Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus often occurs in the calendar at about the same time as the annual resurrection of the populace of Seattle. In April we begin to emerge from the tomb, umm… cave of our long winter hibernation. We come out of the darkness into the light. The gloomy tenor of our faces is replaced with a smiling, friendly visage and instead of grey and black, we put on clothes with colors and patterns.
Ferdinand and Isabella, the pair of Mallard ducks that come to St. Luke’s every spring to nest and raise their chicks are back. This year is special since we just completed our Rainwise project with cisterns to catch run off from the roof and a beautiful new rain garden that operates like a pond to filter water naturally back into the water table. The ducks love it!
The new homes for the honey bees are up on the roof. This is the first year they will take residence at St. Luke’s to help pollinate our beautiful SLUG garden, and the new native plants we have added to the landscape. By the end of summer we expect our first harvest of local honey which we will serve in the Edible Hope Kitchen. Our hope is that its healthy properties will combine with the nutritious food and services we offer to 180 guests every weekday morning will be a benefit and a sign of our love and care for folks experiencing homelessness and hunger.
This past week I was reminded of God’s promise from the book of Isaiah. God promises a feast for all peoples, a feast of rich food, of rich food filled with marrow. In the holy days leading up to Easter we had our Maundy Thursday meal in the Edible Hope Kitchen where our fabulous cook, Robert had prepared not just ham, but roast pork and Tuscan chicken. Volunteers, guests and visitors sat around a table to share the meal where the love of Christ is tangibly present. The good news is that the same quality of food and care is served up five days a week, year round, to anyone in need.
These signs of resurrection life and the presence of the risen Christ are all around but we are often prevented from seeing or celebrating them. And we’re not alone. The gospel of Mark ends with the disciples scattered in their fear and discouragement and the women terrified and amazed. The power of God over evil, death and the grave had already taken place that first Easter morning, but no one had yet been able to see or receive it.
Fear, of course, is one of great blinders to resurrection life. Fear prevents us from seeing the other in the light of Christ. It makes us either timid or aggressive. It shuts down our options. It turns others into enemies. Fear prevents us from flourishing, from taking risks, from being vulnerable and therefore, from experiencing the deepest, richest connections of intimacy and love. Fear seized the women at the tomb of Jesus. It temporarily paralyzed them.
But then they are given something to do, something they alone can do. They are given the message of hope. The women are asked to bear the good news first to the disciples and then to the whole world. As they make their way from the tomb, each step creates confidence and strength. By the time they see the resurrected Christ, they have become the apostles he always knew they could be.
Shame, too. It keeps us locked up, unwilling or unable to accept the light of resurrection life. Shame sends us into isolation. Peter, in spite of all his protests and best intentions had denied Jesus three times. The shame of his cowardice cut him off from Jesus and from his friends.
It’s no surprise that the messenger of God instructs the women to tell “his disciples AND Peter.” Peter needed desperately to hear that he had not lost the love of Jesus. He needed to know that God’s power and the forgiveness of Jesus were greater than the very worst he had done. The hope of the resurrection brings Peter out from hiding and transforms him into the rock and leader that Jesus always knew he could be.
And then there is the betrayer, Judas. By the time of Christ’s resurrection, he was probably already dead by suicide. He had traded the faith, hope and love of Jesus for his own idea of power and privilege. He had substituted a political solution for a transformation of life. He had sold his best beloved for silver to corrupt and venial officials. He was in a despair that led to death.
And yet, even in that dark place, the life of resurrection touches him. Jesus descends to the dead. The resurrection of Jesus has power not only for the living but for the dead. The resurrection defies time and space and makes a way where there was no way. The life of Christ is extended to all for all time and God is not willing that even one should perish, not even the most notorious betrayer in history.
It’s funny how resurrection life keeps popping up where we least expect it. A few months ago I needed to move some furniture here in the sanctuary. As I often do, I went out to the courtyard and into the dining room to ask if any of our guests could help me out. When I first began at St. Luke’s I wasn’t sure how safe it would be to do something like that. Fear and distrust of the homeless is often the result of unexamined prejudice and simple lack of contact and connection. Fear keeps us from seeing the other as a beloved child of God.
