Gradual Transfigurations: Sermon for February 26, 2017

My favorite books of all time are the Harry Potter books. I was an adult when they came out, and at first the idea of reading books that were written for children held no appeal. But over time everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve just got to read these books…they’re amazing!”

So I gave them a shot, and I thought they were pretty amazing too. I tore through all of the books that were out at the time, and then I went at midnight on the release dates for the rest of them, just waiting for the moment I could get the next part of the story.

rehost-2016-9-13-4685a819-e442-4e36-af5b-9c8c42bfbf00One of my favorite characters is a teacher at the school Harry attends named “Professor McGonagall”. She is brilliant and stern, yet deeply courageous, and she teaches a subject called “Transfiguration”. Transfiguration is a class all the students take, where they learn to change one thing into another, like a mouse into a tea cup or a match into a needle. McGonagall was so skilled at this, in fact, that she could transfigure herself from a human to a cat and back again.

They’re such great books. But…Jesus never went to Hogwarts. So you might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with church?” Well, maybe not much, except for this: the only two places in my life I ever recall hearing the word “transfiguration” are in church and in Harry Potter.

Once a year, on the last Sunday before Lent starts, we observe “Transfiguration Sunday”, and we read this story. Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. And when he gets to the top, Scripture tells us that he was “transfigured”, and his face “shined like the sun” and his clothes were “dazzling white”. And then, Moses and Elijah, two guys from centuries back, appear too. And a voice booms out from nowhere and says, “this is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”

Peter, James and John, understandably, were a little dumbstruck. At my seminary there was a wooden carving of this moment that showed the faces of the three, and what I remember the most is that the eyes were wide open like this.

Fair. Mine would have been too.

The disciples are, understandably, scared to death. They are on the ground, terrified, but Jesus puts his hand on them and says this: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

When they get up Moses and Elijah and the booming voice are all gone, and the whole group starts walking back down the mountain. But, one more thing, says Jesus, “don’t tell anyone about this until after I’m raised from the dead”.

Now, had I been up on that mountain, and had I seen Jesus go all glowy, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, with what was probably the voice of God talking to me, I would have had some questions. I would have at least wanted to check in with the others who were up there to make sure we’d all seen the same thing. I’d need to process this. But apparently the three guys came down and didn’t say a word to anyone else.

But they knew. They had literally just had a mountain-top experience, and now they knew that Jesus was even more unusual and amazing than they had thought. And they were supposed to just go back to the world and live their life like nothing had happened.

But something had happened. And they had been changed.

I wonder what their lives were like in the days and weeks that followed. I wonder how they reconciled what they had seen with their everyday lives. I wonder if they wondered why Jesus hadn’t let them tell the world. It would have been a whole lot easier for them if he had.

But sometimes when we are changed, our world isn’t. And that can feel unbearable. It can even make us forget what we have seen, and try to just go back to the way things have always been.

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John Newton

There’s a story about a man named John Newton. In the 1700’s he was a captain of ships that brought enslaved people from Africa to America. He was deeply complicit in the evil of slavery. But one night in 1748 his ship was caught in a bad storm, and it started with water. He was about to die. But he called out to God, and some cargo shifted in the hull, plugging the holes, and saving the crew.

From that point on he was a changed man. He became devoutly religious. He even wrote a hymn that we still sing today: Amazing Grace. He gave us swearing, stopped drinking, and didn’t gamble again. He had been to the mountaintop, just like Peter, John and James, and he had been changed.

But, here’s the curious part…he didn’t stop being involved in the slave trade. Maybe it was fact that he was living in a world where most still thought this was acceptable. Maybe he didn’t know how to get out. Maybe he didn’t really understand yet the evil he was committing. For whatever reason, he didn’t stop for a few more years. And even after that, he was silent. In fact, it took him 34 years after leaving the slave trade to finally speak out and become a full-fledged abolitionist. That’s 34 years of being complicit.

When we sing his first lines, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” we can understand in a real way that he got to a point where he realized what he had done, and he truly repented, and he truly changed. But as much as that life or death experience had changed him, that conversion didn’t come right away, and it didn’t come soon enough.

Peter knew what that was like too. He had seen the Transfiguration of Jesus. And Peter had been changed. Truth be told, it wasn’t Jesus who was changed so much in the Transfiguration. It was Peter. Jesus was just shown more clearly than ever. He was simply revealed as holy, and the son of God. But Peter, James, and John…they got to see it. And they were changed because of it. And even thought Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they could never be the same again.

Even still, it took Peter to really get it. In fact, when the stakes were highest, Peter didn’t stick by this son of God he had seen glowing on the mountain top. Instead, on the night before Jesus is killed, Peter runs away when the authorities come and he denies even knowing Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

Transfiguration is hard. I don’t mean the transfiguration of Jesus. I mean the transfiguration of ourselves. We see the truth, and like Newton yet we drag our feet and don’t do what is right. Like Peter we see God’s glory, and we run away. We see something that changes us right down to our core, and is scares us to death.

Jesus knew that would happen, though. He knew it when Peter, James, and John were lying on the top of that mountain, terrified. He knew it when he reached down, and touched them, and said “get up…and don’t be afraid.”

I think that one of the reasons so many people love the Harry Potter books is because they are about seeing the truth, telling the truth, and responding to the truth with courage. They’re about getting up…even when you are afraid. And, at their core, they are about being changed for the better. They’re about being transfigured.

Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that “transfiguration” is found in these two places: Holy Scripture and Harry Potter. Maybe it’s a word that only fits when nothing less than life-changing transformation, the kind that will ultimately demand courage from you, will do.

Peter ran away. But that’s not the last of his story.

In the Gospels Peter is right there after Jesus is resurrected. He’s there as the early church is built. His very name, Peter, is taken from the word “rock” or “petros”, and as Jesus says, Peter himself becomes the “rock” upon which the church is built. In fact, in the end Peter is courageous even onto death, ultimately becoming a martyr of the faith and a saint.

It was a long journey from that mountaintop to sainthood, though. And for those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, it will likely be even longer.

And so here’s where Jesus’ words ring true: Get up, and don’t be afraid.

We have all likely experienced God’s grace or love at some point in your life. The transfiguration of our hearts has been begun. But sometimes it goes so slow. And sometimes it demands from us more than we are comfortable giving.

But go ahead and take that next step anyway. Be transfigured. And get up, and don’t be afraid. Amen?

Being Perfect: Sermon for February 19, 2017

When I was in graduate school I had a position as a teaching assistant for a class of seminarians. My job was to lead a discussion section of the class, and to help the students to understand their papers and tests. And one semester I was assigned to a new professor who, in retrospect, was probably trying to prove herself as a serious teacher.

Every professor assigned a lot of reading, but this professor assigned an impossible amount. Hundreds of pages each week. It was too much for even the TAs to read, and we knew the material and the concepts already. The new students had at least three other classes and usually an internship too, and it didn’t take long until they were all falling behind and coming to the teaching assistants for help. These were high-level students used to thriving in school, and they were drowning

With the professor’s blessing we decided that we would teach a workshop on how to get through a lot of reading quickly. So, one afternoon we taught them how to scan, how to find central themes and how to outline. Most students walked from the room feeling relieved and like they could keep up.

