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?  


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.


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.


J. Steven Beckham



The thunder is approaching.

The noise of distant battle,

the clashing of Powers and Principalities rages in the 


The bleating of goats sings counterpoint to the fright of sheep

as six trumpets play their fearsome harmonies,

six seals are broken, six bowls poured out,

and the distance which holds back the seventh note

is only a pause

for breath.  For thought.  For thunder.

Not so far away.

Not so far away.  The heavens are shaken.

            O Come, O Come Emmanuel.


Lightning and artillery flash

across the gloaming sky.

One horseman rides a hog, one swoops in stealth,

one tops his tank with the juice of 

corn that would have fed millions,

one walks door to door, shaking hands, smiling,

spreading death.

The lamps of the foolish are burning low.

They have spent their oil in shopping,

moving from stall to stall in markets filled with dazzling


seeking The Thing to fill their gnawing emptiness,

never seeing in their dimming sight 

The Whom it may concern.

The oil is nearly gone and the wise have not 

enough to share.

Six billion souls behold the descent 

of shadow.  Of dusk.  Of night.

Just at the horizon.

Just at the horizon.  The flames of faith are flickering.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.


An acrid hint of fear

insinuated in the stiffening breeze:

a distant conflagration sweeping closer.

Fires, not of judgment but of consequence,

burn away both chaff and grain,

roaring across plains, up mountains, through forests

sucking away the breath of humankind before it is ever


A stench of mistrust mingles with the uncollected 


strewn along city streets,

stashed in dark corners, dark alleys, dark lives

sodden with acid rains.

The smoke which rises before the Altar

spews from the barrel

of a cigarette.  Of a crack pipe. Of a gun.

Just around the corner.

Just around the corner.  Our incense makes heaven weep.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

But listen.

A shout rends the veil of darkness

hiding the wholly holy.

Keening contractions of anguish, fear,

anticipated joy, pierce the thunder.

The Announcement, wrenched 

from the throat of an unwed teenage girl, her belly full of


is panted in cleansing breaths

across the crowning:

“He comes

for Judgment.  For Hope.  For Help!”

Nearly here.

Nearly here.  Creation writhes in labor.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

But look.

Angels gather at the borders

to sunder with a song

the Kingdom of Consuming.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo and Enough.

Enough for all who live.  Enough pain.  Enough greed.

Enough darkness and damnable domination.

Enough of nations, noble causes and nonsense.

Enough manipulation and murder.  Enough.

For unto you is being born the illegitimate savior

who brings your only hope for 


your only hope of hope, your only plausible future,

your only real choice, 

your only second chance.

Unto you is being born 

the One who brings 


to eat.  To share.  To begin anew.”

Any moment now.

Any moment now.  The world is trembling.

           O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Now taste.

Crush the tart grape,

ripe for pressing 

into the cup of pain and cleansing

which always overflows.

Chew the plain grain,

ripe for milling into the bread of journeying—

the flat bread by which we flee the Pharaohs,

escaping between their monuments into the desert.


and see the goodness and the realness of all 

that is not yet here.

All is not ready.  All is not ready.

Come to the table which is not yet set

for the feast not yet laid.

We are anxiously awaiting you

for a supper.  For a blessing.  For a signal.

We are almost ready.

We are almost ready.  We are unmade.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.


Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:36-44

There’s something going on at the house next door to us.  We haven’t seen any sign of the people who live there for almost a month.  No coming and going, no sounds of doors or windows opening or closing.  No voices floating over the backyard wall.  No barking from the dog.  A few weeks ago, the faded old blue minivan that was always—and I mean always—parked at the curb in front of their house…that old van just disappeared and so far it hasn’t been back.  

We didn’t see them move out.  There was never a For Sale sign in their yard.  We haven’t seen the house on any real estate listings.  We just noticed one day that it was empty. 

