What are You Looking For?

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This question Jesus asked those first two who followed him –  “What are you looking for?” – haunts me. I can’t escape from it. Those two followers neatly avoided answering it. I don’t thing they were all that concerned with where Jesus was staying so much as they wanted to stay with him a bit longer. Maybe if they hung around with him long enough, they would know what they were looking for.

What follows is a kind of dialogue that came to me while contemplating this question.

What are you looking for?
usually my keys or my glasses or my phone
sometimes my wallet or that thing I just had in my hand

What are you looking for?
something to make for dinner and tomorrow’s lunch
warmer socks and a heavier sweater

What are you looking for?
a wifi connection and a hot cup of tea
a few minutes to finish this task

What are you looking for?
time to be still and relax before the next meeting
an hour or so to go for a walk and release this tension

What are you looking for?
okay… okay… maybe some answers
more hope or more light or…

What are you looking for?
I don’t know… there I’ve said it
I don’t know, exactly

What are you looking for?
an end to violence and hunger and homelessness
and illness and fear and hatred and ignorance

What are you looking for?
You. Christ. I am looking for You
in them and in me and in everyone

What are you looking for?
what I can do… what I can be…
how can I, how can we, embody you?

What are you looking for?

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 15, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Photo: CC0 image by Martin Winkler

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After the Journey

camels-897658_1920Sometimes it’s what you do after the journey that matters. We spent four weeks preparing ourselves for Bethlehem. Four weeks to make a journey that we take every year. We see the sights – Mary nine months pregnant plodding along, Joseph new to this family thing worried about getting it right, an over-crowded city and an inn with no rooms, the stable and its manger ready for sacred use, angels singing good news to sleepy shepherds, a star shining and shining and shining until Magi from afar finally show up – and continue on without giving them as much attention as maybe they deserve. Then we celebrate our arrival and quickly leave, maybe not even waiting around to see who else has made the trip. Did it matter at all?

More than twenty years ago I went to Israel with a church group. I thought it would be the first of many such trips. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back yet, but that trip changed me in ways I wouldn’t understand for several years. Once we landed in Tel Aviv, there was a push to get us quickly out to a safer place. The day we were supposed to go to Caesarea Philippi we were rerouted because there was fear of retaliation for a suicide bombing. I was shocked when the bus stopped at a check-point before being allowed to enter Bethlehem. The Holocaust Museum with the display of children’s shoes and the names being read aloud kept me awake more than one night.

Then there was the night a few of us went to the baths somewhere in Jerusalem. I was approached by two young men. We were talking about the usual kinds of things young people talk about when they first meet. We exchanged names, which I no longer remember. They were nineteen-year-old twins who were reluctant to tell me where they were from. They were certain that if they told me where the lived I would not talk with them anymore. They were Palestinian and they told me that most Americans don’t like Palestinians. When I asked them why, they didn’t really know either. They said something about religion and politics and the conversation moved on.

Of course, there were other moments on that trip that have stayed with me, too. Seeing the wadis fill up and flood into the Dead Sea… presiding over communion in the Garden Tomb… renewing baptismal vows in the Jordan River… climbing up to see the ruins of Herod’s castle… and more.

Something stirred within me on that trip that has remained awake and restless since then. Seeing young soldiers on the streets and knowing that the violence of war was so close drew my attention to the world beyond my own experience. I am still haunted by those sweet young faces telling me that I wouldn’t want to talk to them because they were Palestinian. It had never occurred to me not to talk to someone just because of where they live or what religion they practice or what policies their government puts in place. At 29 years old, things that I had only read about became real.

I returned from that trip and made a point of learning everything I could about Israel and Palestine. I’ve tried my best to be aware of what is happening in the world, and to do my part to change things when possible. Mostly, though, I’ve tried to combat fear, hatred, and ignorance – especially when these things are enhanced in the name of any God.crossroads-997123_1920

I’ve been thinking a lot about that real trip to Israel.  It had a  significant impact on me and my understanding of ministry. I can’t help but think that experiencing the Christmas story through worship and community should change and challenge us in similar ways. The Magi who followed a star for years experienced something. They might not have known specifically why they felt compelled to make the journey, but they went. They encountered the Christ-child and went home by a different road. They were changed so much that they literally could not travel home the same way they had come. They altered the route to keep Jesus alive. Who knows what happened to them after that? At least they started out on a different path.

