Sacrificing Our Children for the Sin of Our Souls

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? …Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” – Micah 6:6-7

Two weeks ago in our Gospel reading from John we heard John the Baptist calling Jesus, “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  I pointed out that sin, in this passage, was singular.  Not sins, plural, but sin, singular.  I acknowledged that it might, indeed, be a collective singular—a singular noun that functions as a plural, but then I asked, “If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?”

In his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. defines sin as a culpable disturbance of shalom.  Shalom is the peace of God, the natural order of balance and harmony in creation and in society.  Rob Bell wrote, “Shalom is how God wants things to be.  Shalom is peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with the earth and with God.”  

As I write this on the 26th day of this new year, God’s shalom is not merely disturbed, it is shattered.  There have already been 40 mass shootings in our country, three of them here in California.  We are the only country in the world where firearms are the leading cause of death for children.  As of 2018 there were more than 393 million firearms in private hands in the US—120.5 guns for every 100 people.  The next highest rate of gun ownership among developed nations is Canada at 34 per 100 people.

Statistics compiled by the American Journal of Medicine are disturbing, to say the least: “US homicide rates were 7.0 times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher. For 15- to 24-year-olds, the gun homicide rate in the United States was 49.0 times higher. Firearm-related suicide rates were 8.0 times higher in the United States, but the overall suicide rates were average. Unintentional firearm deaths were 6.2 times higher in the United States. The overall firearm death rate in the United States from all causes was 10.0 times higher. Ninety percent of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years, and 82% of all people killed by firearms were from the United States.”

Clearly we need to do more to regulate gun ownership and reduce the number of firearms in this country.  The horrendous statistics about gun violence correlate directly to the horrifying statistics about gun ownership.  The guns are absolutely a problem, but they are also the deadly expression of a deeper problem.

Let’s go back to that question: “If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?”  It’s tempting to say that the central singular sin is violence.  Violence is addictive, and we seem to be hooked on it in this country and throughout the world.  It’s altering our neurochemistry and our neurological pathways.  But violence is a symptom of something deeper.

We live in a culture where media, politics and economics seem to almost conspire to pit us against each other.  We are constantly pressured to segregate ourselves into neo-tribal groupings: right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, rich vs. poor, my race vs. other races, my religion vs. other religions.  There is money, power and influence to be had in manipulating this tribalism, and when the manipulation is allowed to go unchecked it ends up force feeding us a toxic cultural soup of fear, anger and mistrust which poisons our vision until we begin to see others as something less than fully human.  And that leads inevitably to violence.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22

God has told us what is good, said the prophet Micah, and what does the Lord require of us—what does God’s shalom require of us but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God—and with each other?   Love your neighbor as yourself, said Jesus, quoting Leviticus.    

If we want to stop sacrificing our children on the altar of violence, if we want to stop sacrificing the fruit of our collective body for the sin of our collective soul, we need to find better ways to show the world what kindness and love look like.  We need to find ways to make “love your neighbor as yourself” at least as attractive and addictive as violence.  We need to lift up the vision of God’s shalom, the peaceable kingdom, as a way or restoring balance and harmony among diverse and divergent peoples.  And maybe we could start by doing something about the guns.

Blessed

Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed.

When is the last time someone blessed you?  I don’t mean the hasty “bless you” that we say when someone sneezes or the “well bless your heart” people sometimes say in a way that sounds like what they’re really saying is “well aren’t you a curious little specimen.”

When is the last time that someone spoke a real blessing upon you?

When is the last time you felt like someone had spoken a powerful and prophetic word to tell you that you matter and that you live in the heart of goodness… 

When is the last time that someone told you 

that you are consecrated…  

that your life is sacred…  

that you are holy?

When is the last time someone told you that God sees you and loves you even when you’re not feeling it?  Especially when you’re not feeling it?

When is the last time you spoke that kind of blessing for someone else?

Jesus had been travelling all over the region proclaiming the kingdom of heaven and healing people.  Large crowds had started to follow him.  People came from all over to see him and hear him and be healed by him.  And maybe, just maybe, to be blessed by him.  

Jesus went up the hill to a place where he could see out over the crowd and where they could see and hear him.  His disciples came and sat close to him.  Jesus looked at his rag-tag followers, he looked out over the crowd, and he could see them all.  He could see who they were and what they were.

He saw how life had broken them.  He saw their longing to be made whole again.  He saw their yearning to be told that their lives mattered, that their struggles mattered, that their pain mattered.  He wasn’t recruiting followers, he was just meeting people in the everyday reality of their lives and telling them the truth about themselves.   Just like he does for us.  

He told them who they were, but he also told them who they could be.  His words were not just descriptive, they were transformative.  Just like they are for us.

He looked out at them and told them they were blessed.  Just like he tells us.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who doubt.  Blessed are those who struggle with believing.  Blessed are those who wonder if they have enough faith.  Blessed are those who feel spiritually malnourished and spiritually drained.  Blessed are those who are running on empty.  Blessed are those who feel like they have nothing to give.  Blessed are those who are far from certain about who God is and what God does and how it all works.  Blessed are those who find all the old answers unsatisfactory or troubling.  Blessed are those whose minds and hearts are open to new information, new ways of seeing and new ways of thinking.  Blessed are those who sometimes feel lost in the mystery of it all.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  They shall see things others do not see.  They will ask questions others do not dare to ask. They will use their imaginations in ways that others find daunting.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  God sees them.  God walks with them.  Even when they can’t see it or feel it, heaven is all around them and within them.  And they are blessed.

Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those for whom grief is an overwhelming reality.  Blessed are those whose lives have been hollowed out by loss.  Blessed are those who live in the shadow  of death.  Blessed are those who weep.  Blessed are those whose tears have dried up but whose pain has not.  Blessed are those who have learned the hard way that grief is love persevering.  Blessed are the brokenhearted.  Blessed are those who are crumbling inside but hold themselves together to keep everyone around them from falling apart.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Their tears are sacred.  God carries their pain and draws close to them.  Blessed are those who mourn.  They will be comforted.

