Sermon: Spilling the Perfume (John 12:1-8)

One day when one of our girls was a toddler, I was getting ready for a denominational meeting at another church, and she was lurching around the bedroom, happily pulling the dresser drawers open and throwing mommy’s scarves on the floor and dancing on them. 

It was starting to become a mess, so I scooped her up for a second while I picked my tie.  

Now, picking a tie is not something that takes a long time to do, of course, but you know how it is with toddlers—your attention is distracted for a split second, and those little hands pounce on some delightful new discovery.  

In this case, what she discovered was a bottle of cologne from the top of the dresser, and just as I turned to see what she had, she sprayed me squarely in the face.  


But you know, it’s not over then, is it?  

Because in an instant, now you’ve been blinded by the cologne in your eyes, and you’re trying to scrape it off your tongue with your teeth, and not drop the baby…and not for nothing, but by the way, guess who still has the bottle of cologne?  

The last shot got all over my hands as I wrestled the cologne away from her, which made her mad. 

I called for backup and did my best to pull myself together for my clergy meeting.  

So off I went to that. 

The story doesn’t end there, though. 

I roll in late and have to grab a spot as unobtrusively as possible, which I do. 

The opening speeches are happening, and for a while, everything is fine.  

I sip my coffee. Take notes.  Try to look clergy-like.  

Have you ever been in a meeting and you see some nice elegant woman quietly reach into her handbag and take out a handkerchief, which she discreetly holds to her nose? 

Then someone else kind of puts their hand over their mouth, like they don’t want to blurt out something random…except it’s not that. 

You notice people starting to look around…is it him? Is it her? 

And I remember actually having the thought, “Gosh, with all this cologne on, I just can’t smell whatever it is they’re smelling….”

It was only then that I realized.  

I was sitting there like Pepe LePew.   

Or, you know, whatever, Calvin Klein LePew. 

Long story short: I ended up interrupting the meeting to explain myself, everybody laughed and was nice about it, they opened every window on the western side of the building and put me there, and it turned out fine. 


But I have to admit that, as a result, when it comes to this morning’s Gospel, in which perfume plays a central role, I am a little triggered.  

Mary pours pure nard, on Jesus’ feet.  

Mark’s version of this story says it came in an alabaster jar, which suggests how precious it was, and as we heard a moment ago, Judas says it is worth 300 denarii, which is to say, 300 days wages for a regular laborer.  

For contrast, when we are told later that Judas betrays Jesus, he does that for 30 pieces of silver, that may well have been 30 denarii…just 30 days’ wages.  

And so, at the heart of this story is this gesture by Mary of Bethany—the Mary who some would say never helps throw the party but is happy to attend it, even when it’s in her house and everyone else is left scrambling. 

At the heart of this story is this strange gesture of honoring Jesus that most everybody else seems to find so wasteful that it’s downright offensive.  

It goes downhill from there.  

Because not only does she pour a year’s worth of wages over Jesus’ feet—in a move that’s both unbelievably tender and unbelievably strange, Mary then wipes Jesus’ feet with her own hair.  

I can’t help but imagine the conversation around the table as this all unfolds. 

The people starting to look around, as the smell of that pure nard, lovely but somewhat overpowering, fills the room. 

Martha is bustling to get dinner on the table, but after a moment, one of the other guests discreetly takes a handkerchief out of her purse.  

Another puts their hand over their mouth.

But this isn’t a faux pas that can be explained away easily. 

Judas gets angry, but the thing about this moment isn’t actually its wasteful extravagance.

It’s the startling vulnerability of Mary that nobody seems to know what to do with—nobody but Jesus.  


It can be so startling when real life disrupts the well-oiled machine of social convention.

Genuine emotion – sincere feelings – can be something we believe we want more of in our relationships, but then don’t always know what to do with when they show up.  

When someone actually goes there, a little goes a long way.  

To me, this second-to-last supper takes it even further than that. 

The sheer indignity of it makes it cringey to watch. 

She’s their hostess.  

This is her house.  

This is the big party after the Master has raised their brother from the dead.  

They’re expecting the fatted calf and the best china, not this…display.  

So when Judas starts sputtering about the wastefulness of using a full bottle of pure nard, I wonder if it isn’t really about the money as much as that’s the first thing he can think to say—the first words that pop into his mind when he’s trying to put his sheer disgust into language.  

But it’s telling to me that, unlike the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel, this time there is no tension between the sisters.  

There is no eye-roll from Sister Martha.  No anxious throat-clearing from Brother Lazarus.  

They’re not bothered by Mary.  Not anymore.  

If real life is disrupting social convention, they don’t seem to bat an eye.  


Why is that? 

I think it’s because the raising of Lazarus has changed them. 

It’s taken their relationship with Jesus beyond a form of earthly friendship and transformed it into something else.  

It’s transformed them into different people. 

Because this is what I know about God: 

…when you’ve felt God’s hand on your life…

…when God has made a way out of no way for you…

…when God has led you from death into new life…

…there’s a lot you suddenly care about….and a lot that you suddenly don’t care about at all.

When you see the movement of God’s love sweep across the world, it is hard to get worked up over the same old things. 

Time for compassion? Sure. 

Time for kindness? Of course. 

Time for gratitude? Absolutely.  

Time for keeping everybody happy?  Not so much.  

Faith in Jesus hasn’t made Mary weird.  It’s made her real.

Real in a way she’s never been before.  

Martha and Lazarus get it.  

The others seem to find this awkward and bewildering, which, inevitably, suggests much more about their faith than it does about hers.

It also says something that in this moment, even as guests in her house, these men choose to center their own discomfort rather than this woman’s profound gratitude to Jesus—a gratitude they are presumably there to celebrate and share with her, but which they feel free to define on her behalf.  

It won’t be for a little while yet that they truly feel God’s hand on their lives…when Easter will show them how God can make a way out of no way.   

Mary is already there.  Martha and Lazarus are already there. 


What’s it going to take to get us there? 

What will it take for us to center the power of love and Creation and transformation so squarely in our lives that the raw emotion of a woman like Mary of Bethany makes sense to us…that we have a place for that? 

What will it take for us to take God up on God’s invitation to be real…to be who we really are…to show the depths of how we really are? 

Some suggest that the scent of pure nard is so strong that even almost two weeks later, even on the cross, Jesus might well still have detected it.  

If that is true, then perhaps even in the midst of Good Friday itself, Jesus still held onto some indication that how he lived and what he lived for had, indeed, taken root.  

That some truly had seen and understood.  

Mary’s extravagant gestures reflect her gratitude for the extravagant love of God.   

That love transforms us not into something we are not, but precisely into who we are and always have been, as we lie in the arms of the God who lets us unknowingly squeeze the perfume, and yet still counts himself blessed.  


Sermon: The Prodigal Son or The Hopeful Father?

Not long ago, I read a story online about a man who, after one too many nights of one too many drinks, finally got banned from a local bar in his hometown. 

It was somewhere in North Dakota, I think.  

“Get out of here, Kenny, and don’t come back,” said the bartender.  

Apparently, maybe a little surprisingly, Kenny listened. 

In fact, shortly after that, he left town for good. 

He stayed away for more than thirty years.  Grew up.  Got his act together.  