A guy in his thirties offered to help me that day. I was on a mission so I marched ahead of him into the sanctuary to get the job done. Suddenly he wasn’t with me. I whirled around but didn’t immediately see him. The lights weren’t on and he wasn’t anywhere in sight. I looked closer and saw his form huddled down just inside the door, and I immediately was on alert. We were alone in the church. The lights were off. I didn’t even have my phone on me.
As my eyes adjusted, I realized what was going on. He had removed his baseball hat. His hair was dirty since he hadn’t been able to get a shower or do laundry on the weekend, but he had bared his head. He was kneeling and his head was bowed. As he rose up, he dipped his fingers in the holy water of the baptismal font and crossed himself. He had come into this place, this holy space where the presence of the risen Christ is acknowledged in the waters of baptism, in the reserved sacrament of bread and wine and in the light of Christ candle and he fell to his knees to worship. That day he reminded me that the resurrected Christ is alive and going before me. My fear, shame and busyness often prevents me from seeing and responding to God, but nonetheless, Christ is present.
This Easter Day we experience the risen Christ in light. In word and song. In the beauty of the earth and in the beauty of the faces surrounding us. We receive Christ in bread and wine and in the prayers offered by and for us. And we see the light and love of Christ in Skyler and those who love her and present her to God for baptism.
Baptism isn’t about being perfectly clean and pure. Baptism isn’t about what we can understand about God and reciting correct doctrine. Baptism isn’t magic to protect the child from evil and death. Baptism is grace and goodness, the life of the risen Christ offered freely for Skyler and for each one of us. Baptism is a gift from God that acknowledges the power of Christ’s life and love for us, no matter what! We are given the opportunity of a lifetime to live into it. We are washed daily from shame and freed from fear in the waters of resurrection life. We are given a new beginning over and over again as we follow the way of Christ. Today I am so grateful for Skyler. She shows us the openness of a child, the trust of one who is beloved and hope for the future. It is so easy to see that she is precious and she reminds us that each one of us is precious too, each one of us is the beloved of God. Her life began in the waters of the womb, is made alive with Christ in the waters of baptism and will be fulfilled when Jesus goes before her and with her into life eternal.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Easter Day, B
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8
I don’t know about this Daylight Savings time change. It seems that “people love light more than darkness.” For myself, I love a full night of sleep rather than the loss of an hour! But I’m grateful to be here this morning and grateful that you are here as well.
Of course when Jesus talks about darkness, he is not talking literally but metaphorically. He’s talking about what is hidden, denied, kept in secret. He’s talking about our fears and shame. Jesus knows the countless ways that we individually and collectively become trapped in patterns of behavior that shut us off from the light of God, damage our relationships and are self-destructive.
You are probably familiar with the cycle. There is the thought or action that brings a rush of shame, fear or disgust. It’s quickly followed by judgement either of self or another. Then comes anger and blame followed by condemnation. Condemnation leads to despair and brokenness. Then it begins all over again.
Because it’s Lent, and like me, you may be a little more aware of the unhealthy patterns and habits that you have, this may sound familiar to you personally. It’s certainly a universal symptom of our human condition. The traditional Christian term for this is sin. It’s like being in a room without an exit. It’s like going down a road and finding out it’s a dead end. It’s the experience of seeing your world narrowed and constrained and your freedom circumscribed. It’s trying to negotiate the world when you can’t see clearly.
And we all go there. We all find ourselves stuck, trapped, bound by this destructive cycle.
So here’s the truly radical aspect of what Jesus says in John 3:16 and 17. First of all, this world in which we all experience the effects of shame, fear, judgement, condemnation, despair and death is a world which God loves. God loves us, even in our brokenness, God loves us so much that God has no desire to condemn. God wants to break the pattern that leads to death and to bring us to fullness of life that can only be described as eternal, not just life after physical death, but the life that comes when we are no longer bound by the power of death.
And for that purpose God gives us Jesus. Jesus is the one through whom this life becomes most real and present. The Greek word for save is so much more than a simple rescue from death. It literally means to bring out into an open space. God opens a door in a room with no exit so that we might escape. God creates a new way where there was once a dead end. God opens up new possibilities, fresh horizons, a new beginning. God shines the light so that we may see more clearly.