Blessed are the gentle, the meek, the nonviolent.  Blessed are those who look for ways to compromise and cooperate instead of making life a contest or a competition.  Blessed are the strong who restrain themselves. Blessed are those who do not fight back, those who would rather take it than dish it out. Blessed are those who go unnoticed, the ones who sit alone at lunch, the unimpressive, the unemployed.  Blessed are the janitors and sanitation workers and fast food workers.  Blessed are those who struggle with the rent.  Blessed are the people on the street whom we fail to see because we pretend they are invisible.  Blessed are the meek.  God sees them.  God loves them.  The earth is theirs.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who were born with an acute sense of what is fair and what is not, what is right and what is not.  Blessed are those who have a passion for justice.  Blessed are those who work to overcome even when the injustice has nothing to do with them or their lives.  Blessed are those who are wrongly accused.  Blessed are the undocumented.   Blessed are those who stand against the bullies.  Blessed are those who confront racism and work to dismantle it.  Blessed are those who march in the streets and speak truth to power.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God sees them.  God loves them.  God will nourish them with justice and their cup will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are those who fill the world around them with kindness.  Blessed are those who are generous with forgiveness.  Blessed are those who are just plain generous.  Blessed are those who are slow to judge and condemn because they understand how much they have been forgiven.  Blessed are the merciful.  God sees them.  God loves them.  They will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are those who have retained their innocence and are just plain good.  Blessed are those who have recovered their innocence and cling to it.  Blessed are the honest.  Blessed are the truthful.  Blessed are those who love with no agenda.  Blessed are those who are in recovery, who are living out the twelve steps, who are cleansing their bodies and their souls and making amends. Blessed are those who refuse to be cynical.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  God loves them.  God sees them.  And they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who bring food to those who are starving.  Blessed are those who bring medical attention to those who are in peril.  Blessed are those who work to disarm a weaponized world.  Blessed are those who encourage us to seek common ground.  Blessed are those who care for the planet and work to heal the earth.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  God embraces them as God’s own children.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing the right thing.  Blessed are those who are disrespected and taunted for being compassionate.  Blessed are the woke.  Blessed are those who are scorned because they speak out for a better world and work for the shalom of God.  Blessed those who are battered or imprisoned because they protest against all the things that dehumanize people and oppress people.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing the right thing.  The kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of untrue and evil things against you because you have embraced the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Blessed are you when people spread lies about you because your integrity exposes their duplicity.  Blessed are you when people criticize you for being awake to the pain and injustice around you.  If you only knew how great your reward is in heaven, you would be dancing with joy.  God sees you.  God loves you.  And remember, they persecuted the prophets in the same way, so you are in good company.

You are blessed.  

You are consecrated.  

You are holy.

You are set apart to bring a blessing and to be a blessing in a world that thinks it is cursed.

You are consecrated to help others see the beauty and sacredness of our life together in this amazing God-made world.

With all your faults—and God knows them better than you know them yourself—you are loved by God more than you can begin to imagine so that you can spread the love of God to others.

God is blessing you.  God is loving you.  God is transforming you.    

You live in the heart of goodness.

Blessed are you.

Image © Jorge Cocco

Out of Our Minds (and into our hearts)

Matthew 4:12-23

Today’s gospel reading is Matthew’s version of Jesus calling the fishermen.  It sounds like a simple enough story:  Jesus is in Capernaum, and as he walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee he spots the fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James and John and calls out to them, “Come, follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Immediately they left their nets, their boats and their families and followed Jesus to begin their new life as disciples.  

The sermons we spin around this story often focus on a few key elements.  We talk about how amazingly charismatic Jesus is; obviously the Holy Spirit is powerfully present in him if all he has to do is say, “follow me” to get salty old fishermen to leave their boats and hit the road with him.  We talk about the power and importance of his invitation, and point out that Jesus is inviting us to come and follow him, too.  And then we usually finish up with an exhortation to “evangelism,” by which we mean prodding you all to invite your friends and family and neighbors to come to church.  Sometimes we even give you talking points or sample phrases you can use when you invite others to come to church.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.  It’s all good stuff.  The charisma of Jesus was obviously off the charts—so off the charts that we still feel the pull of his personality more than two thousand years later.  The call to follow him is still compelling and life changing.  And inviting others to come and join us, especially when we extend that invitation because we know that being part of our community would enrich their lives, is both a duty and a joy.  

But what if instead of inviting people to come to church we invited them to be part of our subversive movement?  Can you imagine taking your next door neighbor aside and saying in a low voice, “Listen…there’s a group of us who are working behind the scenes to change things.  We’re talking politics, economics, social and cultural dynamics, personal values—all of it.  We’re talking about a quiet revolution.  The world’s a mess and we’ve got a nonviolent way to fix it.  We think you could help.  We’re having a meeting on Sunday morning.  Come hear us out and see what you think.”

That is, in fact, the kind of invitation Jesus was issuing when he called out to Peter, Andrew, James and John. There’s a lot more going on in today’s gospel than meets the eye, and to get the full impact of it we need to look at a bit of history so we can try to hear it the way the people in Matthew’s community of Jesus followers originally heard it.  

So let’s start at the beginning.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. (4:12)  John the Baptist had been preaching and baptizing at the Jordan River, issuing a call for the nation to embrace a life of righteousness.  He had gathered a significant following, and when he began to directly target Herod Antipas with his preaching, Antipas was afraid he would lead a revolt, so he had John arrested and thrown into prison.  Matthew seems to be asserting here that the arrest of John was the cue for Jesus to begin his ministry in earnest.  

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. (4:13-14)  Matthew quotes the words of Isaiah from a time five hundred years earlier when the territories of Naphtali and Zebulun were under the oppressive thumb of the Assyrians.  Isaiah was reminding the people in those territories that God had not forgotten them.  He told them that a light would dawn to lead them out of the darkness of their oppression. Fast forward 500 years, and Matthew is telling his community of Jesus followers, who are also living under the thumb of an oppressive empire, that Isaiah’s words apply to them, too, that Jesus is the light who will lead them out of their dark night of oppression.  

To begin his ministry in earnest, Jesus left Nazareth in the hill country and “withdrew” to Galilee to make his home in Capernaum.  This was a strategic decision.  Nazareth was just a small village.  Economically it was dependent on the constant construction projects in the Roman garrison city of Sepphoris only four miles away.  It wasn’t a likely place for attracting followers, and starting a movement in the Roman army’s back yard, especially a movement dedicated to confronting imperial and religious oppression, a movement that proclaimed an alternative way of life and called it the kingdom of God, would have brought immediate and crushing consequences.  

Galilee, on the other hand, was in many ways the ideal place to start.  Galilee was the breadbasket of the region, ringed by Hellenistic cities that were dependent on its farms for their food supply.  But despite the overall wealth of the region, there was a current of seething dissatisfaction in Galilee.  Tenant farmers paid as much as 50% of their crops to absentee landlords.  On top of that there were heavy Roman taxes and tithes to the temple in Jerusalem.  Very little money ended up in the pockets of the people doing the actual work, and most farmers were living at a subsistence level.  This led to work stoppages, occasional uprisings, and organized banditry throughout the region.

It wasn’t much better for the fishermen in the Sea of Galilee.  Rome claimed ownership of the sea and all that was in it, so Rome took a hefty cut of every catch.  Fishermen had to be licensed—another income stream for the empire and drain on the workers.  Often fishermen were employed by someone who owned a license and wages were determined by the size of the catch.  On top of that there was the cost of nets, net weights and boats.  The boats were made of cedar imported from Lebanon and were in constant need of repair, another cost that came out of the fisherman’s pockets.  