As hatred and fear seem newly unleashed in the U.S., I am somewhat haunted by that pile of children’s shoes in the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum and the faces of those innocent Palestinian twins. My fear is that we are not taking the lessons of history seriously enough, and remaining silent when we should be crying out for justice until our voices are hoarse. My fear is that we don’t trust that the Love that broke into the world and rested a while in the manger is enough to save us from ourselves. My fear is that we have forgotten the wisdom that faith has taught us, and we will not survive this current wave of hatred, fear, and ignorance. My fear is that we have convinced ourselves that the stories of our faith are powerless which would mean God is also without power.

We journeyed through Advent and Christmas, and we may have experienced joy, or sadness, or both. We might question the meaning of all of it. We might feel uncomfortable or unsettled. We may have encountered Christ and still experience the awe of the moment. This is all fine. However, no matter what we might want to tell ourselves to maintain our own sense of comfort and control, it really is where we go from here that matters. How will you travel differently?

RCL – Year A – Epiphany – January 8, 2016
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-2
Matthew 2:1-12

Top Photo: CC0 image by natasevilla
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by MoneyforCoffee

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Christmas Brings Risks

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We aren’t particularly good at Christmas in the church. We have dressed it up with pageants, carols, and candlelight. We preach peace and possibilities and encourage people to linger for a moment at the manger and renew their acquaintance with the new born Christ. That’s all well and good, but we seldom hear a word about how dangerous a place that manger can be.

It should be clear enough from the moment Gabriel uttered, “Fear not.” In spite of these words everyone was afraid. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all responded appropriately to the frightful messengers who came bearing glad tidings. Even Herod was afraid of what was to come and he didn’t need a holy messenger. We leave out the fearful parts when we tell the story. And we do ourselves a great injustice.

The Christian story isn’t meant to be comfortable and fill us with sweet,  nostalgic feelings, not even the birth story or what follows after it. God’s love for humanity is powerful, messy, and life-altering. Yes, God came in human form to be one of us, to take on the fullness of humanity, and to show us that the worst in us is not outside the reaches of holy redemption. However, if we make it to Bethlehem to greet the sacred mystery that was born in the night, we risk being touched by that very same mystery. And when that happens, our eyes are opened to what we might have been able to shut out before meeting the Christ-child.

Matthew speaks of Rachel weeping for her children with the echoes filling the streets as Herod ordered the slaughter of all the children under age two. These sounds, joined with an angel’s warning, drive Joseph and his new family to safety in Egypt. One innocent life was spared, but Rachel’s weeping filled the streets and continues on to this day. Have you heard her crying for the unarmed Black men shot by police with no justice to be seen? Have you heard her crying for the millions of Syrians displaced and seeking refuge? How about for the Water Protectors whose pleas for the land go unheard? How about for the transwomen assaulted and murdered just because they are who they are? For the undocumented people who live with the threat of deportation? For the Muslim people who live in fear because they call God by another name? For the young women lured into sex trafficking? For veterans who wander the streets without home or hope? For the countless who are hungry, homeless, dismissed, victimized, and forgotten?

If you’ve knelt at the manger and been touched by the mystery there, then you can’t help but hear Rachel weeping and see innocents being slaughtered everywhere. Someone offered Jesus and his family sanctuary long ago. Who will offer sanctuary for today’s innocents? Who will step up and respond to those who weep along with Rachel for their lost children? Who will carry the good news of Bethlehem to those who so desperately need it?

Do you see the risk now? It’s not enough to just talk about making room in our lives once more for the Christ-child. It’s not enough to just sing carols and exchange gifts with our loved ones. Christmas is about changing the world. It’s about protecting the innocent among us. It’s about traveling a different road once you’ve encountered the mystery. It’s about living loud enough to bring love and justice into the world.

