Friday, January 12, 2018

Only Love Can Do That

            I am sitting at my desk this morning, surrounded by work that absolutely must get done, and I am crying; just crying. They are tears of sadness, exhaustion, stress, frustration, outrage: the list of emotions could go on and on. While there are several factors contributing to this emotional abyss I find myself in, events of the last few days have ultimately put me here.
            First and foremost, I am responding to what everyone else is responding to: the racist remarks of the president about the countries of Haiti, Africa and El Salvador. Don’t expect me to put asterisks in the place of the expletive he used. If he can say it, so can I. The president referred to the people who come here from these “shithole” countries. As one person wrote on a post on social media, it isn’t the expletive that is the most upsetting. Quite frankly other presidents have used language far worse. It is the blatant, raw, unfiltered racism that motivated his remarks. Please do not try and excuse what he said as anything else; I no longer have the stomach for excuses. I no longer have the patience for denials of the racism, sexism and meanness of mind and heart that have been obvious all along.
            However, this still does not fully explain my tears. I am angry, true, but it is more than that. In this season of Epiphany, I had an epiphany as I struggled to understand my response. I am crying because I am grieving. I am grieving. Not only am I mourning the brokenness of our world and of the people who dwell in it – including my own – I am mourning that even as the president made these despicable remarks, a hospital patient in Baltimore, who was also homeless, was taken out of the hospital in a wheelchair by security guards, then left on the sidewalk. She was dressed only in a hospital gown and it is freezing cold in Baltimore. This was done at night, as though somehow that would provide cover for this inexcusable inhumanity. This woman was not so much discharged as she was disposed of. Is this where we are? Really? Is this what we have come to? Tell me, what actually qualifies as a shithole? This kind of action, which is not as unusual as I would like to believe, seems to fit the criteria of a country that has gone down a moral sewer.
            So I guess I am grieving over incidents like the one I described. I guess I am mourning the president and his hate. I suppose I am in grief for the people who support him, and continue to rally around his narcissistic and abhorrent filth; especially those who claim the same faith that I do. But I am also mourning for him and them. I am mourning for what must be their narrow, ignorant, one-dimensional lives.
I realize that we all have the capacity for racism, bigotry and hatred within us. I know that it lies in wait within me, within my own heart and mind. But I fight it fiercely. Not because I am so morally superior, but because I know the fullness and lush beauty and joy my life has been blessed with through my encounters, my friendships and my experiences with so many diverse, wonderful, beautiful people. I have been pushed and stretched and re-created by every person I have met who does not look like me, who does not think like I do, who does not see the world through my particular lens. Yes, that even includes the people who embody racism and bigotry. I cannot claim that my experiences with them have added beauty to my life, but they have stretched and pushed me. Stretching and pushing may be painful, but it is necessary.
So I am grieving, for them, for our country, for this beautiful and broken world. However, truth-be-told, I am also crying out of my own sense of helplessness and despair. I am crying at my lack of courage when it comes to speaking up and out. I guess I am feeling sorry for myself, which does not help anyone. I am disgusted by the president and his cronies, but I also feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for those who agree with and further his bigotry. But ignorance is not an excuse, and they don’t get a free pass. A dear friend shared this quote,
“It will never be enough to not be racist in your heart. YOU have to be anti-racist in every word, thought and deed.”
It seems to me that mourning is not enough. Mourning has to lead to action. Grief must give way to a fiery, unrelenting thirst for justice and for righteousness. To love as I believe my faith calls me to love is not just a warm, fuzzy, let’s buy the world a Coke emotion. It is living out the belief that every creature has value and worth, not for what they do, what they look like or where they come from, but just because they are. For the sake of this of love, I will constantly root out the racism that lives in me, and I will call it out in others. Sometimes I’m gonna cry, but then I’m going to get back up and love again. In the words of Dr. King,
“Darkness can’t drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate can’t drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Only love can do that.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Beloved By God -- Baptism of the Lord