Afterwards the professor asked how it had gone. She wondered if the students now felt a little more confident about keeping up. I told her that I thought they’d be fine, and that they just needed some skills. And then I said something else. I said, “You know, I think they thought you expected them to read every single word of those hundreds of pages.”

She looked at me affronted. “But I DO expect them to read every single word.”

When I read about Jesus’ words to the crowds this week, I’m reminded a little of that class. This is the last week we are looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ big speech to the crowds. And Jesus is not setting the bar low. He tells the crowd that these are the things they need to do:
If someone strikes your right cheek, offer them your left.
If someone takes your coat, give them your cloak too
If asked to go one mile, go a second mile
If someone wants anything from you, give it to them
Love your family, your friends, but more than that love your enemies and pray for them
And then Jesus delivers this bottom line: be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.

Be perfect. When I think about being perfect, I think a little about that class that I TAed, and I think about unrealistic expectations, and harsh graders. And when I think about being perfect in the spiritual sense, I picture God as a divine professor, checking through my work and saying “it is very clear to me that you did not read every single word of the assigned reading.”

I think a lot of us might wrestle with an image of God that’s a lot like that. God as the ever-demanding, ever-critical, authority figure. The parent you can never please. The teacher who is always disappointed. The client who always complains, no matter how hard you work.

Maybe, at its worst, God as our own critical inner voice, bent on reminding ourselves how much we are messing everything up.

It would be easy for me right now to say “but God’s not like that. That’s human beings. God is love.”

But then we have Jesus here, telling us to be perfect. And somewhere deep down that’s unsettling, because we all know that we don’t measure up to perfect, and we never will.

And so that’s when it’s important to remember that God is a little different from our critical fourth grade teacher, or the coach who always yelled at you when you missed the free throw. God is’t a divine task master at best, and bully at worst. God is different.

I think about that grad school professor from the beginning, and about how she demanded perfection. And, truth be told, grad school is a little about hazing. There’s a lot of “I had to do this, so you will too.” And, honestly, she was trying to get tenure, which is another kind of hazing in and of itself. She was trying to prove that she was perfect too, and being a tough teacher was a part of that.

But the life of faith is not about jumping through hoops, or looking good on paper. It’s not about reading every page. Instead, it’s about this: it’s about progress.

In recovery communities like AA there is a slogan: “progress not perfection”. The idea is that you shouldn’t focus on getting every single thing right. If you do that things are bound to go wrong, and it’s too tempting to just give up. Instead, just focus on doing a little better, one day at a time.

I think that makes sense for the spiritual life too. No one, this side of heaven, is ever going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean that we get to just throw up our hands and give up. Instead, it means that a little at a time, we get better. We become more generous, more patient, more compassionate, and more loving.

And, if we are doing it right, we also extend all of those things to ourselves. Because in a world that too often seems to demand the unrealistic, we could all stand to treat ourselves with a little more generosity, patience, compassion, and love.

We cannot batter ourselves into perfection. And there’s nothing in destroying our selves that will glorify God.

This week I was remembering something from when I was a kid, and thinking about what it means to be perfect, and to fail. I grew up about 40 minutes from Cape Canaveral where NASA launched all of it’s rockets. We were close enough whenever a shuttle launched we’d all know it was happening and go outside to see it.

There were other launches too, though, that didn’t rate the same sort of hype. Regularly satellites would be sent up on unmanned rockets from the Cape. And one afternoon late in elementary school I was riding my bike down the street when I saw the familiar arc of a rocket coming up over the trees.

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Delta GOES-G satellite launch, 1986.

I stopped and watched. It kept climbing higher and higher. And then, all of a sudden, far up in the air, it started to go to the side. And then it spun on itself. And this didn’t look quite right. A minute later there was a flash of light and the rocket was no more. Mission control had pressed whatever button they press to cause the rocket to self-destruct.
Later, talking to my dad, I realized how many tens of millions of dollars, if not more, had gone into building that rocket and that satellite, how many hopes had been attached to it, and how now it was just a bunch metal sitting off the coast at the bottom of the ocean.

“So what will they do?”, I asked my dad.

“Well,” he said, “they’ll try again.”

All of us mess up sometimes. But my guess is that you’ve never been the one who caused a spaceflight worth tens of millions of dollars to self-implode.

The irony is that even if you have been, NASA would forgive you and try again.

Why? Because you keep trying. You keep learning from your mistakes and building on what you learned, and you dare to try again.

If NASA can forgive a broken satellite, perhaps God can forgive our brokenness too. And perhaps we can head back to the drawing board, figure out what went wrong, and try again.

Here’s the good news: while spaceflight might require absolute perfection, life does not. We get to get it wrong sometimes. And we get to know we are forgiven. The only thing that we can’t do is stop trying. Amen?

Jesus’ Hardest Words: Sermon for February 12, 2017

It’s good to be back in the pulpit this morning after being sidelined for the last couple of weeks. I’m grateful to Heidi Heath and Alex Simpson for stepping in to preach while I recovered from my concussion.

I’m particularly grateful because they both preached on the same larger subject that I’ll be talking about this morning, and so in a real way I’m just building on the foundation that they’ve already put in place over the past two weeks.

As timing would have it, these multiple voices came in the midst of one of the most significant and dense parts of the Bible. For a solid month the lectionary gives us Gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, Jesus was a interesting sort of teacher. Most of his big lessons came not from lectures or speeches, but from stories and from questions. Jesus was much more likely to teach something important by telling a parable, like the ones about the Prodigal Son, or the Sower and the Seed. Or, he would let the people figure out the truth for themselves by asking them questions and having them come to a conclusion.

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Carl Bloch’s painting, “Sermon on the Mount”

What he was unlikely to do was exactly what he does do here, and that is to effectively preach. And yet, one day he saw crowds gathering and he went to the top of a mountain, and he began to teach the people. Later Christians would call this the “sermon on the mount”, but I like to just think of it as “Jesus’s big sermon”. This was the time that he laid bare so much of what it would mean to follow him.

The passages that Heidi and Alex preached about are well known to us. They are calls for Christians to live as examples of God’s love in the world, and to take hope, even when it seems like the whole world is stacked against goodness and kindness.

But then, right after those words, comes this passage. And there’s a lot in this passage that makes me nervous. First, if you are angry with someone, says Jesus, you will be judged. Later, if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you are committing adultery. Or, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Or, if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Or, if you marry a divorced woman, you are committing adultery. And in a lot of these, Jesus is talking about going to hell. Or finally, don’t swear. Just say, “yes or no”. Nothing more.

So, things don’t look so good for me here.

I mean, I’ve been angry before. To be honest, I think I had every right to be angry. And, frankly, I’ll be angry again. It might be righteous anger about some great social injustice, but it could just as easily be about someone cutting me off in the Starbucks drive-through.

And then there’s lust. Remember how Jimmy Carter once talked about lusting in his heart when he was president, and everyone laughed at him. Well, he was a good Baptist, and he was talking about this passage. Truth be told, we’ve probably all lusted at one time or another.

And then there’s this stuff about tearing out eyes and cutting off hands. My eyes cause me to judge others, or to envy them. And my hands…sometimes my hands are idol, and we can’t have that. Other times I’m so proud of the works of my hands that they cause me not to be humble. But, I plan on keeping both eyes and both hands because, frankly, I don’t think any of us would have hands or eyes if we followed this one.

