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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?

 

 

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

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

The apostle Paul writes with some dizzying logic sometimes, doesn’t he? He calls those of us who follow Christ “ambassadors of reconciliation,” but then he goes on to leave a trail of irreconcilable contradictions about how we reconcilers are seen in the world. “We are treated with honor and dishonor, verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as fake and real, unknown and well known, as dying, but look, we are alive. We were punished but not killed, going through pain but always happy, poor but making many rich, as having nothing but owning everything.” Contradictions upon contradictions. This list is more like a seesaw or a tennis match than my vision of what it means to be an “ambassador of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation, in my mind, means making things go together smoothly, even though they might naturally conflict. The dictionary agrees with me that to reconcile is to “make two apparently conflicting things compatible or consistent with one another.” Paul doesn’t seem to reconcile any of those things—he just holds them up and says, “We’re both! Dying and alive, honored and dishonored, fake and real, known and unknown. We’re both!”

This holding together of tensions, this being “both-and,” is very much what I think we are supposed to remember every year on Ash Wednesday.

Butterflyfish is a bluegrass band writing faith-inspired children’s music, led by my friend Elizabeth Myer-Boulton and her husband Matt, who is the new president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Matthew has written a song that I think speaks to this “both-and” tension. It’s basically a little parable, and it’s called “Great and Small.” The words go like this:

Deep down here inside my pocket there’s a little piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m feeling out of shape, or
To keep my fears at bay
It says you are great

Deep down in my other pocket there’s another piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m getting into shape, or
When I’m walking tall
It says you are small.

‘Cause you are great and small, you are tiny and tall
Remember through it all, you are great and small.

Isn’t it true? Don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed great? When we are frightened or discouraged or rejected or vulnerable or powerless, we need to be reminded of the power we have as one person to change the world in love. We are great. And don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed so very small? When we are self-centered or narrow-minded, ego-driven or unrelenting, unforgiving or ungracious, we need to be reminded that in the vast universe and the long arc of history, we are small.

Some people think that the season of Lent and the ashes of Ash Wednesday are all about reminding us that we are small. After all, we are about to put ashes and dust on our foreheads, and repeat the phrase, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For some, remembering we are dust is about remembering all the ways we’ve acted like dirt, and try again to act like the spirit of God. While repentance is a good thing, and confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiving grace is an important part of remembering that we are small, these dusty ashes upon your foreheads are not about calling you a dirtbag. They are about reminding you that you are a human being, created by God from the dust the earth. In Genesis 2, God created human beings by scooping up the rich, dark soil, adamah in Hebrew, and (whoosh) blowing life into it. You are of the earth. You are made of the stuff of this world. Like everything else in this world, you will live and you will die this one precious life, in this one fragile body, and then that lifeless body will return again to dust. Among all other creatures and lives, surrounded by all the dirt of the earth, each one of us is one tiny speck in the vast universe. We are so very small.

Photo by Inger Ekrem, Riksförbundet Svensk Trädgård.

But that’s not all. Whenever we remember we are dust, whenever we remember that we are adamah, made of clay, we also have to remember what else we are made of. What other ingredient, apart from the earth, comprises humanity at the dawn of creation? (Whoosh) The breath of God. You are dirt and to dirt you shall return, but you are also the breath of God, and to God you shall return. Inside of you dwells the spark of the Almighty God, the power of God’s spirit animates your life. You are filled with the power to love, to give, to serve, to rejoice, to overcome, to hope, to be transformed. Even more, you can transform the world around you by your work and your love, your witness and your welcome, your peace-making and your graciousness. The eternal breath of God breathes in you. You are great.

Every Ash Wednesday, we remember what it is to be human, to be made from dust and the breath of God. The opposing contradictions of great and small, known and unknown, clarity and mystery, life and death—they all are reconciled in each and every human life. We are indeed ambassadors of reconciliation. When our lives reflect our true nature, we are simultaneously reflecting the transient beauty of the world and the eternal beauty of God.

Great and small. Dust of the earth and the very breath of God. You are both, insists Paul. You are both, says the author of Genesis. That’s what it means to be human—to be both great and small, and equal measure of dust and divinity.

As we enter this Lenten journey toward Easter, we are invited to remember who we are. Where in your life do you need to remember you are small? How is God reassuring you that you are not God, that the world does not rest upon your shoulders, that all this will come to an end and you are not in control? Where in your life do you need to embrace your greatness? How is God calling you to do big things in the name of love, to transform the world with grace and hope right where you are?