Finally, after all that time, Kenny was back in town for a visit and was checking out some of his old haunts. 

He walks back into the bar all these years later. 

And as soon as he comes in, someone says, “Kenny, for the last time, I told you not to come back here.” 

People who grew up in small towns will tell you that, in those communities, memories can be long. 

This may well have been true of the community that the Prodigal Son called home.  

We know the story of his warm reception.  

The father who sees him at the edge of town and runs to greet him….who instacarts a whole party from his cell phone as they’re walking back to the house, arm in arm. 

Running like that was considered somewhat undignified for a man at that time. 

We tend to interpret as a heart-warming signal of love’s little indignities, directed here toward the son who has been given up for dead, only to turn back up, alive after all.  

Could be.  

There is also another possibility.  

As we said, in small towns, memories can be long. 

And there is some indication that, at the time of Jesus, the Prodigal Son might have received a very different kind of reception. 

Known as a gesasah, in this ceremony (if we can call it that), local townspeople would encounter a returning ne’er do well, particularly one who had married an immoral woman or lost money to gentiles and run off.  

They would stop him at the edge of town, then break clay jars with burned corn or nuts (I don’t get why it would have been those, specifically), and excommunicate him from the village once and for all. 

I couldn’t find very much about gesasah, so it’s hard to say how widespread the practice would have been, or how it really went.  

But I know that memories can be long.  

That makes me wonder if part of the reason that the father starts running the moment he sees the Prodigal Son return, then whips together a party for the whole town, is that he’s trying to head off this angry, threatening ritual of permanent excommunication. 

That kind of gesture would have come at little cost to the people of the town, who would have morphed from neighbors and extended kin into mob at that point—and felt all the closer to one another for it.  

But it would have left the Prodigal and his family unable to move toward actual reconciliation among themselves.  

The gates of the village might as well have been the Berlin Wall for them at that point.  


I say that because we often read this parable as an account of the endless forgiveness and patience of God. 

This is problematic for us because it seems to be saying that God simply and unilaterally forgives, no matter what, which doesn’t fully square with our commitment to fairness.  

How can the world hope to get better if learning from our mistakes is not a value that matters? 

And so we often find ourselves quite sympathetic to the older brother in the parable, who nobody has apparently even thought to alert about the younger brother’s return.  

It all happens so fast that the first the older brother learns about it is when he’s coiling up the hoses out in the fields with a work crew, and he hears the bass thumping from back in the house, playing—ominously—his brother’s favorite song.

As if his father, who likes Puccini, is suddenly going to crank it in the living room for “I Like To Move It.” 

In that moment, out of nowhere, the older brother knows.

He just knows.  

Most of us would, too.  

We understand the anger that he feels. 

And so when he sits outside on the fence, disgusted, arms folded, not sure if he’s more mad at his father the doormat or at his neighbors for just falling for a fatted calf and a vaguely humbled brother, we get it. 

Yet again, this younger brother and his travails, his challenges, his tiniest little signs of accepting accountability have taken over the day.  The month.  The year. 

What’s getting in the Christmas letter? This.  Articulated in the most diplomatic of ways, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the Prodigal Son, on the offhand chance he should read it, which he never does. 


The story almost seems to suggest that, for the umpteenth time, the only story that matters in this family is the Prodigal’s. 


Say what you want about this parable, it’s not pretending as if forgiveness is easy to offer or even deserved.  

When the Prodigal is first heading home, rehearsing the speech he will offer his father when he gets there, it’s not clear that he has actually changed.  

There is a world of difference between the anguished, “What can I tell my parents?” and the calculating, “What can I tell my parents?”

The story leaves it up to us to decide which one it is. 

It puts us in the father’s position. 

In light of that, although we call this story the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” as if the growth is only his, I’m not sure that’s really the best name for it.  

It might be more true to say that the story is the Parable of the Hopeful Father—the father who must decide so many things, almost at once.  

He must decide what to do even before he hears what the Prodigal has to say for himself.  

He must decide what make of these words—this carefully rehearsed speech.  

Perhaps most of all, he must decide what will happen tomorrow…what will happen when the dawn brings another day in fields that need tending, among neighbors who need greeting, for a future that needs building.  

In that sense, I wonder if, most of all, it’s a story about the father…and if maybe it’s about how challenging it is to persevere in love

Because the risk isn’t deciding to go home and face the music.  

If the son was facing gesasah, certain rejection, he’d probably just stay there in the mud with the pigs. 

The risk is the father’s. 

The risk is in deciding not to cut off this child who, up to this point, has done everything to cut him off—and who has pretty much deserved everything he’s brought upon himself.  

It would have been so easy to let the neighbors handle the formalities of excommunication, to hide behind the ways of the village. 

He doesn’t do that.  

Instead, he decides to love this prodigal boy, even with everything that he’s done.  


With that in mind, what the story leaves powerfully ambiguous is what happens next.  

Because what happens next is the moment when truth intervenes…or doesn’t. 

It’s the moment when what love requires will ask something new of them all, or when they’ll all just settle back into their customary chairs and wait for the inevitable moment when Prodigal nonchalantly asks if he can borrow the car.  

Faith doesn’t call us to persevere in our commitment to sentimentality or our preferred narratives of what our lives should be.  

It understands love to be much deeper—and frankly, much more active—because we need each other far more than we may care to admit.  

Figuring out how to balance those needs isn’t a one-and-done proposition.  

It’s the work of our lives. 

And it’s hard work.  

Which is why we can only hope to do it with God’s help.  

When Jesus looks down from the cross and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he says it so that we might learn to see ourselves more clearly—so that we might be different than those people.  

He calls us to be people who can offer forgiveness in the light of truth, because it is only in the light of truth that forgiveness has the power of redemption.

The prayer of our life together is that we will find in one another and in God the strength to life truthfully, and so, redemptively, not just once, but “through all the chances and changes of this life.” 

Like the father in the parable, we must learn to persevere.  

When the father throws that party for the Prodigal Son, much of the truth remains unspoken.  

Forgiveness and redemption remain poised to happen, but they have not happened yet. 

It is for us to decide what happens next—I think because, so often, it is for us to decide what happens next, and Jesus wants us to handle that with care.   

Loving one another can be hard work.  

As so many of us know, memories can be awfully long.  

Yet in God there is always the promise of a new day, and the terror and bewilderment of being lost recede before the grace and peace of being found.  

May we always be on the lookout for the ones appearing on the horizon, and always humbled by the wisdom of learning to love them well.   AMEN. 

Sermon: Temptation and Myopia (Luke 4:1-13)

The Monday after the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, three days after, I went to a big clergy meeting at the Newtown Congregational Church to pray for the community and to learn how we might help. 

Only a few folks will remember, but in the next couple of weeks after that, our church supplied lunch on two different days for disaster relief workers and others who were hands on helpers in the community, which was greatly appreciated.  

I think Chip Evans prepared a hot meal here in the church kitchen, and Barbara did a pasta salad.  

Tony Izzi drove it up in the church van.  

We were blessed in some ways that we knew how to do that.  

In addition to Chip, who was a professional chef, it turned out that our years of doing monthly meals at Pacific House—the scale of that kind of meal prep and transport, having the right equipment to transport it—had trained us well.