If we take the claim to be the body of Christ seriously, then we must embrace the entirety of our faith history. The church, the body of Christ, knows what it is to be a refugee and dependent on others for sanctuary. The church knows what it is to be innocent and under threat of death. The church knows what it is to be beaten and killed just for being who you are. We know these things and so much more because Jesus lived them. We also know what it means to bring healing and hope because Jesus did.

We can talk about the horrors of 2016 in terms of personal losses, terrorist bombings, natural disasters, celebrity deaths, and Aleppo burning. However, if we want 2017 to be different, it is up to us to embody that difference. If we are truly the body of Christ as we claim to be, then if one person is a refugee, then all are refugees. If one person is victimized, all are victimized. If one is homeless, all are homeless. If one is lost, all are lost. On the other hand, we can also embody hope, healing, peace, love, and justice.

The power and mystery that changed the world so long ago lies within the body of Christ today. Let’s make 2017 the year we embrace the risks of Christmas and truly be the church the world so desperately needs.

For more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year A – First Sunday after Christmas – January 1, 2017
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

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Sally the Super Star: A Story for Christmas

SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU ARE PLANNING TO ATTEND THE 5:00 PM SERVICE AT LIVING TABLE, THIS IS THE STORY I’LL BE READING. IF YOU WANT TO SHARE THE JOY OF HEARING IT FOR THE FIRST TIME WITH THE KIDS, YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO CONTINUE READING.

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Sally the Super Star

This story was written for use with small percussion instruments to be used as follows:
When the word “star” is said, bells jingle; “light” shakers shake; “brighter” clackers clack; “great” drums drum; and “super” thunder-stick thunders. And when “angel” is read, everyone is invited to say “oooo” and when “God” is read, everyone says “ahhhhh”

A very long time ago, in a far off place, a star was born. She was filled with a bright, glittering light. Her name was Sally. When God saw how simple and pretty she was, God gave her a special place in the night time sky. As Sally grew older, she didn’t think her place was so special.

“I want to shine brighter! I want to do something great! I want to be a super star!” Sally would say to anyone who asked and many who did not. She was not content with her place in the night sky. She was one star among many above a city filled with people who almost never looked up.

Sally thought her brother, Stanley, had the best job. He had a spot in the Big Dipper. You know that one star that’s sometimes hard to find, but you just know it’s there. Stanley was proud of his place in the constellation even if he wasn’t as bright as some of the other stars.

As the years went by, Sally was filled with longing. Sometimes her light wasn’t as bright as it could have been because she felt sad because she was an ordinary star, not a super star.

One day an angel of God was passing by and noticed Sally’s dim light. “Hey, what’s wrong with you little star?” the angel asked Sally.

Sally answered with a very sad voice, “I want to shine brighter. I want to do something great. I want to be a super star. And I’m not. I’m just a regular old star, hanging over a city full of people who never look up to see me.” All her old enthusiasm was gone. Sally had become a sad little star.

“Cheer up, little star! Pretty soon you will have a job to do,” said the joyful angel.

“How do you know?” said grumpy Sally, not really believing the angel knew what he was talking about.

“I am the angel Gabriel,” he said with pride, “and I have just come from a special mission God gave just to me.”

“Yeah? So what?” Sally wasn’t having any of Gabriel’s joy. “I’m Sally, just a dull old star. God put me right in this place. I don’t think a mission from God is all that special.”

“Oh, but it is! Just you wait and see. In about nine months you are going to be one busy little star. You really are! You’ll be brighter! You’ll be great! You’ll be super!” Gabriel sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

“How do you know?” asked Sally, her curiosity winning out over her grumpiness.

“Well, I said I was returning from a special mission that God gave me.” Gabriel looked at Sally, and Sally nodded as Gabriel continued, “I just got a girl named Mary to agree to bring God’s child into the world.” Gabriel said this as though he thought Sally would understand. She did not.