Then last week a team of painters showed up and began painting the house inside and out. Sometime during the week a bunch of new furniture was moved in.  It all looks new and modern and kind of Scandinavian.  We can see it through the front window because there are no drapes.  But that’s another odd thing…at night, there are no lights on in the house.  Not one.  Last Monday, landscapers showed up and they worked steadily for several days.  They even worked on Thanksgiving day.  They’ve pulled out all the shrubs and plants that had become kind of overgrown, tilled the planter beds, and now they’ve planted a number of rose bushes.  Rose bushes that are blooming.  In November.

So, all in all, it looks like maybe we’re going to have new neighbors.  With all this preparation, it’s obvious that someone is coming.  Probably soon.  To tell you the truth, we’re kind of on pins and needles waiting to see.  

Somebody’s coming.  We just don’t know when.  

We also don’t know who our new neighbors will be.  We don’t know what they’ll be like.  What we do know is that newness is coming.  In some ways it has already begun with the preparation of the house and yards.  So we’re watching to see what happens next with the house next door.

Advent is something like that.  Except the house next door is our house.  Our world.  And we do know who’s coming because he’s been here before.  

This is the season when we get our house in order.  It’s the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ while at the same time we prepare to celebrate the first time Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth.  

Advent is the season when we remind ourselves of the great dream of the prophets during that long wait for the first coming of Christ, the dream of the one who would bring in God’s reign of peace and justice as Isaiah described it:

Out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

                  and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

                  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

         they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

                  and their spears into pruning hooks;

         nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

                  neither shall they learn war any more.

            O house of Jacob,

                  come, let us walk

                  in the light of the LORD!

Advent is the time when we remember that their hope, that ancient hope, is our hope.  It is a time when we remember that just as Jesus came to teach us the Way of love and truth, the Way of cooperation and companionship, the Way of kindness and justice, he will come again when the time is right to remake and renew the world.  So let us walk in the light of the Lord.  

We don’t know when that will be– the Second Coming of Christ.  The only thing we can know for certain is that each day brings us one day closer.  As St. Paul says, “You know what time it is.  Now is the moment for you to wake up.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.”  I don’t think Paul is telling us to make sure our bags are packed so much as he is saying make sure you don’t miss Jesus when he shows up.

It’s easy for us to get preoccupied with life-as-it-is.  I know it’s easy for me to sometimes be so focused on my own train of thought that I become oblivious to everything going on around me.  I think we can all be that way sometimes.

We’re like the absent-minded professor who became so absorbed in his work that he forgot the simplest details. One morning his wife said, “Now Henry, remember, we are moving today. Here, I’m putting this note in your pocket to remind you. Now don’t forget.”  When the professor came home that evening, he walked in the front door and found the house completely empty. Distraught and disoriented, he walked out to the curb and sat down.  A young boy walked up to him, and he asked him, “Little boy, do you know the people who used to live here?”  The boy replied, “Yes, Dad, Mom told me you’d forget.” 

Advent is a time when we remind each other of the important hope we so easily forget.  I sometimes forget that Jesus has promised to return.  I can go days, weeks, months without ever stopping to remember, “Hey, this might be the day that Jesus comes back!” 

Advent reminds us that Jesus told us to be ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  It’s not when you think it will be.  It’s not when you suppose it will be. It’s not when you choose.  So be ready.

It will be a surprise.  “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

This is not the so-called rapture, by the way.  Jesus is not describing people being caught up in the air or even disappearing.  He says that one will be left and one will be taken.  He doesn’t say where one will be taken.  That Greek word for “taken” is paralambanomai.  It doesn’t mean to be lifted up or to meet.  It means “to go along with.”  It’s used in the Transfiguration story when it says that “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John.”

Two will be working in the field; one will go along with Jesus and the other will just keep working.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will keep working and one will go along with Jesus.  It will be like the time Jesus was walking along the seashore and called out to Peter and James and John, “Follow me.”  

Brian Stoffregen wrote, “It isn’t a special word or a magical word about floating up in the air. It is much more like the fishermen or tax collector answering Jesus’ call to follow me – come along with me – let’s walk down the road together.
“What are the people doing when this “taking” or “leaving” occurs? They are at their place of employment. They are busy at work. My guess is that the man working in the field is “left”, because he couldn’t leave his important work. My guess is that the woman working in the mill is “left”, because she couldn’t leave her important work.”