There’s also this divorce passage. I’m not divorced, but I am married to a divorced woman. Does that mean I’m committing adultery? Do I need to go home this afternoon and say “sorry, honey…you’re on your own”?

And then there’s the swearing. I’ve sworn on legal paperwork, and I’ve sworn in far less legally-mandated ways. In other words, everything Jesus talks about here in this passage, I’ve done.

So, I don’t know about you, but reading these I feel pretty sure that I’m probably going to hell.

You too? See you there.

Now, to be honest, I don’t actually think I’m going to hell. I don’t think you are either, by the way. If you want my honest opinion, I’m not sure there is a hell. And if there is one, I think it is this: I think it is the absence of God. And because I believe God’s love and grace are stronger than anything we could ever do, I don’t think that God leaves any of us there.

But there was a time in my life when the thought of hell caused me real distress. I didn’t grow up in a church that damned people to hell. We were Christmas and Easter Presbyterians. But I did grow up in the South where the churches who preached a literal hell were all around, and they were very vocal.

I remember when I was six years old and a kid at the playground told me that if I had ever told a lie in my life I was going to hell. I have no idea what I could have lied about at age 6, but it probably involved taking extra cookies or something. No matter, I was damned.

And then there were those times when I was in high school, and the local megachurch talked about homosexuals and how they were going to hell if they didn’t change. And I knew they were talking about me. And I knew that there was no hope.

I think I may have started studying theology because I wanted to know that I wasn’t damned. Along the way, I came to believe that not only was I not damned, but I was loved beyond measure by a God who is full of grace. I came to see the fear-based churches that had proliferated in my hometown as a sort of anxious reaction to our own understanding of our humanity. We humans are imperfect beings, after all. How could God love us?

I confess, though, that when I read this passage my old fears come back. What if I’m not measuring up? What if I’m wrong? What if the way I’m living isn’t good enough.

What if I’m not perfect?

I’m not, of course. You probably aren’t either.

And here’s where I have one small point of agreement with those fundamentalist churches I used to know: we are indeed imperfect beings. We will sin. We will fall down. But unlike those fundamentalist churches, I don’t tell you this because I believe God is ready to throw us all into the fires of hell. I tell you this because God is ready to welcome us home.

The reality of life is that none of us is perfect. None of us will ever keep even one of the Ten Commandments perfectly, let alone all ten. All of us will disappoint ourselves, and one another. All of us will fail from time to time.

Jesus knew that. He knew that it was inevitable. But he also knew this: he knew that in God there is grace. God is willing to love us “as is”. More than that, God is delighted to love us like that. God may have high standards for us, ones that we try even still to reach, but God does not expect our perfection. God just expects us to keep trying.

And so, that’s much of how I understand the Christian life. There is a way that things should be. This world should be filled with love, kindness, and justice. Were we all perfect, it would be. And then there is the way that things actually are.

And so, it’s tempting in the face of that to throw up our hands and say “well, we will never get it right, so what’s the point”. But that’s exactly when we need God’s grace the most. That’s exactly when we need to hear God saying to us, “it’s okay…keep trying…I still love you”.

And so, we keep trying. And we stay in relationship with God and with one another. And, little by little, the world is transformed.

I used to try to do the right thing out of fear. I feared a God who I thought kept the fires of hell burning.

Now I try to do the right thing out of love, and out of gratitude for God’s grace.

I’m not sure if I’m any better at getting it right from time to time, but I can tell you this: I’m a whole lot more sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. And I’m a whole lot more sure that God loves me, and that God loves us all. Even when we mess up. Maybe especially when we mess up. God is still there loving us through it. Amen?

Packing for the Journey: Sermon for January 22, 2017

A few weeks ago I talked about how my parents were selling their house and moving into a new place with my oldest sister, and how I’d gone to visit them to help them with some preparations. I told you the story of my now-worthless baseball card collection. I’m still processing that one, by the way. And today, I have another story about the same trip.

By the time I was done sorting through things, I had a few boxes of stuff from my childhood that I wanted to keep. Most of it I felt fine sending to myself through the mail, but some of it I didn’t even want to risk checking in my luggage. And so, I put it all in my carry-on backpack.

The backpack was heavy. Over fifty pounds. And it contained an assortment of treasures: old photographs, one of my favorite family Christmas decorations, some cufflinks my dad had given me that my mom gave him decades ago, and, the bulk of the extra weight, my childhood coin collection. All of this was carefully backed along with my laptop and charger cords for my various electronics. And it all just barely fit. I zipped up the bag and prayed that it would hold.

I was thinking about that while reading today’s story about Jesus calling the first disciples. He was walking down by the shore, and two fishermen named Simon and Andrew were there. They were casting their nets out into the sea, and they were holding on to them. Jesus tells them, “follow me” and he says, “I’ll make you fishers of people.” And they follow. Right after he goes past James and John, who are in their boat with their father, fixing their nets. And he calls to them. And they leave it all behind too, and follow him.

I’ve always been amazed at that story because of this detail: when the fishermen are called, they drop everything, and they follow Jesus. They literally drop the nets they are fishing with, and they go.

I don’t think I’d have been that quick. Had I been in my boat fishing, and this guy came to the shore and asked me to follow him, I don’t know if I would have. And, I really don’t think I would have just dropped everything and gone. I would have needed to make a packing list. I would have needed to get my backpack and fill it to capacity with everything I could possible need, and everything I would miss. I would have needed some time.

I don’t think that’s uncommon.

Most of us are a little like that. We get very good at keeping the stuff we think we are going to need. We stuff it in closets, and under beds, and some rent out storage units for the stuff they are sure they are going to need somewhere down the line. We don’t want to let anything that could be useful slip through our fingers.

Even the most organized among us do this. My parents had to move every few years during the first twenty-some years of their marriage. They would get a new assignment and they would have to uproot and go. They were always give old clothes and other things to charity because they didn’t need it and didn’t want it sitting around.

But one day in college I went up into the attic to get something. And not much was there, but I saw sitting there this pair of ice skates. And we were in Florida at the time. There was never going to be an occasion where the pond froze over and any of us could use them. But somewhere along the line they’d just become something that got carried from move to move even when we didn’t need them anymore.

I tell that story because we all have some sort of ice skates in the attic. We all have things we just hold on to without thinking about it. They take up space in our homes, and in our heads, and in our hearts. And we sometimes don’t realize how much effort we spend carrying them around.

Now I don’t just mean material things. I also mean the emotional things. The outdated ideas. The stubborn, angry, resentments. I mean the things that, like those nets the fishermen left behind, tie us up and trap us. There are things we cling to so tightly that we can never pry ourselves away from them.

Think of those things, and then think about the nets that the fishermen left behind. When Jesus said, “follow me”, do you think for a split second they looked down at those nets and said, “Do you think we’re going to need these?”

And when you think about it, the nets probably weren’t all that heavy. They could have thrown them into a backpack and carried them around. They may have thought, “well Jesus said we’re still going to be fishing” and decided they needed to keep them to be on the safe side.

But if they had, somewhere, a few days down the road, those nets would have started to feel heavy. They would have gotten frayed. Or they would have started tripping over them. They would have stopped being resources, and started being burdens. One more thing tying them down on the journey.