Even if that hadn’t been the case, I’m sure we would have figured it out. 

We were honored to do it—glad, really, that there was something concrete, some form of showing our care, that we were in a position to offer. 

From what I read later, not all the help that the Newtown church received turned out to be helpful. 

For example, in the next few weeks, they would receive no fewer than 65,000 teddy bears—1000 of them life sized.  

That sort of thing often happens in disasters.  

After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, one national retailer with the best of intentions donated 40,000 ladies’ belts; and in Haiti after the earthquake, another company donated 10 entire shipping containers of refrigerators, which depend on electricity, which they didn’t have, and which had the wrong style plug even if they had.  

In some cases, our deep desire to help people—to get things moving—outpaces our understanding of what is actually most helpful, or what a community’s needs truly are.  

Our desire to do something – to do anything – can be almost a kind of panic, and perhaps, if we’re honest, it may be more about us than about them.

There can be such a world of difference between reacting to something that happens and truly responding to it, can’t there? 


It bears mention this morning because in our Gospel passage, it seems like the Devil is hoping to push Jesus into reacting.  

He seems to arrive well into the 40 days, when Jesus has been out there for a while.  

The hunger, the loneliness, the boredom, the full range of emotions we encounter when we are well and truly by ourselves for a bit—all these have had their say.  

Maybe other things have had their say, too.  

I wonder if Jesus heard the voices of his past as he was out there, ostensibly to prepare for his future. 

Mark and Matthew’s gospels both describe a moment sometime after these 40 days, when Jesus would return home and preach in the synagogue in Nazareth, only to have his neighbors audibly whispering things like, “Who is this?  Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”

Their disbelief speaks volumes, and surely this is not for the very first time.  

And so perhaps before he encounters the presence of the Tempter, Jesus has had an extended period to hear the voices of his old neighbors, and it has taken almost everything in him to claim the strength to love them as himself.  

He’s worn out. 

I’m told that in AA, they teach you to be particularly attentive to, and careful with yourself when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. 

They use the acronym HALT to keep it close at hand.  HALT—hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  

These are important to keep track of because they are so often behind the temptation to throw away sobriety.  

They are so often a precursor to our own reactivity.  

Jesus is not on the program, of course, but it seems likely that after so long in the wilderness, he is all of those things, hungry, angry, lonely, and tired, and so perhaps it is no surprise that the Devil arrives.  

“Wouldn’t you like to show them all, Jesus?”

“Wouldn’t people change their tune if they knew who they were really dealing with?”

“Wouldn’t it be great to get somewhere with changing the world?”

For a moment, it seems as if the very power of God to transform the world might be turned Satanic—or at least, so Satan seems to be hoping.  

Satan seems to put great faith in reactivity.  


But to no avail.  

Jesus may be worn thin as an old sandal, but he doesn’t react. 

Instead, he responds.  

The Devil makes him an offer, and then another, and then another, and each time, Jesus refuses, always quoting Scripture.  

There’s nothing especially remarkable about the texts he chooses to do that, although they are a propos.  

But it’s not as if he pulls out the Ten Commandments, or Genesis 1, or something really juicy from the Prophets.  

You know, the big guns.  

Jesus isn’t out to clobber anybody, not even Satan, at least in this instance.  

He doesn’t have to.  

Because even in this moment when he’s run ragged and stretched so thin, Jesus remains rooted in God.  

He knows he is still living a life under God—even in God—which is just to say that he is capable of remembering that who he is and what he does are playing out on a much bigger stage than just some abandoned corner of the wilderness. 

That, of course, is just what the Tempter wants him to forget. 

Temptation usually isn’t some sort of deliberate choice to do evil. 

More often, it’s what happens when someone decides that doing good—and being good—no longer matter and maybe never did.

Nobody cares.  

It’s a kind of myopia.      

In the hard moments when we ask ourselves, “who cares?” temptation in some form can seem like an answer.  

But that’s not where Jesus is. 

Instead, for all the challenges of the wilderness, he finds strength and sustenance, hope and new horizons.

He knows that even when he struggles, he remains in the sight of God, and this strengthens him to live beyond his immediate moment.

He remembers that God cares, and in that, he can rise to the occasion rather than sink to Satan’s level.  

It gives him the capacity to respond rather than react.  


The churches of our tradition did not used to observe Lent. 

There are many reasons, some of them more about being purposefully un-Catholic than intentionally Protestant. 

A somewhat better line of thinking was simply that prayer, self-discipline, and spiritual groundedness, not to mention avoiding temptation, were how Christians are called to live for 365 days a year, not just 40.  

And yet, I think it’s been good for us to embrace this particular season.  

It’s good because we still struggle with moments when it seems as if nobody cares. 

There are still so many occasions when it seems as if being good and doing good no longer matter and maybe never did.  

Even our best and most generous intentions can be misdirected, like those 65,000 teddy bears descending on Newtown, which were testament to a nation’s immediate grief rather than its commitment to journey with that community and to pursue the longer, harder work of healing.  

Lent calls us to look within ourselves so that we can learn to see beyond ourselves.  

It reminds us that God cares about what we do and about who we are, and in that, it makes it possible for us to be people who face temptation and rise again.  


Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday has ancient roots for us as Christians.  

It means we are 40 days out from Easter. 

It also remembers that Jesus began his ministry with 40 days in the wilderness, which provides some direction for how we might spend these next 40 days.  

For Jesus in the wilderness, they were 40 days of self-purification, which is to say, 40 days of wrestling with temptation. 

The church in its history has tended to see this as good for us, too. 

Accordingly, that’s something you hear a lot about in church during Lent—our own temptations.  

But that’s not all that Jesus was wrestling with. 

It’s also important to remember that not all wrestling is the same thing as fighting or resisting. 

There’s also the kind of wrestling that is better described as “grappling,” which is to say, it’s the kind of wrestling that is “coming to terms” with something—about finding a way to accept it.  

I wonder if that is also some of what might be going on for Jesus in the wilderness. 

What might he have been grappling with? 

We sometimes forget that when Jesus went out into the wilderness, it was also an act of memory.  

In doing so, he remembers the 40 years that the Hebrew people wandered as they escaped slavery in Egypt and went in search of the promised land.  

That is its own story, of course, as told in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus.  

But one part of it is especially helpful for us tonight. 

Because one question that faithful people have had about those 40 years in the wilderness is fairly straightforward: why did it have to be so long? 

One answer I have found especially poignant over the years is that it took 40 years for two things to happen: first, for the next generation to be born, and second, for the generation of those who had escaped to pass away.  

That was sadly necessary, not because God was punishing them, but because they were unable to come to terms with their past. 

Even with all that God had done and was doing, they were unable to escape it emotionally and spiritually.  

Hard as it may be to believe, the Book of Exodus records that as God’s people wandered in the wilderness, there were moments when they even missed aspects of their old lives. 

It’s misunderstood as an expression of their stubbornness, but what it truly suggests is something much more tragic.  

The trauma of life under Pharoah had been that profound…that permanent.  

There was nobody to teach them how to move forward.  To regain their purpose. Literally, their sense of direction. 