Some will go with him because they’re ready.  They been watching.  They’ve been waiting.  They’ve been hoping for his return.  And they’ve been learning to discern all the undercover ways that Christ has been with us all along.  You can look at Matthew 25 for more about that.

Advent is the season of waiting and watching.  And hoping.  We live in the meantime.  We live somewhere between our deep dissatisfaction with the way things are and our hopes for the way things ought to be.  We live in hope that the time is coming when things will be made right.

Advent tells us that that time is coming.  It doesn’t tell us when, it just tells us to keep our eyes open, to watch.  And to hope.  

Newness is coming to the house next door.  Newness is coming to our house.  Newness is coming to the world.  Salvation is nearer to us now that it was when we got up this morning.  So watch.  And hope.  And be ready.  In the meantime, let’s keep walking in the light of the Lord.

Pius, We Have a Problem

Luke 23:33-43

Today is the last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is a relatively new addition to the church calendar and, frankly, not everyone is happy about it.  

In 1925, the world was trying desperately to put itself back together in the aftermath of World War I and it wasn’t going well.  Pope Pius XI was gravely concerned by the growing tide of secularism and ultra-nationalism in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, and the imposition of Communism in Russia.  In response he issued an encyclical called Quas Primas—That Which is First (interestingly, it can also be read as a question, What is First?)—in which he established The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe or, as it came to be commonly known, the Feast of Christ the King.  

Pope Pius was trying to restate and reinforce the idea of the sovereignty of Christ over, well, everything.  He wanted to make it clear that our deepest and most profound allegiance should be to Jesus Christ above and beyond every other allegiance.  But in doing it in this way, was he, maybe, missing the point of what Jesus was actually saying when he talked about the kingdom of God?

The image of Christ as King is problematic for us in a number of ways.  It’s hard for us to relate to even the idea of a king.  There aren’t very many real monarchs left in the world, and most of the ones who are still here wield a power that is primarily symbolic or ceremonial.  As a case in point, after the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, King Charles has now ascended to the throne of Great Britain, but nobody is expecting any significant change in the governance of the United Kingdom as a result because whatever power the throne still has is very strictly circumscribed by a democratic parliament. 

Another problem with the imagery of Christ the King is that the image itself is hopelessly patriarchal and patristic which puts it in stark contrast to the egalitarian vision Jesus was describing when he announced that the basilea of God was within reach.

Basilea.  That’s the Greek word in the gospels that we translate as kingdom.  It’s a word that the empire used to describe the domain of Caesar and also the territory governed by Herod and other client kings.  And even as Jesus was proclaiming the arrival of the basileaof God, it was a word that was both too small and too loaded to really capture the new reality that Jesus was describing.

The word Kingdom implies boundaries. Boundaries imply limitations and location.  You are either inside or outside.  Even the synonyms for kingdom make it sound territorial.  Realm—a royal domain or kingdom; a region, sphere, or domain within which something or someone prevails, or dominates.  Reign—the period during which a sovereign occupies the throne, the territory of royal rule or sovereignty; a dominating power or influence; to have control, rule, or influence.  

The word Kingdom also implies power, usually and especially coercive power.  Constantine and later Christian emperors and kings readily embraced the concept of the Kingdom of Christ because it was an image they could use in exercising their own power.  They could claim that they were appointed by Christ and were ruling under his authority, which meant that they could spin just about anything they did as justifiable because they were acting on Christ’s behalf.  Convert people at the point of the sword or by torture?  No problem.  We’re doing it for Jesus.  

Today, Christian Nationalism and other authoritarian movements appropriate the language of Christ the King to imagine Jesus as a muscular Rambo, kicking tail and taking names. Under the auspices of Christ the King, they want to establish a restrictive theocracy, but in embracing that idea they completely miss the new reality that Jesus was calling us to embrace.