We have for you tonight, in addition to the ashes for your forehead, and a taste of the bread of life and cup of salvation at the table, a couple of pieces of paper for your pocket. Can you guess what they say? One for each pocket. You are great. You are small. I invite you to carry them with you as the season progresses, as a reminder that in you, in your oh-so-human-life, lies their reconciliation. The great and the small, the dust and the divinity, in you—an ambassador of reconciliation. Thanks be to God.

This sermon was originally offered at the joint Ash Wednesday service with my congregation and the local Disciples of Christ church in town, February 22, 2012. You can download the song “Great and Small” at Butterflyfish’s website, www.butterflyfishband.com.

Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell, HarperOne, 2011, 202 pp.

Last Easter, a friend of mine used Rob Bell’s inspirational sermon from sometime around 2006, which was originally called “The Cross,” but soon became known as “Love Wins.” (You can purchase it from www.marshill.org, but I found a podcast here.) I found that catch phrase, and the accompanying stickers, a great summary of Easter faith, and immediately knew it would be the title of my Easter sermon this year. Back in early February, I planned it out. I put it on flyers. I even ordered 276 “Love Wins.” stickers to pass out to the congregation on Easter morning. (That’s nearly 100 more than we needed, but they were cheaper in bulk.)

Just a few weeks later, Rob Bell published his latest book—Love Wins. And all hell broke loose. I’m guessing most of you have heard about the controversy. Bell has been villified among evangelical preachers, with Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary here in Louisville leading the way. This battle between preachers has captured media attention, and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Courier-Journal, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

While I am not unwilling to talk about hot theological topics, opening up an already politically charged conversation about heaven, hell and salvation on Easter morning, when the congregation is packed with visiting extended family (many of whom regularly worship in local evangelical churches, but come with mom on Easter) and C&E Christians, was not what I had in mind. But I had all these stickers. And flyers, already printed. I was excited about “love wins” as an Easter message of hope and new life overcoming death.

So I had to buy the book and read it in time for Easter, and then negotiate a theological controversy on Easter morning without preaching a 20-30 minute expository sermon. In the end, I think it turned out pretty well, and gave me a chance to talk about my beloved United Church of Christ and our commitment to welcoming all the people and all our questions. Here’s what I said:

In the book, Bell questions the classical evangelical understandings about hell and wonders how, if God loves us so much, God could then condemn us to eternal punishment just because we didn’t get the message in time. He asks questions about heaven, about salvation, about resurrection and grace. In the end, he concludes, love wins. Always. Eventually. Not without judgment or justice or consequences, but love wins.

So, before I could preach my pre-planned Easter sermon, before I could give you all these items I had ordered, in bulk, I had to go and read the book. And I did, cover to cover, and I did not find anything in it that was either new or objectionable—and Bell himself says as much. He covers familiar debates that have existed throughout the history of Christianity in a new way. We in the United Church of Christ have always believed that faithful questions are more important to faith than unquestioned certainty. You can doubt the existence of heaven or hell, question the resurrection of the body and God won’t cast you aside and neither will we. That’s why our welcome is wide and we generally err on the side of love over judgment, grace over purity, mercy over punishment—because we believe that we are all sinners, no one knows all the answers, but in the end, with an Easter God of resurrection, love wins. I’m not sure exactly why this controversy has gotten so heated, except that some people really cling tightly to their need for eternal damnation. As Doug Pagitt, one of Bell’s friends, wrote in his defense: “Is it possible to overstate the love of God? Is it really possible to tell as story of God that is more graceful than God actually is? Is it really possible to give God too much mercy credit?”

On this Easter morning, when life has overcome death, when the stone has been rolled away, when the powers of destruction and violence are defeated, I would say absolutely not. Love wins. (You can hear the full sermon here.)

As for the book itself, I don’t have much to add beyond the brief review I offered in the sermon. As a member of the mainline, progressive wing of Christianity, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Bell’s book covers terrain we have been discussing for 200 years. In the pulpit, I did not anticipate most of our folks would find it objectionable or controversial either. Many found it exciting and refreshing to name those questions publicly on such a high holy day.

However, especially here at the borderlands of the Midwest and the South, single-digit miles from the Southern Baptist seminary of Albert Mohler, we are surrounded by people who have never heard these questions before, or by those who have dared to ask them in the open and been shunned for it, or those who secretly ask but fear losing family, friends and faith for giving voice to their doubts. All around us in our community are people who have rejected God because they reject those beliefs about God. People stumble into our church all the time, led (I believe) by the Holy Spirit, seeking to find faith and community through their questions and doubts. People come with fear about going to hell, even though they aren’t sure what they think about hell.

