and even to feel that God truly wants something for us, only to realize later that we were mistaken, and that the voice we heard was not God’s voice.

Part of growing in spirit may well mean that our trust is deeper, but in some ways harder won.

But in a world that tells us, time and time again, “In God we trust. All others pay cash,” to be faithful is to model a very different kind of trust, and not just in God, but in all others, too.

It may lead us into places that we scarcely wish to go, at least at first.

But it ends, not in frustration and anger, as it did for Jonah, but a sense of joining in the very joy of a world made new at last…a world whose manana has finally arrived.

Amen.

2CC Sermon: “Once More, With Feeling” (Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35)

This morning’s Scripture challenges us to think about forgiveness.

In Genesis, we have just a small snippet from the longer, wonderfully complex story of Joseph.

If all you know is the part about the Technicolor dream coat, you’re missing out.

In today’s small bit, Joseph forgives his brothers for their treachery way back when and he suggests that, as he sees it, it wasn’t their treachery that was happening, but actually God working in one of God’s mysterious ways, putting the wheels in motion for Joseph to save them all and many others besides.

So Joseph says, “You meant to do me harm; but God meant to bring good out of it by preserving the lives of many people, as we see today. Do not be afraid. I shall provide for you…” (Genesis 50:21).

And then in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter asks: “Lord…how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”

Then he goes on to tell the parable of an unforgiving servant, generously freed from a multi-million dollar debt for which he is on the verge of defaulting, but who then fails to show that same generosity toward someone who owes him about forty dollars.

It’s very much in keeping with an earlier moment, also in Matthew, when Jesus asks, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

The unforgiving servant is chasing after a mote of debt, having apparently forgotten the crushing beam of his own debt that has been lifted from him.

The implication is clear:

As any of us consider what to do when we are asked to forgive–whether to do it or not…to mean it or not…to expect something further or not…as any of us consider what to do when we are asked or challenged to forgive, let us be mindful also of that within ourselves that might need forgiving.

Maybe, as Genesis suggests, God is somehow already at work for a greater good, even in what hurts us now.

Or maybe in those moments when we are especially poised to judge…ready to deploy the long, bony finger of blame…we need the humility to remember what it is to need forgiving.

We all do things we later come to regret and then can’t easily fix.

We know what that’s like.

But what I think Jesus wants us to see this morning is that while it is bad, indeed, to do wrong…to sin…there is another kind of danger that lurks even in being right.

So often, it turns out that we’re not quite as right as we think.

Quite often, we also find that being right doesn’t mean quite as much as we might be inclined to believe.

Has anyone here ever really sinned? I mean really sinned…can I get a show of hands… (o.k., just kidding….)

Well, if you have really sinned, then you know that all too often, there is a point where someone who is mad at you, and justifiably so, leaves off with being right, and instead becomes self-righteous.

It does not mean you were not wrong to do whatever it was you did.

And yet, somehow, the moment is not quite so simple as that.

Back in the 70s, the psychoanalyst Eric Berne argued that a lot of human interaction was not all that spontaneous, but was actually a kind of endless sequence of unconscious games people play (which is also the name of his book).

In fact, to prove this idea, he went on to name about fifty of the most important of those games.

“Ain’t It Awful” was one–the kind of interaction we might have while waiting on a grocery store line, or at coffee hour–those strange, one-upping kinds of conversations where you talk about how the world is falling apart, with each example more awful than the last.

But the game that especially applies this morning is the one Berne calls “Now I’ve Got You (You SOB)”–it describes those moments when someone is not so secretly gleeful to have caught you doing something wrong, because whatever it is, all their totally unrelated anger at you for anything and everything is suddenly poured into that one specific thing, and on that narrow question, they have you dead to rights.

“Now I’ve Got You.”

If Berne is correct, then the simple question of right and wrong doesn’t turn out to be all that simple, much of the time.

And if there is a part of us that wants it to be, well, Jesus would have us be very wary of that part of ourselves.