Kingdom, realm, reign, sovereignty—none of these terms are really a good fit for what Jesus was describing when he announced that the basilea tou theou –what we translate as The Kingdom of God—is arriving, is at hand, is within reach. 

George Orwell was a guy who knew a thing or two about language and how we use, abuse, twist and misuse it.  Orwell said, “There is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”[1]

Christ the King is one of those worn-out metaphors.  We keep using it because we haven’t come up with a better phrase to describe the vision of God that Jesus was proclaiming or a way to describe our belief that God is the ultimate power that moves the universe through love, compassion, creativity, grace and cooperation.  

On the plus side, Christ the King does make us ask ourselves some important questions.  What do we mean when we say that Christ is sovereign?  How do we understand the kingdom of God, the reign of God?  How do we understand the power of God?  How do we understand power in general?  How do we use power?  Do our values reflect the values of empire or the values of Jesus?  What kind of kingdom do we belong to?

The kingdom of God, as Jesus described it, was and is a resistance movement.  To say that Christ is king is a resistance claim.  It is a challenge to the way power is coercively used most of the time in our world.  Jesus is a different kind of king.  The cross is the coronation of Jesus.  He surrenders to the coercive power of empire to show us the greater power of love and nonviolence.

Pontius Pilate understood that Jesus was all about resisting the empire’s coercive power but also the empire’s imagery.  When Pilate asked Jesus straight out, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus simply replied, “You say so.  Those are your words.”[2]  The soldiers crucifying Jesus mocked him saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” Pilate mocked both Jesus and the Jewish people by having a board nailed above his head with the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.”  These were people who understood power in only one way.  Control.  Coercion.  Power over.

But the reign of God that Jesus was describing is a cooperative world.  The reign of God doesn’t force itself on anyone or try to control anyone.  Christ, as king, persuades, encourages, nudges and asks us to live up to a vision of our better selves.

 The reign of God is a world where generosity, grace, compassion and mercy prevail.  It is a world driven by and governed by love.  It is a world where everyone’s needs are met and no one goes hungry.  It is a kingdom that transcends every kind of border, boundary and barrier.  It is a world where the only control is self-control.  Its central values are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Its only law is love: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

The kingdom that Jesus was describing is a world moving toward the vision of Isaiah when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor shall they study war anymore.[3]  The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is the world where God walks with us as Ezekiel envisioned, a world where God shepherds us, where Christ seeks out the lost and brings back the strays, where through us, Jesus binds up the injured and strengthens the week and feeds us all with justice.[4]

The reign of God is a realm in which the poor are blessed and the hungry are filled and those who mourn are comforted.  It is the world Mary envisioned in the Magnificat when she sang, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[5]

Yes, God exercises power.  But not the way we usually think of power. God’s power is all about empowering you.  God is about giving power rather than holding onto it.  God gives power to us so that we can love and care for the world more fully and effectively.  Together.  “The greatest manifestation of the power of God,” said Bishop Yvette Flunder, “comes when we work together to find ways to be together and do justice together and love together and stand together.”  

The kingdom of God is all of us together.

 “Jesus did not establish an institution,” wrote Bishop Michael Curry, “though institutions can serve his cause. He did not organize a political party, though his teachings have a profound impact on politics. Jesus did not even found a religion. No, Jesus began a movement, fueled by his Spirit, a movement whose purpose was and is to change the face of the earth from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It is a day when we use the “worn out metaphor” of kingly power to try to open the doors and windows of our hearts, minds and souls to the empowering love of God through Jesus Christ.  It is a day when we acknowledge both that God in Christ is the ultimate power and that we need to redefine how we understand and use power.  It is a day when we are asked to declare that our deepest and most profound allegiance is to Jesus Christ above and beyond every other allegiance.  It is a day that challenges us to walk in the Way of Jesus so that we can help to bring God’s vision of a whole, healthy, loving and cooperative world into reality on earth as it is in heaven.

Today is the day we volunteer to change the face of the earth from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.

[1] Politics and the English Language, 1946. 

