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This was my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015 at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ. Our series is entitled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I wrote new words to that tune to go with the lighting of the Advent candle each week. The scripture for the day is Luke 1:5-25.

Advent 2015

The song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A known duo, they had been asked to produce a Christmas album, but hesitated because they did not feel comfortable with the consumerism of Christmas. However, when the nation found itself on the brink of a nuclear holocaust–people fearful of enemies among them, digging backyard bomb shelters and praying to avert another world war–Regney was inspired by babies being pushed in strollers along the streets of New York City. He returned home and penned the words to this song of peace, since sung by countless high school choirs, recorded by hundreds of artists, and played endlessly on Christmas radio.

The imagery captures something of our longing, too, as we prepare for Christmas in another era hovering on the brink of war, with fear of our neighbors and worry for our children. The night wind speaking to a little lamb, the shepherd boy and the king singing about a star, a song and a child, such humble, earth-bound creatures, somehow give us a sense of hope amid the fear and violence of the world—a promise that peace is out there, asleep in the ordinary, whispering and waiting for us, if we only awaken our senses to hear it, see it, feel it. Though I took some liberties with the words for our season, the original words evoke the Advent spirit on their own. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? Do you feel what I feel? Do you know what I know?

That’s what Advent is all about. These weeks before Christmas are supposed to awaken our senses to the presence of God in quiet, ordinary places, because when God-With-Us arrives on Christmas Eve, it is in the humblest of stables. So we prepare by remembering that God is seen in the glow of a midnight angel, felt in the leap of a child in the womb, known in the song of a mother-to-be, and today’s story—heard in the silence of the priest.

Yep, you heard that right—heard in the silence of the priest.

(The irony of preaching a sermon about the silence of a preacher is not lost on me, I assure you.)

Zechariah’s story is the tale of a man of words, the man to whom the community had assigned the task of speaking about God, even speaking FOR God, being struck mute when God actually spoke to him.

It was Zechariah’s big day. There were thousands among the priestly clans, each rotating through the temple, taking their turn to care for the Holy of Holies. When his family, the sons of Abijah, came to take their turn, they lit the fires, tended the sacrifices, oversaw the prayers for the whole temple, the whole people of Israel. But only one man could step inside the Holy of Holies to perform the ritual there. Only one man each time, and no man could enter twice—it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor, and most, even among the priestly families, were never chosen.

This was no popularity contest or piety award—Zechariah and the members of his family stood around and drew lots, and Zechariah’s hand happened upon the lucky straw. He would step into the holiest sanctuary, the sacred room in the Temple inhabited by God’s own presence, representing the whole of his people before the Holy. When he emerged, the people would gather around and await a blessing, a word from God himself, delivered by Zechariah.

The Gospel writer goes out of his way to tell us that even though he got this honor by sheer luck, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were people of exemplary faith. They prayed, they followed the law, they were righteous and blameless, good and faithful in every way. Zechariah must have trembled in holy awe that he was chosen.

And yet, even though Zechariah and Elizabeth had been faithful all their lives, but God had not rewarded them. They were barren, childless. They had prayed, they had obeyed, but God had been silent. Month after month, cycle after cycle, nothing but silence. Silence in Elizabeth’s womb, silence in their home, silence from God. By the time Zechariah was chosen to enter the Holy of Holies, it was too late. Too many moons had come and gone, and they grew old. God had remained silent for years.

When Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies that day, I imagine he believed that God still had a word for the people he represented. Certainly God had a blessing for everyone else, a message of hope and encouragement for the masses—even if God had only silence for he and Elizabeth.

But the angel had not come with vague promises or generic words of comfort. This was no anonymous platitude or nameless blessing. It wasn’t for everyone else. The angel of God came with a very specific word to them, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a silence-shattering, new-world-opening, mind-blowing, unthinkable, impossible word. “Your prayers have been heard,” the angel said. “Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and you must name him John. This child of yours will not only bring you joy and delight, he will be the one who brings many people back to God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah, terrified and stunned, responds to this breath-taking announcement in the most awkward, graceless, bumbling way possible. “How can I be sure? We’re old,” he says. If there were a soundtrack, you’d hear one of those record-screeching-to-a-halt sounds right here.

