I offered the following reflection on St. Mark’s All Souls Day services on November 2, 2019.I wrote most of it several years ago and have used pieces of it here and there, but I have not published the entire reflection until now.
During the next few minutes, I would like to share with you four images. I invite you to imagine these images as I describe them. Each one illustrates a facet of the impact of grief on our lives, something that grief does for us, something that grief is. Perhaps you will resonate with one or more of these images. Perhaps, the four that I describe will spur you to discern your own image for grief. I hope you will, because grief is an intensely personal thing, which makes it one of the hardest things to share. By trying to describe grief, we can give ourselves some language with which to talk about it, and thus find, in some small, yet meaningful ways, the ability to share it with others.
Sermon for Sunday, November 11, 2018 || Proper 27B || 1 Kings 17:8-16
Today I’d like to talk to you about a special type of miracle that never gets any press. It’s not going to sound very miraculous when I say it, but perhaps by the end of this sermon, I’ll have convinced you. Here it is. Here’s the special type of miracle that never makes the news: There is always a little more inside us than we realize. That’s it. There is always a little more inside us than we realize. Doesn’t sound miraculous, does it? I promise you, it is.
Sermon for Sunday, July 1, 2018 || Proper 8B || Psalm 130
Psalm 130 holds a special place in my heart. You all know my father comes up fairly often in my sermons because his nearly 30 years of ordained ministry have had such a profound impact on my own. Psalm 130 is his favorite psalm. I’ve often heard him recount with eloquence and tenderness a moment with God out on the ocean when he felt like the watchmen waiting for the morning. Because Psalm 130 is his favorite, it has become one of mine too. So when the psalm came up in our rotation today, it called out to me, and I’d like to share my thoughts on it with you in the form of a meditation.Continue reading “Psalm 130, Expanded”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 2, 2017 || Proper 8A || Psalm 13
I don’t often preach on the psalm, but today I am. I know the story of the binding of Isaac is terribly difficult, and it is the text I should preach on. I did three years ago when these lessons turned up in the last cycle, and I invite you to listen to that sermon on my website. I’ll link to it from this one. As I said, I don’t often preach on the psalm but today I am because today’s psalm is the perfect example of a type of Biblical literature that is so very important to our lives. Psalm 13 is a psalm of lament.
In recent months, many people in the church and out of it have expressed to me sadness or frustration or anger or despair over the current state of our world. And I’ve felt all of the above, as well. These expressions are ones of lament. They and I have lamented the violence done at home and abroad, so much all at once – from atrocities in Syria to terror attacks in England to the shooting at the congressional baseball practice, to the murder of the young Muslim woman in Virginia. What can we do in the face of such violence but lament?Continue reading “How Long, O Lord?”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-18
Today’s Gospel lesson begins like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
This is strange: rarely, if ever, does the Gospel writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. Jesus seems to enjoy speaking in parables for the simple fact that parables make his audience dig deep into his words and find meaning for their lives by searching for meaning in his stories. But I think we should let the Gospel writer Luke slide just this once. He has our best interest in mind, after all. Luke doesn’t want us to miss the meaning of this story because living out this parable makes our lives fundamentally better. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” To pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, the story is about having the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time.Continue reading “Fueling our Hope”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 15, 2015 || Proper 28B || Hebrews 10:11-25
Note: For the sermon at St. Mark’s on 11/15, I was planning to read the Bishop’s address to the Diocesan Annual Convention, which took place the same weekend. Then when the terrorist attack in Parish happened, I knew I needed to say something different. Arriving home from convention in the evening of Saturday, I had little time to put a sermon together, so I went back in my vault to see if I had anything appropriate. I found a sermon from six years ago and started with that as my base. But with the Paris attacks on my mind, the old sermon morphed into something completely different, with nearly two-thirds of the words being new.