God is sustaining them, feeding them manna – daily bread – and they have no sense of God in their midst.  

And so they wandered. 

It is important for us to remember that. 

In that same spirit, when Jesus goes into the wilderness for his own 40 days of temptation and self-purification, it is an act of honoring the history of God’s people.  His people.  

It is remembering those who had been too wounded…too traumatized…to claim the freedom to which God was trying to lead them. 

This is what he’s grappling with. 

Jesus would commit his own ministry to seeing and trying to bring healing to the wounded of his own time and place. 

He wanted them to claim the freedom…the hope…the notion of a future in God that life had seemed to deny them.  

And he wanted them to know that God was sustaining them…that once again, God was in their very midst.  

That’s also what God wants for us as we begin this odd and sort of antiquated 40 day season of Lent.  

It is a season of reflection and, in some ways, also of regret.  

But it’s not about making a point of feeling guilt or shame or sadness—it’s not trying to make us feel those things.  

It is simply acknowledging that we do, in ways that are obvious and hidden, known and unknown, and that with God’s help, we don’t have to, because God is here with us in the midst of them, working to heal us and show us a different and better future.  

Lent is about following the example of Jesus, and about being willing to ask ourselves about our own wounds, and how we’ve learned to walk with them.  

Have we truly found a way to heal, or are we just adept at using things to dull the pain? 

To put it in more traditionally theological language: are we really open to the promise of new and abundant life—the liberation God offers? 

Do we want Easter for ourselves? 

Or do we know ourselves only in reciting the familiar pains and resentments of the old life, whatever they may be?

Lent is about finding a way to learn from them and let go.  

Not everyone can.  

In the novel Great Expectations, Charles Dickens includes the haunting character of Miss Havisham, a wealthy woman, now old, who was left at the altar on her wedding day decades earlier. 

And money, pride and pain then collaborate to make the rest of her life into a dramatic performance of her wounds. 

She sits alone in her house, still in her wedding dress, with the decaying remains of an uneaten wedding banquet all around her, and the clocks throughout the house are stopped at the exact time when she first learned of her rejection.  

This is not to say that she does not deserve compassion.  

Rather, it is to note that she has become her own jailor. 

She has become a prisoner to the moment at which she decided time itself had stopped, and now she is beyond the reach of hope or help.  

Along those lines, Ash Wednesday urges us to name for ourselves the many ways we might be doing something like that, too. 

It offers a way forward by inviting us to live in ways that practice the presence of Jesus.    

It’s saying that we must not let the bad things, the painful things, become our whole story—not by ignoring them, which usually just ends up giving them more power—but by acknowledging them and then taking our cue from a very different story: the ongoing story of God’s redeeming love. 

God’s love can transform suffering into compassion, connection, and new life.  

It can set us free, if we are willing to receive it.  

Tonight, God signals the presence of Christ even in the ashes of our lives. 

It promises that even there, amid all our Good Fridays, God is at work to make us into an Easter people, teaching to receive our daily bread and to remember that wherever we may go, we do not walk alone. 


Sermon: “Unmasking” (Transfiguration Sunday)

There is a kind of “unmasking” at the heart of this story. 

It is a story about the disciples finally being like “ohhhhhh.”

Those of us who grew up with “Scooby Doo” comics on Saturday morning t.v.. have a kind of framework for this. 

If that sounds unfamiliar to you, personally, what I can tell you is that, in the world of Scooby Doo, who was a Great Dane who sort of talked and had human friends and who…solved…uhhh…mysteries

Suspend your disbelief, friends!

In the world of Scooby Doo comics, which appeared on Saturday mornings on CBS and then, after 1976 on ABC, this all made sense. 

Any Scooby Doo fans out there? 

The way it worked in Scooby Doo was that Scooby and his friends drove more or less around America in this trippy van, called “The Mystery Machine”…and somehow, despite the psychedelic flowers and the sort-of-talking dog, they solved mysteries. 

Situations that seemed paranormal at first turned out to be utterly human—the culprit wasn’t a ghost, but a person bent on manipulation.  A person who decided to use some sort of old legend or creepy location to feather their own nest in some way.  

The episode always ended the same way, right church? 

With a moment of unmasking.  

The villain, caught at last, gets unmasked, usually through some sort of cockamamie trap designed by Fred, which only worked because of a mistake of some kind by the Great Dane, Scooby, who was always scared and did the wrong thing but ended up saving the day because of it.  

I tell you this just to name that if you are almost 52 years old, the notion of unmasking is inexorably a ritual for the guilty

But this is not so with Jesus. 

For Jesus, this moment of unmasking…this moment of revelation…this moment of showing who he really is…is a kind of claiming.  

It’s not a guilt thing. 

It’s a moment when finally, at last, what has always been true can be revealed.  

It’s a moment when God is willing to live out-loud, if only for his friends at first, but knowing…knowing that once they know, there will be no going back. 

There will be no going back for him.  

There will be no going back for them, either, although they may not see that just yet. 

But God “unmasks” before his friends. 


Now, let’s be clear—it’s not as if Jesus was exactly “masked” before. 

When it comes to God’s transforming love, Jesus was on fire.  



For all the disciples had seen…for all that they had been a part of…for all the closeness they enjoyed and for all the insider-hood that came with it…for all that… there was this one thing that somehow they had not had the eyes to see: this healer…this teacher…was not just a spiritual master, but God’s own son. 

He wasn’t just a really really spiritual guy.    

He was the actual presence of God. 

That’s what’s at stake.  

That’s the big reveal.

Because for Luke, once you’ve experienced that, everything else falls into place. 

Before the Transfiguration, it’s easy to imagine the disciples talking among themselves, comparing notes after a healing or a particular sermon. 

“What was that?”

“Man, I don’t even know.” 

“Is this a God thing?”

“If it isn’t, I don’t know what is happening.” 

After the Transfiguration, that changes.  Now they know.

They see God at work right in front of them.  

What they’ve been seeing is God at work right in front of them.  

God is healing, bringing people together, seeing past old hurts and old divisions. 

God is offering new life in body, mind and spirit, inviting people to stand on the side of shalom—that Hebrew word that means welcome, peace, and wholeness.  


We’ll come back to this in a moment. 

With all the news in recent days about the Ukraine, you’ve probably heard about concerns that Russia is deploying teams of people on social media to flood platforms like Facebook with disinformation. 

The aim is teach people around the world to distrust their instincts and, if possible, to stoke division and indecision about how the global community ought to respond to the crisis.

Of course, this is only the latest example of how social media shapes our sense of what is real, what’s true and what can be trusted. 

This has been true for a long time.  

When I was still teaching, schools were introducing media literacy into the curriculum, and one of the earliest and most important lessons for kids just beginning to engage on-line was that they needed to understand that being “friends” on Facebook wasn’t the same as being friends in real life.  

Many parents know how hard that can be for young people to understand.  

But it’s not just young people. 

Similarly, in recent years, mental health practitioners report that clients of all ages and backgrounds report significant depression and general distress because as they see it, their own lives just don’t measure up to the lives of the people, the “friends,” they see online.  

There is new language, like the term “humble-bragging” for the particular social contortions that some people use to post good things about themselves without looking like they’re brazenly fishing for compliments. 