“What has this got to do with me?” Sally asked, a little irritated.

“Surely, you’ve heard about this child.” Sally shook her head. She didn’t pay much attention to the humans who never took time to look up and see her hanging out, lighting up the night sky. “Unbelievable!” Gabriel was amazed that Sally didn’t know what was going on right under her shiny little nose.

“This child has been talked about, promised even, for generations. He’ll be known as Emanuel because he’ll actually be ‘God with us,’ but his name will be Jesus which means ‘God is salvation’.”

“I still don’t know what that has to do with me!” Sally practically shouted. If she had feet she would have stomped them in frustration.

“Oh, Sally,” Gabriel said with a smile. “Sally, you were made for this. God put you in the sky for this. You have always said that you want to shine brighter, do something great, and be a super star. This will be your chance. So you better start gathering up all your light because in a few months you are really going to need it.”

Sally just stared at Gabriel. She still did not understand.

“Sally, you sweet little star. Don’t you see? People are going to need to be able to find this child. He’s going to be born in the city right below you. You do know that you shine right above Bethlehem, a city with quite a history, don’t you?” Gabriel watched and waited for Sally to grasp what he was trying to tell her.

Sally started to shine a little brighter. She was going to do something great. She was going to get her chance to be a super star. “Are you telling me that I’m going to be the one who leads the way to this baby that the world has been waiting for?”

“Yes, Sally, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. In a few months Mary and Joseph will travel to Bethlehem for the census. They’ll get there just in time for Jesus to be born. And then you will light up the sky so others can come and visit this child who will be light for the world.” Gabriel was pleased to see that Sally finally understood. Her job was going to be way more important than Stanely’s spot in the Big Dipper!

Over the next nine months, Sally gathered up all her light and concentrated on glowing brighter and brighter as the months went by. As her light grew brighter, she grew larger. By the time Jesus was born, Sally was the brightest and biggest star in the sky. And she stayed that way for a very long time.

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On the night Jesus was born, Sally watched as a whole bunch of angels startled shepherds who were caring for their sheep through the night. The angels told the shepherds to go and see the baby Jesus who was with his parents right below where Sally lit up the sky. Sally was thrilled when all the shepherds looked up and saw her shining so brightly. They followed her light to the very spot where Jesus lay in a manger.

All through that night and for many nights, people came to visit Jesus and leave him gifts. People came from far off, following Sally’s light. A group of magi (really smart and wise people) came and brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And Sally lit the way for them.

After a time, Sally noticed that she wasn’t shining quite as bright and she wasn’t  quite as big as she had been when Jesus was born. That was okay with Sally. She played her part. She really did shine brighter, she did something great, and for a little while she was a super star.

Somehow, that didn’t seem so important anymore. Sally realized that Jesus would outshine her. The light that baby would bring to the world was far more powerful than her starlight. Jesus would show the world how great God’s love really is.

“That’s okay,” Sally thought to herself. “As long as people remember why I lit up the sky, that’s what’s important. As long as they remember that Jesus is the Light the world really needs and they share that Light with each other, that’s all that matters.”

The Angel Gabriel happened to be nearby and overheard Sally. He said with pride, “Sally, my little star, you really are a super star! Maybe those little people down there will take a cue from you and do what they need to do to show the way to God’s Light and Love because the world needs more superstars!”

Sally laughed and said, “Oh, there’s lots of Light in the world. People just have to want to shine brighter, do something great, and be a superstar to light up their little places in the world.”

Sally and Gabriel smiled at each other and started searching through the nights for all those who will shine brighter, do something great, and be a superstar as they light up the world with God’s love.