Mark 1:4-11
January 7, 2018

            You never want to hear the phone ring at 3:00 am. When it did, I went from the deepest sleep to awake in three seconds. I stumbled to the phone in the upstairs hall, and tried to make sense of the voice on the other end. It was a woman from the hospital in town asking for me. When I responded that I was the one speaking, she said to hold and she would put the doctor on the line. My parents lived in the same town where we were living, and I immediately assumed that something had happened to one of them. When the doctor came on the line, he kept pausing. I didn’t say it, but I was thinking,
            “Just tell me which of my parents is sick or dying. Just say it already, so I can get some clothes on and get down there.”
            Instead he told me that a young couple in my congregation had just gone through an emergency C-section. She had gone into labor way too soon; at around 26 weeks if I remember correctly. The baby would not live, the doctor told me. I said I would be right there.
            I was stunned, and my shock came from more than just being half awake. I had just been with this couple at a church potluck the night before. We had talked baby names, and discussed how the mother was feeling. She had a definitive baby bump, and she let me put my hands on her belly and exclaim with joy at the wonder that was taking place inside her.
            When I got to the hospital, the baby – a little girl – was already gone. The father’s parents were there. The mother was awake, but groggy from the anesthesia and the shock of everything that had happened. Although her husband’s family was Catholic, I had officiated at their wedding. I had a relationship with them, and when I asked if he wanted me to baptize the baby, he said, “yes.”
            Any pastor will tell you that the hardest moments in our vocation often come small. What I mean is that some of the saddest, most challenging times I’ve had as a pastor have been when I’ve officiated over a doll-size casket; when I held a tiny, still body. Although a nurse brought me some water to use for the baptism, I really didn’t need any. The baby was awash in my abundance of tears. Let me emphatically state that not for one moment did I believe that this little baby required baptism in order to be with God. The holy was all around her. But if baptizing her gave her parents and grandparents comfort; if it gave them some sense of relief in that time of excruciating grief, then so be it. Baptizing her was about grace, not doctrine.
            Technically, though, I broke the rules. According to my presbytery’s Stated Clerk, I broke the rules because we do not baptize what is dead. But she assured me that to break the rules for grace was perfectly appropriate and far more Christ-like than not. When it came to the baby’s funeral, the Catholic grandparents wanted it to be done by a priest. That was fine. He let me assist in the service. But here is another rule that I broke. He was told that I baptized her. But when he asked me if I baptized her before she died, I lied. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said yes, I baptized her before she died. I lied because I knew that to tell him the truth would make for more challenges and problems. The family had been through enough. They didn’t need to go through anymore pain than they had already experienced.
            I’m not retelling this story to make you sad, or to laud any action on my part. Nor am I suggesting that we throw out our denomination’s rules on baptism. I agree with them. We believe that someone should be baptized into a congregation, a community – that’s why the congregation makes promises to the person being baptized – an infant and his or her parents or to an older believer. So we expect someone who is baptized to have an active connection to the church.
We do not believe in re-baptizing. Baptism is not magic. It doesn’t need multiple opportunities to take effect. So if someone has been baptized in another denomination, we accept that baptism. I was baptized as a nine-year-old in the Southern Baptist denomination, and my baptism has never been questioned by the Presbyterians. I didn’t need to do it again to get it right. We reaffirm our baptisms and the promises that were made either for us or by us; which is what we will do in just a few moments. But we do not re-baptize.
            Again, I don’t have a problem with the rules per se. But I wonder if sometimes the rules get in our way. Maybe it’s not the rules that are the problem. Maybe it’s that we forget how powerful baptism is. Baptizing a little one is my favorite sacrament. I don’t get to do it nearly enough. There is nothing more precious than holding a baby or a child in my arms and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I love that moment when I walk the baby among you and introduce the newest member of God’s church. I love to remind all of us, that in the midst of such sweetness, we have taken solemn vows to pray for and care for and help nurture that child or that believer in faith.
            Baptism is a sweet and precious moment. But it is a powerful moment. It is something that should not, can not be domesticated or tamed. Mark’s gospel makes this abundantly clear. When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan,
            “He saw the heavens torn apart.”
            The verb used to describe the heavens being torn apart at Jesus’ baptism is the same one used to describe the curtain of the temple being torn apart at the time of Jesus’ death. This is not a neat opening created by scissors. This is a ripping open of a hole between heaven and earth. One commentator described it as God’s hands tearing open the boundary between the two realms. God ripped open the heavens, and through that fissure came the Holy Spirit as a dove, filling Jesus, empowering Jesus.
            In Mark’s telling of the baptism, Jesus was the only one who heard the voice of God,
            “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
            Although the others around Jesus were not privy to God’s declaration, they witnessed the power of God through Jesus. They witnessed his exorcising of demons and his healings. They heard his teaching and his preaching. They saw what he did. They saw how he loved. They saw who he loved. For Mark the baptism of Jesus was not just a prelude to the rest of his ministry, it was the foundational event of his ministry. It was not tame. It was powerful. While John may have been the instrument, it was God who did the baptizing. It was God who did the baptizing.
            It is God who baptizes. It is God who enacts this powerful sacrament. It is God who baptizes, and there is nothing tame about it. Our rules, important as they are, cannot limit what God does and what God will do. It is God who baptizes, and because of God we are members of God’s family. Because of God, we are chosen, we are called. Because of God, we are beloved. We are beloved by God.