Does anybody really want to be Miss Havisham, the old lady in the gloomy mansion, still sitting there among the cobwebs in her decaying wedding dress, with the wedding feast still on the table, withered and spoiled?

Because you know what? In the matter of what had put her there in the first place, she was “right.”

Clearly, she had been wronged by the man who had left her at the altar all those years ago…and yet…awful as that was…unfair as it had been…though she was clearly in the right to be so hurt…somehow her life had not become what being right is supposed to look like.

Instead, she had let herself become prisoner to a kind of truth that could not set her free.

The truth that sustains us is the truth that challenges us…that expands us…that teaches us to open our minds and our hearts, and not to close them.

So if it turns out that that kind truth is not the truth we’re after just now, Jesus would have us look in the mirror–and look to God.

And he would have us hold back on deploying the long, bony finger of blame.

Again, as Jesus asks: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

It isn’t that we’re wrong, entirely. It isn’t that there isn’t something there.

It’s that, if we’re not careful, our lives can shrivel up like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

If our lives become nothing more than round after round of the “Now I’ve Got You” game, then really what we’ve got is nothing at all.

 

II.

 

That said, if all we do is forgive everythingall the time…it isn’t long before we end up being doormats.

After all, there are some things that really shouldn’t be forgiven…some wrongs that cannot be justified.

If we believe in a moral universe, then, on some level, we must hold that to be true.

Jesus himself says: “if anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung round his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Alas for the world that any of them should be made to fall! Such things must happen, but alas for the one through whom they happen!” (Matthew 18:6-7 REB).

God’s justice is a real thing.

But more to the point, if our great invitation and our great challenge is actually to love one another, clearly part of that is to care enough to say hard things. And to sit there listening when someone has hard things to say to us.

Neither is easy.

Working things through is a part of forgiveness.

And while it not always possible to work things through successfully, it is far more faithful and far more loving to have tried valiantly and failed than it is to pretend that there was never anything to forgive in the first place, and to breezily let things go.

Christ calls us to love one another, not to enable one another.

But without one another, we cannot become the people that God calls us and needs us to become.

I can’t help but think of Miss Havisham again.

Because for all her failings, there are also the failings of all those people she once knew…the people who should have been there to push her…with great patience and great love, of course…but nevertheless, the commitment to her good that would help her find the strength to live again.

The story seems to suggest that this would not have been possible. And perhaps not, in a story.

But in life, it is possible.

And it’s important that we try.  That’s part of what loving each other is all about.

III. 

Now…if I’ve made this case correctly, by now you should be playing in your mind some sort of highlight reel of your relationship with someone.

Some people have the premium package and are sort of surfing between several different highlight reels at once. That’s o.k.

But as you’re doing that, you may see that, just as Genesis argues, there was something very hard but ultimately good in some moment you’ve been carrying that has seemed unforgiveable.

Or you may simply hear the call of Jesus to love someone enough to try again…to believe enough in their capacity for change and growth that you are willing to try working things through.

Or if that window is no longer open, then you may hear the challenge to live without bitterness, without the self-righteousness that finally makes us smaller.

But whatever you hear, whatever it is you see on that highlight reel, hear again Jesus’ invitation to live fully and joyfully.

He calls each of us to come and find new life in him…to live once more…with feeling.

May we find the courage to do just that.

 

Amen.

Sermon: “Transforming Christmas” (Luke 2:1-14; Isaiah 9:2-7)

candles

It’s always so wonderful to see the sanctuary so blessedly alive as it is on Christmas Eve.

Some people are dedicated, eight o’clock service kind of people, and we expected you, and here you are, and we love that.

Others here are the kind who get everyone motivated and come with a whole pew’s worth of companions, sort of like modern-day shepherds, and of course, we love that, too.

And then some of you are people who managed to slip away from wherever you were and come to church.

At this very moment, back at your house, they still may not even know you’re gone.

We promise we won’t tell.