RCL – Year A – Christmas Day – December 25, 2016

Proper I
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus  2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Proper II
Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Proper III
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
John 1:1-14

Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Defining Love

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I didn’t grow up knowing that I was loved. Affection and love were not often demonstrated in my family. I grew up thinking that you were lovable if you were good, perfect even. The idea that God loved me even though I was not perfect was something that I wrestled with well into adulthood. What I know now is that love is complex and hard to sort out because it is often mistaken for other things. God’s love is even more difficult for us to comprehend because it is so far beyond our capacity to imagine and, yet, not nearly as confusing as we human beings make it. The last week of Advent traditionally focuses on love, God’s love, and invites us to stretch the limits of our experiences and our imaginings.

Ahaz’s experience should have taught us a lesson about God’s love for humanity. It’s a lesson we need to attend to over and over again. Ahaz was a self-reliant, self-serving ruler who relied more on his ideas than on God’s wisdom and presence. He sought easy peace and assurances of his power while trading safety for security. He relied on human ways, forsaking God. He made alliances with Assyria for the protection of his kingdom only to have Assyria demand allegiance and claim power over Judah. Selling out your God and your people in the name of peace seems like a really bad idea. And it was.

And it still is. Fortunately for Ahaz (and for us) God’s capacity to love is not limited by human behavior. God continues to pour out love on the whole of creation even when we choose everything except love. In the case of Ahaz God did not abandon the people just because Ahaz had. On the contrary, God sent Isaiah to proclaim the day when God would regather all that Ahaz had given away and then some. I’m not sure Ahaz really heard a word the prophet spoke and I doubt he looked for any sign that God was in the midst of the devastation, working to bring about a new thing. I wonder if Ahaz learned anything about God’s love. I also wonder when we will learn that God’s ways are far more loving than our human ways.

Much of the world has stood silently by while Syria is destroyed. In the U.S. we have given our country into the hands of one who embodies white supremacy and endorses the rigid views of one branch of Christianity which endanger many who live on the margins. Like Ahaz, we’ve made a deal based on human ways while pursuing an easy peace. Some would say that we have also traded safety for security. It is safe for all people when we embrace the full diversity of those who live in the U.S. However, those with power feel more secure when they can maintain the illusion of a white, “Christian” nation.

It is hard to find a sense of God’s love while Aleppo burns, refugees are denied sanctuary, Muslims are threatened with having to register, immigrants are facing deportation, pipelines disregard treaties with First Nations people, and countless people live without getting their basic needs met. In Advent we anticipate and celebrate the love of God embodied in Jesus. This love is so powerful it breaks through all our human foolishness. This love broke into the world in an infant born to an unwed teenage mother and her carpenter fiancé in a smelly, noisy cave used to shelter animals. This love changes everything. It’s a love full of promise and hope, and it is for the whole of creation.

When I was young, I believed that love was supposed to be something sweet, simple, and easy and that there was something wrong with me when I couldn’t find that. The problem is that love is so much more than that, especially Divine Love. Sometimes it’s painful, complex, and difficult because it calls us to be more than we are without it. If we are still looking for something easy that keeps us secure, then, somehow, we’ve still managed to miss the proverbial mark. Divine Love embodied in Jesus of Nazareth is so much bigger than our traditions. Yet, we try to make it something we can grasp hold of and contain in a box, preferably on an ornate shelf, and take it down when we need something pretty to look at. This Love is not necessarily pretty – remember that birth and that death? It’s not easy – remember the escape to Egypt?. It cannot be defined, owned, or contained – remember the Resurrection which defied all the rules and expectations?

This Advent Love we proclaim wants more than empty adoration and nostalgic feelings. This Love wants to enter into our lives and transform us into the embodiment of Christ that we already claim to be. This Love is not a gentle, warm-fuzzy love so much as it is a refining fire that will strengthen and reshape us. This Love welcomes refugees, harbors those in need of sanctuary, demands peace where there is war, and does not accept silence in the face of suffering. This Love is tired of our human ways and really would like us to see the signs of God’s presence all around us and respond accordingly.

The Body of Christ can be so much more than it is if we learn what Ahaz did not. God is present in the midst of everything, even the utmost depths of destruction and pain, reaching out to us with a Love that is beyond our capacity to imagine. Isn’t it time we stop defining love and let Love define us?