            Let all of God’s beloved children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Standing On the Promises: A Homily for the New Year

December 31, 2017-12
Genesis 12:1-3, John 1:1-5, 14, John 10:7-10

            Last summer as my sister, Jill, was preparing to come to the states for two months, she was telling her newly turned four-year-old twin grandsons, my great nephews, about America. They were fascinated by America – especially Bobby. Without thinking, Jill made an offhand promise that they could come to America when they turned five. My nephew, their father, said, “Mom,” in that parental tone of voice that implied “what in the world are you promising them?”
            If they have the long memory that their father did, they will remember this promise. When he was a little boy, he wanted to marry a little girl he was friends with. My sister offhandedly promised him that he could marry her on his sixth birthday. Guess what? When he woke up on his sixth birthday, he announced that he would be getting married that day. Oh the sadness that ensued when he found out he would not be getting hitched after all.
The twins turn five in May. When I talk with my sister, I like to ask her if she’s saving money for their trip to America; because they’re going to expect it. Perhaps we should start a Go Fund Me account to make it happen. But if we’re going to do that, then I think we should make it one where we fund me going to Greece to pick them up, escort them from Greece to America and back to Greece again. That’s neither here nor there. My point is that you have to be careful when you make promises – to children and to anyone. Because you want to keep the promises you make.
Certainly, we have all been guilty of breaking promises. I know I have broken them – small ones and not so small ones. But I would say that for most of us when we make a promise, our intention is to keep them.
We also say that about resolutions at this time of year. As the calendar rolls over from the old year to the new, we make resolutions of all sorts. Resolutions are really just promises we make to ourselves. Sometimes we keep them, sometimes we don’t. They are really easy to make, these resolutions, but much harder to keep. Since we are at the time of year when resolutions and promises are at the forefront of our mind, it seemed an opportune moment to think not about the promises that we make but about the promises that are made to us.
I said it in my newsletter article, and I will say it again, 2017 was a challenging and difficult year. I know that this is not the only December 31st when this statement has been true. Every year holds its sadness, its hardship and its strife. But there is something about the New Year that makes us hopeful. Maybe this year will be different. Maybe this year I will finally keep my resolutions. Maybe this year I will keep all the promises I made to myself and others, fulfill all the goals I set for myself. And perhaps this year, the promises kept will go farther than just individual resolutions. Maybe this year we will finally learn how to get along with one another, how to care for one another. Perhaps this year there will finally be peace on earth and goodwill to all.
I hope so. I suspect you do too. But while there are no guarantees that you or I will keep our resolutions, that we will keep every promise we make, what we can count on is that God keeps God’s promises. We stand firmly on God’s promises. God’s promises are many. God’s promises are steadfast. God keeps God’s promises. So as 2017 ends and 2018 begins, let’s take a minute to think about three of the promises that God makes and keeps and is keeping.
God is a God of the covenant. Although modern dictionaries define covenant as a synonym for contract, I think a covenant is a different, deeper bond than a contract. A contract implies the possibility of breach. Certainly a covenant can be broken, but there is a relationship inherent to a covenant, a sense of call of and being chosen. God chose Abram. God called him. God promised that through him, not only would Abram and his family be blessed, but every family in the world would be blessed. God was always concerned about the world, but with Abram God was working through specific people to see God’s purposes fulfilled.
God promised and promises blessing. How are we blessed? What does it mean to be blessed? Is being blessed just good things coming our way, or is it the awareness that God surrounds us with love, and with people we embody that love? How are we blessed? How are you blessed?
God promised and promises to be with us. What better illustration of this promise than in the Word becoming flesh and dwelling in our midst? The Incarnation of the divine into the mortal is the most profound example of God living out, literally, God’s promise to be with us. God became us, fully us, through his Son, so we could learn what it means to human and to see God a little more clearly. God promises to be with us. We know that does not mean that we are granted some divine protection. We know that does not prohibit bad things from happening to us. We are still hurt. The people we love are still hurt. We are still mortal. We still die. But in this world of uncertainty, knowing, trusting, believing that God is with us, gives us a well of courage from which we can draw. It inspires us to keep going, to keep striving, to love our enemies, to challenge the powers and principalities. How does God keep God’s promise to be with you? How has God shown you God’s presence?
God promised and God promises to give us abundant life. In the context of this second passage from John’s gospel, we might interpret abundant life as being synonymous with eternal life, but I think abundant life is not limited to that. Not that eternal life is a limiting idea. In the verses before the ones we read in chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. The sheep, his sheep, know his voice. He is the Good Shepherd and the Gate for the sheep. Those who recognize him as such will have life and that life will be abundant.
Is this eternal life only, reserved for that other realm? Is it a perfect life, also on hold for the life to come? Or is it a life that is lived right now, a life that is rich and full with the grace and love of God? I think when we recognize the voice of our Good Shepherd, when we see that he is our Gate to abundant life, we begin to enjoy abundant life right now. Abundant life is not a life that is perfect. I imagine that abundant life must have been what the Garden of Eden was like before Adam and Eve and the Snake started talking. It was lush and green and full of trees laden with fruit. There were probably bugs too. But even those bugs served a purpose. It seems to me that abundant life is a life that is overflowing with goodness. The goodness to which I refer does not equate to material things or riches. It is goodness of people, of work, of purpose, of a deeper joy. It is a life that is abundant in grace, in service to others, in blessings, in the knowledge that God is with us. It is a life abundant in trust that God keeps God’s promises.
How is your life abundant?
How has God kept God’s promises in your life this past year? Be assured that God has, and be assured that God will. We stand in the steadfast promises of God. We walk into this New Year trusting in God and giving thanks that God keeps God’s promises.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Gift -- Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2017

            What is the best gift you have ever received? What is the most wonderful present you’ve ever been given? What story can you tell about your best gift ever?
            My story about one of my best gifts takes place in 7th grade. At the last Girl Scout meeting before Christmas, one of my leaders asked if any of us knew a gift we were getting for Christmas. A few of the girls spoke up and told about a special item of clothing they’d been asking for or some new piece of jewelry they really, really wanted. I tentatively raised my hand, and when my leader called on me, I said I knew about my one big present but I was afraid they would all think it was silly. The girls and my leaders assured me that no one would think that, and no one would make fun of me no matter what the gift was. I took a deep breath and said,
            “I’m getting my doll house.”
            You need to understand that my doll house was a gift that I had dreamed about and saved for a long time. For at least two years, I had saved every penny I earned or was given and bought some miniature piece of furniture or accessory to go into my future doll house. Family and neighbors knew that I was collecting items to decorate it, so I received gifts of tiny mixing bowls for the kitchen and a wee little set of books to go into a miniscule bookcase. So that fall when my mother found a lady in Franklin who built dollhouses, it was a big deal. And when we went to her shop and she let me pick out what I wanted for my floors and on the walls, it was an even bigger deal. And knowing that the doll house was going to be waiting for me under the Christmas tree was the biggest deal of all. I might have been the least cool seventh grader in Middle Tennessee, but I could not have cared less. I was getting my doll house.
            Until the Christmas of 1998, I would have said that was one of the best Christmas gifts I had ever received. But in 1998 I held my ten day old baby daughter in my arms and knew that the gift of my doll house had been topped. A little over two years later, Christmas came in July when my baby boy was born.
            You’re probably thinking that this is going to be a message about the true gift that we receive tonight. And it is. The coming of the Christ child is a gift unlike any other, but what does this gift mean? Is it a gift that you can only understand when you’ve had a child yourself? No. As much of a joy as it is to have a baby, this gift is more than just something only a parent can grasp.
Is the gift ushered in by Jesus’ birth one of salvation? Of course, God becoming one of us through the birth of his Son was and is a gift we can never repay. Not only did God choose to become like us, God chose not to be born to royalty, to wealth, to worldly power or empire, but to be born instead to the lowly and the marginalized, the poor, and the overlooked. Yes, that is a gift unlike any other.
            But I think there is another facet to this gift we receive on this night, this holy night.
We receive the gift of memory.
No, we do not have physical memories of a young couple finding no room in an inn or of a baby being born in a shelter designed for animals.
We cannot call to mind the sound of the heavens reverberating with angel song. We do not have a recollection of shepherds, another group of forgotten and overlooked people, rushing from the hillsides to see a baby.
So what is it we remember? What is this gift of memory we are given tonight and every Christmas Eve?
            We are reminded in this beautiful story of what God intended and intends for the world.
We are reminded of who God created us to be.
We are reminded that God called creation into being out of Love for Love and because of Love.
We are reminded that we are part of that creation. We have value and worth in God’s eyes.
We are reminded of our calling as God’s children, as those who seek to follow his Son.
We are reminded that although our world is so broken, so far from what God intended, Light still shines in the darkness.
We are reminded that as long as we have hope, as long as we keep even one candle lit, the darkness will not overcome the Light … or us.
Tonight we are given a gift. We are given a chance to remember and to see through God’s eyes.
Tonight we are given a gift, and this is one that will not break or lose its shine.
Tonight we remember that Love was born in our midst.
Tonight we remember that the Good News came into the world in the way we all do, in the birth of a baby, in the cry of a child.

Tonight, on this Holy Night, we remember our most precious and wonderful gift, Christ our Lord. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen and amen and amen.

Let It Be -- Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-38
December 24, 2017

            “Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered will soon deliver you.”
            The first time I ever heard this song was on my now well-played Kathy Mattea Christmas Album. With all due respect to the group Pentatonix, Mattea’s version is my favorite. I admit that I did not give the larger theological implications of this song much thought. The question of whether or not Mary knew the fullness of her son’s identity was not an issue for me. When I listened to the lyrics, I just thought,
“This is such a pretty song, especially in Mattea’s rich alto. And the questions posed are interesting. They make me think both about this tiny baby and the larger scope of who he was and is.”
            However the question as to whether Mary knew who her son would be or not is a much larger issue, perhaps even controversy, than I realized. Every year about this time I see emphatic statements on social media, “Mary knew!” I think this goes beyond either loving or hating this song. I think it goes to a deeper theological question about Mary; who she was and the part she played in bringing Jesus into the world – literally and figuratively.
            So I am going to wade into the controversy and say definitively … that it is both! Mary knew! And Mary didn’t know! I don’t think she knew fully, at least, the scope of her son’s truth. So what did she know? First, she knew what Gabriel told her.
             Gabriel was sent to Mary by God, and he began this tremendous announcement by saying,
            “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
            In what is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time, Luke wrote that Mary was
“much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
I too would have been perplexed … and baffled … and confounded … and terrified. Did Mary turn around to see if her heavenly visitor was addressing someone behind her? Did she pale and begin to shake when she realized he was speaking to her? Did she grow faint or bow low to the ground in terror? Perhaps she visibly changed, because Gabriel’s next words were,
            “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
            Mary did not, could not fathom how this would happen because she was a young girl, a virgin. The angel explained to her that through the power of the Holy Spirit she would conceive, and because the child she would carry was created this way, he would be called the “Son of God.”
            There you go; Mary knew. Gabriel told her that she was going to give birth, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Son of God. Her child would be great. He would be given the throne of his ancestor David. His kingdom would have no end. She, a lowly, poor, insignificant young girl, was favored by God. She would bear the Son of God into the world. Mary knew.
            I understand how important it is theologically and spiritually that Mary knew. Mary was not just an empty vessel or a mindless pawn that God used to fulfill God’s purposes. Mary was a flesh and blood person. She had a mind and a heart. She had a will. She had a voice and a conscience. Mary heard the angel’s words. She asked the angel questions, and she responded favorably. Mary knew she was going to have a baby, and that this baby was born of God and destined for an unimaginable greatness. She was favored by God and this baby would be God’s own. Mary knew.
            But Mary was a flesh and blood person, which meant that she had limits. She was finite. She could only grasp so much. Gabriel gave her a general outline of who her son would be. The fullness of his identity, his truth would be revealed over time. Mary was a flesh and blood human being. She knew she was favored by God. She knew she would have a child who was special, who was God’s child, but beyond that, could she truly see what was to come? Could she truly comprehend what being God’s child would mean? Could she envision how his life and her own would unfold? Did she know, really know what lay ahead? No. How could she? How could anyone? Mary was a limited, finite human being. In that moment when Gabriel came to her and gave her this amazing, overwhelming great news, I just cannot imagine that she could fully know everything that news meant. Mary did not know.
            Mary both knew and didn’t know. It seems to me that what’s really important, really necessary about this passage is not so much the depth or expanse of what she understood at that moment; what matters is how she responded.
Mary said, “Yes.”
As I said before, Mary was a flesh and blood human being with a mind, a heart, and will. We Presbyterians believe both in predestination and in free will. Free will suggests that Mary could have said, “No.” Think about that. Isn’t it possible that Mary could have said, “No?” She had a will. She had a mind. She was not just an empty vessel to be used by God. God became one of us because God values not just our souls but our flesh. Wouldn’t God have valued this young woman enough to hear her “No?”
            But that’s what makes this story so amazing, even beyond this visit from an angel. Mary said, “Yes.” And listen to her yes.
            “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
            Here am I; those are the same opening words Isaiah spoke in response to God’s call.
            “Whom shall I send?” “Here am I, send me.”
            Mary’s response is no less a response to a calling from God. She said “Yes” to God’s call. She said “Yes” to God’s purposes. She may not have known fully what was to come, but then again do any of us know that when we answer God’s call? Mary knew enough. She knew enough. And what’s more important than how much she knew is how completely she trusted.
            She trusted God and she said, “Yes.” She trusted God and she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Let it be with me.
            Here am I.
            It seems to me that our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers got it right when they elevated Mary. As a stalwart protestant, I am not advocating that we imitate Catholicism in our reverence of her. Yet I think we need to stop relegating her to this one Sunday of the year: the Annunciation, Mary’s Sunday. It seems to me that Mary is a role model for all of us when it comes to answering God’s call. She embodies what it means to trust God. She models what it means to step up, to say “Yes,” to show the courage to say, “Here am I; let it be with me.”
            Mary was a real person with a real spirit, a real will and mind and heart. She was young, she was poor, she was female, and those factors made her vulnerable. She would have been considered insignificant by the powers and principalities of that time and place. But her courage was as great as any warrior of her day or ours. Whatever Mary knew, whatever Mary didn’t know, she knew enough and she trusted more. She said, “Yes.” She said, “Here am I; let it be with me.” Let it be with me. Let it be.

