Being disciples, staying with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

We are in the season after the Epiphany. It varies in length depending on when the date of Easter, (and hence Ash Wednesday) falls. This year is relatively lengthy as Easter falls on April 16. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and roughly means manifestation, revealing, or showing. Usually it is connected with an appearance or manifestation, presence if you will, of the divine. In the Christian context, the feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the magi coming to worship the newborn Christ at Bethlehem, although in ancient and Eastern Christianity, the Epiphany also connects with Jesus’ baptism, which is in part why we commemorated his baptism last Sunday, and with other miracles, like the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and as the gospel of John says, “revealed his glory.”

This season is a time when we celebrate and reflect all of the ways God is present in the world, in the glory and goodness of creation, but especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And although this is the year in the lectionary cycle when we read the Gospel of Matthew, on this Sunday, as in every year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we read from the Gospel of John. That makes sense in a way, because the themes of John connect very well with the themes of Epiphany, and nowhere is that more true than in this first chapter—the first 18 verses of which we heard on Christmas Day.

In today’s reading, we get John’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the story of the call of the first disciples. Coincidentally, this past week I was reading two books that I purchased as possible subjects for Lenten study this year. Both of them began with a discussion of this encounter between Jesus, Andrew, and the other disciple as a way of getting at the meaning of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

You may recall the story of Jesus calling the first disciples from the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee. He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John repairing the nets on their fathers’ fishing boats. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The four get up, leave the nets, the boats, and their fathers behind, and follow Jesus.

There’s a completely different dynamic here in John’s gospel. In the first place, Andrew and the other disciple (We never learn his name, by the way) are already disciples, but of John the Baptist. John and his followers come across Jesus in their wanderings, and John points Jesus out to them, saying, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world!” The next day, the same thing happens, and two of his disciples, follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they respond oddly, by asking “Where are you staying?” To that question, Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

“Where are you staying?” What kind of question is that? What might the disciples learn about Jesus by staying with him for the day? To understand what’s going on we need to put this question, and the event itself, in the context of John’s gospel. Staying… to use the traditional language of the Authorized Version, to abide… is one of those themes that is repeated throughout the gospel. In fact, we heard the theme sounded already in John’s testimony about Jesus. When he reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, he says that “it remained on him.” In today’s gospel the words is used at least four times in quick succession. Much later in the gospel, in the lengthy farewell discourse that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

These two questions, “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you staying?” get at the heart of what the Gospel of John understands by discipleship and the nature of faith. More than that, these two questions, and the understanding of discipleship they open up, invite us to a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our present day.

Discipleship is a word we use a great deal in the church but is easily misunderstood or distorted. Indeed, to the extent that it is a grounding metaphor for the Christian life, it can be as misleading as it is helpful. For one thing, we often think that faith, our Christian life, is primarily concerned with knowing a certain set of ideas, or holding a certain set of beliefs. But note that Jesus did not ask Andrew and the other disciple, “What do you know or want to know?”, or “What do you believe? He asked them, “What are you looking for?” Or perhaps, “What do you want?”

Posed in those terms, Jesus’ question gets at the very core of our being, our deepest desires and hopes, who we are and what we want to be. It’s a question of identity

And the question Andrew poses to Jesus in response, while seemingly unrelated to Jesus’ question, is very much of the same nature. “Where are you staying?”

Andrew’s question is an expression not of a desire to receive a set of instructions, or learn a set of doctrines. Andrew wants to be with Jesus. He wants to stay with Jesus so that he can experience the relationship that Jesus offers him. By abiding with Jesus, by staying with Jesus, Andrew will begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus talks about throughout the gospel.

Thus for John, discipleship is about relationship, not right doctrine or the transmission of a body of knowledge. Discipleship is about being in community with Jesus, and with others who seek to follow Jesus. And there can be nothing more important than that, being in community in these uncertain and frightening times.

We have been experiencing a great number of shocks to our worldview over the last months. Many of us are confronting the fact that we are living in a very different nation than the one we thought we were living in. Institutions that used to function and create stability seem to be out of whack—like the news media. Old alliances are collapsing and being reshaped. We are afraid of what might happen to our healthcare and our planet. Many of us wonder whether we will lose basic rights that we hold dear or for which we or our parents or grandparents struggled mightily. Christianity itself seems to be on the brink of collapse in the US, and with so many conservative Christian leaders preaching a message of hate, we may not even want to be called Christian anymore.

In all of this disruption and disorientation, negotiating a path forward is perilous. We’re not quite sure what to do, how to act, how to be in the world. Here’s where this gospel reading offers a model. Relationship—abiding with Jesus. In the first place, we are called to open our hearts and our lives to deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and through that relationship begin to experience and to live in the presence of God’s love for us. To open our hearts to Christ’s love is to begin to know the love of the God who became one of us and loved us and the world so much that he gave his life for the world.

And as we open ourselves to Christ’s love, experience Christ’s love, abide in Christ’s love, we also will begin to open ourselves to those around us, to others who experience that love of Christ and abide in that love.

All of this is quite abstract and you may think it has little to do with our daily lives. But I wonder. In the midst of all that we have to do, do we take time to be with Jesus? Do we take time to be fully present to our loved ones? Do we really know our fellow members of the Body of Christ in this place? What might it be like for us to nurture deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ in the coming months? What might it be like for us to take the time to get to know one another better, to listen to each others’ stories, to their hopes and fears? By nurturing those relationships, with Christ and with each other, not only would we be strengthened for the journey but the world around would catch a glimpse of the possibilities of new life in Christ’s love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beloved children of God: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2017

 

There’s a story behind my name—a story tied up with my family and roots, and it’s a story and a name with which I’ve always struggled. It’s not just that my surname is both awkward and uncommon—should it be pronounced Greezer or Greizer—or, heaven forbid, Greaser. BTW, I had a German prof in college who took great delight in addressing me as Herr Greaser…

It’s a German name, so it’s Grieser, of course. And while it may be rare in Wisconsin or worldwide, my hometown was full of Griesers. My grandfather, great-grandfather, and great great grandfather all had lots of sons who had lots of sons, and most of them stayed in the area. At least back home, they know how to pronounce it.

But there’s also the matter of my first and middle names. My parents wanted to call me Jon, but they wanted my initials to match the initials of my deceased grandfather—so DJ—but in my case the D stood for Dale—my father’s first name. So growing up, I was Jon, even though at least two other Jon Griesers in my elementary school, which led to infinite confusion. For example, I once wore a pair of prescription glasses for a week that was meant for one of the other Jons.

That particular confusion came to an end when my fifth-grade teacher, calling the roll on the first day of class, saw my first initial and promptly named me DJ. The name stuck and by DJ I was known until I graduated from college. That brought its own set of confusions and challenges—the inevitable question—are you a DJ?

So I’ve struggled with my first name and when I’m dealing with doctors or business or what have you, if I identify myself as Jonathan, they won’t be able to find my record. And then there’s the whole issue of my surname which is uncommon, unattractive, and confusing to pronounce.

Names are funny things, and we’ve just learned this week that our nation’s political polarization extends to preferences for naming babies. Apparently there are different lists of the most popular name in blue states and red states. Perhaps like me you’ve struggled with the name your parents chose for you, or you struggle with the surname that you carry with you.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is puzzling and problematic on several levels. In the first place, while the synoptic gospels all tell some version of the story, there are significant differences. Remember that the gospel of Mark was probably the first of the gospels to be written, and that Matthew, which we are reading in this year of the lectionary, draws heavily on Mark as a source. But Matthew changes Mark in some important ways. Only in Matthew, for example, do we have the dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus, in which John protests saying that Jesus should baptize him.

More significant is another slight change. In Mark, after the baptism, the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In Matthew, the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In other words, in Mark, the voice seems to be speaking directly to Jesus, naming him as God’s Son; in Matthew, the voice speaks to John, and or to the crowd, identifying for them who Jesus is.

In these different accounts of Jesus’ baptism, we can see early Christians struggling to make sense of this event. It’s a problem for them for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the obvious one. The gospels tell us that John baptized people for forgiveness of sins—baptism was a symbol of repentance and amendment of life. But if that was the case, why would Jesus, who presumably being divine was without sin, need to be baptized?

The second problem is perhaps less obvious but equally troubling among the first followers of Jesus. That he was baptized by Jesus implies that John somehow had as much, or more, authority than Jesus. We know from other stories in the gospels, and from the book of Acts, that there was something of a competition between followers of Jesus and followers of John, and it didn’t strengthen the position of early Christians in this controversy that John baptized Jesus. We can also see that as time goes on, there’s an attempt to erase the act of Jesus’ baptism. Thus, in the gospel of John, while we read about John the Baptist and learn of encounters and conversations between Jesus and John, if you look carefully, you will note that no where is it stated explicitly that John baptized Jesus.

All of that is of historical interest, but the story of Jesus’ baptism is not important only for the problems it presents to the gospel writers and perhaps to us; it is also important for the meaning the gospel writers attach to it. Although the voice from heaven says slightly different things in Matthew and Mark and may seem to be addressing different audiences, the message in both instances is quite clear, that Jesus is God’s Beloved Son.

