Category Archives: Sermon

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)

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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.

Sermon: “A Wedding Invitation” (Matthew 22:1-14)

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Now over twenty Augusts ago, I went to a wedding in Washington, DC – where both the bride and the groom were from.

Both families were DC power families, and everything about the wedding was carefully thought out and terrific, and very personal, even though there were about five hundred guests.

But the piece-de-resistance was the wedding cake.

Someone found out that a former White House pastry chef had been hired—I guess when you have that many guests, you need to bring in the big guns.

And it turned out that this chef would only work with butter from Normandy, I think because Norman butter has a higher fat content, and that was, apparently, this particular baker’s secret ingredient.

So, the butter had been flown in, and the cake had been baked, and there it was in the center of the tent on a warm August night in Washington, DC.

Maybe you know what a warm August night is like in Washington, DC.

You would think that, say, a former White House pastry chef would know what a warm August night is like in Washington, DC.

My table had a clear view of that cake.

And we began to see signs of trouble somewhere during Lamar Alexander’s kind but rather lengthy toast to the new couple.

“I think I just saw it sag,” said someone quietly.

And then the ground under the little marzipan bride began to give way, and before you knew it, there was a major cake-in – cave in – and a loud gasp, and suddenly, and army of servers appeared and the cake was whisked out of sight, to be plated inside.

I’m glad to tell you that the bride and groom and their parents were all just too happy about the day, and about the future, to be bothered by a mishap with the wedding cake, and the party went on without missing a beat.

But that doesn’t always happen at a wedding banquet does it?

Wedding banquets have become almost a subgenre within movies of all types, whether it’s “The Godfather” or “Wedding Crashers,” as moments replete with powerful dramatic undercurrents, and truths just waiting to be spoken in public.

In some sense, that’s true of this morning’s Scripture, too – this parable Jesus tells about a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son.

The last line is the one everybody knows. The king says, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

For surprisingly enough, a royal invitation did not turn out the A-list crowd that the king had been anticipating.

I read a couple of weeks ago that Ralph Lauren was absolutely beyond furious when Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, declined an invitation to sit in the front row at a fashion show he had been planning for months, and for which he had made a generous donation to one of Prince William’s charities.

Prince William dutifully came to the show and was warm and polite…and unfortunately, entirely beside the point…because who cares about him?

Maybe it was like that for the king in Jesus’ parable.

Having the A-listers come to his son’s wedding banquet would have been fun, but having them reject it was humiliating, and he lashes out.

It’s a strange moment for us as listeners, of course, because we’re used to hearing Jesus talk about welcoming the unwelcome as an expression of kindness and compassion, as heeding a call to be part of a broader community.

This does not seem to be saying that.

And along those lines, it’s curious that after being rejected by the A-listers, the king would bother to be furious with some hapless, regular joe of a guest who isn’t dressed up for the affair.

Clearly, his heart and mind have not been somehow enlarged by this experience.

It makes you wonder: what is supposed to be spiritual here?

To me, the whole story is a strange meditation on what it is to be chosen.

I wonder if the person Jesus wants us to pay attention to is, actually, the king.

Because, it’s the king chooses one guest list, and then another.

But it’s also the king who chooses to use his power impulsively and destructively.

By anyone’s judgment, to be a king is to be one of the few who has been chosen.

What could be more blessed than having a kingdom of your own?

And yet…look at what he does with it.

The son, the court, the kingdom scarcely enter into the story—the king has become entirely wrapped up in himself.

Similarly, the danger for us isn’t found in wearing the wrong clothes to the banquet.  The danger lies in our capacity to become tyrants–people who use our power to keep control over our particular kingdom, rather than using it to reach out, and to do good. 

And so our Gospel names for me today, first, the great danger of all the ways in which we are chosen—the ways in which we are blessed.

It calls us to be honest with ourselves about the power we have to make a difference in the world, for good or for ill.

I suspect that many of us want to rewrite this parable, and to imagine the king transformed by the banquet, where he can see at close range what it is to be generous to those in need—and maybe find new purpose in that.

Isn’t that how it should be?

Because it’s so easy to say that about someone else’s story–that it needs to be rewritten, that it’s time to begin a new chapter, and all that.  It’s so easy to say that about someone else’s story, and so hard to say about our own.

And that is the second thing the Gospel names for me today.

It makes me wonder about what parts of my story, and my influence are aching to be rewritten.

I suspect each of us gets a slightly different sense of that, if we try to go there.

Is the point really our story, after all? Because I think the larger point is how our stories are folded into the larger story of everything God has done and is doing–the story of God’s endlessly creative, relentlessly adaptive, and hopelessly devoted love for all that He has made.

Bearing that in mind, how do you and I understand the parts of our lives which are not simply our own doing, but which might just be signs of our being chosen? And what do we do with the powers that we have?

Is it enough?

Or are we called to rewrite the story in some more faithful way?

I have a lot of conversations about what living in Greenwich means to people, and for some, it is a place they are eager to help if they can just find the right way; while for others, it is the place they come home to in order to get patched up before the next round, and they feel lucky if they manage to keep their lawn alive through August.

Figuring out what to do with our chosenness is challenging. But we are called to figure it out — and to figure it out soon.

Because make no mistake: your life and mine can be like that wedding cake, made of the very finest ingredients and prepared for the most elegant of occasions, only to prove far too fragile when the circumstances change.

Few are chosen to begin with. And even fewer make their chosenness into a path that honors God and neighbor, and enlarges the world’s humanity.