[2] Luke 23:3

[3] Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3

[4] Ezekiel 34:15-16

[5] Luke 1:46-55


Luke 21:5-19; Malachi 4:1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The temple in Jerusalem—Herod’s temple—had been under construction for more than 40 years when Jesus sat down in its outer courtyard to speak with his disciples.  Herod had begun constructing the temple in 20 BCE, and it was already regarded as one of the wonders of the world even though it wouldn’t be completed until 63 CE, some thirty years after this teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples.

In order to be able to build the massive temple he envisioned, Herod first had to rebuild Mount Moriah, the low mountain on which the temple stood.  To do this, he encased the mountain with walls more than 33 meters (108 feet) high, then filled in the space with earth until it encompassed an area of more than 144,000 square meters.    

The temple in Jerusalem was a visual wonder.  A description in the Talmud says that  the interior walls of the temple were faced with blue, yellow, and white marble.   Gold spikes lined the parapet wall on the roof.  Josephus wrote that the entire eastern fascia was covered with gold.  “The rays of the early morning sun, striking the Temple façade created a blinding reflection,” he wrote.  “The rest was white, so that this towering edifice looked like a snow-clad mountain from afar.” 

It must have sounded like madness for Jesus to say that it was all coming down—that not one stone would be left upon another.  But by the time Luke wrote his gospel, sometime around the year 85, everything Jesus predicted in today’s gospel reading had already happened.  

In 70 CE, during the first Jewish-Roman war, the Roman general Titus destroyed the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem along with it.  

Six years before that, the emperor Nero had carried out the first official persecutions against Christians, using them as a scapegoat for the burning of Rome in 64 CE.

As for wars and rumors of wars, just between the time when Jesus spoke these words and the time Luke wrote them down, Rome fought the Roman-Parthian War, the Boudica Uprising in Britain, the first Jewish-Roman War, the Spartacus war, the Lepidus versus Sulla Roman Civil War, the Sertorian War and the first of three wars with the Kingdom of Dacia.  

Wars and rumors of wars.  Earthquakes.  The eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Portentous signs in the heavens.  Famines.  Plagues. Persecutions.  All these things happened between the time Jesus spoke those prophetic words and the time Luke wrote them down in his account of the life and teaching of Jesus.   

But the world did not end.

Dositheos the Samaritan, Theudas the Rebel, Simon bar Kokhba and other would-be liberators of Israel gathered followers, led rebellions and claimed to be the Messiah.  They were not.  And now history barely remembers them.

It’s easy to get distracted by apocalyptic thinking and doomsday scenarios.  That’s why books like The Late, Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series have always sold so well.  But Jesus made it pretty clear that we’re not supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about that.  “About that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “—not the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)

These lectionary texts that we have for today from Malachi, Second Thessalonians and Luke invite us to focus.  You could say they invite us to focus on what we’re focusing on—on what’s getting our attention.

The gospel lesson for today comes right after the passage where Jesus comments on the poor widow who put her two pennies—all she had–into the temple treasury.  The disciples were busy gazing at the grandeur of the temple and didn’t even see her until Jesus pointed her out to them.  They were focused on the impressive architecture.  Jesus, on the other hand, was focused on the people.  

Are we seeing what Jesus sees…or are we distracted?

It’s understandable that the disciples were captivated by the splendor and beauty of the temple as they sat there with Jesus, but they lost focus on why they had come to Jerusalem in the first place.  Reading the gospel accounts, you have to wonder if they ever really understood why they were there to begin with, although Jesus certainly tried to tell them often enough.  And now, there they were, a day or two away from his crucifixion and they kept getting distracted—first by the beauty of the temple then by speculations about apocalypse.  “When will this be?  Teacher, what will be the secret signs that all this is about to happen?”

To be fair, I know I would have had the same questions.  I suspect you might, too.  Wouldn’t you want to be ready for it?  Even with our long historical perspective that tells us that wars and plagues and famines and earthquakes and false messiahs have been pretty much stock set pieces in the long drama of life on earth—even though all these things have  always been happening—and are happening right now—we would want to know when the grand finale is coming to our neighborhood.   We would want to know when the final curtain for everyone everywhere is coming down.