When I got to the Richmond airport I staggered to the security checkpoint with my backpack, and put it in the scanner. And here’s the thing about getting a bag x-rayed that contains a lot of wires, like the ones for my phone and computer, and a lot of metal objects, like a coin collection. It doesn’t look good.

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My bag, as unpacked by the TSA.

A minute later I had been pulled to the side, along with my backpack. And as a TSA agent very firmly told me to not touch my own bag, he got to work pulling each and every object out. There, laid out on a desk in the middle of the airport, were all the objects I had so carefully packed. The cufflinks and the silver dollars. The photos and the laptop. The book I meant to read on the trip but never did. The Christmas banner with bells that my mom had always hung by the front door.

And as I looked down, at all these memories of my life, all I could think about what this: How am I ever going to get all of that stuff back in that bag?

I got it back in. But standing there stuffing a bag in the Richmond airport while the TSA watched suspiciously was not my finest moment. And at the end of the day, I had to laugh at myself, and at my fear of letting go, even for a brief flight, of things that I’d lived quite happily without for years.
I think about the disciples and how all of them had to leave something behind in order to make their journey. They had to decide what they wouldn’t need anymore, and set it down, or give it away, or leave it for others. And so they learned to stop carrying what was holding them back.

Last week just before middle school youth group somehow this story somehow came up, and one of the youth said something profound that I had never really thought about before. What if Simon Peter and Andrew hadn’t been the first people Jesus had asked to follow him? What if there had been others who just couldn’t manage to drop their nets and leave it all behind? And what if we didn’t know their stories because, in the end, there wasn’t really all that much to write about?

Those aren’t bad questions. I suspect they could be right. And, truth be told, that terrifies me. Because if Jesus Christ himself appeared and said “follow me” and people didn’t do that, it makes me wonder whether I might do the same thing. Would I be so tied up in what doesn’t matter that I missed my big chance to do what God asked me to do?

More importantly, what if we, not just as individuals, but as the church, missed that chance too?What if somewhere in that holding on to what we thought mattered most, what we thought we really needed, Jesus called to us to follow, and we were holding on to so much fear and baggage and hesitation that we couldn’t?

I ask that because I think we are approaching a time in history when it’s going to be important to respond quickly to Jesus’ call and to travel lightly enough to be able to move. And so it’s time to look into our backpacks, both as individuals and as a community, and clear out what’s weighting us down. Things like the ice skates in the attic. Things like the fishing nets on dry land. Things like the spiritual clutter of debilitating fear and an overabundance of caution. Things we don’t need.

Christ still calls people. He still comes down to the shore of our lives and tells us to “follow him”. But he moves fast. He’s got a lot of work to do. So when Christ comes to us and tells us to “follow him” to the next thing he has in store for us, will we be ready? Will we be able to drop the nets and go? Or will we be left standing there, holding on to what cannot save us? The choice, literally, is in our hands. Amen?

Baptisms of Resistance: Sermon for January 15, 2017

Last Monday I saw an incredible new movie. I’m not much of a movie goer, but I had heard amazing things about “Hidden Figures”, a true story about three African-American women who worked for NASA in 1961 in Hampton, Virginia.

hidden-figures-posterAll three were absolutely brilliant, and they were what NASA at the time called “computers”. We hear that word and think of laptops or the like, but for them it literally meant that they were doing the math, the computing, necessary for the Mercury Seven astronauts to launch and return to earth successfully.

And yet, they were living in a time and a place where even their brilliance could not give them equality. While they crunched numbers for NASA all day, they did so in a separate office reserved for “Colored Computers”. And when they had to use the restroom, they went to one with the word “Colored” written on the door.

I really believe everyone should see this movie, and so I’m not going to ruin it and tell you more than that, but I will tell you that all week I have been thinking about this story. I’ve been thinking of it in light of the Civil Rights Movement, and of Martin Luther King Day, which we celebrate tomorrow. But I’ve also been thinking of it in light of something else. I’ve been thinking about baptism, and about how we live our life.

Today we are observing Dr. King’s birthday, but we are also observing a holy day in the life of the church. On the Sunday after Epiphany, which we celebrated last week, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.

John the Baptist, who we heard about throughout Advent, had gone out into the wilderness and people had started to come to him to be baptized. And this isn’t the kind of baptism that you and I know about today, but was instead an adaptation of a Jewish custom where you would immerse yourself and wash yourself clean in anticipation of a new beginning.

Jesus ended up being one of those people who came to John, and when John saw him dovecoming he said, “Wait, Jesus…I shouldn’t baptize you…you should baptize me!” But Jesus told John to baptize him anyway, and when John did Jesus came up from under the water, and Scripture tells us that you could see the Spirit of God resting on Jesus like a dove, and that a voice said “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

As Protestants we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we say that we do these two things because Jesus “instituted” them. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t already being immersed in water or eating bread and wine. But that does mean that Jesus himself participated in these things, and made them holy, and told us to do the same. And so today, you and I do these things because we follow him.

Jesus, being Jesus, understood baptism a little better than we do. He knew that he was about to embark on a journey, a new thing, and like the people of his place and time, he went to John to mark it and to prepare. And when he was baptized, Jesus was publicly marked as God’s own.

What was true for Jesus is also true for us. Whether we are baptized as infants, and we can’t remember a thing about it, or whether we are baptized as adults and can remember everything, the real work of baptism is not done by us. In baptism God does the heavy lifting, claiming us as God’s own and strengthening and sealing us for life.

What happens on the day we are baptized is not the end of our baptism. It’s just the beginning of a whole new journey. Because while God claims us in baptism, once we are baptized our job is to claim God’s plan for us in all of our lives.

Our job as Christians is to live the life that God intends for us. I don’t mean that in the sense that some preachers you see on TV do. This is not about being “blessed” by big houses and bank accounts, or about claiming your “best life now”. Instead this is about figuring out what gifts God has given you, and using them not for yourself but to help others. This is about finding your purpose and living out your baptism every day.

Watching “Hidden Figures” I thought about these three women who had been given profound gifts by God. They were amazing mathematicians. And yet, every step of the way they were confronted by barriers, both because they were women, and because they were African-American.

The work load for every employee of NASA was backbreaking, but can you imagine what it was like to have to carry the additional burden of breaking two barriers at the same time? To work the same long hours computing figures that could literally save or take a man’s life, and then to have to drink from a separate coffee pot? To have to claim your place not just by being the best, but by not being silent and by standing up for yourself and for others at every turn?

Last week “Hidden Figures” was the number one move in the country. It even beat the new Star Wars. Can you imagine that? A movie about three African-American women doing math beat a perennial office blockbuster.

I asked myself why that happened, and I think the answer is this. I think we need stories like this right now. We need reassurance that when the world tries its best to hold people down, when it overlooks the gifts that God has given because of the ones who bear them, that does not have to be the end of the story.

The three woman at the heart of the movie were women of faith. Presbyterians, as I understand it. And they understood that they were baptized. And so, that’s why I believe that this was a baptism story. This was the story of three women who knew that they were God’s beloved, and who knew that in them God was well pleased. And they refused to let the world treat them as anything less.