This morning, Jesus reminds us to be among those who do.

Because then, no matter how you slice it, our lives will be sweet, indeed.

Amen.

Sermon: “Serve it” (Matthew 21:33-46, Philippians 3:4-14)

I know someone who once attended a cooking Master Class with Jacques Pepin.

From what I gather, not everybody at a class like that is actually passionate about cooking—some people are really just there to be seen, maybe snap a picture clinking glasses with Jacques, and that’s about it.

Anyway, at the end of the class, my friend went over to Jacques Pepin with a very splattered cookbook for him to sign, which delighted him completely…he was thrilled to thumb through it and see what she had attempted and what she hadn’t, and he especially liked the page stained by the very prominent wineglass ring, which he said was what he thought a cookbook should look like.

But as my friend was standing there, another woman, one of the people who was not really there for the cooking, grew impatient.

She came over, and she broke in to say, “Jacques, I just got some really wonderful foie. What should I do with it?”

Now she didn’t say, “Jacques, dahhhhling,” but she might as well have.

“Sorry?” said Jacques.

“I just brought back some really good foie. From France. What should I do with it?” she said expectantly.

Jacques smiled, then shrugged.

“Eat it,” he said.

Ouch. (Do you ever wonder how Jacques tells a story like this?)

And yet, it’s an important lesson in so many different parts of our lives, I think.

It’s not just what you have, it’s what you do with it.

It may seem strange to say it, at first, but this morning’s parable about the wicked tenants in the vineyard seems to point toward the same conclusion.

It’s an unsettling story—though really, aren’t they all?—about a landowner and a vineyard and a harvest and wicked tenants, who decide they want to keep their crops, and who, decide to shoot the messengers sent to collect.

The landowner sends a second wave, and the same thing happens.

Many of us would be looking to send in the goon squad at this point, but that’s not what the landowner does.

He sends his own son, figuring that surely he will have the tenants’ respect and will finally bring them in line. But not so.

If anything, he is a particularly enticing target, and he is killed.

And it’s at this point that Jesus suspends the story and asks his audience, “So what do you think happens now?”

And his listeners say, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time,” (v. 41).

Jesus agrees, saying, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” (v. 43).

It’s clear that he’s talking about God’s kingdom, and his own sense of being sent as God’s son, but what gets him is not so much that he will be killed, but rather that the fruits of the kingdom will not be cultivated and harvested properly.

Even more than the price he will personally have to pay quite soon after he tells this particular parable, what matters to Jesus is what the tenants do with the harvest that comes under their stewardship.

Now, if I had to guess, I would suspect that most people listening would say that this all makes sense…that we’re used to Jesus talking in just this way, and that what you and I do with what we have is spiritually significant.

Even so, I’m not sure that many of us look at the tenants in the parable and see ourselves.

Matthew reports that the Pharisees in Jesus’ original audience knew that they were being called out, but I don’t think we do.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine preached on a parable with vineyards and stewards in it, and a member of his congregation stopped on the way out to shake his hand, and said, “Isn’t it a little early for the annual stewardship guilt trip sermon?”

So let’s get it right out there that when Jesus is talking about the fruits of the kingdom, he’s talking about much, much more than money and how we spend it.

He’s also talking about time and how we spend it.

He’s talking about energy and focus and attention, and how we spend them.

He’s talking about the emotional bank account in our marriages and our friendships and our relationships with our children, and how we make withdrawals from those accounts and how it is that we add to them.

Actually, Paul’s letter to the Philippians uses financial language to get at much the same point.

Did you catch it?

Paul writes, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” (Phil. 3:7-8).

Whatever he was before, whatever status he had achieved, Paul writes it off, because he has realized that his faith has completely changed his sense of what’s important—what really matters.

And as we all know, what really matters isn’t something you measure in only one kind of currency…Our deepest contributions, the harvest of our best selves, might come in any number of ways.

It’s not just what you and I have. It’s what we do with it that matters.

That says more about who we really are than any biography or any resume.

When you put it that way, maybe we can begin to see ourselves on the receiving end of this troubling warning.

Because who doesn’t feel as if we can all too easily get caught up in things that, finally, don’t matter?

Who doesn’t feel as if the hours of our days can get spent on causes and tasks that are all too far from what’s truly on our hearts?

Or to go in the opposite direction, who hasn’t felt the incredible lift that comes from being part of something that actually matters to you? Doesn’t that put so many things in perspective?

Just because we wouldn’t kill our landlord doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t talking about us—and about the subtle ways we try to avoid giving our lives away.

When it comes right down to it, there are a lot of times when we don’t want to give away the harvest any more than those tenants did – and it doesn’t matter who’s asking.

Because Jesus doesn’t come and ask for our harvest in his dazzling white robe with his piercing blue eyes aglow with love.

If that were how it was, we would know what to do…just as surely as the tenants would have given over the harvest if the landowner had come and asked for it himself from the get-go.

But Jesus comes in the form of an angry, withdrawn teenager. And a needy old woman in the post office. A single dad who can’t get out from under. The neighbor who is still out of work and is just too embarrassed to seek out community.

When the Lord comes to claim the harvest—the harvest of our time, our attention, our compassion, and our hopes—he won’t be interested in what it is we’ve managed to hold onto.

He will want to know what we’ve done with all that we’ve been given.

“Jesus, I’ve been blessed with this wonderful life, what should I do with it?”

And he’ll say, “serve it.”