The tension between the urban lifestyle of the cities and the rural lifestyle of those in the farm lands was acute.  The difference in values was significant.  The economic distance between the haves and the have-nots was extreme.  And one of the most important pivot points in all that tension was the small city of Capernaum.

Capernaum—not so big as to be a real urban center, not so small as to be a mere country village—was the first town in Herod Antipas’ territory after you crossed the border from Herod Philip’s territory.  It was a toll station where taxes were collected.  It had a Roman presence, but not a large Roman presence.  It was Hellenized, but not too Hellenized.  It was important enough that important things could be started there, and out of the way enough that those important things could have a chance to grow before being noticed by the powers that be.  It was the perfect place for Jesus to begin his work.

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (4:17)  This is the same message that was the centerpiece of John’s preaching, so Jesus is picking up where John left off.  There are a couple of important translation notes to pay attention to here, though.  The first is the word “repent.”  “Repent” is a pretty poor translation of the Greek word metanoiete.  Metanoiete is a compound word composed of two Greek words, meta, meaning “beyond,” and nous, meaning mind.  A literal translation would be “go beyond your mind.”  The English word “repent” has moralistic overtones suggesting a change in behavior or changing your actions, but  Jesus is calling for a far more comprehensive change, a change in the way you think, in the way you see the world, in the way you approach the world and in the way you understand your place in the world.  

The second word that needs retranslating is the Greek word engiken, as in the kingdom of heaven is engiken.  This word is usually translated as “at hand” or “has come near” or something similar, but the sense of the word is more imminent than that.  My favorite way to translate it is “in reach.”  The kingdom of heaven is in reach.  It describes something so close you can almost touch it.  If you make a little effort it’s reachable.

So putting all this together, the message that both John and Jesus were proclaiming so urgently was, “Change your thinking—get out of your head and into your heart!  The kingdom of heaven, the shalom of God, is in reach!  It’s on your doorstep!  It’s doable!”  

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (4:18-19)  I don’t usually borrow from one gospel to interpret something in another gospel.  The four gospels were written at different times and at different places, and originally each stood more or less on its own.  But I think an exception is warranted here.  If you remember last week’s gospel from John 1:29-42, Andrew and Peter met with Jesus near where John was baptizing.  John’s account says that they spent a long afternoon with him.  It makes sense to me that the encounter on the seashore is not their first meeting; they would have already spent time with Jesus and listened to him teaching about the better way of life he called the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God.  So when he called out to them, “Come, follow me,” they had been waiting for his summons and were ready to follow.  

When Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” this is an echo of the Hebrew prophets that they would have known well.  The prophets used fishing as a metaphor for both salvation and judgement.  In Jeremiah 16:16 we find a prophesy of both rescue and retribution, promising that the people in captivity will be brought home: I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them.  

Amos 4:2 promises that wealthy elites who have abused the poor will be caught like fish and brought to judgement: 

The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness:

                  The time is surely coming upon you,

         when they shall take you away with hooks,

                  even the last of you with fishhooks.

Jesus borrows this metaphor when he calls the fishermen, James, John, Andrew and Peter, but he is “fishing” them out of the waters of their normal life in order to save them.   He is “catching” them to lead them into a new kind of health and wholeness in a beloved community with new values and a new way of being.  He is “hooking” them into a movement to create an alternative to the systems that keep so many ground down in poverty.  It will involve political confrontation, but not violence.  It will involve a change in the understanding of their religion, but not apostasy.  It will be the new thing God had long promised.

“The best criticism of the bad,” said Richard Rohr, “is the practice of the better.”  Jesus started a movement, a quiet revolution, not by merely criticizing all the wrongs of the world, but by modeling a better way.

In an oppressive world that was tearing itself apart, Jesus called the fishermen and the tax collector and the builder and the tanner and all kinds of other people to follow him into a new way of life.  He called them and he calls us to live in a beloved community set apart from the business-as-usual world.  He calls us to live in cooperation instead of competition.  He calls us all to change our thinking—to be a little bit out of our minds and very much into our hearts—so we can enter into the shalom of God and change the world.

What Are You Looking For?

John 1:29-42

“What are you looking for?”  

These are the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John:

What are you looking for?  

Jesus asks this question to two of John the Baptist’s disciples who have followed him away from the crowd, but I think the reason the Gospel of John places that pointed question here at the very beginning of the story is because Jesus is asking us that question, too.  

What are you looking for?

The Gospel of John is all about the meaning, the mystery and the significance of Jesus, and before we really launch into its rich symbolic imagery and mythic language, this gospel wants us to examine our preconceptions, our needs, and our desires.  Before you can embark on the quest, you have to know what you are seeking.

What are you looking for?  

There is a hidden implication in this question.  It’s as if John is saying, “You will find the Jesus you’re looking for, but who is that for you?  What need, what emptiness do you want him to fill?  Who do you want Jesus to be?”  

Before we hear Jesus asking this pointed question, the prologue of John’s gospel has already prepared us to see Jesus as the cosmic Christ, the Word of God through whom all things were created, who “became flesh and dwelled among us.”  John the Baptist has already said that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  The Baptist goes on to say, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

Later in John’s gospel Jesus will call himself the Human One.  Still later in John, Jesus will identify himself with a series of “I am” statements:  I am the bread of life (6:35); I am the light of the world (8:12); I am the doorway/gateway/entrance (10:7); I am the good shepherd (10:11,24); I am the resurrection and the life (11:25); I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6); I am the true vine (15:1).  

The language of John’s gospel is cryptic and powerfully symbolic.  It begs for interpretation. But be careful; interpretation can easily become misinterpretation, especially when we lay our preconceived ideas and biases over the text. 

So what are you looking for?  

Who do you think Jesus is?  

Who do you want Jesus to be?

Some are looking for Jesus the King of kings, the ultimate authority figure.  Some are looking for Jesus the final scapegoat, the sacrifice who pours out his life blood as an offering to heal our relationship with God.  Some are looking for Jesus to be their wisdom teacher, their guru, their spiritual guide.  Some are seeking Jesus the mystic who unlocks the secrets of the universe.  Some are looking for Jesus the revolutionary who will confront the oppressive and unholy alliance of religion and empire.  Some are looking for Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, our companion in a sacred way of life.  Some are desperately looking for Jesus the healer.  

It’s easy to grab a few words from the Bible and make them say pretty much whatever you want them to say.  It’s easy to grab a few words about Jesus and make him be whatever you want him or need him to be.  We all do it. 

So what are you looking for?   You will find him—the Jesus you want or need most.  The imagery and proof text for your vision of Jesus is somewhere in the scriptures.  But context is everything and Jesus the Christ is bigger and more complex than all our dreams or desires or understanding. 

You will find the Jesus you’re looking for, but be careful that you don’t miss the Jesus you’re not looking for, the Jesus who is just maybe the one you really need most.

After spending an afternoon with Jesus, Andrew ran to tell Simon Peter, his brother, “We have found the Messiah!”  And he was right…for a given understanding of Messiah.  But did Andrew, on that first afternoon, understand Messiah the way Jesus understood Messiah?