917f3bba67764b291ffc5a59916e6b2bOn Dr. King day we remember a man who lived into his baptism by doing the same. It was Dr. King’s faith that fueled his work for equality. He was first and foremost a preacher, who believed in the Gospel, and believed that each of God’s children deserved dignity because of that. He believed this enough that he could not be silent, even though he well knew that it would likely cost him his life.

That is incredible. And yet, it is nothing less than what God asks of us. That is what our baptism means.

When we baptize someone in this church it is a joyous occasion. Particularly when we bring a child to the font, there is this light and joy. They come dressed in white, with their smiling parents and siblings. We take pictures. We eat cake. We walk the cute baby through the aisles and we smile.

But there’s a part in the baptismal service that reminds us that baptism is the start of something incredibly risky. Whether we make the vows for ourselves as adults, or we make them on behalf of a child, we are committing to a life of resisting the worst in this world.

The baptism vows include this question: “Will you (or will you encourage this child to) renounce the powers of evil and receive the freedom of new life in Christ?”

And a few minutes later: “Do you promise to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”

Those are the words that the UCC uses, but every Christian liturgy I know has some form of the same questions. The implication is clear: if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Christ, if you want to teach a child to be a Christian, you can’t do it by sitting down or staying silent in the face of evil or injustice. You have to rise up.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis, once wrote that when Christ calls a

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John Lewis’ work in the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by his Christian faith. This is him being beaten by police in 1965 during the Selma march.

person to follow him, he “bid him come and die”. That sounds harsh. And yet, it’s true. People like Bonhoeffer and Dr. King knew that literally.

But in our baptism we too are called to die. Maybe not literally, but certainly in a real way. Because if we are really going to follow Jesus, then we must be willing to let our hopes of always being comfortable die. We must be willing to let our self-protecting silence die. We must be willing to let our neutrality in the face of injustice die.

We must do these things because in the end, it is the only way that we, and the world, may truly live. Amen?

And so, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, for those who are baptized, I invite you to join me in reaffirming your baptism. For those who are not baptized, I invite you to reflect on these words and see whether God might be inviting you into baptism. Let us use the words of the baptismal liturgy…

Cardboard Epiphanies: Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

When I was in elementary school I collected baseball cards. I’d use a little of my allowance to buy a pack, and I’d throw away the horrible, hard gum and then I’d carefully organize the cards, first by team, and then alphabetically by player before taking any duplicates and trading them with some of the guys in my class. I ran a shrewd baseball card operation.

Later I outgrew them, and the cards ended up boxed in our garage. After college my parents sold the house I’d spent the most time in growing up, and moved to Virginia. And when they got to their new house I never saw the cards there, so I figured they had just been thrown out over the years and I didn’t give it much thought.

But last week, as you know, I went down to visit my parents in Virginia. They’re getting ready to sell the “new” house that they’ve lived in for over 15 years now, and move into a newer house my oldest sister is building. And my dad said “hey, we found these boxes…you need to look through them when you come down, because what you don’t want we’ll donate.”

And there, at the back of a closet, unopened for decades, was my box of baseball cards.

Growing up my dad had told me stories of the baseball card collection he had lost. When he had deployed overseas his family had unknowingly thrown away everything from Babe Ruths to Ted Williams. He’d always wondered what those would been worth. And so, pulling the big box of cards out of the closet, I figured I’d hit the jackpot.

So, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Gospel text for today. This is a familiar story. Three wise men, or kings, or magi, followed a star until it brought them to Jesus. The Bible really doesn’t tell us much about them other than that they were in some way wise and powerful, and that they came to Herod, the king of the region, to ask about the new king.

19499296-largeAs you can imagine, Herod was not excited to hear this. He was the king, after all. He didn’t want any kind of challenge to his authority. And so he came up with a plan to find out more, so that he could destroy this king. He told the magi, “Go find him, and then come back and tell me how to find him. That way I can go worship him myself.”

Sure, say the wise men. And they kept following the star until they found Jesus and Mary. And they knelt down and gave him the gifts they had brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know this part of the story well. We sing the verses of “We Three Kings” and we remember those gifts.

But that’s not the best part of the story. To me the best part is this: remember how Herod wanted them to come back and tell him everything? An angel warns them what Herod is really up to, and so in order to protect Jesus, and themselves, they end up going home “by another way”.

I’ve always loved how Herod gets out-smarted. He thought destroying this new king would be pretty simple. Just send someone else out to do the hard work, have them report back to you, and then take advantage of their trust in order to destroy the threat.

But the wise men don’t play Herod’s game. Having met Jesus, having figured out that there was something special about this child, they listen to the angel, they see the signs, and they change their game plan.

I’ve often thought about the wise men’s journey to see Jesus. I’ve thought about how treacherous that must have been. First, the three had to find one another. Then, they had to follow this star to a place they knew nothing about, in order to meet this newborn king that looked nothing like a king. They surely got lost at times. Certainly they grew tired. They were far from home, and navigating by faith.

But as much as I’ve thought about the journey there, I’ve never thought much about the journey back.

I’ll bet that as the wise men were getting close to Jesus they felt a sense of relief. “Okay, we’ve made it…now we will go and pay homage, and then we’ll just go back to Herod’s place, hang a left, trek across the desert, retrace our steps and go home.”

But when the angel told them what was happening, all their plans had to change. They couldn’t go home the way they knew. They had to find a new way.

In the church year, Christmas lasts for 12 days. Twelfth Night is on January 5th. But on January 6th, or the Sunday closest to it, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. This is our commemoration of the day that the Wise Men finally made it to Jesus.

The word Epiphany literally means “manifestation” or “appearance”, and in this context it means Jesus Christ, God in human form, appearing to humanity, as represented by the three wise men.

When you and I talk about “having an epiphany”, though, we might think of it more in terms of having a sudden and brilliant understanding of something. A breakthrough moment, so to speak. “I finally understood how to do calculus” or “now I know what I’m supposed to do with my life”.

Those two meanings of “epiphany” sound so different. But, when you think about it, they’re really not. Because whether you are seeing God’s love with us for the first time, or you are finally getting something, the reality is this: you understand something amazing in a new way, and you are changed by it.

You will never be the same again, and you will never again go home exactly the same way as you always have before. You have been changed, and your world has been changed. And suddenly going back to the things demanding your attention, the Herod’s of the world with their tricks and their traps, hold no power over you anymore, and you know that you can’t go back.

Down in Virginia my dad and I opened up that big box of baseball cards. We pulled out the cards that looked the most promising: the Mark McGwire rookie cards. The Cal Ripkens and Wade Boggs. The Nolan Ryan all star cards.

And then came the moment of truth. I typed the cards’ information into Google, and waited on the results, expecting to have struck gold. Or, at least a little extra cash.

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Not worth what you might think. 

But here’s what I found. I would say that late 1980’s baseball cards, even the most coveted ones, are a dime a dozen. But, honestly, that would be cheating the dime. In fact, you could buy an entire year’s mint-edition, complete set of hundreds of cards online for about $30.

And so Dad and I laughed about that box, stored untouched for about three decades. The one that had survived multiple moves, and taken up closet space. My nine year old self, who painstakingly organized team after team, would have been so disappointed. My investment had been worthless.

Except it wasn’t.