Because the lectionary cycle repeats, we get this same group of texts every three years.  But even with that repeating cycle, I believe that these texts continue to speak to us in a unique way every time they come up.  They always seem timely—sometimes so much so that it’s uncanny. 

Six years ago we were reading these texts on the first Sunday after the presidential election when Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote but Donald Trump carried the Electoral College.  That was a pretty tense time.  A lot of people were wondering what would happen next.  I thought it was noteworthy that Hillary Clinton even quoted a line from our 2nd Thessalonians in her concession speech: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  

Three years ago these texts came up while we were wading through the first impeachment hearings.  Again, it was a tense time and people wondered if the country’s anxiety might explode into something more than oppositional rhetoric. 

Today we hear these texts right after the most anxious and divisive midterm elections in a long, long time—an election fraught with partisan vitriol and acts of violence.  While the votes are still being counted, many are wondering if our polarized political division in this country can ever be healed.  A lot of people are focused on that.

It’s hard sometimes not to let our focus, our vision, be hijacked by the currents of anger and isolation that have been flooding our lives with such violence. There was another school shooting this week, this time in Seattle.  As of November 11, Veterans Day, there had been 589 mass shootings in the US since the beginning of the year.  A total of 38,431 people have been killed by gun violence so far this year.  That certainly deserves our attention.   

We are still dealing with a pandemic that physically isolated us from each other.  We are still dealing with the fallout from the January 6 assault on the Capitol.

On this Veterans Day weekend it would be irresponsible not to mention the epidemic of veterans committing suicide.  

We have an ongoing addiction crisis.  Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. remain at record levels. According to provisional data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 109,000 people died from drug overdose in the 12-month period ending last March.

Homelessness.  The high cost of housing.  The cost of education.  Racism.  Inflation. Climate change that threatens our very existence… These things all need our attention.

Spouse. Family.  Work.  Church.  School.  Neighbors.  Community Groups.  Meetings. These things are all worthy of our attention.

Netflix.  Apple +.  Disney +.  Prime Video.  HBO.  Showtime.  Cable News.  Sports.  Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. These things are all very good at distracting us when the world just seems to be too much.

So where do you focus?

It’s tempting, very tempting, to just shrug it all off, give up and wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything.  Some Christians have built whole theologies around that.  The writer of 2nd Thessalonians was dealing with that very problem when he said to keep away from “those living in idleness.”  Apparently some people were so convinced that Jesus was coming back at any moment that they just stopped working and were mooching off the rest of the community.  They had lost focus on what Christ had called them to be and to do.


Focus on what is helping.  Focus on what is good.  Focus on what is improving.  Focus on what you can be thankful for.  Focus on what is changing.  Focus on what needs to be changed.  But don’t be anxious.  Don’t let it all overwhelm you.  Do what you can where you can when you can.  

Then take a breath.

Take a breath.  And take a long look back.  

Everything changes.  There are only three things that are eternal:  God, Life, and Love.  And life and love are eternal because they come from God. 

The crazy politics, the anger and fear and hate, the anxiety and tension, the stupidity and racism, all the antagonism, all the misunderstandings… will someday all fade into history.

The beautiful temples, the faces that we cherish and hands we hold, our favorite music and art will someday all be lost to the world’s memory.

But God, Life and Love will live on.  And because we are made in God’s image and filled with God’s spirit and life and loved by God, so will we.

So let’s stay focused.  Let’s keep moving forward.  Let’s focus on the vision, as Jesus did, that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach.  Let’s keep working to make that a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.

Yes, a dystopian, destructive, apocalyptic unraveling of our world is always a possibility, but there’s no point worrying about it.  Instead, let’s keep working to build the alternative.  

Martin Luther was once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces I would still plant my apple tree.”

So let’s do that.  Let’s keep planting our apple trees.  Let’s live in hope.