And that has an effect.  

It some cases, it makes the contrast between our lives and the lives of the seemingly blessed seem even more acute.  

Whether we realize it or not, we may be taking that to heart. 


I mention it this morning because I think it helps us understand what is so important about the Transfiguration – this moment on the mountaintop when Jesus is unmasked and shown to be who He really is. 

Because He’s showing us that the truth about us is who we are in the eyes of God.  

What God sees in any one of us is not something humiliating, not some set of flaws to be exposed, but a soul that waits to be bathed in light. 

And the presence of God is known wherever people find the power to take off their masks and live as those who see that light shining over themselves and others.  

There’s a challenge to churches in that, too, truth be told. 

Churches, if we’re not careful, can be a little bit like Facebook—places to practice a certain kind of respectability politics, even to put our masks on.  

If that is true, then the mask mandate that we really need to pay attention to isn’t the one about COVID.  

It’s the unspoken belief that God would ever ask us to live a lie. 

By the same token, a church is no church at all if it is willing to teach its children that lies and deception, whether about themselves or anything else, are ever what righteousness requires. 

God’s community does not practice untruth. The Kingdom of God in its fullness will not.  

With that in mind, I take the story of the Transfiguration to be pointing in a very different direction.  

To me, it is a clear mandate to Christians to be people who practice telling and honoring the truth about ourselves and about the world. 

We are called to find the courage to do it, and to speak it in love when we do. 

But following in the footsteps of the Transfiguration, we are witnesses to the power of unmasking and to the joy of life out loud. 

And so we know that this is the only life there is. 


Sermon: Successful Faith (1 Corinthians 13)

Our text this morning is one of the Bible’s most familiar passages for Christians.  

Even for Christians who aren’t that into the faith, it’s a winner.  

What’s not to like? 

Remembering that we are called to be patient, kind, and not insist on our own way—that we ought to work harder at not being arrogant, boastful or rude—that has a wellness app kind of appeal that anybody can get behind. 

If that’s where you come down on this passage, fair enough. 

It’s not so easy to walk through the world.  

With that in mind, if Paul’s hymn to love inspires you to walk more gently, to be a better spouse or all-around human, that’s a good thing. 

We often draw on them for weddings, and certainly, they have a wisdom and a resonance in that context. 

When someone gets married, they may well be making the greatest and most challenging set of promises they will ever make before God. 

Clearly, as far as joining our lives with someone else for all eternity goes, a small mention about not always insisting on our own way is a good tip.  

But there’s a fundamental irony that seems important to name about these words we lift up in the context of marriage, because Paul’s first audience for then was a community that was swiftly coming apart. 

If you read the passage in that light, it’s a little more prickly.  

It’s message to us is more pointed than we may remember.  

To me, Paul is saying something more about love than we often give him credit for.  

Because here’s what has happened in Corinth: they’ve got themselves a hoppingchurch.  

A few years ago, in its heyday, another congregation in Greenwich came to me to nose around whether we’d be interested in selling them the sanctuary…or at least sharing it on Sunday.  Yes.  

It was a short meeting.  

I smiled and said no and sat there without elaborating and the person asking didn’t really have anything else to ask or say, so there it was. 

We parted amicably, and I never heard from them again. 

But it was easy to understand their interest—they had a hopping church, and they wanted a beautiful box to put it in. 

And the church at Corinth was even more so.  

It was a who’s who.  Classy people.  Successful people.  

And they’d made for themselves a shiny, well-appointed kind of place.  Downtown.  Great parking.  Really good plantings outside.  Well-lit at night.  It was a statement in and of itself, that church.  

It told the world who these Christians were, by God.  

Not that it was only that.  Let’s not be crass.  

The spiritual programming was also something. 

What they had was way more than a dweeb in a robe for an hour a week.  

There were people speaking in tongues, people prophesying, a feeding program. 

Whatever their Fletcher Hall was, it was like Times Square.  

It was an international crossroads, with delegations from other Christian communities there to raise money for other worthy things—there to offer the latest, most powerful ways to find and maintain a connection to the God who had raised Jesus from the dead and who had so much to offer those who came after, as well.  

Like I said, the church in Corinth was hopping.  

You’d think Paul would be pleased.  They thought Paul would be pleased.  

But as I said, Paul’s response was actually prickly.  

Because where they thought they saw the Spirit moving, Paul saw something else. 

He saw a community that was dangerously close to worshiping, not the living God, but rather a shallow version of its own success.  

Paul was one of the first people to understand that just because someone called themselves Christian didn’t mean they were truly faithful. 

Just because you went to the church or put that little fish decal on the back of your car didn’t mean that you were growing in knowledge and love of God.  

It didn’t mean you were feeling led by conscience or concern.

It didn’t mean you were stretching.  

So many of Paul’s ways of talking about the church—and Jesus’ too—were in terms of seeds and shoots and vines and branches. 

This idea of growth was far more important to how they spoke about faith than any simple notion of status or attainment. 

Over and over again, they remind us that we worship a God of infinite love and infinite creativity.  

In God, there is always something new to see or learn or to which we might respond.  

God is the inexhaustible source of all that is. 

Jesus and Paul want us to see how our souls expand as we draw closer to that source.   

For them, this is what it is to be faithful. 

But somehow that’s not what Paul was hearing about in Corinth. 

And so when he speaks of love in this famous hymn, he’s trying to recenter them.  

He wants something for them that was deeper, more true and more wonderful than what they seem to want for themselves.  

So when he writes them about love in this letter, he’s not just reminding them how important it is to be a nicer person. 

He wants them to see how easy it is to waste our lives building things that will only pass away. 

That may sound a little grim.  

He doesn’t mean it to be.  

He’s just acknowledging that some things abide while others don’t.  

Even churchy things. 

Some things seem like lasting monuments…incredible feats…Guinness Book of World Records sort of stuff.  

But for Paul, if that’s what your life is all about, you’re missing it.  

And the reason we call the message of Jesus “good news” is that you don’t have to.  

Nobody has to miss it.  

In the midst of life, there is a more excellent way.  

He’s asking his friends at Corinth: is all this stuff you’re doing—is all this stuff you’re building—are all these people you’re attracting—is all this success actually proof of anything? 

Because it only is if it’s teaching you to be more loving.  

It only is if it’s actually bringing you closer to God…it only is if, every day, you’re finding ways to try being a little more like Jesus.  

The best measure of our commitment to the Kingdom is often found in our willingness to do the things that, for the most part, cost us nothing.  

A successful church is whatever gives us the imagination—the commitment to the possible—the deep sense of connection and concern to do those things.  

Faith, hope and love.  These three.  

The world will do its best to convince us otherwise, but for Paul, a successful church doesn’t look like a certain kind of place.  

It looks like a certain kind of life. 

That’s what he’s trying to say in these inspiring words about the abiding power of love. 

It’s important that we remember it, too.  

Life may not always feel like that.   

But in the midst of so much that passes away, much remains. 

And as we come to trust in the power of those things, the veil parts, the shadows fade, and the light and life of God come before us face to face.    


“The Life of the Party” (The Wedding at Cana)

When Liz and I were first married, we went to a wedding where, as it happened, we had to schlep several cases of unopened wine back to the city the next morning.  