RCL – The Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year A – December 18, 2016
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Photo: CC0 image by Melanie

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Dry Socks and Hot Food

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Have you ever been camping out in the woods without benefit of electricity, running water, and other modern conveniences? If you have, then you know that the ability to light a fire and keep it burning is important, particularly if you get caught in a storm. Getting wet wood to catch and burn is tricky business. Success makes all the difference – dry socks and hot food.

I remember one hiking trip with friends in the Green Mountains because it rained four of the six days we were out. The first two days were perfect early summer days to be out in the woods. The last four were anything but. It started raining sometime during the second night we camped. No big deal; we all had rain gear. We did decide to camp in the same place for the next night and just explore the trails around where we were. So we packed up our gear and tied up things we were leaving for the day and went off through the wet woods. We came back to camp in the late afternoon only to find a bear using the food pack we’d tied up as a piñata. We backed off and waited for the bear to go on its way. No campfire that night.

The next day we packed up and continued on our way. The rain also continued relentlessly all day, very heavy at times. But we were young and had spent quite a while planning this trip so we were going on and counting on the rain to end. The next couple of days were increasingly uncomfortable. Everything was either damp or soaked through. Any fire we’d managed was weak and smoky. By our last night, we were cold, wet, and desperate for hot food. That’s when we discovered that we had one match left between the five us. We had used them all in previous days just trying to get a fire going enough to boil water for coffee. Now there was one match and all eyes turned to me. I was the one with the most camping experience so I could start the fire with the one remaining match.

We created a lean-to out of branches and tarps to provide a little shelter and cleared a spot for the fire. Then I searched out dry tinder and kindling. I carefully arranged the little would-be fire and took out the last match. My friends were gathered around in hopeful anticipation. One of them hummed “Rise Up, O Flame” so quietly the sound of the rain almost covered it. I took a breath and struck the match and lit the tinder. Then just as carefully I added more tinder, then kindling, and then small branches, and finally it was hot enough to put on a log. We had fire. In a few hours we had coffee, hot food, and dry socks. We were all back to telling stories, singing, laughing, and looking forward to our last day of hiking even if the rains continued.

This Advent is feeling a bit like that rain-soaked hike. The general attitude of folks isn’t all that different than it was among my hiking companions on that trip. It’s been raining for days and people are tired of damp sleeping bags, cold meals, and wet socks. They want a little relief from the pouring rain. And we’ve got one match left and a whole pile of wet wood. Fire might be possible but doesn’t seem very probable given previous attempts to get it going. However, if I don’t get it burning there are going to be cold, hungry, wet folks who aren’t very happy with me.

Over the last several days that same old camp song has been filling my head like a prayer: “Rise up, oh flame. By thy lights glowing. Show to us beauty, visions and joy.” Now that I think of it, this would be a perfect Advent candle lighting song. Is this not what we are watching and waiting and preparing for in this Advent season – a strong flame of beauty, visions, and joy?

I am being guided (or pulled?) through this season by the need to coax a reluctant flame into fire. At first, that little bit of tinder that catches is fragile and a well-aimed raindrop could put it out. With careful tending, though, it can grow until, little by little, the fire gains enough strength and heat to set even the dampest logs aflame.

When Mary sang her song, flames were rising in her and filling her with beauty, visions, and joy for sure. Her words were a continuation of those spoken by Isaiah generations before. There’s a Holy Way out there where the hungry are fed and the broken are made whole. Finding this Holy Way is possible for the oppressed as well as the oppressors. It is possible to walk the Holy Way with weak hands and feeble knees. It is possible even when earthquakes devastate in Indonesia, when planes crash in Pakistan, when geese die by the thousands in Montana, or when you’re camping in the rain.

This third Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Joy, is to remind us that Joy is already present in our lives. Joy is that tiny flame that holds infinite heat and power when it is nurtured and tended properly. Joy keeps our feet moving on the Holy Way of hope peace, joy, and love when the world speaks only of grief, anger, despair, or hatred. We aren’t waiting for something that has not yet happened so much as we are calling ourselves to pay attention to what did happen, what is happening, and what will happen again and again.