But how? How does God deliver us? What does it mean to be saved? It’s clear when you look around that we human beings keep getting stuck. The self-help genre of books, tapes, speakers and workshops are ever increasing. There is no end of treatments for the conditions we face. Scientists are constantly looking for ways to ease human pain, suffering and alienation. We have been trying to help and save ourselves for centuries. We have tried willpower, increased knowledge, expert assistance, and countless ways to numb our pain and despair. And it’s not working.
On a daily basis I interact with people who are trapped by addiction. They have lost housing, family, jobs, health and freedom. As one person facing jail time put it, “I have already been in prison with this for the past 5 years, no cell can be worse.” Another asked me to pray for him and when I asked what I could pray for, he asked that I pray for him to die.
This is a cycle of shame, blame, despair and death. We can’t judge or punish our way out of it. Moral or legal condemnation makes very little difference. Last week I watched the 5-part documentary, The Trade, about the heroin crisis. It’s clear that everyone from the poppy growers in Mexico, the dealers in the States, the users, their loved ones, even the police and government officials are trapped in a crisis that is far beyond their control. It’s certainly beyond my control.
How can Jesus save in this situation? How do those trapped in this cycle break free?
John’s gospel uses a very strange analogy from the Old Testament to point us towards the way that God acts in Jesus. The story is from Numbers. Moses and the people are in the wilderness and they’ve gotten stuck in a pattern of complaint and futility. They are tired of wandering around lost and eating the limited diet of quail and manna that has been provided. In fact, they seem willing to go back to Egypt where they were trapped in a cycle of forced labor and oppression rather than continue in their current situation. They are ready to put themselves back into slavery, to return to what was familiar, to lose their freedom.
But then a crisis comes. God gets their attention. They suddenly find themselves attacked by venomous serpents. They are desperate for Moses to call upon God to save them. And God provides a remedy. The very thing that has caused suffering and death is also the object of their healing and restored life. Moses creates an image of a serpent and lifts it high so that any who look up to it will be spared.
How can the very thing that brings death, also bestow life? If I was an Israelite, I’ve got to tell you I would find it very difficult to take my eyes off the snakes I was trying to dodge and believe that just looking at the bronze serpent would somehow protect me. I’d be more likely to try to find another solution like working together with others to corral the snakes or outrunning them or starting a fire or learning what kind of snakes they were and getting them something to eat they liked better.
But what God asks of them is to look up and to trust. The word that we read as belief is really much more about trust. It’s not about agreeing to a proposition or saying you believe. It’s not about making an idol of the snake or believing in magic. It’s much more about putting your trust in God. It’s about recognizing that your own abilities, skills and willpower can only take you so far. You can’t prevent death. You can’t avoid failure. You will get trapped and stuck in cycles that lead to shame, judgement and despair.
But God wants to bring you to an open space. God invites you to lift up your eyes and to trust. And here’s what God offers when we finally stop and raise our eyes: What we see is Jesus, who himself is lifted up. We see him first upon the cross. The very instrument of suffering and death is one which he has chosen freely as his fate. He walks into the heart of judgement, condemnation, shame, fear, despair and death. He does so as a free, human being, not constrained by sin or trapped by the self-destructive patterns we all experience.
When we raise our eyes and see Christ on the cross, we see the one truly free and whole being who loves us and offers himself for us. As we continue to look at Jesus, we see him raised up. The tomb is empty. Death has been conquered. The very worst the world could dish out could not hold him down. Death doesn’t get the final word. There is life that can never be taken away, that nothing, not even the worst we experience can steal from us. God has placed us in Christ where we are ultimately alive.
Finally we see Christ ascended in glory. His presence fills the whole world by the power of God’s Spirit. What is truly true and really real is so much more than we can think or imagine or even hope for. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus open up the entire cosmos to life and we are drawn up into that dance, that eternal love between God, Jesus and the Spirit.
We’re not asked to believe impossible propositions. We’re not required to be good enough, strong enough or faithful enough. We don’t have to beat ourselves up or judge everyone else who doesn’t conform to our expectations. We’re just asked to raise our eyes to Jesus, to see that he is looking back at us with love and not with condemnation. He is inviting us to freedom and life. The very things that have caused pain and suffering in our lives can be an open door, even a wound where the light can get in.
Some of the folks who know this most profoundly are the folks who are truly in recovery. They don’t give any weight to shame and judgement. No one will ever be saved by that. They hold onto hope for the hopeless. They look at addicts with love and compassion because they’ve been there themselves. They are willing to be the kind of friends who tell the truth.