We tend to read the scriptures through the lens of confirmation bias.  We see what we expect to see, but we don’t always see what’s actually there.  John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, so many assume that John was identifying Jesus as the final sacrifice to atone for our sins.  But look again.

The lamb was not the animal used as a sacrifice for atonement.  On the Day of Atonement, the high priest sacrificed a bull for his own sins and two goats for the sins of the people.  And yeah, you could say that Jesus is the GOAT—the Greatest Of All Time—but that’s not the same thing.  John called him the lamb of God.  The lamb was the Passover sacrifice.  Its blood was painted above the door of the house to shield the people from the angel of death.  Its flesh was eaten to sustain them in their escape from oppression.  Lambs were a symbol of purity and the fragility of life. Lambs are quiet but can also be playful.  

John says that Jesus is the lamb who takes away the sin of the world.  Sin. Singular. Not sins, plural. And yes, it could very well be used as a collective singular, but let’s play with it as a singular sin for a moment.  If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?  

Sin has often been defined as breaking God’s laws or disobeying God.  Martin Luther defined sin as “being curved in upon the self.” Certainly there are many ways in which we all are curved in upon ourselves, and Jesus can and does turn our focus outward to our neighbor and our world.  But does taking away the sin of the world involve more than that?

In his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. defines sin as a culpable disturbance of shalom.  Shalom is the peace of God.  Shalom is the natural order of balance and harmony in creation and in society.  Rob Bell wrote, “Shalom is how God wants things to be.  Shalom is peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with the earth and with God.”[1]  

Sin is whatever disrupts the peace and harmony God desires for the world.  The sin of the world is the disruption of God’s shalom.  

Jesus, if we follow him and listen to him, takes away the disruption of shalom.  He can lead us into healthier relationships with our neighbors and our earth.  

This is the Jesus Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw in the gospels:  Jesus as the one who restores shalom.  You can see this Jesus portrayed in Dr. King’s sermons, in his speeches, and in his prayers.  In one of his most poignant prayers, Dr. King prayed, “Dearest Jesus, come and sit with us today.  Show us the lies that are still embedded in the soul of America’s consciousness.  Unmask the untruths we have made our best friends.  For they seek our destruction.  And we are being destroyed, Lord.  Reveal the ways the lies have distorted and destroyed our relationships.  They break your shalom daily.  Jesus, give us courage to embrace the truth about ourselves and you and our world.  Truth: we are all made in your image.  Truth: you are God; we are not.  You are God; money is not.  You are God; jails, bombs and bullets are not.  And Jesus, give us faith to believe: Redemption of people, relationships, communities and whole nations is possible!  Give us faith enough to renounce the lies and tear down the walls that separate us with our hands, our feet, and with our votes.”[2]

Dr. King’s dream was the promised shalom of God.  

The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed was the promised shalom of God.  

That’s what I’m looking for.  

What are you looking for?


[1] Rob Bell, What is the Bible?; p.260

[2] Lewis Baldwin, Never Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

On the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

On the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

I sat down under the food court canopy

at the Big Box store

and paused before eating

the Big Box hotdog

which everyone agrees is the best of all hotdogs.

I paused to ask that it would be blessed to my body,

blessed and not cursed.

I paused to recall the Day of Diagnosis,

to think through once again the fat portfolio

of foods and ingredients I must no longer ingest,

to recite to myself the litany of

common, ordinary, everyday, ingredients

in all their varied and marvelous, delicious, featured or hidden forms

that my body now reacts to as if they are poison.

I paused to guesstimate how many

of my allergens, my demons,

might be in this Big Box hotdog.

I paused to calculate the risk.

I paused to think if there had been other recent

times when I had crossed the line

for I am allowed some small indulgences

once in awhile,

if I do not eat or drink too much,

if I first take the medicine that dulls the reaction,

if I use it sparingly,

only once in awhile

on a special occasion,

such as a Feast Day.

I was prepared.

I had not indulged in other forbidden fruit…

that I could recall, not to my awareness.

I had taken the medicine.

I was prepared.

And so was the hotdog:

one stripe of deli mustard, one stripe of ketchup,

a generous spill of perfectly cubed sweet onion,

warm and waiting in my hands,

an elegantly beautiful and aromatic still life.

The sausage stretched

beyond the snug embrace of its bun

and as the skin snapped

in the pressure of that first small bite

and flavors washed across my tongue

my eyes were opened

and I could taste and see the goodness

and in the goodness was remembrance.

I remembered my grandfather’s wheat fields in Kansas.

I remembered driving all night through the desert,

to get there in time to help with harvest.

I remembered wondering if the bread

in the sandwiches my mom packed in my lunch for school

maybe, just maybe, had some small taste of wheat from our farm.

I remembered when the corral by the barn was turned into a turkey pen.

I remembered the multitude of those fearsome beasts

—have you seen them up close when you’re only 4?—

milling about in angry close quarters

and me being sternly but unnecessarily warned

not to get too close.

I remember thinking my grandfather,

who I knew as a quiet and gentle man,

must also have a fearsome side

because those turkeys would give him

a wide circle of respect when he waded into their midst.

And I remembered thinking at the next Thanksgiving

as Mom put our turkey in the oven,

“I hope this is that big nasty gray one that followed me along the fence.”

And I remembered all the early morning milking

on my other grandfather’s dairy farm in Arkansas,

in the years before he and my uncle switched to beef cattle.

I remembered them hooking up the machines in the pre-dawn cold

to the cows that would take them

and milking the others by hand.

I remembered churning butter on the porch

from the cream we had skimmed that morning,

then later picking fresh sweet corn, tomatoes, okra and string beans.

I remembered feeling rooted to the land because everything on the table

came from the fields and garden around us.

And mindful of the flavors in my mouth I remembered other sacred meals.

I remembered eating an almost inedible chicken in the jungle in Colombia,

barely sheltered from the rain in a poor couple’s lean-to.

I remembered finding the will to be honestly grateful

for this god-awful chicken because to them it was the richest

gift of gratitude they could bestow. And I remembered

feeling so unworthy of that gratitude

because we had given them so little.

Some vitamins. Some antibiotics. A few sutures. Some sulfa powder.

A prayer. A little hope.

But the wound in the man’s leg had healed and he could work again.

So we were invited to share in a meal of their one and only chicken.

I remembered eating delicious, mysterious, robust greens in Tanzania,

greens cooked in oil, with a side of ubiquitous peanut butter and some bits of meat.

I remembered how the women of the clinic and the village

had worked for hours to prepare the meal,

how it was delicious and filling,

how a little went a long way.

I remembered how it seemed

both mysteriously wonderful and not mysterious in the least

that the boisterous crowd of us all fit around one small picnic table

and the whole night was lit by lanterns, starlight and laughter.

And I remembered sharing tortillas and rice and beans

with migrants in Tijuana

as they told me about the hazards of a life lived on two sides of the border,

of how hard it is to hold family together when your lives

are laid across borders, of how hard it is

to work and pay the bills when the work is on one side

and the family is on the other,

of how easy it is to end up on the wrong side because of a lapse in paperwork.

I remembered my soul being fed by their sadness and their tenacity

as we shared tortillas and beans and rice.

And I remembered, also in Tijuana,

my friend the surfer-priest pushing a bowl of mariscos soup away from him

because he saw a baby shark’s fin in it, saying “I made a deal with sharks.

I don’t eat them and they don’t eat me.”

And I remembered barbecued ribs shared with a brother

as our motorcycles cooled in the shade of giant redwoods.

I remembered the brewpub owner/entrepreneur

who gave us those ribs the night before and told us

to save themfor the redwoods, the same generous man

who took us into his home for the night

and treated us at his brewpub to the best jambalaya we had ever had,

who, next morning, set us on the road

with a breakfast of smoked salmon and kale smoothies,

who did all this so easily and casually

even though he didn’t know a thing about us

except that we were friends of his friend.

And I remembered

the overpriced New York airport hamburger split three ways in 1974,

and Cervelle au Beurre Noir in Paris,

and a hundred nights of gourmet meals in Boston,

and freeze-dried meals beside high Sierra lakes,

and Mexican food on the way to Death Valley,

and my Aunt Roberta’s fried chicken and fried okra,

and my Mom’s lutefisk and potatis korv at Christmas,

and my Dad’s prime rib and steak and lobster.

On the Feast of the Epiphany

Under the food court canopy of the Big Box store

I tasted and I saw

and there was remembrance

of flavors, and places, and persons.

I tasted and I saw the goodness.

I saw that the plastic table under the food court canopy

where I was mindful of each slow bite of my Big Box Hotdog,

this table anchored to its polished concrete floor

was sitting on the same earth as every table

or carpet or blanket or tent floor or towel or spot of ground,

where I have ever been fed.

I saw that my life has been

one continuous communion

at one great and continuous table

where the foods have been a memorable delight

whose flavors are still fresh on my tongue,

but the true sustenance was in the companions.

O taste and see. And remember.

Taking the Plunge

One Sunday, a young family came to church and sat in the front row so the children could have a clear view of everything.  It happened that on that particular Sunday, the pastor was baptizing a brand new little baby.  The little five-year-old daughter, watching from the front pew, was utterly fascinated by the baptism ceremony, but didn’t really understand what it was all about.  As the pastor began to scoop water from the font and pour it onto the baby’s head, she turned to her father and in a very loud voice asked, “Daddy, why is he brainwashing the baby??”

Baptism isn’t brainwashing, of course, but over a lifetime it is supposed to change the way you think, the way you see the world, and the way you interact with the world.  We baptize people, including babies, as a sign that they are included in God’s grace and in God’s mission to transform the world.  We baptize because Jesus told us to baptize.[1]  And we baptize because Jesus, himself, was baptized.

The baptism of Jesus is covered in all four gospels.  Sort of.  John’s gospel has a scene where Jesus is at the river while John is baptizing, and  John says he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, but the Gospel of John never actually describes Jesus being baptized.  

My favorite version of the Baptism of Jesus is in the Gospel of Matthew because it starts out with John and Jesus arguing.  Can you imagine it?  There they are, hip deep in the water, and Jesus says to John, “Do you have to dunk me all the way under?  Can’t you just scoop up a handful of water and pour it over my head?” And John says, “Dude!  No!  Are you crazy?  I’m John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian!”

Actually, what they were arguing about was that John didn’t want to baptize Jesus—at least according to Matthew’s account.  Jesus came to John to be baptized, and Matthew tells us that John would have prevented him.  It didn’t feel right to John.  It didn’t feel appropriate to him because he knew that Jesus was more important than he was.  For him to baptize Jesus seemed upside down and backwards.  “I need to be baptized by you!” he tells Jesus.  

need to be baptized by you.  That’s an interesting choice of words.  The wording in Greek implies that John is lacking something that he thinks Jesus can give him.  What could that be?

Jesus finally persuades John to go ahead and baptize him when he says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Today’s English Version translates that as “Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.”  The Contemporary English Bible says, “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all God wants us to do.”

Basically, Jesus is telling John, “let’s go ahead with this because it’s the right thing to do.”

So there’s another reason we baptize:  it’s the right thing to do.  It’s what God wants us to do.

The word “baptism” comes from the Greek verb baptizein which means “to dip,” or “to dip frequently or intensively, to plunge or to immerse.”[2]  It’s also the verb that’s used to describe putting dressing on a salad, though, so you could say it also means “to sprinkle.”  

Because early Christian baptisms were usually by immersion, some have insisted that you have to be fully immersed or it’s not a real baptism.  But The Didache, a manual for good church practice written in the late 1st or very early 2nd century said, “If you have not living water (running water, such as a stream or river), baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”  

That practice of pouring out water on the head is called afflusion, by the way, and as The Didache attests, it has been one of the ways the church has baptized people since its earliest days.

Martin Luther described baptism as one of the means of grace through which God creates and strengthens “saving faith.”  He borrowed language from Titus 3:5 to depict baptism as a “washing of regeneration” in which infants and adults are reborn.  In that rebirth, said Luther, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. 

“Baptism, then,” he went on to say, “signifies two things—death and resurrection, that is, full and complete justification. When the minister immerses the child in the water it signifies death, and when he draws it forth again it signifies life. Thus Paul expounds it in Romans 6: ‘We were buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.’ This death and resurrection we call the new creation, regeneration, and spiritual birth. This should not be understood only allegorically as the death of sin and the life of grace, as many understand it, but as actual death and resurrection. For baptism is not a false sign.”

In other words, as Luther describes it, we actually die and are resurrected in our baptism.  Life—baptized life—is brand new.

Luther also said that the amount of water is never an issue.  Water is the physical sign of what God is doing in baptism; it is the Word of God that makes baptism effective.  One drop of water is enough because it’s the  Word of God that has all the power.  The water and the Word together become a sign of what Christ has done and is doing for us.  

Baptism is not a sign of my decision for Christ, it is a sign of Christ’s decision for me.  It is a sign of God’s grace—the grace that gives us life, the grace that sustains our life.  By the presence of the living Word, Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us and works through us, that one drop of water can make all the difference in the world.

Baptism isn’t an event, it’s a way of life.  But if our baptism makes one drop of difference in our lives, then we nurture that new life so it can grow and mature. That’s what church is for. That’s what Bible study is for. That’s what prayer and contemplation are for.  But church, prayer, Bible study—these things are not our mission—they are things that prepare us for and empower us for our mission. 