We are a people in need of dry socks and warm food. We live in a world that needs us, the Body of Christ, to be the Holy Way where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and the oppressed are liberated. The only way we can possibly do or be any of this is to take time to carefully tend the fragile flame of joy. When we take the time and care to tend and feed it, Joy will become a fire that strengthens and warms us enough for us to continue telling our stories, singing our songs, and laughing over the simple pleasure of a warm fire while the rains pour down. Success makes all the difference…

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Rise up, oh flame.
By thy lights glowing.
Show to us beauty,
Visions and joy.

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday in Advent – Joy – December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Top Photo: CC0 image by James DeMers
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by Fernando Espi

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Vipers, Adders, and the Promise of Peace

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When I was working on my doctorate, for a class project I created a map of wars for the preceding century. I don’t remember the specifics of the project, but I spent hours placing small dot stickers every place in the world that had been active in war. I had nightmares for weeks after discovering that the planet has not ever been free of war in recorded human history. Always, there has been war somewhere, often many somewheres.

As I sit here contemplating Advent peace, I hear my mother telling my high school self how privileged and spoiled my generation is because we did not know the impact of war. I didn’t know what she meant and she didn’t know that some of my earliest memories are of watching footage of body bags returning from Vietnam. In her certainty that my generation would have been more patriotic and more like hers if we had grown up with the damage war does, she was ignoring the fact that we were already shaped by the warring generations who had come before us. And she couldn’t have known how dramatically my experience of war would change, or how soon. A few months later was the Beirut bombing where the largest number of U.S. military personal was killed since Vietnam. It was stunning and horrifying. I knew young people who were Marines at the time. Friends of friends died in the bombing. I wondered how such a thing could happen…

Less than a decade later I watched the bombing of Baghdad on the news from a seminary dorm room. I sat in mute silence, wondering how we could possibly be at war. My mother was wrong. My generation knows more than its fair share of war, as has every generation of human beings. We are fortunate here in the U.S., though. It’s not very often war touches us closely and personally on a daily basis. Many of us are comfortable in forgetting that we are a nation that has been at war for fifteen years. We can entangle patriotism, nationalism, Christianity, and white supremacy without really questioning it because our cities and homes aren’t being blown up. And if we keep everything the way it’s been (whatever that means), then we’re safe from all that goes on with “those people,” you know, the ones who live “over there.” This distance, the forgetting, this tangling religion and nationalism makes it easier for many folks to blame refugees and bolster xenophobia. What happened to compassion? What happened to freedom of religion? What happened to caring for widows, the poor, the aliens among us?

Into these thoughts comes John the Baptist’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” The yearning I feel for the day the lion and lamb lie down together is strong enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yet, I suspect humanity is still more akin to a brood of vipers than inhabitants of God’s holy mountain. The more I read about increased suicides and hate crimes the more I think the adder and the asp are still in biting moods. The truth of it all seems to be that humanity is not willing to take the risk of peace. We are too fond of our illusion of control that war and weapons bring, to risk doing something different.

Yet, the Baptist’s cry echoes through this wilderness we have created. God’s ancient promise of peace lends strength and credence to the echoes. This call to prepare for the way of God really should not continue to be ignored. We must be the ones who prepare the way. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. We cannot reach out for peace with one hand while holding weapons of fear in the other. What will it take for us to slow down, hear the cries of the Christ-child in the far-off manger?  More importantly, what are we going to do to ensure that the Child comes into the world with such power that humanity can take a collective step toward peace?

Singing carols, exchanging gifts, and attending parties are all fine activities. They are a way to sooth our weary souls for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. Consider doing something else, too, though. What is God up to where you are? Go and do that. Who needs radical hospitality and unconditional love in your neighborhood? If we can do these things in our Advent waiting, then we might just find our way to Bethlehem to greet the Child. We might just find enough hope to believe that Peace is really possible.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday in Advent – December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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