If I could go back in time and talk to myself on the day I boxed up those cards for the last time, I think I’d say this: “These cards…they’re not going to be worth much someday. But, pack up that box anyway. Because years from now, on a winter’s day when Dad is 84, and when you are visiting from far away, you are going to open it. And you are going to sit with one another, and talk, and laugh. And it’s going to be worth it. That’s the epiphany that you will have years from today.”

Sometimes the blessings we expect are different than the blessings we get. Sometimes what we get is even better.

By the next time I see my parents, they’ll be living somewhere else. I’ll literally need to go home by another way. But, it will still be home.

The story of the Epiphany teaches me that God’s path for us is always changing. Where we end up isn’t where we always expected. What we end up with isn’t either. But if we pay attention to the signs on the journey, and we are open to where the road leads, we might just find something that is greater than we could have imagined. Amen?

Joy as Resistance: December 11, 2016

Every year about this time, I start to panic. I’d imagine that a lot of clergy would tell you the same thing. We are trying to finalize Christmas eve services, and get all the moving pieces to line up so that everything goes off without a hitch.

But that’s not what stresses me out about this time of year. What really gets me is Christmas shopping. I get so anxious about buying the right Christmas presents for my family. And shopping for a spouse is the hardest part. Every year Heidi tells me, “I have everything I want…I have you.”

And that is so beautiful and wonderful…and totally exasperating. I’m not going to show up on Christmas morning with nothing, and so I turn into this Christmas detective asking her friends what she really wants.

This year, though, she told me exactly what she wanted (and she told me I could share this story with you this morning). And Heidi is normally so serious and studious, so it surprised me when she told me she wanted this new Nintendo Classic video game console that plays all these old games people from our generation know.

“Great!” I thought. “I’m sure that every big box store around has it on sale, and I can go get one now and wrap it up for Christmas.”

Only, there’s a problem. You can’t find this thing. Apparently Heidi’s dream Christmas gift is the dream gift of the whole country. Stores get it in stock and it sells out in minutes. People are camping out. I’m searching every website I can think of, and the closest I have come to finding it is on a site that will sell you one for six times the retail price.

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Seriously, if you find this thing, let me know.

I’m missing the “I have all I want…I have you” years.

It’s fun to laugh about this, but we also need to acknowledge that this time of year the pressure to make Christmas perfect is sometimes overwhelming. Because as much as I stress over them, the presents aren’t what it’s all about. And on this third Sunday of Advent, when we are so close to the big night, we read a story about what matters. We read about Jesus’s mother, and the surprise of her life.

An angel comes to Mary and tells her that she is pregnant in the most unconventional of ways. Immediately Mary gets up and goes to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. And Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, and when Mary enters the house the baby leaps up in her womb and Elizabeth knows immediately that something amazing has happened to Mary.

And Mary turns to her and says the words that we now know as the Magnificat: “My souls magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

There would be a lot of understandable reactions to this news that you are pregnant, delivered by an angel no less. Anger, disbelief, denial, fear. No one could possible blame Mary for those feelings. And, Mary may very well have been feeling all of those things, but in the Magnificat we learn that somewhere in all of those feelings she was also feeling something else: joy. “My spirit rejoices in God”

This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally the one when we focus on joy. And, oddly, we talk about joy by telling the story of a teenage mother in crisis. She was young, she was poor, she was pregnant with a baby that was not her fiance’s. And she must have been absolutely terrified. Her world would never be the same.

And yet, somewhere in there, there was joy. There was hope. There was the promise that as hard as it was, this was a good thing.

This has been, for many of us and for many of our neighbors, a difficult year. It may well be that you are ending the year feeling down, or scared, or frustrated. You may be worried about our world, and our future. That is completely understandable.

And that’s why this year, more than most, joy is so important. To find or cultivate joy in the midst of all that is going on is an act of resistance. It’s like Mary standing there terrified and uncertain, telling her cousin this crazy and confusing news, and still being able to say “rejoice”.

Mary’s joy gives me hope. But it also reminds me that joy is different than happiness. Because what Mary was feeling might have been joyful, but I don’t know that I would say she was happy.

And here’s why that matters for us. This time of year happiness is for sale everywhere. Turn on the TV, listen to the radio, walk into a store. Every advertisement, every display, is meant to tap into your hopes and promise you happiness.

And here’s the thing: as much as people say you can’t buy happiness, the truth is that you can. You can buy happiness pretty easily, really. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck, or a nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily, at least for a little while. And then you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy…that’s what you cannot buy. It’s not for sale in any store, and you won’t find it by getting every little detail of your Christmas celebration right. That’s not how joy works.

Now, joy does not always come easily to some of us. We prefer quiet dignity and reserved praise. On another level, for those of us who are so keenly aware of the inequalities and pain of the world, being asked to be joyful may even be met with suspicion. How can we be joyful when so many suffer?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be joyless in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can put others down. You can dwell in hopelessness. You can even lob out negative comments on the internet from the comfort of your own home. The best part is that if you lack joy, you don’t even have to do anything constructive. You can just dwell in it.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy?

I don’t think so. Because I think joy is something deeper than that. But that also means that it’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down. It has been said by many, in many different ways, that joy is resistance. That is especially true in the worst of days.

I started out telling you about my Christmas present crisis. But here’s the thing: even if I can’t find this thing, I know that Heidi will be just fine. Why? Because I know she is rooted in something that is much deeper than a need for the right gift on Christmas morning. (I’m still taking all tips on where to find it by the way.)

In all seriousness, we know this. We knew it even as children watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. You remember: “Every who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Who-ville did not.” The Grinch hates the celebrations, hates the singing, hates the presents, and hates the whole thing. So he devises a plan to slip down into the town in the night, bag up all the trappings of Christmas, take all the presents, and ruin Christmas.

And he does. And the next morning he stands on his mountain waiting for the people to wake up, and be devastated.

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-christmas-movies-17364435-1067-800But instead, he hears singing. It turns out the Whos woke up and it didn’t matter to them that they didn’t have trees or presents or decorations. And it turns out that no matter what he tried to take away from them, Christmas came anyway. And it stuns him. And he says to himself, “Maybe Christmas, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

The Grinches of the world don’t know what real joy is. And so when they try to take it away from you, they will go only for the things that bring you happiness. And that is not right. But it’s also not the end of the story.

Because joy is indeed resistance. And because joy is how we keep singing in the midst of the pain and fear of the world. I’m fully convinced that nothing strikes fear in the hearts of those who would oppress others more than joy. We do not excuse it. We do not allow it to go unchecked. But we do proclaim that it will not win. Instead we set our hearts up on the front lines, fortified with joy, and we promise to work with Mary’s child to bring light to all the places that need it the most.

But in order to get to that place, we have to get ready. And so, here is my call to you: this Advent, do not settle for happiness. You are worth more than that. Instead, gather the ones you love, and find joy together. Live in the world and look for the moments where joy is breaking through. Open your heart, and let the joy of Christ’s birth really fill it for the first time.

Resist what can never love you back, and rejoice in the One who can. I guarantee that if you do this, no matter what else happens, you will have a truly Merry Christmas. Amen?