The bride and the groom weren’t drinkers. 

They’d done their math kind of on the fly – and, anyway, it was more of a beer crowd.  

The next day, they had unopened cases of wine left. 

I think they’d gotten supplies for one bottle per person, or something like that.

You can see how these things happen. 

If you’ve planned a wedding, you’ll remember that there are umpteen details to get into. 

Only some of them are fun.  

If you’re not a wine person, then what kind of wine and how much of it you’re supposed to have at your wedding aren’t among the fun things to decide, and they don’t stay on the radar very long.  

If you ask someone, they’ll give you some sort of blanket warning and leave it at that. 

“Reunite on ice isn’t really that nice,” or “chardonnay tastes like mango soap with butter in it.”

That’s it.  Apparently, you can take it from there.  

In any case, our friends were left with a lot of pretty good wine that they knew for a fact they’d never get around to drinking.  

I think we took a case.  

My in-laws took a case.   

Our friends brought the wine to every dinner party or housewarming they could schedule for months just to get it out of their hall closet.  


So when I think about this morning’s Gospel, the story of the wedding feast at Cana where Our Lord performs his first miracle, I come to it wondering something I have never actually wondered before. 

I’m wondering what on earth they did with all that wine. 

That probably seems like a dumb question.  

But hear me out.  

You probably know the story.  

John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus attends a wedding in Cana. 

His public ministry has just begun.  

He has been baptized.  

The next day, he begins calling the disciples. 

This is the day after that.  

Unlike the wedding I was just talking about, this one runs out of wine, and you can see why. 

If Jesus arrives with twelve people nobody had invited, you can see how running out of things would be a problem.  

Aside from that, though, he seems inclined to keep a low profile, and he’s clearly nowhere near the bar, because it’s his mother who has to come and tell him that the wedding has run out of wine. 

That he should…well…do something about that.  Ahem. 

He doesn’t especially want to. 

Maybe it’s a weird occasion for a miracle.  You’re not supposed to upstage people at their own wedding.  

It’s also a weird place for one. 

He’s there way in the back at the banquet hall.

He’s far from the dance floor, in that no man’s land where the servers in their red tuxedo jackets are going back and forth through the swinging doors to the kitchen. 

Around him is a forest of those abandoned tray stands, with maybe a forlorn smoker or two, trying to do their thing, pop a breath mint and get right back to the party.  

This is exactly the kind of place where miracles don’t happen, whether it’s because they shouldn’t or just because they don’t. 

But, well, like all of us, Jesus knows your mom is your mom, so…. 

There are six enormous stone jars full of water standing there, each one the size of a garbage can, and just like at Creation, the hand of God moves over the face of the waters, and they are transformed.  

Jesus transforms the water into wine. 

And as John makes abundantly clear, it’s the good stuff

Technically, this is where the story ends.  

It’s a neat little starter miracle for Jesus that blesses a happy couple and all their guests.  

It anticipates so many other banquets yet to come, and points to the radical hospitality and joyful abundance of a life in God, which Jesus will make clear are central to his message.  

All true.  


What happens to all that wine?  

To all the good stuff?  

It’s already late in the evening.  

You have to figure that at this point, a lot of the people are just sort of waiting for them to cut the cake so they can go home.  

The wine’s not going to keep. 

Back then, showing up with a wineskin on the offhand chance of getting a roadie would have been like showing up today with Tupperware for somebody’s leftover filet. 

That’s not what guests do.  

So if you’re the host, standing there in the back of the hall with the caterer and the wedding planner, there’s only one option.  

You’ve got to think up a strategy for giving it all away. 

Wonderful as it is.  Delightful and surprising as it is.  Gift that it is.  

You’ve got to give it away.  

Because like manna in the wilderness, you can’t hold onto it. 

All you can do is find someone with whom you can share it. 

All you can do is let the blessing bless another person – an uninvited guest.  

You send all those waiters in their red tuxedos right out of the banquet hall and into the streets, throwing open the doors and turning the whole thing into a block party.  

You go out to the places where miracles really don’t happen and make it so that this one does.  


This for me is where a story about Jesus can become a story that’s also about us.  

We may not be able to turn water into wine. 

But it is well within our power to bless somebody else. 

When it comes to the good stuff, there is so much to share, and there are so many ways to share it.  

So many places seem like unlikely places for a miracle, and so much that seems so small and scarcely necessary can turn out to be miraculous. 

That’s the point.  

The miracle in this story is about what God can transform into a blessing.  

And the answer is just about anything.  

Because just about anyone can be a blessing.  

The water of yet another day doing yet more of the same old stuff can be transformed. 

It can become fine wine.  

As good people fan out and bring lives of humor and hope, conscience and conviction to wherever they go, the hand of God extends out over the waters, jar by jar, and suddenly, one of those forgotten places can turn out to be a vineyard.  

It can become a place of peace and comfort, laughter, joy and life. 

There is good stuff in all of us that God is so eager to see on offer to a thirsty world.  

And there is so much that comes from sharing it. 


I like to think of that bride and groom in the weeks and months, even the years after their wedding. 

John never does share their names, but I feel like I know them, anyway—at least a little.  

I think of them doing all the “adulting” kinds of things that we grow into in married life: dropping off dry cleaning, taking something to Goodwill, swinging by Acme to pick up a box of Stove-Top stuffing, getting replacement rubber bands for a kid’s braces.  

All that stuff that is how we spend our days, whatever that was for them. 

But wherever they’d go…whatever they’d be doing…they’d see some stranger beaming at the sight of them.  

There would be this army of well-wishers all over town, flashing them a thumbs up or grabbing a door to hold it open as they pass through, and all because on some random night whenever it was, the doors of their wedding had opened, and the waiters had streamed out into the streets, giving anyone who wanted some the best wine they had ever tasted or would ever taste — wine so wonderful that even the memory of it would fill your heart with gratitude and love.  

This is the world that God invites us to build with Him.  

Wherever we go, may the memory of our passing through inspire such delight.  

Christmas Eve Sermon: “Tuning In”

Every December, our family spends a fair bit of time watching Christmas movies, gathering regularly in front of the t.v. in a way that we mostly don’t at other times of the year. 

It’s a lovely tradition we have – particularly because I fondly remember watching some of the same shows with my family when I was kid.  Rudolph. Frosty.  The Grinch.  A Christmas Carol.  It’s a Wonderful Life. 

It’s amazing how some things have stood the test of time. 

But some parts of the overall experience have changed.  

For example, it is hard to explain to my kids why having a remote control for the t.v. makes me worry that they’re spoiled. 

You see, I come from a time when, if you were a kid, the only remote control your family had was you.  

If the family was switching from one channel to another, that meant that the kid had to hop up and (MG: duh-duh-duh-duh) switch it. 

Now there were only about five and a half channels, but still. 

And it didn’t stop there, did it?  

I mean, just because you were switching didn’t mean you could just twist the dial and then plotz back on the couch.  

It also demanded participation in the precise and mysterious art of tuning in a t.v.  

Adjusting the rabbit ears.  

Do you remember? 

Do you remember how CBS could have one typical configuration, but NBC and ABC each had something entirely different?  

