Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014, Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: John 4:5-42.
There are these very short, very popular quizzes all over facebook. They come from sites like buzzfeed. If you’re on facebook, you’ve seen them and probably taken at least one of them. Some of the ones I’ve taken, you could sort of maybe argue they’re related to my job: which of Jesus’ disciples are you, which medieval theologian are you, which woman of the Bible are you. There are other more general ones like: where should you live, what should your career be, what decade do you really belong in. I like the more obscure ones, like which Star Trek the Next Generation Character are you, which Muppet are you, or which classic Liz Lemon favorite food are you.
For the record, I am a cupcake sandwich.
Some people don’t like these quizzes because they are silly and totally unscientific and a waste of time. To them I say, yes. Exactly. Sometimes a person needs a brain break, and the sillier and less edifying, the better.
Facebook make taking and sharing these silly quizzes very easy, and it’s fun to see what friends get and compare their results to yours. For example, E. H. and I are both tubas who really belong in the 1950’s, but for which US President are you we parted ways.
People frequently comment on their own results by saying, “Yes!” “Exactly.” “This is totally me.” “This is true.” Or … “well, that’s a surprise.” Or, “this isn’t me at all.” Or, “I think this quiz is malfunctioning.”
I think the appeal of these quizzes is clear. It’s a silly waste of time, it’s pure fun and entertainment with no other value whatsoever. The quizzes are fast paced and funny and over so quickly and you get the immediate gratification of a result.
And I don’t want to make too much out of a silly thing, but I think there is something else going on, something else that explains the how popular these things are, and that is that these quizzes speak to and feed into our human desire to be known.
We want people to know who we are. We want people to know who we really are. We want people to know who we really are and to like us for it.
There’s something thrilling about answering a set of seemingly random questions and getting a result that seems to fit so perfectly, that seems like a perfect little representation of me. It affirms the stories we tell about ourselves, and when we share it we’re seeking further affirmation from our friends and family that yes, this is true, this is who you are. You are like Time News Roman Font—classy and timeless. You belong in Paris because you’re a romantic who loves art and fresh bread. You get the idea.
Even if you’ve never taken one of these quizzes … even if you’ve never checked your horoscope on the placemat of the Chinese restaurant … even if you’ve never taken the Myers Briggs and have no idea what I’m talking about when I say I’m an INFJ. Even if you don’t go in for this kind of silliness at all, I am guessing that you, too, have experienced some of that human need to be known, really known, for who you really are, and to be liked, to be loved, for who you really are.
I believe that human need is at the heart of the story H. brought to life for us this morning. A woman goes to the well during the hottest part of the day, hoping not to meet anyone who might be there to gossip about her. She meets a Jewish man who does the very odd thing of talking to her and asking for a drink of water. She’s curious and a little suspicious … who is this guy? Doesn’t he know the rules?
And then he reveals that he knows her. He already knows her story. He knows that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage. He knows who she is and why she’s at the well in the noon day heat. He knows all about her, and he talks to her anyway. More than that, he offers her living water, a taste of eternal life and redemption and forgiveness.
When I was younger I never understood why the woman was so excited about Jesus knowing about her husband situation. I mean, here he is, offering her salvation, and her big takeaway message is, “Come and meet the man who told me everything I’ve ever done.” You know, a good fortune teller could do that, too. A good online quiz can do that. This is JESUS we’re talking about, the Messiah. Is it really that important that he knows her romantic history? Isn’t that kind of a shallow thing for her to focus on?
We’ll, it is and isn’t. Our obsession with ourselves and our need to be known can manifest itself in shallow, self-indulgent ways, to be sure. But the human desire to be known runs deep. And the human desire to be loved is real. And that’s the form that the living water takes for this Samaritan woman.
Jesus saves her by showing her that he knows her and her story, all of it, and loves her anyway. He’s not offering her salvation because he doesn’t know any better. He’s offering her salvation because he knows who she is, who she really is, and that promise of salvation is for her.
On our congregation prayer list this week is a member of the congregation, B., who had a really bad fall and will have a long and painful recovery ahead of him. I went to visit him at the hospital on Thursday we had this awesome conversation about the nature of religion, life, the universe, everything. And he asked me, “Pastor, what was your eureka moment. Your eureka faith moment?”