The church is the home for all saints and sinners. Each one of us is both. When the light shines in and through us, the love, grace and mercy of God spreads to the whole world.
4th Sunday in Lent
Do you ever get a tune or musical phrase in your head that keeps playing over and over again? I guess that’s called an ear worm and it can be annoying, but it can also be instructive. It means the brain is working on something even when we’re occupied with lots of other thoughts and activities. There might be something we need to pay attention to or something we are stuck on.
This past week, the phrase and tune that keeps going through my head is from our opening hymn, “Take up your cross, the Savior said.” We chose this hymn for today because of its obvious association with the gospel reading. Earlier in the week when I was proofing the bulletin, I looked at it again and sang it out loud to make sure it wasn’t too difficult or unfamiliar. That’s when it got lodged in my brain, an ear worm that won’t get out.
Choosing music for this diverse crowd can be tricky. This hymn dates back to the 19th century, and my guess is that less than a quarter of you are familiar with it. That means everyone with musical training is trying to read the music and words at the same time. And the rest are listening to see if you can pick it up by maybe the last verse or just giving up and waiting for it to be over so you can sit down! For most of us, it goes by so quickly that it doesn’t make an impression.
If you do have the luxury of paying attention to the lyrics, you may be put off by the old fashioned language, the theology, or the images that no longer work well for our context. Today we sang about Calvary’s hill and a golden crown. These are shortcut images that work only marginally in today’s context to point us in the former phrase to the death of Christ and in the latter to a reward in glory.
All week my brain has been wrestling with the question, “What does it mean to take up your cross?” How will those words be heard or sung by this congregation with all of your diverse religious and cultural backgrounds? Will the words of Jesus be heard as an invitation to follow the cross as it “guides you to abundant life” as in the words of the hymn? Or will this sound like bad news, part of a religious system that is destructive and victimizing?
Part of the bad theology about the cross comes with the phrase, “It’s just my cross to bear,” as if something or someone has been strapped onto our back, weighing us down as we carry it or them through life. The reason this is so destructive is because it traps us as victims of a God who would weigh us down with overwhelming burdens, and to what end? There is already so much in the world that is difficult and damaging. There are endless ways that people suffer and are damaged by one another and by life’s circumstances. What kind of God would deliberately add to those burdens by heaping on additional pain? It is not true that God never gives us more than we can handle.
It is true that the world can overwhelm us with pain and sorrow. God is not in the business of adding to that quota but rather of coming alongside of our suffering and sorrow to bear the burden with us.
The cross that Jesus takes up, he does so willingly. He is not a victim of God or even the victim of the Roman political process that committed him to this heinous form of torture and death. According to the hymn in Philippians, Jesus takes up the cross “for the joy set before him.” He lives a passionate life, in love with God and with all humanity. He chooses a life of meaning, purpose, joy, wonder and spirit. That choice involves radical love, faithfulness to the truth, acts of justice and mercy, deep compassion and willingness to follow the ways of God in opposition to the ways of death.
When he invites those who follow him to take up your cross, he is inviting us into that same life. He is inviting us into a life that can never be taken away from us, no matter what this world dishes out. Jesus is interested in the long game, the big picture, the truth and reality that gets blocked out by the urgency of daily life.
So much of what we work and strive and long for will simply disappear. Fame, importance, success, wealth, acclaim, popularity and physical strength are all temporal realities. You can lose any one of them in the blink of an eye. Contrary to the gospel of prosperity, they are not a sign of God’s favor. They are simply circumstances. They are more enjoyable circumstances than illness, disaster, failure and tragedy but they do not determine our true and real identity. They can be taken away in the blink of an eye and they cannot secure our body, mind and spirit from adversity. Yet we spend so much of our energy trying to acquire these outward marks of the good life.
Jesus says, “Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Or in the words of Jim Eliot, a pastor murdered in 1956 in Ecuador by those he was trying to reach out to in love, “She is no fool, who gives what she cannot keep, to gain what she cannot lose.” “He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
To take up the cross is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It is to walk in his way no matter what life’s circumstances. It is to walk by faith, hope and love.