I can almost hear the angel Gabriel sigh. “Because I am the angel Gabriel, and you’re standing in the Holy of Holies, and I’m telling you so.” Shaking his head, Gabriel continues, “Because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”

Some would like to see this silence as punishment for Zechariah’s sin of disbelief, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I’m with Barbara Brown Taylor, who calls it “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit of hopelessness.” (Bread with Angels, 93)

Zechariah had grown so accustomed to God’s silence that he was unable to receive the word of God when it came. While he never stopped praying, never stopped obeying, he had long ago abandoned any sense that God was listening. Zechariah, whose very name means “God remembers” had become convinced God had forgotten.

Who could blame him? How many of us, likewise, have prayed and obeyed, but long ago given up hope for an answer? How many of us have ceased to imagine God hears our prayers? We pray that our family could grow, our illness be healed, our relationships mended, our job meaningful, our finances successful—but how strong is our hope in God’s response? We pray for peace and justice and love to win, but it is murmuring into a void. The news of more shootings, more hatred, more violence, more abuse have given us likewise “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit if hopelessness.” Imagining the promises of Isaiah about a light in the darkness, a Prince of Peace, reigning with justice and righteousness forevermore are impossible dreams. The best we have come to hope for is some nameless blessing, generic word of comfort, or vague platitude.

Instead, what Zechariah discovers is that God has a hope just for them. He and Elizabeth, their deepest and most intimate prayers, have been heard, and God is about to fulfill their hopes and dreams, even when they themselves have given up on them. Zechariah’s name and his story instead proclaim that God remembers. God’s silence will not be forever, and when it arrives, God’s voice will not come to us as a vague, generic, nameless message. When God speaks, it will be so stunning, so personal and convicting and convincing and life-changing and mind-blowing and new-world-opening that it will render us speechless.

The 19th century mystic Baron Von Hügel said, “Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith.”

When Zechariah emerged from the Holy of Holies, the greatness of God had swallowed him whole. The people stood around him awaiting his message, the blessing he would give directly from God. There were no words. Sound caught in his throat, his hands flapped helplessly. This man assigned to speak for God found himself mute when God actually spoke to him. The look of holy awe must have lingered on his face, the reflection of the angel still in his eyes, because the people could tell he had seen a vision, and they fell silent too. Because they know God remembered, God heard, and they had hope.

This opening Sunday of Advent, hear the story of Zechariah and know that God remembers. Even when there is only silence, God is still there—and when God does speak again, it will be a word so surprising and life-changing, so for you, that it will swallow you whole and leave you speechless.

So maybe then Zechariah’s story is also an invitation to fall silent, a reminder to just shut up, because the greatness of God is all around us. Just shut up and listen, in wonder and hope-filled imagination, to the night wind and the little lamb, to the child and the shepherd boy, to the presence in the Holy of Holies.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

Do you hear what I hear?

 

 

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A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.

broken-heartI fell in love for the first time when I was 22 years old. I’d had plenty of dates, little crushes and infatuations, romances that lasted awhile here and there, but I’d never fallen in love.

I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.

They don’t call it heartache for nothing.

I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.

We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.

We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.

Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.

broken heart 2We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.

Broken breadThe broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.

Amen.

For my Epiphany sermon at St. Luke’s on January 4, I was inspired by the If You Give… children’s book series by author Laura Numeroff and illustrator Felicia Bond, best known for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you don’t know this series, you’re missing out, and I recommend watching the video below to catch up.

I noticed how the magi set out to do one thing–follow the star to a king–and ended up doing much more than they ever expected. Just like the mouse in the story, saying “yes” to a request from God often ends up to be a whole lot more complicated and involved that we expect.

For the sermon, I read the congregation If You Take a Mouse to the Movies, a holiday-themed book in the series, and talked about the unexpected turns in the magi’s journey. Then, inspired by Numeroff, I wrote my own Epiphany-themed version of If You Give… called “If You Go Where God Sends You.” It captures many themes from the magi, but also my own experiences with following God to unexpected places. I hope you enjoy it.

Epiphany 1

If you go where God sends you,

You’ll probably follow a dim light in the distance.