Sneaky devotion is a much bigger part of the Christian tradition than you’d ever believe, from the catacombs of ancient Rome to the house churches of modern China.

We love knowing that we may be just counter-cultural enough that someone still sees us as a secret to be kept, a people too scandalous to know.

But whether you have been long-planning to come or just find yourself here right now because you were driving by, you’ve come because tonight is the night when we tell the story.

We’ve been building up to it for weeks now—all around the world, we’ve been building up to it.

All around us at this time of year are reminders that Christmas touches us in ways that no other season quite does.

It speaks quite deeply to us to see lights in darkness, and greens indoors, and wreaths with red ribbons on doors—it’s as if the world decided to dress up for the occasion, and to make the kind of effort that is harder and harder to make these days.

We may not do it in other times of the year, but we’ll do it for Christmas.

II.

It’s one of the ways that we show that there is life in us yet—and memory, too.

The memory of Christmases past, maybe, when for so many people, the world seemed to come alive and there was so much celebrating to do—so much cooking and singing and zooming around after this or that.

Is that how you remember it?

So many people will look back and recall that there was just so much that went into it…that you could not help but get caught up in the rhythms of it…that you could not help but be delighted to see so many others you might not otherwise expect get caught up in it, too.

After all, if Ebenezer Scrooge could come around and get into Christmas, how could it be any surprise that others did too: the old lady in the apartment down the hall, who seemed to disapprove of children, making gingerbread men for your family, or a city bus driver, improbably wearing a Santa hat, or your grouchy and impatient great-grandfather, smiling as you brought him egg nog?

That might have been a long time ago, in a world we’ve long-since left.

But almost like veterans, squeezing into an old uniform on the morning of Memorial Day, we remember at Christmas—we remember, and we honor, and we try to be true to the memory of that other, bygone world.

And so, here we are, all these years later.

And if now the blazer has gotten a little snug, or if words were exchanged as you realized you were running a little late—if you discovered that, yet again, your brother-in-law has inattentively blocked in your car—or if your children have come home and were actually telling you about their lives, and in this great moment, out of the corner of your eye, you saw that your husband was discreetly checking his Blackberry and missed the whole thing—well, nevertheless: here we are now.

And may we each, in our way, find some way to connect with those Christmases past, and bring some of their warmth, and their surprise, and their belief in the capacity for deep transformation into our hearts and into our lives, not only tonight, but in the days to come.

Or maybe that’s not how you remember it.

Maybe as you look back, Christmas has always been at the center of a harder season—a time when tensions always used to boil over, or a time when all the things that weren’t right managed to engulf the few that were, and so, even now, even removed from all that, the cheer and the sentimental talk about togetherness gets hard to take.

That’s a Christmas prayer for transformation, too. A prayer to let our pain go, to travel lighter, to find the energy to follow a star rather than stay hunkered down in the darkness.

That’s a different kind prayer for deep transformation. But a prayer just the same.

And I think that has its place at Christmas, too.

III.

Because that’s what the Christmas story is, of course.

It’s a story of deep transformation.

It begins with a world where hope has come to be in short supply and says that God is present in it, and that, therefore, hope should be, too.

It begins with a world where so much is wrong that it seems as if nothing could ever be put right, and says that God insists that, indeed, it can be put right, and if we will but follow Him, it will be put right.

It begins with a world that looks to appearances and to worldly power, and sees them full of selfishness and danger, and says that God is the antithesis of all of that—and yet that it is He who saves and nothing else.

That world, of course, doesn’t sound all that different from our own.

Maybe that gives us pause.

The Christmas story is an old, old story now—and yet it seems as if the world has not particularly changed in its wake, or at least, not as much as predicted.

Last week, I read an editorial that said, “Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden it is now. There was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and most of all, there was less loading up with trash.”

And I thought: RIGHT ON.

And then I looked a little more closely, and realized the editorial was written in 1904.

Our problems are not new.

IV.

And yet, the claim of Christmas is that, even if the problems and shortcomings of the world have not particularly changed, neither has the solution.