Christmas Movies and Advent Stories: December 4, 2016

I’ve said before that I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. There are certain shows and movies that I just have to see each year for it to really feel like Christmas.

movie-mcc-promo03-crachitsThis week I watched A Christmas Carol. The Muppet’s version. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. And I realized that the main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

But then, we have this other seasonal character. John the Baptist. He’s not exactly camera-ready, and he wouldn’t animate well into a cuddly character. John lived out in the wilderness dressed in camelhair and eating locusts and honey. This would be a horrible Christmas special. But this time of year, right before Christmas, we read about how he preached to everyone who would listen and he told them “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”.

In other words, he told the people “get ready”. Get ready because someone else is coming, and he is about to change everything. Get ready because your world is about to change.

We read this story every year in Advent, and John may as well have been talking to us. Because Advent is all about getting ready. It’s about transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and opening it up to new ways of being.

In Advent we prepare ourselves by focusing on four themes as symbolized by the Advent wreath: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we lit the candle of hope. And today we light the candle of peace.

Christians follow the one who was called the Prince of Peace, and Advent is all about waiting for his birth, and preparing ourselves for what he is about to ask us to do. Things like working for peace. Ending violence and suffering. And standing up against hatred and injustice.

This should be the most peaceful time of the year. But have you ever noticed that sometimes people people preparing for Christmas seem anything but peaceful? Our stress levels go up. We argue. We get frustrated in the stores when we can’t find what we need. Some people even go on TV and yell about the color of Starbucks holiday cups and how no one cares about Christmas anymore.

When you think about it, if you are yelling angrily about Christmas, you are probably missing the point. But unfortunately that happens far too often.

black-santa

Santa Claus (aka, Larry Jefferson). Copyright, CBS News.

I was reading this week about how the Mall of America in Minnesota hired its first African-American Santa Claus. This man is a convincing Santa. And, like every other Santa, he does a great job listening to kids share their wishes for the season. My guess is that none of the kids he holds in his lap care all that much about what color Santa is, so long as they get to tell them what they want.

But the adults…they are another story. Adults angrily called the mall and took to social media to denounce the fact this Santa was black. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to take down the comments section online because of the horrifically racist and nasty comments they were getting.

It seems a lot of people are on the naughty list this year.

But more importantly, can you imagine what Jesus would say about this? This is his grand birthday celebration, after all, and I’m sure more than a few of those comments came from church-going people who would call themselves good Christians.

The reality is that Christians are supposed to do a better job. We aren’t supposed to be spreading anger and hate. We’re supposed to transform the world.

But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t create peace in the world, until you create peace in yourself.

Oddly, those Christmas movies helped me to realize that because when you think about it, as much as those are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and only then is his heart transformed. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it.

Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the peace filling you.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts anyway. We are called to open them up to grace and to love and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. We are called to be messengers of peace, not only in our words, but in our actions.

georgebailey1This week as we go back out into the world, we can go with our hearts holding that promise. We can go as witnesses to the peace that Christ offers us. And we can go as Christ’s transformed people, and Christ’s Advent people.

These are the stories we love to hear, and they are the stories the world needs to hear. The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…they were once Advent people too…looking for peace…waiting for a transforming love. And they found it. And so are you, and your story is just about to get good. Amen?

Preparing the Armor of Light: November 27, 2016

A year ago right about this time I had breakfast with a friend of mine who grew up Jewish. We were talking about the coming holidays and she asked me about Advent. “You know,” she said, “I always thought Advent started on December 1st, but I’m hearing now that it actually starts in November.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It starts four Sundays before Christmas, so that means it usually starts the last week of November.”

“So here’s my question,” she replied. “If Advent starts in November, why does my chocolate Advent calendar always start on December 1st? I only get 24 pieces of chocolate.”

After I informed her that she was being cheated she nodded sagely and said “Aha! I knew it.”

I’m not sure what happened after that, but I think she may have gone back to the store to file a complaint.

It’s true that Advent usually starts in November, and today is in fact the first Sunday of Advent. So, if you have one of those December 1st-starting chocolate Advent calendars, it is liturgically appropriate, perhaps even necessary, for you to go out today and get some additional chocolate.

But today is more than just the start of Advent in the church. That’s because on the first Sunday of Advent each year, something big happens. Today we begin a whole new church year. This is, in fact, the church’s new year’s day.

For those who were thinking it was January 1st, let me explain, because there’s a good reason for this. The church year is the cycle we follow that tells the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and reign. And if we waited to start a new year on January 1st we would miss this important early stuff. We’d miss Mary learning she was having this baby. We’d miss Bethlehem and the manger. We’d miss Jesus’ birth itself.

And we’d miss Advent, which is our preparation for everything that is about to happen. And Advent matters. Not just for chocolate calendars, but for something much sweeter than that.

This morning we read a text from the letter to the Romans written by Paul. He tells the Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul is issuing a wake-up call to the Romans. He’s telling them that something big is coming and that it’s time to get ready. He tells them to put on armor. But he’s not talking about literal armor here. There’s no metal and no shield.

Paul talks about “armor of light.” I like that image. I like the idea of clothing ourselves not in the garments of isolation and impenetrability but in something that illuminates. I like the idea of shining in a world where so much is shrouded in darkness.

1006084_237267106479277_264921106_nAnd this is where Paul’s wake-up call comes in, because before we can get dressed in our armor of light, we first have to wake up. We have to look around and see what is happening. And if ever there were a time for God’s people to wake up, this is one of them.

I have been despairing of the state of the world this fall. I know many of you have been too. The mean-spiritedness, the fear-mongering, the scapegoating, the anger and violence. There are times that I wish Mr. Rogers were still alive and that he’d get on TV and remind us all how to act. But even if he did, I fear that he’d be mocked and belittled too.

There are days that I wake up and I feel like I’m living in a world that I never knew I lived in, and like I’m seeing it for the first time.

But the reality is that I, like you, have always lived here. And while I think I’m far from naive, the privilege I carry in so many ways means I’ve been insulated from so much of the pain and the darkness.

And so, like Paul says, it’s time for me to wake up. And it’s time for me to be one of the people who puts on the armor of light and by my very being proclaims a better way in the darkness.

And Advent is about a better way. This first Sunday of Advent, in particular, is about hope. And we’re not talking about cheap hope here. This isn’t the kind of hope that comes from anything you can buy on Black Friday, or some promise from a politician, no matter how great it might sound.

This is about real hope, the kind that comes dressed not in the newest styles or the trappings of some political campaign, but wrapped in the clothes of a newborn baby and placed in an old manger. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, because this is ridiculous hope, the kind that defies every expectation and brings with it demands that will change everything.

Including you, and including me.

That’s important to note because Advent isn’t just about waiting for Christmas. It’s not like being in a long line at the checkout counter, trying to distract ourselves until we reach the counter. This isn’t a passive season. Rather, Advent demands our participation. It demands we wake up, and we prepare for what is about to happen. It demands nothing less from us than a willingness to wear the armor of light.

And as beautiful as that armor might be, know that sometimes it is very hard to wear. There is so much in this world that would try to snuff out that light, to extinguish it. You will be told that it is pointless to wear, that there is no hope, that the darkness has triumphed too fully for your light to shine.

Don’t believe that. Wear that light anyway.