I know I already used my yearly allotment of Princess Bride references in sermons, but I was a little time-crunched this week after my homiletic plan changed, so I went back to the deep well that is one of my favorite movies. So imagine this scene: Inigo Montoya, the Spanish hired sword who helped kidnap Princess Buttercup, is losing his duel with the Man in Black. The fight has ranged all over the rocky terrain at the precipice of the Cliffs of Insanity. The two swordsmen had both begun left-handed, but have switched to their dominant hands when they recognized the masterful fencing of the other. Thrust. Parry. Riposte. The Man in Black acrobatically flips off the ruins. Inigo stares at him, clearly amazed: “Who are you?” he asks.
“No one of consequence,” replies the Man in Black.
“I must know,” pleads the Spaniard.
“Get used to disappointment.”
The fight continues, only to end a minute later with an increasingly flustered Inigo receiving a knock to the back of the head. And I’m sure the Man in Black’s words rang in his mind.
Get used to disappointment. Sounds like quite sensible advice. Sounds like the Man in Black has been around the block a few times. Sounds like he knows something about the ways of the world. However, this worldly wisdom is often counterproductive to a life of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews urges us this morning to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for Christ who has promised is faithful.” In a world that teaches us to “get used to disappointment,” holding fast to our hope can be so very difficult.
Our inoculation begins at an early age. Children enter life with bright, wide eyes and unbounded, unfettered imaginations. Every couch cushion is a stone in a castle under siege by the invading hordes who desire nothing more than to pillage the kingdom. Every bath is a deep-sea expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis. Every day is another chance to see a unicorn. But before long, we start getting used to disappointment. We are told that couch cushions are for sitting, baths are for bathing, and there’s no such thing as unicorns.
I remember my mother shouting: “Young man, there are no dinosaur bones in the backyard. Stop digging up my flowerbeds.” But what she didn’t know was that my imagination was equipped with ground-penetrating sonar and that there was an intact velociraptor skeleton just beneath the gardenias. It was the find of the century. Any moment, Richard Attenborough was going to land in a helicopter and whisk me off to Jurassic Park.
But in the grand scheme of things, from the moment we are born, our imaginations do nothing but shrink as our understanding of so-called reality grows. The trouble is that hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the “real” world. We are made in the image of God; therefore, our imagination connects us to the creative spark of our Creator within each of us. And hope resides in this spark. As mounting disappointment attempts to snuff out our imaginations, we encounter great difficulty in accessing the hope, which our Creator installed in us.
This disappointment comes in both the mundane and the catastrophic. First the mundane: another chance for promotion and you’re passed over. A promising new relationships ends abruptly – and you thought it had been going so well. The new water heater has inferior parts and you have to jury-rig what should be a simply installation. Each of us has such mundane disappointments, setbacks, and frustrations all the time. They sap our vitality. And they obscure our hope.
Then there are those catastrophes that make hope seem silly and microscopic in comparison. A parent dies; or a child. A missed payment turns into two and three and the landslide has started and before you know it you’re out on the street with nowhere to live. A war rips through your town and the next day you’re a refugee fleeing the violence. A terrorist attacks ignites the Parisian sky with explosions and gunfire and litters the ground with the slain bodies of the innocent.
How can hope possibly compete with this twin barrage of mundane disappointment and heartbreaking catastrophe? Shouldn’t we, as the Man in Black suggests, get used to such things? They seem to be the natural order, after all. Shouldn’t we just get used to disappointment?
No – because we have been to the foot of the cross. No – because we have seen the ultimate disappointment that was the Savior of the World gasping for his final breath: betrayed, abandoned, mocked, hanging limp.
But that’s not the end of the story. The last vestige of hope was buried with Christ in the tomb. His hopeless friends then entombed themselves in their own hideout. But as Andy Dufresne reminds Red in another of my favorite moves, The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Such was proven true three days after the ultimate failure when the ultimate triumph changed everything. Hope rose from the tomb with Christ. Hope does not die. Hope might hide. Hope might be obscured or hard to find. But hope does not die.