            Let all of us, God’s children, say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Witness to the Light -- Third Sunday in Advent

John 1: 6-8, 19-28
December 17, 2017

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” It’s never really occurred to me before how ordinary this sentence sounds; compared with so many other sentences in John’s gospel that is. The very first sentence of John’s gospel is, of course, beautiful poetry,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Gorgeous! But it’s definitely not ordinary.
Verse 14, which we do not read today, is also another poetic masterpiece,
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
I may be frustrated at times with John’s gospel, but those nine words have the power to bring me to my knees. Definitely. Not. Ordinary.
But verse 6 sounds more ordinary than these others.  
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”
Perhaps ordinary is not the right word; maybe straightforward is what I’m searching for. John’s gospel, with its multiple layers of meaning in every verse, with its metaphor and imagery, is rarely straightforward. But verse 6 is. It sounds like the beginning of a wonderful story. It sounds like, well it sounds almost, kind of ordinary.
You’re probably thinking, “It would be ordinary, Amy, if it weren’t for the subject. You know, John?! The guy who wore camel’s hair and ate locusts! That guy from the wilderness who, to put it mildly, was a little off center. He was the one who baptized Jesus for heaven’s sake! How could a sentence about John the Baptizer be ordinary?”
It’s true, John was no ordinary character. The various gospel accounts of him tell us that he was Jesus’ cousin, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Some historians speculate that he may have been an Essene, a member of that ascetic, mystical Jewish sect. And if we know nothing else about him, we know him as the Baptizer, the one who baptized Jesus. Except in John’s gospel he does not baptize Jesus. In John’s gospel, he really isn’t the Baptizer at all. He does do some baptisms, as we read in the last part of our passage, but Jesus is not one he baptizes. In John’s gospel, he is John the Witness. He is John the one who is sent to the witness to the light. He is not the light, but he points to the light.
This last part is almost a disclaimer. He is not the light. That is made very clear. In our later verses, this is reiterated when the priests and the Levites come to question John about his identity.
“Who are you?”
He answered them in the negative; who he was not.
“I am not the Messiah.”
They persisted. Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? We need an answer to give the people who sent us. At that, John quoted Isaiah.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John made it clear who he was not. And the gospel makes it clear who he was. He was the one sent by God as a witness to testify to the light. Don’t get him confused with the light. That is not who he was. He was the witness. He was the one sent by God to witness to the light; John the Witness.
What does it mean to witness? If we are a witness in court, presumably we tell what we know or what we have seen. Many years ago when I was in college, I was involved in a fender bender on the way home from my summer job. It wasn’t my fault. Really. While the other driver and I were waiting for the police to come, and we were exchanging phone numbers and insurance and all the other things you do when you’ve had an accident, another driver stopped. She came up to me and gave me her phone number. She said to call her if I needed to. She saw the whole thing, she said. She was a witness.
John was one sent from God as a witness to the light. He was sent to tell the truth about Jesus, the Light of God, the Word made flesh, the Messiah. He was sent to testify to Jesus’ true identity. John was sent from God to tell people the truth about Jesus, God’s Son, and in doing so to make the people ready. He was that one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord.
It would seem that John really was no ordinary man, yet I maintain that verse six is a wonderfully ordinary sentence. It is a wonderfully ordinary and captivating beginning to a story unlike any other. Why is it ordinary? Because whether John was an ordinary person or a wild man from the wilderness is not the point.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was Bob.”
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was Glenn or Bill or Mark or Thomas or Vic.”
“There was a woman sent from God, whose name was Alice or Lynn or Peg, Kathy or Wanda.”
Take out John and insert your own name. We are all sent from God to witness, perhaps not in the way John did, but we are called and we are sent. We are all called to witness.
How are we called to witness? While you are pondering that question, let me add one more thing. The Greek word for witness is martyrion which gives us our English word, martyr. One who witnesses is a martyr. While I have not done a full word study on how our understanding of the two words has evolved over the centuries, I find it interesting that these words share a common root. It seems to me that if we are called to witness to Jesus, to tell our truth about him, then there is a certain element of risk implied. We may be martyred for our witness, for our truth telling; perhaps not physically, but in other ways. Not only may we not be believed, but we may be mocked, shunned, disparaged or just downright shamed. More than once I have hesitated telling a stranger my vocation because I dread the response.
Yet, just as there is a cost that comes with discipleship, there is also a danger that comes with being a witness, with truth telling, with testifying to the light. Maybe that’s why we want to believe that is only extraordinary people who are called to witness to the light. But the funny thing about God is that God tends to call ordinary people like you, like me, to do extraordinary things. God works through unlikely people and unlikely circumstances. That’s what we celebrate during this season. That’s what we are waiting for: for God to work the extraordinary through the ordinary, to work the divine and the glorious through the most lowly. That’s what the incarnation is, the Word becoming flesh: our flesh, our ordinary, lowly, frail and fragile flesh.
John the Witness was an ordinary man sent from God to testify to the Light. We are ordinary people sent from God to testify to the Light. We are called to be witnesses, to share our truth, to offer our testimony. We are called to do extraordinary things, not because we have exceptional power that other people don’t, but because we trust that God is working through us and is with us. It seems to me that’s what John understood. He trusted that God was working with him and through him, and he never stopped doing what God called him to do. Not once. He never stopped witnessing to the Light.
There was an ordinary man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all people might believe through his telling.

Let all God’s children, God’s witnesses, say “Alleluia!” Amen. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Good News -- Second Sunday of Advent