If you follow a dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

 

If you don’t know exactly where you’re going,

You’ll probably end up taking a few detours.

If you take a few detours,

You’ll probably take a wrong turn.

If you take a wrong turn, God will use that part of the journey as well,

so don’t fret about it.

 

While you are on a detour,

You’ll probably meet a few new people.

If you meet a few new people,

You may encounter some new ideas.

If you encounter some new ideas,

You might just find that your old ideas have changed.

When your old ideas have changed,

You might just find that you have changed.

 

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) - James Tissot

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) – James Tissot

When you have changed,

Some of people won’t like it, and you may discover they are unkind.

If you discover people who are unkind,

God might just ask you to help stop them from hurting others.

When God asks for your help in standing up to unkind people,

Chances are those unkind people are not going to like you very much.

If they don’t like you very much,

They may try to hurt you or hurt someone else.

If they try to hurt you or hurt someone else,

You’re going to have to listen to God even harder.

If you listen to God even harder,

God will probably tell you to go a different way.

 

Once you are going a different way, still following that dim light in the sky,

The light will eventually guide you to where you’re supposed to go.

But when you get there, God might not provide what you expect.

Even if it’s not what you expect, you’ll know it’s God, that it’s holy,

That it’s where you’re supposed to be.

You’ll know it because, instead of a dim light in the distance,

You’ll discover God’s light deep inside of you.

Epiphany 3

When you discover God’s light deep inside you,

You’ll want to give everything you have to God.

When you give everything you have to God,

You search your possessions, your gold,

Your titles, your precious treasures,

All the things that make you feel secure,

And give them away.

 

Once you have given everything away,

You’ll think you have arrived where God sent you.

When you think you have arrived where God sent you,

You’ll notice a dim light in the distance.

If you follow the dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

Epiphany 4

I usually reserve sermons for my church blog, but I actually had a manuscript, and several friends asked to see it, so here it is. What I actually delivered was slightly different, to be sure. This Easter sermon, both in its writing and its delivery, felt very personal and pastoral–the coming together of my love for folks as their pastor, and what testimony I wanted to share with them. It’s not fancy or creative or clever, just honest.

 

Our Easter altar

Our Easter altar

I’m always struck by the vast differences between our Easter celebrations today and that first Easter in the garden.

Neva and Becky and I—along with the choir and the liturgist and the bells and everyone else leading today’s service—we’ve been planning and organizing and working for weeks toward this morning’s service, so that we know where everything goes in the Order of Worship, what words to say, what songs to sing, with the music in the right order and the props in the right places. But that first Easter was confusing and disorganized from beginning to end. Mary and Peter and the other disciple went running to the tomb and back, frantic, panic. Where have they laid him? We don’t know where they put him. Sir, if you know where he is please tell me so I can go and get him. Where is he? No one knew what was going on. It was a mess.

And look at all of you here in your Easter finery. We’ve got ourselves and our children looking their best, our sanctuary decked out in all its splendor. But that first Easter had everyone dressed in mourning clothes, bleak, tear-stained faces, carrying the spices to tend to the body, buried in fear and bereft of hope.

Today, we sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” with the radiant Christ before us. That first Easter, though, there was none of that—there was Mary, silently standing before the empty tomb, weeping into her hands. Jesus did not appear radiant or majestic or powerful—he was so humble, so earthly, she mistook him for the gardener.

Today, we started with a shout of Alleluia—but that first Easter moment began with a whisper: “Mary.”

And in that moment, everything changed—and Mary went from asking “Where is God?” to testifying to everyone: “I have seen the Lord.”

On the surface, all those contrasts seem so dramatic—our Easter experience and the experience of Mary and the disciples seem so out of sync and disconnected. And yet. And yet I’d wager that more than a few of us came to church this morning—even with our Easter finery on the outside—more than a few of us are still wrestling with Mary’s question, with Peter’s despair, with the unnamed disciple’s doubt.

We may look pretty today, we may have our family together, starched and ironed—but the grief and the pain of day to day living are not far from the surface, are they? Death, illness, loss, financial woes, addiction, family tensions—all this and so much more may have been put aside for Easter Sunday, but they will find us again soon enough—come tomorrow, or maybe even this afternoon.

We are hopeful that showing up to this church service will lead us to joy and beauty this day, that it will make Jesus alive for us somehow—because much of the time we cast about from day to day wondering, like Mary, where he is. Can you tell me where they have taken him? Please, someone tell us how to get back in touch with Jesus again, because he is lost and we are lost without him.

We go along with the Alleluias and the shining glory this morning, because we want it to be true, we want it to be real—but many of us are still wondering if the empty tomb is just, well, empty—if this whole thing isn’t just plain empty, if it all just amounts to nothing.

empty tomb

I believe we all come here this Easter day looking for the same thing Mary was looking for in that garden that morning, the same thing that she sought inside the empty tomb. We come here looking for Jesus. We are here not because we are convinced of the resurrection, confident and assured in all things—we are here in this place of worship because we need to be convinced of it again. We come not because we’ve found Jesus, but because we are still looking for him. We want to hear, even if just a whisper, our Savior call our name, so that our panicked and doubt-filled “where is God?” might be transformed into “I have seen the Lord.”

My friends, as your pastor, as one who cares for you and loves you, as one who wants nothing more than to provide a splendid Easter service that sends you all out proclaiming “I have seen the Lord,” the reality is that there is only one thing that I can do before you this day.

It is the only thing that Mary could do, the only thing that has kept this Christianity thing going, year after year, Easter after Easter, resurrection after resurrection for two thousand years. I can testify. I can tell you that I too find myself asking “where is Jesus?” Where have they put him? Why have they taken him away? I may stand up before you looking starched and ironed and put together, but I bear the same burdens of doubt and despair that you do. I too wonder sometimes if the empty tomb is just plain empty, and there’s nothing there, nothing here at all.

But when I sit here in this empty sanctuary, late at night or early in the morning, praying at nothing, wringing my hands with despair, every now and then I hear it—quietly, silently, coming from the back of my mind yet somehow beyond me—I hear the Savior whisper my name.

And then I remember—I have seen the Lord. I have seen the Lord. I stand before you today and proclaim to you that I have seen the Lord, that I believe in the resurrection. I don’t believe in the resurrection because of something that happened 2,000 years ago—I believe in the resurrection because I have seen Jesus today, and he is alive among us.

I have seen lives I thought were over—people whose addiction was so severe that I thought they were lost forever. But Jesus appears to them, calls their name, and they find a way to let go of their addiction and live again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen relationships so estranged, marriages so pain-filled, parents and children so filled with anger and hurt that I thought they were dead—but somehow Jesus shows up, calls out names, and people find a way back to love again, back to life again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen people who have been victims of violence and hate and abuse, people who have every reason to be bitter at God and bitter at the world, hear Jesus call their name and stand strong to proclaim instead that “love wins,” because nothing else but love will set them free to heal. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen tornado survivors, in this congregation and beyond, whose lives have been torn to shreds and scattered across the fields in destruction. Survivors like Louella Akers, who lost all four of her limbs due to a tornado-borne bacteria, then lost her home to foreclosure while she was hospitalized for more than year. She believed her life was over, that she would spend the rest of her days lying in bed, helpless—but Jesus called her name and told her there was more to do. New technology has given her four new robotic limbs, and March2Recovery and New Hope Services gave her a new apartment equipped with everything she needs to adapt and live independently. She started out walking everywhere, but now she can even drive again. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen my former congregation, the Old South Church in Boston, just feet from the finish line of the Boston marathon and last year’s terrible bomb blast, transform an occasion of terror and catastrophe into a witness of hope and new life. They requested people knit scarves in the blue and yellow marathon colors, to be delivered to runners at their annual Blessing of the Athletes service held this morning, the day before the race. Hoping for a few hundred, they received more than 7,000—and they have been out on the street every day since Tuesday passing them out to athletes, to first responders, to survivors, with prayer and tears and so much love, transforming a scene of blood and death into a place of triumph and love. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen St. Luke’s, once left for dead after conflict and betrayal, hear Jesus call our name, challenging us and reminding us that God still has need of us in this place, serving this community—and watched a miracle unfold here, as we let God remake us in a new way—new people, new worship, new ministry, new building—so that now we are alive and we have been resurrected. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