To state the obvious, Jesus’ baptism is about his identity, making clear who he is. It’s not coincidental that in both Matthew and Mark, the very next event recounted is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which was about Satan testing Jesus’ identity.

This is where Jesus’ baptism connects with our own baptisms. In our baptisms, we become children of God. As I remind you regularly, when I make the sign of the cross with the oil of chrism on the forehead of the baptized, I say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

In baptism, we become sons and daughters of God. In baptism, we claim our identity as Christians. That identity, that belonging to God, cannot be taken away by anyone or anything. I’m not even sure we are able to renounce that identity, even if we want to. Our identity as Christians, as beloved of God, is a reminder of who we are, a reminder of our value and worth, in the eyes of God and of the world.

It’s a message we need to hear regularly, in a world in which there are so many other claims on our identity, challenges to our identity. We need to be reminded that we are God’s, that we are beloved of God, especially now, when there are many who would deny the value and worth of so many of us—that because we are not white, or male, or heterosexual, that because we were not born in this country, our lives matter less, our hopes and dreams are worthless. We are all beloved of God.

But don’t take it only from me. Right now, I would like you to turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself if you don’t know each other’s names, take your thumb and make the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads, and as you make that sign, say, “You are God’s beloved child.”

That, my friends, is the meaning of baptism. Let us claim it, and let us claim our shared identities as God’s beloved children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#Worstyearever: A Sermon for Holy Name, January 1, 2017

 

Today is an odd day in our liturgical calendar. It is New Year’s Day, and most Americans are slowly waking up, arousing themselves from a late night welcoming in the New Year. They might be settling in to watch the Rose Parade, or making final preparations for the final games of the NFL regular season that is about to get underway, rooting for their team to make it into the playoffs.

In our liturgical calendar, January 1 is known as the Most Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, or the commemoration of the circumcision. Although we don’t usually have a Eucharist on this day, it is traditionally an important feast, commemorating the gospel story we just read, Jesus’ circumcision on the 8th day after his birth. In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that today is the 8th day of Christmas, our minds are not really focused on the continuing celebration of Christ’s birth, we’re thinking about a lot of other things and to recall this story from Christ’s infancy seems little more than a distraction.

 

Today ushers in a new year and many of us are glad to see the end of 2016. In fact, there’s a hashtag on twitter #worstyearever that has chronicled the various calamities and tragedies we experienced in 2016. We’ve seen the passing of a number of cultural icons—in popular music: Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael. Just this last week, the deaths of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. The terrorist attacks of 2016 which were so shocking as they occurred but have been forgotten as new attacks and new horrors grab our attention. And we forget that for all of the suffering and shock of attacks like Brussels and Orlando, Kabul, Bagdad, Mogadishu, even Istanbul have suffered such attacks on a regular basis.

For those of us who are struggling to make sense of political events here in the USA or in Great Britain, worry about the future of the planet, our nation, and civic community, 2016 was more than a shock—it has upended our sense of who we are as a nation and a people. The old story of progress, that we are moving toward greater inclusion, diversity, openness and tolerance, has given way to a new story. We may be only in the first chapter of that story and we’re not sure how it will turn out. Importantly, we’re also not sure where we fit into this new story. Some of us, many perhaps, wonder whether this new story is one in which we will have a part to play, whether this new story will write us out of the narrative.

While we are happy to say good riddance to 2016 and to the hashtag #Worstyearever, we are full of apprehension about the future.

It may be helpful for us to think again about the importance of our Christian faith in this context, to think again about the God in whom we profess our faith and whom we believe we see most clearly in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. All this may give us direction as we negotiate the uncertainties of the coming years.

It’s natural to be fearful, to lose hope in the present context—whether we are thinking of our individual situations, or the world as a whole. It’s easy to imagine a bleak future, that our lives will not get better, and that the lives of our children or grandchildren will not see the economic prosperity, peace, or security that we have experienced. Indeed, we see signs of such change all around us.

But it’s important to remember that as Christians, we put our hope and faith, not in our own futures, the futures of our descendants, or even our nation. We put our hope and faith in God, a God who rules history in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

As Christians, we put our faith and hope in a God who intervened in history by becoming incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, a God who entered history in weakness and vulnerability, a God who by entering history, changed history.

We have experienced the power of that change in our own lives, in our baptisms, and in the ongoing transformation of our natures in the newness of life brought about by relationship with Jesus Christ. We know that newness of life but we also know the fragility and tentativeness of that change.

We experience in our own bodies and in our own lives the tension between what St. Paul calls the “already” and the “not yet.” We know salvation, but we also know sin. We experience redemption and forgiveness, we struggle with our ongoing sin and brokenness.

As it is in our own lives, so too with the world, with history itself. Jesus was born into a world of suffering, evil, and oppression. He suffered the full brutality of that evil and oppression in his crucifixion. But the life he lived, the death he suffered, were vindicated by his resurrection on the third day, and in that act, we experience the fullness of God’s power over death, the grave, and evil.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are key to helping us as we journey through these uncertain and possibly dangerous times. To bear Christ’s name in these days, as we all do by virtue of our baptisms, to bear his name in these days, is to claim allegiance to the one who died for us, died for the world, died because he loved the world. To bear his name is to share in his suffering but also to share in his love. To bear his name is to bear witness to the God who loves the world. To bear his name is to bear witness to the God of history, the God who rules over history. To bear his name is to deny the power of evil and oppression, to challenge it wherever it appears.

To bear his name, to bear the name of Christ, is to put our faith in him and in his love.

We may very well be in a moment of great world-historical significance. We may be in a moment where the church, Christians, are being called to witness and to faithfulness in ways and to an extent few of us have ever witnessed. If that is the case, and it may be that we won’t know it for some time to come, we will need to draw on all of our resources of faith and prayer, and the deep bonds that tie us together as the body of Christ.

We don’t know. We don’t know what the new year holds. Our world, our lives are full of uncertainty. But there are things we do know, things of which we can be certain, on which we can rely. We know that God is here with us, in Jesus Christ, in Word and Sacrament, in the fellowship as we gather. We know that God is the God of history, that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is at work in the world, creating, making things new, bringing justice and peace. We can be certain that in the end, God will reign.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Word became flesh and tented among us: A Sermon for Christmas Day, 2016

 

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”

We live in difficult times. The world is a dangerous, scary place. The future looks bleak. Not only are the problems we face apparently beyond our will and capacity to solve. It’s not just the ongoing wars, a challenging economy; Climate change seems to be occurring at a frightening pace—with reports this week about warm temperatures in the Arctic causing unprecedented ice melting.

It’s not just the immensity of the problems, in recent years truth and reason themselves have come under attack. First it was Stephen Colbert and “truthiness.” Now, we are victims of “fake truth” the manipulation of the media, and a widespread and vicious attack on science.

Some of this latter can be blamed on a certain understanding and worldview within Christianity. It’s been a practice among some Christians for centuries to draw a sharp contrast between faith and reason—to argue that one must believe in spite of evidence to the contrary; that faith in God goes against reason. In recent decades, that view has led to some Christians making contortions in their efforts to explain away the theory of evolution, the fossil record, the big bang, arguing that scientific evidence like fossils were given by God to test our faith, or worse, planted by Satan to deceive us.

In a way all of this has led us to this point; where we’re not quite sure of anything; that every position no matter how supported by scientific evidence, is only a matter of opinion.

These majestic, transcendent verses from the very beginning of the Gospel of John reflect and present us with a very different perspective. John is writing from within a particular worldview that permeated the Hellenistic culture of his time. In the beginning was the Word, in fact, in the beginning was the Logos—more than word, it could be translated as reason. You could understand it as the underlying order of the universe, natural law, if you will.

John is asserting not just that God created the universe, but that this created universe is imbued with divine order and reason; that it makes sense, and also, that by exploring the universe, we can come to know something about the nature of God.

Of course, to translate logos as “word” is to make another important theological point—that at the very beginning of things, the second person of the Trinity was present, involved in creating the universe. Indeed, in Genesis 1, God creates by speaking the universe into existence—God said, “Let there be light.”

This is all well and good, but the reality is that the world we experience only dimly reflects the divine order and creative power that brought it into being and maintains it. Our fallen natures have clouded our reason, and creation itself bears signs of our disobedience of God.

We experience our own sin and fallen-ness, we know our broken-ness and the broken-ness of the world, and we struggle to know and to love God and ourselves. Given that, we’re tempted to experience or understand God as utterly beyond us, beyond our comprehension or understanding, remote, uncaring, unmoved or unmoving.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the heart of this passage, the heart of the gospel, it may very well be the heart of Christianity. The God who is utterly beyond us, incomprehensible, infinite, has become one of us, has dwelt among us. The God who created the world and us, has come to us in human form, becoming human, sharing our lives and our existence.

But more than that, the word we translate as “dwelt” could be translated as tabernacled or tented—it’s a reference back to the experience of the Hebrews in the wilderness when they created a tabernacle to be a symbol of God’s presence among them as they wandered through the desert.