The next day dawns. The catastrophe has still happened. The Parisian streets are still awash with innocent blood. But the next day still dawns. And the day after that. And the only thing that keeps those of us who remain alive and eating our breakfast and hugging our children – is hope. Hope does not die. Hope will never die.
And do you know why?
Because Christ who has promised is faithful. That’s the reason the Letter to the Hebrews gives. The writer states emphatically: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for [Christ] who has promised is faithful.” We hold fast to hope not through the strength of our own faith, but through the surpassing faith of Christ, the same Christ who early on that Sunday morning simply would not break a promise to be with us always.
We do not manufacture our faith. Faith is not self-centered. Faith is God-centered. The confession of our hope proclaims that the reality of resurrection life exists, and that we will encounter its utter joy when we finally and fully enter God’s eternal presence.
We believe that this happens in the power of the resurrection when we pass from life through death to new life. But the confession of our hope does not merely cast our thoughts to the life beyond death. Remember, hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. This real world is full of disappointments, frustrations, and, yes, catastrophes.
But God has blessed us with hope-fueled imaginations. God has blessed us with the mission, as Hebrews says, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” God has blessed us with the resources to feed and clothe everyone in this world. God has blessed us with the patience and love to stand together against terror and senseless violence. We must only provide the will. We must set our disappointments in the context of the hope that God’s own faith makes real in our lives.
When we were children, the magical words “Once upon a time” lost their luster when we heard their counterparts: “Sweetheart, it’s only make-believe.” But I say to you that we have the opportunity, we have the imagination, we have the will to change this world for the better. Because God keeps God’s promises, we are able to keep our promises. We are able to make a difference in people’s lives. Get used to disappointment? Not a chance – because hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies.
Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.
God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.
The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.
The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.
One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.
That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.
But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.
That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.
When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”
Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.
This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.
When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.
The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.
Sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2014 || Proper 8A || Genesis 22:1-14
(I forgot to hit the button on my recording device this week, so it’s just text this time around.)
As I contemplate my impending fatherhood, the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read a few minutes ago, has taken on new meaning for me. I’ve always struggled with this story, and, if you’ve ever read or heard it, I’m sure you have, too. This reading from the Hebrew Scripture brings up so many questions: why would God ever test someone in such a barbaric way? How could God be so apparently abusive? How could Abraham even think about going through with it? If the angel hadn’t stopped him, would Abraham actually have killed his son? What would that prove?
We could spend this and many more sermons attempting to explain (and only succeeding in explaining away) such difficult questions. We could say that people experienced God differently back then, but that wouldn’t satisfy us. We could say that this story simply narrates the move from human to animal sacrifice, which, in future generations, distinguished the Israelites from many of their neighbors. This is a little better, but such academic aloofness doesn’t account for the tenderness of the relationship displayed between Abraham and Isaac. We could say so many things in order to feel okay about this story, but, despite the happy ending, something will still not sit right. Indeed, the Jewish rabbis have been struggling with the binding of Isaac for millennia; one sermon from me isn’t going to put a dent in that effort.
But I have to say something, so here goes. Often, when a story in the Bible makes us feel uncomfortable, we have a tendency to dismiss it: to flip the page, wipe the offending verses from our memory banks, and move on as if they never existed. However, if we take the time, like the Jewish rabbis, to struggle with the difficult passages instead of ignoring them, we can hear the Holy Spirit whispering good news to us, even in the midst of the struggle. I heard such a whisper of good news this week when I read the binding of Isaac over and over again in preparation for this sermon.
The whisper of good news started when, as I said, I began reading the story through the lens of my impending fatherhood. I expected to be horrified by Abraham’s action as I have been in the past; by the “I was only following orders” defense Abraham would have had to give Sarah when he got home, had he gone through with it. Strangely, this time around, the first time I’ve ever read this story after having spent hours staring at the ultrasound picture of my son’s face, I was not horrified.