Mark 1:1-8 (Isaiah 40:1-11)
December 10, 2017

            The first day of kindergarten for Zach was an exciting one. I tell this story with his permission. I was concerned about sending him to kindergarten because he has a summer birthday. The thinking in the schools where we lived was that boys with summer birthdays – meaning they turned 5 just before they started school – were generally not as mature or as prepared to begin school as kids who were a little bit older. We had been warned by a teacher about sending him to school just yet because he was young, and he was shy at first. He needed time to get to know the other kids and his circumstances before he would just jump into something. That was just Zach, I told the teacher. He was naturally shy at first, and needed to get to know his surroundings. If we waited for him to change, he would never start school.
            So I was nervous. Plus, I already knew how wrenching it was to send a child off to Kindergarten. We drove by the school grounds on Phoebe’s first day, so I could make sure the school was still standing and that my little girl was safe. Zach was, is my baby. Sending him off to kindergarten was its own kind of bittersweet. But Zach was so excited about starting school. He could not wait! So we did what you do to get ready; the night before we had his clothes picked out and ready. We had purchased all of the required supplies. He had his little backpack. That morning I went into his room to wake him up, saying,
            “Zach, it’s the first day of kindergarten. It’s time to get up.”
            The first day of kindergarten! He jumped out of bed. He got dressed with no prompting or pushing from me. He ate a good, healthy breakfast. Then we loaded into the car, and went to school. I admit to wiping away a few tears when I left that morning. My baby was in kindergarten.
            Zach came home that night just as excited as he was in the morning. It was a great day. He made friends. He played. He loved kindergarten! My relief was palpable. I went to bed calm and confident that sending Zach to kindergarten, even though he had just turned 5, was the right decision. The next morning I went into his room, prepared for the same excitement as the day before. I said,
            “Zach, it’s time to get up! It’s time to go to kindergarten!”
            He rolled over and looked at me with shock.
            “You mean I have to go again?”
            Somehow Zach had not understood that kindergarten was more than just a one day extravaganza. Kindergarten was just the beginning. It was just the beginning of years of school yet to come. That first day of kindergarten was just the beginning, and it was the first and last time Zach ever really enjoyed getting up for school.
            Mark’s gospel does not use the word “just” in the first verse of this first chapter, but to me it is implied. I know that what is written is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” but I hear, “This is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
            Mark was not one to waste words. There is no birth story in his gospel. There are no choirs of angels, no heralding from the heavens. There are no shepherds guarding their sheep or wise ones compelled to travel from the East. Unlike another poetic entrance into the story of Jesus, Mark does not have time for lush imagery. We will read the word “immediately,” in Mark’s gospel again and again, because for Mark this story is urgent. There is work to be done and good news to share. Jesus, in Mark’s earthy gospel, was on the move, so Mark’s account had to get right down to business.
            This is what the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was about. The prophet Isaiah told of a messenger who would be sent ahead to prepare the way. He would be one crying out in the wilderness,
            “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
            And that one was John the baptizer; a strange dude who dined on insects and wore scratchy, coarse clothing. John came out of the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