That’s one way we should think about it, that in the Word becoming flesh God tented among us, taking on a frail, temporary body like ours, but also that God journeyed with us, that God journeys with us, that God is with us as we wander through our lives.

It’s a remarkable journey that we make through our lives, it’s a remarkable journey of struggle, change, and love. There’s a remarkable journey in this text, from before time and the universe existed, to the Word becoming flesh and tenting among us.

To ponder that mystery, not just what the words say, but the mystery of the nature of God to which it bears witness—a God beyond our comprehension and imagination, but a God who so cares for us and loves us, that the very Word of God comes to us, becomes one of us, dies for us.

To contemplate that God, the God we see dimly in the beauty of creation; the God we see clearly in the incarnation; the God we see in the words and life of Jesus Christ; the God whose self-giving love embraces the whole world in his outstretched arms.

To contemplate that God, to contemplate that love, and to begin to express and share that love; that is what and who we are called to be by Christmas. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What wondrous love! A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2016

 

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.”

They would claim that he was divine, a son of God, Savior. His reign ushered in a new age, a new beginning, world peace. Heralds of his rule would travel throughout the known world, proclaiming the good news of the peace and justice that he would bring about.

Caesar Augustus, Emperor.

There is another side to the story. Thirst for power, brutal repression; execution and assassination of his competitors and opponents. Underneath the glittering facades of temples, fora, and other public buildings that he constructed throughout his empire, was brutal tyranny.

It was now, during the reign of this emperor, that the events recorded in Luke’s gospel occurred. It was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who symbolizes both the glory and the evil of Rome, another story, a different reign, begins to unfold.

It’s as if Luke wants to present us with the two options as clearly and distinctly as possible—on the one hand, all of the Glory that was Rome, Caesar Augustus in all his splendor and power; on the other hand, Bethlehem, the manger, Jesus Christ, in all his poverty and weakness.

It should be easy for us. Rome is reduced to rubble and ruins while Christianity lives on. But let’s be honest. In fact, it’s not that simple. For fifteen hundred years, Christianity has been intertwined with empire and power. For over 200 years, Christianity has been enmeshed with the American Empire. And maybe, that’s the way we want it.

We want the show, the power. We want the bread and circus, the Hollywood entertainment. We want something, anything to numb us from the brutal reality in which we live.

We see a bit of that brutal reality in this story. A ruler’s whim, to count all of those he ruled, so that he could tax them more efficiently, control them easier, meant that in distant lands, people were forced to move from place to place in obedience to his power and might.

We are all too familiar with such movements by people, forced by events outside of their control. The sheer immensity of the refugee crisis throughout the world as people flee their homes because of bloodshed, and terror, and climate change. Human catastrophe on a scale not seen in generations. Just this week ending a 4-year horrific spectacle as the world looked on, forces backing President Assad of Syria seem to have reconquered Aleppo. The rubble, carnage, and human suffering went unabated while we watched, the international community’s efforts to end it ineffective, half-hearted.

Syria. The word evokes for us the immensity and intractability of the problems we face as a world. Suffering humanity, horrifically efficient technologies of war, unspeakable human evil, helplessness, futile diplomacy. Syria—a word, a region that links current events with the events of 2000 years ago.

The suffering has continued for so long. The endless war that began in 2001 shows no sign of coming to an end; the divisions, hatred, and distrust in the region show know sign of ending. We have grown so accustomed to it that we hardly notice, or care anymore. And we can’t imagine a world at peace.

With such enormous, intractable problems, we grasp for solutions and saviors: More and better weapons, more resolute use of power, political strong men, easy answers. If only someone with the political genius and ruthlessness of Caesar Augustus could save us.

Such desires, such hopes are not only on a geopolitical scale. They are also on a personal, intimate scale. Our private concerns and worries, our fears about our own lives, our families, our futures—we pin our hopes on miraculous, magical deliverance; a superhero who will make all things right, fix our problems.

We even treat religion like that. We believe in a God who will intervene and make things right, delivering a miracle when we need it most, or perhaps coming soon, at the end of time, to rescue us and make everything right.

We want easy answers, miracles, fireworks, and spectacles.

Instead of that, we hear this simple, familiar story from Luke, the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, in a tiny town, on the edges of empire.

Christmas tells a very different story. God came to us, not as a superhero, not as easy answers. God came to us as one of us, in all of our frailness and messiness. God came to us, God came to the world, in the embarrassment of a stable, in the weakness of a newborn baby.

But you know, I don’t think we get that. I don’t think we understand or take to heart what it all really means. Oh, sure, we say the words, we sing the carols, we come to Christmas Eve services, light our candles, say Merry Christmas, but I’m not sure we grasp what it’s all about. Quite frankly, I’m not sure we’re able to grasp what it’s all about.