There’s a story about a lumberjack who was once asked how he would chop down a tree if he only had five minutes to do so. He replied, “I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

That’s good advice. Preparation matters. Being ready matters. Being sharpened so that we can be effective matters

On Christmas we proclaim the birth of a child who would change everything. And, we commit to being Christmas people, people who would spread the light and the joy of that child to the world.

Christmas is the time when Christ is born anew in all of our hearts, and when his light shines through us. Advent is the time when we prepare for that light.

To put it another way, Christmas is when we join with the newborn savior to start chopping down the overgrowth of hatred, violence, mean-spiritedness, oppression, and false hope. But Advent is when we sharpen our axes.

And so, how will you sharpen yourself this Advent? How will you prepare to wear this armor of light in a world that needs your light?

That is your challenge this week. As a new season, a new year, begins, what is your Advent resolution? How will you prepare yourself for Christ’s birth and for the coming of the light that you will be asked to wear in this world?

How will you wake up, sharp and bright, and be a person of hope?

Whatever you choose, know that Christmas is coming. And so, keep awake, and get ready. It’s a new year, and it’s the perfect time to start something amazing. Amen?

When All is Not Well Where You Live: Sermon for October 2, 2016

The following is the first in a three part sermon series on Faithful Citizenship.

Lamentations 1:1-6
1:1 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

1:2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

1:3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

1:4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.

1:5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

1:6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

I grew up in a rather patriotic family. Most of my family members had either served longterm in the military or government, or married someone who did. And so my parents flew an American flag for all the federal holidays, they taught us about the patriotic symbols of this country, and when we were old enough they took us to Washington, where my dad grew up, to see Congress, the Museum of American History, and all the monuments.

The idea of America was important to my parents. And they always taught that if you did nothing to make it better, you weren’t allowed to complain. And they were especially adamant about voting. The way they saw it, if you didn’t vote, you shouldn’t be allowed to say a word about anything political issue whatsoever.

I’ve been thinking about their example this fall because, as you cannot have helped noticing, we are in the midst of election season. And this year it is particularly nasty. There’s always a sense of vitriol that comes out in particular election years, but in this one in particular there is an exceptional bitterness.

It’s in this atmosphere that today we start a new sermon series on what it means to be a faithful citizen. And I want to assure you upfront that this is not about how you should vote. It is never the place of churches to endorse candidates or parties, and I’m not about to start now. But when I asked about sermon series for this fall, this was the one that generated the most interest, and I don’t think that’s so surprising given what’s happening around us.

And so, over the next three weeks I want to talk about what it means for a Christian to be a good citizen. This week I’m going to be talking about living in a divided country. Next week I’m going to talk about how to make it better. And the last week I’ll talk about what it means to give your ultimate allegiance not to the state, but to God.

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Today we begin by reading this text from the book of Lamentations. As the name implies, this is a book of laments, full of sad poems. What happened was that Jerusalem, the promised land, the place where everything was supposed to be great, had been devastated. The city had been ransacked by King Nebuchadnezzar, the Temple, the holiest place in town, had been destroyed, and most of the people had been taken from the city to Babylon to live in exile.

The writer says that the city is like a lonely widow who “weeps bitterly in the night” and “has no one to comfort her”.

And as I was reading the text this week, I thought about how this was written about Jerusalem, but how for many in our country today, the word “exile” might just describe how they feel about things. Because all is not well in our country. There is pain and anger and hopelessness on every side. And it doesn’t matter how you phrase that disillusionment, at the bottom line all of it means that you believe this country is in some way broken.

And if you believe we are broken, then you also believe that we are somehow in exile. This may not be a literal exile, the way that the people of Jerusalem were physically taken from their land and moved to another one. But this can be exile nonetheless. Because when you believe that your country should be one thing, but it is another, then you are talking about an exile from the place where you are meant to live.

The only thing is, unlike Jerusalem, that perfect place has never existed. At least not yet. Or, at least not for all of us.

I believe America is a good country. But I know that it is an imperfect one too, and one in which justice and equality are still evolving. I knew that four years ago when I was just married and I was completing my taxes for the year. I remember looking at my wedding ring, but then having to check “single” on my federal income tax return because my marriage was not yet recognized by the government. I remember feeling confused by this country that my family had taught me to love, the same one whose flag was sewn onto the sleeve of my firefighter’s uniform. It didn’t feel right. It felt like exile.

But that’s minor compared to other exiles. When I was in Atlanta last week I went to two national historic sites. One was the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, and the other the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site. And in the first place I thought about this country that had been torn in half, and the two sides who were then literally killing one another. And in the second place I thought about how over 100 years later, that war was in real ways still being fought. And how it’s still being fought today.

I thought about how I can love my Jerusalem, because I’ve made it to the city. But there are others who never made it in their lifetimes.

And then I thought about lament. That is what this text is about, after all. It’s about speaking words of sadness and pain. It’s about telling the truth about division and disunity. It’s about being honest, and saying that the Jerusalem you know is broken.

That’s not unpatriotic. That’s faithful. That’s faithful to the fact that the Jerusalem you know is not the city it could be yet. And that’s faithful to God’s will that all of God’s children would find a home and a welcome in that city.

But before that happens, we have to tell the truth.

In a real way, that’s the job of Christians as citizens. We have to look around, see what is broken and who is excluded, and tell the truth about it. We have to learn to use our voices, and yes our votes, to advocate for the healing of a place that is in exile from its best ideas. And we have to use our prayers, and our hearts and hands, in order to do the work of building and rebuilding our own Jerusalem.

The first role of the Christian is to tell the truth about what is broken in order to know how to fix it. And the second is to be invested in our neighborhoods, and country, and world enough that we can join in that work. Not every four years, but every year, and every day. There is no such thing as a Christian who lives in exile from their community. A Christian must be planted in the place where they live, and must work for the good of all of their neighbors, everywhere. That’s Christ’s clear commission to us when he tells us to love our neighbors. We’ll be talking a little more about that next week.

But as I wrap up, I want to return to that story about my parents from the beginning, and how they talked about being good citizens. From the way I described them, you might think that they shared a lot of political opinions, too. But the reality is that if you ever saw their ballots, you’d find that they generally aren’t voting the same way. But somehow, for 56 years now, they’ve made it work.

In a time when this Jerusalem where we live is so divided, it’s small examples like that that give me hope. We don’t all have to agree in order to want better for our country.

We began worship this morning by reading the words of the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. This country, this Jerusalem, was never more exiled from itself than in the days of the Civil War. This very church is said by some to have been the site of the first meeting of the Republican Party, which was first organized to work for the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, down South families like mine sent sons off to war dressed in gray.

150 years later, in this sanctuary sit people with Rs on their voter registration cards, and people with Ds. And plenty of Is too. There are descendants of Union soldiers here, and descendants of Confederates. And together we see clearly the evil of slavery for what it was. That would be pretty remarkable to the people who sat in these pews 150 years ago.

But at the time, it was that small group who gathered here as people of faith, and decided the time had come to push the issue of abolition, that saw clearly when others couldn’t. It should never be lost on us that they were acting in the public arena because their faith compelled them to not be silent. And thank God they were not.

150 years from now, when the people sitting in the pews look back, will they remember this time in our history, and will they ask “What did the people in these pews back then do?” For the sake of our memories, but more importantly, for the sake of our own Jerusalem, I pray that God compels us all to do the right thing. Amen?