I wasn’t. Instead of seeing the brutality of the test, I saw the tenderness of the relationship between father and son in a pair of verses that I’ve never noticed before. On the third day, Abraham and his son Isaac leave their servants and pack animals and continue on alone. Here the narrator tells us, “So the two of them walked on together.” As they make their way up the mountain, Isaac stops and questions his father. Abraham answers, and then again the narrator tells us, “So the two of the walked on together.” Father and son, together: Keeping each other from stumbling as they hike up the mountain; feeling each other’s warmth; walking hand in hand, perhaps.
Of course, the sad irony of this walking up the mountain together is that Abraham is preparing to walk down alone. Or is he? And this is where a new question arises, a question that links Abraham’s deep relationship with Isaac to Abraham’s deep relationship with God. The question is this: Is Abraham lying?
In between those two tender bits of narration (“So the two of them walked on together”) Isaac asks the whereabouts of the lamb for the burnt offering. And Abraham responds: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
So, is Abraham lying to Isaac here? Is Abraham just telling Isaac what the boy needs to hear to keep him going, to keep him pliant? Or does Abraham actually believe what he is saying to his son? Does Abraham believe that God will, indeed, provide a way out of this mess?
I think the answer falls somewhere in between. A cynical person would call his response a lie. But I think Abraham is speaking out of his hope, out of the deepest conviction of his heart that he will not need to go through with it, that the promise God made to him years earlier will continue to hold, the promise that countless generations will spring from his son Isaac. No, Abraham isn’t lying: he’s speaking the only truth he’s ever known. From the day Abraham stepped out into the desert all those years ago, God has provided, even when Abraham’s impatience or fear kept him from seeing God’s provision.
But for us the phrase, “God will provide,” has, sadly, reached sound byte status. We hear the words and say, “Yeah, sure,” and then go about our business. And we fail to attribute to God’s provision both the miniscule and the monumental blessings in our lives. For all the struggle our story today causes, the binding of Isaac also invites us to hear again the good news that God does, indeed, provide, and God gives us the eyes to notice God’s provision.
It all starts with the word “provide”: in Hebrew this is literally the word “see” or “perceive.” So when Abraham says to Isaac, “God will provide,” we can loosely translate it as, “We shall see what God is up to.” This understanding of God’s provision presupposes that God is already active wherever we are going, that God has already shown up when we arrive. We enter a story already in progress, so to speak.
Notice what Abraham says three times in our passage today: “Here I am.” With these words, Abraham makes himself available, opens himself up, orients himself towards the stimulus of his response. “Here I am,” is the verbal equivalent of a posture of openness and reception. By saying, “Here I am,” Abraham signals his desire to see what God is up to, to see how God is providing in the current situation.
We believe that a piece of God’s very nature is that of provider. And we have the opportunity to participate in God’s provision by training ourselves to see the many and varied ways God is moving in our lives. When Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide, Abraham is reminding himself what he believes, what he has relied on his whole life. God’s provision has not always fit Abraham’s timetable, and Abraham has not always done the best job trusting, but, one way or another, God has provided.
When we look back at the trajectories of our lives, we often see coincidences that cannot be explained; or relationships that have stood the test of time; or burdens we didn’t think we could bear, but did. This is evidence of God providing. But so are the deep, calming breath when the baby is screaming her head off; and your mother’s embrace after a hard day at school; and the desire to help someone in need; and all of the little things that never make headlines, that we won’t remember when we look back at the trajectories of our lives.
Since we won’t remember the small blessings once they’ve sunk down into the depths of memory, God invites us to appreciate today’s provision today. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” for the same reason Abraham told Isaac that God will provide: so that our eyes will be open to the blessings of this life, so that a day never goes by when we don’t notice God’s presence in something, no matter how small.
I know the story of the binding of Isaac is hard to hear and uncomfortable to process. Even so, through it the Holy Spirit has good news to whisper into our hearts. Today, the good news is that God provides and we participate in that provision when we say, “Here I am.” As we move through our daily journeys, sustained by our daily bread, each of us has the opportunity to walk hand in hand with God, to go forth and see what God is up to. So take joy in trusting that when our stories are written in the book of life, the narrator will say, “So the two of them walked on together.”