God came to us became one of us, as a tiny, weak, powerless baby, utterly dependent on others for survival. It was a life that began in poverty, humility, and obscurity. It was a life that ended with an ignominious an excruciatingly painful execution. To all appearances, it was a life lived in futility, without meaning.

Think about lives like that in our day—refugees fleeing the violence of Syria; mothers here in Madison worried whether there will be food to put on the table tomorrow, let alone whether there will be gifts to share with their children; the men sleeping in the homeless shelter across our courtyard this evening. Lives today lived in pain and suffering, loneliness and despair.

This is our world; the world we have made and inhabit, a world in which the glory of God is overshadowed by the lights of commercialism, and the beauty of God’s creation is destroyed by our hubris and greed. This is our world, in which we belittle, despise, destroy other human beings, created like us in the image of God, bearing like us the image of God.

This is our world. The amazing thing is that God loves it still. This is what we have made of our humanity, what we have done with the image of God in us. The amazing thing is that nonetheless, God became one of us.

In this story from Luke, we are presented with alternatives. Here, at Christmas, we see the power and hope of God’s love expressed in a baby, showing in weakness, vulnerability …

When the angels came to the shepherds, they were not coming to the powerful, the connected, the wealthy. When the angels came to the shepherds, they were coming to the marginalized, outsiders.

Jesus was born, God became flesh and dwelt among us, not among the powerful, the wealthy, the connected, but to poor, oppressed peasants in a backwater of empire.

If we only allow ourselves, we can see in this story, in the babe in a manger, the wondrous love of God. What wondrous love it is, that God took our human form, that God emptied Godself, as Paul writes in Philippians, to show us what humanity could be, what we might be.

What wondrous love it is, that angels appeared to shepherds, the Jesus Christ was born among the poor and oppressed.

What wondrous love it is that the Word became flesh and lived among us, to show us the power and possibility of love.

The manger, birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to hope and to love in spite of everything. It is a challenge to us to love our neighbor and our enemy. It is a challenge to us to love outsiders and outcasts, the homeless and the hungry, refugees, the marginalized.

The manger, the birth of Christ, is a challenge to us to see the world through new eyes, to see the world with hearts filled with hope and love bursting to share with others.

The manger, the birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to receive the love of God in Christ, to be remade fully in God’s image. It is a challenge to us to love like Christ loved, to go to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the outcast ,to offer them food and shelter, to share with them the love of Christ.

What wondrous love—seen in the birth of Christ, seen in his giving himself on the cross. What wondrous love we’ve received. What wondrous love is ours to share. w

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Genealogies, illegitimate births, and God with us. A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2016.

 

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the story of the birth of Jesus as Matthew tells the story. And I’ll bet that as you listened, you may have found it a bit strange, perhaps even unfamiliar. For it’s a very different story than the familiar one from Luke that we hear on Christmas Eve, with Bethlehem, the manger, shepherds, swaddling clothes, and all of that.

Matthew’s story seems to focus on Joseph. Mary and her pregnancy seem to be problems that need solving, and the birth itself is recounted in the sparest of terms. The focus on Joseph is odd in a way, if you think about it. It’s even odder when you put the reading we just heard back into the context of Matthew’s gospel, for these verses appear after a lengthy genealogy that relates Joseph’s ancestry back to Abraham. Thereby Matthew links Joseph not just to the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, but also to the Kings—David and Solomon.

What’s odd about this is that of course Joseph is not biologically the father of Jesus.

I’ll grant you, genealogies are fascinating, and with the rise of DNA testing, you can find out a bit about your ethnic makeup and determine whether you are in fact related to certain famous people. There’s a popular PBS show, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, that explores the genealogical background of A-list, and often not A-list celebrities. There’s also the genealogy road show, that does the same thing for genealogy that the Antiques Roadshow does for the stuff your great-aunt gave or you bought at a garage sale. We want to know where we came from, who we are, and there’s a temptation to see in genealogy, or genetics, a key to understanding ourselves.

So Matthew gives us a genealogy for Jesus, and it’s worth considering why he thought it was appropriate, or important, to do so. There’s even something more interesting in all of this, because the words he uses to introduce the genealogy at the very beginning of his gospel, and the first words we heard in today’s reading, are very similar—both make use of the Greek word genesis—and it’s likely that Matthew intends his reader to think of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis.

So it’s curious, isn’t it, that Matthew, after providing all of that background to the birth of Jesus, taking the time to carefully construct a genealogy that links Joseph back to Abraham, then tells the story of what basically constitutes an illegitimate birth.