Abram and Sarai are our forebears in this risky walk of faith. With God’s presence and promise they leave everything that is familiar for a journey to a far land. They are given a new identity and a new hope by God, and they stake their lives on it. Their barren lives are filled first with the hope of a child and at last with more offspring than the stars that can be counted. They are given new names in late old age and filled with a hope and promise that upends all that was familiar. Probably more scary than the journey, the foreign land and having to start all over was the possibility of becoming parents for the first time when they were in their extreme old age! Because of their faith and willingness, they have become the father and mother of many nations and faith traditions.
When Bryon and I were discussing this week’s readings at dinner one night this week, he asked, “When did you find your life in losing it?” The verb, “lose” is so close to the verb, “loose.” When I think of losing my life, I think of loosing it, of letting it go. For me to take up the cross is to let go of the need to be seen to be successful, to be seen to be well-liked, to be seen to be right, to be seen to be good. These are all outward and relative qualities. To take up the cross is to let go of these external markers of value and success. To accept the risky journey towards fullness of life. To fix my eyes on Jesus who lived the most amazing, full, abundant life possible. To trust in God’s strength and presence when the journey is difficult and dangerous.
I can certainly think of many times where the risky journey, the difficult choice, the way of Jesus has surprised me with so much blessing and fullness. There are instances too great to number. But the important question is more about what’s next. Where is God calling me to follow Jesus next? What do I need to loose in order to hang on more closely to God? What do I need to let go of in order to receive the riches God is offering? What choices will lead to life and life abundant? Who will I need to open up myself to in order to grow in love?
Most Sundays I have the privilege of dressing up in fancy clothes, addressing you for 15 minutes, mostly uninterrupted and commanding a small measure of authority in leading worship. This could be dangerously ego-enhancing. There’s a desperate temptation to want to be praised for the sermon or acknowledged for crafting and leading worship well. It’s easy to get pretty excited when the chairs are nearly full or to despair when only a few show up.
Most Sundays, we process in ceremonially and it feels like I might be someone important. But there is something more important coming before me, someone more important who is already present and worthy of worship and praise. The cross comes first. The cross of Christ leads me into this sanctuary. The cross reminds me that I follow where Jesus leads and serve as he served. When people bow as the cross enters the worship space, they are honoring the cross of Christ and not those who minister in his name. The cross reminds us of what is true and lasting and life-giving. It helps us to loose what is unworthy and to cling onto and hold fast to what will last. Amen.
2 Lent, Year B
Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16
The first of the healing stories of Jesus in Mark’s gospel happens at the very beginning of his ministry. We’re still in the first chapter. Jesus has already been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, called some disciples and cast out a demon, and that’s just the first 28 verses! Most importantly, he has proclaimed the vision by which his life’s work will be guided, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
The Jesus movement is still small and local. His first followers are two sets of brother fishermen, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John. We get a tiny peek into their lives right at the beginning of their time with Jesus because they’re still in Peter’s home town of Capernaum. They’ve been to the local synagogue for the Sabbath where Jesus has both taught with authority and encountered an unclean spirit which he has silenced and cast out.
How do you follow up that kind of a morning worship service? Most Sunday afternoons, my husband Bryon, who is a Lutheran pastor, and I meet up for brunch at Patty’s Egg Nest and then go home to take naps! It makes sense that Peter invites Jesus and the disciples over to his house, which is in the neighborhood, for a Sabbath meal.
Like many Middle Eastern households of the time there are multiple generations living together, in this case Peter and his wife, possibly their children and his wife’s mother.
Like so many women in the Bible, Peter’s mother-in-law isn’t named. She may have been a widow since she was living with her daughter and her daughter’s husband. She was older, female, dependent. She probably had a shared room in this small home of a poor fishing family. Her contribution to family life included cooking, child care and cleaning. She was undoubtedly important to her family and valued, but she wouldn’t have been known much outside of the home.
And she was sick. Sick with a fever that had incapacitated her and might kill her. Powerless to get out of bed, too poor for a doctor, with no available treatment. And here’s what’s remarkable. Jesus has not yet healed anyone of sickness or disease. Peter and Andrew are just beginning to discover his authority and power but they don’t really know who he is or where all this is leading. Even so, they take their Rabbi straight from a place of authority and honor, where he has been teaching in the synagogue to a small back room where an older woman is lying sick in her bed.