The late Thomas Troeger who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School once said,  “When we follow Jesus into the waters of baptism, we are making a statement, a witness to our desire not only for a new life for our individual selves, but a new life for the whole world. We are renouncing Herod’s action of shutting up John, of shutting up hope, of shutting up the transformation of this world. We are affirming the opening of heaven, the opening of hope, the releasing of God’s renewing power into the world. 

“Every time we have a baptism in our churches, we are making a statement of the same good news that John preached. It is not good news to the Herods of the earth. It is not good news to those who want to shut up the transforming power of God, including those who do it in the name of narrowly doctrinaire religion. But it is good news for everyone who yearns and hungers for a new world, a new creation. When we follow Jesus into the baptismal waters or when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we are giving testimony that the opening of heaven is greater than any human effort to shut up the power of God.”

What happened for Jesus in his baptism also happens for us in our baptism.  The heavens are opened to us so there is no barrier between us and the presence of God, no barrier between us and each other.  We are told that we are loved.  We are named as children of God in a world that wants to call us all kinds of other names, a world that encourages us to label ourselves in ways that separate us from each other and to name others in a way that separates them from us.  But baptism reminds us that we are all God’s children.  We are all in this together.

Yes, our word baptism does come from the Greek verb which means to immerse.  But what is it that we are immersed into?   The water is an important sign.  It speaks to us physically, spiritually and psychologically in a powerful way.  But what we are being plunged into is the life and love, the vision and mission of the Triune God.

In a world full of bad news, baptism makes us the Good News people.  Our baptism loves us and names us.  The Spirit of God descends on us and into us to empower us and to open our minds and hearts.  And our ears.  In baptism we are given a new identity; we hear God proclaim You are my child.  I am pleased with you.  I like you!  Now…let’s go out and change the world!


[1] Matthew 28:19

[2] Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary

Image by He Qi

And the Logos Became Flesh

Christmas Day

John 1:1-18

I have a confession.  I deeply and truly love Christmas, but the sheer enormity of it leaves me flummoxed.   I’m not talking about all the shopping or all the bustle and preparation at home and at church.  I’m not even grumping about the over-the-top commercialism or all the different greeting card interpretations of the “true meaning” which can put you in a psychological sugar coma if you try to swallow them all at once.   

I’m talking about the daunting task of trying to convey a genuine and meaningful understanding of The Incarnation, the idea that the mystery we call God, the Maker of Everything, came to us as one of us—the idea that God “became flesh and lived among us” from gestation to birth to death as a particular person in a particular place and in a particular time so that we could begin to more fully understand that God is with us in all persons, in all creatures, in all creation, and at all times.

That thought, that idea, that reality that we call The Incarnation is so enormous and mind-boggling that it’s really tempting to retreat into the less cosmic halo of ideas that hover around that manger in Bethlehem, ideas like innocence and love personified and new beginnings.  Those are all good, true and valuable things.  They are meaningful parts of the package.  But the goodness, truth, new beginnings and love we see in that holy child become even more potent when we begin to truly understand what God is doing in that manger in Bethlehem.

When the early followers of Jesus began to write down their understanding of who Jesus was and what he was about, when they began to explain what they meant when they called him Christ—Christos—the anointed one, it’s clear that they saw him as something more than just a great spiritual teacher or religious leader.   You don’t have to read very far in these early writings to discover that these followers of Jesus thought there was something of cosmic importance about him.  Early on they called him the Son of God but that description didn’t seem to be enough for some of them.  It didn’t seem to fully capture the cosmic fullness of what they had experienced in Jesus the Christ.  

“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word,” said the writer of Hebrews.[1]  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation,” wrote St. Paul, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…all things have been created through him and for him…for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven…”[2]

Late in the first century, a writer we’ve come to know as John sat down to write his account of Jesus.  He wasn’t interested in creating just another chronicle of the life of Jesus as others had done; he wanted to explore the meaning of Jesus.  He wanted to make it clear that Jesus the Christ was not someone who could be defined, contained or constrained by geography or time or even philosophy, because the God of all geography and time and philosophy was and is somehow present in him.  

John began his gospel like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity.  The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we gazed on his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The language of this prologue is pure poetry.  But it’s also philosophy.  And in a strange, farsighted way, John was brushing up against physics.  

The Greek word we translate as “Word” is logos.  Logos was a word that ancient philosophers loved to play with and because of that we have numerous ways to translate it.  One of the oldest meanings of logos was story or narrative.  Where does your mind go if you hear In the beginning was the story, and the story became flesh and lived among us?  

Logos could also mean content or reason or statement.  Other philosophical meaningsincluded, orderideablueprintprimordial templateprimal thought, or intention.  

Logos became flesh and lived among us.  The metaphysical became physical.  If that sounds too esoteric, consider quantum physics.  

 Energy moves through quantum fields as abstract mathematical wave functions.  When wave functions are observed, they tend to collapse into particles.  Particles continually move through patterns in a kind of quantum dance, always moving toward closeness, joining, partnering, combining.  Fermions dance with bosons.  Neutrinos, muons, gluons, leptons and quarks assemble themselves into protons, neutrons and electrons which assemble themselves into atoms which assemble themselves into molecules we call elements.  Hydrogen and carbon molecules dance together to form the four essential organic compounds: nucleic acids, proteins, lipids and carbohydrates.  And out of all of this comes life.  The Word, the Story, the Pattern, the Intention, the Thought becomes flesh and dwells among us.  

The great British astrophysicist James Jeans wrote: “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.  Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the field of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as a creator and governor of the realm of matter… We discover that the universe shows evidence of a designing or controlling power that has something in common with our own minds.”[3]

This is The Incarnation.  The great Thought of God expressed in the whole universe condensed itself into a singular human life and lived among us.  And why would God do that?  

Love.

Teilhard de Chardin saw love as the driving force of the universe.  “For Teilhard, love is a passionate force at the heart of the Big Bang universe, the fire that breathes life into matter and unifies elements center to center; love is deeply embedded in the cosmos, a ‘cosmological force.’”[4]

God is Love, we read in 1 John.  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Love became flesh and lived among us.  And still lives among us.  And within us.  And around us.  And beyond us.  

Love…God… was not content to be an abstract idea or a mere sentiment.  God, the Author of Life, the One in whom we live and move and have our being is Love with a capital L.  Love Personified…and Love is all about relationship.  Christmas is when God, the Love that founded the universe, showed up as one of us in order to show us in person just how much we are loved and in order to teach us to love each other more freely and completely. 

Love became flesh and lived among us so that we might learn to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves.  

Love didn’t come to us as a king or potentate to lord it over us.  Love came as a poor baby among a poor and oppressed people far from the centers of privilege and power in order to show us that “the fire that breathes life into matter and unifies elements center to center,” is alive in and breathing life into all of us and wants to unify us with each other center to center and heart to heart.  

It’s an enormous idea, this thing called Christmas, this Incarnation.  This idea that the Word became flesh encompasses everything we see and everything we don’t see.  It speaks in poetry then carries us into the depths of philosophy and physics.  It warms the heart and boggles the mind.  It is, quite literally everything.  And the beating heart of it is love.