The story that we heard is familiar. Joseph and Mary are engaged, or to use the traditional language, they are betrothed. It’s not just that he’s given her a ring, and they’ve begun to plan for the big day, scheduled the date and the venue, hired the caterer and the like. No, in Jewish law, the betrothal meant they were legally married, even though the marriage had not been consummated and they were not living together.

Because they were legally married, Mary’s pregnancy was not just an inconvenience. It indicated to Joseph that she had been unfaithful to him. Legally, because, as the text says, Joseph was a righteous man (in other words, he kept the law), he was obligated to divorce her publicly—something that might result in her execution for adultery. But Matthew tells us that he wanted to spare her the indignity, and perhaps himself as well, and divorce her privately.

So he’s got a huge problem on his hands, what to do. It’s likely, though Matthew doesn’t tell us, that Mary is feeling considerable anxiety and fear as well. After all, it’s in Luke’s version of the nativity that Mary is told by an angel that her pregnancy is miraculous, that she’s carrying the Son of God.

In Matthew’s story, the angel comes to Joseph to explain things to him. He does as he’s told, and almost as an afterthought, Matthew tells us that the child is born and Joseph names him Jesus. Again, to use contemporary language, Joseph adopts Jesus as his son.

Christmas, which the songs tells is the “most wonderful time of the year,” can also be a time of great sadness and struggle. We are presented with images of the perfect family or the perfect holiday celebration but so often, our own experiences of Christmas are very different. We live in a messy world, we lead messy lives. Our families can be complicated; there can be ruptures or conflicts with family members; there are all the complications of modern family life, divorce and remarriage, blended families. We want everything to be perfect, just so, and so often the reality is very different.

I think there’s something reassuring for us in the twenty-first century in the way Matthew tells this story. He wants everything to be perfect, too. He fashions a genealogy that links Joseph to Abraham, carefully constructing 14 generations from Abraham to David and 14 generations from David to the exile, 14 generations from the exile to Joseph. To put it language from American history, it would be as if Joseph were descended from the Daughters of the Revolution and the descendants of the Mayflower. But it’s not just that the link from Joseph to Jesus is tenuous—it’s that in the midst of that genealogy are prostitutes, victims of rape and incest, and foreigners like Ruth.

And in the embarrassment of Mary’s unwed pregnancy, in the embarrassment of that genealogy, is an important lesson for us today. Just as we want our celebrations to be perfect, we assume that there’s something wrong with us if things don’t live up to those expectations and we wonder whether in the midst of our struggles, we can hope for God to come to us, for God to be with us.

The story of the birth of Jesus as told by Matthew is a reminder to us that God didn’t choose the wealthy, or powerful, or the Norman Rockwell family in the Norman Rockwell New England town. God came to Mary and Joseph, to a peasant woman and her fiancé, in the outmost corner of the Roman Empire. God came to people in the midst of enormous struggle and great heartache.

The message of this story is that God is with us—here and now—no matter what our situation is, no matter what our lives are like, no matter what struggles we have, or worries, no matter what shame or guilt we might be experiencing. God comes to us. God is with us. That’s the point of this story. That’s the point of Christmas. God is with us. Here. Now. Emmanuel. God with us. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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The imprisonment of John the Baptist, the carceral state and Advent hope: A sermon for Advent 3, Year A, 2016

Today’s readings are here

Most of you know that over the last year, Grace Church has begun to develop a relationship with the Dane County Jail. It began with a visit to Grace last January from Christa Fisher, chaplain to the jail, who preached and talked about her work in an adult forum. The relationship has deepened, as Grace offered to host the ongoing tutoring project and participating in the jail ministry’s winter clothing drive.

The jail ministry has touched me on a personal level. It may have begun, not with my first encounter and conversation with Christa, but even earlier. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I found myself reflecting on the familiar and powerful parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, you know the one in which the King says:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

It struck me at the time, for whatever reason, that in all of my life, I had never set foot in a prison, let alone visited or talked with a prisoner. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think I’m going to burn in hell for eternity because I never engaged in prison ministry. Rather, I began to realize that prison ministry, especially in this age of mass incarceration, had simply never been of much interest or concern to me. In fact, I probably didn’t even know where the Dane County Jail for the first 3 or 4 years I lived in Madison; that’s shocking to admit, given it’s only two blocks away.