“The very least you can do in your life,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver, “is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”[1]

Let’s live inside our hope.  Let’s focus on making the world a healthier, safer, more loving place for those who come after us.  Let’s seek first God’s kin-dom and God’s righteousness.  In a world of bad news, let’s not just proclaim the Good News, let’s begood news.

And even if it looks like the walls of the temple are coming down, it doesn’t have to bring us down with it.  “Do not be weary in doing what is right.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  

May we continue to live inside our hope.  And may God embrace us with mercy so that we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.

In Jesus’ name.

[1] Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver

Someone the Light Shines Through

Back in the bad old days, there was a dismal little mill town where just about everything was owned by two miserly old brothers who were not interested in much of anything except making money.  They owned the mill where the people worked, they owned the houses the workers lived in, they owned the only store in town, in fact the only thing that the brothers did not own in that town was the church.  

The pastor of the church was a good-hearted man, and it troubled him deeply to see the people of his parish struggling to survive on their meager wages, so he frequently sent letters to the two miserly old brothers asking them to use their wealth to improve the life of their workers, the people of the town.

Now it happened that one of the brothers died and the pastor was summoned to the brothers’ mansion to plan for the funeral.  As he sat down across from the surviving brother, he noticed that the old penny-pincher had a pile of letters neatly stacked in front of him.  The old man laid his hand on the stack of letters, looked the pastor in the eye and said, “Pastor, I’ll give the town everything you ever asked for in these letters if you’ll say in my brother’s eulogy that he was a saint.”  

Now the pastor was a very truthful man, and he wasn’t sure how he would be able to do this, but the needs of the town were great and the old miser had offered him a way to meet those needs.  So on the day of the funeral, the pastor stood up in the pulpit, prayed silently for a moment, then said, “The man in this casket was a miserly skinflint, a greedy, mean-spirited thief who cheated his workers out of what they were owed so he could line his own pockets.  He was, all-in-all, a miserable excuse for a human being…  But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

On this All Saints Sunday, it seems appropriate to take a moment not just to remember the saints who have gone before us, but to think about what it is to be a saint.

A little girl went to church with her grandparents one Sunday in a big, old, stone church with lots of beautiful stained glass windows.  The little girl asked her grandmother, “Who are all those people in the windows?  “Oh, those are saints,” said her grandmother.  “There’s Saint Teresa, and Saint Mary, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint John…”  When she got home she told her mom and dad all about the beautiful windows with all the saints in grandma and grandpa’s church.  Her dad, curious about how much she understood, asked her, “What is a saint?”  She thought for a minute then replied, “A saint is somebody the light shines through.”

I think that’s the best definition of a saint that I’ve ever heard:  A saint is someone the light shines through.

Someone delving through the archives of the town of Milford, Connecticut discovered the minutes from a town meeting in 1640.  Among the other items of town business, this was recorded for posterity: “Voted that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; Voted that the earth is given to the Saints; Voted that we are the Saints.”

I’m not sure how the people of Milford understood it in 1640, but there is a lot of truth in what they were saying.  We are the saints.  Or at least we’re supposed to be.  We are called to be the people the light shines through.  That, at least, is how St. Paul used the term. 

When he addressed his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome he wrote, “To all who are in Rome, loved by God and called to be saints…”  His letter to the Jesus followers in Corinth begins in a similar way: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…”  His greeting to the Philippians is only slightly different: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I really love the way Eugene Peterson translated the opening of 1 Corinthians in The Message Bible: “I send this letter to you in God’s church at Corinth, Christians cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”

It makes a lot of sense to me to think of saints as people who are being “cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”  

The Greek word for “saints” is hagiois.  It literally means “the holy ones” or “sacred ones,” persons who are consecrated and dedicated to serving God.   In the early church, saints weren’t just people who were particularly pious or “saintly” or canonized by the church.  The saints included all the followers of Jesus, everyone who was dedicated to living in the Way of Jesus and in the beloved community.  You don’t have to read very far in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to realize that those “saints” were still very much in the process of being “cleaned up by Jesus. ” But Paul still regarded them as saints—a people set apart to show the world what the kin-dom of God could look like.