All sorts of rules of propriety are broken by this action. A new student puts his teacher in a very difficult position by asking Jesus to heal his mother-in-law. A stranger, an unmarried man enters the private space of a respectable woman. An observant Jew, one learned enough to teach in the synagogue, touches a diseased person and heals her on the Sabbath.
Peter’s mother-in-law is immediately restored to full health and she enters the public sphere, first by serving Jesus and his disciples and, on that very same day, as a witness to the healing power of Jesus. By the time the Sabbath ends as Saturday evening arrives, everyone in the area has heard about this healer who casts out demons and cures the sick. Jesus never gets his nap as people in need surround the home where the woman has been healed.
You can imagine the kinds of needs brought to Jesus. They’re not much different from the ones we bring before God now. A friend or family member with cancer; broken relationships; the demons of alcohol and drug addiction; fear and anxiety; depression and discouragement; anger over injustice; concern for the future. And there are times when the trouble is so deep in our soul and we don’t know if Jesus is there to hear our cares or if his power to heal is real. We may be as weak as Peter’s mother-in-law, unable to reach out to Jesus by our own strength.
That’s kind of how the last week has been for me. The needs around me have been overwhelming. Some of our homeless guests are quite desperate and I fear for their health and safety. One young man asked me to pray for him that he might die. A dear cousin and a friend from college have both been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. Others are struggling with abuse and harassment by people they should have been able to trust. The daily revelations of the disease and damage to our democracy by those who are supposed to be the keepers of it is scary and disheartening.
It can be hard to pray. It can be hard to believe that God has the power to heal, forgive and restore our broken humanity. All that troubles us can result in the additional burden of isolation. We get shut away in the dark rooms of our disease and damage, cut off from others, shut away from God.
And this my friends, is why God has put us in community. God has placed us into the very Body of Christ so that we may be connected and knit together by God’s Spirit. When we cannot pray for ourselves or the world, the church will keep praying the Prayers of the People, weekly, daily, hourly.
It turns out that a woman at St. Paul’s in Bellingham, where I have done some consulting work is praying daily for me and for St. Luke’s. She heard about our ministry and has committed for the past year to pray for us. Plus, the congregation sent their Easter offering of nearly $4,000 to the Edible Hope Kitchen last year.
We maintain a prayer list at St. Luke’s. People call to add names. They send in prayer requests from around the world through the website. They write down requests on the prayer list found on the information table and put concerns into the Prayer Request tub at Edible Hope. When you join in the Prayers of the People, you are holding all these requests up to God. You are like Peter and Andrew, bringing those in need to Jesus for healing and wholeness.
Healing can also come in the freedom of release.We can be released from self-loathing and guilt over past behavior. We can be released from the hurts and wounds of our upbringing and freed to live as who we are truly called to be. We can be released from the destructive tendencies that plague our lives and enslave us to the small gods of indulgence, selfishness, greed, apathy and other spiritual unhealthiness.
Each week as together we confess before God all that we wish to be freed from and we want to leave behind, we receive absolution, the forgiveness of God proclaimed for us and marked on our bodies as we sign ourselves with the cross, the reminder of the triumph of truth over error, righteousness over sin and life over death.
Sometimes we need healing touch. We need Jesus with skin. Someone to be Christ for us in our time of need; to lay hands upon us; to speak words of faith, hope and love when we are struggling. At St. Luke’s we have prayer ministers with years of training and experience in praying. During communion they are always available to pray quietly or even silently for needs spoken or unspoken. They will provide a space for God’s presence in your deepest need.
It may take time to see and experience God’s healing. It won’t always look like a miraculous restoration of life to the way it used to be. It will always involve the wholeness and integrity of the individual. It will always draw us closer to God and into relationship with others. It will always show us how, as healed individuals, we have the ability to serve others.
As we are healed and transformed by the love of God, we are called to share the gift with others, bringing them to God through prayer and service.
5th Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12
1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Read Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, referenced in the sermon.
This year for the four weeks of Advent, my friend Tod wrote a daily blog on his favorite Christmas songs, carols and hymns. And while he included both the ancient and modern, the secular and religious, the silly and the serious, he missed that real classic, “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”
It was fun and interesting to learn about each of his choices and to agree or disagree about whether I would have included the same songs. His writing inspired me to consider what might be my pick for the Christmas carol that resonates most with me as we come to the end of a tumultuous 2017 and look into the future of 2018.