None of these resurrections are simple, or instant, or magical, or easy, or pain-free—coming back from the dead is not for the faint of heart. It demands faith, and trust, and hope, and often a great deal of hard work. But resurrection is possible. The question of “where is God?,” the doubt-filled emptiness of the tomb, the despair of death—those things are real, as real as the cross on which Jesus died. But resurrection is real too. I have seen the Lord, not 2,000 years ago, but right here in our midst, and he is indeed alive, and he is whispering your name, and he is inviting you to be resurrected with him. Because Jesus is alive, you can be too. Whatever it is that is afflicting you and killing you, Jesus can call your name and set you free. Whatever it is that is burying you and entombing you, Jesus can roll away the stone. Whatever keeps you in the darkness of death, Jesus is the light of resurrection. I have seen the Lord, and he is alive. And that means we can be too. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

This is a first draft of my sermon for this Sunday, December 16. I don’t usually post things early, but I thought it might help other colleagues who are also seeking a path to speak of Advent’s promised joy in the face of such tragedy. Please feel free to borrow, quote and adapt, just please credit where appropriate. It still needs editing, and I will probably tinker with it throughout the day. I will post a final revised version on my sermon blog on Sunday. 

The scripture reading for the day is Zephaniah 3:14-20.

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This Third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be a day about joy.

“Rejoice, daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem!” proclaims the scripture from the prophet Zephaniah.

And yet, shouting and rejoicing seem grossly out of place this Sunday, in the wake of the slaughter of children, a national tragedy. How dare we rejoice in the face of such horror? How dare we talk about joy in the face of such grief and devastation? It’s inappropriate, unseemly, insensitive, untimely. This is not the day. Now is not the time. How dare we?

And yet, it wasn’t the time for Zephaniah either. But he does. How dare he?

Zephaniah, or whoever wrote the book in his name that comes at the end of the Hebrew Bible, mostly likely lived more than 600 years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of the king Manasseh. Manasseh was a client king for the conquering Assyrians, and widely regarded as one of the most wicked and evil rulers Israel ever knew. According to the book of 2 Kings, Manasseh defiled the holy temple with false gods, trusted wizards and fortune tellers instead of priests and prophets, persecuted those who followed Yahweh’s law. In a bit of history hauntingly parallel to our own, he even practiced of child sacrifice, including the murder of his own son. 2 Kings tells us that “Manasseh spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it.” (2 Kings 21:16) Evil. Violent. Tragic. Appalling.

How could Zephaniah preach joy in the face of such evil?

Well, he didn’t start out with joy, for one thing. We only read the joy part today—the last six verses of this tiny little scroll. Zephaniah begins at the beginning—decrying the tragedy, death and destruction that he sees all around him. Speaking as God’s voice, Zephaniah declares punishment for all the evildoers. He describes “a day of fury, a day of distress and anxiety, a day of desolation and devastation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and deep darkness, a day for blowing the trumpet and alarm.” (2:15) I don’t know about you, but that describes my day on Friday with startling accuracy.

Zephaniah doesn’t try to make sense of it all, or explain it, or even figure out who to blame for it—he just names the situation for what it is—horror and suffering and tragedy. A world where children die violently—in ancient Jerusalem and modern Palestine; in Newtown, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon; in Chenpeng Village in Central China and the town of Aleppo in Syria. A world in which violence has become commonplace and lawlessness the law of the land. A world where it’s easier for a troubled young man to acquire a gun and a fake id than it is to find the mental health assistance he needs. Zephaniah names it all. And he names the feelings it provokes—anger and pain and sorrow and desolation and despair. Then he tells us that God is angry and hurt and mourning along with us. That work—calling out the suffering and telling us God shares it—takes up almost the entire tiny book of Zephaniah.