*Art: Detail from “Abraham and Isaac” by Rembrandt (1645)
*Thanks to Kathryn Schifferdecker’s article on Workingpreacher.org for the Hebrew relationship between seeing and providing.
(Sermon for Sunday, December 2, 2012 || Advent 1C || Jeremiah 33:14-16)
I’ve never been good at staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. I always seem to nod off at about 11:35, or in recent years, much earlier. There was one year back in my wild college days when I managed to keep my eyes open for Dick Clark’s countdown, but now that he’s gone, I won’t ever have that pleasure again. So maybe some of you can fill me in on last night’s frivolities. Who took Dick Clark’s place? It was Ryan Seacrest, wasn’t it? Show of hands – how many of you stayed up until midnight last night to watch the ball drop in Times Square?
Did I print the wrong sermon?
No, I didn’t. The world at large won’t celebrate the New Year for another month. And the world at large is already celebrating Christmas, or to be more precise, perpetual Christmas Eve, with all the hustle and bustle of shopping and the butchered covers of “O Holy Night” playing in the mall, and the newspaper circulars I could weight train with. The world at large, as it so often does, has everything backward.
For us followers of Jesus Christ, today is New Year’s Day, and Christmas doesn’t happen until we tick the next four Sundays off the calendar. Today begins a period of deep-breathing, of collective Lamaze, if you will, while we wait and watch with the Virgin Mary as she comes to full term. This is the kind of breathing that the world at large can’t participate in, because the world at large never stops to catch its breath. So what is today, this New Year’s Day, this Day of Deep Breath? Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Over the next three and a half weeks, we have the wonderful opportunity to breathe into the quiet spaces within ourselves and allow God to fill those cavities with the perpetual hope that marks this pre-Christmas season.
That’s what this sermon is about, by the way: hope. Advent is about anticipation, expectancy, keeping our eyes open, and hope fuels these things. But hope has always been a tricky concept to convey, so we’ll try to tease out its meaning a bit in the next few minutes as we talk about what this wonderful season of Advent, this season of deep breathing, has in store for us.
When discussing hope, we first must acknowledge the fundamental paradox of our lives as followers of Christ. This is, as the Pirates of Penzance sing, a “most ingenious paradox.” [“A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. Haha haha…”] The pirates’ response to the paradox is to laugh, which isn’t a bad place for us to start either because laughter keeps things light, and this sermon could easily get very, very heavy.
So what is this most ingenious paradox of the Advent season and of our lives as followers of Christ? Well, rather than tell you straight out, I think I’ll illustrate by using the most beloved of Advent songs, which we won’t actually be singing until next week. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear…”
The name “Emmanuel” is a special one. First appearing in Isaiah’s prophecy, the angel who comes to Joseph in a dream gives this name to the unborn child in Mary’s womb. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Do you see the paradox yet?
O come, O come, Emmanuel. O come, O come, God with us. O come, O come, One who is already here, One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. O come, O come. This is the paradox – we wait for and anticipate the One who is already and forever with us. My father has often said, “The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is never to forget the presence of Christ.” This is the paradox that we live into as followers of Jesus and celebrate especially in this Advent season.
And this paradox shows us why hope is such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. You see, hope is faith projected into the future. Hope is the willing expectation that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive. The trouble is that the times when we most need to be hopeful, the times when hope really is the only thing that can sustain us, are often the same times that faith is in short supply or when those boundaries of possibility feel impossibly narrow.
Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes during one of those narrow times. Things are looking bleak for the people of God because they haven’t been acting like the people of God for some time. By coincidence, I actually just finished reading the entirety of Jeremiah last week, and man, is it a depressing book. One tragedy after another befalls the people of Jerusalem: siege, famine, betrayal, assassination, murder, all culminating in the worst tragedy of all – being carted off en masse to Bablyon and the desolation of exile from their homeland.