Which words speak to our current situation while pointing back to the miracle and mystery of the incarnation and forward to the hope and longing for a new future? Which carols tell the 2,000-year-old story in a way that doesn’t overly sentimentalize the message and images but accurately reflects our fears and our hopes, our joys and sorrows, and the complexity of our personal situations and political realities?
I have to admit that I didn’t pick “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not because I don’t enjoy singing it, but because it offers a complex theological answer to questions few people are currently asking about the nature of divinity and how Christ can be both God and human. There’s a time for wrestling with the deep issues around the nature of God but for most of us, that’s not what we’re looking for on Christmas Eve!
I considered “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” another favorite. But this year in Bethlehem, all is not so still and quiet. The tension brought about by the announcement that the US will move its embassy to Jerusalem has created consternation and protest in this primarily Palestinian town. The hopes of all the years are eclipsed by the fears of what this means for the peace process. Luke’s gospel mentions the requirement that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to fulfill because of their status as second-class citizens in a country occupied by another power. Luke doesn’t have to say how scary, disrupting and dangerous this required census is and how it affects those who are disenfranchised.
This has been a difficult exercise. For the past week I’ve asked everyone I know, “Which song would you choose for this Christmas?” The mother of a teenager, who is growing up before her eyes chose “What Child is this?” The widow whose husband died suddenly, leaving her bereft and in darkness, chose “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining.” My dear husband, Bryon, chose one of my all-time favorites, “Once in Royal David’s City,” with its verse “when on earth he grew, he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew, thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.”
Good choices all, but what I need, what we need, what the world needs is a clear message of peace and goodwill towards all while being realistic about the many challenges we face. Those who walk in darkness are in need of a great light. All who have been silenced or afraid, on this night must be provided the safety to open their mouths to sing, sing, sing. Tonight we are invited to join with saints and angels in the hymns that ring through eternity – hymns that remind us of God’s promise to be with us; hymns that lift up the lowly and discover God in the most unexpected places; hymns that brim with the beauty and singing of the angels.
For me, the carol that says it best for our times was first a poem. It was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister who had become overwhelmed, suffered a breakdown and was responding to his own melancholy and the threat posed by the Mexican American war.
In response to a request from a fellow clergy friend and possibly as an exercise to help him deal with his own grief and anxiety, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” Our hymnal has only 4 of the 5 stanzas, which is a shame because I find them all profoundly helpful.
Sears writes about this weary world with its sad and lowly plains. He knows what it is like to be tired by all the changes and chances of this life and exhausted by the continued failure of humanity to love and care for one another and the earth. He mentions the woes of sin and strife and all the suffering we have caused, often to the most innocent and those unable to defend themselves. He begs us to be quiet for once and to hear beyond the protests, the disagreements, the violence, rage and strife, the blessed message of the angels.
Our Messiah has come to dwell with us, Jesus. He is the one who brings peace and reflects the song and vision of the angels. He is the one who lights the way and points to the truth. His is the light that shines in the darkness. When we are quiet and still, when we listen closely and pay attention, we can hear and join in this chorus of peace, love and joy.
Maybe you’ve had a hard year, too. Maybe you’ve been beset within and without. Perhaps you are tired and worn. Tonight you’ve come to this place for a bit of stillness, a bit of peace and quiet, a renewal of hope and the courage to carry on. If so, maybe the stanza that we don’t have in our hymnal is the one you need to hear.
Let me read/sing it for you:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
“Once there was a way to get back homeward. Once there was a way to get back home. Sleep pretty darling, don’t you cry. And I will sing a lullaby.” Beatles
Sometimes you just really want to go back home. This is often the case during the holidays. For years as a single priest, living far from family Christmas Eve and Day were especially poignant for me. I imagined families gathered around trees, opening presents, and sharing a meal while I finished the final of four Christmas services and ate a cup of ramen noodles while sitting at my desk.
We just want to be home for the holidays. We want that vision of Christmas we hold in our minds, even if every year it doesn’t conform to expectations. People the world over and for centuries have wanted to go home.
It is the deep desire of refugees living in a foreign land. No matter how desperate their country of origin is, they are anxiously longing for an opportunity to return.