The love and presence of God are here for us to claim.

The deep transformation that God offers us, and that God offers the world in Jesus are still before us.

In the eyes of Scripture, Christmas was not simply an event that happened; it was a force that was permanently unleashed.

At the other end of the story, this becomes clear.

After Good Friday and Easter, Luke describes the day of Pentecost, saying: “They were all together, when suddenly there came a sound from heaven like the violent blast of wind, which filled the whole house where they were seated. They saw tongues like flames distributing themselves, one resting on the head of each, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”(Acts 2:1-4).

The story that Luke begins with the sudden pop of the star, appearing in the fields over Bethlehem, announcing the birth of the savior, he continues with sudden wind of the Spirit filling the lungs of God’s people to proclaim and enact the message.

We all know that, at Christmas, Heaven and nature sing; Scripture wants us to understand that they’ve never stopped singing, that at Christmas, something decisive, something permanent came into the world, and it has never left.

A force was permanently unleashed, and that force has never subsided, and while its work is far from finished, its power is beyond anything that human ingenuity could ever control, much less stop in its tracks.

And thank God for that.

V. 

The question for us tonight is, can you and I feel that force?

Veterans of the story that we are, can you and I kneel before the manger…not because we have all the answers…and certainly not because we’re perfect—but precisely because we don’t have all the answers and are still working on being the people we hope to become?

Doesn’t God’s dream for us, and for the world, come alive somehow at Christmas, in ways that we can still feel, that still pull at us—in ways that still push us?

I think it does.

Somehow, in these days, it seems easier to feel how God keeps calling out to us—because the power of the Christmas story still has some sort of claim, some kind of toe-hold on our inmost selves.

So much in our world speaks to our heads, but in our hearts, few of us who gather on a night like this can fully deny that claim.

Because tonight, somehow, we still feel that force—that force, pulsing through this old story, and that force, deeply alive in our hope for a world renewed, redeemed and at finally peace with itself.

Tonight we embody the community of those who live in the light of that story, as surely as the magi lived their lives in the light of that Bethlehem star.

Deep transformation is still possible. For us, for the world—indeed, for every dark corner of the globe and the even darker corners of the human heart, deep transformation and the healing love of God are still possible.

The star still shines, and the wind still blows.

Isaiah puts it this way:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

And at Christmas, through the grace of God, somehow we know in our bones that it is so.

May we carry the knowledge with us tonight, and all our days.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Sermon: “Mary’s News” (Luke 1:26-38)

annunciation

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

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

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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.

II.

 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.

III.

 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.

IV.

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.

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

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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.

Sermon: “Remember” (Matthew 25: 31-46)

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I want to begin this morning with some words from the Hebrew Bible—and specifically, from the Book of Deuteronomy.

It may sound long after a moment, but stick with it.  See if it resonates with you.

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams,with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills,a land of wheat and barley,of vines and fig trees and pomegranates,a land of olive trees and honey,a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.

You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them,and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied,and all that you have is multiplied,then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness,an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.

He made water flow for you from flint rock,and fed you in the wildernesswith manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth,so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deuteronomy 8:7-18).

Well…allow the preacher to say there is some real preaching going on in this passage.

But what I find so powerful about it is how it speaks to a particular moment in the life of God’s people – this moment when at long last, they are about to enter the Promised Land.

It’s been a time of incredible privation, stretching over a generation.

In fact, it’s been bad enough that at more than a few moments along the way, God’s people have even found themselves thinking about turning around and going back to into bondage as, perhaps, in the end, the easier option.

But that’s all behind them now.

At last, they have come to this moment, when the goodness of the Promised Land is stretched before them, and they’re like tourists off the bus, looking up at the skyscrapers of Manhattan for the very first time.

It is the moment they have all been waiting for.

And yet Moses, their leader, who knows them so well, recognizes that it is a moment that is full of danger as well as promise.