And it didn’t even take me a moment to know what it was. It was the Good Friday service after my grandma died. I was 11 years old. I stood in the middle of the congregation I grew up in and we sang “Were you There” a cappella, without any musical instruments, in complete and total darkness. I listened to the voices of my congregation and started picking out individual voices from the whole … There was the voice of one of the pillars of the church, he was bossy and I don’t think he liked me very much. There was the voice of my Sunday School teacher, who was such a mentor to me. There was my mom’s confident soprano and my dad’s quieter, but still very beautiful baritone. There were people who always stopped me and asked me how school was going. And older ladies who told me I should be a pastor when I grew up because I did such a nice job reading the lessons. There were people I knew by name and people I only knew in passing, people who had known me for years and others I’d just met, people who thought I was wonderful and people who thought I was kind of a precocious little pain-in-the-neck.
But what I heard as I was listening to the voice of my congregation that night were the voices of people who knew me and loved me anyway. The collective voice of my congregation that night was the voice of God, and it was saying, “I know everything you’ve ever done. I know the real you. Come, this living water is for you. Salvation, and love, and forgiveness, this is for you. Just as you are.”
You’ve heard me preach this before, this idea that God knows who we really are and loves us anyway. And it may seem kind of obvious, and not like such a stretch to believe because, as flawed as we are, it’s not so hard to imagine God loving us. And maybe you can imagine God loving the Samaritan woman at the well: the outcast, the adulterer, the woman living in sin.
But can you imagine God loving Fred Phelps?
Fred Phelps died this past week. He was the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, and his church’s entire focus and mission was to get as much publicity as possible for their message, and their message was that God hates homosexuals. They started out by carrying hate-filled signs and protesting at the funerals of gay men and women, but when that didn’t get them very much media attention they switched tactics and started protesting at the funerals of American soldiers killed in combat. That got them attention.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Fred Phelps’ ministry of hate made him one of the most hated people in the world. In the days leading up to and now following his death I’ve seen a lot of pretty amazing responses from the people Phelps targeted. Gay people and their families, the families of the deceased service members, so many people sharing the same kind of response, but not the response you might expect, given all the hurt he caused.
They are sharing prayers of love. They are sharing prayers of grace. They are sharing prayers of forgiveness. “God, welcome Fred into your loving arms and give him the peace he never found in life.” “God, be with Fred’s family and his church as they try to heal.” “God, show this man of hate that you are a God of love.” “God, you know who Fred Phelps is. And we know you love him, anyway. Just like you love all of us.”
Actor and gay rights activist George Takei wrote, “Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.”
Another gay rights activist named Josh Kilmer-Purcell wrote an amazing article for the Huffington Post about his long-time friendship with Fred’s daughter, Shirley. Shirley started a correspondence with Josh in response to an article he wrote about her family. It was not a positive article, and by all rights the two of them should never have become friends. But they found they had some things in common. Both of them were married to men named Brent. Both of them loved the natural world. Shirley shared her deep love of her children, and Josh shared his deep love of family and of farming, and they appreciated each other for that.
Neither of them changed their views on any issues. Josh continued to be a gay rights activist, and Shirley continued to shout hate-filled messages against gays at the funerals of dead soldiers. So, nothing changed, right?
But they got to know each other. And they even got to care for each other. So, when Josh heard that Shirley’s father had died, he decided to send a casserole. “Casseroles are what my religion does when someone we know is grieving,” he writes. “Death defies words. Which is why in my church, we send a casserole.”
Is it a superficial response to something profound? Is it like being offered living water and only being able to say, “Hey, this guy knows everything I’ve ever done?”
I think the offering of a casserole in this case is about as profound as it gets. It’s one human being saying to another, “I know you, who you really are, and I love you anyway.” It’s God speaking through the grace of one person to the grief of another person, and saying: “Drink this, and you will never be thirsty again. I already know who you are. I already know your whole story. And this water of grace and love and forgiveness is for you.” Amen.
After we heard the Gospel lesson for the day, we listened to a story that aired on National Public Radio on December 19: “11, 420 Children Dead in Syria’s Civil War, So Far.”