But in the midst of this darkest of dark periods in the history of God’s people, the Word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and says, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
In the midst of the darkest of dark days, through Jeremiah God affirms God’s promise. There isn’t much hope in the book of Jeremiah, but here, in these few verses in the middle, we get a tiny whiff of hope.
But even a tiny whiff of hope is still hope. Hope of any size or strength is still hope – full, effective hope. Here again, is our paradox. Hope sustains us with the promises of God fulfilled at some future time that we cannot see in the midst of desolation. But at the same time, God is the One catalyzing the hope within us, the tiny whiff of hope, which is all we can manage right now. And so we pray, “O come, O come, God with us. You are here, O God, but come just the same because this tiny whiff of hope is wavering. O Come, O come, Emmanuel.”
How many of us have found ourselves in this situation, in this dark day of desolation? Perhaps yours happened on the day your mother died and you realized that you would never again hear her voice on the telephone? Perhaps yours happened when your son was diagnosed with severe autism and the life you had mapped out for your family took a sharp turn? Perhaps yours happened when you lost your job, or when you didn’t get accepted to the college you had your heart set on, or when you had sunk so low into depression that your bed became an island in a vast sea of nothing. Perhaps today, New Year’s Day for the Church, you are in the midst of your dark day, your time of exile.
Whether you are or whether you are remembering when you were or whether you are dreading when you will be again in that dark day, I invite you on this First Sunday of Advent, to take a deep, cleansing breath. Let that breath fill the quiet spaces within you. Feel God breathing into you that tiny whiff of hope, an embryonic hope, as small as those cells coalescing in Mary’s womb. The hope growing in Mary’s womb will be with us soon, in three and a half short weeks. But, as our most ingenious paradox goes, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is forever with us, and he’s breathing hope into our desolation, he’s breathing vastness into our narrowness, he’s breathing promise into our faith. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel comes. Rejoice. Rejoice. God-with-us is here.
(Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 || Proper 24A || 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 )
Did your parents ever tell you about the first word you ever spoke? More than likely, your first word was “Da,” which is short for, “Daddy, go get Mommy so I can have lunch.” Perhaps, your first word was “Ma,” though this is unlikely, considering the “M” sound is much more difficult to make than the “D” sound. Perhaps, your first word was “No,” which you probably heard your parents say many, many times when they asked each other if the other had slept last night. My first word was “ball.” And thus began a lifetime of me kicking, catching, and throwing any spherical object I could get my hands on.
Christianity has some first words, as well; at least, they’re the first words that we still have a record of today. They aren’t as hesitant or half-formed as are the first words of infants. Rather, they spring from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable (even uncanny) clarity, vitality, and comprehensiveness. We heard these words a few minutes ago when we listened to the first ten verses of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.
Now, before we get to some of Christianity’s first words, we need to clear up one spot of potential confusion and talk for just a minute about the similarities between Thessalonica in 50 AD and the United States in 2011. First, the potential confusion.
If you pull up the Bible on your smartphone, you will notice two things: number 1, the New Testament begins with the Gospel according to Matthew; and number 2, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is actually eighth on Paul’s depth chart, not first. So how could these ten verses from First Thessalonians possibly be the oldest recorded words in Christian history?
For starters, the folks who put together the New Testament put the four accounts of the Gospel up front because the rest of the pieces didn’t make a lot of sense without first hearing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the people who wrote the Gospel didn’t start doing so until probably 15 to 20 years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As for Paul’s depth chart (and this is a little strange) – his letters are actually in order by length, from longest to shortest, and First Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters. But if the New Testament were ordered chronologically by when the texts were written, our reading from Paul today would be on Page 1. Okay, confusion averted? Great. Let’s keep going.
Our modern moment shares several things in common with mid-first century Thessalonica, the community to which Paul writes the first words of Christianity. Like the modern United States, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, with a plurality of religions and cultures all rubbing shoulders. As the capital of the region of Macedonia, there were plenty of things to do, not unlike the glut of stimulation that assaults us at every turn. And the Thessalonians had not received the good news of Jesus Christ before Paul arrived, just as people in modern America have lost contact with this great story of the Gospel.
To these people in Thessalonica and to us here on the Interwebs, Paul sends these first words. He, of course, had no idea we would consider them the first words of Christianity, which lends a special kind of authenticity to his message. These are words written to people who hadn’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are words written to people who lived in a society that knew very little about this faith that Paul brought with him. As such, these are words that can serve us as we practice sharing our faith, as the Thessalonians did, with people outside the walls of this church.
In these first ten verses of the first text of Christianity, there are six words in particular that shimmer for me: grace, peace, faith, love, hope, and joy. Notice how Paul uses each of these special words: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
These words are special because each has a meaning outside the church and a greater meaning inside the church. The secular understanding of these words can give followers of Christ like you and me a place to establish common ground as we share with others how God is present in our lives.
Let’s quickly look at each of these words to see how we can expand the secular definition to fit into the greater reality of following Jesus Christ.
“Grace” is a perfectly lovely word. We use this word to describe ballet dancers because they move with poise and precision. They throw their bodies into the air trusting that they will land on their feet, and if they don’t they get back up quickly and keep dancing. How easily can we take this understanding of grace and elevate the grace of the dancer to the Grace of God, this grace that picks us up when we fall and teaches us to find beauty in everything.*
We hear the word “peace” when conflict ends and “peacekeepers” enter the recently warring region to monitor the new situation. We use this word to describe a calm ocean after a storm or an infant who has finally dropped off to sleep. We can expand this to the Peace of God, which takes situations of conflict and infuses them with possibilities for unity, justice, and new beginnings.
“Faith” is the trickiest word on this list because all human attempts at “faithfulness” fall short. We put our trust in banks, in governments, in products, in each other, and sooner or later we are always let down. But when we expand the definition of faith to include the Faith of God, we find the one example in all of creation that will never fail. How wonderful to tell someone about this kind of faith!
“Love” is tricky, too, because we use the word in so many different circumstances, from our shoes to our spouses. But when we find that most authentic use of the word, when the word “love” springs unbidden from our lips and doesn’t describe an emotion but a state of being, a state that we entered unwittingly and never want to leave – then we begin to see the edge of the extraordinary Love of God. And we can celebrate that love with each other.
“Hope” is about the future. All people have used this word to talk about what they dream for the days and years ahead. I hope to have children and to teach them to play soccer. These human hopes are safe hopes, the kind that we can see in our mind’s eye five or ten years down the road. This understanding of hope elevates to the Hope of God when God releases us from the boundaries of the merely possible and shows us the realms of glory that exist far beyond our sight. And then we have a greater hope in which our everyday hopes can dwell.
Finally, we talk about “joy” most often when we have “enjoyed” a dinner party or a new film or a ballgame. We mean that we had a good time and might want to come over again. What we don’t realize is that this “joy” we feel is more than happiness. The Joy of God is a feeling of wholeness, of completion that comes when we discover that we are exactly the people who God created us to be.
Each of these words, these first words that Paul used when he wrote to the Thessalonians makes sense outside the context of the Christian faith. But within the greater reality of following Jesus Christ, these words shimmer with new facets of meaning.
I invite you this week to take these first words of Paul and try them out for yourself. Pray with this question in your heart: how has God encountered you when you have had an experience of grace, peace, faith, love, hope, or joy? Then find someone from within your own faith community and try out these words. Practice sharing with one another before you go out and share your Christian life with those outside your church.
Like the first words of an infant, our first attempts in sharing the first words of our faith will be halting. They will be hesitant. They will be half-formed. But they will be ours. And God will take them, shape them, and elevate them into God’s own words.
*I wrote “Grace…teaches us to find beauty in everything” and then realized that I stole those words from U2. Thanks, fellas.