To even begin to understand the Incarnation, we have to open our minds and our hearts.  As another early follower of Jesus wrote: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”[5]

Merry Christmas


[1] Hebrews 1:3

[2] Colossians 1:15

[3] James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe, as quoted by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, p. 40

[4] Ilia Delio, ibid., p.43

[5] Ephesians 3:18-19

Our Down to Earth God

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. –Luke 2:9 (NRSV)

It’s funny how you can look at something a hundred times or more and then one day someone will point out something you hadn’t noticed and the whole thing looks different to you.  That happened to me a couple of years ago when a colleague pointed out one simple word in Luke’s Christmas story that had always just flown right by me.

Stood.

The angel stood before them.  On the ground.

In all the years of reading or hearing this Christmas story I had always imagined this angel and the multitude of the heavenly host hovering in the air.  I think the Christmas carols taught us to picture it that way.  Angels we have heard on high.  It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth.  

But that’s not what it says in the Gospel of Luke.  The angel stood before them.

If you were a shepherd in a field on a dark night, it would be pretty unsettling to have an angel appear in the air above you making announcements, but at least if the angel is in the air there’s some distance between you—a separation between your environment and the angel’s.  But if the angel suddenly appears in front of you standing on the same ground you’re standing on, shining with the glory of the heavens… well I think my knees would turn to rubber.  And then imagine what it feels like when the whole multitude of the heavenly host is suddenly surrounding you and singing Glory to God.

Angels in the air feels slightly safer than angels on the ground.  Slightly.  If the angels are above, that means that they came from above.  It means that heaven is “up there” somewhere.  It doesn’t mess with the way we understand the spiritual cosmos.  But if the angels appear standing in front of us or behind us or around us, what does that say about heaven?  Could it be that heaven, the dwelling place of the angels, is not just “up there” but also here, with us?  Around us?  Could it mean that the angels of God are standing near us all the time and they simply choose not to show themselves?  Or that we’re just blind to their presence? Could it mean that this ground we walk on and build on and live on is also part of the dwelling place of God—so holy ground?

The angels didn’t bend near the earth.  They stood on it.  

We have this tendency, we humans, to want to separate the material from the spiritual, the divine from the physical.  We are such binary, black and white thinkers in a universe that’s full of colors and shades of gray.  We want here to be here and there to be there.  We want to put borders on oceans and talk about territorial waters!  We want to draw a clear and well defended line between our country and the country next door.  So it’s not surprising that we’ve assumed that there is a border between heaven and earth.

We seem to be most comfortable when there’s a little distance between us and angels, a little distance between us and God.  That seems to be the way most people talk about it, anyway.  “Put in a good word with the man upstairs,” they say.  And then there’s that song: “God is watching from a distance.”

But that’s not what Christianity says.  That’s not what Christmas says.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  Not from a distance, but right in front of us.  With us.  As one of us.

We have trouble seeing the presence of God, seeing Christ in creation.  We have trouble seeing Christ in each other.  We even have trouble understanding Christ in Jesus.  How can Jesus be both divine and human?  We struggle to wrap our minds around that idea, so we have a tendency to make him either all human or all divine.  We picture that baby in the manger with a halo, and it doesn’t cross our minds that he might need to breastfeed and burp and need his diapers changed.

Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation, tells us that God is not a bearded old man watching us from the clouds, a deity who is willing to give us what we ask if we are really good or strike us down with a thunderbolt if we’re bad.  That’s not God.  That’s Santa Claus.  Or Zeus.   

God, the Author of Life, the One in whom we live and move and have our being is Love with a capital L.  Love Personified…and Love is all about relationship.  Christmas is when God, the Love that founded the universe, showed up as one of us in order to show us in person just how much we are loved and in order to teach us to love each other more freely and completely. 

“We need to see the mystery of incarnation in one ordinary concrete moment,” wrote Richard Rohr, “and struggle with, fight, resist, and fall in love with it there. What is true in one particular place finally universalizes and ends up being true everywhere.”  In other words, God is present everywhere, in, with, and under everything.  Including you.  And me.  And all those people we’re inclined not to like.  But to really grasp this idea, we need to first see God fully present in one particular person.  We need to see God in this particular baby.  This human baby

That, in the end, is what Christmas, the incarnation, is trying to tell us.  Christmas is God’s way of teaching us that there never really was any distance between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between the spiritual and the material.  Christmas is God proving once again that Christ is in, with, and under all the things—all things—including all the things we think we oversee and all the things we overlook.  Christmas is angels standing on the earth singing to shepherds and surrounding them with the glory of the Lord to remind them that they, too, are spiritual beings immersed in a human experience.  

Christmas is God’s love made visible.  Pope Francis said, “What is God’s love? It is not something vague, some generic feeling. God’s love has a name and a face: Jesus Christ, Jesus.”  I would add that, if you open your heart and your mind to it, God’s love can have your face, too.

Love is vulnerable—and what’s more vulnerable than a baby?  God comes to us as a baby because it’s easy to love a baby.  It’s easy to be vulnerable with a vulnerable infant.

Christmas is earthy and concrete and vulnerable.  It enters the world surrounded by the homey smell of a stable.  It needs to be fed at a mother’s breast.  It needs its diapers changed.  It cries when it’s hungry and shivers when it’s cold.  It spits up a little bit on your shoulder.  It looks out at the world with brand new eyes and tries to see and understand.  Most of all, it reaches out to be picked up and held close to your heart.  Christmas wants to be loved and to give love.  

Christmas is our down-to-earth God made manifest.  Yes, gloria in excelsis deo, glory to God in the highest, but glory, too, to God on earth where the angels stand to sing to shepherds, because the Spirit of God is in them, too, and God loves them like crazy.  Just like God loves you.

My prayer for you this night is that you would enter deeply into the concrete, down-to-earth, human and divine mystery of incarnation.  May your eyes and ears be opened to the angels who stand upon the earth and minister to all God’s children.  May you come to see Christ incarnate, permeating all creation.  May you come to see that you are always and everywhere standing on holy ground.  May you dispense with artificial borders in your heart, in your mind, and in this lovely world.  And may you come to see yourself and all the others who share this world with you as spiritual beings immersed in a human experience.  Most of all, though, may you know that you are loved. 

May Christ be born anew in your heart this night and every night.  In Jesus’ name.

The Beginning of the Middle of the Story

Matthew 11:2-11; Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10

Imagine poor John, locked in the dungeon of Herod’s fortress, his fate hanging by the whims of people who are notoriously immoral and impulsive.  As he stares at the stone walls of his cell he has nothing but time on his hands.  Time to reflect.  Time to remember.  Time to second-guess both his mission and his memory.  Time to doubt.