Because Moses sees that it’s the moment when the people may start forgetting God–forgetting the hard-won lessons they have learned about what it is to be faithful—forgetting that the powers and skills they command are not simply for their own flourishing, but for service to God, and neighbor, and even all Creation.

The line between blessing and temptation is a blurry one, and as God’s people enter this new land that they have been promised, Moses sees that are stepping right into that ambiguity.

And at this moment, as they stand before the grand vista of the Promised Land, he knows that he will not be with them—that his own journey will be ending there, on the far shore of freedom.

What happens now will be between them and God.

But a little bit later, he imagines some of the challenges of their coming life together, and he warns them, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

What he means is, “remember.”

When you see the broken and the weary—remember.  When you see the hungry and the thirsty—remember. When you see the naked and the stranger—remember.

Because right up to this very moment of our standing here, looking at the Promised Land, that’s who we’ve been.

What makes us God’s people is not simply where we’ve ended up, but everything we have been through.

Whatever we are poised to become, we are only going to get there by remaining true to who it is that we have been.

That’s what Moses is saying.

We’ll come back to him in a moment.

First, let’s think about this morning’s Gospel, and how it comes at a similar moment in the life and ministry of Jesus.

With his own death not far away, and with his disciples in tow, hurrying along behind him, Jesus walks the streets of Jerusalem almost for the last time as a free man.

And so he tells them this story about the sheep and the goats, and he insists that it is how we care for the least among us that shows the true depth of our faith.

He imagines the last day, when the final trumpet sounds and the final roll is called, and he says,

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand,‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-35).

To me, it’s a moment that bears a tremendous resemblance to that moment when Moses looked out with God’s people on the Promised Land…because in both cases, God’s people are being asked to remember.

With as much as we have, with all the promise that abides within each one of us, have we found ways to help others—to reach out—to serve the greater good, as God would so clearly have us do—or have we fallen short of those enduring expectations?

Because that is what it looks like to remember.

Last winter, maybe you saw the remarkable series of short video clips put out by a group raising awareness around homelessness.

In the videos, people from typical circumstances were asked to dress more or less along the lines of someone sleeping outdoors, and to sit on the street with a sign asking for change.

The twist was, the volunteers were placed outside the office or the apartment building or the gym where someone close to them—a parent, or a sister, or a close friend—would be certain to encounter them.

What happened was, of course, that there were some people who could look in the face of their own sister, thinly disguised, and have no moment of recognition, while there were others who saw the face of their beloved half a block away and came running.

Some of us look at the face of need, and the face of loneliness, the faces of confusion and brokenness and sickness, the faces of infirmity and immaturity…some of us look at those faces, and what they see in each one is not someone whom God has left behind, unblessed and unimportant.

They see the face of their beloved.

The faces of our grandmothers and grandfathers.

The face of Jesus.

That’s what it is to remember.

It’s not so much seeing our beloved and imagining them as an outcast.

As Moses and Jesus would have it, to remember is to see the outcast, and being able to see in them someone we might love. As someone already loved by God—and always loved by God—as our foremothers and forefathers so clearly were.

As we in our own moments of brokenness and loss so clearly were and are.

What makes us God’s people is not where it is that we end up, it’s what we’ve learned from everything that we’ve been through. How that has shaped who it is that we’ve become.

Will we remember what it is like to be on this long, great journey.

And what is abundance? Maybe it’s actually being able to see that. To remember that.

Because if you can see Jesus in the face of human need, if you can see the star of the story in any one of his many disguises, then you see God everywhere.

It is to remember who we are, and where we have come from, and to greet all people as fellow pilgrims.

This week, as we reckon with what it is to be thankful, and what it is to remember, may we recognize that the line between blessing and temptation remains blurry for us, too.

But this morning, Jesus promises us that as we live out our gratitude, remembering that God is the source of all good things, we will find God, and enter into God’s promises, not once, but over and over again.

We will see him standing on every corner, and see his love in every face, and we enter the Kingdom with joy and thanksgiving, remembering Him who always remembers us.