In just the last few verses, slowly, gently, Zephaniah dares invoke joy. The turning point comes when, again speaking for God, he says, “Wait for me. Wait for the day when I rise up.” Not now. Not yet. Not joy realized, but joy promised. Not joy fulfilled, but joy awaiting. Zephaniah does not declare that everything is alright, or even that it will be alright again soon. Nothing about dead children is ever alright, whether two days or 2600 years ago, whether caused by a mass shooting or an abusive king, or war, or famine, or bullying, or addiction, or suicide, or cancer, or anything else. He does not tell us to get over it, move on, or be happy. The prophet speaks of joy because he wants us to know that in spite of it all, God still reigns. How dare he speak of joy in the face of such tragedy? How dare he not.

How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.

God speaks to us through Zephaniah: “The day is coming when you will no longer fear evil. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love. I will deliver the lame. I will gather the outcast. I will change your shame into praise. I will bring all of you back, and you can see them before your eyes.”

3rd Advent

These darkest days are just when we need the light of this little pink candle most of all. We don’t need this candle’s light when the sun is shining, the tree is twinkling and everyone is happy and bright. We need it now. Today. In the midst of despair. Not because the day of joy is here, but because we need to know it’s still coming. Otherwise, how could we ever go on?

And so, I join with Zephaniah and dare speak to you this day of joy. Just because we aren’t ready to hear it or feel it or receive it does not mean that God’s joy is not still there, waiting for us even as we wait for it. God still moves toward Bethlehem, even if there is room in the inn.  “Rejoice, daughter Zion, rejoice and exult with all your heart. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love.” “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

I usually post sermons as podcasts through my church’s website, but the recording did not work on this one, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my Facebook friends who helped me write it. So, I’m posting the manuscript here  for them to see.

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The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.               –-Jeremiah 33:14-16

This is the first week of Advent, which means we get to talk about hope.

And this week, of all weeks, I couldn’t spend all this time thinking about hope without thinking about everybody who spent the week hoping they would win the Powerball jackpot. Millions and millions of people waiting and hoping that their number would be called, hoping that their lives would be changed, debts cancelled, woes about bills and expenses forever banished, mean bosses vanquished. All those fantasies about what you could do, what you would do with such a windfall.

Josh and I bought a ticket too, and indulged in some fun daydreaming together about how we would spend and distribute $580 million. It was lots of fun. We had a good time talking and anticipating and hoping. All the good we could do with that kind of money!

As a pastor, I was hoping too. Of course my first hope was that we would win, but my secondary hope was that one of you would win. Just like every other pastor in this country, I prayed that if it wasn’t me, it might be one of you. Even the pastors who rail against gambling still hope for the chance to call up a church member who just won $580 million and have a conversation about tithing.

powerball-ticket-500-million

Then, of course, came the disappointment. I didn’t win, and neither did any of you. Two families were the lucky ones, but the rest of us are just left with useless scraps of paper in our pockets.

Thankfully, my friend Mary Luti posted this: “A Prayer for All the Times You Do Not Win Powerball.”

If you, O Lord, are not bitterly disappointed
that, not having won, I will not be able to solve
the financial problems of my congregation
and build several houses for the poor in Honduras
with a generous donation from my winnings
(after I take care of my family and friends,
pay off the mortgage and the plastic and buy a Mercedes),
then I’ll be fine, I’ll get over it, even ‘though
the thought of all the good I could have done with that money
is painful, even ‘though you could have used me
to make a difference. Oh well.
There will be another day. I have my numbers picked
for when the jackpot gets big again. Bless them.
There’s so much I want to do.
For you, of course. Amen.

The hope of which we speak on this first Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of hope from the hopes we place in a Powerball ticket.

Ours is the hope of the prophets.

Prophets are not fortune tellers, predictors of the future like Nostradamus or something.

To prophesy in the Bible is to tell of the promises of God—promises of peace and not destruction, promises of grace and salvation and home and justice.

It’s like what we read today from the prophet Jeremiah: “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”

What is that promise? A leader who will do what is just and right in the land. Salvation and safety for the people of Israel and Judah, and for Jerusalem.

And our hope is that God will fulfill that promise.

You can see how different that is than the Powerball kind of hope. Early in the week, when I was thinking about this distinction, I put it out on my Facebook page, and quite a few of my friends weighed in with their thoughts, which are integrated with my own.

First and foremost, the difference between the Powerball hope and the Gospel hope is the difference between luck and trust.