In New York City, getting WPIX/Channel 11 was a whole thing, but that was where you watched the Yankees, so if the game was important, you would be there fifteen minutes before, you’d be factoring in cloud cover and wind…it was like trying to land a plane at LaGuardia. 

Plus, there was the whole thing that if you touched the rabbit ears, your own actual body became part of the antenna. 

That made the picture better than it actually was, so to get it right…actually right…you had to touch-and stand back, touch-and stand back, going millimeter by millimeter, while everyone else in the room shouted at you about whether you had it or not.  Or they just made you stand there until the next commercial. 

Friends, in 1974, this was what “togetherness” looked like.  

The children do not understand.  

And yet, it really was something when you were standing there, breath held, eyes locked, fingers attentive like a safe cracker’s, and suddenly you’d find the one, the only, magic spot, and the picture would come in juuust right.  

One minute static and snow, static and snow, static and…then: there it was.  A window on a new world.  

And peace and gladness and harmony would reign at last.  


In its own way, Christmas is something like that, too.  

Certainly, it’s a window on a new world.  

It seeks to cut through the static and the snow of life as we have come to know it.  

And it shows us what the world looks like when we remember that nothing is impossible with God.  

Because that’s what so many of them gathered around the manger had started to remember. 

That’s what the angel had told each one of them at some point along the way.  

Think of all the angel visits in this story. 

An angel greets Zechariah in the Temple and Mary in Nazareth, then Joseph, and so on, and so on, all the way to the shepherds watching their fields by night. 

These people come into the story already astonishingly faithful, but as it turns out, that isn’t really the point.  

Because plugged into their faith as they are, they’re still fiddling with their reception, too. 

As the gospel makes clear, whatever has gotten them where they are, nothing has prepared them – even them – for the sheer, life-giving, creative power of God. 

God seems almost to crash into their lives. 

And what becomes clear is that God is intent on life and liberation, and ready to upend every rule to make it so.

And so we get this story of impossible thing after impossible thing that somehow happens. 

The story of Christmas.  

Do you remember? 

Because that’s what this is.  

All these impossible things.  

An old man is struck dumb, and his barren wife conceives. 

Then her young cousin, a virgin, conceives.  

Scientists in silk robes set out to follow a star and come to kneel beneath it, with precious gifts to lay before a baby in a barnyard.  

Scraggly shepherds, each one looking like an unmade bed, come in from the cold and are welcomed. 

Meanwhile, back in his palace, the King of Judea in his monogrammed pjs quakes in fear, suspecting that at long last, his chickens have started coming home to roost.  

And in Rome, an oblivious Caesar thinks what he’s doing is imposing a new tax across his empire. 

In fact, what he is really doing is seeing to it that one of Israel’s ancient and most cherished prophecies comes true.  

What does it all mean?

It means that the powers and principalities of a broken world have just booked their first class tickets on the Titanic

Because now a very different vision of the world than theirs is about to come into view—the vision the Prophets had foretold.  

Everything was about to change. 

And it has.  

Because of that vision, even in the darkest times, there would always be a candle burning somewhere.  

Because of that vision, there would always be someone who could remember…someone made stronger by the power of hope…someone ennobled by the love of God…someone enabled to be a force for good…someone prepared to call God’s people to be the hands and feet of God, as God has asked us to be. 

That’s what suddenly came into view at Christmas.  

The snow and static disappeared, and the world was attuned to the purposes of God.  

So Christmas is a window on a new world.  

A world where even seemingly impossible things are happening…and all of them serving to make the point that when it comes lives transformed and our own call to sacred work discovered, nothing…nothing then and nothing now…is impossible with God.  


If you ask me, this is what the world manages to find again at Christmas. 

During these weeks, we remember a lot that we seem to let ourselves forget.  

Not all of us are so forgetful, of course.  

Surely there are saints among us who live as more or less permanent residents of Christmas, and who embody everything it stands for. 

But most of us don’t rise to that level. 

The vast majority of us are works-in-progress.  

We’re not as joyful or as patient or generous as we’d like to be. 

We struggle to let go of old fears and to do the right thing. 

Maybe most of all, we can’t imagine a world that operates according to different rules than the ones we’ve come to know so well.  

And yet, at Christmas, for a little while, anyway, the static and snow vanish again, and that different world pops into view.

People are kinder and try harder. 

Some even seem to find a strength they may not have known they had….and do things they didn’t imagine they could do…to give in ways they didn’t know they could give. 

And somehow, between it being enough of us trying all at once and the season going on for long enough, we start to say “what if…”? 

What if this is how it could be? 

What if we were serious about a more loving and merciful world? 

What if this was what we focused on…making a world more like this, and for more people? 

Isn’t that what life is all about?  Wouldn’t that be a joy?

It’s not impossible, at all.  

It’s right here.   

God’s future has already started to arrive. 

Cutting through all the snow and static, in Jesus, we are tuned in to God’s vision for the world, and the silent night leads us to a glorious new day. 

Merry Christmas.  

Santa-con and the New Normal (Luke 2)

I know the world is eager to reclaim so much of what we have lost during COVID, but I was still sorry to see that SantaCon was back on in New York City. 

You know SantaCon, right? 

I don’t know much.  

Best I can tell, it’s a day when hundreds, maybe thousands of young men in their 20s and 30s descend on New York City and other unfortunate cities across the country, wearing Santa hats and sometimes not much else, and they roam around in packs, visiting as many bars in Manhattan in the shortest period of time they can.

That’s SantaCon.  

Other than the part about the hats, I’m not sure what it has to do with Christmas.  

It’s like Christmas organized by the DKE house, if, in fact, you want to call it “organized” at all. 

I don’t know why anyone would bother. 

Saint Nicholas would not feel remotely honored by it.  

I’ve spoken before about how the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was just an excuse for debauchery rather than a properly religious holiday celebrating the birth of our Savior, and I have to believe that in light of SantaCon, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards are up in heaven with their arms folded, feeling pretty vindicated right now.  

But, in a world that’s trying to get back to normal in all the ways it can, this is part of normal, and, in any case, it’s back.  

For many reasons, it’s a particularly strange way to celebrate Christmas. 

Christmas is a day that stands for the transformation of the world. 

Much of the point is that it celebrates the beginning of something very different, and not just more of the same. 

If you think about it, Christmas is about the start of a new normal.  

I wonder if in any given year, some of those roving, feral Santas manage to find that out. 

I wonder if in any given year, for one or two of them, there they are in a bar full of other Santas, and maybe they need to make a quick pit-stop at some point, only to find upon their return that the great red tide of Santas has rolled on, and they’re standing there, alone – stared at by whoever is willing to be in a bar at midday in mid-town Manhattan on Santa-con – and suddenly it isn’t cute and festive but somehow desperate.  

Maybe that rogue Santa wanders out into the street, but doesn’t see the guys he came with, or maybe he walks east instead of west, and with everything a little hazy, he doesn’t see the kids until they’ve run right up to him, thrilled and delighted to see him, full of hope and expectation, wanting to hear him make promises that he knows are not properly his to make.  

It’s New York, so he can’t look to the natives for help, but a guy selling knock off purses on the corner takes pity on him, and hails him a cab, then slips the driver a twenty just to make it happen because…well…just because some people are like that.  