Did he really see the Spirit descend on Jesus or was it just a trick of the light dancing on the water?  Did he really hear the voice of God or was it, as some said, only thunder bouncing off the hills?  He knows he is going to die soon.  He knows that Herodias will find some reason to have him executed.  If at all possible, he would like to put his doubts to rest before that happens.

So he sends two of his disciples to find Jesus and ask him:  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  

 It’s easy to brush past John the Baptist even though he comes up in our texts every year at this time.  It’s easy to think of him as a footnote in history, a wild man in the wilderness whose primary purpose was to point to Jesus.  The gospel accounts do tend to skew his story that way, but then the gospels are primarily interested in the story of Jesus, and in that story John is not the central character.

We forget that John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, had hundreds, perhaps even thousands of followers, so many that Herod Antipas saw him as a potential political threat.  The Roman historian, Josephus described John as “this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.”  Many of John’s followers remained loyal to him after his death and even today the Mandaeans, an ethnoreligious group with roots going back to ancient Palestine, regard themselves as followers of John the Baptist whom they see as the greatest of the prophets.  

Muslims know John as Yahya ibn Zakariya, and venerate him as one of the greatest of God’s prophets.  John is also revered by people of the Bahai faith and the Druze.  Clearly his call to live a life of virtue, to treat each other with righteousness, and to revere God resonated beyond his role in the gospels.  In the fullness of history, John was much more than just a prelude to Jesus.

I think one reason we tend to diminish John in our Christian traditions is that we come to him very late in his story and very early in the story of Jesus.  We forget that both of them come in the middle of a much, much larger and longer story, a story that began with God making a covenant with Abraham, a story that is carried through times of slavery and exile in Egypt and Babylon.  It is a story of a people who cling to their covenant and identity during times of foreign oppression by Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome.  It is the story of hope kept alive by the leadership, visions and prophetic voices of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Amos and others, including John the Baptizer.

It is a story of seeds planted as dreams of a better world, a world where creation, itself, is restored and renewed, where “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”  This longer, larger story plants the seeds of a vision of healing where “weak hands are strengthened” and “feeble knees made firm,” where “the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped” and where “the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  These are the seeds of God’s vision for a world where captives, exiles and refugees return home, where migrants find a place to put down roots, where all wanderers find a safe place to “obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”[1]  

This longer, larger story is scattered as seeds of peace being sown throughout the world until that much anticipated day when the flower of peace will bloom, that day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they study war anymore.”[2]

This longer, larger story is the story of hope always on the horizon.  It is the story of a people waiting for the Anointed One who will inaugurate the fulfillment of the vision.

This is the longer, larger story that John inherits.  John enters the story knowing there is so much that still needs to be repaired before the vision he has inherited can become a reality, and that the things most urgently in need or repairing are the human heart, the human way of seeing, the human way of being, the human way of thinking.  He sees the brokenness of the world clearly.  He sees the ways that those who wield power and authority are complicit in that brokenness.  He feels the anxiety and dissatisfaction of the people who bear the scars of living in that predatory and oppressive brokenness.  He sees the dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

And then he sees Jesus.  And that hope that was always on the horizon seems closer and more possible than ever before.

John points to Jesus.  But John is not done.  John sees the world, and he tells the truth about what he sees.  He calls people to change, to turn around and go a new direction because a reckoning is coming and the new day is dawning.  He speaks truth to power.  And when he publicly condemns Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas for divorcing Herod’s brother, when he publicly denounces Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, he is arrested.

Languishing in prison, bedeviled by doubt, John sends his question to Jesus:  Are you the one… or should we wait for another?

Jesus doesn’t answer John with bravado or any kind of self-proclamation.  He simply tells John’s disciples to “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who does not stumble because of me.” 

Jesus is telling John that the things Isaiah foresaw are happening, the signs generations had hoped for are being performed.  Jesus is telling John that in his work the seeds of God’s vision are sprouting and peeking above the soil.  In him the kingdom has begun to arrive.

If you have times of doubt, if you have times when the brokenness of the world seems overwhelming, if you find yourself being punished for speaking truth, remember John.  John had tremendous faith. Among those born of women, said Jesus, there has been no one greater than John.   But when the walls were closing in, even John had his doubts.

If you have times when you wonder if humanity is a lost cause, take a moment to remind yourself that the seeds of God’s vision are still growing and still being planted.  It’s up to us to keep sowing them.  “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth,” wrote James, “being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”[3]  

And finally, it’s always good to remember that we don’t know where we are in God’s longer, larger story.  Yes, the world is still broken, but there are signs of repair work in progress if you know where to look, and one of those signs is you and me.  We are partners in the repair work God is doing in the world.  And that, alone, is cause for rejoicing.  


[1] Isaiah 35:1-10

[2] Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3

[3] James 5:7-10

When John Came a-Wassailing*

In the fifteenth year of the sovereign rule of Emperor Tiberius,

a time of great oppression, ruthless and imperious,

the Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,

and he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.

I’m just the voice that sings out where our paths are intersecting.

I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!

He’s the Maker of all Music, I sing just one simple song.”

Like a-wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,

the song of John cut through their pride and brought them to their knees.

As he showed them stark reality they began to realize

that the dream of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,

and immersed them in the cleansing flow of mercy and repentance.

His song filled up the wilderness with a tune to cleanse the heart

and wash away pretenses, and make hubris fall apart.

He sang, “Children of the covenant, you children of the promise,

you children of the circumstance and times that are upon us, 

all you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,

are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,

all you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,

yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition,

but that’s not enough to save you on your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,

Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?

Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?

Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!

If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”

He said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,

for the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change your ways, to make a course correction.

Now’s the time to turn around and go a new direction.

It’s time to change your heart and mind, not out of paranoia,

but because you’ve been immersed in the streams of metanoia.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,

and give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,

Don’t take more than what is rightful, do not lie, extort or cheat,

for the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift your soul like wheat.

“Look, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance

or you’ll reap the judgment that you’ve sown, you’ve been shaping your own sentence.

Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,

so will you produce good cider?  Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.

Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?

Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table

or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–

Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’

For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,

Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place

you have a chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,

for the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn

but to glean the seeds of love and good and make them grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!

for the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse

to change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits

with more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

The Word who will evaluate has not come to condemn

but to find the goodness in your soul and make it shine again,

for the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,

Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

*A note about the title:  The word Wassail comes from ves heill, Old Norse for “Be healthy!”  The Saxon version in Old England was Vas Hael, with the same meaning.  Most people today associate Wassailing with Christmas Caroling, and indeed there is a very old tradition called House Wassailing that is very much like Caroling, but that tradition evolved from the ancient tradition of Orchard Wassailing.  In the parts of ancient Britain where fruit trees were grown for producing cider, the Saxons would go out into their orchards during the deep days of winter and sing to the sleeping trees to wake them up and encourage them to produce good and bountiful fruit in the coming year.  It occurred to me that what John the Baptizer was doing in the wilderness by the Jordan was something like that—singing the people awake so they could produce good fruit.