The Powerball is all about luck—and your chances are one in 176 million, which is not very good odds.

The Gospel is all about trust—confidence that God will come through, not just for one in 6 billion of us, but for the whole world.

Our own Eden Kuhlenschmidt said, “difference between the false hope of this world and the true hope of God’s promises.”

That’s the other difference—hope for one vs. hope for all

With Powerball, one lucky family, or maybe two, experiences salvation, freedom from debt and a change of their lives.

But Gospel hope is not just for one person or one family, although it’s personal for each of us. The Gospel Hope is for the whole world, for the salvation of everyone, so that we experience a change in the way the whole planet runs, into ways of justice and righteousness and peace and salvation for all.

Everyone’s a winner. It’s a sure bet.

Another difference is in time

Powerball hope seeks immediate gratification. By 11:30 on Wednesday night, you knew if you were a winner or a loser, if your hopes were fulfilled or not.

Gospel hope doesn’t happen so quick like that, although the Gospel warns us to be ready for it to happen “in the blink of an eye.” After 2000 years of hoping for Christ’s return, we’ve realized we’re dealing more with a long-range confidence.

Gospel hope proclaims that, no matter what comes, God will be in charge at the end.  God will see you through. Peace will prevail, no matter how long it takes.

In the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

What it is we are hoping for is different too.

A friend I grew up with, who no longer considers herself a Christian, wrote this:
“The lottery is the hope for freedom from poverty and obscurity in this life. The Gospel is the hope that the 80 or so years we spend on this planet aren’t pointless because there’s something else afterwards. It’s too depressing to believe that the struggle against poverty and obscurity is a waste of time in the end.” (Melissa)

My cousin wrote: The gospel actually leaves you with a better life 10 years later instead of the strife and drama lottery winnings come with. (Carrie)

Jim Jensen, St. Luke’s insurance agent, mused: “Unfortunately we don’t celebrate God’s new winners like we do the lottery winners.”

One of the first things that people were quick to point out is that, unlike the Powerball, the Gospel is free. You don’t have to pay to play, that God’s grace is a free gift for all.

I don’t think it’s free at all. No, you don’t have to spend $2 to play, you don’t have to have money at all, but it will cost you—everything. God doesn’t demand anything from you in order to receive grace—but in response to that grace, you are compelled to give everything you have, your life, your time, your love, your resources, to God’s purposes.

But the math is all different. People play Powerball trying to spend a little and get a lot. Turn $2 into $580 million. Did you know that your odds don’t actually increase the more you play? It’s a myth, because the lottery doesn’t work like chances in a raffle. No matter how many tickets you have, your chances are still just one in 176 million.

As my friend Jodi put it, “God gives us way better odds than the lottery does. God might talk about a narrow path, but it is nowhere near as narrow as the lottery path.”

With God’s promises, the more you invest in hope, the bigger the hope grows and the bigger the payout. Give it all, get it all and more. Whatever you put in comes back to you in full measure and more. The more you put in, the stronger the hope grows.

The Gospel hope doesn’t cost you a thing, because it is God’s gracious gift. But it will cost you everything to follow it. And it will be worth every penny, every hour, every sacrifice.

In my initial Facebook posting, I made a note that told my friends not to mock anyone who played the lottery, because it is fun to hope and imagine what you would do with all those winnings. One friend, an Episcopal priest, responded this way: “It’s fun to hope and imagine what you’d do with the Gospel, too.”

That’s what Advent is for. For hoping and imagining the Gospel promises being fulfilled in our lifetime, or even in us. Imagine the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Imagine a world of peace and justice. Imagine the world living together in harmony with God’s design. Imagine right relationships, security, trust, fulfillment. And know that those are not wild fantasies and lottery dreams—they are the hope of the prophets, the sure bet, the free grace, the covenant of peace and justice and righteousness and safety and salvation from the God who was and is and is to come. For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Photo of tornado that hit Henryville, from crabbyhousewife.com.

Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.

Henryville High School, devastated by the tornado.

Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.

We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.

The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.

It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:

People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”

The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.

So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.

For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.

We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good.  That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.

I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.

Volunteers in Henryville (AP photo by Michael Conroy)

Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already.  A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”

So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.

And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.

Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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