As part of Grace’s involvement with the work of the Madison Jail Ministry, I have challenged myself to take an active role in supporting the work of the chaplains. Last May, I participated in a tour of the jail that is intended for new employees and volunteers. It was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience. It wasn’t just that parts of the jail, the two top floors of the City County Building that could serve as a movie set for a 1930s era prison. That’s the part of the jail where they repeatedly have difficulties opening cell doors and evacuating inmates during fire drills. It was the demeanor of those who were incarcerated. Their body language and demeanor were those of people without hope, living in despair. They were lonely, abandoned by society, living at the arbitrary whims and actions of their jailors.

By now, we should all be familiar with the statistics, so I won’t belabor them. As Michelle Alexander argued with great passion and eloquence in her book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration targets African-Americans, especially African-American males disproportionately. It’s not just that an unconscionable number of African-Americans are incarcerated in the US, it’s that they are incarcerated for longer sentences and for crimes for which White Americans walk free.

The racial disparities and hopelessness of mass incarceration are on full display in the Dane County Jail. Many of those in the jail are there for parole violations that can be as minor as having used a computer. What struck me during my tour of the jail was that I hadn’t been anywhere that looked quite like the Dane County jail, or encountered such despair and hopelessness in the eyes and body language of the incarcerated, since my visit to East Germany back in 1980. The Dane County jail, like the former East Germany, is the carceral and surveillance state on full display.

All of this came to mind this week as I read and reflected on our gospel. It’s another episode concerning John the Baptist and the contrast between his demeanor here, in Matthew 11, and in the reading from last week, from Matthew 3, couldn’t be more stark. Last week we saw him railing against the religious and political elites for their corruption, and prophesying that the wrath of God would soon come down upon them. He was courageous, resolute, unworried about the response his preaching might arouse in his opponents.

Now, a few weeks or months later, he is in prison, having crossed Herod one too many times. But Herod isn’t quite sure what to do with him; the gospel of Luke suggests even that Herod kind of liked having John around,, he brought him in for conversations. According to Matthew, Herod wanted to have John executed, but feared how the people might respond.

In any case, now John is in prison. It’s puzzling given what we know about John, that he wonders about Jesus’ identity, that he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I mean, how could he not know? They are cousins, for crying out loud (at least that’s what Luke tells us). John baptized Jesus. John told everyone that Jesus was the one sent by God, that he, John, was only his messenger. John may even have heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” How could he have doubts?

Well, there are a couple of answers to this question. First, there’s the issue of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and what from the gospels seems to be something of a competition between them, perhaps even a struggle between followers of John and Jesus later, after their deaths, over who was the greater. There’s all sorts of evidence, even in the Book of Acts, that John continued to have a following, and that his followers competed with the followers of Jesus for popularity.

There’s also the fundamental problem for the early Jesus movement that Jesus was baptized by John…

Finally, there’s the little detail that the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree that Jesus began his public ministry only after John was arrested; that he waited until then to begin preaching publicly and healing people.

So there’s something very interesting going on in the gospels’ depiction of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason that John asks this question about Jesus identity from prison. Prison, in the first or the twenty-first century is a place of hopelessness and despair. Too often, it’s a waiting room for death. Think of all of the people on death row across our nation, and think about the decades many of them have been languishing there.

I think John’s question may come out of his hopelessness and despair and I’m not sure Jesus’ response to him, reassured him. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus omits something in that response. When that list of things appears in Isaiah, and when in Luke’s telling, Jesus proclaims those words in his first public sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, there’s another group mentioned:

 

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

The blind may see, the lame walk, the poor here the good news, but Jesus makes no mention of prisoners in his response to John’s disciples, no promise of freedom, no freedom for John himself.

John’s doubts and uncertainties were well-founded and it’s an open question whether Jesus’ reply to him did anything to reassure him as he lay in prison and waited for his death.

That should be unsettling for us. It may even raise our doubts and uncertainties. If John couldn’t or didn’t know, and if Jesus’ words offered him no consolation or hope in his particular situation, may our doubts and uncertainties are warranted. Maybe hopelessness, despair, cynicism are appropriate responses in our situation, too. After all, it’s not just John. There is still suffering in the world—the blind, deaf, disabled; and millions upon millions of people who languish in poverty and are food insecure.

So there is cause for despair, cause for doubt, cause for uncertainty. In the midst of all of that, there are also signs of hope—signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign in this dark world. Signs of hope in the work, faith, and spirit of the chaplains at the Dane County jail, signs of hope in the work and witness of our food pantry; signs of hope, signs of God’s inbreaking reign in the coming of Christ in a tiny and distant village in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. This Advent, may we look for signs of Christ’s coming and signs of God’s coming reign, in our hearts and in the world around us, and when we see those signs, may we know that Christ is coming, that he is the one for whom we are waiting.