For those who have lost their homes to fire and other natural disasters, this Christmas will bring grief and longing and disbelief that their homes and all they have and all they mean have been destroyed, often in a matter of hours. How can it be?
We want to go home. We want to go back to a place of safety and security where we are loved and accepted. We want things to be the way they were before. Before he died. Before the divorce. Before the war. Before she started drinking. Before everything got so complicated and difficult.
We hear this longing across our country and the world. We want to return to the way things used to be. We want our jobs back. We want a chance to raise our children the way we were raised. We want to recover our way of life that feels threatened and insecure. We want our neighborhood to be the same sweet, peaceful place it used to be. We hardly recognize the city any more, it’s changing so much. Sometimes we don’t even feel at home in our country. Some joke about leaving for Canada and New Zealand. Some talk about revolution and resistance. Others long to “Make America great again.”
We want to go home.
For the Jewish people in Isaiah’s day, that homecoming meant a return to Jerusalem from exile in the foreign land of Babylon. The promise of a way in the desert, a highway for the people to travel upon back to their homeland was a powerful comfort in a time of great difficulty. For Christians experiencing persecution and difficulty in early days, the longing was for the return of Jesus and the final day of the Lord when everything would be put right and all that was wrong and evil and unjust would be put to an end.
How do we find our way home? How can we make it through the wilderness with the dangers and difficulties it presents? What will fix the many problems we face – homelessness and poverty, terror and threats of war, addiction and broken relationships? And who will lead us? Who knows the answers and has the strength and courage to bring us back?
John the Baptizer offers one way in the wilderness. His is the way of repentance in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He compels us to examine our lives and to confess the ways that we have broken our relationship with God and with others. In the wilderness we are to move beyond blame and shame by acknowledging both our shared and individual sin. By confession and forgiveness we are set free to begin again, to re-commit ourselves to the way of God.
The Baptizer calls people to honest repentance. But this is only the first step. This is preparation. This is what is needed when we are in the wilderness. We can’t go home when we’re stuck in blame and shame. There is no way to a healthy family dynamic when our inner six year old and our judgmental teenage self confront the complicated reality of family relationships. We cannot work together as a community to address the problems of homelessness, addiction and mental illness when we are hurling names at one other, demonizing the people involved and magnifying the shame of the most vulnerable by treating them without respect and dignity.
And we cannot be great as a nation when many of our fellow citizens are shamed because of race, color, gender or orientation. We cannot return to a time when it was standard practice to devalue the human worth of the non-white, the poor, and those that don’t conform to arbitrary standards of normal identity. There will be no moving forward if we blame the immigrant, the Muslim, the homeless, the rich or the people of a different political party for all of our problems. In the wilderness of our fear and anger, repentance is one first step towards a new future.
But repentance alone won’t bring us home. Even John the Baptizer knew that. He was aware that he alone wasn’t powerful or worthy enough to deliver the people, to transform the world, to usher in the Kingdom of God.
Finally, at last, in the last days, at the end of hope in the depth of our longing we discover our heart’s true home. And it is Jesus. The beginning of the good news is when Jesus enters our world and our lives. It is when Jesus makes a home in our very beings by the power of the Holy Spirit and dwells with us. We can be at home in any place, anywhere and at anytime when we are at home with God in our inner being.
Jesus doesn’t come to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel or to recruit an army and establish world peace or to fix everything for us. Jesus comes to offer himself in love for the world and to immerse us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit so that we might live as witnesses to the life, light, and love of God.
Jesus comes and people are healed and empowered. Jesus comes and families are disrupted as new connections that transcend blood and ethnicity and background are forged. Jesus forgives and those who lived in shame and regret are able to lift their heads and begin a new life. Jesus comes and we find our heart’s true home at last beyond human boundaries and barriers. We are able to be at home with those who are very different from us and those from whom we differ. We are able to love in a fresh way those who are part of our own family and to expand that love to include the stranger and alien.
This is no lullaby to soothe us but rather a powerful new identity that propels us into the world as servants of the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our longing for true home sends us out as messengers of the One who finds his home in every human heart. Amen.
Ordained in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), Ivar Hillesland serves as the pastor of Church of the Apostles in Seattle, a joint mission of the Diocese of Olympia and the Northwest Washington Synod. In addition to sharing his preaching talents with us, Ivar serves as St. Luke’s parish musician and teaches early childhood music.