He decides he’d better have a big cup of coffee before he goes home and lies down, and he ducks into some place, and there he is, ordering a grande coffee in that ridiculous suit, with everyone staring, but the barista takes no notice, and it occurs to him that sometimes, not noticing can be the kindest form of noticing there is.

What if by the working of God’s Providence, this Santa doesn’t march all over the city like some sort of entitled prince, but finds himself a lonely pilgrim, and that on this day, it is the city that has marched straight into his heart? 

Then one good night’s sleep and a long shower later, it’s the next morning. 

The Santa suit is crumpled on the floor while he dresses for work, and he’s back to looking like one of those people in a magazine. 

It’s now when it either happens or it doesn’t. 

It’s now because, as he steps back out onto the street, he can either act like none of it ever happened, that he is back to being an entitled prince, that Santa-con came and went for the price of a couple of Advil. 

Or he can step out changed.  Step into a new normal.  Live into what he now sees…  Continue as a pilgrim who knows the truth has set him free. 

I mean, that kind of thing must happen, right? 

It’s not the most improbable thing that ever happened at a Christmas.  


The thing about the way our Scriptures tell the story of Christmas is that they want us to understand how improbable it all is.  

Not in the sense that we shouldn’t believe it.  

Not in the sense that God was not working patiently from the beginning to make it happen. 

But improbable in the sense that Christmas pushes us to see something that isn’t obvious until you see it.  

And then it challenges us to go forward changed. To find our place in the new normal it comes to announce, as all the characters of the Christmas story must. 

This morning, it’s the story of Elizabeth, the very senior mother-to-be of John the Baptist, and then it’s the story of Mary, the very young mother-to-be of Jesus.  

The signs of a new normal are already in embryo in their respective ages. 

Elizabeth was probably 40, which is normal…or normal-ishfor us, although it wouldn’t have been for them. 

Conversely, Mary was perhaps as young as 14, which would be all-but unheard of for many of us, but for them, was not unusual.  

But the deeper point is that, in these two women, God’s new normal is poised to arrive.

The disruption to the familiar order of how birth happens is just a foretaste of disruption that John and Jesus will bring into the world.  

These two will ask us to see things through the eyes of God, starting with ourselves.  

But even before that, thirty years before anyone is standing by the banks of the Jordan, there is the pilgrimage of their mothers, who come to realize that all they have is God and each other.  

And it is enough.  

They appear so different, old and young, established and scandalous, maybe wise and naïve.  

But in God, they see that the differences fall away.  

Something else is taking hold.  A new normal.  


What needs to happen for you and me to believe in it, too? 

Where does a vision of that sit for each of us?

With all the running around we do this time of year, maybe we aren’t as different from the staggering reveler-bros of Santa-con as we might like to think.  

We won’t wake up with the headaches they do. But we have headaches and heartaches of our own.  

Loving other people sometimes requires going through the motions in ways we don’t feel, but so that they will…or so that maybe they will. 

We carry that.   

I’m not sure my grandmother cared about putting up a Christmas tree after about 1960, but she did it for the grandchildren, and as far as it went, she liked that we expected it.  

It was something. 

She would have been the age of Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, around then.  

But life and loss taught her to play it safe, and she became the keeper of traditions, not because of everything they meant, but because they were what she had.  

Christmas wants so much more for us than that.   

There are times when we feel so helpless to change things that need changing.  

The list just seems so long and we’re not sure what to do…where to get started, what to try now, whether to see the inevitable for what it is.  

Bowing to the inevitable was where the smart money was way back in the Year Zero, when these two mothers-to-be came together and joined forces, and Mary sang the Magnificat for the first time, her wonderful poem about a world where it would all be different…a world in which the mighty would fall from their thrones.

Where something new would happen.

It’s not too late.    

Christmas sees so much more in us than we do.  

It invites us to become pilgrims. 

It promises us that Jesus offers a way to do things differently—a path toward a new normal for us and for the world.  

The peace it promises is not the peace of silence, but the peace of resolution.   It’s the peace of forgiveness.  The peace of healing and growth.  

It’s a path to a new, redeemed future, and it promises the courage we need to walk forward into that future with our heads held high. 

It hopes that we will step out changed, and finally ready to live into what it is to be free.  


Believing in Halloween

Dear Friends of Second Church,

I guess it’s a reflection of my age and of our times that, as Halloween comes, I’m less concerned about Dark Powers Roaming the Earth than I am about calories. 

We’ve defanged the whole thing.  

And I’m sorry we have.  

I don’t know if people actually stayed home on All Hallows Eve back in the day, afraid of crossing paths with an evil spirit, believing in the ancient Celtic understanding of Halloween as the night when the veil between earth and the afterlife was pulled back, and the spirits roamed free. 

Anyway, for us, it’s not about that. On the contrary, it’s a night to go out. To take the kids. Maybe the dogs if it seems like they’ll behave. Staying home is for Christmas Eve, not Halloween. 

Maybe that’s always been true.

Maybe the notion of fearful people barring the doors and windows and saying an extra prayer at bedtime is never how it actually was.  

But it’s interesting to ponder how our lives might be different if we came to see it as tradition seems once to have imagined it. 

These days, we get very worked up over how scary Halloween really ought to be. We argue over how to make it safer, or more an expression of “good clean fun.”  

Certainly, I’m not against safety or good, clean fun. 

But in the case of Halloween, those might be the wrong things to be asking about. 

It would be better to ask this question instead: if we believed in Halloween, what kind of people might it enable us to become? 

The Harry Potter books suggest a version of this question, with their joyful celebration of magic and of how magic defines a world for those blessed with the gift of being able to practice it. That world is a place of enchantment—so much so that among them, hilariously, magic has become a given, taking on much of the character of the everyday—a way to wash dishes or call AAA—and subject to all kinds of regulations, enforced by people who find work a drag as much as we do. 

The simple presence of magic doesn’t change very much.

With that said, what you actually use magic for turns out to be the defining question for every character in the books. 

And sadly, when it comes to that, wizards and witches prove to be as human as the rest of us.  

They’re no better at separating truth from lies or wisdom from folly than we are, and can all too easily end up using their powers selfishly, foolishly, or malevolently — just as we so often do.  

It turns out that being able to see the world in terms of its great moral questions, to understand the spirit of the times in which one lives, and to work for the good, are just as much a gift as being able to practice magic.  

This is where Halloween fits in.  

It’s not about the magic, dark or otherwise.  

In a much deeper way, it’s about spirits…and Spirit. 

And it’s that depth I hate to think we’re losing. 

With that in mind, I wonder if believing in Halloween would teach us to see more clearly the spirits of light and darkness contending in the rights and wrongs of our own lives. 

I wonder if it would help us to acknowledge more readily the many ways in which, if we are not careful, our lives can be haunted, tempted, and even possessed by the things that might diminish them the most. 

I wonder if it would remind us that the world is more than just the parts made with human hands.  

If Halloween is about those things, then rather than teaching us to live in fear, I wonder if it might actually teach us how to live with greater reverence.  

Maybe instead of preaching darkness, it’s pointing toward the light. 

See you in church,