            In Mark’s beginning, there was no need for a back story about Jesus. The prophecies of old were back story enough. John the baptizer was not the messiah, but he was the messenger foretold. He came to get the word out about the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He came to let the people know that God’s promises were still alive and well and being fulfilled. He came to let people know that God was still at work in the world and in their midst, just as Isaiah had prophesied. He came to share the good news, and this was just the beginning.
            Just the beginning; key words I think, critical words. It is easy, sometimes, to think of the story of Jesus as ancient history. After all, his birth happened over 2,000 years ago. Whether we mean to or not, we often celebrate it as a remembrance; a fond memory. We wax nostalgic about years gone by. We relive old times in the church and in our families. But the truth is that every Advent we prepare for something that is happening new, in the present, right now. It isn’t that Jesus the man will be born as a baby in a distant land once again – or maybe he will be. It is that God’s promises are still at play. They are still active and being fulfilled. That is the comfort we hear in Isaiah.
            “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
            Not only did God speak comfort to Israel through Isaiah, God issued a new call. Get up to a high mountain. Lift up your voice with glad tidings and with strength. Lift up your voice, Jerusalem and tell the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
            We sometimes miss that this is a dialogue happening between God and Isaiah. At first Isaiah seems to see no point in speaking to the people, in telling them to prepare a way in the wilderness, because people are inconstant. They are like the grass in the field. They flower, they wither, they die.
            But God responded by telling him to share the good news anyway. The good news is not dependent on the constancy of the people. The good news of God is not dependent on circumstances – after all God spoke these words to a people in exile. The good news goes beyond any human endeavor and any human limitations.
            Even in exile, even when the people are fickle and random and inconstant, preach the good news, share the glad tidings. Comfort, o comfort my people. The time and space between Isaiah and Mark become nothing, because Mark furthers the message of the prophet. This is just the beginning of the good news…
            While we may not be living in exile like the people of Israel, nor are we confronted with a strange messenger such as John the baptizer, how much, how badly do we need to hear that the good news of God is just beginning? How badly do we need to be reminded that God’s promises for us, for all creation are still alive, still being fulfilled, and there is still more to come?
            We may not be in exile, but the world around us seems no less threatening, hostile and strange than it must have seemed to the Israelites. We may not be living under direct oppression, but unjust rulers still rule and the powers and principalities still wage war against the kingdom of God. Greed, cruelty and hatred, still seem to win the day over love and kindness. We need God’s words of comfort as much as the people of Israel did.
            But if the good news is not an ancient story, if the good news is not just something in the past, over and done with in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; if, in fact, this is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, then we are not without hope. In truth, hope is alive and well and here in our midst. Because the good news is a story of hope and God’s promises are about hope. Hope lies at the heart of the gospel, and this is just the beginning. That is good news indeed. That is good news. It’s just the beginning.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.