Bell’s book is worthwhile not because it offers new information or different perspectives or deeper explorations, but because it presents a lifeline to anyone who wants someone to hold their hand while they explore those questions, to reassure them that this is not new territory, that someone else has walked this path and lived, with faith, to tell about it. It’s a resource I can offer to those who ask, tentatively, fearfully, about heaven, hell and salvation for all the people.

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 49:8-16

Speaking in God’s voice, Isaiah writes: “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It’s such a familiar, ordinary kind of image. “I won’t forget—see? I wrote it down right here on my hand.” What do you write on your hands? Telephone numbers? Directions? Grocery Lists? Things to bring to a meeting, an event? Students write crib notes for their tests. At least one politician has gotten in trouble for writing debate notes on the palm of a hand. We can deduce that this practice is as old as the Bible itself, at least the era of Isaiah.

Every time you look down at your hands, the reminder is there. What is the reminder written on the palms of God’s hands? You are, Isaiah says. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Your name, concerns about your well-being, all the needs of the community of God are inscribed in the palm of his hands.

When I first heard this image, I found it incredibly moving. I mean, to think, we, you and me, matter so much to God that we are written in the palm of God’s hand. Surely we will not be forgotten, if we are written in such a handy place?

But the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled by having my name written on God’s hand. I don’t know about you, but the only time I bother writing something on my hand is when I am actually quite inclined to forget it. I write it there because I just know, if I don’t, I’m going to forget. And I actually gave up writing things on the palm of my hand a long time ago, because I discovered that I would almost always sweat, smear or wash them off by the time I needed to remember them. I’d just end up with some illegible smudges in the wrinkles of my skin—not a helpful reminder at all.

This troubled me. I mean, on first glance, I loved the idea of our being so close to God’s mind, so important to God’s memory that God would write our names, yours and mine, right there in the palm of the hand. But then I thought—that means God might forget us if not for the reminder—and what if it gets all sweaty and smudgy? (We’re not talking literally here, of course—either about the palms or the smudge, but I just did not like where the metaphor led me.)

And then, I realized I’d just over-thought myself out of a sermon, and I wondered what I was going to stand up here at say to you. Because really, what I want to say to you today is what Isaiah was trying to say with this image about the palms of the hands—God loves you so much that you, little old you, little old me, that we are always on God’s mind, inscribed right in the palm of his hands. That you and I are on God’s mind, in God’s thoughts, in God’s heart, and in God’s hands.

I went back to the scripture reading to try again.  I realized I had been so focused on sitting in the palm of God’s hand that I had completely overlooked a much better metaphor.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”

I was once a woman with a nursing child, and I still miss it. I loved the way my body responded to his needs. The way the milk welled up inside me at the sound of his cry—or the cry of any lonesome baby. The sensation of being full to overflowing, then emptying into a hungry baby belly. The joy of holding him close, playing with his feet and hands while he ate. The pride I felt in watching his legs and arms grow fatter on the nutrition my body produced. The power of knowing that I could provide everything my baby needed, no matter where we went. The amazement at what my body knew to do, its ability to provide. The mystical connection to the God that created me, and to all the women who had nursed children before me.

What I loved more than anything, what I miss most, is the intimacy we shared. This tiny child depended on me for his nutrition. I responded by offering him my body. Especially in those early months, we could not bear to be apart from one another—he for hunger, me for the need to empty myself for him. I could not go for more than a couple of hours without experiencing his absence from my body. I ached for him. My body yearned to give itself over to him. Forgetting him, forgetting my role as his mother, was impossible. I carried my love and care for him not just in my mind, but in my body. My body would not let me forget, even for a moment.

Our God is a nursing mother. She feels a connection to us in her very body, filled to overflowing with love, ready to pour into our hungry selves. We are impossible for God to forget, for that love for us is carried in God’s very body. God delights in our growth and strength, marvels at our creation, provides for us everything we need. God will not, cannot neglect us. Our connection to God is so intimate that it is physical.

When we talk about being held in the arms of God, it’s not just hands outstretched, like a baby bird you are observing with gentleness. It’s also cradled like a baby, cradled and rocked, soothed and snuggled. When we say, “God knows, and God cares,” we aren’t just talking about the mind of God—we are talking about the very body of God, which aches with our absence and yearns to be reunited with us. When we cry out like a newborn child, knowing that we are hungry or lonely or dirty or afraid, even if we cannot get up and make our way to God, if all we can do is open our mouths and wail in despair, God comes to us, picks us up, rocks us gently and places us next to her heart.

God holds us in the palm of his hand, at her nursing breast. We dwell inside God’s beating heart.

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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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