When I heard this npr story 10 days ago I knew I had to play it for you today, the day we hear the story of the death of the holy innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt.
It’s easy enough to hear the Gospel lesson and not really hear it, or to dismiss it as just a story: something that may or may not have happened a long time ago. But whether or not Matthew got the facts right, it’s clear that the story he tells is true, and sadly, timeless: a ruthless dictator orders the deaths of children. Children are killed, not by mistake, but on purpose, as the actual targets of violence. To protect their children from that violence, families are forced to leave their homes and become refugees. To save their lives, children are exposed to even more violent upheaval and uncertainty. The survivors keep their lives but lose their childhoods.
We don’t have a clear picture, really, of what’s going on right now in Syria, in part because conditions are so bad that accurate reporting isn’t possible. But what is clear is that right now, in Syria, there is a war on children, and a war on childhood. The story of the holy innocents and the flight to Egypt is real, and it’s going on right now.
Like I said before, when I heard this story I knew I had to share it with you today. But I wasn’t sure what to say about it, other than “this is happening, and it’s terrible.” And maybe that’s all we really can say.
I don’t like feeling helpless. I’m guessing most of you don’t like that feeling, either. Sometimes I think we are so afraid of confronting our own helplessness that we jump too quickly to try and force a solution, a resolution, a happy ending of some kind. In my sermons I never want to leave you feeling hopeless, because you and I both know and need to hear every week, maybe even every day, that God IS hope, and that we can always have hope, no matter what.
Today’s sermon will be no different; there is always Good News to tell. But when we go from bad news to Good News in the space a few minutes, it’s going to sound easy, when in reality, getting to the Good News and finding the hope in the face of such terrible violence and loss is not easy at all.
In the story from Matthew we heard today, we get hear these poetic, sad words:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more’
Some of you know that I worked as a hospital chaplain before becoming a pastor here at Redeemer. During that time I accompanied many families through the deaths of their children. Every time was different, every time was heartbreaking, and every time we prayed together, we prayed using those words:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more’
I don’t know exactly what makes those words so comforting, but they are. These words about a woman whose grief refuses to be consoled have provided consolation to more families than I can count. I think it might be the power of shared experience, of knowing that all of us who have experienced such a loss, we are all so different, but we are also all Rachel.
Whether it in a war or a school shooting or a car accident or a still birth … Rachel weeps for her children. Through the centuries, in every time and place, she weeps.
Even if you have not faced the tragic loss of a child, if you love children, you have probably felt helpless. Helplessness is one of the defining experiences of parenthood. You love them so much and you can’t control them and you can’t control what happens to them.
God is not helpless. God is never helpless. But through the life and death of Jesus, God experienced helplessness.
That’s what our first lesson was about today. God doesn’t just have sympathy for our loss and suffering; God has empathy. Whatever you are feeling or experiencing, whatever is going on right here in your life or in the lives of people in Syria or anywhere else, God has been there, God knows what it’s like, and God is with you. God is with the children and the parents and all the people of Syria.
That’s where our hope begins. And our hope continues because, when we allow ourselves to feel hopeless and to realize how helpless we are, we also allow ourselves to realize that we need God. And that God is at work and bringing hope and peace and even joy in ways we can’t see and can’t even imagine.
I want to play a video for you now that I found on the ELCA youtube channel. It’s called Song of Syria.
What I find remarkable about this video is the archbishop’s insistence that even in the midst of this most terrible situation, he has hope, and the people he serves have hope. You don’t get to see or hear the person who is interviewing him, but it’s clear that the interviewer asks the archbishop: “What can we do?” We always want to do something to help, and the more active the doing, the better we feel. Part of what’s so frustrating about this situation and many others where children are at risk is that we can’t just hop in a plane and go over and fix things for people. But what we can do is pray, and as, Archbishop Kawak notes, use our voices to advocate for peace in whatever way we can.
Praying often doesn’t feel very active; it feels like something we do when we can’t do anything else. But that’s how I felt about those snowflakes we sent to Sandy Hook Elementary School last January. I wondered if they were something anyone actually wanted, if they’d really get to the people they were intended for, and I wondered how such a small thing could make a difference in the aftermath of such a terrible tragedy. But it’s clear from the thank you letter I read during the children’s message that the snowflakes we sent and that people around the world sent were received. And with the snowflakes the messages we sent, messages of love and comfort and hope.
When we pray, it might feel like putting a paper snowflake in the mail and never hearing anything about it again. But those messages are received. And it does make a difference. God hears our prayers. And any messages of love and comfort and peace and hope we send toward the people of Syria will be received and will make a difference.
The Geneva II peace talks are scheduled to begin January 22. It looks like all the key players in Syria are planning to be at the negotiating table. As we get closer to the date of the talks, the violence in Syria has increased. The violence is getting worse because all sides want to show how strong they are before sitting down together to negotiate for peace. If things in Syria are going to get better, and I pray they will, chances are still that it’s going to get worse, first.
So I’d like to ask you to join me in praying every day, once a day, for 22 days, between January 1 and 22nd, for peace in Syria.
When the Geneva II peace talks begin we should obviously keep praying, but the time between now and then is especially critical. I’m going to post prayers on our facebook page and on twitter using #prayforsyria, which is already a widely-used hashtag around the world, and I’d invite you to do the same.
If social media isn’t your thing, I’d invite you to pray at the same time every day, maybe at dinner time, or when you first wake up in the morning. I’m going to say a prayer when I’m nursing Sally before she falls asleep each night. It’s the most peaceful time of my day, and a time when I feel deeply connected to my baby daughter, and when I pray during that time I feel connected to mothers all around the world: to their fears and helplessness and peace and joy and connection to their children.
I will pray for hope and consolation for grieving parents in Syria, and for the safety of Syrian children, and that refugees may live in safety, and most of all, that there might be an end to the conflict, and peace.
There’s not a lot that we can do, but we can pray, and that’s actually doing a lot. God hears our prayers, and the prayers of the whole world, and God does what we can’t do: God brings hope to the hopeless and help to the helpless, and consolation to hearts that cannot be consoled. Amen.
Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013. Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Luke 2: 1-20
Before there was a zombie craze, or a vampire craze, way back in the mid-1990’s there was an angel craze. Angels were everywhere: on TV, in movies. They were being guardians and helping people out with day to day problems or they were falling in love with humans and causing all kinds of problems of their own. Usually, they were played by very attractive actors and were pleasant … not only to look at, but pleasant in general. You wanted to be touched by angel, because these angels were lovely and kind.
My favorite angel depiction from that time period was in the movie Dogma. I would show you a clip, but there’s some bad language involved. And the reason for the bad language is what makes it, I think, a more biblically accurate depiction of an angel sighting.
It’s late at night, the main character is asleep in bed. She hears a rustling in her room and wakes up, slowly reaching for a baseball bat from under her bed, ready to defend herself against an intruder. Suddenly, at the foot of her bed is a pillar of flame and bright white light, and a loud, stern voice proclaims: “Behold the Metatron, herald of the almighty and voice of the one true God.” Then the main character scrambles for a fire extinguisher, which she points at the flames to reveal a coughing, pale, very grumpy Alan Rickman, who then proceeds to yell at her.
That’s an angel.
In the Bible, angels come in the middle of the night. They wake you up and terrify you with their brightness and their glory and their choirs of singing supernatural beings. They give you orders and leave you with very little choice but to comply: breathless, shocked, and even though they tell you not to be, afraid. Very very afraid.
The shepherds were terrified. Sure, it was good news of great joy for all people, but it was also scary. The word angel comes from a Greek word that means messenger. And I think that, even if it doesn’t take the form of a flaming pillar of light, messages from God are often frightening, and messengers from God often take the form we’d least expect and shock us, surprise us, and knock us off balance with the good news they bring.
Another good moment in the movie Dogma is an off-handed comment that Alan Rickman as the Metatron makes. He says, “In the Bible, if someone is talking to God, they’re talking to me. Or they’re talking to themselves.” Which brings up a good question: How do you know if God is talking to you, or if you’re just talking to yourself?
I believe with all my heart that God is still speaking, still sending messages and messengers, angels with words of good news and great joy for all people. But how do we know? How do we know the message is from God?
Knowing for sure might be impossible, but I think that if the message is consistent with the messages we hear from God in the Bible, and if the message and messengers surprise us, we can be pretty sure it’s a word from God we’re receiving.
Messengers can take many forms: it doesn’t have to be a fire-y angel screaming at you in the middle of the night. In fact, the messenger might be very quiet, and, because messengers from God are unexpected and you’re not looking for them, you might almost miss the messenger and the message entirely.
Fortunately, God is persistent. And God will keep talking to you, maybe even over the course of years, until that message is received.
In the Bible, messages from God take many forms: everything from the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that accompanied God’s messages to Moses to the sound of pure silence that God used to speak to Elijah. In all cases, though, the messengers were unexpected; they frightened, startled and surprised the people they were sent to speak to.
If you receive a message, maybe from another person, or from a still, small voice in your mind in the middle of the night, one of the ways to tell that it comes from God is if the messenger and the message take you by surprise, maybe even scare you a little bit. Or a lot.
But, and this is important, while the form of the messenger and the message may scare you, the content of the message should be consistent with the Gospel and the Word of God that we already know in our hearts and hear in the Bible.
That doesn’t mean that the content can’t be surprising. The message could very well be something that you already know, but forgot, somehow, or something that you knew with your head but not with your heart.
When my cousin Jason took his own life six years ago, I was in seminary, taking classes in pastoral care. I knew all of the “right” answers, all of the things to say and not to say to someone who’s loved one had committed suicide. But even though I knew all the words and messages of comfort, even though I knew that Jason was never abandoned by God, and was resting in God’s loving arms, still, I needed to hear it from someone else. God needed to send me that message in a different way, in a way that would surprise me, and knock me out of my numbness and into a different kind of grief, a grief that knew the grace and the love of God on a much more profound level than I ever could have known on my own.
In that situation, God directed me to read the story of Hagar and the well, a story from the Old Testament about despair, but also about hope that seems to come out of nowhere, but was actually there, right there in front of us, with us all along.
And that’s how you know that the message is coming from God. Not that the message comes directly in the form of Bible verses, necessarily, but that it’s consistent with the messages of God’s grace and love that we hear in the Bible.
Here are some examples of messages that angels bring in the Bible:
God has heard your prayers.
God is with you.
God is calling you to do something difficult, but God will not abandon you.
God is bringing you good news of great joy, and the good news is for ALL people.
If you receive a message that is in any way contrary to these messages, it doesn’t come from God.
If you get a message that contradicts in any way the Gospel truth that all of your sins and the sins of all people are entirely forgiven, then that message isn’t from God.
We get messages all the time from society and the media and our culture and even, sadly, from people we love that tell us we are unlove-able, or that tell us we aren’t good enough.
Those messages aren’t from God.
Messages from God will always be consistent with the truth that God loves you … and not just you, but all of creation: completely, unconditionally, and without any regard to whether we are good enough, or whether we deserve it, or not.
That’s the surest way to know that you have been in communication with an angel. That’s how you know that God has sent a messenger with words that are just for you, just what you needed to hear when you needed to hear it the most.
God’s angels, God’s messengers, will surprise you and shock you and even scare you, but they will always tell you this:
Do not be afraid.
I’m bringing you good news of great joy.
Jesus Christ was born for you.
Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again for you.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s love for you.
And that love is yours, today and every day, no matter what.
Sermon for Sunday, December 22, 2013. Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Matthew 1:18-25.
There are lots of things we could talk about going on in this clip: the ridiculous commercialism, the idea that if you pray well you’ll be rewarded, that whole prosperity gospel idea, but what makes this clip funny and fitting for this day is Ricky Bobby’s insistence on praying to the baby Jesus, and only the baby Jesus.
It’s funny, in part, because it’s kind of true. We like the Christmas Jesus. The Christmas Jesus is easier to relate to than the Easter Jesus, and definitely easier to relate to than Jesus the man who ate with prostitutes and collaborators and said things like, “Give up everything you own and follow me.”
Obviously, it’s all the same Jesus. But the two Gospel writers who include the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke, are trying to make a bigger point. They’re trying to show us something about God’s love and where and how God and God’s love can be found.
The Latin term for it, the term that Martin Luther used, is one of my favorites of all time: sub contraria specie.
(I’ve shared this phrase with you before … I’m going to keep bringing it up until it’s your favorite latin phrase, too.)
Sub contraria specie means “under the form of the opposite.” God is found under the form of the opposite. God is found in the least likely place, the last place you would expect a deity to be.
So we heard in our Gospel Lesson from Matthew today: that God appeared to a carpenter in a dream, a man who was engaged to be married. And in that dream the Angel of the Lord told Joseph to go ahead with the marriage even though his fiancé had presumably committed adultery and gotten pregnant.
Matthew includes details that might strike us differently than they would his contemporaries. We might hear that Joseph was planning to dismiss Mary quietly and think, “Nice guy, could have been worse.” And it could have been worse, he could have turned her over to a crowd to be stoned to death, but “dismissing her quietly” was also a death sentence of sorts, just a slower one: death by poverty and starvation and despair, because a woman and illegitimate child with no man to provide for them faced a very, very difficult life indeed.
The whole situation is bleak, and you’d expect Joseph and Mary to feel abandoned by God. Because where is God in such a terrible situation for everyone involved? God is right in the middle of it. God is exactly where God always is, sub contraria specie, under the form of the opposite, in the last place you’d expect a deity to be, and, in this instance, that last place you’d expect is in Mary’s womb.
When Jesus is born, God not only does the unthinkable thing of becoming human … of taking on humanity and all its vulnerabilities and weaknesses and pain all those things you’d never expect an all powerful being would ever willingly choose to do. Not only does God become a baby, which is bad enough, but God becomes a poor baby, a homeless baby, a baby who has no clean or safe place to lay his head, who sleeps in a manger, a trough that animals eat out of.
This is a pretty far cry from Ricky Bobby’s vision of golden fleecy diapers, right?
The manger and the cross are the ultimate Christian symbols of love, because they show that, from the very beginning to the very end of his human life, God in Jesus was profoundly human. And he could be found right in the middle of human suffering and human anxiety and human loss.
The manger and the cross reveal a God who is most powerfully present in weakness, in the opposite of what you’d think when you think of power.
The tale of the three trees, which I read during the children’s time today, beautifully lifts up these unlikely, unexpected symbols of God’s love: the manger, which shows God’s love through Jesus’ humble, dangerous, difficult birth. The fishing boat, which shows God’s love through Jesus’ ministry in unlikely places with ordinary, fearful sinners. And the cross, which show’s God’s love through the most unlikely, most unthinkable act of all: Jesus’ death.
You could add more, too, you could add the image of the table where Jesus shared meals with gentiles and sinners and all sorts of unsavory types. You could add the image of the cloth Jesus used to wash and dry his disciples’ feet, a symbol of a servant God. You could add the image of the bucket Jesus’ drank from at the well with the Samaritan woman, or the mud and spit Jesus used to heal the blind man.
Every story we have about Jesus points to this truth: God’s love is right where you’d least expect it to be; God is right in the middle of the most difficult, dangerous and sad experiences of human life on earth.
What does this mean for us, for you and me today?
It means that if we want to find God, we shouldn’t look to wealth or glory or earthly power. We should look to the margins, to the outcasts, to the people who are living and coping with the most difficult situations that human life can bring: hunger, poverty, incarceration, violence, abuse, homelessness, illness.
It means that we can meet Jesus, we can meet God, when we are in relationship with people in desperate need or when we ourselves find ourselves in desperate situations.
When you are feeling lost, abandoned and hopeless, God is not gone.
God is nearer than ever. God is right in the middle of it, right there with you just as God’s mercy and love were with Joseph and Mary in their darkest hours.
God is sub contraria specie, under the form of the opposite, and that means that God is with us. Immanuel.
The promise the angel made to Joseph and Mary is our promise, too.
God is with us.
When you think of peace, you probably don’t think of a children’s Christmas Program rehearsal.
A joyful celebration of unbridled creative chaos, yes. Peaceful, no.
We had our first big run through of this year’s program on Wednesday and, spoiler alert, it’s going to be awesome this year. As it always is. And this year, as always, the first run through was a bit rough around the edges. I watched my son the sheep wander away from his shepherds. He ended up with the narrators, so that was OK. My daughter, Sally, is portraying the baby Jesus and based on her performance during the rehearsal I’m guessing the “No crying he makes” part of Away in a Manger is going to be a laugh line.
In the middle of all of this, one of our confirmation youth leans over and says, “Pastor Annie, there’s a mouse in the tree.”
I went home that night feeling a little frazzled. I posted on facebook about the mouse and one of my pastor friends sent me a link to this amazing poem by Mary Oliver. And I think the poem brings it all together: how a mouse in a church Christmas tree discovered in the middle of a children’s program rehearsal can be an Advent thing, a sign of the peaceable kingdom to come.
Making the House Ready for the Lord
by Mary Oliver
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
When we invite Jesus to come in, we are inviting peace. But not the kind of peace you might expect or even the kind of peace you might be hoping for. And, much like a mouse in winter, Jesus comes in whether we invite him or not.
That’s what John the Baptist was trying to tell the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him to be baptized. These were smart, faithful, religious people. They were people who lived out their faith in daily life, they were churchgoers. They were people like you and me, people who make time for church on a very cold morning in December because we think it’s important to do.
And John the Baptist had a warning for them, and warning for us: it’s not going to be like you think it’s going to be.
Jesus, the Messiah, is going to surprise you.
Yes, he’s going to bring peace, but peace for all people, not just the people in power, not just people with money and privilege. The lion and the lamb lying down together is a beautiful image, but what does it really mean? What does the lion have to give up to make peace with the lamb possible? Everything, right? The lion loses everything: all its power, all its fearsomeness, all its advantages.
It’s a message that’s repeated over and over and over again in the Bible: when Jesus comes, the poor are lifted up and the rich are sent away empty. And that brings about peace. But as people who live in the most powerful, most wealthy country in the world, are we really comfortable with that peace? Does it put our minds and hearts at ease, or does it terrify us?
Real peace, peace that is more than lip service to an idea that we all think we like, real peace is an uncomfortable, challenging thing.
Nelson Mandela died this week, and that means the news is full of the truth that the greatest peacemakers are people who make the world uncomfortable, people who challenge the system and the way things are and always have been. Nelson Mandela was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the President of South Africa, but he also had to get special clearance to visit the United States because, until fairly recently, the African National Congress was considered a terrorist group.
Mandela was able to bring real change to South Africa, the kind of change that John the Baptist is talking about when he tells the people to “Repent.” To repent means to “turn around.” To do a 180 … that’s why we call our Wednesday night activities 180, because we know that we’re called to turn around, to repent, to be part of the change that Jesus brings to our lives and to our world whether we’re ready for it or not. Whether we invite it, or not.
Peace, real peace, can only come from repentance, from turning around, or rather, from being turned around by God. That news should convict us, because remember, we’re the lions. And living in peace with all creatures means giving up the idea that we’re better than anyone else. And that’s a hard one to give up.
But this news is also good news, because it means that the peace and love and promise of God with Us breaks into our lives no matter how un-peaceful or chaotic those lives may be.
Jesus shows up in the middle of a children’s Christmas program rehearsal.
Jesus shows up when you’re tired and yelling at your kids.
Jesus shows up when you’re having a lousy day at work.
Jesus shows up when you’ve given up hope, when you and your life seem to be at the lowest, worst possible point.
Jesus shows up and brings peace.
It’s not an easy peace.
It’s not the lion and the lamb meeting for cocktails.
It’s not the peace we expect or even the peace we might be hoping for.
Jesus comes and brings peace that passes all understanding.
Jesus comes and brings peace that changes everything, that takes our world and our expectations and turns it around, 180 degrees.
And so we do our best to make the house ready, and to pray, Come, Lord Jesus. Come in, Come in.
Sometimes I wonder about our reputation. I wonder about the reputation of Christianity, and of Christians.
It doesn’t bother me when people say that Christian churches are full of hypocrites, because I have a snappy comeback all ready to go for that one.
Let’s try it: someone say, “Christian churches are full of hypocrites!”
“Yes, and there’s always room for one more!”
Snappy comeback aside, it’s true that Christian churches are full of hypocrites because Christian churches are full of people, and people, human beings, are notoriously bad at walking the walk, and doing the things we say we’re going to do.
The church isn’t for perfect people, it’s for real people, and real people aren’t perfect, not by a long shot. So any complaint about Christians that could just as easily be leveled against humanity in general, that doesn’t bother me too much.
Still, I can’t help but wish that, instead of always hearing that Christians are hypocrites, or bigots, or close-minded …maybe instead of all that our reputation could be that Christians are generous, big-hearted, and truly welcoming to all kinds of people.
What I’d really like to hear is someone saying, “Those Christians, they really know what time it is.”
That one comes from our first lesson today, from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
Colloquially, someone who “knows what time it is” is someone who knows what’s going on, someone who is with it, aware, in the know. And we could do worse, as Christians, than to have such a reputation.
So, what does it mean for a Christian to know what time it is?
First, a Christian who knows what time it is pays attention.
This idea gets at the heart of our two readings today, both of which are, on the surface, a bit alarming. We don’t print any kind of passage title or heading in the bulletin because those aren’t original to the Bible texts, but if your Bible gives titles to passages then the titles for the passages we read today are something like, “An Urgent Appeal” and “The Necessity of Watchfulness.”
To, me, those sound like the titles of anti-terror brochures put out by homeland security. We’re familiar with this idea of watchfulness, wakefulness, constant vigilance. And it’s an idea that has been, rightly, lambasted for not being actually helpful at all.
The threat level is higher?
What does that mean?
What am I actually supposed to do differently?
It’s impossible to sustain any kind of heightened level of vigilance without getting exhausted or paranoid.
So, is that what Jesus and St. Paul are telling us to do?
Walk around on pins and needles, never relaxing, never sleeping until Christ comes again?
I think we can sleep. I think we can relax. But I don’t think we should relax so much that we lose sight of what’s going on in the world.
Knowing what time it is as a Christian means staying informed, being aware of what’s going on in our community and our world. We’re called to serve God by serving our neighbors in need, wo we’d better know what those needs are. And we’d better make an effort to get to know our neighbors.
A Christian who knows what time it is pays attention and is looking for Jesus everywhere, because Jesus is in the need of the person you met in line at the grocery store yesterday, and Jesus is in the stranger who offered you help out of the blue when you needed it most, and Jesus is in the Philippines, living with the survivors of the typhoon and the aid workers who have gone there to help with the recovery.
Christians who know what time it is know that Jesus is coming again. We don’t know where or when, and also that Jesus shows up on a daily basis in ways you may least expect. So, we do our best to pay attention. And we do our best to respond to the news that we hear and the people who we meet in the same way we’d hope to respond to Christ coming again: with love, generosity and welcome.
The other sign of Christian who knows what time it is is a pervasive, persistent sense of hope.
Knowing what time it is means having hope.
At first it might seem like this directly contradicts my first point, because, if we’re really paying attention, how can we have hope? If we know what’s going on in the world and in our community shouldn’t we feel like there is no hope? Because it’s bad out there.
I know what time it is, and so do you. We all know that most of us are one lost job or one medical catastrophe away from financial ruin, even homelessness. We know that terrible things can happen to any of us at any time: car accidents, cancer, the loss of the people we love the most.
If we’re really paying attention, if we’re not hiding our heads in the sand or wearing rose-colored glasses, how can we possibly have hope?
The truth is that Christians have the most sturdy, persistent hope of all, because our hope isn’t based on human strength or human wisdom. Our hope doesn’t come from within ourselves and it doesn’t fall or fail us when our own strength falls or fails, or when the people around us fail us or when our heroes or institutions fail us.
Our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” is how the old hymn goes. Our hope comes from God, and that means our hope can persist even in the face of the worst situations.
When you put those two together—paying attention and having hope—you get a group of people who live looking outward, beyond ourselves, beyond our own wants and needs, and who live and serve and hope and dream beyond ourselves and beyond the limits of human strength.
If we are Christians, and I think we are, then that is what our reputation should be: those Christians are always on the lookout for ways to make the world a better place.
Those Christians are always so full of hope, and sharing that hope in real ways with everyone they meet.
Those Christians really know what time it is.