Saints are people who are awake to, or at least awakening to the love of God, so they try to live a “Christian” life—a life of integrity with the teaching of Jesus, a life glowing with the love that flows from Christ, a life of compassion consistent with the compassion of Jesus—in short, saints are people who are trying to live a life of deep relationship with Jesus.  And with each other.

“The Christian life,” wrote Marcus Borg, “is about a relationship with God that transforms us into more compassionate beings. The God of love and justice is the God of relationship and transformation. . . . The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true — that God loves us already — and then beginning to live in this relationship.  It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God. 

“The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge.  It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later.  It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now.  Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”[1]  

Saints are people who are learning to open their hearts.  

Saints are people who understand that life and love are bigger than what we see.   It’s tempting to think of the company of saints, the communion of saints as our own little church, especially if we spend a lot of our time and energy focused on the life of our congregation with all its joys and challenges.  But it’s also important to remember that the Church of Jesus Christ, the Community of Faith, the Company of Saints is bigger than we can see.  It’s important to remember that it has outposts in surprising places and manifests itself in surprising ways, that it stretches across time and space in ways that go far beyond our doors, beyond our local streets, beyond our county, state and nation.  It goes beyond our time and connects us to all the saints who have gone before us and all who will come after.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great Cloud of Witnesses.  We profess in the creed that we believe in the Communion of Saints.  In a way that transcends both our vision and our understanding, those who have gone before us gather with us around the bread and the cup.

Stop and think for a moment of those who surround you this morning… the people who are present with you today in your heart and mind, who are present in faith…

In The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner wrote:

“How they do live on… and how well they manage to take even death in their stride because although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they live still in us. 

“ Who knows what ‘the communion of saints’ means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us. 

In my last year of seminary, I had a profound mystical experience of the Communion of Saints.  I was attending Easter morning worship at a little Lutheran Church in Oakland that had been rebuilt in 1907 after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  As I sat waiting for the service to begin, I found myself thinking of all the generations of people who had been part of that community of faith over the years.  I imagined them singing old, familiar hymns, clothed in their austere Sunday Best during the years of the Great Depression.  I imagined soldiers and sailors in uniform during World War II.  I imagined kids in bell-bottoms and beads during the ‘60s.  In my imagination I could see them all, clothed in the style of their times, singing the Easter hymns decade after decade.  As I looked around, I couldn’t help but notice all the older people who sat alone, and I was suddenly struck that each of them had someone beside them—someone invisible to the sight of the eyes, but not to the sight of their hearts.  I had a powerful sense that the saints from all those eras were gathered around the altar and in the sparsely filled pews.  When I got back to my seminary apartment, I wrote a poem while the experience was still fresh in my mind.

Easter in a Dying Church (1996)

They come because they have always come…

and on this day of days, 

not to pass through the beckoning door,

not to let their careful footsteps drum

old echoes from the wooden floor

would deny the pattern of their ways

and all the times that they have come before.

They sit where they have always sat…

each in the customary pew, 

with room enough for all, 

even for the visiting few  

who do not hear the sweet, unearthly voices

singing Alleluia in memories so loud;

room enough for those who do not recall 

the passings, the accidents, the choices 

which have thickened the witnessing cloud

and left this sparse, embodied remnant of the hosts

surrounded by their holy ghosts.

They come to meet where they have always met…

to taste the wine with a beloved friend

who has faded from sight 

but still shares the cup in the world without end,

to break bread with the cherished spouse

who, though swallowed by the light,

still prays beside each member of this house,

to meet children, uncles, sisters, mothers, 

cousins, aunts, fathers, brothers,

in soul or body distanced from their common place—

yet present in this sacred space.

They come to be seen with the unseen…

to testify to the most revered of their presumptions:

that before and beyond here and now

the empty tomb 

leaves a hole in all assumptions.

May we all continue to be cleaned up by Jesus.  May we all become people the light shines through until that day comes when we become completely transparent in the great cloud of witnesses.

May we be saints…for the sake of the kin-dom of God.

[1] The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg